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Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006

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Charmers of the Inland Sea


My landlord drives a ferry. Having grown up on an island in the Inland Sea, it was only natural for him to take up a job on a boat. Many islanders become captains of ferries, cargo ships, and tug boats. Ship captains in Japan can retire at age 55 and get a very nice pension. The problem is, it's hard to find a wife when you live in the middle of the sea. So women, if you're still single, I recommend you head out to the islands to find that rich, but still young, single man.

Sanagi Island grave site
Sanagi Island grave site AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

If you visit any of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea, you can see men sitting around taking it easy, enjoying their retirement. They're not really sitting around though, they're squatting, with legs splayed to the sides as if they're ready to jump up into action any moment like a frog on a lily pad.

If you've ever wondered why Japanese people sit like this, I'll tell you. Quite simply, it's because Japanese houses don't have stoops. So there is no porch to sit on to watch the world pass by. I'm not denying that Japanese have spacious verandas. But those, especially the ones with good views, or those that face east, are for the clothes.

Laundry always gets the preferred view in Japan. Forget lawn furniture, rocking chairs and porch swings, the Japanese go outside their homes to find a nice spot to squat and watch. It's kind of like being able to take your porch with you. One of the first things you should do when you arrive on an island for this first time, is to look for these frogs.

There are usually two or three of them squatting in a row near the port. Their frog position is a signal that they are in no hurry and have time to talk. Just the other day when I was island exploring with some friends, we took a motorboat to an island called Sanagi (population about 150), accessible by ferry from Tadotsu in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku.

After we tied up the boat and started walking around, I noticed a few frogs squatting in front of the post office. As we passed, one called out to us. "Where are you from?" "Shiraishi," we said. "Have you seen the graveyard?" another frog asked. Eh?

"The graveyard," he repeated and told us that on Sanagi, they have a unique tradition in that they bury people (instead of cremate them) and each person has two graves. Do they split the person in half, I wondered.

We went to investigate and what we saw was amazing. One graveyard, with all the grave markers on one side of the graveyard, and the graves on the other! The grave markers are where people pray for the dead, who are actually across the street.

This seemed very complicated to me, like calling someone on the telephone, then walking 20 meters away from the phone to talk. We spent some time looking through the graveyard perplexed.

The graves were just stones piled up with a small statue on top of each. The statues faced north, while the grave markers on the other side faced south. The piled stones were assembled in the shape of Western graves. But in Japan, due to the scarcity of land, it is law that people must be cremated.

After a while, a man called out to us. It was one of the frogs on his bicycle. "Until about 10 years ago, we were still burying people, but now bodies are taken to Tadotsu for cremation, then brought back here to be buried," he explained. "Most Japanese families share one grave site or plot, but I have 20 grave sites in my family," said the frog proudly. "Everyone gets their own grave."

The frog continued on his bicycle while we walked back past the post office. The other frogs were still sitting on their lily pads. "How was the graveyard?" one of them asked.

"Very interesting," we said. "Don't miss the tombs of the crew from the Kanrin Maru," they said. "They're over there on the other side of the mountain." The Kanrin Maru? Japan's first steam-powered warship that made a historic journey to the United States in 1860 had two crew members from Sanagi Island!

Of course, we wanted to see their graves too. After climbing over 300 steps up to a shrine, we added another grave visit. So, see single girls? Marry a young, single guy on Sanagi and you'll even get your own private plot when you pass away.

It's worth a try. After all, you know what they say about kissing a frog . . .



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