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Saturday, April 28, 2007


Leading figures in the Funky Old People's Hall of Fame

After having spent the winter away from the island, I can say it is great to be back. As I take a walk around the island, I am comforted by the little touches of home: Bent-over ladies with bundles of sasaki on their backs, white-haired fishermen bringing in their day's catch, and old men sitting on the wharf. It's a typical day on Shiraishi Island.

Otafuku is a symbol of prosperity and happiness. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTOS

I watch an old lady as she heads up to the graveyard. The sasaki branches are harder to collect nowadays and the obaachan use long poles with clippers on the end to reach the top sasaki branches since the lower branches are all gone.

I have heard that giraffes have long necks in order to allow them to reach the leaves at the tops of trees, and I wonder if in another generation, the babies on this island will all be born with very long necks too. Or perhaps this is the real reason the Japanese are getting taller.

As I walk past the ferry port I see the gray-haired man with the pony-tail on his bicycle. "O-kaeri!" he yells.

He is so small that when he dismounts from his bicycle, it's as if he is dismounting from a thoroughbred.

As he nimbly lands next to me, he says, "I was afraid you had gone back home for good."

"Manji-san, I wouldn't go home without telling you. Besides, if I did go home, I'd take you with me." Manji-san laughs and as he mounts his thoroughbred again, it occurs to me that I really could fit him into my carry-on baggage. He could easily get a part-time job "gnoming" in people's gardens in the West.

Our island is a bit of a hall of fame of funky old people. Manji-san, famous for the "butt-wiggles" he adds to the traditional island Bon dancing, knows how to liven up any occasion. His sidekick Kio-chan spends his time making miniature stone lanterns.

They are preceded in funkiness by Yamanaka-san, who sings enka to the sea and who used to make spontaneous appearances at my house to dance in my living room.

One time, she even arrived in my genkan naked. Almost 100 now, Yamanaka-san doesn't come around to my house anymore, but she still sings enka to the sea and she still dances in her wheelchair.

The last of the Funky Four is a guy who doesn't get as much attention because he is of the shy funky type. He is "Otafuku-san," called so because he owns a minshuku by the name of Otafuku, based on the image of the full-faced woman who is the subject of Japanese dances and folklore. This minshuku owner is always in the background of any activity -- wearing red.

He wears red every day -- a sort of a Shinto Santa Claus with white hair. I have asked several people why he always wears red and they just shrug their shoulders and say, "Because he's a funky old man."

I always wonder what it is that keeps these people going for so long. Batteries?

Stone lanterns
Stone lanterns are Kio-chan's passion.

These old people have so much energy, you wonder if they don't go home at night and plug themselves into a recharger of some sort.

So when I ran into the Buddhist priest and he told me that while I was gone Otafuku-san's batteries had run out, I was very surprised.

"But he was only 88 years old!" I gasped. He was the first of the Funky Four to pass away. And I worry that these funky old people are not being replaced with funky young people.

But I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that people never really die on this is land. All those people in the graveyard up on the hill live on in the minds of the islanders below, where everyone goes about as if everyone is still alive. Because, in Japan, you never really die, you just move -- into the butsudan.

So, while your grave is up on the hill and decorated with flowers and sasaki branches, your meals are still served at home in the butsudan; rice and green tea in the morning, and some osonaemono, or offerings of snacks or fresh fruit, during the daytime.

As I continue walking around the island, wondering who will replace the Funky Four some day, I hear a yell from the postman. "Come here," he says excitedly. "I have news!

"I retired on March 31! Did you see the hut I am building next to my house on the beach? I'm going to install a disco ball so we can all drink and sing karaoke every day! I'll give you a special member's card!"

I laugh and graciously accept his offer, assured the Funky Old People's Hall of Fame will live on.

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