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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008

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Retirement — island style


In case you haven't heard, the Seto Inland Sea islands are experiencing a mini-boom. Thanks to government programs that highlight the joys of island life, there has been a slow but hopeful movement of people out to the islands. Healthy living, safe neighborhoods and natural surroundings are just some of the benefits of island life. With most of the islands experiencing depopulation, naturally they would be overjoyed to welcome young, energetic families interested in making a difference in their communities.

Instead, however, the government campaigns are targeting retired people. It makes you wonder what it is that would make retired people want to move to a lonely island in the middle of nowhere where there is not much to do.

"Hey you retired people! Come out to the islands! You'll have no family here, no friends, and you'll be so far away that no one will visit you! Don't miss your last chance to be at peace with yourself before you hit that big retirement home in the sky."

Hmmm.

But the campaign, whatever it was, has worked.

Mr. and Mrs. Matsumoto retired from Osaka and now live on Awashima Island off Shikoku in Kagawa Prefecture. After taking over an old Japanese house and fixing it up a bit, one day Mr. Matsumoto said to his wife, "Now what?"

Mrs. Matsumoto said, "Hmmm."

They waited and waited and, like on most small islands, nothing happened.

A few months later, his wife said "Let's open a minshuku! It wouldn't matter if people came or not. At least we'd have something to do."

They named their inn Awashima Taro, a play on the famous folktale Urashima Taro of the Sea.

The first time I met Mr. Matsumoto, he was passed out on the floor, looking very much like a big rug, in San-chan's bar on Shiraishi Island. So this is what you do in retirement! I thought. As it was mid-winter and there weren't very many customers in the bar, everyone just stepped over him as they went about their business. But the more he lay there, the more I liked him. He seemed harmless, unassuming.

When Mr. Matsumoto got home to Awashima, he said to his wife: "Now what?"

Mrs. Matsumoto said, "Hmmm. Let's build an irori in our minshuku." So they built a traditional Japanese open pit of coals used for cooking and warming up the house in wintertime. But this was no normal irori. It was as long as a six-tatami mat room and big enough for 20 people to sit around.

The Matsumotos visited the Moooo! Bar on Shiraishi often over the summer and Mr. Matsumoto would occasionally pass out on the beach. But still, overall, he was a very low-maintenance customer, so we continued to just walk over him.

One day, in mid-winter several of us islanders decided to go visit Mr. Matsumoto on his island. It was a cold, blustery mid-winter day when we all piled into the motorboat headed for Awashima Taro. The sea was its usual winter self with ferocious winds that churned up waves that tossed up white caps.

When we arrived an hour later, completely frozen, at Awashima Taro, Mr. And Mrs. Matsumoto welcomed us with homemade food boiling away in iron pots on the irori, seafood being grilled on skewers and warm sake being poured into small sake pots for each of us. We were soon all sitting on the floor nestled around the irori and thawing out while eating, drinking and laughing in the warm glow of the coals. The joys of island life, indeed!

A few hours later, Mr. Matsumoto insisted we each try out his homemade stone bath. One by one we disappeared into the joys of the Japanese bath and came back out to more food and sake and an atmosphere that people were increasingly feeling at home with. So much that people started stretching out on the floor around the irori and eventually, all 10 of us were asleep on the floor.

But Mr. and Mrs. Matsumoto, the perfect hosts, just stepped over us while they continued to prepare more food. After all, we were the only guests they'd had all week.

When it was finally time to go home at the end of the day, I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Matsumoto, not just for having me but for having given me a glimpse of what makes Japan so unique. Like so many things in Japan, a simple day of relaxation had been elevated into an art form. In fact, here it was a way of life — the retired life!



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