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Saturday, May 31, 2008

JAPAN LITE

'Rusting olive trees' of peace


With the goal of (eventually) visiting every island in the Seto Inland Sea, I set out last weekend on an island explorer trip. (For the record, I've only visited 28 out of about 200!)

My partner and I loaded bicycles onto our Japanese fishing boat and set the GPS for 134 degrees 17 minutes east and 34 degrees 28 minutes north.

We were headed for Shodoshima, an island in Kagawa Prefecture, which is the second-biggest island in the Seto Inland Sea after Awajishima. Shodoshima has a circumference of 126 km and a population of around 35,000.

Three hours later, entering Kusakabe Port on the south side of the island, you could smell the fragrance of olive trees. Shodoshima, despite being named "small bean island," is famous for its olives. Olive trees were first planted in 1908 and as a result, the island is having its 100-year olive anniversary this year.

For the occasion, they created an olive mascot, a rather jarring discovery because the only thing resembling an olive is the character's olive green complexion and a stem with two leaves sprouting from his head.

Otherwise, he had that canned look about him, which stems from the propensity of Japanese companies to create animated characters that all look similar — a round body with arms and legs, and a face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. To me, he looks more like a green jack-o-lantern.

The artist who created this character was obviously not hand-picked from the finest artists in Japan. The stuffed version of the mascot, pardon the pun, is almost 30 cm tall. I don't know about you but the thought of massive olives with arms and legs running for their lives from the hors d'oeuvre tray is not something to relish. This olive is, quite literally, the pits.

I would have preferred an olive created by, say Takashi Murakami, who surely would have been more creative. He would have given the olive a pickled expression, or stuffed his mouth with pimento. He may have even made him edible.

An edible mascot that would constantly have to be replaced, would be far more marketable. Then they could get someone famous to promote the olive character goods such as the popular song legend in Japan: Olivia Newton John.

Upon arrival on Shodoshima, I picked up a booklet from the tourist information center in front of Olive Beach. The cover of the booklet states in English, "Welcome to Shodoshima. Rusting olive trees greet you on 'Peace Island. ' "

The olive being the meibutsu (acclaimed product) of the island, there was a host of merchandise available made from olives: soaps, shampoos, oils, etc. You can even buy olive socks on Shodoshima. I didn't however, see any rusting olive trees. If I had, I surely would have bought some.

The pamphlet went on to explain, in Japanese, that the olive is a symbol of peace. I have a feeling they meant that the olive branch is a symbol of peace. Olives themselves have not been known to generate much peace. If olives were a symbol of peace, martinis would be the preferred drink. Cocktail parties would be an integral part of peace treaties and surrendering armies would hold up martinis instead of white flags.

But the real reason I wanted to go to Shodoshima was to do part of their Buddhist pilgrimage, which is based on the original Kobo Daishi 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku. The Shodoshima pilgrimage takes two weeks on foot and many of the temples are high up in the mountains.

You won't find any information on this pilgrimage in English, however, and surprisingly little even in Japanese. But we were able to get a map and on bicycles visited a few temples in just an hour. The addition of mountain climbs made the pilgrimage not just spiritual, but also healthy.

After pilgrimaging, we found solace in a different kind of spirits when we wandered into a local izakaya for dinner.

I ordered a martini, and was careful to scrutinize the olive, looking for any appendages. It was perfectly smooth and had no arms or legs. As a matter of fact, it looked kind of blank.

But, nonetheless, there was something very peaceful about retiring to the company of a martini with an olive.

And when you consider that the olive comes from an olive branch, on Shodoshima Island the olive really is the perfect peace of fruit.



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