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Saturday, June 21, 2008

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Gaijin of the Inland Sea


Believe it or not, I am not the only foreigner living on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Allow me to uncover other insane gaijin "doing it" island style. And these are no ordinary people, mind you.

Gaijin of the Inland Sea
Canadian Colin Ferrel's home on an island is an abandoned heliport.

I call them Gaijin of the Inland Sea. And I use the word gaijin proudly. You probably already know that foreigners are called gaijin, which means "outsider." Some foreigners take offense at this, but I don't. As a matter of fact, it couldn't be a more apt description of us. We're outside, we love the outdoors!

And no one embodies this concept more than the gaijin living on the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. They love the outdoors, nature and they live for this lifestyle. But there is something else different about these gaijin. They are a certain breed, which I call DIY gaijin, or do-it-yourself gaijin.

One day, I believe they will form a DIY gaijin association and publish a book called DIY Japan: How to build your own haven in the midst of the chaos.

The first DIY gaijin I'd like to introduce is Kurt Van Volkenburgh, an American who has lived on Ushishima island in Kagawa Prefecture for around 20 years. He makes wooden canoes (among other things) and does building contract work. Kurt built his house and he and his partner, Keiko, have created their own little paradise among romantic flower gardens and trimmed hedges. Kurt is one of the few gaijin in Japan who is truly self-sufficient. He grows his own crops, catches and eats his own fish from the sea and lives among a population of just 14 people on the island. Everywhere on the island is within walking distance, so Kurt owns a boat, not a car.

Colin Ferrel, a Canadian living on Kitagi Island in Okayama, moved to this island of about 1,000 people last year and started his own DIY gaijin business. He buys boats, rebuilds them, and sells them. When he found out there was an abandoned heliport on the island, he moved straight into it. Did you hear me? The guy lives in a heliport!

The heliport is located at the tippy top of a mountain, and you almost need a helicopter just to get there. Colin took me to his pad in his 4-wheel drive vehicle. We turned off the paved road onto a dirt track that goes straight up. After the first few meters, you expect to feel a hesitation, like that of a roller coaster when the chain waits to engage to tow you up the hill. You can see by the large ruts in the road that it turns into a waterfall in the rainy season. But rather than this making the road impassable, when Colin wants to leave his pad, he just gets out his kayak for a very exciting ride down the driveway.

A home-made windmill is the abode of Dutchman Michel Habets.
A home-made windmill is the abode of Dutchman Michel Habets.

From the helipad, which is mostly windows, Colin can see everything from weather patterns to typhoons starting down in the South Pacific and the gods who conjure up the thunder and lightning displays. When I asked what the conditions up here were like during a typhoon, he described them as, "horrendous."

Although Dutchman Michel Habets on Shodoshima island in Kagawa seems quite normal when you talk to him, I assure you he is not. Normal people just don't live in windmills. Yes, a windmill! And this DIY gaijin-style Dutch windmill he built with his own hands. He also put in a cafe in the bottom floor of the windmill where he and his partner, Mio, serve Dutch pancakes. This cafe is called Cupid and Cotton. (I guess you have to be Japanese to understand that). Not surprisingly, they also offer "Pancake Camping," which despite sounding like camping alongside pancakes, actually means you can camp on the grounds of the windmill. Although Shodoshima is the Inland Sea's second-largest island with a population of over 35,000, Michel says it has an island feel because there is no bridge to the mainland. Shodoshima island offers stunning views of the Inland Sea all around, including from Michel's windmill.

So if you're feeling unhappy with Japan, maybe you should get back outside, find your own island and become a DIY gaijin.



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