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Saturday, July 26, 2008

JAPAN LITE

In need of a beach for snails


The more I travel around Japan, the more I realize I don't live in Japan. Nor have I for the past decade. I guess I've gotten so used to my safe, comfortable island life, that when I go to some other places in Japan, I am astounded to find it is not the same warm 'n' fuzzy place I'm used to.

On a recent trip off my island, I committed a grave offense — I attempted to enjoy the beach before the official "opening of the sea" on July 6. This ceremony, called umibiraki, is performed by a Shinto priest who purifies the sea and makes the beach safe for swimming. It also officially marks the beginning of summer and the swimming season.

To me, it seems a shame that you are not allowed to swim before umibiraki. Perhaps the Shinto gods don't know about global warming and that it is warm enough to be swimming at least a month earlier. Or maybe they've already made up their god calendars for this century and it would be too expensive to republish and redistribute them to all 8 million of the Shinto gods in Japan.

Now, don't think I'd be so crass as to try to swim in an unpurified, dangerous sea. I try not to tempt Shinto fate. At 8 million to 1, the odds are not in my favor. Instead, I was attempting to have a barbecue on the beach. Not in the water, on the beach. And if there is an "opening of the barbecue" ceremony, I've never been told about it.

The beach I committed this offense on was on Shimo Kamagari Island in Hiroshima Prefecture. This beach boasts status as one of Japan's top 100 beaches. It is also part of Japan's 40 or so "sea stations," which provide facilities for pleasure boats. Here you can park your boat, use the facilities, go to an onsen and use the beach. The facility is also open to people on the mainland who can drive over a bridge to get there.

We had discovered the beach on an earlier sailing trip, and decided to definitely stop by on the next trip. We found the beach to be much the same as before: Beautiful yellow sand, no trash on the beach and an unobstructed view of the Inland Sea. Perfect!

It was even called Kenmin no Hama — The Prefectural People's Beach. Excellent! Glad we hadn't stumbled upon a beach for snails.

Our group of six unloaded the BBQ and ingredients from our boat and made way for the beach. We noticed some men working on the grounds cutting hedges and trimming trees in the hot sun. On the beach were skeletons of shade structures that hadn't been fully assembled yet. These had faded signs on them that said "contact authorities to rent this spot."

Curious as to what else this "sea station" had to offer, I spent a good 30 minutes scouting out the area but found only closed offices.

I asked one of the guys in a jumpsuit cutting trees, and he gave a gruff response that umibiraki was July 6. I went to the kayak rental place but no one was there. I headed over to the gymnasium, but it was closed too. While I stood in front of the gymnasium, the little gruff man in the jumpsuit pulled up in his truck and jumped out. Ignoring me, he headed to a nearby vending machine.

When I got back to the beach, we fired up the BBQ and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Inland Sea. We were a good half way through lunch when we noticed the gruff little man in the jumpsuit heading toward us.

He did not politely ask us to leave, but instead, ordered us to leave. He said we were not allowed to BBQ on the beach and pointed to the sign that says to ask for permission to use the shaded beach structures.

I politely apologized and explained to him that we didn't want to use the shade structures. There was no sign saying we couldn't use the beach or have a BBQ there. Furthermore, as he surely had witnessed, I had just been around to every office and everything was closed.

The man was downright hostile.

"You're not allowed to BBQ here," he insisted. "You could start a fire!"

He did have a point. For all we knew, this could be Japan's one and only flammable beach.

I decided not to argue this point, however, and we packed up our things and left.

This incident caused me to reflect on my gaijin ways. Or was it my island ways?

On my island, you can BBQ anytime, all year round on our public beaches. You can swim anytime of the day, night, or year before, during or after our umibiraki ceremony. Want to bring your car and park it on the beach? Please do! Want to fish but don't have a fishing license? C'mon out!

On second reflection on our Prefectural People's Beach incident, I couldn't help but think: It's a shame we hadn't stumbled upon a beach for snails.



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