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Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Get back to where you once belonged


The countryside in Japan has a reputation for being backwards. This is partly true. In the countryside where I live we walk backwards, we drive backwards and sometimes we even do our laundry backwards — by drying it out first, then washing it.

This is unlike the big cities, such as Tokyo. As you know, Tokyo has wards. I've just never been able to figure out if they are back-wards or for-wards?

Backwards is a good direction. If it weren't, they wouldn't offer the reverse function in cars. After all, at times it is necessary for everyone to go backwards.

The fastest way to get to Shiraishi Island is even backwards. From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Fukuyama, then backtrack on the local train three stops in order to get to the ferry to the island. When you leave the island, in order to get to the mainland you have no choice but to go backwards — back to where you came from.

Once on the island, you'll find a few things that are a bit, well, backwards. We don't drive the latest cars (if we drive at all). The one 5-km road doesn't inspire you to go out and buy the latest car with a time-saving navigation system. There is no place to go that you can't walk to. To the contrary, those of us who do have cars (for the occasional joy ride) have ones that have been "inherited" From the mainland. One person, for example, has a van with "Yorishima Laundry" still visible through the paint. Others choose to paint up their hand-me-down trucks with scenes such as ocean waves, or as in my case, cow spots.

Some people drive scooters, also salvaged, recycled and dressed up with new seat covers (or not) and new paint jobs in such unlikely colors as bright orange. Bicycles have previous children's names scratched out and new ones painted over them.

When you walk around to the beach, you might be surprised to find that the beach is a bit, well, backwards. Many of the people living on the beach have decided to plant their vegetable gardens there.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans shoot up out of the sand, and watermelons tickle the toes of beachgoers under parasols.

On this island, family businesses such as minshuku inns thrive among throngs of bikini-clad tourists and beer-bellied patrons who drink alongside clotheslines of laundry, drying fish and ripening vegetables. And for this there is a certain charm.

Where else, for example, can you drink a bit too much, and fall off your chair into a basket of onions?

Indeed, backwards has its charm, which is why people come here. The reason may be something like the current popularity of retro: all those things that conjure up images of the past — the good times, when life wasn't so rushed.

The reason the past is so good is that, no matter who you are, you can't escape the fact that you were a lot younger then.

But the Inland Sea of Japan is also where a lot of Japan's industry is. Steel mills and factories dot the shores with easy access to cargo ships for transport.

Other companies are headquartered here to avoid the high cost of doing business in Tokyo. And along with business comes some pretty high fliers. Not the least of which is Mr. Fukutake, owner of Bennesse Corporation, who flies his private helicopter to Shiraishi Island and lands it on the beach.

Then there is Ishii-san, a company president who owns a 17-meter cruiser that is so big, he can only get it out of his home port when it is high tide. It costs him ¥30,000 in fuel just to come to our island for the day. And that was before the recent price increases. (And he still comes every Sunday).

Then there is the pharmacist, Kanaizumi-san, who has made it his custom to pay for everyone's drinks at the Moooo! Bar, no matter who happens to be sitting there at the time. On a particularly windy day last week, Kanaizumi-san noticed that his shirt was no longer sitting on the bar stool next to him. "My shirt has flown away somewhere," he said, and without bothering to look for it, took one down from the racks of my shop next door. "Put it on my tab," he says. "Oh, and also a pair of those nice board shorts for my friend here."

Nothing backwards about that. Generous? Yes. Sideways? Maybe. Others, such as the ex-mayor of Kurashiki, and "Tom," who owns a sushi restaurant on the mainland, each bring out groups of people on their private boats and pick up the tabs for all of them.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, they're talking about slower consumer spending. I wonder though, don't they have it backwards?



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