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Saturday, May 16, 2009

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Bridge to nowhere


I admit I like taking a boat to work. I used to sail to the mainland when I was working at the university but nowadays I'm too busy for the two-hour sail to the mainland. These days when I go off the island, I take the 40-minute ferry.

Ms. Amano, whose family runs the ferry port (but not the ferry service), apologizes as she tells me the ferry tickets have gone up in price by ¥80. On an island of 670 people, the ferry prices steadily increase as the population decreases to cover the costs of running the ferry. But thanks in part to a small tourist trade on our island in the summers, the ferry has been able to stay in business, running eight trips per day.

I ask her if she thinks this recent price hike is going to hurt the summer business. After all, we're in a recession. She lowers her voice to a whisper. "Looks like it could go bankrupt, eh? But that's OK, I'm tired of working. I want to retire!" She chuckles to show she's joking. Her sons work at the ferry port too.

As I boarded the ferry, I noticed the inspection certificate on the boat was good through Heisei 22. Whew. At least we're likely to have a ferry service for another year.

I get on the ferry and sit in the back with the derelicts — the smokers, the drinkers, the guys with missing teeth. Once in the back of the bus, always in the back of the bus I suppose. A guy with nine fingers uses a towel to dry off a seat for me. On days such as today when the sea is rough, the waves occasionally spray inside. But those of us in the back of the ferry don't mind.

The ferry is a great place to meet other islanders who live on the same island chain as I do. It's one of those shared experiences of island life that brings people together and gives them a reason to talk to each other, exchange pleasantries. And sometimes I even meet my own islanders on the ferry. One time one of the boat captains was coming home from a softball game and had a cooler of beer with him. He sat in the back of the ferry, offered me a beer from his cooler, and we've been drinking buddies ever since.

Today, the mountains surrounding the Inland Sea are gray and the surf splashes white onto uninhabited islands along the way. They're not really uninhabited islands though. The Japanese word for such islands is mujinto, or "no people island," which is more accurate than the English "uninhabited" because it doesn't preclude the presence of wildlife. Uji Island, for example, is a mujinto inhabited by peacocks and deer, which tend to stroll out onto the beach in the early morning.

Other islands are inhabited by only gods or goddesses. Their residences are marked by a shrine, a red torii gate and steps that reach down to the sea. To visit these deities, you must enter from the sea and go back to the sea. You have to marvel at a public gate that has no security check these days.

Japan's Seto Inland Sea, historically inhabited by Japanese seafarers and Shinto gods, is a picturesque sea just waiting to be discovered — an eco-tourist's dream. It is also an untouched part of Japanese culture that may well fade into oblivion.

Although each island offers a unique opportunity for tourism, the government is only interested in promoting islands by constructing costly bridges to them. But the islanders don't want a bridge. They like the ferry.

Yesterday, while sitting on the beach with the cargo ship captain, he commented on how few tourists the island had this year compared to last year's Golden Week.

The local business owners blame the discount expressway charges, part of the government's "stimulus" plan, for luring away their customers, testimony to the fact that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

"You know," said the cargo ship captain, "Maybe we do need a bridge to Shiraishi Island after all." He chuckles to show he's joking.

We both stare out into the sea, a sea of uncertainty.



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