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Saturday, March 27, 2010


Spring arrives with big black belching fires

As it gets warmer on Shiraishi Island, the old ladies sit out on their porches to warm themselves in the sun. There is renewed activity on the port as 83-year-old Man-chan scurries around his party tent, taking down Christmas lights and decorations.

Time doesn't slow down here, it just lengthens. Holidays are much longer here than on the mainland, and one holiday tends to run into the next. The annual island cherry blossom viewing party will take place twice this year because once just wasn't enough. Even after including the numerous unofficial nighttime cherry blossom viewing parties under the lanterns and the after-parties in Man-chan's tent. For an island of just 659 people, we rock.

Another sign of spring is foreign tourists who come to the island to hike in the mountains, walk the Buddhist pilgrimage, or just laze around on an empty beach.

"What's that?" some tourists asked me the other day, pointing to a big black funnel cloud rising over the beach.

"Oh, that. They're burning a house," I replied, a little nervously. These funnel clouds are always hard to explain to people who don't live here.

You see, there are many old houses on our island that sit empty. Well, not really empty — there's plenty of stuff living inside them. But no one has been inside the house for years, perhaps even decades. The owners have long moved away to the cities and are never coming back. Eventually they have to have the house torn down because it is no longer livable.

These houses are usually dismantled by hand, as the roads are too narrow for machinery to get to them. The rubble is burned in one horrific belching fire next to the sea. It's the Up in Smoke method of making things disappear.

The islanders' residential garbage is taken away by boat once a week. Recyclable garbage, such as bottles, cans and plastics, are taken away once a month. But everything else has nowhere to go but up.

Along with these houses, most of the possessions go up in smoke too. It's just too hard to organize a better way to dispose of such a large amount of junk: furniture, old clothes, futons, books, papers, you name it.

We ought to host an International Salvation Army Summit here on the island. After the summit, everyone could take home 20 kg of stuff with them in their luggage.

With such few options though, you can hardly blame people for choosing the Up in Smoke method. At least it's private. When I take my recyclables over to the port once a month, like everyone else with their wheelbarrows full of stuff, I am descended upon by those on toban garbage duty: bow-legged old ladies and retired fishermen with one tooth left on the bottom of a protruding jaw. They really are lovely people; they just don't look it.

And some of them have an unhealthy relationship with garbage.

As soon as a new wheelbarrow arrives, the brigade seizes the stuff and puts it into the proper recycle bin for you. "This is a great brand of sake," observes a retired fisherman while scrutinizing the label and looking around to see if anyone will notice if he takes the last swig in the bottom. Another is looking through a pile of books and magazines people have dropped off.

Meanwhile, the local seamstress is rummaging through bundled clothing looking for material to make things with. Makes you wonder where you can throw away your clothes and be confident they don't end up on the seamstress's poodle? "Hey, isn't your dog wearing my lingerie?"

They say, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." They didn't say anything about women.

Or, perhaps one of the old men on the island is into something esoteric, like bovine porn? Where does he throw out his magazines? He's forced to eat them. Or maybe he just never throws them away, even after Bessie has long gone out of style and a more uddered Hereford has replaced her. And when the guy finally dies, his grandchildren come and clean out his house and say, "Boy Grandpa had a problem. No wonder cows are so shy."

So Grandpa has to be smarter than that. He burns his stuff whenever he sees a fire. And no one ever wonders why cows are so shy. And that's why the big funnel clouds are so black — it's all those dark secrets burning. I just hope there aren't any people left in the world who can read smoke signals.

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