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Saturday, June 5, 2010


Haishima — abandoned islands

It's springtime on the island and the fishermen have their boats up on stays above the water. During high tide, they can drive their boats onto the stay and tie it down. As the tide goes out, the boat is left on the stay, exposing the bottom of the boat for cleaning. As they scrape off the fuzzy green winter coat that has grown on the bottom, the old red paint underneath it comes off too, staining the sea blood-red. This is how it has always been, a colorful sea rainbow of cleansing, vitality and environmental hazard.

But no matter, there is work to be done: scrape, sand, paint. Just repeat those words over and over for weeks at a time, throw in a few zinc blocks, propeller repairs, and an oil change and that pretty much sums up springtime on a small working island in the Seto Inland Sea.

With our boat maintenance finished too, we headed out to sea. Not to fish, of course, but to take a short trip to some of the other islands.

We set out to visit Teshima (Hand Island) in Kagawa Prefecture (not to be confused with the more widely known Teshima that made headlines for illegal dumping of industrial waste). We had never been to the island before. I asked some Japanese friends if they had. They said, "Yes, but there's nothing there." How can there be nothing? I wondered. People live there, right? There must be something. And besides, nothingness can be very beautiful.

As we were approaching Teshima, from a distance I could already see something. Hark — a tower! Once tied up in the port, just one of a handful of boats, we realized that the structure we had seen was actually an old Mitsubishi cement tower being ever so slowly reclaimed by the salty sea air. Around the bottom of the tower was some old, rusting, construction machinery. You'd be inclined to say that time had stopped here on this island, but the amount of rust was an indication that time, indeed, was creeping on. And the future was clear: more rust.

The ferry ticket building was an unmanned, unwomanned, temporary building. Obviously, they didn't think they'd need the ferry office much longer and were merely extending its life with this building that was acting as a life support system. When the island of 39 people dies, they'll take the building and use it somewhere else.

Which is why I was completely blown away by the brand new expensive-looking public toilets next to the ferry building. Perhaps they're meant to provide something to do: visit the toilet. I know I did. They were too beautiful to pass up. Besides, other than the toilets, there really isn't anything else on the island.

This is not to say there is nothing on the island. There was plenty of it. We started down the one lonely road and were soon bearing down upon nothing. Open fields of it. We walked on.

I had read about how the island had turned the old abandoned school into the Teshima Nature Education Center, and we soon came upon a sign showing the way. We happily followed the path, which took us directly to the very much closed Nature Center. It turns out it is only used by elementary school students on the mainland for field trips.

As we walked on we saw a few fields where togarashi had been planted and the little red peppers were just coming up. Hey, that's something!

We managed to get to the other side of the island to see the nothing over there, and again, it was predominant. The island's charm point would have been its pebble beach, but the problem with the beach was that there was actually something on it — a large cement sea wall.

The cement wall had been built to protect nothing from the seas. After all, that nothing might get washed away. But at least cement doesn't rust. Instead, it gets darker and darker with time until it gets infected with black mold. There was so much nothing on Teshima, it did occur to me that perhaps I had found the Land of Mu. I listened intently for the sound of one hand clapping.

But no, this place was different. Here, things had been abandoned and no one had cleaned up afterward. They hadn't taken the nothingness and made it into somethingness. The few people who did live here took care of their houses but those who had moved on to Heaven? They left their places rotting and dilapidated. I couldn't help wonder: Do those spirits really want to come back here for O-bon?

This is when I realized that there are two kinds of nothing. Natural nothing and man-made nothing. Natural nothing is mu (or, if you prefer, moo). Man-made nothing is haikyo (abandoned buildings), haisha (abandoned vehicles) and haiko (closed or abandoned schools). And now it is probably time to coin the word haishima: abandoned islands.

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