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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

JAPAN LITE

Do you know the origins of sea salt?


Special to The Japan Times

The Japanese summer is officially over. But the heat lingers.

Japan is a hot and humid country, which comes as a surprise to newcomers who can't really imagine humidity at 70 or 80 percent with no rain. Many foreigners come to terms with their own sweat for the first time when they come to Japan. It's no longer something that just happens at the gym.

It is said that when you sweat, your body is trying to cool itself down. But when my body starts oozing that salty liquid, I can only think one thing: It is trying to create sea water. If we could allow ourselves to sweat just a little more, we'd have our own little private seas around us, and we'd be able to swim anytime and stay cool. With more research, I bet we could even cultivate seaweed on our bodies. Maybe even grow fish. "Hey, Mr. Grouper, spawn me!"

Many Japanese people head to the beach in the summertime. Why hot and sweaty people would want to go swim in salty water is one of the mysteries of the human race. But we do.

As a result, Japanese beaches are invariably crowded. And to think that all those people are peeing in the sea!

This is in contrast to where I grew up, in the U.S. Midwest, where we have no sea or ocean. I went through rigorous training as a child. "Don't pee in the pool!" our camp counselors would plead. "If you do," they warned, "a red ring will form in the water and follow you all around the pool, so everyone will know it was you!" But no one ever says that about the sea. Instead, they are teaching kids habits that will stay with them forever.

It's no wonder that it is normal for adult Japanese males to urinate into the sea even when they're not swimming. On our island, the sea toilet is always just a few meters away. It's perfectly normal here for the fishermen to face the sea, take in the scenery, and say "Ahhh." In other places in Japan's countryside you can see men along the side of the road peeing into the bushes. Hey, nature calls!

Whereas in my house in the U.S. we have a painting hanging in the living room depicting a bucolic countryside with cows grazing among the hills, in Japan such a painting of the Japanese rice fields in the countryside would not be complete without some man peeing in the background. It's just part of the fabric here.

That's not to say that people in the U.S. don't pee out in nature too. At Olympic National Park in Washington State, they even tell people not to pee on the hiking trails. This is because the urine attracts mountain goats who can then become aggressive.

Why does it attract mountain goats? I knew you'd ask! Because the goats use the pee spots as salt licks.

In Japan's hot summer, it is especially important to stay hydrated. Be sure to drink lots of water. One way to know if you are not getting enough liquids is to monitor your urine output. If you haven't peed for hours, but you're still sweating, that means your pee is leaving your body through the pores in your skin. Nice, eh? Keep drinking.

I still wonder if it's OK for hundreds of people to pee into the sea. And that's just on our small beach on Shiraishi Island. Imagine how many people are peeing into the sea at Shonan Beach on a crowded Sunday? Think of a million people on all the beaches in Japan!

Even U.S. federal law states that untreated human waste on pleasure boats cannot be released into inland waters. In coastal waters, you must be at least 3 miles (4.8 km) offshore before you can dump it. But for beachgoers, that's a long way to swim.

I can hardly blame people for not wanting to use the public toilets on our island. They're some of the worst in all of Japan. So I did the logical thing — I prayed to the toilet god. I thought that surely if anyone could help, he could.

I was sure he had heard my prayers when I got a call from the local Rotary Club saying they wanted to help out Shiraishi Island tourism and were looking for ideas. I asked them if they could build some decent public toilets. They agreed and drew up plans not just for the toilets, but for public showers too. But the proposal got caught up in island politics (Where will we put them? Who will clean them?), and in the end, we never got new toilets. So the sea.

Now at the end of August, not many people come to the beach. Few Japanese people swim after Obon. Whereas we had hundreds of people on the beach on Aug. 16 (the last day of the Obon holidays), the very next day only a handful of people showed up. The day after that, there were none. The Japanese say they don't swim after Obon because that's when the jellyfish come out. Those are probably some very aggressive jelly fish!

Now that Obon is over, the island people have returned to their daily routines: the women working in their vegetable gardens and the commercial fishermen working on their boats and peeing into the sea. Oh, the charms of the countryside!



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