At 6:45 a.m., my neighbor Kazuko appeared in my “genkan.” “Let’s go!” she said. I abandoned the bread in the toaster and put on my boots. Island cleanup duty is scheduled for 7 a.m., but in the usual island fashion, the day starts 15 minutes earlier here than in the rest of Japan.
“Be sure to bring your ‘kama,’ ” she reminded me. I searched through the tool shed for my rusty bladed scythe. I inherited the kama with the house, like all the other necessary tools for living on a Japanese island: an array of gloves, long rubber “nagagutsu” boots, fishing nets, midget brooms and rakes and a Little Bo Peep hat. The previous 80-year-old “o-baa-chan” who lived here left them behind, and sometimes I feel as if I’ve just picked up where she left off. I left the house appropriately garbed: Little Bo Peep with a scythe. Get outta my way.
The morning’s task was to clear the “Shikoku Michi,” which is our island’s miniature version of the Shikoku 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage in Shikoku. Although many people have heard of the famous pilgrimages such as the Shikoku pilgrimage and the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, there are hundreds of these smaller pilgrimages as well. Our pilgrimage goes all the way around Shiraishi Island, along the mountain peaks and over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. It features 88 Buddhist statues (rather than temples) and can be done in a day.
Our neighborhood is in charge of keeping clean the route that goes through our section of the island, stations 11 to 16. Every fall and spring we clear the path by pulling weeds and cutting back tree branches while fighting off mosquito battalions and militant spiders. It’s like group suicide. But we are dedicated islanders so we risk our lives to fulfill our duties.
And we are a formidable group. The newspaper delivery man was at the forefront, leading with his kama held high. The ferry driver and a fisherman carried a saw for cutting down bamboo. Kazuko carried a gasoline-powered weed cutting machine. The carpenter carried an even bigger gasoline-powered weed eating machine, and the other 10 of us wielded kamas. Descending upon the forest sent the wildlife running away from us and the mosquitoes running toward us. The mosquito is mightier than the kama, the saw or the weed eater.
But the Little Bo Peep hat is mightier than the mosquito. These hats, worn proudly only by old ladies in the countryside, tie under the chin and create a tunnel around the face. It’s a bit like wearing blinders. I always thought the hats were to keep out the sun, but now I know better: They repel mosquitoes. First, the hat ties over the ears, so you can’t hear the mosquitoes. A mosquito without an ear to whine into has lost half his power. Second, when the mosquito attempts to enter the tunnel, he is so startled when he sees the giant insect staring back at him that he flies away as fast as he can.
We cut through the path, through fern banks and up the hill. As our group slowly moved down the hill, the sound of crashing waves could be heard. At the bottom of the hill the path opened up onto yellow sand and turquoise water. With nothing but more islands across the sea in the distance, each one of them with small villages clinging to their sides, I wondered if all those people were taking care of their islands just like we were.
Our job finished, we walked back to our original gathering point for juice and snacks. “You know what, Amy?” said Kazuko, “I think you’ve finally grown into that hat. It just didn’t suit you before.” She thought about this a while, then said: “I know what it is. You were too young before!”