I saw 81-year-old Man-chan, along with the plumber, putting up Christmas decorations in the park next to the ferry port. This is the third year Man-chan has headed up this Christmas illumination project with the help of the plumber who puts up the Christmas lights. Each year the display expands — an extra reindeer here, an additional Santa statue there.
Last year, the illuminated Christmas tree was 6 meters tall; this year it is 13 meters. The triangular frame is made of bamboo and laced with fancy lights and decorations, complete with a large lighted star on top.
“I made all the decorations myself,” says the plumber. He has reason to be proud. There are a dozen lighted fixtures on the tree in shapes of bicycles, snow flakes, shooting stars, angels and Santa-san. Rows and rows of lights are strung up and down the tree.
Next to the tree was a hoist which they had used to pull the tree upright from the ground after they had constructed it. The plumber was mumbling something while attaching ropes to the hoist again.
“Nani shion?” I ask, which is Shiraishi dialect for “What are you doing?” He explains that he is taking the tree down because the star on the top is crooked and he wants to fix it.
“But it looks fine,” I insist. “After all, it’s a star. Stars aren’t straight.”
But this was not a good enough argument for the plumber, who starts to lower the tree down onto its side with the help of three other men who have been summoned to help.
The Christmas tree and the entire park have been done the Japanese way: to the hilt. If you’re going to do something, go crazy! It’s the paragon of gambaru. Do your best!
“Haite miyo!” says Man-chan directing me to check out the tent sent up next to the display. This is no normal tent. As a matter of fact, it looks just like a homeless person’s shelter.
The tent is made of blue tarp material and the sides are filled with doors with window panes taken from old Japanese houses. Some metal sheeting fills in the gaps and two real Christmas trees, draped in way too much tinsel, stand in old ceramic soy sauce bottles on each side of the doorway.
Any trepidation over entering disappears when I step through the door and into a Christmas fantasy world. Like little kids who build their own forts or tree houses, Man-chan had built his own little world inside decked out in tinsel streamers and assorted glittering memorabilia. Sarongs line the walls with hand-painted Shiraishi sunsets on them, a large stuffed lion and tiger sit in the corner with Christmas boas wrapped around their necks.
On the walls are old, yellowed, black-and-white postcards of Shiraishi Island when people still wore kimono every day. Photos of Man-chan and other islanders hang in frames, including one with me in it from one summer day two years ago when Man-chan dressed up as Urashima Taro and we rowed a boat out to Turtle Rock. I laughed with delight when I saw all these things and the wonderful cheer Man-chan brings to the island. Who says a man is not an island? Man-chan is Shiraishi Island.
Man-chan, who puts over ¥200,000 of his own money into his display every year, explains to me that the tent belongs to San-chan’s Bar on the beach, that the island doctor pays for the electricity for all the lights, and that the plumber makes all the illuminations. I didn’t ask him whose house he took the doors from.
A kerosene heater emits a glow and provides a stove top for a kettle with hot water to serve instant coffee or shochu. Large bottles of sake sit in the middle of the table, a couple of them with octopus tentacles wrapped around them. Soon, four islanders show up and the little tent is pumping out laughter and good cheer.
Someone starts grilling the octopus legs on the top of the kerosene heater and everyone eats it the only way octopus should be eaten — with sake.
A couple hours later we hear a toot in the port, a signal that the last ferry of the evening has arrived bringing islanders back from the mainland from jobs and day outings.
“Oh,” said Man-chan cleaning up the table, “We’ll probably have some people stopping by on their way home.” We all took this as a cue to be on our way so the next people could come and sit down in our places.
Me? I could have stayed there all night. There’s nothing that matches the warmth of that little hut with all the twinkling Christmas lights around it and Man-chan, a tiny little man with a big heart, serving up sake and good cheer.
In my country we’d call this Christmas spirit. But in Buddhist Japan, it’s more than just Christmas spirit — it’s community spirit.