Spring has sprung on Shiraishi Island. The cherry blossoms have bloomed and gone, their fallen pink petals pushed back into the good earth by passersby. We have attended the Kobo Daishi Spring Festival at the temple to be purified. The fishermen have changed from going out in their boats in the warmth of the daytime to going out in the cool of the nighttime. Neighborhoods have banded together and cleared the Shiraishi Pilgrimage path for another season of holy hiking.
Azaleas bloom everywhere. Freshborn stray kittens look out on a new world from between the bushes, while still fat mama cats escape to give birth in abandoned fishing boats still in dry dock. Minshuku owners are shuffling back home from vacations with relatives on the mainland. As the proprietors get ready for the coming tourist season, futons are hung out on balconies and the humming of vacuum cleaners streams out of the open windows. On the port, some boats are started up for the first time. Their motors strain, they clunk, and then start — reluctantly — spewing black exhaust as if they had been collecting it all winter-long.
Despite the warm spring weather, those of us living in houses at the bottom of the mountain still huddle around the heater in the early mornings, waiting for the sun to rise high enough to bless our houses with its warmth. Only then do we set out for the day: to our gardens, to our boats, to a day of outside work.
For many, our first big foray into the spring season when we dared to spend an entire afternoon outside, was to party under the cherry blossoms. The venue, a shrine set into a fold in the mountain, was so warm and sunny that many of us returned after the festivities to bask in its warmth another day. The calm interior of the island is appreciated by those who live on the beach or the port where impetuous winter winds have only recently lost their strength.
On the beach, people are beginning to gather again to watch the sunsets. Others are having fires. Big fires. More than a dozen elderly people died over the winter, and their empty abodes are being cleared out by relatives from Tokyo and Osaka who have made the trip back to the island to clear out their ancestral homes.
Now the fires are lit, fires that destroy evidence of long lives of built-up clutter, some of the longest, most cluttered lives in the world. Children and grandchildren sift through old furniture, aging documents and stamp collections, deciding what stays and what goes. Most of it goes — into the fire.
They find photos of themselves when they were first born, snapshots of when they were elementary, junior high and high school students, portraits in kimono from their coming-of-age ceremony. Rewards of all that work their parents had done, proof that their efforts had meaning. These treasures are kept. Old letters, certificates, company pins and knickknacks. They ask, why did they keep all this stuff? Decisions are made — into the fire.
On my first trail run of the spring, the stone Jizo statues along the path look a little warmer with the knit hats made for them by the old ladies who care for the sacred effigies. Others are so old and worn from hundreds of years in the elements that you can barely decipher which god they were, or are.
Along the trail, I notice that someone has speared a half-eaten apple onto the end of a tree branch, presumably to reserve it for the birds and save it from the ground-dwelling insects. As I pass a small park, I can’t help notice the absence of the usual happy stray cats lounging in the sun. They didn’t make it through the winter.
To a mainland Japanese, the only draw of the Seto Inland Sea is fresh sashimi. As soon as the city dwellers step off the ferry and onto the island, however, the allure is gone. The island life is too “inconvenient” — too remote. The loneliness here eclipses their desire for fresh sashimi. Not for us, however. For islanders, the magic starts when we get off the boat. A life of tranquility, anonymity and the feeling that even in this age of technology, it’s OK to be out of touch with the rest of the world sometimes.
This past weekend, a wedding took place that was so inspiring to the locals, they now refer to Shiraishi as the “love-love island.” Mr. Amano, the ferry port owner, has two sons who went off to university in Osaka and Tokyo and returned to the island after a few years working in the cities. They both were single, but the son who moved back from Tokyo married first. The son who moved back from Osaka just married a local girl from the mainland last weekend. While the first wedding could have been a fluke, no one could dispute that the new darlings of the island were solid proof that remote island people could still find like-minded individuals to cavort with. This triumph of odds was a testimony to the intrinsic magic of our island.
And believe it or not, sashimi isn’t everything. On the island, you might get into a boat and go out and catch your dinner, but the old ladies, the “vegetable cowgirls,” invariably head out to the garden to rustle up some radish and greens for the evening meal.
As I continue my run, through the rows of vegetable plots, an 85-year-old obaachan looks up from her garden and peers out at me from behind her bonnet. Her eyes are animated, as if she has something urgent to tell me. Startled, I stop and wait for her to speak. “I saw your husband yesterday cutting bamboo,” she starts, “so I asked him to cut me some, too. Please tell him thank you,” she says, handing me a fresh bunch of spinach. Even I can be a vegetable cowgirl.
Spring comes slowly, following the casualties of winter, but it comes.