Spiritual journeys to the Inland Sea


I was sitting having a drink with an American girl in San-chan’s Bar. I had just met her, a young doctor who had come directly from Osaka’s Kansai airport to Shiraishi Island. She was staying five days on the island and when she left, she would go directly back to Kansai airport.

This is part of a new tourist boom that is puzzling our island residents. This boom has nothing to do with me, but with a writer named Charles Lane who came to visit Shiraishi with his family last year. He was so impressed with our happy little microcosm that he wrote an article about it in The Washington Post. Since then, articles have appeared in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines about this “little known” gem in Japan’s Inland Sea. As I am the only English link to the island, my mailbox has been flooded with inquiries from foreigners wanting to come to Shiraishi Island. For those like the American girl I had just met, this is the only part of Japan they’ll see.

The floor of San-chan’s Bar is elevated, so you have to go up four stairs to enter. This is a recent addition after having the bar flooded by typhoons so often. As we were sipping hot sake and watching the sun set, one of the locals decided he’d had enough to drink — and keeled. He passed out on the floor, right at the top of the four stairs. In typical Japanese fashion, everyone else just ignored the keeled man and stepped over him as they entered and exited the bar to get to the beach.

Every now and then, the drunk would roll over and the top half of his body would hang down the stairs. But no matter, one of the locals would carefully roll him back up to the top of the stairs. Ah, “Japanese culture at its finest!” I thought while wondering what the American doctor was thinking of all this.

Suddenly she said: “That’s how I want to be! I think it’s wonderful!” And she ordered another sake. The keeled man, with a lifestyle so free he could just pass out and not worry about having to get up and go to work the next morning, was somehow very appealing to her. Over the next few sakes, she too unloaded all the stress from her responsibilities back home, but thankfully refrained from keeling. When she left the island, she told me this was just the vacation she had needed.

The next weekend the Moooo! Bar opened on the beach and I was serving drinks to an American man named Bob, who told me: “When I was young, I had a very strange dream. I dreamt of a red Shinto torii gate with grass growing up around it, and it was at the bottom of a hill next to the sea.” Bob speaks in that breathless voice children use when they are so excited they can hardly end their sentences before starting the next. “I think that torii gate from my dream might be on this island.”

I gave him directions to one possible torii gate that overlooked the sea and had weeds growing around it. Bob took off on his bicycle to go find his dream.

Too bad Bob hadn’t met John, a Briton who had just left after a month staying on the island to do research on his book about Shinto. When I asked him why he chose Shiraishi Island for his research, he said: “I’ve been to several of the other islands in the Inland Sea, but there is something special about this place. I can feel it.”

I knew what he meant. I’ve always felt a spiritual energy on this island.

An hour later Bob came back to the Moooo! Bar. “That’s not it. Are there any other torii gates on the island?”

I gave him directions to another and he disappeared again, off to find his dream.

That afternoon, Bob came back to the Moooo! Bar, distinctly satisfied. “That was not it,” he said breathlessly, “but that’s OK. Because my dream is everywhere on this island. I feel it everywhere!”

Now I know why the islanders are puzzled by the recent tourist boom. Japanese people travel to a place expecting to be entertained, whereas foreigners travel to a destination knowing what they want before they get there. We’re all on our own spiritual journey.