Bon stories: fire heads and stuffed turtles


“Ne, ne, Amy-chan . . .” Kio-chan is calling to me from across the Moooo! Bar. “Man-chan wa ne . . .” he starts to tell me a story about his best friend, 80-year-old Man-chan, who is sitting next to him. The only thing he likes more than Man-chan is telling stories about him. “You should see Man-chan’s house! Sugoi yo. He has many decorations all around the outside of his house.”

I have seen Man-chan’s house, and if you ever had, you’d never forget it: propellers, rusty saws and broken oars nailed on the wall over knee-high ceramic jars and bits of machinery — stuff too redolent of a long life by the sea to be mere junk, but too beat up to ever be antiques. “Ii desu ne? Isn’t it great? Everyone should enjoy life like Man-chan.” Kio-chan’s jovial fits of laughter are often substituted by a kacking sound that goes “kkkkkkkkk.”

“But Kio-chan, your house is also very interesting!” I say while fixing Man-chan another nonalcoholic drink and Kio-chan another glass of wine. “Well, yes, I suppose so,” Kio-chan agrees. Kio-chan lives over the mountain on the other side of the island next to a rock quarry. He has made hundreds of little stone lanterns from the stray rock shards and has placed them all around his house. It is through his little stone lanterns that we first met when I was walking by his house and stopped to admire the little lanterns. Kio-chan came out and we started talking, and have been friends ever since. He gave me one of his little stone lanterns to take home. “You know, my wife doesn’t like me coming here to the bar,” he says. “So now I just tell her I’m going to Man-chan’s house. And then we come here! Kkkkkkkk.”

“So what are you two up to tonight?” I ask, knowing that since they are all dressed up in red Hawaiian shirts they must be up to something. “We are busy promoting the island,” Man-chan says. “This afternoon we met the ferry and waved a welcome banner as the tourists got off the boat.”

“We want everyone to enjoy Shiraishi Island!” yells Kio-chan. “Kkkkkkkk.”

Man-chan and Kio-chan take their volunteer work very seriously. They are always quick to show up and assist tourists and others who come to the island. They even showed up in a flash last week when the Osaka-based comedy team Chidori showed up unannounced at the Moooo! Bar. Man-chan did a rendition of the Shiraishi Bon dance, including his famous unorthodox butt wiggle.

In the distance, we hear the first beats of a taiko drum on the beach as preparations are made for the Shiraishi Bon dance to start at 8 p.m. The wind has died and the humidity is unbearable. Unbearable heat and dancing go well together, as the heat creates an aura for the dancers in which they can maintain the concentration necessary to dance for hours and hours without a break. The dance is a series of slow, fluid movements repeated over and over until the dancer is so comfortable within them that he concentrates only on utter perfection of each movement.

“Why is it always so hot during o-Bon?” I ask the cargo ship captain as he sips a Mooey Blue Hawaiian. His answer is simple: “Because the spirits are back visiting. You know, ‘hitodama,’ ” referring to the way ghosts are portrayed as heads of fire. Customers at the bar have a drink in one hand and a traditional “uchiwa” fan in the other. One woman, who came all the way from Tokyo to see the Shiraishi Dance, is wearing a “yukata.”

“Ne, ne, Amy-chan . . . Man-chan wa ne,” starts Kio-chan on another story about his best friend. “Have you ever seen him dress up as Urashima Taro?” Urashima Taro is a character from a famous folk tale of the same name. “He goes out on his fishing boat holding this big stuffed turtle. Then, when the ferries pass by with the tourists on board, he waves to them. The children see him and say, ‘Look Mom, there’s Urashima Taro!’ And they all wave back to him. Kkkkkkkk. Ii, desu ne? Everyone should enjoy life like Man-chan.”

The beating of the drum is a signal for those at the bar to head down the beach. Tonight, while the moon shines down on Shiraishi Island, one of hundreds of islands in the Inland Sea, the islanders will do what they have done on this night for the last 700 years: They will dance. And dance. And dance.