Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

One woman's story illustrates the bittersweet charm of life in the Seto Island Sea

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

Mitsuko Amano was born in year 19 of the Showa Era (1944). World War II was still a year away from ending, and at the time nearly 2,000 people made their living on Shiraishi (White Stone) Island, the place she called home in the Seto Inland Sea.

Peaks of granite, never too far from the sea, were excavated to make monuments, graves and Shinto torii gates that were loaded onto ships and delivered to sites along the Honshu coast. The salty water, rich in kelp, lapped up to the rocky foot of the mountains, creating eddies that sheltered fish and shy agoraphobic mollusks.

Minshuku (Japanese-style bed and breakfast) provided amusement for mainland families who gathered there on weekends to eat fresh fish, play on the island’s beaches and dig for clams. Overlooking the beach, the Amano’s minshuku, Shichifuku, boasted tatami-matted guest rooms on the second floor with windows facing the sea. The ground floor was reserved for cooking and serving meals included in the guests’ board, which meant breakfast and dinner. Since most of their seaside home was devoted to the business, Mitsuko’s family lived in two bedrooms off the corridor adjacent to the kitchen. Her father, a boat captain who carried goods between Osaka and Kyushu, was not always home.

There was only one way an outsider could really relocate to Shiraishi. If a man married a woman from off the island, she came to live here with him and her in-laws. This constant flow of “new wives” to the island provided a lot of excitement for the residents who scrutinized the brides upon arrival.

“I’ll never forget when the woman from Nakanishiya Ryokan came,” recalls Mitsuko, referring to the now-retired ryōkan o-kamisan (proprietress of a traditional Japanese-style inn) who still lives halfway down the beach. “That was before this concrete road was laid along the shore in the 1960s. Back then, the houses butted right up to the beach. The guests unloaded themselves from the wooden ferry boat and walked through alleyways of residences to get to the waterfront. I was only about 7 years old at the time and was standing in front of our house, looking out at the beach. Coming out from between some houses, I saw this woman, elegant in a white kimono, wearing high zori sandals. She had a broad, white-powdered face to match her kimono, and her hair was elaborately tied up. Her plump lips were tinted crimson and as soon as she stepped out onto the beach, everyone turned their heads. ‘Well, look at Ken-chan’s new wife!’ they murmured, not hiding their surprise. Everyone agreed she was the most beautiful woman on the island.”

Life's a beach: A snapshot of Shiraishi Island's beach during the mid-1950s before the construction of a road between the shore and the residences. | COURTESY OF THE SHIRAISHI ISLAND ARCHIVES
Life’s a beach: A snapshot of Shiraishi Island’s beach during the mid-1950s before the construction of a road between the shore and the residences. | COURTESY OF THE SHIRAISHI ISLAND ARCHIVES

Big city dreams

Fifty-seven years ago, Mitsuko made a life-changing decision: She dropped out of her final year of high school. She wanted a future that was more than salty seas and granite, mainland guests or women in white kimono. So, she fled to a place so distant, the people on the island couldn’t even see it on a clear day from their shores: Tokyo. She would go on to eventually finish her schooling, but at the time couldn’t resist the allure of the big city.

It was during her time there that she met a local named Hirotoshi and although for many years she refused to get married, he eventually convinced her and they enjoyed 45 years together.

As an only child, the spirited Mitsuko was expected to take care of her parents in their dotage. But Mitsuko’s father died when his daughter was just 27 years old. From that time, she returned annually to help her mother in the summer. I imagined the young woman cleaning the guest rooms, pumping out the nonflush pit toilets, and filling up the nightly o-furo (bath), careful to add bath salts for healthier skin. These were the activities that occupied the two-month summer season, and Mitsuko would stay as long as her Tokyo office job would allow.

Eventually, her mother closed the minshuku and managed only a kyūkeijo, a rest area that sells shaved ice, canned beer and offers shade on its terrace. When the old woman died in 2002, she left her daughter the remnants of the run-down inn and a 14-year-old cat.

At 97 years old, her mother’s death was expected but the event initiated one surprising change in her daughter. Mitsuko changed her name to Mimiko, adopting the name of her mother’s old cat, Mimi.

For the first year, many of the islanders were perplexed by the name change, but since not many were on a first-name basis with the cat, there wasn’t much danger of confusing the pet with her mistress. Hardliners compromised by calling her a more diminutive “Mi-chan.”

I met Mimiko after the feline-inspired name change. Although I had long known of the elderly soft-spoken mother with long gray hair who sat in a chair behind the terrace fronting the beach, I had no idea she had been sheltering a cat named Mimi.

Mimiko and Mimi became my summertime neighbors when I rented the beach house next to her defunct minshuku. Mimiko still runs the kyūkeijo and serves shaved ice and curry rice to beachgoers. She rents out space on the terrace to those seeking shade. Her efforts, she tells me, are just enough to pay the land tax and utility charges. The abandoned second floor is appropriated every August during o-Bon for performers to change into traditional costumes before dancing the 800-year-old Shiraishi Bon Odori on the beach. Sometimes they complain that the old tatami-mats soil their white tabi socks, but I imagine it’s still an improvement compared to 800 years ago.

Times gone by: Mitsuko Amano's beachside business, seen here in the off-season, offers shaved ice and cool beers to day-trippers. | AMY CHAVEZ
Times gone by: Mitsuko Amano’s beachside business, seen here in the off-season, offers shaved ice and cool beers to day-trippers. | AMY CHAVEZ

Stories of times gone by

In the Japanese countryside, there is little incentive to expend resources to maintain these devalued properties. So people just eke by with what they have, patching things up here and there. With the country’s declining population and the continued exodus of young people from the countryside to the cities, many heritage homes are left languishing. Even to have a structure torn down can cost upward of around ¥2 million.

Mimiko’s dilapidated former minshuku has been painted over so many times, all the layers of color are peeling. Three toilet chimneys jut out from the cesspit and soar up the side of the house, sending the excremental aroma up into the skies. One weeps at the fate of such unfortunate pipes.

The first floor of the building has changed little, if at all, since the 1970s, a heady time before de rigueur vacations abroad, shopping malls and weekend trips to Tokyo Disneyland. But the past still lives inside this room, as if someone had shut up shop and walked away. If a guest from back in the day came to visit, they’d find it just as they remembered from childhood. The iron, hand-cranked shaved ice machine sits irreverently in the corner, and on the walls inked paper portraits of sumo wrestlers of yore curl at the corners. Everything is coated with a yellowish, salt-encrusted patina of 60 years of sea breezes.

Among this stubborn and stationary nostalgia, Mimiko orchestrates a bustling, yet punctuated, trade. The dining room tables now serve teeny-boppers who hunker down over piping curry rice received through the kitchen window. Junior high schoolers pay ¥100 for boiling water to pour into their cups of store-bought instant noodles. A steady stream of beachgoers plop ¥200 in coins into the “honor box” while shimmying in and out of rickety shower stalls.

At around 5 p.m. when the day-trippers have returned to the mainland and the sun starts to pale, the islanders drift out of their homes on the faint wafts of coolness to experience the good ole days. They talk with Mimiko while she serves them draft beer and occasional curry rice leftovers. Jitsuro, a single, retired man who always dons a Hanshin Tigers baseball cap, appears every night. She feeds him fish and rice for ¥500. Old classmates, neighbors and former lovers — all brought together through Mimiko’s enduring friendship — laugh into the wee hours as the inside glow spills out onto the road that was, 50 years ago, a beach.

“Once when I was going to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law in Tokyo,” Mimiko once told me, “I stopped at the store to buy snacks for her. But after this purchase, I realized I didn’t have enough money to buy my train ticket. So I went to the nearest police box and asked them to lend me ¥100 so I could buy my train ticket. The next day, I went back to the kōban (police box) and returned the ¥100, along with some snacks to thank them. The other day, I told this story to our island policeman, the one who just left here. He said, ‘We don’t lend out money anymore.'”

Two years ago, after Mimiko returned to Tokyo for the winter, her husband died suddenly after a stroke. With no children of her own, she is lonely. She has just enough money from her pension to eat and pay the land rental on her small Tokyo house, but little is left over at the end of each month. We keep in touch via telephone and text messages. She sends me photos of the cat, now 21, and I send her snaps of sunsets from the beach — her beach.

Many Japanese people in such a predicament would return to their hometowns where they have friends and relatives, and where they can live out their days peacefully, and economically, in the heritage home where they grew up.

“Why don’t you come back and live here?” I beg of her. “You have a house and so many people here who miss you.”

“I can’t,” she says, sounding reconciled. “I’ve lived away from the island too long. I don’t fit in anymore. Now, Tokyo is my home.”

Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).

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