Photographs and narrative by Suzanne Kamata
My daughter Lilia, my friend Wendy, and I set out on a Saturday morning for Shodoshima. It’s the largest island in the Inland Sea, home to about thirty thousand people, many of them aging. My mother-in-law went there years before on a group tour. She brought back olive oil as a souvenir. I am intrigued by the idea of a Japanese island with a Greek flavour. Because of its relatively large size and population, and its popularity with tour groups, I figure it would be somewhat accessible for my daughter, who uses a wheelchair and is deaf.
On the island, we stop at a tourist center for maps. I drive through the town. Some of the streetlights are shaded by green or yellow globes. Maybe they are supposed to look like olives. The road follows the seashore. Off the coast we see fishing boats. Here and there are small clusters of olive trees, the branches beaded with black olives. We finally come across a sign advertising the Olive Garden. I pull over and park in a handicapped parking space. A restaurant is up the hill.
“Shall we go eat lunch?” I ask.
“Yes,” Lilia nods. The hill is steep, but there are no steps. Lilia gets into her wheelchair and I begin to push her up the slope. From the restaurant, the view of the sea is marvelous. I smell olive oil. Wendy and I order spaghetti, which comes with bread. Lilia orders Japanese noodles, which are served with tempura fried shrimp and vegetables. When the food arrives, the server tells us how to eat it. “You should drizzle olive oil on the tempura,” she says. “You should put some olive oil and herbed salt in a small dish and dip your bread in it.”
According to a brochure, locals make olive lip gloss, olive soap, olive wax, olive hand cream, and olive-oil smoothies. You can even take classes in using olives to dye fabric. Every October the island holds an Olive Harvest Festival. People come to pick olives. They enter the “Healthy Olive Cooking Recipe Contest.” I imagine that the people of Shodoshima spend a lot of time thinking about new ways to use the olive oil that they produce. The islanders have been growing olives since 1908, and from the taste of our lunch, it’s clear that they have gotten quite good at it.
“Shall we find the Greek windmill?” I ask after we’ve eaten. I had caught a glimpse of it on our way up the hill. It’s actually a replica of the white windmills often seen on postcards from Mykonos.
Olive Park is just down the road. According to the brochure, the chalk- white building is “an exact replica” of an ancient Greek building. The brochure continues, “You may feel as if you are standing on an island in the Aegean Sea.” I’m surrounded by people speaking Japanese. Somehow, I still feel as if I am on an island in the Inland Sea. I really want to see the Greek windmill, but it’s down another hill.
“I don’t care if I see it,” Wendy says. “I can stay here with Lilia while you go.”
I ask Lilia if she wants to see the windmill. “Yes!” she replies.
Wendy and I take turns backing the wheelchair down the hill. It’s laborious, and maybe dangerous. If we lose control, we could all be injured. At last, we enter an olive grove and get close to the white windmill, which was built to commemorate the friendship between Shodoshima and Milos Island in Greece. Emperor Hirohito planted an olive tree near the windmill. As we walk back to the main building, I pluck an olive from a branch. I pop it into my mouth. It’s bitter and tough-skinned. I spit out the black skin. So much for raw olives.
We enter the small museum. A large statue of Athena greets us. Some brooms are on sale. They’re imitations of brooms in a movie about Kiki, a young witch who runs a delivery service, which has recently been filmed on the island. Lilia wants to watch the film about olive cultivation on the island. While she watches, I look at the exhibits. There are photos of Japanese women in kimonos covered with aprons, pressing olives. “They don’t look happy,” Wendy says. “It looks like hard work,” I add. “And in those clothes!”
“Anger at the Bottom,” an art installation by Takeshi Kitano, is in another small port town called Sakate. In Japan, the artist is a famous comedian called Beat Takeshi who often appears on TV. In the West, he is considered a serious actor, writer, and artist. He created this work of art with another artist, Kenji Yanobe. At first glance, this installation is a well. On the hour, however, a monster rises out like a jack-in-the-box. Water spews from its mouth. I think that Lilia would enjoy seeing this. She loves stories about ghosts and monsters.
On the way, we pass a soy sauce factory, and a small gift shop advertising soy sauce–flavored ice cream. Yuck. But Lilia signs that she wants ice cream. “Later,” I sign back, determined to see the monster rise from the well. It’s almost three o’clock. If we’re late, we’ll have to wait another hour to see the beast rise up. We arrive at the port. Another sculpture, which resembles a silver star, faces the harbor. Some elderly men sit idly in front of a nearby building. I decide to ask one of them where the installation is located. I show him the photo I had printed from the Internet. “Where is this?” He points toward some houses. People probably ask him all the time.
“Is it within walking distance?”
“Yes, but there are few tourists now so you would be able to park closer.” He nods at the wheelchair. “It would be better to drive.”
Wendy has to go back to Takamatsu. We decide that I will drop her off at the nearest ferry terminal and then Lilia and I will come back to see the monster. After that, we’ll go farther north to our hotel. I notice that there are many signs in English directing visitors to “Anger at the Bottom.” I didn’t really need to ask how to get there. I follow the signs down a narrow road. We pass a persimmon tree heavy with fruit. There’s another slight incline. I find a parking area near the well. The monster is already out of the well, but it isn’t moving.
Lilia gets into her wheelchair and I begin pushing her up the hill. She could help me by gripping the wheels and moving them forward. She doesn’t. She sits with her hands on her lap on top of her sketchbook. “Go, Mama, go!” she says. I huff and puff. “What do you mean? Why aren’t you helping?” Surprised at my reaction, she grabs onto the wheels and pulls.
At the well, the monster is still. This is the off- season. As the man at the harbour said, there aren’t many tourists this time of year. Perhaps the monster doesn’t rise and spit out water on the hour in this season. Maybe it stays in place. The monster’s red eyes seem to stare at the sea. I detect a yearning in its expression. Its lips are pressed together. No teeth are visible. The neighbourhood is quiet. The only sounds are the flapping of a crow’s wings and the twitter of an invisible bird. A slight breeze stirs the goldenrods. I wait while Lilia sketches the monster. I’m disappointed that she couldn’t see it in motion. Since it isn’t moving, however, she takes her time drawing it. When she finishes, she shows me her work. “Good job,” I say. “Now how about some soy sauce–flavoured ice cream?”
I read that the sunset somewhere on Shodoshima has been rated one of Japan’s hundred best sunsets. Since our hotel room has a view of the sea, I’m eager to check in before sundown so we can watch. I drive along twisty mountain roads, past a quarry, and past stone sculptures, down to another tiny port town in a secluded cove. I check us in to the hotel. “You can borrow DVDs,” the desk clerk says. “Or borrow books.” The lounge is filled with comfortable white leather armchairs. Some books in English are on a shelf, as well as many books in Japanese. I grab a DVD of a movie called 24 Eyes which is based on a novel written by Sakae Tsuboi, a famous Japanese writer who was born in Shodoshima. From our eighth-floor room, we can look out upon the sea from the bathtub. However, I discover that a mountain is blocking our view of the sunset.
We have dinner in the restaurant on the first floor. All the food is fresh and healthy – fish, followed by peeled grapes and slices of persimmon. After a while, we go back to our room and watch the movie. The plot of 24 Eyes is about a young teacher from the larger island of Shikoku who gets a job on Shodoshima in the 1920s. Most people on the island were poor. They wore kimonos. The teacher wore Western clothes and rode a bicycle, which shocked everyone on the island. Later, of course, everyone grew to love the teacher.
In the movie, there is a lot of singing. The children sing about dragonflies and crows. There is also a lot of crying. One girl has to give up her dream of going to music school because her parents are against it. Another gets sick and dies. Three boys go off to war. Many miserable things happen. Sometimes there is singing and crying at the same time. Lilia cries, too. I bring her tissues and give her a hug.
The next morning, we set out for The Movie Village on the southern coast of the island. Many of the tourists at the theme park are much older than us. I spot a group of senior citizens communicating in sign language. One of them notices that I am signing to Lilia and approaches us. “Where are you from?” she asks in sign language.
“Tokushima,” Lilia signs back.
The woman signs that she is from Osaka. “Is that your mother?” She gestures to me. I’m pleased. We look nothing alike. When we are in America, most people think she is adopted.
“Yes,” Lilia replies. She draws her hand down the middle of her face. “I am half.”
“It’s the first time I’ve met an American,” the woman signs.
We look at the old-fashioned wooden buildings. Kimonos are hung on bamboo poles, as if someone has just finished the laundry. Shops sell vintage toys and candies. Visitors try to walk on bamboo stilts or roll a hoop with a stick.
We come to a restaurant with painted pictures of Japanese movie stars propped in front. At the entrance is a photo of the food served. The restaurant’s theme is Shōwa- era school lunch. I ate Japanese school lunches when I first came to Japan. I taught English at junior high schools, and I ate with the students. I don’t feel nostalgic for those lunches, but Lilia wants to eat here. We go inside. Posters from different movies filmed on Shodoshima cover the walls. Some clothes worn in one movie are on display in a corner. We order school lunch. It’s served on a metal tray, just as I remember. There is a bowl of watery curry, a big white roll sprinkled with sugar, and a tangerine. Lilia gets milk in a bottle. I ask for the milk mixed with coffee, also served in a bottle. To tell the truth, it isn’t that great. I’m glad that the food in Japan has gotten better.
Lilia wants to visit the monkey park. She also wants to check out the ravine with a ropeway going across it. Sadly, we don’t have enough time. But now that she knows this island is here, she can return. We drive along the coast, back to the ferry port. The sea glistens in the late afternoon sun. Sometimes it seems as if all the beauty of the world is within our reach.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
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