Amami Oshima – 1
March 15, 2013 – This morning I swam in the blue green clear water of the Japan Pacific Ocean, ran on a beach strewn with bits and chunks of white coral and many little spiral shells, including some shiny brown and purple ones that remind me of some my father brought back from Okinawa. Here we are, Ken and I, on Amami Oshima – in fact it’s on the way to Okinawa, south of the Japanese mainland, semei-tropical and mellow and over and over I hear, beware of snakes. Hebi – snake. Habu – very poisonous snake. So far, I haven’t met one.
We arrived on March 13 after a night in Tokyo. Here we are! At the invitation of Katsura and Yuji Yoshimoto, very dear friends who went to art school with Ken – Yuji is the model maker and sculptor who recently fabricated works for the enormous Yayoi Kusama show in NY at the Whitney and Louis Vuitton. And, at the request of Katsura’s father who before he died two years ago asked to have Ken carve a stone for his grave. That’s how it is with stone – we think it will outlive us. And usually it will, barring the unforeseen transformations of earthquakes and tsunamis and manmade explosions that anyway upend the living and the dead alike.
First stop: take a look at the gravesite. Here’s Katsura with Ken.
Next stop: take a look at some stones on the beach.
Soon we stop for lunch in a café over the water where we sip fresh sugar cane juice, and local sweet, sweet orange called tankan and watch them make black sugar and salt.
Sugar cane grows from this – to this.
Here’s our team:
Katsura, Ken, Yuji, Kaori K’s sister, and Tsuyoko, a born and bred Amami native who is our guide, helper, angel. I am the photog this time round.
We later are joined by Katsura and Kaori’s mother Takeko who lives here now as well.
In the end, Ken chooses a stone that Tsuyoko offers from her land – a stone that, like Katsura’s father Hara-san, came from the mainland. It’s a hard volcanic basalt, very Japanese.
Amami Oshima 2
Our six days here are passing quickly. The weather has warmed up from the first cloudiness and it’s everything we hoped for. Ken is carving the piece each day. And we are enjoying island pleasures.
Shima-uta – Thursday night Katsura brought us downtown for dinner at the restaurant of a woman whose son is now a popular young singer in Tokyo. In short order the feast of local foods gave way to a feast of local culture as a man began to play a three-stringed shamisen and sing. He was joined in the most natural way by the first woman and her fellow chef behind the bar. Shima-uta – island singing – rhythmic, soulful, story telling. Soon they offer us lessons on a hand drum – tum, tum, ta-ta, tum, tum, ta-ta – we take turns. Next we’re up and dancing, learning the special little hand gesture that is typical of Amami dancing. You must come back in August for the full measure of matsuri fun. Yes.
Here’s our little beach house.
Saturday it’s warm and sunny and we take a lesson with the local surfer is paddling on the surfboards.No waves, thankfully, just a little paddling and kneeling, and standing and falling, and lo and behold there are dolphins leaping! It’s a gentle beach on a long sand and coral reef, which will be exposed in the afternoon as the tides rolls out and people will wander looking for shells, and maybe mussels or clams. Overhead we watch a few hanggliders. Sound like Hawaii? But there’s almost noone here. Our little house on the beach gives us a nearly private bit of heaven.
I’m leaving out a lot of stuff. Like the Friday dinner,
a home made pasta in the most charming place run by a potter and his wife who had returned to Japan after spending 10 years in San Francisco and were veterans of Woodstock. They are so at ease now in this old traditionally constructed wood-beamed structure housing his ceramic art and her amazing Japanese doll collection. They’ve found a delightful mix of east and west, tradition and individuality – serving us a salad in an oversized martini glass, and a little lemon scented finger bowl – when was the last time you had a finger bowl at dinner?
Like the turtle who came up to see us. Is that you, Urashimo Taro?
By Saturday afternoon Ken has finished the sculpture for Katsura’s father.
Sunday: Tsuyoko insists on making a party and stewing a goat. More singing and drumming and incredible food.
On Monday, the stone is moved to the grave site. The weather progresses from a slow drizzle to a pouring rain, as the gravesite workers patiently wheel a small hand-operated crane through the narrow lanes of the graveyard and hoist the new sculpture over and inbetween the existing graves and monuments. By the time it is mounted, Kaori and I and Takeko, their mother, have retreated to our beachhouse down the road to stay dry.
Ken, Yuji and Katsura adorn her father’s wished-for memorial stone with flowers. Tsuyoko and I trail over a bit later. Ken is happy. His island mission has been completed.
We head for the airport and Tokyo.