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

Mitsuko Amano was born in yr 19 of the Showa Period (1944). World Conflict II was still a yr away from ending, and at the time almost 2,000 individuals made their dwelling on Shiraishi (White Stone) Island, the place she referred to as house in the Seto Inland Sea.

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

Minshuku (Japanese-style bed and breakfast) offered amusement for mainland families who gathered there on weekends to eat recent fish, play on the island’s seashores and dig for clams. Overlooking the seashore, the Amano’s minshuku, Shichifuku, boasted tatami-matted guest rooms on the second flooring with home windows dealing with the sea. The ground flooring was reserved for cooking and serving meals included in the friends’ board, which meant breakfast and dinner. Since most of their seaside residence was dedicated to the business, Mitsuko’s family lived in two bedrooms off the hall adjacent to the kitchen. Her father, a boat captain who carried goods between Osaka and Kyushu, was not all the time house.

There was just one means an outsider might really relocate to Shiraishi. If a person married a lady from off the island, she got here to reside right here with him and her in-laws. This fixed movement of “new wives” to the island offered quite a bit of pleasure for the residents who scrutinized the brides upon arrival.

“I’ll never forget when the woman from Nakanishiya Ryokan came,” recollects Mitsuko, referring to the now-retired ryōkan o-kamisan (proprietress of a standard Japanese-style inn) who still lives halfway down the seashore. “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 ARCHIVESLife’s a seashore: A snapshot of Shiraishi Island’s seashore throughout the mid-1950s earlier than the development of a street between the shore and the residences. | COURTESY OF THE SHIRAISHI ISLAND ARCHIVES

Huge city goals

Fifty-seven years in the past, Mitsuko made a life-changing determination: She dropped out of her last yr of highschool. She needed a future that was more than salty seas and granite, mainland visitors or ladies in white kimono. So, she fled to a place so distant, the individuals on the island couldn’t even see it on a transparent day from their shores: Tokyo. She would go on to ultimately finish her schooling, however at the time couldn’t resist the attract of the huge metropolis.

It was during her time there that she met an area named Hirotoshi and though for many years she refused to get married, he ultimately convinced her they usually loved 45 years together.

As an solely baby, the spirited Mitsuko was anticipated to take care of her mother and father in their dotage. But Mitsuko’s father died when his daughter was just 27 years previous. From that point, she returned yearly to help her mother in the summer time. I imagined the young lady cleansing the visitor rooms, pumping out the nonflush pit bogs, and filling up the nightly o-furo (tub), careful to add tub salts for healthier pores and skin. These have been the actions that occupied the two-month summer time season, and Mitsuko would stay as long as her Tokyo office job would permit.

Ultimately, her mother closed the minshuku and managed solely a kyūkeijo, a relaxation space that sells shaved ice, canned beer and gives shade on its terrace. When the previous lady died in 2002, she left her daughter the remnants of the run-down inn and a 14-year-old cat.

At 97 years previous, her mom’s demise was anticipated however the occasion initiated one shocking change in her daughter. Mitsuko modified her identify to Mimiko, adopting the identify of her mother’s previous cat, Mimi.

For the first yr, many of the islanders have been perplexed by the identify change, however since not many have been on a first-name foundation with the cat, there wasn’t much hazard of complicated the pet together with her mistress. Hardliners compromised by calling her a extra diminutive “Mi-chan.”

I met Mimiko after the feline-inspired identify change. Although I had long recognized of the aged soft-spoken mom with lengthy grey hair who sat in a chair behind the terrace fronting the seashore, I had no concept she had been sheltering a cat named Mimi.

Mimiko and Mimi turned my summertime neighbors once I rented the seashore house subsequent to her defunct minshuku. Mimiko still runs the kyūkeijo and serves shaved ice and curry rice to beachgoers. She rents out area on the terrace to these looking for shade. Her efforts, she tells me, are just enough to pay the land tax and utility expenses. The deserted second flooring is appropriated each August during o-Bon for performers to vary into conventional costumes earlier than dancing the 800-year-old Shiraishi Bon Odori on the seashore. Typically they complain that the previous tatami-mats soil their white tabi socks, but I think about it’s nonetheless an enchancment compared to 800 years in the past.

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

Stories of occasions gone by

In the Japanese countryside, there’s little incentive to expend assets to take care of these devalued properties. So individuals simply eke by with what they have, patching things up here and there. With the country’s declining population and the continued exodus of younger individuals from the countryside to the cities, many heritage houses are left languishing. Even to have a structure torn down can value upward of around ¥2 million.

Mimiko’s dilapidated former minshuku has been painted over so many occasions, all the layers of shade are peeling. Three rest room chimneys jut out from the cesspit and soar up the aspect of the house, sending the excremental aroma up into the skies. One weeps at the destiny of such unfortunate pipes.

The first flooring of the building has changed little, if in any respect, since the 1970s, a heady time before de rigueur holidays abroad, purchasing malls and weekend trips to Tokyo Disneyland. But the previous still lives inside this room, as if somebody had shut up store and walked away. If a guest from again in the day came around, 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 partitions inked paper portraits of sumo wrestlers of yore curl at the corners. The whole lot 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 eating room tables now serve teeny-boppers who hunker down over piping curry rice acquired by way of the kitchen window. Junior high schoolers pay ¥100 for boiling water to pour into their cups of store-bought immediate noodles. A gentle stream of beachgoers plop ¥200 in cash 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 begins to pale, the islanders drift out of their houses on the faint wafts of coolness to expertise the good ole days. They speak with Mimiko whereas she serves them draft beer and occasional curry rice leftovers. Jitsuro, a single, retired man who all the time dons a Hanshin Tigers baseball cap, seems each night time. She feeds him fish and rice for ¥500. Previous classmates, neighbors and former lovers — all brought collectively via Mimiko’s enduring friendship — snicker into the wee hours as the inside glow spills out onto the street that was, 50 years ago, a seashore.

“Once when I was going to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law in Tokyo,” Mimiko once informed 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 all of a sudden after a stroke. With no youngsters of her personal, she is lonely. She has just sufficient cash from her pension to eat and pay the land rental on her small Tokyo house, however little is left over at the end of each month. We hold in contact by way of telephone and text messages. She sends me photographs of the cat, now 21, and I send her snaps of sunsets from the seashore — her seashore.

Many Japanese individuals in such a predicament would return to their hometowns the place they have associates and kin, and where they will stay out their days peacefully, and economically, in the heritage residence the place they grew up.

“Why don’t you come back and live here?” I urge 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 writer of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).