Slow Boto to Paradise

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Koniya, Amami Island, Japan.

Eco images from Japan.

We’d had enough frenzied city life after three weeks in Kyoto and Osaka. Luckily, good fortune brought us to the enchanted island of Amami. Cycling on this small, sub-tropical island in southwestern Japan has been spectacular. We grunt up the mountains and then swoop down through thick green forests that stretch unbroken from the mountains to the sea. It looks a lot like British Columbia, except there, unlike here, the forests are often marred by clearcuts – frequently made by Japanese corporations, no less.

People have been exceptionally generous. Last night in a restaurant a fellow, known locally as the Japanese Monkey, offered us the futons in his guest room. But first he insisted that we join him in a karaoke bar. We crooned a not-bad version of Imagine: “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” That’s kind of the way it feels in Japan. Everybody is so amiable that we don’t fear for our safety or the security of our belongings. There is so little poverty that it seems like there is no need to steal. Imagine that!

People are always giving us gifts. One woman gave us brandy-soaked plums. Another time, in a small town, we followed the sound of drumming to a new year’s party. After being invited in, the revelers applauded our trip and then gave us a half-gallon bottle of sake and a 24-case of beer. Since we’re loaded down with so much stuff already we had to refuse the beer, but kept the sake. Two young women invited us back to their house so we shared it with their family.

Of course, paradise has its wrinkles. This lush island is home to more snakes than people, including the poisonous habu snake. Luck for us it lays low in winter, and we’ve only seen one – as the skin on the drum of a local stringed instrument. We have seen many nasty looking spiders but we’ve keep a friendly distance. The worst trouble so far was a snarly dog that hung around our tent one night.

Outside the cities the roads have barely any traffic and all the drivers are extremely courteous and respectful. Except for one. A young kamikaze cyclist lost control and rammed into Tooker. She was just learning how to pedal, and fortunately no one was hurt.

We’re cheered to see so many people riding jitensha (bikes). Business people and even the elderly ride around the cities and towns as if it were the most natural thing to do. (It is.) It took a few near misses however before we got used to cycling on the left side of the street.

It has been raining cats and dogs (the Japanese love this expression) every second day. On New Years Day we avoided one of the downpours under the roof of a Mitsubishi gas station. Mitsubishi is the world’s largest family of companies, to whom our friend Ross Campbell penned his barbed tune “Mitsubishi Go Home!” (While waiting Tooker couldn’t resist trying to play it in on his harmonica. No one applauded.) A few years ago, along with another Japanese giant Daishowa, they moved into Northern Alberta and began clearcutting the boreal forest, turning it into disposable chopsticks and fax paper.

Couldn’t they just re-use chopsticks and leave the boreal forest to the owls and caribou?

Environmental issues don’t seem very big in Japan. Over packaging is. Buy a couple of carrots and they’ll be shrink wrapped in plastic and styrofoam, and then bagged a few times. Recycling is almost non-existent, except for metal cans. Everything else is either burned or buried.

They do have some interesting approaches towards saving water. The toilets, at which one squats to use, have small or large flush modes. And as the tank refills the water runs through a spout under which you can rinse your hands. Bath water does not go down the drain – it stays in the bath to be used again. You wash your body before entering.

In the land of the rising sun much of the electricity comes from nuclear power. But it seems like every tenth house has a solar hot water panel on the roof, and the government has a program to underwrite much of the cost of installing solar panels.

There are some unusual ecological innovations. In Osaka we visited a gymnasium with a roof that doubled as a hill. This allowed for great savings in energy, and also created a much needed green space in this crowded city.

An odd thing happened in Osaka. A young woman appeared out of a crowd to ask: “Where can I buy a pot?” We were puzzled: did she want grass? After we exchanged big smiles we concluded that she only wanted to practice her English.

Another person we met in Osaka was a biologist who fed penguins at the aquarium, the largest in the world. We spent an afternoon with him visiting with the gigantic whale sharks, giant spider crabs (2.5 metres long from leg tip to tip!) and bizarre pencil thin eels that stick straight up from under the sand. They seemed to bow at us through the aquarium glass.

But it felt like a freak show; the animals on display and the people gawking. Humans had imprisoned them. As we left we were heartened to see on the wall a quote from Zeno, the Greek philosopher, from around 300 BC. It could be a commandment to our species: “The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.” The Japanese seem to have figured out how to live together respectfully. Could there be clues within as to how to live harmoniously with nature?

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