We arrive like a flood tide, in waves, boatload upon boatload. Early birds, casual, laughing. Still room to stand, enough air to breathe. Buckets of sunscreen, beer on wheels, onigiri and ice.
After disembarking, we join the caravan after caravan of pioneers staking out the land, our small corners of this foreign field lapping at the full length of the shore in splashes of
every hue imaginable. Plots then marked, names chalked and bags deposited like so many headstones along the strand, we leave this technicolour cemetery to find some shade, a spot of lunch maybe, a curiously flavoured ice-cream.
Towards the top of Mt Misen, the monkeys are as lethargic as their visitors, the early afternoon sun spares neither man nor beast today. I only just avoid a kakigoori headache at the summit, but there is altogether an absence of air at this unimpressive altitude. All of us foolhardy enough to attempt the ascent are driven back down the neck and shoulders of the island, a trickle of perspiration making its stop-start way to the air-conditioned cable-car station.
It’s late afternoon and a few hours respite, a nap, a few drinks perhaps, beckon us back to our pad. By now the hot chirping of the cicadas is being underscored and encroached upon by the chugging of the generators, here to power the cups of karaage, the sausages, the yaki-allsorts. The sun lazily melts sorbet-like into a tongue of hills to the west, turning the sea liquid gold in its wake.
This is the time for people-watching. The incoming sea surging into the island, as people flow between rocks and shrubbery, through cracks and passageways, as if there’s a vacuum that needs to be filled. A rock-pool of oneisans, an eddy of ojiisans, most have made an effort, defying the onslaught of this sweltering August evening. If only picnic coolers came in Vuitton. Johnnys in jeans, yankees in yukata. Their hair all the makings of kanji, brushed into immaculate strokes of black and brown, each its own set of readings.
As is usual at such events, it’s the yukata parade that’s the most eye-catching. Like the many coming-of-age ceremonies that mark the various stages of childhood here, these summer festivals serve the purpose of allowing people to be magnificent for a day. Celebrating oneself in a display of understated elegance and hard-fought for grace, very different from the everyday, each and every one a sparkler, or a Catherine wheel, or a jumping jack tonight.
The constant flapping of fans at every corner of our eyes conjures a colony of butterflies, gathered at a certain place and time in a corner of a Mexican rainforest. T-shirts make books redundant. Mortal Damage – because I’m buckwild without frontin, a young mother screams out beside me, What’s the blowtorch for? It’s because of what I feel.
Doraemons hustle and crawl out from underneath her and her son. Two sisters, identical in all but their appearance, clip-clop by. Otaku boy sits cross-legged leftfield from
me, rooted to the spot where he alternates sleep with finger-drawing invisible shapes on his silver claim of land. Mortal Damage shares a PSP game with her offspring. Dad smokes a cigarette from behind his replica shades. The occasional dash of blue or green in the crowd: more Westerners than usual out here tonight. Babies sleep, heads loll, hair blows all Pantene commercial in the flutter of fans. It’s still in the 30s and full-on humidity: no hand-powered piece of Nova advertising is going to hold that at bay.
Children, like sand: everywhere. Children, grains of sand, all shapes and sizes and each containing a little universe of their own. Cuter than a litter of kittens; more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Their expectations escape in short bursts and run through the throng down to the seafront.
The sky nips out to change into something more modest for the evening. Returns ready to offer a dark canvas for the true stars tonight. The dark drips into the world as surely as the condensation rolls down the flanks of Chu-Hi cans. Everyone is enveloped in a thin sheet of sweat, each of us suspended in our own bubble. A school of para-para girls swim by. Families and lovers caper together, filmed with mingled perspiration. First dates, last chances, the entire range has turned out tonight.
The watercolour mountains stare back at us. As if spurred on by the sprinkling of rain afforded us, they go through their various periods, increasingly abstract in their representation. Faces, too, dissolve into each other, a mass of black and beige under the streetlights. Less movement on the ground now. Eyes getting accustomed to the night, increasingly focused upwards past the pitch-black pine needles above.
And then the show.
A kampai of light spreads across the face above Miyajima. All kick and snare as eyes are raised like hands to the sky. These days when people from London to Lebanon, Bali to Baghdad, look to the skies with fear and loathing, a night when light rains down on us is a welcome breather. Spiders of light, webs of fire catching us all in its trickly syrup. We wade through coloured streamers that snap, crackle and pop beneath the Milky Way. And all to a symphony of “sugoi!” that echoes and dominoes up and down the coast. All the time the sea mirrors on the wall the biggest, the prettiest, the brightest of them all.
And then we’re on the other side. The timely exodus is already in full flow. Two by two, packs, herds, whole species are fleeing the flower-fire. Across the bay, hundreds of ghost boats trundle off behind one another, a river of small lights washing past the island. The ferries are full, fuller than ever. All around, people’s eyes revert to normality. Back on the mainland, under an orange moon, the gathering dissipates into the sleepy city.
Time has come for everyone to depart and tend to their ancestors.
Photo © Hiroshima Prefecture