Faint Waves

The Seto Inland Sea is an oceanic main artery for transportation, trade, and exchange of culture in Japan, and even the continent of Asia. In the present day, its famously calm waters cast a veil on the fact that it still holds a productive and culturally significant position in Asia. Back in the 14th-16th centuries, it is said that the Murakami Suigun, technically considered pirates, were the ones who created order in these waters and understood its deceiving tidal currents, enabling the sea to be safely used for transport and trade, thus spreading culture and deepening relationships between various Japanese regions and with other countries. 

While the common pirate archetype is aggressive, thieving, and domineering, the Murakami Suigun in the Seto Inland Sea were not this. Life on and near the sea lacks clear borders, and thus is conducive to lawlessness and disorder, and ultimately, danger and conflict. For the inhabitants of the islands of Setouchi who depended on the sea for their livelihood, it was these ‘pirates’ who actually provided safety by preventing not only disorder at sea but also by helping other seafarers navigate the deceiving and dangerous tidal currents.

Calm but consistent wavelets make a faint sound as they repeatedly meet the sandy shore on Sajima, an island roughly 1 hour to the south of Azumi by a combination of a ferry and car. Early summer mornings here are ideal for a jaunt on the water by sailboat.

Sunlight glistens on the water as it comes down through refreshingly clear skies. The light winds allow for a carefree sail. Once out on the open sea, jellyfish are visible just beneath the water’s surface; they somehow seem to drift in unison with the sailboat itself, even though the boat proceeds much faster.

In Japan’s ancient myths of the Kojiki, jellyfish appear in one of the earliest tales, when the universe was in a state of chaos as the heavens and the earth split. Jellyfish are thus thought to be a symbolic gift of nature, present at the moment of creation of the Earth as we know it. Their calm presence in the Setouchi waters today is a reminder that these waters have been protected from disorder since the time of the Murakami Suigun.

Nearby, at the base of the highest mountain of the Seto Inland Sea, Mount Washigato, Oyamazumi Shrine holds a similar presence in the region. The Murakami Suigun came here to worship Oyamatsumi, the guardian deity of the mountain, the sea, and of voyage.

At this shrine, a 2,600 year old camphor tree stands, slowly growing, twisting, and extending its roots along the ground and its branches into the sky since well past the existence of the Murakami Suigun several hundred years ago, or even the Azumi people before that. Together, the tree and the shrine watch over the inhabitants of and visitors to the Seto Inland Sea.

Back at the Azumi grounds, the center pavilion, Azumaya undergoes some biannual maintenance. Both Azumi’s architect Shiro Miura and landscape designer Yuji Nishinosono frequent Azumi regularly to give it specialty care. This time, one of the focuses is Azumaya’s custom washi wallpaper, and Miura has brought his most trusted shokunin, Higashibata san. “I’m doing touchups to the wallpaper’s natural ‘nikawa’ coating (a natural gelatinous glue)” he explains. “It’s quite weak against moisture, and is also quite delicate; imperfections develop quickly as it gets touched regularly when these doors are opened and closed.”

Higashibata uses a very fine brush, carefully proceeding spot by spot, maintaining the uniform brush strokes mimicking the original shokunin’s work. After some progress he takes a few steps back to check his work from a different vantage point, focusing on the overall balance of the wall. The quiet and meditative process continues. Sights like this can give a deeper perspective on the seemingly insignificant yet fastidious work that allows Azumi to exist in its intended state.

Peacefulness, or rather tranquility – where nothing is out of place, nothing disturbed – is one defining characteristic of an environment or phenomenon which allows us to recollect, and in turn to feel present. A perfectly calm sea, the shade underneath a sacred tree, or a harmonious sanctuary, are all seemingly silent but in fact contain organic matter and living things which have latent potential. And there is a continuous yet subtle circulation of energy. People are there to protect this balance. With the passage of time, and the perspective of history and conservation, this peacefulness becomes clear.