Okamura and the Urchin

by Sruthi Gurudev (United States of America)

Making a local connection Japan


When Okamura first hurled the sea urchin at me, I was too stunned to duck, and it hit me squarely on the shoulder. Before I could react, he dipped beneath the surface of the tide pool, disappearing. The urchin lay next to me on the rock, its black spines glittering in the sunlight. Too spiky to be a gift, but too unassuming to be a warning. I watched Okamura’s image undulating like a dream somewhere underwater. He seemed accustomed to the ritualistic nature of the dive, the tiny revelations from the depths, the creatures scuttling out of fissures in the rock formations. I wondered if the place served as his refuge: there seemed to be nothing that could penetrate his soundless, gleaming world. The edge of the tide-pool was punctured and uneven, its dips and indentations serving as a microcosm to the invertebrates that didn’t fathom an ocean beating only meters away. I was in Enoshima Island, intently watching a man I didn’t know dive for urchins. Somewhere in my mind, my awareness of social cues began dimming, and I resigned myself to the fact that I was too interested in what this man was doing to be worried about being a nuisance. Watching someone in water was a keenly intimate activity. On land I hadn’t even noticed Okamura's presence, but seeing him interacting with an element as omniscient and all-consuming as water made me feel as I was intruding on something sacred—his personal pocket of the vast, indomitable sea. Again, Okamura flung something in my direction. This time, a one armed crab. It scuttled feebly next to the urchin, and I watched them both, fragile displays of life, zapped of all autonomy when taken onto land. I scratched at my skin; the seawater that periodically sprayed at my legs caused an insatiable itch. On some impulse, I picked the sea urchin up and tossed it back in the water. By the time I touched the crab, it was dead. “Hey!” I called, hesitating. I wasn’t even sure if Okamura was his name. I had only read the tag on his duffel bag on the other side of the rock. When he pulled himself back up over the edge of the pool, Okamura invited me to drink tea over a bowl of Shirasu-Don, perhaps as an apology for bombarding me. A few hours later, we sat cross legged at a tea house situated on a crag that jutted out above the ocean below. It was evening, and a slim disc of the moon gauged the sky above us. I discovered that Okamura’s name was not actually Okamura. It was Akashi. Akashi, despite his facetiousness and propensity for hurling live sea creatures at me, was well spoken and thoughtful. He’d studied economics at the Sorbonne in the seventies. His mother, he revealed, was an Ama diver. “It’s difficult to live that way now. My daughter wants to work in an office. Someday her daughters may do something else.” Ama were sea women, prolific free divers, who submerged into the open oceans to collect pearls and abalone. For three thousand years, they dove entirely naturally, eschewing the aid of any artificial apparatus. I indulged the thought, considering the ferocity of the black sea that boomed and sucked beneath. “Office worker?” The prospect of working in an office was suddenly repulsive in comparison. Akashi paused, his gaze lowered, pensive for a few moments. I wondered if he was reconciling his mother’s past against his daughter’s choice for the future. “Of course,” I continued, without realizing I was being brash. “The world changed.” I was aware that in a society, traditional culture was one of the first things to transition from being a necessity to an impracticality. Inevitably, ancestral practices from my own culture would die at my hands. He told me that there was a world I would remember and also a world I would fade away from. We had to consider what tradition and its iterations meant to us, and how it transformed, eroded, and revived with time. Obsolescence was brought on by gradual shift, appearing sudden only by the abruptness of its vanishment. “I dive to remember my mother, her world.”