A Butterfly for a Pet

Keeping monarch butterflies (in pupa form) until they hatch and then releasing them is a popular science project in US schools or as an individual avocation. To witness the unfolding of a lovely butterfly, see it spread its wings, then watch it soar into the skies is a moving experience. Since the idea behind these projects is to help the species propagate, releasing the hatched butterflies is a given.

What if they couldn’t be released? How would you keep a butterfly alive in your house?

That was exactly my problem when I became the custodian of several Okinawan “oh-go-madara” butterflies (Lady of the South Seas/Tree Nymph) in pupa form. They were meant to illustrate a lecture, and when the lecture was over, I hung them from the Benjamin tree in my office, as if they were Christmas tree ornaments. Five days later, I had three enormous butterflies as house guests.

It was winter in Tokyo. It wouldn’t have been kind to release them to a flower-free, frozen landscape. Besides, these butterflies—distant cousins to the monarch--contain a mild poison. If a bird or cat happened to swallow one, sayonara!

The butterflies looked adorable, perching on my houseplants. They looked comical, flapping awkwardly in aimless flight patterns around the computer and over the desk. At night, when the lights were turned off, they attached themselves to the ceiling and dangled like tired bat-children fast asleep. In the daytime, they lived dangerously, pausing to rest weightlessly on the back of my sweater as I hunched over the keyboard. What if I chose that moment to lean back and rest?

They also lived long. The record setter stayed alive and healthy for 52 days on a diet of honey and water.

These black and white butterflies are as big as an adult’s hand. They have little fear of human beings and tend to be the crowd pleasers in insectariums because of their size and friendliness to human beings. Their range is limited to areas where the temperature stays above 15 degrees C year round, so in Japan, Okinawa is where to find them.


Okinawa Longevity (3)

Do you ever get the feeling life is flapping by on blurred wings?

Here's a statement so strong I am just going to print it verbatim, then give it some quiet thought.

"If Americans lived more like the Okinawans, 80% of the nation's coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down."

................................................................From The Okinawa Program, Random House, 2001


On the Light Side


Sanshin: The Costume

Eek! I’m gonna stand on stage in a purple kimono with my blondish hair dyed black and try to play my sanshin in front of an audience and ten judges. Eek! There is more to this concours stuff than meets the eye at first glance, and some of it is scary.

First, there is the song. The words have a beautiful meaning, but you have to sing them in Okinawan dialect. That means, every time you get to an “oh” sound, you change it to “ooh” (rhymes with “you”). When you get to an “ay”, you have to say “ee” (as in “see”). So, not only do you memorize the lyrics, but you also make mental notes about the pronunciation.

Then, there is the music. If you play a sanshin sitting down, you can rest it in your lap. It’s easy. But for a concert, you have to play standing up. It doesn’t hang from your shoulders by a strap, the way a guitar does. You cuddle it in one arm, like a baby, and pray you don’t drop it. Of course, you are not just holding it. You are running one hand up and down the fingerboard and plucking strings with the other hand. Gravity is not your friend.

Finally, there’s the costume. Kimono are lovely, flowing garments with very long and gracefully dangling sleeves. But… What is the left sleeve doing while your left hand is running up and down the fingerboard? What is the right sleeve doing while your right hand is trying to find the proper string to pluck? My guess is that both sleeves are flowing over the instrument and blinding you to where your fingers need to be.

To be really authentic, there is also an official Okinawa hairstyle. Women traditionally wear their long black hair twisted on top of their heads and held in place by a wicked-looking metal spike. The muffin-shaped piece topping the hairstyle might be your own hair, if it is long enough to twirl into a bun, or an artificial enhancement known as a “kam-pu” if it is not. Mine is not.

Kam-pu come in one color only, jet black. On me, it looked as if I were wearing a black beanie. I was tempted to spike the hairpiece in place with a little propeller and go with the retro beanie concept. But only for one devilish moment. Authenticity prevailed. So that is why, in honor of the concours on December 1, I will be spraying my hair black, donning a purple kimono, and trying to play the sanshin standing up.



Who am I? (3) The Sanshin Player

Part of my personal Okinawa addiction includes learning to play the three-stringed instrument known as --surprise!--“three strings”, or sanshin (literally: three flavors). I am taking a qualifying exam in sanshin playing next month. One of the required songs is called Yutaka Bushi, or Prosperity Song, and it was composed by the sanshin master Seijin Noborikawa.

What does it take to be, or at least feel, prosperous? Part of the answer is laughter. As the song goes, “When we manage to laugh both morning and evening, we draw good fortune to ourselves.” Next comes gratitude. “The habit of giving thanks is the basis for making our wishes come true.” The chorus urges us, “So, dance and be joyful! People and their doings can be so beautiful.”

The song puts me in a Thanksgiving holiday mood. One of the things I’m especially grateful for is last summer’s Okinawa holiday. Another is the chance to enjoy my fill of sanshin music, both as a listener and as a player. Although it is still too early to defrost the turkey, it is not too early to think back over this year’s magic moments—the ones that make us want to dance and be joyful.

Here's wishing you all a joyful lead-up to a magical holiday of thanksgiving!