A sculpted pumpkin the size of a minivan, a restaurant constructed solely of beer cans—the islands of Japan’s Inland Sea all seem to be known for something. That summer, Lindsey, a fellow English teacher, and I had made it our quest to visit them all.
We went to Shodoshima—”little bean island”—for its two main attractions: cycling and soy factories. That morning we’d set out along a grueling bike trail that snaked among pale green hills and along the sandy fringes of the coastline before reaching our destination, the Marukin Soybean Factory. We weren’t particularly interested in soybeans, but the humongous vats of fermenting beans at this place were stuff of legend. The pamphlet promised free group tours daily at three o’clock.
But it was a long, hard trail, and riding through that thick August air was like pedaling through butter. By the time we’d walked our bikes up the steep drive to the Marukin building, my T-shirt could’ve used a wringing. Worst of all, it was five past three. In a land where trains are scheduled to the second, we worried we’d missed out. But in we went.
A young man in a suit glanced up sleepily from behind a reception desk. His eyes widened at the two scummy foreign girls standing before him. We said hello, and when I asked for the tour in passable Japanese, he seemed to relax.
He nodded. “Ah, yes. Come with me.”
I gave Lindsey a look that said, See? There was nothing to worry about. We’ll catch up to the group and everything will be just fine.
We followed him into an elevator. I sunk into a corner, hoping he couldn’t smell us. Finally, he said, in English, “My name is Hiroki.” The door opened and he led us down another hall into a small, empty theater.
“Moo-bee,” he said, bowing. Then he rushed out of the room.
I turned to Lindsey. “What happened to the group tour?”
“I think this is the group tour.”
The lights went out and the small projection screen at the front of the room came to life. The video, backed by good-natured folk music, tracked the factory’s soybean-processing history from the pre-war days. Apparently, a man with an unfortunate moustache moved to the island, saw lots of soybeans, and was inspired to build a processing plant. He passed the business onto his son, a savvy businessman whose mustache was equally appalling. The video made the place look respectable, clean, and efficient. I strained to keep my eyelids up.
Hiroki returned as soon as the credits rolled. He bowed again and made a grand gesture that we should follow him. We got back in the elevator.
In my most polite Japanese, I asked, “Will we see the real factory?” Hiroki pursed his lips and sucked air through his teeth. I pressed on. “We love soy sauce. We want to see the big…” I didn’t know the word for “vats” so I pantomimed with my arms a shape unmistakable as either “large container” or “pregnant ladies.”
His eyes lit up. “Ahhh souu,” he said, nodding. Then he sucked in some more air and said, “Today is a little…impossible.”
The door opened and we were back in the lobby. Hiroki held up his hand and told us to wait just a moment. Then he ran out of sight, the tails of his jacket flapping behind him.
“So much for the vats,” I said.
“There’s still hope,” Lindsey said, positive as always. “I can feel it.”
We heard a patter of footsteps and then Hiroki appeared out of a hallway. He was grinning. With him was another man, older and taller, whose gut extended outward like a barrel. A barrel in a very expensive suit.
Hiroki spoke formally. This is, he said proudly, the President of Marukin.
The President flashed us a polite smile and we introduced ourselves. He did not bow; we shook hands all around. His was just a last name: Shikara. No moustache.
Shikara-san wore his belly like an executive’s desk. He spoke from behind it in firm tones to Hiroki, who nodded quickly, then bowed and scuttled out the front door.
We smiled and acted embarrassed, not because we were but because the situation seemed to call for it.
“You like…” he began in English. “You like shouyu?”
We nodded. Yes, we liked soy sauce.
He stuck out his lips and stroked his cheek. “You come, my car,” he said. “I show you…” I could feel the pun coming. “I show you…shouyu!” He laughed loudly and we laughed too.
Apparently it was a national holiday, so there were no tours being conducted. But apparently, we were special guests. A shiny black Mercedes stopped in front of us.
Lindsey and I looked at our clothes. A thick crust of dirt wrapped around my shoes and though the sweat on my neck had dried my shirt clung to my back.
Shikara-san waved his hand as if to say it didn’t matter. He took Hiroki’s place in the driver’s seat and we got in the back. Shikara-san stepped on it and we took off on a side road into the forest, kicking up dust at Hiroki, who stood waving behind us.
Shikara-san wanted to know all about our hometowns, our travels, and our opinions of the Japanese people. He told us about himself. He was not born on the island; he was a native Edoko—child of Tokyo—and had come to Shodoshima when his father, the previous company President, had died. Lindsey remarked that he must be very busy and he replied, “Yes, but soy beans are good friends,” and chuckled.
We told him we were from England and Canada. After a few minutes, a low gray building came into view among the trees. Shikara-san pulled up to the front of the building and parked.
He gazed at the doors. “This,” he said slowly, as if we were children learning a secret, “is home of number one shouyu.” He paused. “My grandfather build.”
He got out of the car and unlocked the front doors and, finally, we were inside the factory.
It was all one giant room cast in yellow light. Except for the walls, which were stacked from floor to ceiling with large cans, the place appeared to be empty. I looked down. Bingo!
The floor was a giant cupcake tin. The vats were built into the floor, their round mouths full of dark brown goop. There were about thirty in the place, lined up in rows of five, placed side by side with just barely enough space for a person to walk in between.
Shikara-san nodded, taking our stares for appreciation. “Deep is about two meters,” he told us.
We crept in for a closer look. The vats were about three meters across. Wooden lids covered some but quite a few were open. A wide plank, sitting just a finger’s length above the burgundy soup, spanned the vat nearest to us.
Shikara-san walked to the nearby vat and on the plank he placed one leather shoe, followed by the other, as if he were strolling down a promenade. The right edge of the board lift slightly and our eyes widened. He threw his left arm out for balance. In horror, we watched as one perfectly pleated right leg rose in the air, almost parallel to the beans. I could have sworn he was pointing his toes. Each moment seemed to be dipped in molasses, stretching slowly and helplessly before us.
Then he was in the vat.
Time burst free again. Shikara-san’s head popped out of the goop; his arms batted at the surface. Images of quicksand drownings flashed through my mind. Will fermenting soybeans swallow a person up? Is there real danger here, and if I reach to grab him will he pull me in too and will we drown and suffocate in soybeans?
Lindsey appeared to be thinking the same thing, and Shikara-san was oozing deeper into the mixture. Then, as I was desperately trying to think of something to say, he wiped his eyes and looked up at us.
“Okay, okay,” he said, blowing a drop of goo from his upper lip. Then he extended his arm and gave us a dripping thumbs-up. “Please bring Hiroki!”
Lindsey and I glanced at Shikara-san, then at each other. He wasn’t going to die. We bolted for the door.
Ten minutes later, we burst through the glass doors, sweating and gasping for breath. The lobby was empty.
We looked at each other and drew in our breath. “Hiroki!” we yelled together. We weren’t sure yet if it was okay to laugh.
We heard shuffling. When he appeared in the lobby, looking concerned, the only words that came to mind were, “Excuse me, your boss is in the beans.”
Lindsey motioned for him to come with us. “There is…a small problem,” I said.
He jogged out and brought another car, this one probably his, a small blue Toyota. We piled in and sped towards the factory.
Shikara-san had managed to reach the edge of the vat. He had thrown his elbows onto the floor and propped himself up out of the beans a bit. Hiroki squawked and rushed to his boss’s aid. He grabbed Shikara-san’s hands and leaned back with all this weight. Shikara-san rose slowly out of the muck. At one point it seemed that Hiroki, too, would fall victim to the vats—he was leaning back far over the next container—but remarkably, he kept his balance. Finally, Shikara-san was out, lying on his side, curled up like a newborn with an expensive taste in clothes.
Eventually we all made it outside. Shikara-san asked us to wait, then he and Hiroki disappeared behind the corner of the building.
“That’s gotta be the last we see of him,” I said. “I don’t know who’s more embarrassed. I almost think I’d feel less awkward had it been me in the vat.”
Lindsey shook her head. “No way, think about it. Those beans have been fermenting for years. Do you want to be responsible for ruining three years’ worth of soy sauce?”
She had a point. I tried not to laugh.
“Where do you suppose they went?” I asked.
“Probably to change…maybe he’s got some worker’s overalls lying around,” Lindsey said.
Curiosity got the best of me. I poked my head around the corner and was surprised to see Shikara-san and Hiroki standing near a shed. Hiroki was holding a long green garden hose and—
“He’s hosing him down.”
“Yes. Oh my God, get back. They’re done.”
Shikara-san rounded the corner first. He was still wearing his suit, which was soaked and dripping. He wiped a drop of water from his brow.
“Funny!” he said, grinning. Then, unbelievably:
“Shall we continue?”
I was sure he was joking until he hopped the steps and held open the factory door. A few stray beans stuck to his jacket and one hung from his ear.
Lindsey took one look at me and we both burst out laughing. It was the kind of laugh that chokes you, that silent laugh that tires out your abs. I was helpless to stop; all I could do was look up at Shikara-san and motion to my ear. He reached up and felt the bean. Then he too was laughing.
I was relieved, which only made me laugh harder. Even red-faced Hiroki let out a giggle.
We did finish the tour after all; Shikara-san insisted on it despite his dripping suit and shoes that squished loudly in the deserted factory.
Finally it was over. After dropping us off at the main building (Hiroki brought a towel for the Mercedes) we shared a hearty, wasn’t-it-all-simply-hilarious laugh, and set off down the hill on our bikes. When we’d escaped earshot I heard Lindsey next to me scream, “Oh. My. GOD!” I looked over my shoulder and saw Shikara-san outlined by blue sky at the top of the hill, waving vigorously at us. I threw my hand up in a backwards wave and sped down the hill with the wind whipping my face.
Photo: Jake Keup