"Is anyone interested in coming with me to see sea fireflies?"
It was a post made by an older man on a local facebook site. I'd run into him before at a friend's party, but I barely remembered his name. We were basically strangers. But I thought I'd look up, "Sea fireflies" as I'd never heard of that term before.
What I found were fascinating little creatures. They're scavengers along sandy shores and when bothered, they spurt out a fluorescent blue liquid. The light fades rather quickly, like a blinking firefly. And it so happens that they're proliferous in my area during the summer. I love the little creatures of the world and I decided I wanted to see these. But I wasn't sure about getting in a car with a stranger in a foreign country.
I sent him a tentative message. It turns out there was another woman around my age coming as well. That settled it, I was in! Sea fireflies, here I come!
Then he asked if he could pick me up early and we could go visit an art gallery beforehand.
I checked this guy's facebook page. It's all posts of him caring for his aging mother and administering her rehabilitation. He owns a yacht and uses it to give rides to people to help overcome their mental instabilities. He's a licensed psychologist.
I figured I'd give this guy a chance.
Best decision ever.
I walked out into weather that couldn't seem to fit itself into either sunny or cloudy, warm or cold, Summer or Fall. I found myself approaching a man in sunglasses and greying hair, sitting in a red convertible. My first thought was: If my mother knew I was getting into a convertible with a stranger to go to an unmarked beach in complete darkness, she would freak. I got into the car and away we went. I've never been in a convertible before, and I'd thought the wind would send everything flying out. But it was fine. All my things stayed in my bag, including an empty plastic bottle tied up with string that I'd brought to catch the sea fireflies.
The art gallery we went to had an exhibition going on called, "Masking Tape." There were pillars covered in colorful masking tape, there were pictures of animals where every spot or scale was a separate piece of masking tape. There were rolls of tape lined up in such a way to make a picture when you stepped back. Someone had made a whole garden of flowers out of pieces of tape stuck together and molded into petals and leaves. There was a whole room that you could go in and put tape on the floor or walls as you liked, to add to the art. And at a booth upstairs they were selling 100 different colors of tape so that you could go home and make your own art.
The upstairs windows were open and I suddenly heard a, "Hee-haw, Yee-haw" coming from outside. The noise was so comical, so surreal. It's exactly what donkeys say in cartoons. I looked out and lo! there really was a donkey out back, across an alley and on the other side of a fence.
I went down to a cafe area where a woman was busy making fresh coffee and squeezing orange juice. "Is that really a donkey?" I asked as I ordered a scone.
"Yes," she replied. "I'm the gallery manager and that's my pet donkey back there."
"Could I go back and introduce myself?"
I went back and found that the donkey lived along in a traditional Japanese house. The whole house was full of mud and straw, catering to his lifestyle, and he could go in and out as he pleased. He had full range of the garden as well and a simple fence of wooden posts and crossbars kept him from straying. When I came close, he came up to me and leaned his large head with his long, fuzzy ears over the garden wall to smell me. He let me stroke his face. Then he tried nibbling on my arm just to see what would happen.
In all my life experiences, being bitten by a donkey was not only not on the list yet, but so far beyond my imagination for what the day's adventure would entail, that I was quite excited about it. It's not every day you can say, "A guy picked me up in a convertible so I could go to a masking tape art show and get bitten by a donkey."
And the day wasn't over yet!
We still had a lot of time before the sun went down so my companion, Mr. Inoue, asked me if I wanted to feed some birds. Of course I said yes. I learned that the Japanese word for seagull is "kamome" and they all hang out near the pier hoping to catch scraps from fishing boats. Inoue and I weren't in a boat, so they didn't approach us at first. He reached into his car and pulled out a bag of fish snacks. He ripped it open, approached the open harbor, and started throwing the snacks in haphazard fistfulls out to sea. I followed suit, trying to drown my conservative fears of - Am I bothering with the balance of nature by doing this? At first, the birds just watched us skeptically. Then they started, tentatively, to fly over and watch us. Finally a few of them took dives for the snacks. Soon all the birds were diving around us, including a few kites that flew in and showed off their athletic skills and competitive spirits.
Just then, at 5:00, the "it's time to go home" song began playing. In many rural towns, this music wafts over the city at 5PM sharp, reminding farmers and fisherman that it will be dark soon, reminding kids to go back for dinner, and reminding industry workers to take a breather and get ready to go home. There was something idyllic about standing at the edge of a pier with birds diving all around me while music played to accompany us.
The sun still hadn't set by the time the snacks were gone, so I asked Mr. Inoue if there was anywhere to see the sunset. He was considering buying some riceballs for dinner and eating them in some parking lot, but I had him drive to the top of a nearby hill where we could see a view of the sea on one side and the sunset on the other side.
Jude is a woman from the UK who used to live in my favorite city, Matsue. When the three of us met up, we each brought our own world of experiences together. And all three of us were super excited to see the sea fireflies. It was great to spend time with people who can let down their guard together and appreciate the world for what it is. First we stuffed fish and sausages from the grocery down plastic bottles. We threaded string through holes in the bottles and then taped rocks to them to make them heavy. Doing this in complete darkness as waves came up and down the beach was a bit difficult to achieve, but we finally managed a good setup with each of our flashlights sending light beams from a different direction. Finally, we waded in the water and cast our traps out to sea with unceremonious kerplunks. We tied the ends of the strings around rocks so that the traps wouldn't get lost. Then we waited.
At the other end of the beach, two other men were doing the same thing we were. They were much more professional about it, though. They'd staked out a place to take a perfect picture and were collecting sea fireflies in a bucket that they intended to scatter across the shore as they took long exposure shots from multiple cameras set up on tripods on the beach. They came over to show us a picture they'd printed the day before. The picture was from the other side of the beach and composed of five shots taken in succession so that the glow of the sea fireflies showed up in sharp contrast to the black surroundings, and the pale lights of a distant city illuminated the sky. I'd have to have a lot more equipment to ever take a picture like that.
We heaved our plastic bottles back to shore and it was like magic. They were positively glowing blue. We scattered the little creatures over the sea and watched as the sea lit up with blue stars. Our hands became covered in blue that, when washed in the water, created rivlets of blue. They fell onto the sand and the lights went out, but when we poured seawater over them or lifted them to bring them back to the water, they glowed again in earnest. We dumped some in a bucket and shone a light in there to watch the active creatures, well fed on the feasts we'd given them, zooming around happily. It was truly magical.
We found that sea fireflies prefer intact fish to sausage fish. The glowing liquid only lights up for less than a minute. After spurting it to stun their enemy, they swim away at a speed I found incredible. They live at the bottom of the sea, so the magazine pictures of glow-covered rocks and starry seas are all made up of people pouring buckets of these creatures around for the sole purpose of taking such a picture. The other guys on the beach informed us that they're much more in abundance in August than September, and by October they're scarce to be found.
After playing on the beach, we packed up to leave. Jude said to me, "This was probably one of the weirdest things I've ever done in my life." Maybe that can be said for me, too, but I've done so many weird things, I don't really know anymore.
The professionals let us come over to watch them shoot their final picture, pouring buckets of seawater over sea fireflies laying in the sand to create a starry beach with the backdrop of one of the islands. After that, we all went home.
When was the last time you played outside at night?