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Suzu-Ishi (Ringing Stones)


Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

A rounded stone, with a size that would fit nicely in the palm of my hands, sits in front of me. Its rust-colored surface had a dull sheen as if it was left lying between the sleepers of a railway. I don’t know the colors inside but I can imagine what it looks like. I possess an ability to see through the inside of this stone. Only “this stone,” though.

“Let’s go get some pineapples.”

As soon as my room was decided, the oji1 of the guest house called me. I had heard that field-ripe pineapples taste exceptional. Of course, I never had a chance to try it. It was about two years since the reversion, and I reckon pineapples were usually canned in mainland Japan back then.

After a ten-minute truck ride, we arrived right in the middle of a vast pineapple field. The red soil farm road was scooped away here and there. They said that the floods of rain that come every so often turn parts of the road into swamps. Under the sun of an early afternoon, the vivid red ocher soil shone brightly. The deep celadon green of sharp pineapple leaves, bearing fruits of all colors, drew countless strips on that red canvas. The dark green of a grove was gleaming at the end of the farms, and beyond it was the coral reef filled with an ever-changing blue. What is wondrously floating at the far end of the azure ocean must be Hatoma Island.

“Be careful, there are habus (poisonous snakes) here.”

He said it so frankly, and we plucked the fruits that had a golden yellow color close to orange. The fruits stung our hands, and it was quite a burden, but the sweet smell already drifting in the air made the joint of our tongue throb. 

“That is Suzu-Ishi.”

Pointing at the small stones scattered on the reddish brown soil, the old man said suddenly. It seemed like a very ordinary rusted-color lump.

“This doesn’t sound so good. This one is not bad.”

Muttering, he shook a piece of stone close to his ears and then gave it to me. I took it, and I shook it about my ears. The sound was somewhat moistened, but something did come out from just a stone on the roadside. 

“When it’s dry, it sounds better.”

So, Suzu-Ishi was a ringing stone2. I’ve seen in a field guide that such stones were found at Nayoro, in the north of Hokkaido3, though I never knew that they could be collected so easily on Iriomote Island, located on the opposite side of Japan.

“There are Mizu-Ishi too; they have water in them.”

The pineapples put aside, I picked up resembling stones one after another to shake them near my ears. They all looked exactly the same, and many were totally speechless, yet one out of ten of them talked to me. Click-clack, clickety-clack, rustle-rustle, ripple-ripple. Each tone had a subtle difference, fun to listen to. There was a stone about 15-20 cm big with a rustic crack, while others were the size of a bell or a candy, and let out a graceful sound. 

I’ve forgotten the heat, the pineapples, and the snakes, and collected them feverishly. After I picked a dozen or so, I came to myself. Back to the guest house, I washed them. There was so much of that red-brown muddiness that came out I thought it was melting away. I cleaned them sufficiently and dried them on a newspaper at the engawa-porch. 

From what I heard later, Suzu-Ishi is a well-known-but-to-the-few-specialty of the Iriomote Island like the star sand, and most of the guests take them home. There were many sitting on the cabinet at the guest house, including two or three Mizu-Ishi. They make a sloshing sound when shaken. The frail character of the stone gave it a somewhat delicate feel. There was a man who has plausibly claimed that the water would eventually evaporate and the stone would lose its sound, but I have not yet determined the truth of this. 

I went to collect them several times, and took home a few, though not as many as the first time. I gave some of them to other guests. Some seemed to have had cracks in them and broke into pieces while drying. A gray lump of earth—unsuitable for a mystical ringing stone—fell out from the inside. I guess it discolors right before it’s seen, to conceal the true secret of the Suzu-Ishi from humans. The fracture of the stone had minute layers in them. That might be the key.

I hid my favorite Suzu-Ishi in my pocket to carry around. Surrounded by the silence and the sound of falling water of a waterfall when all the tourists were gone, I shook it, with a little more power. At a coral reef beach when the evening tide was coming in, I lay down and shook it softly near my ears. Winds were calm, the skyful of stars was reflected on the surface of the lagoon at the night beach, and I thought I heard the twinkling sound of the stars from that very tiny ringing stone. Though, it never spoke again anymore.

I am aware that this Suzu-Ishi in my hand has a hollow inside and a dry piece of clay within; therefore with a little shake, it makes a clear click-clack sound. Nonetheless, I am suspecting that that simple tone is a camouflage and that the minute layers enveloping the body must confine in itself other various kinds of tones. Unfortunately, I have not found any clue to distinguish those sounds. In recent days, I heard that Suzu-Ishi is rarely found on Iriomote Island.

Editor’s Note:

  1.  An old man.
  2.  Also called rattle stone.
  3. Japan’s northernmost island.