Of all of the marked buoys I had plucked from the beaches of Alaska, this one seemed to be my favorite. I don’t know if it was the style of writing, the meaning it represented, or the way it had been found. I had always hoped to find the owner of it, however way, way back in the corner of my mind, I secretly hoped that the search would be lengthy and difficult. I wanted to hang with it for as long as I could. It was found on Kayak Island, while with my kids, during a portion of one of those trips with them that I have tucked away tightly amongst my fondest memories.
The Kanji painted on the buoy means virtuous or good. It’s Chinese pronounciation (On-Yomi) is “Zen” and it’s Japanese pronounciation (Kun-Yomi) is “Yoi, or Yoshi”. When combined with other Kanji, this particular character could be one of at least two hundred combinations possible to make up a Japanese surname. It may have originated from the Zenzou family, or the Yoshinobu family, for example.
In preparation for my trip to the Tohoku region of Japan this year, I proudly positioned the photo of this buoy before all eighty or so other photos I had in my collection of show and tells. It would be the first buoy that any willing Japanese wakame, or oyster, or scallop farmer would see as they peered into my iPad, searching for something that they might recognize. I wanted it to boldly show how impressive a lot of these markings still looked after traveling over 3000 miles across the Pacific. I also wanted it’s meaning to somehow sink in subliminally. My Japanese was horrible, so I thought that through this picture, I could convey that what I was trying to do there, and what I was about to show, was associated with every good intention.
As we searched and searched for the first three days, no one recognized what I came to call the “Zen” buoy’s origins. I almost began to swipe by it quickly when I started to show the photo collection, because the reality of the slim odds of this mission were starting to sink in. One wakame farmer did recognize the another photo (a "Ki" symbol), however, and gave me great hope. He directed me to a location a few miles away where I just barely caught an oyster farmer dockside before he headed out to sea in his boat.
As I ran along the dock, towards the boat, photo in hand, I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. There were buoys everywhere, of different sizes and shapes, displaying various characters. By that time, I had memorized all of the photos that I carried, and something seemed familiar. I didn’t have the time to investigate what I thought I saw though, so I put it aside in my mind, and continued on my bee-line to the farmer in his boat. As I approached the boat and received permission to board, I saw the sign of the "Ki" on deck.
I was so excited that I had found an owner this way! I showed the photo of the faded character to the owner, but unfortunately, he said that his buoy’s marking was similar, but not the same as the buoy in the photo. It was not his.
A tad deflated, I asked if I could show him my other photos and he gladly obliged. He immediately stopped at the first one. “Oh, yes!”, he said, “That must be his.” and pointed just over my shoulder at a man and his wife placing wakame seeds for the season. I couldn’t believe it. There, not twenty feet away was the “Zen” buoy’s brother.
Deflated became elated when I approached the nearby wakame farmer! Upon showing him my photo, he said that this was his buoy and that it was his hand that painted his grandfather’s surname upon it. It was used to mark an oyster set, and was lost, along with all of his other buoys, in the tsunami. It took him a while for the gravity of it all to sink in, but once it did, he and his wife rejoiced and were very happy. In the soft and commonly humble Japanese way, they requested that the buoy be returned to them, as a symbol of hope and remembrance of their lives before the disaster.
At that moment, I realized that my days with the “Zen” buoy were coming to an end, but I also realized that I would not have traded the circumstances of that day with any other. I am not a religious guy, but I couldn’t help but sense that there was more to my lucky happenstance. It did not seem to be mere coincidence that this buoy found it’s way home. As I walked away from the dockside and the happy old couple, I truly felt that the exciting, but bittersweet return of the “Zen” buoy was not only an occurrence that was meant to be, but also served a symbol of more “Good or Virtuous” things to come.