When I remember our trip to Japan this year I think of incredible meals, iconic views, steadfast friends and a few typhoons. There was a lot of excitement this year as my Guest of Honor was the new Women’s World Champion squirt boater- Rose Wall. In Sort Spain earlier this year she won out over Japan’s top champion- the legendary Hitomi Takaku –who went on to win a coveted Gold medal in Freestyle to go with her Silver in squirt. Rose won with memorable deep and long mystery moves and she is the “Zombie Queen” of the American squirt boat clan. Would Rose and Hitomi compete this year? Would they still be friends? Of course! They are both so nice! Rose brought along her BFF – Becky Heinlein- a local expert paddler living in Friendsville, MD- and also our zombie ‘chum’ Joel Wolpert- a local writer /photographer who had become an expert sinker over the last year since he accompanied our party to Japan last year. He’s the kind of extra baggage you don’t mind having along. Becky has had her first roams in a squirt boat and was calm in the deep, and the venue this year- Akabeko- promised to be friendly to hungry drop artists. Joel brought his cool underwater camera- but would end up spending most of his time in borrowed boats- some of which he actually got to sink pretty well.
OK- so this year—Japan had to compete with last year’s epic typhoon- which raised the Akabeko level 40 feet! Soooo… the weekend before we left- Japan hosted an epic 60 year super typhoon which was accompanied by an earthquake and a tornado.
So much for the foreplay. We got those hazards out of the way- or- did we?? We heard from the local experts that Akabeko should still be good the following weekend. The typhoons bring a lot of rain- but the creeks are so steep- they fall quickly too. They were right.
We all launched from my place to fly from Pittsburgh through Chicago to Tokyo Haneda airport- one of the nicest ports of entry in the world- so quiet and organized- as always. But first- we had to get through customs and I had a slight problem. Now days- they have a little machine you press your fingertips into – to check your fingerprint against the database. Well- the machine couldn’t find my fingerprints. The inspector wanted to see my fingertips. I had worked SO hard the few weeks before we left- sanding on paddles- that I had erased my fingerprints! He was suspicious. I was just figuring out how to say,” My job is to make wood paddles and I sand a lot.” But he could sense I wasn’t dangerous and wasn’t worth the bother- so I was allowed to pass into our wonderful vacation land. Hello Japan! Hello Hiro and Iimura. Left unsaid was, “I miss Taiki already.” My friend and apprentice had passed away the previous March and I would never have his welcome again when I arrived.
OK- so I know you are wondering what our first incredible meal was- but you’ll have to wait. We didn’t know how it would happen either- although I was sure it would.
So- our next day, Thursday, would be an ‘extra day’. Friday we would go sample Akabeko- always fun. And we were assured the level was good-what could go wrong? Hiro- our awesome friend and host, suggested a visit to Kamakura- a famous resort area a few hours away on the east coast of Honshu- the main island of Japan. Well- it turns out Kamakura was verrrrry interesting. The first thing we noticed was that it had a very active population of surfers. We passed a lot of them riding home from their favorite break on bicycles with the boards in a rack on the side. Then- we saw the breaks- modest for sure- but well attended. The water culture was alive and thriving here.
Then we went to the main attraction- a huge 30’ tall bronze statue that was so serene- so strong- that it survived a tsunami that stripped away the protective surrounding shrine which held it years ago. But it held strong- as a sign of steadfastness in changing and challenging times. It would end up symbolizing our trip.
It looked serenely huge as we approached- but we found it human sized when we discovered we could pay 50 cents more and climb into and look inside the welded-together bronze masterpiece. It was cool and quiet inside. I considered analogies about being inside the soul of the Buddha- but they fell short. It was a man- made thing- and an act of dedication and inspiration- no doubt lost on modern tourists. But- we appreciated it non-the-less – peace and calm permeated the area- just naturally.
Might be a good photo opportunity!
So- mid-day we happened across one of those tiny restaurants along the way- the kind of place you could hardly cram a dozen people into- and we had six. The chef was my age and the server was his wife. “This is the kind of place I told you about!”, I whispered to my mates. It was. So- we had a few different dishes- but I can only speak for my mushroom curry. My eyes rolled up in my head. I wanted to taste every molecule of this mastery of flavor. The stacked pickled pepper slices of every color were just a delicious sideshow- as was the plum wine we shared as an appetizer. We all got quiet. A feast was underway! Occasionally I winked a teary eye at the chef- what I was experiencing was beyond words- and he knew he had new fans. Let me take a second to describe the flavor. It was like opening a book easy to read but full of luscious details and interesting notes. It was so balanced it could rest on the head of a pin. I wanted to lick my bowl clean! I didn’t really check on how others were doing but it looked yummy to me.
So- local chef kills tourists with acts of fineness. The first awesome meal had landed!
While we were there… a group of students thought we would be good people to practice their English on. They did very well. Once I mentioned that Rose was a world champion- well… autographs had to happen. Becky was nearby and beautiful- so she got roped into being a celebrity in Japan as well!
So- what else was on our dance card? Hiro said something about money laundering. Many shrines in Japan are focused on strong water springs that ancient rich benefactors left to the Buddhists- to curry favor in the afterworld- why not? This one would make your money multiply if you would just rinse your coins in the sacred water- why not?
Then we ambled our way to a nearby shrine where we met this kind fellow: He wished us well.
Oh- and we had to see the Bamboo Forest- which had just been challenged by last weeks epic typhoon.
Here they were fixing damaged trees:
More cool things we saw:
So…. Where else could our wondersome wanderings take us? Hiro suggested “Cat Island”- intriguing- right?? Well- there WERE cats- all finicky and royal acting.
It’s a real island a short way out in the ocean- and mostly for tourists to enjoy. And we found this endless upward climb- with promises of an elevator at every level- and beer at the top. True enough- but by the time I had earned the top by hiking- a rain storm had wandered in. If the weather had been better- the beers at the top might have been sampled (I wasn’t driving after all- and my throat was so dry!) I wished I tried the Buddha Beer though.
So we retreated to the car at the bottom of the hill and then back to Hiro’s Palace.. The cats didn’t care about us anyways. Plus- I had earned my wings from the climb.
So- as promised- the day before the Squirtogether championships- and the level at Akabeko was perfect! The water was so clean. The shape had changed from previous years- as usual- change. But yeah- it was full on Akabeko with little fish eddying up around you as you roam. There was plenty of boat borrowing by my gaijin trip mates. The drops were many and sweet and after a few hours- we were played out.
Motoko Ishida gives some last minute tips to Iimura-san. She is a champion and teaches the Sweetwater Kayak School in Japan –and gets much respect.
As in the past- I stored my boat up on end in the bushes on shore against the hill- like the others. I got a quiet laugh out of remembering Taiki- always cautious- reprimanded me and made me take my boat 10’ further up the hill last year. He liked to caution me.
That night we went to where we usually camp at a community park downstream a ways- but they were all prepared for a HUGE farmer’s market on Saturday and our access to the usual pavilion was limited. We were still able to sneak in and set our sleeping gear up under the pavilion though- which was awesome because an epic deluge cut loose on us for the entire night. I would have to guess it was between 4 and 6 inches of rain- but it could have been much more. Somewhere around midnight- I remembered how a flood had bent over bamboo 40’ up
the hillside last year -a week before our visit. That was above where I had left my boat last
night….- it was less than 10’ above the waterline. Well- the Toyo River DID come up about 9’ that night. It flooded out the Akabeko venue- and put our boats in peril.
Always a jump ahead of the game- Iimura was at the riverside at dawn and – even though he couldn’t see where we had hidden our boats in the bushes- he wandered upstream through waist deep cold water to see if there was anything to salvage. Fortunately- he found all our gear and hiked all the pieces back through the freezy flood to get them back to the base of the trail up the hill. Everything was saved! Yea Iimura!! Later Joel would join him to help haul the boats up the steep muddy trail to safety about 60’ above the river.
So- all the gear was safe- but we had no venue. Would anybody even show up for the event? What would happen- or not? Were there options??
Well a good number of friends did show up! We shared a warm kinda zombie love that’s hard to describe! I made a short speech about what’s occurred during the last year- including the passing of our close mutual friend and Japan’s chopmeisters and paddle builder- my only apprentice from 23 years ago- Taiki Sugawara. He passed away March 5th from pancreatic cancer but had worked to within two days of when he went into the hospital. He seemed so
serene in my last communications with him- and his life was so interesting and well-lived.
As well as the passing of my mother (peacefully in her sleep) in June and the passing of the man who brought me to Japan the first time 27 years ago- the founder of New Wave Kayaks- the company that put squirt boating on the map in the 80’ and 90’s- John Schreiner. At one point I was touched by a deep sadness of our losses and couldn’t see my speech typed in Japanese. So I faltered for a minute and continued in English with translating help from my friend Mori-san. I said, “What I really liked about Taiki is that he took on difficult tasks with pleasure. And he was very honest”. That was the best I could do under the conditions. There was so much to say- but the silence said it all- angsty- I know. So I kinda sucked it up buttercup and went back and sat down and we all decided to wait and see how the good times would roll this year.
We took a moment to salute the members of our group who recently represented in the last ICF Squirt and Freestyle championships in Sort, Spain. This included Akinori-san, Kamo-san, and world champions Hitomi Takaku, and Rose Wall. This is our posse- and they did SO WELL!
And we even had the auction ! People are usually drunk for that- but not at this hour of the morning. Still- under my encouragement, Rose offered some of her zombie art -and the bidding was lively! She so pro!
As usual—the Japanese use a consensus to finalize any plan. See whiteboard behind Hiro ^– the options were 1..Impossible, 2. Impossible 3. Tsudurato. It was a 3 hr. drive away and the eddy could only hold 4-5 people- but conditions were prime according to master zombie Marcy-san. Of course we went for it. Of course- he was right!
We would make the drive and then spend the night at a fellow zombie’s guest house (Thanks Hideyoshi-san!).
Oy- what a fine party it was that night! Lots of chatter and talk about new design ideas- including handpaddle shapes.
The black handpaddle was printed on a machine. Later in the reverie that night tho- it was broken. Not sure what the story was on that.
Lots of laughing and drinking and fresh food hot off the hibachis.
Joel had recently designed a new sinker- his first design- and he would be finishing it up after he got back home. But he also has a new design on the docket that is very different conceptually than what is already out there. It’s based on minimal wetted surface- while preserving length. I’ll let him actualize and develop the concept a bit more on his own before I spill the beans about it though. Things take time.
So- the Tsudurato venue was a short drive away the next morning- but we needed an early start (like 4:30 early!) because the drive home could take 10 hrs. or more and we had a flight to the northern island of Hokkaido on Monday. The water was only 8’ deep but crystal clear. The arena was a complicated shape where a tiny trib on river right hit the main flow of a larger- though still modestly sized, stream. There was a rock on river right which was near the end of the ride. It was calm and deep just upstream of it- but if you didn’t pay attention- you would definitely get pushed into the rock on a long ride. It looked a bit intimidating to me at first- from the bridge above. If you didn’t get back in to the right before you got to the rock- you would go around it to a scroungey eddy and then have to re-attain up around the bumper rock. My knees are about 8” deep in my boat- so my belly is a significant part of my ‘bow’- and attainments in this kit aren’t my strong suit. But everyone was going after drops like it was free candy! And soon enough there were 8-10 people sharing the eddy art any point. Still it all worked like a wonderful free machine-grinding out sweet rides for all comers.
So- when you dropped in- you could see a bare patch of bedrock exposed which demarked the upstream end of a deep channel just to the right of where you dropped in- and just upstream of the bumper rock. On a good ride you could swoop into there like a bird- within inches of the bottom- silently lurking amidst the bubbles- and then finally- in a rush- maybe go vertical -and escape the wrath of the waiting bumper rock! It was a fun game. You could also side slide in and roam to river left and capture a nice surf under the slab that is running out there. You could just see people calmly spinning a surf- like ride under 3’ of crystalline slab rushing over their heads- but they wouldn’t get caught in it. It would be just above their heads as they hovered in one place. That was also very fun!
So- in the end- we had no competition- no winner- but we did have the Jim Snyder Cup and Women’s Championship award to pass on and they went to Japan’s master zombies- Marcy Hayakawa-san and Hitomi Takaku- of course! And then we had 3 “Awesome Awards!” that went to Mori-san who played very John- Bellian charcs (don’t know?/don’t ask) way up high to good effect. And to one of Japan’s Original Zombies- Kenji-san- who was operating as slick as oil and really making it work. And the third went toooo….. Becky! She got her first really meaty drops
with true roaming and really proved her appetite. She is an expert anyways- she’s just proving it a new way- halfway around the world. It was also notable how Joel finally found the secret handshake there in my Blender and was able to show himself as a tenacious roamer.
So- that was fun!!! I wished we could have vacationed there for a month or two- a very very nice house right there… but- no- it was time to fly.
What can I say about Hokkaido? I had told my guests it’s easy to love, a lot like West Virginia (with volcanoes added) and it will find an easy place to rest in your heart. But words always fall short. For one thing- the fall colors were peaking!
And we met so many incredible people! And meals?? Oh let me tell you!
We started by driving from Chitose airport to Taiki’s shop in Sapporo-
Where we met his friends Hirose and Kobayashi.
Looking out at Hirose and Kobayashi from the inside of Taiki's shop. Taiki told me he enjoyed a lot of time watching the birds- and squirrels.
Hirose also learned how to chop and seam boats from Taiki- who was Japan’s only chop- meister. So- there is still hope for Japan to have someone who can re-size boats for them! It’s hard work and Taiki was one of the best. I’m rooting for Hirose. He loves to do mystery moves so he really understands how the boats work underwater.
We got to check out Taiki’s notes and other memorabilia:
It was kind of sad to think of how his wonderful career had rushed to a stop. But- he loved his life and friends so well- we can only remember his kindness. Here is a cool shot of him at the last session we shared together at Akabeko last year:
So then it was time for lunch at a real ramen house! Hokkaido has the best ramen in my opinion. We found a tiny place-called “Darien”- with a line of people waiting patiently for us to finish up. Signs of one of those places…
Everything was perfect about this ramen. It was like famous ramen –or should be.
Kobayashi is very cool. He owns a snowboard shop called “Go Insane!” in Sapporo and has a guide service for back country snowboarders.
.Then we went to a museum about the aboriginal Japanese- the Ainu.
They had an example of a wooden canoe being built and also snug looking huts that got them through the cold Hokkaido winters. And also these warm and stylish jackets that must have taken a season to create.
Made from tough strands of tree bark. Renewable resource that’s biodegradable. These guys were ahead of their time!
Next- we went to visit where Taiki was buried. I was hoping it would be a quiet and peaceful place- with trees nearby maybe. And it was. I told him, in my mind, that it had been a privilege to know him and I very much appreciated him sharing his friendship with me. I had lost one of my best friends- but somehow he made it easy on everyone. He was so serene.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Then we took a quick look at Kobayashi’s shop. I especially loved the hemp shirts he had for sale.
There's a wired zombie on the wall behind Joel's shoulder. Scary cool!
So then we checked into our hotel-the Excell Tokyu Inn-it was a bit fancier than what I am used to- but Joel told me to just own it. So I tried- and it was awesome. But I still felt too gypsy for how fancy it was! We rested a bit and then went on back to Taiki’s shop to have an exceptional night with friends. It was a crisp cool fall night- but there were seats for everyone around the hibachis in a porch like area behind Taiki’s shop.- which were grilling all kinds of meat to perfection. It was special because of the people there. Maybe just a dozen of us- but the chatter was quiet and friendly. And there were plenty of beers- so that was good. The highlight of the night for me was meeting Taiki’s sister, Miyuke- who I had never met before. She was so gracious but earnest – she reminded me of Taiki.
We sat next to each other and just enjoyed each other’s company. I even told her a few funny stories about my life with Taiki- like the time he visited and stayed in my ‘playhouse’ (unplumbed guest house) and his first night there- I guess there was some mis-translation. I told him about how some Brit paddlers had stayed there that spring and one of them thought they heard rats! But- I didn’t think it was true (still don’t). Well, in any case- when I went to wake him up the next morning- I found him sleeping on top of the small kitchen table- to stay safe from the rats. Oy!
Yeah- it was just like this. We just all had quiet fun that night. And then we moved into the part of the shop where Taiki worked- because it was heated;
Hirose has a real job- but also skills as a chop meister. To be a chop meister- it’s like you have to fit a fine suit to a person- but- they have to be able to swim in it- and they will test it for sure. So- it has to be right. It’s a tough standard when you are dealing with experts.
So- to sum up the night- it was quiet and nice- a bit chilly- in a fun way- a way you can’t forget. And I gained a lot of closure on my loss- our loss. Taiki’s chapter was written. He faded around the next bend of river before we got there. He was fine with his fate- so- he led the way for us to be OK with it also. Such a friend.
This was one of the specialest days of my life. We headed to the Toyako area (Toya lake- which is actually a caldera). The fall colors were magnificent. Cameras were clicking. But- what really blew our minds was stopping by Taiki’s friend Syu-san’s shop and restaurant.
Syu is a paddler- but also an artist in wood- with many unique and special creations (including a paddle!)
You can always tell when someone loves their work!
. And his wife is a master chef- as we found out. Syu-san and his wife are about my age- and they have such enjoyment of their lives- that it is beyond what most people would ever hope for. He carves so many small cool things for sale that I wish I could buy them all. I hope you enjoy this fast review of a lot of the sweet things he’s made- starting with a shot of him in his shop. Please enjoy:
He spends a lot of time in this corner of his shop. He uses special tools he fashioned for himself- like this:
Syu-san keeps a saxophone and record player with jazz records close by to make sure he doesn't work too hard.
So- we took a break to go look at some fish- and some damage. First we went to where a volcano had blown its top not long ago. It did a lot of damage to a nearby kindergarten:
Weather looks bad- right?
No one was hurt because the volcano fumed for a week or two before it started throwing a fit and everyone got out of the way..
So- then we went to where they have a machine that collects spawning salmon! It was fed by nearby water and created a channel for the salmon to swim up. But- when they got to the top-
there was like a waterwheel thing that would swoop them up and turn them into product.
By now the salmon are tired and hungry and crowded together- so they fight with each other a bit.
Then we returned to Syu-san’s shop- and restaurant- and enjoyed one of the finest meals of the trip! It was SO yummy- everybody got quiet. That’s really good.
That was an experience! More than just a meal.
And for dessert- we had a special treat as well. My friend Miu-chan prepared a special walnut cake that was so perfect. It was not overly sweet- like an American cake- but it was sweet and so so- well- the crowd got quiet again. You should BE jealous!
Then we traveled to Mt. Usu -a volcanic area- and rode the “ropeway” (cable car) towards the top. It was beautiful and well attended by hundreds of tourists. At the top- we had the choice to climb the last few hundred feet to the top- but I sat on some convenient benches and resisted the temptation. Climbing hills has always been my weak suit (among others). So- Mt. Usu had many trails, and ice cream, and cool volcanic things to see. But I kept remembering how my mom and I had visited there with Taiki 8 years earlier and what a good time that was. So- I had wistful moments remembering those two and our trip. It was a good kind of wistful.
After that we went to maybe the best onsen (hot public bath) in the world The Toyako Onsen- truly it was world famous for good reason. They even had free back rubbing chairs.
So then we drove on into the dark of evening- eventually ending up back at Taiki’s shop where we met a surprise guest- Shiroto-san! Anyone who travelled with me in the early days remembers him- but I hadn’t seen him in 7 years or so- since he moved to the northern coast of Hokkaido. He was never a city boy anyways. He owned a raft company named “Go Deep!” for a while- but the rafting industry wasn’t strong enough- so he went back to the real world. Still- he seemed very much the same- but maybe stronger and younger. So it was great to re- connect with him and we all went to an amazing tempura dinner that went on and on and on-in Japanese fashion in downtown Sapporo.
Phew! I’m glad I didn’t make a fool of myself with all the beer and all. But it sure was fun!!
The menu was infinite tempura and beer. We SO enjoyed those hours!
So today we had a chance to travel to an area of Hokkaido that I had never seen- Shakotan area- it is the coastline on the northwest side of Hokkaido. And we had the treat of Kobayashi- san driving. He drives like a snowboarder- it was fun. So- we were met with striking vistas- punctuated with rare small fishing boats on the glass clear ocean- collecting urchins for food.
This is an old urchin shell. They are about the size of a small donut and they have a beautiful home!
Well- how to round out a beautiful morning? How about a conveyor belt sushi lunch?
Then- oh! Let’s go sample some excellent Nikka whiskey!
The Yoichi Distillery was built in 1934, on a site chosen for its clear water, brisk air and rich peat. The founder believed that the conditions in Yoichi best resembled those found in Scotland where he had studied whisky making and so this area would be perfect for recreating Scotch whisky. The traditional distillation process that he brought over is largely unchanged today.
Nikka whiskies have been recognized to rank among the world's best single malt whiskies and have won numerous awards.
So- that was enough fun. But we had to stop one more time to see Kobeyashi’s snowboard shop- “Go Insane!” Joel and Iimura had to sample some skateboards on the sidewalk. No one got hurt!
And then- let’s fly back to Hiro’s Palace. It was such a busy day- I didn’t know if I was jetlagged- or not!
Yes- we had an extra day left to take the train into Tokyo. Oh boy!!! We visited the Edo-Tokyo museum. I love how crowded it can be on the trains the deeper you get into Tokyo.
Rose is a pro in the clutch!
At one point we were switching trains and we had a bit of excitement! Within seconds of getting off our first train –Joel exclaimed, “I left my backpack on the rack in the train!!” And in that moment- the train bolted off- deeper into Tokyo. “And- it has my passport in it!” he noted. Well- we were in Japan- and it’s a pretty remarkable place. With cell phones and authorities- they caught the train on its return trip just 5 minutes later. They found the backpack right where Joel had left it. Phew!
So then on to the incredible museum about Edo-Tokyo. Tokyo had a lot of tough things to deal with growing up- like fires and plagues. The museum covered hundreds of years of progress and- we just couldn’t see it all in one day- but we took in as much as we could. Yes- they had swords! It was really fun touring through it all. But wow- we were hungry again. Let’s find a place with soba! Soba is noodles which are made from buckwheat and my home county- Preston County- is famous for its buckwheat. So we had an enjoyable lunch there.
Then we went to Hiro’s shop in Tokyo.
It’s very near the famous Tokyo Skytree- so we went there and window shopped a while until dusk- when they lit the Skytree up.
The Skytree is taaallll!! Everybody looks up to it!
Well- the train ride home to Hiro’s place was less crowded. But the televisions on the train kept explaining how many train stations were being shut down due to flooding because yet another typhoon was landing in the Tokyo area. This one was number 21 for the year! Tomorrow we would fly home and so we had to be packed and ready. But we took some time out for a fun Shabu shabu meal- where you cook various foods in broth and then dip them in delicious sauce and just keep eating as long as you can! Oh- I’m going to miss Japan!
So we got to the airport just a bit early the next day and we spent a few final fun minutes with our friends while we enjoyed excellent coffee and cakes at a fine coffee shop in the airport. Meanwhile- outside -this huge typhoon was settling in- but it wouldn’t be our problem now because it was time to fly.
It would be days until all the jetlag and sweet memories would fade- but we had a stellar time. It was adventurous and interesting and SO Japanese!- and we all came home with a heartful of friendship. This was really a one-of-a-kind trip- so special. I’d like to thank the Squirt Committee in Japan and all my friends for making this incredible trip happen! Even in the face of adversity- we had such a remarkable time. Friends forever!