A mystery move is a convergence of currents and intent- and in our case- cultures. At the core of it, it all comes together.  Our trip to Japan this year was an example of everything coming together beautifully. I had enjoyed the previous meetings I have had with this year’s travel mates- Nate Freier and his girlfriend Susan England but had never spent a lot of time with them- one on one -and was really looking forward to it.

They come from New River country, West Virginia and Nate is a ranger in the National Parks down there. He’s a local to the famous “Halls of Karma” mystery arena and is known for going deep and long- but with an easy hand on his mysteries. Susan works for a health clinic group in Human Resources.

Figure 2 You know you’ve ‘arrived’ when you are greeted with a sign at the airport!

At the airport we got to meet Major Andrea Dover- Hiro’s girlfriend. She is stationed at a nearby Army base and likes to kayak. She is NOT Japanese- but that’s alright because she is very nice.

Our target playspot this year was Akabeko- “Red Bull” -on the Toyogawa (River) in western Honshu. Japanese playspots change every year- so you never know. But we knew we would be in the care of our friends Hiroshi Enomoto, Taiki Sugawara, and Iimura Shuichi and everything would start in the evening as we arrived at “Hiro’s Palace” – his quiet enclave on the side of a hill overlooking the beautiful lake of Sagamiko. After a 13 hour flight from Chicago, showers and a beer and bed were the order of the day. The trick would be to sleep all through the night to help fight off any jetlag.

Day 2

Figure 3 Mitchyo is such a gracious host! She has a really nice space on the hill and enjoys sharing it with friends- even if their Japanese is terrible. She also enjoys camping and fishing and has a ‘trophy’ camper that anyone in the world would love to have

Susan likes to hike or run a lot and Hiro had a nice (steeeeep) trail up the hill behind his house. So- with Iimura as a guide- they took it on for some serious climbing. I stayed behind to relax and read a book. Just before they returned we learned that Hiro’s sweet neighbor, Mitchyo, had invited us down to her house for coffee and treats! So we wandered a few houses down to be immersed in her plentiful hospitality. And wow! Her cute little dog supervised us “gaijin” (strangers) as we wolfed down little personal pizzas and a wide variety of sweet treats. I made crude attempts to speak Japanese and she kindly pretended to understand a bit. It was a peaceful little eddy to enjoy for a while. Later I realized I was about 3 cups of coffee into the day and had hit the ground running. Next stop was the Meiji Jingu- a really ancient shrine and royal gardens.  In the parking lot we saw a child ready for a religious celebration of her becoming three years old.

As soon as we arrived, by luck, we got to witness a wedding going on in the shrine. It was breathtaking- everything so in order- right down to the bride’s immaculate kimono.

The Inner Gardens are where the elites of their time enjoyed the good life. In this case it included a nice tea house and serene Iris Garden.

Check out this masterfully crafted bonsai tree by the tea house:

It was so shuttered from the busy and noisy world that it seemed as if you were way out in the country instead of the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world.
From there we wandered into Takeshita Street where it seemed you could buy any kind of toy.

We learned that the Toyogawa watershed (where the Akabeko spot is) was definitely going to get rain the next day and it may be enough to make the play spot too high for the competition. The back up plans weren’t real solid…..

Day 3 Friday

So- now we get to sample the Redbull spot! It would be a long drive but we would get to stop at Japanese rest stops- which are much more accommodating than American rest stops. There are all kinds of cooked food and souvenirs.   We started getting a bit of rain once we were really into the mountains and we hoped things would work out.

Our common mode of survival is buying food at quick stops- which is much better than you may think. They even have a magazine section!

We arrived at our new parking spot for Akabeko (which was really built for fishermen- very thoughtful) and met up with some zombuddies.

So- it turns out the water was too high- almost. But we were able to make it work with good results. The water wasn’t too cold and was still pretty clear. But rain started in the afternoon and didn’t let up till the middle of the night.

We ate dinner at the local public baths (onsen). The onsens sometimes have hot food available and this one had excellent ‘tonkatsu’ (deep fried pork cutlet- my favorite) AND beer. So life was good and we got to relax a bit more. Did I mention they also had these awesome back rubbing chairs? A dollar for 10 minutes. You can’t beat that.

Lucky for us our campsite had a huge pavilion which we were welcome to set our tents up under- as well as prepare coffee and food. So it was all good. The only worry was this is the same place where –last year- we were invaded by Pokemon Go hunters all night- and then an onrush of hundreds of senior citizens wielding clubs the next morning. But- that was a different time and we had a relatively peaceful night. Oh yeah- except for the massive fireworks around 11. It turns out we were celebrating a fitness holiday with our Japanese hosts and the local town was showing off their exuberance. Yee haw!

The zombie apocalypse begins in Japan.

Day 4 Saturday

The next morning small numbers of senior citizens started showing up and sharing the pavilion with us. We wondered if this would be a repeat of last year’s golf tournament. But it turned out they were just testing our defenses and no Senior Army showed up. Phew!

The man break dancing on the right here is Takeda-san- the sport’s unofficial photographer in Japan. I’d like to thank him and Andrea and Susan and Nate for allowing me to use their images to tell this story!

We moved to a local community building for our initial meeting with everybody. It’s also where we would have our rowdy auction later that evening.

Well- it turned out the river had dropped 3” and was even cleaner and better than the day before. We were in for quite a treat.

This river is full of native trout and Koi. Sometimes when Nate would drop big mysteries you would see small trout leaping into the air to escape the invading zombie. Everyone seemed to be doing very well. Nate was best, of course, setting a timed record of 37 seconds underwater during the training sessions. Everybody was paying attention to how he did things a little differently. He would open the’Realm” gently by swirling in an approach eddy patiently until he was invited into the underworld easily. It worked very well. I might have to try that next time!

That night we returned to the local “onsen” (public bath) and it was my first time to experience ‘electric baths’ -where they have this electrode area on the side of the bath and when you get very near it- you feel the pulse of random shocks being sent into the water. It kind of made your muscles clinch up for a moment. A little late- I asked Hiro if this was safe for people who have had heart attacks. Remembering my heart attack on the way home from Japan 7 years ago, his eyes got big as he said, “I don’t know!” But I had already figured out it was OK- just kidding!

I tried the deep fried chicken this night with excellent udon (noodle) soup with skinny little mushrooms with rice with chestnuts buried in it. Hmmm…..

Then- on to the zombie meeting and auction- which was funny. Lots of tools, toys, and dolls, and such were auctioned off to help pay for my ticket. But- it started with an exceptional performance by Nate dropping expert level hints for how to sink better at Akabeko. He just demonstrated in an unforgettable manner- how to behave in the Realm (“Enter very gently!” John Bell would be proud!). With one hand up and one hand spinning himself slowly- he navigated several tables of zombies.  There was no language barrier with this guy.

The meeting ended memorably as a large box of extra event shirts was opened up and it was deemed that any good loyal zombie should buy one. It took a good while but- one by one- the pack of zombies turned on their victims- marching menacingly towards them with lifted arms and a t-shirt for a donation. In the end- all succumbed – it was – kinda scary!!!

The competition drop spot is not difficult- but it is subtle.

Day 5 Sunday

The day started with the Squirtogether competition- Japan’s championship for mystery moves.

It is done round robin style so you never know who might win.  The initial competitors are selected by the guests of honor- which included Susan and Andrea- doing a *blind* selection of the competitor’s paddles. The pair ups worked really well this year with closely matched sets keeping the crowd entertained. It was especially fun when they included a Masters Championship with old (retired) winners Macy Hayakawa, and Iwase Hideyoshi -and Nate. They would compete just before the finals.

Macy is not only an Original Zombie in Japan he is also a devoted freeclimber.

Yeah- start deep- go deep!

There were several top contenders for the Squirtogether championship.

Last year’s winner Yoshikaze was a clear favorite with his deep cut Slip design.

But there was also a really tough and fit competitor- Ken’san- who is always one of the best and was driving a new Kaze design:

And then perhaps the best of the locals- a dark horse of sorts- was Murusawa-san. He was a quiet guy with a bit of a floaty boat- but he knew how to sink it well and was one of the best in the practices.

Also, greatly improved from last year, Iimura Shuichi was getting deep, calm, and long mysteries in the practice sessions:

Iimura-san is very zombie.

Well- the competition was close. And it was hard to tell who the winner was- as it was kept a secret until the awards ceremony. Nate won the Master’s Championship.

If you stay down long enough you can run the next riffle!

And Murusawa-san won the Squirtogether AND the Most Improved Zombie award. He’s officially a contender from now on. And he will only get better.

Afterwards we retreated to a fine restaurant where you grill your own meat right at the table.





I don’t think insurance companies in America would allow this. Americans just aren’t careful enough. We did fine though. It took a while but we were finally full. It was decided the most fun option for the next day would be an early Akabeko session in the morning and sightseeing on the way home.

Wow- this would be 4 days of fine mystery sessions in just a week- with a lot of touristy stuff thrown in to boot! Susan and Andrea were gracious about having to watch zombies roam in circles for hours on end. And- they didn’t get bit. Well- maybe Andrea- just a little bit….

Susan is no stranger to water herself and got a little SUP time in for fun.

And Andrea proved she was adventurous by sampling a bit of squirt boating. She could already kayak whitewater- but this is more ‘sub’versive.

Day 6 Monday

We got to ride the Red Bull in the morning with many of the zombies who normally would have had to go to work- because it was a national ‘fitness holiday’ celebrating the Tokyo Olympics in 1972. I got to the beach first and in the shallow water I saw large koi with a wry smile promising good calm dips ahead! It was a super session with everyone doing so well. Nate did best of course- but he’s so humble- no one minded.

It was tough to say goodbye to our friends with a wave and a smile- but we had a busy day ahead and they had more playing to do.

How do zombies wave goodbye?

On the drive out we got to see how much the Japanese love their motorcycles. We ran into this dapper chap with a hog and had to ask if a picture was permissible- it was:

And then- there were these guys:

Motorcycle clubs are popular in Japan- in case you didn’t know:

Oh- and here’s some of my favorite invasive species- “Susuki”- I love how it wanders when the wind blows:

And I saw a guy wearing a unique fashion I’ve never seen- but I couldn’t get a picture in time- sorry. But- he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt where the two halves were a different kind of plaid- like this:

It was a cool look! Will we see this in the US someday soon?



Next stop? Let’s try some Okinomiyaki!

Let’s just take a peek at this old shrine…..

We still had a little time before sunset to see another treat. Fuji-san is usually a shy mountain- hiding her head in clouds and her own weather. But- I’ve never see her show off like this before. We arrived just at sunset and got to witness the shadow of the evening racing up the 12,000 foot slopes reclining on our horizon- chasing the bright sunlight away until tomorrow. It took less than 10 minutes. Nate captured this image from a moving van:

We parked and got out and started clicking pictures like a bunch of tourists. In fact dozens of people in the area suddenly alerted just started taking pictures- it was so epic- it left us speechless for a while.   “Wow” was the only word we could come up with- and it wasn’t nearly enough to describe the moment.

So- somehow we slipped from having a super fine day to having this surreal few minutes in front of one of Nature’s wonders. It made me reflect on the wonderous things we get to see in the Realm- like this one with Nate sinking in the New River “Dogma” arena:

And I had a random thought as to how these magic moments bind us together in some way that words can’t capture. It’s a magic thread of sorts.

Oh- but the real world called us out of the dream. We had miles to go before we slept and we had to pack tonight- we would fly tomorrow morning. But- the highways were all quite congested from people coming home from their fitness holidays. Hiro knew a slalom-like old mountain back road where we could beat the traffic and he proceeded to navigate left right left right left right for over an hour in the dark. He was speeding along around 25-30 miles an hour- and – it worked!

We all got packed in very little time and had time for one more ‘must-do’ addition to our Japanese experience- a merry go round sushi bar! It was absolutely jam packed with college students and as loud as a pachinko palace. We set into two booths and started ordering stuff up and grabbing things off the conveyor belt.

Our table was less exciting I think- with one notable exception. Taiki and Iimura often try to expand my tastes. I drank a beer with dinner- and at a weak moment near the end of the meal- Taiki told me I should try this one that looked like custard a bit. He bought one and would let me try a bit first to see if I would like it. He explained it was like ‘caviar for boy fish’. So- brave as ever (read: never) I rushed right in and tried a dollop about the size of a pea – and pretty much hated it. It was mushy and just not oishii to me. On the way home I thought more about what boy caviar could be and I don’t think I’ll try that again. Thanks for trying though guys!

Well- that was a very tasteful and memorable finish to our sweet trip. Everything came together so well- the way a sweet mystery should.

Our flight home was speedy and efficient and I only had to stay awake for 24 hours instead of the usual 30-39 hours. And my jetrag wasn’t too bad. So- I’d say mission accomplished! We had a ball and Nate and Susan got a real taste of Japan and we got along like old sailors (don’t ask..).

We are really appreciative to our Japanese hosts and babysitters.

We had so many amazing moments that just happened spontaneously. I’m really glad to be able to share it with you all.

I’ll just leave this here to sum up the trip- a kind of dynamic peacefulness.
Fuji-san reflecting on the end of the day.