Japan has SO much to offer the casual tourist- perfect Tonkatsu (deep fried pork filets), Udon and Ramen soups, even earthquakes, volcanoes, and typhoons! What would we sample this year??
Just past the island is where is all comes together.
“Casual” does not really capture the spirit of our mission though. We were specifically hunting the “Red Bull”- one of Japan’s premier mystery move arenas set deep in a steep quiet gorge with impressive bedrock outcroppings, lots of tiny ‘baby doll head’ rocks, and loaded with trout and bigger fishies too. It was the site of this year’s “Squirtogether”- Japan’s mystery move championship for the Jim Snyder Cup. This year’s bigger fishies included about 25 Japanese ‘zombie’ friends (including last year’s
Squirtogether champion Ken-san) and two specialists in the sport from the UK- Tom “Maverick” Bailey and Ben White.
I ‘ve known Tom for years and he is one of Europe’s best mystery artists- going out in all kinds of weather and water to chase bubbles to his heart’s content. He’s even visited my place in West Virginia and rode the famous Fascination Alley mystery arena- oh- at night- a very, very dark night. Yeah- it’s hard to explain- but the Realm takes all comers.
And Ben is a “product designer” working near Shanghai, China for a while (think engineer with many “Missions Possible”). He’s been deeply embedded in the European whitewater scene for decades as a designer, coach, and player. They were both fine travel mates with that dry Brit wit (I can’t tell most of the jokes…). And the Japanese were all old friends to me. So- the stoke was high!
First there were challenges. It’s getting harder and harder to fly with kayaks and I wanted to introduce my new design, the Kaze, to my Japanese friends. “Kaze” is the Japanese word for ‘wind’- but the design was named for Yoshikaze Kimura-san who has the first uber dense chopped squirt kayak in Japan- a Murky Waters Slip that’s 7” deep at the knees. My goal with this design was to create a boat that was comfortable AND sat with the top of your knees 7” underwater so you could become one with the wind in the underwhirled we call the Realm. I worked for hundreds of hours from early May to get it done in time and made the schedule work with 10 hrs. to spare! All the custom ‘chopped’ boats would arrive in time and unharmed- a key issue for top boaters where even 1/8” sizing difference can have noticeable performance effects. Oh- and before I get too far…the competition place’s name (Red Bull~ “Akabeko”) originated because the spot’s discoverer also found an empty Red Bull can on shore. More about that later.
So we all arrive the same day and get to meet our team of hosts and friends- Hiro Enomoto, Taiki Sugawara (who travelled over 30 hrs. from Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido to be with us- he is Japan’s “chopmeister”- one of the world’s few squirt boat sizing masters.), and Iimura Soichi- a gifted chiropractor who could erase the many hours we spent ‘in the box’ to get to our vacation. We all showed up at different times and places but finally got together at a nice small restaurant in the late day to settle in to our new world- it was SO Japanese! Before long we would head to our hosts palace high on a hill overseeing the peaceful Sagamiko lake.
Hiro’s ‘palace’ has seen dozens of ‘gaijin’ pass through over the years.
The next morning we received our first big treat of the trip- one that I had been very much looking forward to- a visit to Hiro’s neighbor, Michyo’s private coffee café.
We sat on her porch overlooking the lake with a quiet breeze finding its way among us and Michyo’s curious little dog MoMo smelling the strange ‘gaijin’ (us). And she served delicious treats like whipped cream filled ‘okashi’- little baby folded pancakes(on the right in the picture)- as well as pizza! And perfect coffee of course!
Momo thinks Iimura-san is a good guy. She is so smart!
The time passed with casual conversation- me trying my Japanese a little bit. Michyo showed us a link where she had been featured on a TV show in Japan talking about her sweet camper. She is still an adventurer! It was so pleasant. The friends.. the coffee..the treats… It was a *moment*. What a great gift to our trip. But finally- it was time to go. We had missions for the day…
My core mission was to help Taiki and Hiro get a good custom chop of Hiro’s new “Kaze” squirt design which I had recently shipped to Japan. It would take a many-hour process to custom fit the boat for comfort and performance. Our goal was to get him a good squirt boat that rested with the deck about 6” or more underwater. That would be hugely boring for our Brit friends- so Iimura volunteered to take them to the nearby Mt. Fuji area to see cool things. Ben captured this memorable image that underlined how much the weather would play into our trip.:
And Ben also captured this awesome bridge for you:
Oh- and this trifle- so Japanese:
Ultimately- after a lot of grinding
and fitting and testing- Hiro had a slinky new boat that Taiki would take home
to Sapporo to do the extensive seaming operation.
Very relaxed…. This is with just duct tape for outside seams!
Hiro also bought the first KOR design in Japan. He likes the new stuff. Then we all grouped up again and had lunch at a nearby Chinese/Japanese restaurant- soon becoming one of my favorite! Ben turned us on to fried and boiled versions of delicious Chinese dumplings he discovered in China.
Thursday we hit the road to explore old mystery spots that we’d heard were too high from recent rains. We’d also heard our Squirtogether site- Akabeko- was almost too high and they predicted rain for the area. We always played that place at low water- and now it had a lot more water. We weren’t sure how it would work out. This is a common thing in Japan where the mystery spots change nearly every year.
Last year’s venue- Nijimasu- was NOT happening. It occurs where a small tributary from a wasabi farm hits a much larger river. Both streams were too high- but at least we got to see the spot.
The nearby wasabi farm was an interesting and well-groomed detour. They grow in the shade in carefully controlled shallow gravel beds with a clean stream running through
That night we stayed in cute cottages way on top of a nearby crest- with cool breezes running up all sides of the mountains to the delight of the soaring Tombi (kites- predatory birds). They had even built an impressive launch for paragliders on this hilltop:
The launch ramp is just below this ‘sky hook’. Our mystery spots and wasabi farm were near the woods by the river.
The next morning we would go for Akabeko- the competition site. Although it was high water and raining in the watershed- the local expert Marcy said it would go.
Well- it turns out the water WAS quite a bit higher than I’d ever seen it- by a couple feet. Normally we hike down a steep fisherman’s trail and then walk down a shallow rapid to the staging island for the mystery sessions. But with the water so high- I didn’t feel really good about walking in swift water over knee deep above a bumpy looking riffle.
One slipped step and it could be quite a yard sale- and me with no lifejacket. I decided I’d rather try to paddle to the island inside my boat -even though the ferry move I had to start with was really hard looking. I had to get in my boat about 4’ up on the bank and slide down the hill into the riffle and start back ferrying right away- then I had to do a dicey maneuver between a couple rocks and then go as hard as possible to get to the ‘safe water’ that lead to the top of the island and NOT into the riffle going around the right side of the island. It wasn’t bad whitewater- but I was concerned because the highest point on the deck of my boat sits 7” under water- it’s very dense. Oh- and I was wearing a cumbersome canvas backpack full of the gear I needed for the session- and I was just wearing my small hand paddles- not a lot to go on.
Well- it didn’t go well. I shot off the hill fine and got into a prompt hard back ferry- made the move between the rocks, spun fast and started paddling forward and I almost got to the safe water- but then suddenly violently pinned- about chest deep in the swift cold water. Iimura had been watching for me and started running out into the rapid to save me at that point. But I quickly shook off that pin and then suddenly pinned hard again- my boat’s about as big as a surfboard. I broke off that pin but was committed to running the right side of the island- a rapid I couldn’t scout from my starting point- and I suddenly felt tired and somewhat- well- befuddled… and about to wreck. Then suddenly Iimura appeared in knee deep water and grabbed me and asked if I wanted to go to the island or run the rapid. I opted for shore. It would take me a couple more hours to get the *bad adrenaline* out of my system. I felt like a red bull in a china closet. But the hypoxic hydrotherapy worked on helping me relax over the next few hours. And it turned out Iimura would end up rescuing me like that about 4 more times throughout the day.
So- right off the bat Tom finds a mystery spot that was – quite unlikely- virtually invisible.
Tom claims he saw a wrinkle in the currents that allowed him in. And he went on to drop a couple dozen mysteries there- as could Ben (not me). We went on to call it TBT (Tom Bailey Terminal) as he hovered there a lot.
Tom and Ben dropped tandem a bit- but no one got hurt.
The only problem with the spot is that the currents were so fast that is you went much over 10 or 12 seconds (actually Ben went 17 a few times)- you would get pulled
past the eddy that brought you back to shore and you’d have to run the next riffle and then walk back up. So- it was like a cardio workout too! So- Iimura is always looking for a way to be helpful and was able to run into knee deep waters and do a last minute save for at least a dozen misguided zombies- including 4 more rescues of me. Thanks Iimura!; While we were dropping Hiro and Marcy cut a new trail straight down the river left side so we had safe access from that point on. It was kind of through a neighbor’s backyard and garden- but they were all cool with that because good old Sue-san had talked with them earlier and gotten permission.
That night was rainy and we were camping and had yet to set up our tents- not looking forward to that. But we were pleasantly surprised to find we would be able to set up our tents under a huge pavilion as long as we had them down by early morning. Everything was good. Or- so we thought.
So- the pavilion was next to a huge gravel parking lot and it turns out there must have been a rumor that there was a monster in the parking lot – a dreaded Pokemonster. Seems there’s a popular game called Pokemon Go…. All I know is that every hour of the night-2:00/3:00/4:00 etc. ad nauseum- we had monster hunters showing up- presumably to keep us safe. Early the next morning we could see it was also a family affair- with entire families coming to scan the area with their phones. But – by then we had more to worry about than monster hunters….
Not long after we dropped and packed our tents in the early morning hours :
A bit past 7:30 in the morning in the midst of a gentle and peaceful rain. We are surrounded by cherry trees which become a popular tourist attraction when they bloom in
the spring. We are waiting for the Squirtogether competitors and feel pretty good about the Pokemonster threat by now.
– and then- the invasion began. We weren’t sure what to make of it at first and it took us a good while to figure out what was happening. The parking lot began to fill and an army of senior citizens with big hammers started flocking to our pavilion. It was clear they wanted to take it over.
Not suuure what to make of this……
They started claiming land by laying down a plastic tarp and then gathering on it in teams of maybe 5 or 6. They started unsheathing their long hammers from the expensive looking carrying cases they were in.
These guys are packing hammers! Must be hammer time! We start staking out our tarp rights!
Every time one of us got up from a bench or moved our equipment- the seniors would quickly flood to the spot and claim more area with their ‘tarp rights’. We felt a bit- unwelcome- although no harsh words were spoken- their agenda was clear. Thanks to our quick thinking zombie leaders we made a final stake out by laying down our own tarp and claiming a small piece of valued real estate under the pavilion. We were staging the Squirtogether from this site and we actually did need the space.
Then- at a critical moment- the small armies started gathering and talking amongst themselves and they resolutely unsheathed all their hammers and quietly started
marching… towards the gigantic parking lot next door to this place. Seems they were having a sort of croquet championship. Phew- no hard feelings! Our Japanese hosts told us it was a form of hockey and I instructed them that “No- hockey is a game you play on ice with a “puck”- very different- this is more like CROQUET.” I even spelled it for them. They answered- “No- it’s hockey.” So there you go- we learned something.
Soon enough- the zombies gathered- even Motoko Ishida- a champion who has won so many times that she was forced to retire- and owner of many international medals- and chief instructor at the “Sweet Paddle” kayak school. She shared a great day of play with us.
Miyu-chan came all the way from Hokkaido. She is a free heel skiing expert and instructor there.
The level was a bit lower and the eddy was easier to catch. The spot was a little tricky- hard to locate the exact drop spot- but then the underwater ride was sublime with crystalline water and loads of bubbles and small trout. We all enjoyed watching Miyu-chan improve as the day went by. The conditions were excellent but not easy so it was a perfect challenge for beginners and experts alike.
Saturday night we enjoyed at an ‘onsen” (heated public baths).
And they have these niiiice massage chairs… I think dentists in the US should consider getting these. Don’t I look like dentist bait?
That evening we all met at a community building and Ben and Tom shared some of their *deep* knowledge of the mystery world.
But after about a half hour the beer and saki was having it’s effect and we could hear the kids in the back of the class laughing and joking around.
So- it was time for the AUCTION! This year’s auction featured cool fun stuff like drybags, toys and shirts, Kevlar gloves, hill climbing crampons and a new Kaze kayak!
Yeah- last year’s winner Ken-san has a new Kaze! He is going to be SO hard to beat now.
So yeah- the Pokemonster hunters haunted our parking lot all night again. I hope this fad passes soon.
Ben reflects on Miyu-chan’s chance to become a champion zombie today. He decided conditions were favorable.
Sunday the competition began as always- where the gaijin (us) pick a pair of paddles from a group laying on the ground- to create a randomized head-to-head competition. The trick for us is to try to avoid pairing top experts early in the competition so the best can make it to the finals. I started things off quite wrong by pairing off possibly the top two competitors. Oops! My bad! Sorry Ken-san! As the competition evolved- Yoshikaze Kimura-san (“Young Gun”) slowly but certainly closed his grip on the
win riding his uber low Slip. He had been waiting for this win for a few years. It won’t be his last. And Miyu-chan became the woman’s champion by getting some really fun looking mysteries!
The Squirtogether was a deeply fun gathering of the zombie family in Japan. The future points to major showdowns between Ken-san and Young Gun in future competitions. That will be fun to watch. One is like a bull- the other like a matador.
Before pointing our noses home we find out typhoon season isn’t over yet and one promises to pass near Tokyo and may alter our flight schedule and Taiki’s scheduled ferry boat ride home! Hmmm…. Change is constant….
So- we have a nice drive home to Hiro’s palace and are really looking forward to Monday’s fun of touring Tokyo- including the fish market (on a ‘mild’ day) and the Senso ji shrine. Let’s take a look at some of what we saw:
Tiny booths, lots of food, lots of people… I felt kind of far from Preston County at this point…
Behold the Tsukiji Hongwanji!
And then- this oasis of peace and calm- a Buddhist temple. Inside were pews and a young man singing beautiful chants from the heart. So pure…
We were glad to be joined by our friend Yoshi. A very calm and smart guy- perfect for navigating hectic Tokyo!
Wow- a pipe organ inside- can you imagine when that is going off?
The young man kneeling in the front was singing to the altar. We enjoyed sharing his peacefulness and sense of purpose.
Let’s take a quick stop at the Senso-ji Temple!
Looks like we found a model citizen! No- not Ben.
We’re not dressed well enough to duck into this kabuki theater.
This look takes a lot of mirror time.
THIS is a well-dressed couple!
My first look at one of those ‘cube hotels’ I have heard about.
And then the REAL treat of the day -a visit to the Hama-rikyu Gardens and tea house where we enjoyed sweet okashi and matcha tea and got to meet our old friend Aya-chan and her new son Rio.
A peaceful moment deep in the heart of Tokyo.
Maybe two of the most beautiful people in the world. So glad to know them (hubby Masao-san too!)
Okay- this part of the trip always goes fast- so that was our last peaceful moments- but the fun wasn’t over. Scan these next pics fast to get the proper feel for the trip:
Tokyo seems peaceful from the river.
Japan’s architects really have a lot of fun.
Yeah- that would be $95 thank you!
A famous old knife maker. Look at all those chef endorsements!
Not toooo weird… right??
Could this be one of those Pokemonsters? I don’t think so.
Let’s take a
little time out to appreciate some bonsai.
And maybe time for a brief lesson on sharpening and cutting? This is the expert at Tower Knives.
While driving for many hours in downtown Tokyo- by the Japanese White House and the site of an ancient fort- in the deepest part of downtown- Hiro pointed out how Tokyo drivers ‘drive gently’ and it really works. I can confirm that from what I saw. Everyone drives- ‘gently’. Not very American- but it works!
Our last night in Hiro’s palace we enjoyed some beers and conversation about how terrible the Japanese names for mystery spots are. Not scary at all! Should be like ‘The Undertaker” and “Subway”. But they use names like Red Bull, JB, or Borobus (Broken Bus)- named after things found on shore nearby. Tom pointed out that the Brit names are not very macho either. But then Tom and Ben started pointing out how truly scary the American mystery spot names are- places like the Bubbler, the Halls, the Alley, Cowbells, even Smoothie. I guess mystery moves just aren’t all that scary after all.
By the time we were fondly remembering the pure fun of riding the Red Bull- it was time to board our respective planes home. Wow- these trips end fast- but create lasting memories.
This would be a move called a “Loop” I believe. Looks like Ben- right?
Yes- Ben made it all the way to the bottom of the river- on purpose.
Can it really be over so soon? Wave goodbye!
Thanks for sharing our visit! Tom and Ben were a lot of fun to be with and I hope to see them again. So- until next time- sayonara!