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Report From Japan - 26JE00

I woke up around 10:30 since it was my day off. I had had vague plans to try to get to the Sea of Japan by train, but it was already pretty late. After cleaning up some dead Japanese cockroaches and doing my laundry it was about 12:30. Euan came back from the beach after taking some pictures with his new Spaz-A-Ma-Taztic 600mm Casegrainian Regurgetator Camera. He said there were a couple "sissy-boys splashing each other down at the lake." While you may be surprised to hear I was not to overwhelmed with enthusiasm about the sissy-boys, the mention of the lake did remind me of plan I had been considering for about 8 months. I had bought a small vinyl toy boat. I figured the roughly 30 dollar version would cure me of an urge to get the 400 dollar one, but I suspected inwardly that neither would get much use.

In passing, Euan also mentioned that on his way in he saw 3 high school kids steal my bike. Although it is a crappy bike, I can stand nothing less than the thought of a punk bicycle thief. Having been victimized by such perverts on many occasions in the past, I consider myself a bit of an expert at getting my bike ripped off. Twice in elementary school the sick little scum-bags took from me two successive shiny red "Macho" brand bikes. I was with my best friend who HAD BEEN well on his way to becoming a rock-star or a priest when his PK Ripper was taken by a gang of New Jersey nair-do-wells in a dastardly feat of cunning and mischief. Mike never recovered psychologically, and now he's the guy who picks the cigarette butts out of the urinals in the mall. Not really, but he IS a pro bodybuilder, and to this day he vows vengeance on those wayward thugs. Once in Alaska my $3,600 Mt. Bike was stolen from my girlfriend's house (and no - don't be ridiculous. I didn't pay that much for it. I got it used for 800). Through a complex set of private detective-like schemes, tricks, and luck I was able to get that one back. Here in Japan, my bike was stolen last week. Walking home from work that day, I had the good fortune to find it parked at the train station, and I stole it back from the thief. I do so detest a bicycle thief.

So I walked and Euan rode to the beach. He had his camera, and I had my rubber boat. I joked that if I were a punk with a stolen bike - the first place I'd have gone would be the lake. When we got there, it was easily about the flattest and calmest water I had seen on Biwa-Ko (the lake). The sun was pretty serious at 12:45, so I took my boat under the shade of a tree and began to inflate it. Euan played with his camera, and pointed out a gang of 10 splashing sissy-boys gallivanting in the water, touching themselves, and smoking cigarettes near my parked stolen bicycle on the sand. "Revenge!" I cried pointing my air pump at the little mob. "I shall smite thee in the waters of the 3rd oldest lake in the world, and ye shall know centuries of agony in her icy depths!" Actually the lake isn't that deep. Oh yeah and what I really said was, "Hey Euan, would you pass me that hosey-deal part of the air pump." We played it cool until a few of the punks - satiated with touching themselves - prepared for departure and one took to loading HIS shit in MY basket. Well I could take no more. A few swift steps, the word for "excuse me" in Japanese, and a whack in the ass with my plastic paddle got him engaged in a suitable conversation. He was a bit of a deer in headlights as I flogged him gracefully about the ass and torso in an act of feigned toughness. I yelled at him with all the popular movie expletives, some in Portuguese, and a couple I made up. His 9 friends looked on in shock - some trembling at the mere sight of my massive biceps (or possibly just dancing - a few had headphones on). Anyway the three got super polite like, "oh I'm sorry," and then walked off with their heads down. Sadly, I only felt bad for embarrassing the witless little pricks. Maybe there is no such thing as revenge.

I launched my boat a little bit north as I figured any wind that might pick up would come from there. Take-Shima ("TOCK-eh-SHEE-ma:" the island goal of my adventure) was barely visible through the summer haze over the lake. The sun fired down at me, and after a half hour of rowing, I knew that I should have put sunscreen on parts of my back and legs I had neglected. At least I got my head, shoulders and neck, and I wore a gray bandanna in true pirate fashion over my bald head. Harrrr! I could still see people on the beach and even what I believed was my bicycle - abandoned since the encounter there. The increments of observable change were almost undetectable after that first half hour. The rowing was hard, the boat was slow, and I struggled to find a decent position in which to sit. The beach seemed to stay at the same distance for hours. Occasionally looking over my shoulder I estimated that with each two strokes of my oars, the island retreated one stroke farther away from me. Nothing changed. I thought about the fact that I had had nothing to eat or drink before I left in the morning. I was hot and tired. Sometimes my form would deteriorate into a lazy slouch until I could feel a rash developing near my elbows where my arms rubbed the vinyl gunwales. Other times I would slip and bang the oars together or my hands into each other - occasionally cutting the knuckles of one hand with the thumbnail of the other. As I became more tired, I looked more often over the bow of my toy boat towards Take-Shima, and each time she seemed to punish me by taking another step away. I had hoped the hazy silhouette of the gray-green island would have shown more definition by then. But the sun was always behind her, forcing me to squint for even the most undefined details. Sometimes I felt an ominous forbidding vibe encouraging abortion of the whole project. Take-Shima has been an enigma ever since I first noticed her. When I ask the local people, they never seem to know anything. Occasionally one will say he's been there but after discussion it is always discovered that he thought we were talking about Chikubu-Shima the larger island, complete with ferry service and shopping area. In fact, in my nine months in Japan, I have never met anyone who's claimed to have been there. Is there a landable shore? From the mainland with a long lens, she seems to have rocky cliffs on every side. What about animals? What or who will I find there? After an hour and a half rowing, I was in the habit of taking frequent breaks, and another of looking far too often over my shoulder in search of some evidence of progress. The water was far flatter, quieter and "nothingfull" than I imagined it could be. Sometimes I would row across a definite line between very flat calmness and eerie formlessness. In these areas where the water was black and as smooth as a table-top, I pushed the boat sluggishly over the silence, the emptiness: It seemed the universe was a clock between tick and tock. I was a figure suspended in black nothing completely alone and outside of space and time. A toy boat, a pair of oars, a pair of shorts, and a fledgling sunburn drifting in a dream. These nothing places usually lasted for only a few minutes I thought, but my exhaustion may be impairing my perception of everything.

When time starts again, it and the sounds around me are the only things that seem to define my position. At first, the sounds of the city were a collage of noise, each indistinguishable from the others. But as I drew away from the World, the individual fragments were perceptible. First I noticed the sounds of people yelling, loudspeakers, construction, and the highway. Later the people dropped out, then the speakers, then the highway, and finally the clanging crashing of heavy equipment. Beyond all the sounds from the shore, I was left with only my own sounds: the rhythmic splashing of the plastic oars, the creaking of the flexing boat, my breathing. When I took breaks in this area, the silence was the most complete I can ever remember not hearing. A distant circling bird seemed to try to communicate with me as I distinguished both the sound of air over between its feathers and of its high-pitched rapid bird-breaths. I forced myself to break only at 15 minute intervals and to not look islandward between rests. In the most exhausted and silent times, I took to singing in order to sustain a reasonable pace, and to ward off the evil spirits that seem so comfortable hanging about in those moments. When, I had sung all the sailor songs I knew, I settled on a rather extended version of Pick-A-Bail-O'-Cotton.

I often find that confidence works best when it's all you've got. I mean yeah - it's scary. There's no one within miles of me in any direction. I'm hot as hell and I haven't had anything to eat or drink since yesterday. The island looks the same as ever - a gray blur in the distance. By now, the mainland has developed it's own distant gray haziness too. If I spring a leak or drop an oar, I'll be here over night (or possibly forever). But something tells me to relax. I'll get there alright. By now, Take-Shima is closer than the mainland. I doubt my ability to return to the beach at this point. But there's something magical about tests like these. How is it that I can find my way in strange cities? How did I find my stolen bike so easily? After six months without a word between us, I recently emailed a friend on the exact night she emailed me. Ever since I spent three days fasting in the Alaskan mountains years ago, I have felt a certain connection with nature and a certain guidance from it. I know that sounds flakey, but what do you want? Quit reading me. My mother has always had a spooky habit of using bizarre vocabulary words in her conversations moments before the nearby radio or TV repeats them. My father, brother and I like to make fun and pretend it's no big deal, but the truth is I've never met anyone else with the "ability." She also likes to read palms using a technique so unscientific - even unparascientific, its best English nomenclature would have to be "bullshitting." Nevertheless, she has "accidentally" predicted marriages, accidents, deaths, winnings and losses. She always tells people something surprising but true. It's pleasantly disturbing. So yeah I guess I have a pretty big flakey/magical side. In times when I have no other tools, this is the stuff that really gets me by. Something has to. It's the island or a watery grave. Harrr!

And that brings us, you and I, to right here and right now. This morning seems so long ago. I remember the childish events on the beach like they were a year ago, yet only three hours have passed. After each of my last two 15 minute rowing cycles I finally advanced satisfactorily on the island. Now I can hear a variety of sounds from the island. Water is lapping gently against the rocks, and the echo of water-birds, crows, and at least one eagle are bouncing back and forth among the little cliffs. There is a low droning hum which has increased steadily in volume over the last 20 minutes although I can't say for sure that it's from the island. Another sound is a little scary. A clicking rhythm that sounds like claves (wooden hand percussion instruments), but not rhythmic enough to be what humans would consider musical. It's too slow to be a woodpecker and too loud to be bamboo or trees knocking against each other - especially since that would require at least some small breeze. I can see what appears to be some kind of dock and maybe a beach. There is a tall Washington Monument shaped monolith reaching skyward as Take-Shima's highest point. These last 20 minutes are among the longest as I revert back to my bad habit of looking ahead at 2 and 3 minute intervals. I aim for what I think is the beach, but I soon discover it is a chained off metal structure with Japanese warning signs I cant read. I finally contact a rocky bit on the south side too high and sharp to land on. I reach out with my hand to try to keep my fragile boat away from the jagged edges. I glance down and see that the water is clear here. I can easily spot schools of light gray fish near the bottom at about 5 meters. Carefully, I follow the rocky banks on the east side north to the metal "dock." An old rope drapes from the dock into the water and is home to a variety of green and brown algae. With no other option, I guess I'll tie that to what I kid myself is my "main halyard" - actually a bit of nylon twine the length of my forearm looped through a plastic eye. Trying to maneuver out of the boat and between various metal bars, I get a thick spider web across my face, and I do that thing you do when you fear a big creepy bug is on you but you don't know exactly where. I do it silently though as I have become confident that there is someone else one the island. The droning noise is gone now, but the calve sound is accompanied by what I suspect is a man chanting. All of my barefoot steps are tip-toe. I am mindful not to crunch any leaves or small stones as I climb the small trail toward the sound. My approach gives no warning of my presence. I don't want to be discovered yet, so my fear is that my silence will end when I accidentally startle someone. I am the Great Pirate Ninja of Matsubara Beach. This is a foreign place entirely. Bamboo, and colorful plants and flowers. Ducks splashing down and quacking in the distance. I can make out a building between the trees at the top of the trail, and I suspect the sound is coming from there. Am I even allowed to be here? Are there guards? I try to be even more quiet and slow as I approach. An eagle flies by and screams to remind me that I am not really the Great Pirate Ninja of Matsubara Beach. I hear no reaction from upwards as I take cover behind a boulder near the building. It's a temple and a glass window obscures my view of the chanting, calve clicking, swaying man inside. I venture into the open space in front of the temple from where I can occasionally catch a glimpse of the back of his head. If I WAS a ninja, he'd be in trouble. I leave him to it for a while and check out the only other trail accessible from behind his view. It leads to another dock. I guess they were both necessary in order to unload the materials and equipment used to build the temple and the monument. It's almost 4:30 so even if I leave right now, I'll have to row for at least an hour after the sun sets at 7. Back in front of the building, I find myself wishing he WOULD notice me. I sure could use some water, and I have to leave again. I get brave and walk up close to the building, but I guess when monks get into their groove, there's no shaking 'em. I climb a ladder near the first dock which I am certainly not allowed to. It leads up the steep side of the island, and at the top, I find I have bypassed the chanting monk's view. Now I can see the monument and the old stone path leading up to it. In the other direction, I walk along a short path to a few cliff-top views of the lake. From each I can see a variety of wildlife, and from one the sun getting ready for it's daily dive. The chanting stops while I look out over the west side of the Lake. A minute later I sense him coming down the path towards me. He still doesn't know I'm there, so I use my most gentle polite voice to greet him before the sight of my bare chest and massive biceps does. Stopped in his tracks she is at the moment I notice he is a woman - or at least tasteful a mixture of the sexes dressed in a suitably androgynous white yukata robe. Our conversation is based primarily on gestures and facial expressions. After "excuse me," I have used up 50% of my Japanese vocabulary. She eyes me up now and asks for 200 yen before she continues on down the trail. She wants to know how I got here, and I make the rowing gesture. I take her general demeanor to be rather Yoda-like. She walks on past me and sees my boat from a look-out She laughs a sentence containing the Japanese word for "rubber" (another 25% slips by). She will smile for the rest of our time together. It is as if she has taken all the tools from my duffel bag, tossed them around - and satisfied herself with my patience. We discuss my trip, the time it took, and my need to get rowing again in order to catch the last hours of daylight. I use the remaining 25% of my vocabulary to ask for some water. It becomes a complicated conversation, but in the end she gives me a small cup of tea made from deep lake water. She seems to really want me to know about the water. She's giving me the tea, and the tea is giving me something very deep. I don't understand, but she laughs. As I drink, she tells me she has been there for five hundred years, and I come to understand that she IS Yoda (or she and Yoda are both Buddha). She smiles. I thank her, do a little praying hands bow gesture and scamper down to my boat. Five minutes into the rowing, she comes down onto the dock - a white glowing figure in the distance, and waves with both hands. I can't see her face clearly, but she is smiling.

[Could the bizarre transformations in tenses have been intentional, or had GW had his fill of English grammar? Unless you had known him years ago, you might suspect he doesn't know the difference between past and present.]

I hoped the tea was as fancy as she seemed to say. The row home put the sun low in the sky and directly in front of my face. I tried squinting. I tried folding my bandanna in such a way as to make a little brim. Nothing really worked. This was the worst kind of light in the face you could get. The good news was that if I kept rowing, the ripples in my wake reduced the glare from the sun's reflection in the mirror-like water. I was as hot as ever and after several attempts to use my bandanna to get my self cool with lake water, I said screw it and man overboarded. I held my main halyard in one hand and swam for a few minutes with the boat in tow. I got a little cooler in the process and after a few minutes, I looked at my watch. Suddenly speed was important again. Hey and guess what, I couldn't get back in the boat. I turned it over trying. I swam with it a little more and thought about some creative ways to get back in. One worked, but afterwards I had to spend a few minutes bailing with cupped hands. At around a quarter to six the insects came out. By "out" I mean, they began to mistake me for their version of an aircraft carrier. They didn't bite though so I didn't take much time off to play with them. Did I say a quarter after six? Bad news - 45 minutes till sundown, and I reckoned I was only about a third of the way home. I thought a nice wind would sure help. Five minutes later, a wind came from the Northwest. How flakey am I now Fruitcake? It sure helped, but not enough. The insects near the surface of the water apparently bring the fish to the surface too. Fish near the surface of the water, apparently bring out the Japanese commercial fishing boats. They came out in like an armada. They just go around in circles and back and forth and figure eights, and they speed up then they slow down. At one point, there were four of them all coming right for me from different directions. Was I scared? Hellllll no. But I was tired and a few times, I had to put up a visible effort to get out of the way. They all had big scooping nets on their bows that they could dip into the lake at a second's notice. I imagined a sinister captain could scoop me up if he wanted. Generally they slowed down when they got near me, and since they would all be starring at me anyway, I sometimes forced them to give me that awkward reciprocal wave. I have to admit that while some of them were fun to have around, they did interrupt a beautiful rendition of "Popeye the Sailor Man." It was nearly seven when I realized I would soon be navigating by stars if I didn't pull off something pretty clever (and foolishly I left my sextant at home). So once again I called on my powers of flakey magic (renewed by Magic Yoda Tea) and willed one of the fishing boats to approach from starboard and offer me a ride. Although when I imagined it happening before hand there was a lot less confusion on THEIR part, the communication was a piece of cake for me. I think they were just a bit surprised that I knew exactly what they were saying WITHOUT having any idea what their words meant.

Them: Blah, blah, blah?
Me: Matsubara-Cho (the name of my home - the beach I came from).
Them: Blah, blah, blah?
Me: Ikimasho ("let's go").
Them: Blah, blah, blah.
Me: Okay.

I rowed up to their gunwale and climbed aboard. Big Guy plucked my silly little boat out of the water and the engine was at full scream ahead. We had a good conversation in the way dogs have good conversations with television sets, and in five minutes I was 2 hours closer to the beach. They dropped me just inside the swimming area, and I rowed the rest of the way in another 3 minutes.

Some of the locals at the beach saw me coming in and since they've all been listening to my plan for months, they knew where I had been. They gave me a hero's welcome. There were lots of questions and since a couple guys were helping me deflate the S.S. Take-Shima Express, I told the tale I am now telling you - but in about six words. They came from miles around (real life: they came from about fifty feet away) to see my exciting sunburned back and here me say, "Take-Shima," and "one o'clock," and "three and a half hours one way."

My bike was still at the beach unscathed by the rughians of the morning. I threw my disassembled oars in the basket, boat over my shoulder and pedaled home.

Later, after I rollerbladed back from the little joint on the beach where I often have dinner, I discovered that my bike had once again been the victim of foul-play. But this time, I had the power of the Magic Tea on my side. I chose what seemed like a random direction and walked for 5 minutes. I walked up the driveway of a building I had never been to and looked in the bike racks I had envisioned there. Oh poor victimized bike. The basket had been stolen and the right brake lever was dangling on its cable. What would the Priestess of Take-Shima do? I laughed. In another 5 minutes, I had made all possible repairs and replacements with my Leatherman tool and parts from "around." I went off to rent a video. I smiled. I'm still smiling.

And in response to the frequently asked questions about my Stateside return... I plan to finnish my teaching contract here about a week before my next one starts in Antarctica. That puts me back in New Jersey for about a week at the end of September/beginning of October. After Antarctica? I don't know. Why don't you tell me.

Send YOUR questions or comments to me at kuwona@bigfoot.com



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