Last week I arrived in Japan for the Greenland Users Trial Stages (GUTS). This was my first trip to Japan, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From my home in California it took two flights to Narita airport, where I met up with Wayne and Mel Hanley, a couple coming from Australia to participate in the event. We hopped on a train, and then another train and made our way up the entire east coast of Japan to Hachinohe, where we were picked up and taken to a school where we’d be staying for the week. The school has been closed for its original purpose for seven years and now serves as an outdoor school and a place for people to stay during events. I was told that I was staying in the “principal’s office.” The gym was a great place for drying gear and performing paddle tricks. Another room was primarily used for building skin-on-frame kayaks.
The following day we explored the local area, checking out the Misawa Aviation and Science Museum in Aomori, and I experienced my first onsen, or bath house, and absolutely loved it. The baths resemble hot springs, and I tried all of them, which ranged in temperature from very hot to very cold. Some had jets, and some had electricity, which moved through the water creating tingly sensations on the skin. We visited Tree Side Slow Base, a group of stores sharing a large building. Amongst the stores is Outdoorbox River Runs, an outdoor store owned by Takuma Togawa, one of the organizers of the event. There are several tree houses in the forest behind. Each serves a purpose, whether it be a tea room, a room for bathing or even a “ninja room.”
We then visited the site for the rolling competition that would be held on Sunday. It was also one of the disaster sites of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Seeing the damage in this area, which is far away from the epicenter of that devastating disaster, stirred up feelings in me that are difficult to put into words. Seeing damage on the television in America is very different from standing in front of broken buildings, garages bent from powerful waves and a stack of destroyed boats waiting to be turned into scrap metal. I felt a shudder go up my spine as I looked around me, seeing where powerful surges had knocked down wall after wall. Throughout the week I experienced four earthquakes. The first occurred in the night, and I jumped up, waking others, to be told that aftershocks and other earthquakes are a daily event in Japan. Living in California, I am familiar with earthquakes, but experiencing them on this frequency was very new to me. I am writing this from a train on my way back to the airport, and even now as I glance out of the window I can see piles of rubble and damaged houses in an area much closer to the epicenter than where I have been for the past week. GUTS 2011 was a charity event that was raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross for the earthquake and tsunami victims, and being here it is clear to see that much help is needed in the recovery efforts.
Later that day, Eiichi Ito, president of Qajaq Japan and organizer of the event, arrived. A translator named Natalie Kruckenberg also arrived, and her and I chatted about plans for the coming days.
On Saturday the event started at the lake. Kayaks lined the beach, and I tried several different kinds of Qaanaaq kayaks, a brand that is not available outside of Japan. After a morning of rolling practice, formal instruction began. No matter what the skill level, everyone would be competing in teams the following day. The teams were picked by a lottery, and everyone on the team needed to perform the rolls successfully for the team to receive points, so I worked with the groups on the rolls that they would be performing. Every team was to attempt side sculling, the standard roll and the storm roll, while the last two rolls performed were picked in a lottery. Teams were given either the armpit roll, crook of arm roll or reverse sweep and the forward to back brick roll, a spine norsaq roll or the elbow roll. The evening was filled with presentations.
Sunday’s weather prevented kayaking in the morning, so I ran an on-land class in the school gymnasium which included paddle tricks and a discussion about weather, conditions and incident management, as well as a final discussion of the technique involved for each of the rolls in the competition that was set for the afternoon. I also did a second slideshow presentation. The group then headed to the beach for lunch followed by the competition, which I judged. It was wonderful to see people trying rolls that they had just learned, and spirits were high as one group after the next competed. That evening awards and trophies were presented, with the team of Eiichi and Mel taking the trophy.
On Monday we went sightseeing, and enjoyed looking at the beautiful landscape, a pyramid and a place called Christ’s Grave, which seems to have a lot of stories behind it. We also went to a Shinto Shrine, and I participated in the standard ritual of those visiting a shrine, which includes walking up stairs to the shrine and washing the hands and mouth before offering a donation.
Tuesday’s activities included paddling on Lake Towada, a lake in the crater of a volcano. We paddled across, checking out the gorgeous surroundings and playing amongst overhanging trees at the water’s edge. We had lunch at a tasty ramen restaurant and visited a very old (and beautiful) onsen.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about my visit to Japan was trying all of the food. Throughout the week I experienced a fish market, which sells not only fish, but all types of other meat as well. We selected our meat and then headed to the barbecue (which is located in the fish market) to cook it up. We also went to a trout farm and saw the various stages of trout, as well as checking out stumps that were covered in shitake mushrooms waiting to be harvested. Other culinary delights throughout the week included a wonderful traditional restaurant with all kinds of Japanese food such as sashimi and sea squirt. At the school I tried tasty treats suck as scallops, squid, tempura and sake.
Thank you to Eiichi, Takuma and all of the members of Qajaq Japan for having me as a guest at this year’s event. And thank you to Natalie, who did a wonderful job of translating.