After the fight, Ole “Iron Fist” Laursen invited me back to his gym to have a cold beer or two as it was his birthday. It was great sitting around having some cool beer and hearing some great stories.
I then mentioned about Japan, and when I travelled there and then thought that it would be a good blog to do. It has nothing to do with Isaan or Thailand but it is my blog so I am going to tell the story.
My surf club on the Gold Coast of Australia has a sister club in Japan called Otake SLSC. Each year 2 lifeguards are sent over for their month long summer holiday season. Myself and my good mate and Australian Board Paddling Champion, Simon were chosen to go.
So we headed to Japan with some information from previous Otake attendees, and at the time I had no idea where it was, it is in Ibaraki Prefecture and not too far away from Narita airport.
So we headed off on a longish flight and being international we had a few cold beers and a good sleep. We were being picked up at Narita Airport by some surf club members is all we knew. No names or contact numbers were given; all we had was the head honcho of the club’s name, one of the founding members.
We arrived at Narita, collected our bags and went through immigration. We walked out to a sea of people that were staring at us, but no-one approached. So we waited and waited and after 30 minutes we decided to sit at this little bar like shop and have a cold beer. About an hour after we had walked out of immigration two girls found us, apologises were done and we were on our way to the surf club.
The trip was interesting, we nearly crashed pulling out from the airport, and then the girls drove like a
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We arrived at the surf club around 4pm and what we first noticed were these huge car parks for hundreds and hundreds of cars, but more on that later. We were met by smiling faces of the club members. Introductions were done and then two of the rookies of the club approached us and asked us, “What their nicknames were going to be?”
It is a tradition that the new rookies each year are given nicknames by us Aussies; we had only just met this smiling young lad and timid young girl. I thought for two seconds and named the guy Smiley and Simon named the girl Shy. Our first job was done.
We were then invited to train; go for a board and ski paddle and a swim. The surf actually looked quite nice, a small beach break and we were soon out in the water that was a little cool.
We were lucky as the big head honcho wasn’t staying at the club and we got this nice little room all for ourselves with a small fridge and okay mattress. There are two big rooms, one for the boys and the other for the girls. They sleep on thinly rolled out mats, there were about 20 males and 15 females in all.
What we had to do at the club was offer our knowledge to the Japanese surf club members. So we would teach them rescue techniques using the board, inflatable boat and jet ski, senior first aid, resuscitation and even how to use a defibrillator. They already trained in all this but we offered the Australian Surf Life Saving Association way to do these.
So each morning and afternoon we would break the group into two, the beginners and weaker lifeguards and the intermediate to the elite. I worked with the beginners and Simon took on the elite guys and girls.
Mornings we would run about 2klms on the black volcanic looking sand, then some stretching and into the training. I can tell you that these guys and girls were dedicated, they work unbelievably hard.
The weather the first two weeks was miserable most of the times, drizzle and fog. Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. And the wind blew, the water was bloody cold and at times the surf was huge. We had the remnants of a typhoon and for 3 days it was out of control with 2mtr swells smashing the beach.
But every morning at 6am, the guys were out of bed, wetsuits on and ready to train in some really tuff conditions. One day there was only 6 of us that made it out the back of the breakers. (The rookies weren’t allowed out) We tried to teach the guys how to pick their way out through such big surf, and also roll their board properly and pull the nose of the board deep under the water. Many of the members were being absolutely hammered, but they didn’t want to give up.
When I started teaching the IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat) to the drivers and crewmen, the first few days were beautiful and then the weather was so nasty. Seeing fear in some of the newer members when you took them out in such surf brought back memories when I was the same. Driving an IRB is an art and the driver needs to be able to read the surf like the back of his hand, especially in big seas. In all the time we were there the boat was only flipped 3 times. (I was driving once)
Otake Beach is flat and a good 1.5klms plus long patrolling area. There are 4 towers about every 250mtrs apart. And it is a dangerous beach, as it has plenty of holes or gutters that create rips and made patrolling real edgy at times.
So we trained and trained, and I watched all along the concrete steps, buildings being erected from bamboo. I was told that the Yakuza, the feared Japanese mafia open these huts up to the thousands of people that flock to the beach. They sell, food, beer, beer, beer, floatation devices (rubber rings and animals) and nearly anything else you can think of.
There were two groups that ran the beach; one ran the right side and the other the left side. Most times all I saw were large 4wds, drive onto the beach and disappear to the ends but that was it at the time. I could hardly see why so many shops were being built.
Anyway, we started the patrol season, the weather was still terrible and no one came to the beach. Some days the fog was so thick until midmorning and then finally we got half decent weather. I still remember lying in bed and Simon and I could here noises that sounded like people driving in pegs, the banging of a hammer on steel. But it was like 5am in the morning.
When we got downstairs at 6am, we were greeted by hordes of the public; they had set up tent like structures, tarped areas in preparation for the day at the beach. The beach didn’t open till 8am and the lifeguards enforced this strictly. To cut a long story short the beach was packed, it was insane when the weather was good the people crammed together like sardines. At times there wasn’t an inch of sand spare on the beach.
In Australia we are big on prevention or preventative measures. We try to stop someone getting into trouble before they do by warning them and offering them advice. In Japan they waited till the person was in the shit and then went out to rescue them. This really tried or patience at times.
There were many mass rescues of 5 to 20 or more swimmers. A group of swimmers washed off their feet by a large way and into a gutter. A call on the radio and we would be in the IRB and on the Jet Ski dragging people out of the water everywhere.
We put up with this for a few days and then on a hot day, with big swells we took control. We shortened the flagged area. They had the flags 200mtrs plus apart in areas and this is just too hard to patrol in such conditions. So the flags were brought in to 60-70mtrs gaps and lifeguards posted on the edge of the water pushing people back between the flags. And then we had to eventually close the beach as the tide turned and created absolute havoc.
It was then I met my first Yakuza member. In the control centre up at the surf club angry Yakuza members had stormed in their demanding the beach be reopened as people were going to leave, and they also wanted the flags widened so their shops were used.
The guys even though they had such a menacing reputation actually were very civil. One member spoke pretty good English and he was polite when we explained it would only be for an hour while the tide changed as it was too dangerous. We didn’t want any drownings.
After the tide had run out and the sand bars shallowed, we opened the beaches and people flocked into the water again. The drunker ones took floatation devices with them and when washed off the sandbar would abandon them and try and swim. I cannot remember how many drunken men and women I pulled back onto the sandbanks in 4 weeks.
One really funny thing for me was, we had a call for a mass rescue, so a few of us helped Simon turn the jet ski around and pulled into the water. Simon cranked it over and took off flat stick. He was headed straight out to sea in 4 to 6 foot swells at full speed and didn’t slow down. He hit the first shore break and jumped the wave going a few metres in the air, then he hit the back break still at full speed and launched over a wave and I can still picture his feet flying into the air like he was Superman and miles into the air.
I stood their dumbfounded, trying to workout what the hell he was doing. I got the IRB into the water and we went and helped with the rescue at the other tower. When I returned, Simon was white faced and had a massive egg on his ankle. Someone who rode the ski last, wrapped the kill switch around the handle but also pushing the throttle to full tilt. Simon said he couldn’t get it unwrapped and was shitting himself. Man I laughed and laughed.
Another funny incident in the first week when it was bloody cold and we were really tired was a trip to the hot bath springs. We arrived in 20 minutes and the girls went their way and we ours. In the locker area were two old ladies cleaning the floor and naked guys wandering about. I played football and having women (Trainers and physiotherapists) in the room wasn’t such a worry for me but it just seemed odd.
We were shown how to shower before entering the hot springs and then walked into a room full of naked men, scattered in different pools. Some were so hot and the cool off one was freezing. It was funny sitting with new people we had just met, buck naked and chatting away.
One night after a few weeks, we needed time out. We had lived and breathed lifesaving non stop. Each night the Yakuza guys had big parties at the ends of the beaches, big bonfires and music. So we had a few beers in our room and then snuck out around 9pm. We made our way down to the guys we had been chatting to quite often as the Yakuza run jet skis pulling banana boats filled with people. They often crash the ski in the surf and people are knocked off the boat, hit by the ski and so forth.
So we arrived at the end of the beach and were greeted happily. We had beer and chatted as much as we could and just enjoyed ourselves. Around 1am about 4 members from the surf club turned up to escort us home. They were worried about the company we were keeping or our health the next day on patrol.
We travelled into Tokyo and were shown around the Japanese Institute of Sport as the president of the surf club worked there. It was an amazing thing to see. We went to Akihabara, an electronic city. This place was insane. Little photo studios filled with school girls taking their pictures, floors and floors of games and any electronic device you could think of. And there were unbelievably beautiful promotional girls all over the place.
One saving grace for us was not too far away from the surf club, that being a 7 Eleven or Family Mart style store. Each day a group of 5 members had to cook breakfast and dinner for the day (lunch was delivered). And we had to judge the meals. Most of the meals very really good, but we couldn’t get our head around the rice and vegetables for breakfast.
So after a few days we had bought bread, butter, jams and other spreads, cereals and so forth. We explained that it had nothing to do with the cooking but for breakfast we liked this sort of food. We still tried the food often but rice, cauliflower and broccoli early in the morning wasn’t for me.
One thing I was introduced to in Japan was their unique dessert Natto. Natto is the worst thing I have ever tasted. I still remember when the club members gave us this little bowl each with huge grins. I smelt it and man it reeked and when I tasted it, I tried not to vomit. I can usually stomach most things but Natto was disgusting.
Each time I went to Japan I didn’t get a chance to travel and see more of the country as we were so busy. And asking your employer for more than the 4 weeks you were already taking off was impossible, for me anyway.
Japan was great, the people were awesome and the country beautiful. It is still a country I want to return to and travel through more extensively at some time.