Monday, December 1, 2014

Hokkaido - A visit to the Master

By fortunate circumstance I am in Hokkaido, Japan, designing with two architect friends a very special building and landscape for a truly spectacular mountain site. A site that has a panoramic view and at the focus of which is a snow-capped volcanic mountain of incredible physical and spiritual presence, looking for all the world like a Hokusai woodblock print.

Equally fortunate, a chance comment from a local Hokkaidonese paddler has the seemingly inevitable consequence of carrying me (and my two Australian colleagues and our Japanese housekeeper) like leaves on a river to the shore that is the self-built timber house and ski lodge of Akio Shinya-san - a Master mountaineer, rock climber, skier, adventure sea kayaker, and much revered local Hokkaido legend who, like Mount Yotei and Annapuri just outside, quietly and naturally receives the deep respect of all who have the good fortune to meet, listen to and talk with him.

The "river" did not take us directly to his house which is not so easily found within its birch forest, amongst a scattering of other timber houses sitting on their stone bases. However the glimpse of an upturned sea kayak lying beside a wall - like a washed-up dolphin carcass on a remote beach - was an immediately recognisable signal that we were at least on the correct "shore".

Shinya-san's house, he tells me, was made by his own hands and first commenced 41 years ago when he was aged 26. I did the quick sum in my head and found it unfathomable that the muscular physique and healthy radiance of this man could be anywhere near to being aged 67 years. But that is what good genes and a subsequent life lived in daily physical engagement and harmony with the natural world does for one's physique and aura.

Shinya-san's many personal achievements exploring enormous mountain ranges in the Himalayas to the deep powder-coated slopes of Hokkaido are counter-pointed by his self-less and focused application to generating daily avalanche risk analysis and guidance reports in the Niseko area. On his large wooden table was sitting an incongruous gold trophy - awarded to him just four days previously in Kitzbuhl, Austria - for his lifetime of service and dedication to research into avalanche safety. Everywhere else in the house is scattered the memorabilia of mountain climbing expeditions, adventures undertaken on snow skis, and expeditions by sea kayak. A traditional Aleut kayak paddle with its distinctive raised central axis ridge line is positioned high across one wall, below which is a marine chart of the Aleutian Islands - with a scale model of a Greenland kayak pinned to it and a larger scaled model of a Greenland paddle rakishly angled across the chart.

I have come to meet with Shinya-san to listen and begin to learn about the sea kayaking conditions and environments of Hokkaido and its associated islands. Shinya-san's list of completed adventures by sea kayak are truly legendary. Six trips through the Aleutians, twice around Cape Horn, and of relevance to my interest here, many adventures along the beautiful and remote wilderness coasts of Hokkaido where he leads groups of kayakers during the paddling season - March to October.

With the wood stove radiating warmth throughout his house Shinya-san picks up my sketch book and draws into it the Hokkaido coastline with the simplicity and accuracy that perhaps only someone who knows its shape from deep coast-hugging paddling engagement can do so well from memory. He describes the large tidal currents that sweep through many of the sea fields surrounding Hokkaido and the beautiful forests that line the East Coast wilderness shores.

I open up my kayak blog with a small tablet device on the same timber table and share with Shinya-san images of the landscapes and seascapes that form my local environment. His breath is audibly taken by the sheer cliffs of sandstone rising out of the sea at North Head. I invite him to visit me in Sydney to paddle and there is enthusiastic agreement that this is a good idea to realise.
Shinya-san then sucks his lips with the enthusiastic hunger of the sea hunter when he sees the tableau of images recording the sea life that my kayaking companions and I eat on our paddling adventures: black-lipped and green-lipped abalone, crayfish of multiple varieties, kingfish, families of oysters, mussels, sea urchin roe and much more that we catch with our hands from the south-east coastlines of mainland Australia and Tasmania. In return he shows me images on his blog of salmon caught while paddling in Canada. Like all Hokkaidonese he would have a good palette for traditional local food and I speculate that an expedition with him would be memorable for that reason alone.

The conversation wanders into kayak design. Shinya-san picks up my pen to do another drawing. This time it is a stunning Baidarka with its curious double-prow bow and truncated swept stern. This kayak is so unique in its form that it appears like a genetic freak on the family tree of kayak evolution. From his description of its paddling performance in following seas I am reminded of its brilliant "otherness" and feel the urge resurfacing to make the fabrication of a Baidarka my next kayak building project. 

With night descending in a freezing frost on the birch forest that surrounds Shinya-san's house we slide off our house slippers and lace up our outdoor boots. To the resounding accompaniment of multiple "arigatou gozaimasu" we farewell one another like old friends. But Shinya-san has one more footnote to add to this short story. He takes us up a slope to an enormous shed into whose dark interior we follow. In the deep blue-black gloom of a Hokkaido winter night he proudly shows us (with the crystal-tinged illumination of an iPhone) his two loves - a massive snow vehicle as big as a combine harvester with which he grooms the ski slopes of Hokkaido in the winter months. And a road trailer with perhaps fifteen sea kayaks arranged on it with which he shares his love of the Hokkaido coast with others in the ice and snow-free paddling months. It is a well balanced personal equation and evidence of a life that is being well lived in close and contemporary engagement with the stunning natural environments of Hokkaido.


Respectful of Shinya-san's privacy I have posted here only a single tightly-framed image from within his house - a view of him sketching a Baidarka in a following sea.