Wednesday, 7 December 2011

GUTS 2011. Our Japanese Adventure.

When I first picked up a Greenland Paddle, I could never have guessed where that simple step would lead me. History and tradition have always had a strong draw for me, and of course taking that first step not only added a greater depth to my kayaking experience, it also hooked me on learning more about the history and traditions of kayaking and its origins in Greenland and the Arctic Circle. The greatest surprise has been the many wonderful people I have met on the journey so far. The Greenland Bug has caught on world-wide and there are so many people out there willing to share their passion and their experiences freely with others. Our recent trip to Japan gave me an even greater appreciation for this.
After our adventures in Canada, we returned home via a little detour to Japan. Eiichi Ito, the president of Qajaq Japan, had kindly extended an invitation for us to attend their annual event – GUTS (Greenland Users Trial Stages). I have visited Japan a number of times, for martial arts events, and as an assistant to youth delegations through our community’s Sister City Link. Japan is an amazing country and its culture, history and traditions have held a fascination for me since I was a teenager. It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
A long flight, a train and a Shinkansen (bullet train) later and we were finally at our destination
Stickers produced by Qajaq Japan to raise funds
for the victims of the earthquake & tsunami.
After the earthquake and Tsunami that struck Japan in March this year, GUTS2011 was made a charity event, raising desperately needed funds for the victims of the tragedy, making their theme for this year: Coexistence, Kayak and Sea. The culture and identity of Japan is so closely interwoven with the surrounding sea it is impossible to separate them. Those who spend time with the sea, either for pleasure or for work, gain a healthy respect for the power of the ocean, but when something this devastating strikes, it is hard to imagine living in harmony with such a force. The Sea surrounds us and supports us, it provides for us and, for an island nation, offers protection. It is all too easy to forget how important it is when it has delivered such a terrible blow to the very people who depend on it.
During the event, there was a talk and slide show given by Soma-San who worked as a volunteer in some of the stricken areas. To see even a fraction of the devastation witnessed by these people is heart breaking, to volunteer in such a situation takes enormous courage and strength and I greatly admire Soma and all the people who worked so hard to help those in need. The catch cry taken up by volunteer groups and fundraisers throughout Japan is the word “Kizuna” which in a rough translation means ‘strong bonds of friendship’, and Kizuna was a word we used often through the weekend, I felt honoured to be friends with such a great group of people.
Our bedroom for a few days - we stayed in the
library, while Helen had the principal's office.
With two typhoons sitting off the coast, we saw a lot of rain. Some plans were changed, but everything was kept rolling along smoothly. We stayed in an old school which was about 125 years old. After being closed down when it was down to only eight students, it is now rented from the local government and is the sight of a Nature School. Making it more interesting, all the old school equipment is still in place, complete with student’s artwork and photos on the walls, giving the impression that at any time a bell may ring and a crowd of laughing children are going to appear out of nowhere to attend their classes. We were told that sometimes people who attended here in their childhood still come back to visit and see their old school, revisiting fond memories of their school days.
Qajaq Japan has left its stamp here, with skin on frame kayaks suspended from the ceiling and a classroom converted to a boat building workshop, complete with notations and instructions on the blackboard. The gymnasium also made an excellent place to dry our gear on ropes stretched across the hall, and provided an indoor lecture room when the weather took a turn for the worse and one of our lessons became a theory class instead of braving the weather to get on the water again.
Beautiful Skin On Frame kayaks under construction.
The instructor for the event, and judge for the competition was Helen Wilson, who we had met just two weeks earlier at Thunder Bay in Canada. Lessons with Helen had been heaps of fun, and had helped me greatly with my progress, seeing me get my first Hand Rolls and Forward Finishing Rolls, with a number of variations thrown in. The Greenland interest is slowly growing in Australia, but it is not organised. With individuals or small groups scattered across the country exploring on their own, there is no one teaching these skills on a formal basis in Australia. Our trip gave me the opportunity to learn from some of the most dedicated teachers out there. I was looking forward to more lessons and fun with Helen.
Language of course, can often be a problem when travelling, but we were fortunate to have the help of Natalie, a translator working for the local government, who did an amazing job, and worked hard for the whole event. We also had help from Miklos, a Hungarian kayaker who teaches English studies at a university in Japan and was participating in GUTS. It is unfortunate, and a little embarrassing, that over the many years I have been interested in Japan, I have not been able to learn Japanese. It is almost impossible to find a teacher of any language unless you live near a city. If you live in a small town, you’re on your own. With a handful of phrases, a rather random selection of words, and a lot of martial arts terminology, it is frustrating to not know more. Each time I return from a trip to Japan, I have a renewed drive to learn this rich and complex language. In the meantime, we had the help of our translators, and a lot of patience and understanding from our Japanese friends.
Our first lessons and practice sessions took place on the beautiful Lake Ogawara. We were appointed to our teams by random draw and then hit the water for some lessons from Helen and a lot of practice to get the required rolls for the competition. These sessions were a lot of fun, with a wonderful, inclusive atmosphere. This wasn’t just an event for the experts but included paddlers of all skill levels with some getting their very first rolls during the weekend.
Participants practicing on the beautiful Lake Ogawara.
Instead of the whole rolling list, each team would demonstrate a set of three basic techniques, considered some of the most important ones, - The Standard Greenland Roll, Side Sculling, and the Storm Roll, with an additional two rolls randomly drawn from a list of more advanced techniques. I thought this was a wonderful idea as it encouraged everyone to take part. I was very fortunate with my draw, my team leader was none other than Eiichi Ito, president of Qajaq Japan; expert roller, boat builder and avid paddler. Now I was under pressure to lift my standard J Helen led a session on forward finishing rolls which helped me improve my storm roll, then we practiced with our teams.
Wayne, under Helen's expert guidance,
with Natalie standing by.
While Eiichi-san helped another team member with his rolls, he recruited Nao-san, last year’s champion, to help me. I was determined to get my elbow roll, one of the more advanced rolls (a variation on the hand roll with one hand held behind the head). With a couple of demonstrations, and a lot of expert assistance, I achieved my first Elbow Roll! Not satisfied with just one success, I spent the next 20 minutes or so practicing over and over again to make sure I had it.
Participants of GUTS 2011. Group photo at Lake Ogawara.
When we had first found out the event was to include a competition, we had thought maybe we could just go along as spectators. I still consider myself a newcomer to Greenland style kayaking, there would still be plenty to learn from watching the competition without the risk of embarrassing myself. We weren’t to be given that option. J After learning so much in Canada, I was feeling a little more confident, but our choice of rolls had me worried. Our draw had given us the Armpit Roll (one I can easily do) and the Brick Roll, having only gotten my hand roll two weeks previous this one had me nervous. I had done a hand roll with a small rock but the competition requirement of eight kg is a bit daunting.
Braving the rain, we all headed to the beach, the competition being held in the waves and swell of the ocean rather than the flat calm waters of the lake. Our turn came about all too soon and I jumped into my borrowed boat, not realising until I paddled away from shore that someone had shortened up the foot-pegs since the quick practice I had done earlier that morning. This made for a tighter fit and made the boat feel a lot more tippy as I paddled out into the waves.
Eiichi and I setting up for a roll.
Eiichi-san and I took up positions and awaited our signals from the beach, performing each of the rolls side by side (our other team member didn’t make it on this day so it was just the two of us). The first rolls went smoothly and it was now time for the moment of truth – The Brick Roll. When I first started in rolling and came across this in the ‘rolling list’, I thought it had to be a typo - 8kg seemed like a lot of brick. I was right about it being a big brick, wrong about the typo. The brick was delivered to me by a paddler waiting nearby. Eiichi directed him to give me the first attempt, I guess he already knew he could do it. My first problem was not the weight, I have really small hands – just gripping the brick was a challenge. I knew how the roll would work in theory, but theory is a bit different to sitting in a tiny boat in the waves holding eight kgs of brick and convincing yourself that you can roll back up. Fortunately the safety line attached to it was enough distraction for me, there was a long length of cord and a float attached to the brick so it could be retrieved if dropped.  I was paranoid about getting tangled in the rope midway through the roll, so I carefully ran the cord back and forth across the edge of the brick so it would come free if I did have to drop it, but would not be trailing through the water as I rolled.
The infamous 8kg Brick!
Source of much anxiety.
Without giving myself any more time to think about it, I positioned the brick, rolled in and was up and breathing again before I knew it. Holding the brick in the air in a victory salute would have had a great dramatic flair, and it is certainly what I felt like doing, but with such a tenuous grip on it, and the instability of my boat, I had to wait for the safety boat to come over and raft up before I could bring the brick back on the deck, I think my smile showed sufficient elation. Eiichi-san of course completed his roll smoothly and confidently, and we paddled back into shore to watch the remaining teams.
Many teams had drawn rolls that members couldn’t do, but they would still get points for the ones they did complete. It was great to see so many people willing to get out and give it a go, not concerned with winning, but just having fun, and giving each other support and encouragement. There were certainly more experienced rollers out there than me, but I was very lucky in both the team selection, and the rolls we were given. Eiichi-san and I were the winning team!
Eiichi Ito and myself. 2011 GUTS Champions.
Of course, not all of our time was spent rolling. There was a welcome banquet at a local restaurant with an amazing selection of Japanese food, local sight-seeing with many wonderful places to see, visits to onsen (Japanese bath houses), evening celebrations at the nature school (one evening leading to a series of ‘in-jokes’ about squid and rockets that has probably had a lot of people very confused since), an auction of goods to raise additional funds for the earthquake appeal, a BBQ feast at a local seafood market, and on our final day a paddle on Lake Towada – a beautiful lake in the crater of a volcano. The light rain, mist and clouds adding their own magic to the day. All of this added to an incredible experience with many, many fond memories.
Paddling with friends on the amazing Lake Towada.
The day of departure came and we were sad to have to say goodbye to our friends. Together with Helen, we rode on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. Our first shinkansen ride had been at night and so there had been nothing to see outside except the occasional blur of lights as we sped past a city. This time we had daylight and were able to look out at the surrounding countryside as we zoomed past. It was sobering to see the many earthquake damaged buildings still waiting for repair, and the construction sites where buildings had been demolished, too damaged to be saved. So far from the epicentre, this was just a glimpse of the more minor damage that had been suffered.
As we drew closer to Tokyo, the weather worsened, the rain falling harder until any visibility beyond the train tracks was gone. We passed over rivers and creeks swollen with flood water, adding to our concern that Japan was to be hit by yet another blow from Mother Nature. A change of trains and we were on our way to the airport, making our farewells to Helen as we got off at our terminal. After wondering through the shops and taking our last chance for a Japanese meal. We settled down to watch the information boards. After seeing the steadily worsening weather as we travelled, we had our doubts about leaving on time.
Watching the red cancellations appear on the departures board.
As expected, the boards showed a steadily growing list in red of cancelled flights. When our flight came up, it was not with the cancellation notice that others had, but with “New Date” noted next to it. The typhoon had hit Tokyo and all flights were grounded. I quickly came to appreciate the difference between a quality airline and a budget one. We were given our boarding passes for our new flight leaving in the morning, an information sheet explaining everything, and were bussed to a hotel in Tokyo where we had a nice room provided, meal vouchers, and they even pre-booked our 4am wake up call. Those on the budget airline weren’t so fortunate. It was an interesting way for us to get an extra night in Japan J
The Japanese Red Cross are still running their appeal for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, until March 2012. While the media may have moved on and forgotten about this great tragedy, there are still so many people in need. It will take Japan many years to recover, rebuilding takes time, but that is only one aspect. So many people have lost so much, not just their homes and possessions are gone, but whole communities have simply disappeared. So many people are alone, jobless and missing family and friends to support them as they face the challenge of rebuilding their lives. Please visit Japanese Red Cross at : and give your support.
Thanks go to Eiichi Ito, Takuma Togawa, Soma, Helen, Natalie, Miklos and all the other fantastic people of Qajaq Japan who gave us this amazing opportunity and an unforgettable experience.  KIZUNA J

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mel,

    Your well written post made me relive those few days. It was a pity I couldn't join you for the Lake Towada paddle, but it was the right decision for me to go to the doctor instead on that day... I spent the whole next day driving home in the same weather that had stopped your flight. I was amazed the kayaks didn't fly off the roof :-)

    Keep paddling, and come again!