- Joseph Polack
AMONG OCEAN GUARDIANS, LIFESAVERS & WANDERING SOULS
Updated: Jan 21
Though our Japanese lifeguard team has been captained by Shonan’s top rough water swimmers during the pandemics, the real guardians seem to be the local gods living among the sacred ocean rocks.
It took me seven years to learn about the demons fighting against the gods and the wandering souls of the folk who lost their lives along our Shonan coast before and after the outbreak of Covid-19.
Being the only foreigner in our Kamakura Lifesaving Team SURF90 has been a culturally enriching albeit scary experience at times.
According to the locals, the Ocean Gods have rescued many fishers, swimmers and surfers from the demons hiding at the bottom of our bay.
Bowing respectfully to the Ocean Gods before entering the rough waters was the first thing I learned from my Lifesaving Team Captain, Yoh Terazaki, and his girlfriend Chizuko.
Among our volunteer team members are many long distance swimmers and triathlon racers of varied ages and from different walks of life: social workers, firemen, yoga teachers, military combat instructors, students, medical researchers, corporate managers, retired academics, artists, nurses, and dozen other professions - a diverse microcosm of Japanese society.
Every summer my fellow lifesavers stress the need to remain extra vigilant during the annual Obon celebrations in mid August.
According to ancient Buddhist beliefs, the souls of the deceased returned to earth during the Obon celebrations.
Many local bathers refrained from swimming for fear of risky encounters with the visiting ghosts as not all the spirits were considered friendly by the out of town beachgoers.
There were accursed places avoided by the locals and seldom even mentioned in casual conversations for fear of being overheard by the evil forces. That I was born in a different religious tradition didn't seem to matter. As long as I was respectfully bowing to the Ocean Gods before entering our bay's rough waves, I was OK.
When a few years ago, I light-heartedly asked if I could make a sign of cross before the bow, I was assured that there is nothing wrong with having double or triple protection by appealing to several religions for safety.
According to my fellow lifesavers, many impure souls have continued suffering on the other side of life and had only a few summer days of Obon to seek redemption by revisiting their past lives.
Some of the migrating souls who had parted with their earthly existence due to an offshore accident or a drowning caused by faulty play or negligence, returned every summer to Shonan to punish the wrongdoers.
And if revenge-thirsty ghosts couldn't find the culprit responsible for their suffering in the afterlife, they might mistakenly punish someone who happened to be near the accursed place when they were forced to depart from their human form.
My unexpected beach encounters with tragically deceased people, seven years before the outbreak of the pandemic prompted me to join the local Lifesaving Team.
Soon after settling in a home on the Gokurakuji hillside in 2012, while looking down on Kamakura fishing village, I was confronted with three stranded bodies.
Wondering if the younger of the deceased was a bather caught by the shifting cold and warm currents that often clashed at our bay; or a victim of a hit-and-run jet-ski rider, as one of the locals suspected, I thought about it from a safe distance, with no intention to delve into the mystery.
Some months later, another body appeared on the shoreline. He was an older man who had probably been sucked deep into the ocean by a sudden change of winds ahead of an approaching typhoon. Or was he washed away from the deck of his boat? One of the locals argued that the body carried a foreign tattoo and might have been floating in the Pacific for days before he ended on our Kamakura shore.
Again, I didn’t want to find about the details of these two men‘s death.
I erased the victims’ bodies from my memory and enjoyed the tranquillity of my academic retirement by exploring our neighborhood’s ancient temples and shrines between my daily swimming in the bay.
But when a neatly dressed female body was stranded near our fishing village one sunny afternoon, a local fisher had no doubt that she was brought by the undercurrents from nearby Inamuragasaki Cliff.
Among onlookers, someone remarked that there were still traces of makeup on her face. Another noticed that her shoes were missing. She looked young, probably in her early twenties. I turned my eyes away.
And yet, I couldn’t escape the emerging memories of a certain young woman who passed tragically away several decades earlier.
Being confronted with the third death in six months, was far too many.
After the firemen from Kamakura rescue squad covered her body with a blue plastic sheet, an elderly fisher suggested that the young woman had probably jumped from the cliff into the rough underwater rocks just a few hours earlier.
Though the cliff was on the other side of the hill dividing our Kamakura bay, and only a 30 minutes swim away, the undercurrents were frequently too strong for the out of town bathers. And even the accomplished long distance swimmers avoided rough waters under the Inamuragasaki cliff.
The fisherman mentioned that on the other side of the hill, the view of Mt. Fuji was particularly beautiful that day and the sunset turned reddish and lasted longer than usually.
I didn’t realize the significance of this observation at the time.
The rocky Inamuragasaki side of the bay facing Enoshima and Mt. Fuji, was considered a accursed place. The yellowish steep rock on the green mountaintop was nicknamed Suicide Cliff by the locals.
The cliff brought back memories of my beloved younger sister, Jadwiga, who had committed suicide at the age of 24. She was a painter desperately dreaming about freedom in a repressive Eastern European country.
Several decades later, and over ten thousand kilometers apart, the reemerging memories and the presence of the cliff hanging over a stormy ocean made me join the local lifesavers.
Our Lifesaving Tent Station was in close proximity to bay cliff. During my weekly patrols I could clearly see the rough edges of sharp rocks sticking out of the water, yet my Japanese team members continued to avoid mentioning the cliff.
As our captains rotated weekly, I was assigned to different two-members patrolling units which gave me opportunities to learn a great deal more about our guarded area.
Whenever we came closer to the cliff side, I asked my fellow lifesavers about this particular spot's tragic history but nobody seemed to know much about it. Our conversation frequently drifted away from the cliff. I took the hint and learned to ask fewer questions and search for answers on my own.
At times, it almost felt if the Suicide Cliff didn't exist. But it did.
It took me years of patrolling the cliff's vicinity on my own between lifeguarding seasons before realising that the spectacular views of the sacred mountain at sunset have continuously attracted desperate people from all over the country.
Some were very young; the others, middle-aged.
I suppose they all felt lonely in their own ways. And yet, however desperate they felt, they wanted to part with their earthly lives while facing the sacred mountain.
Some left their shoes neatly placed at the edge of the cliff before jumping twenty meters down along the rough rocks.
Their journey to afterlife was a few seconds short.
When I asked my fellow lifeguards why in such a dramatic moment a person would pay attention to such minor things as shoes, I was told that this is a matter of respect: wearing dirty shoes from their past life would have disrespected the ancestors awaiting their soul on the other side of life.
[*TO BE CONTINUED]