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  • Joseph Polack

FALLING IN LOVE AMONG SURFERS

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

She fell in love with one of Shonan's leading pro-surfers while taking his lessons. Then she replaced her high heels and fashionable dresses for a surfing board and wetsuit.


He was frequently away for international surfing competitions in Japan, Hawaii, Australia, Europe and wherever there were right waves. When they met, his name was already a well known brand among surfers: Shinji Okuda.

She was waiting for him to propose, but he hesitated due to their age difference. Though Shinji was much older, Yuko didn't mind. Whenever she was watching him riding huge waves, the much younger men were always far below him. It was then she realized that numbers adding up to his age had no meaning when it came to surfing on the ocean. Rather, it was his skill that was important.


Shinji was tough. The local surfers admired his slaloming speed along rough waves. Both men and women were proud to take his lessons, hoping to achieve Shinji's international fame.

Shinji & Yuko's engagement followed by their marriage was cheered by the surfing community. They were already Shonan's poster couple. However a famouse surfer and his beautiful young bride surprised the locals by deciding to become professional fishers in a decaying Kamakura village.


Shinji passed the examination for a professional fishing licence. Then they jointly repaired a weathered hut on the outskirts of the village, and bought their first fishing boat.

The boat was called after their son's name: Arata. While Shinji was going together with the fellow fishers to the ocean by 4 a.m, Yuko was taking care of their two small kids. But they still kept their surfing boards and wetsuits drying among the fishing nets.


Merging their two ocean passions of surfing and fishing was like living out their dream: The dream of being close to nature and building a happy family. When Yuko became pregnant with their third child and their family life as surfers-turned-fishers seemed happiest, Shinji was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. A few months later Shinji's funeral was attended by the Shonan surfers and local Kamakura fishers.


The young widow Yuko was left with an infant and two small kids. But she wasn't left alone. With help of Shinji's fisher friends, she was trying to make a living along the Shonan-Kamakura bay. Though replacing her late husband at the steer of "Arata Maru" wasn't easy at first, she felt his presence whenever the heavy winds blossed at her face.

Every morning before the sunrise, when the kids were still asleep under the care of their grandma, Yuko was heading to the ocean. When the weather was bad, she navigated closer to the shores together with Shinji's old friends who took turns to help her.


Gradually she ventured further away on her own by following the boats of the older fishermen who have lived in the village for generations. Yuko was guided by the village seniors to the faraway spots where the chances for catching bigger fish and crabs were higher. Then she was left alone to conquer her fears of navigating among underwater rocks while setting up her nets.


She was expected to prove herself as a fisher by learning through her own mistakes, or quit. But with every little mistake she managed to overcome, Yuko was more eager to keep improving her ocean fishing at sunrise. Whenever the waves got higher and the winds, stronger, a friendly boat, or two, would appear from nowhere, and she could follow them to safety of the village shores.


Within a short time after Shinji's passing away, his young widow Yuko became the only licensed female fishing boat owner on the Sakanoshita side of Kamakura bay. The typhoons didn't discourage her. She was patiently rebuilding her hut. The hut that reminded her of carefree family days when Shinji was still alive.

Only her oldest daughter still remembered her dad, Shinji. The two youngest children had no memories of their dad. But Yuko believed that by preserving the decaying hut, she will preserve memories of their dad.

I befriended Yuko and her three kids soon after settling in Kamakura. My little writing studio on the Gokurakuji hillside was just a few minutes walk from her weathered fishing hut. It was a chance encounter offshore. One day when Yuko's "Arata Maru" crossed my usual swimming path, I helped her to push the boat over the beaching wheels. Since then we greeted each other whenever she was repairing her nets, or drying the seaweeds, or working on the roof.


Sometimes she cautioned me about the latest undercurrents she had noticed during her early morning fishing. Other times, she warned me that swimming wasn't safe on that particular winter day because of the shifting winds. When the spring arrived and I tried to help Yuko to remove her meager catch from the net by my bare hands, she refused. It took me a few weeks to learn from Yuko that a certain sardine like fish should never be touched without protective gloves. The fish skin possessed such a paralyzing power that in matters of seconds could make one's hands numb. Even crows and other beach birds avoided touching it.


With the passing time, we become good enough friends that she allowed me to help her with the little things around her hut. But only after making it sure that I wore protective gloves and knew how to use the fishers' basic tools. In return for my little help, she offered me a fresh seasonal fish, a crab, or a little bag of dried seaweeds that she said would go well with rice. With the frequent typhoons and storms that prevented Yuko from fishing, I couldn't understand how she and her three kids managed to survive on these uncertain family earnings.


Then came a summer and a few kilometres long strip of sands linking the Sakanoshita and Zaimokuza sides of the fishing village was invaded by thousands of beach goers. The several dozens of seasonal beach tavernas and rental stalls were built. And Yuko, like in every summer before, she turned to her second job: from six o'clock she was renting sun-umbrellas, beach chairs, fish-shaped-plastic-boats, and plenty of other things.

The fishers' community took good care of Shinji's widow and his three orphaned kids. Yuko was allocated the best spot for her tiny wooden stall right in front of the largest tavernas. And on weekends, when the beach became crowded by over thirty thousand visitors, the surfing friends of her late husband Shinji were volunteering to help Yuko to run her renting business, so she could take a little break.


The occasional presence of these tough middle aged men, gave Yuko's growing children a joy of listening to the cheerful memories about their father. Some of these "uncles", as the kids called them, were longhaired, some wore tattoos, some others were almost bold, and instead of tattoos, sported mustaches. What they had in common were their care about the well being of Shinji's children.


They taught the kids how to search the crowded beach for their mother's missing sun-umbrellas, or misplaced portable beach chairs. Then they trained the kids to collect everything and decompress the fish-shaped-boats. During my first few years I could see these adopted uncles returning every summer to give Yuko a helping hand and act as collective fathers for her children.

Then one summer many of the uncles stopped coming. Yuko told me that a mayor of Kamakura issued an order forbidding anyone wearing a tattoo to enter Kamakura beaches. The restrictive beach laws demanded from the tattooed folks to sunbath fully clothed.


As I didn't have any tattoos, I could occasionally help Yuko at the stall on the busy days. Sometimes, during the annual beach festivals, I would join her kids to sell Yuko's grilled octopuses and sea urchins to overseas tourists.


Demand for Yuko's beach services continued until the end of summer. With the arrival of fall, Yuko shut her rental stall and was back to her fishing hut.

The fall brought more typhoons. And after every typhoon, her fishing hut was getting more shaky. The roof and some of her nets were gone. Though she was back to her endless repairing routines, she told me she was lucky.


Some of her neighbours' huts and boats were swallowed by the ocean, but her beached boat "Arata Maru" was fortunate to survive the typhoon without major damages. Yuko believed that Shinji's protective spirit was at work.

A few years ago, when I was already planning to move from Yuko's neighborhood to nearby Enoshima, she invited me to a big surfing event honouring her late husband. The event was advertised by media as "Shinji Okuda Invitational" and gathered both professional and amateur surfers competing in rough waters surrounding the historical Inamuragasaki Cape.


Yuko Okuda and three of her children were given a heartwarming welcome by hundreds of competitors and spectators. Only after watching Shinji's large commemorative photo exhibited together with the poster at the official venue, I realized how similar Shinji and his smiling son, Arata were.


How many of the thousands of visitors passing by a small "Arata Maru" boat beached in front of a decaying fisher hut would ever pay attention to a young widow repairing her late husband's nets, I don't know.

A few days ago, Yuko sent a message to my mobile phone allowing me to include some of her family photos to my latest Shonan-Kamakura story.


The story about a young girl whose love to a surfer turned her into a fisher woman. The women who loves the ocean on her own terms and keeps taking care of her ailing fishing hut as if it was a living treasure.

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