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  • Joseph Polack

OUR WINTER BEACH SHONAN SURPRISES

The freezing wind blowing from Northern Pacific nearly forced us to cancel our Christmas Rough Water Swimming Charity. Except for a strange black tent with a smoking chimney and a couple of local dogs playing with their masked owners, our Kamakura beach was almost deserted. And yet, our Shonan outdoor life continued to be full of heart-warming, if not unexpected encounters with two-or-fourlegged beach animals and several off-season Santas playing along the waves.



Soon after arrival, our team made of lifesavers from Spain, Sweden, Poland, and Japan, caught the attention of a few warmly dressed passers-by. The folks looked at us as if we were out of our minds to even consider swimming without wet suits.



I was on my way to change into my swimming trunks behind a pile of beach debris, when a curious dogwalker approached me from a few meters distance. His face mask was tight, and his eyes, friendly. “Why do you want to swim in such a freezing weather?” He gazed at my Santa hat.


“For money,” I said.

“Are you kidding me?”

“No! We’ve already made 30.000 yen since February.”

“Wow!” He adjusted the warming pad on his doggie’s back. “It’s a lot of money.”



“Yup! But still not enough. We need to collect a bit more.”

“Collect for what?”

“For our friend in England.”

“Come on! That sounds like a scam to me. You are coming here to Japan to play your Santa tricks to get people to donate to a phony charity.”

“It’s not a scam. It’s a registered charity to help cancer stricken people.”

“Oh really.” He searched through his pocket.

“Yeah. Several of our local friends have been endorsing our Rough Water Charity Swimming by donating a little money for each individual swimmer and…




He silenced his barking dog with a piece of dried snack. “What Charity?”

“A Brain Tumor Research Charity.”

“Sounds dubious! Never heard of the charity.” He gestured towards our team members who were in the meanwhile joined by our local friends. “Your lady friends seem to have caught some loaded Japanese endorsers,” he said in a teasing voice.



“Actually, these Japanese folks are our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club’s local supporters. Sorry I’ve got to change into my swimming trunks.”

He searched through his winter jacket’s pockets. “Didn’t carry any money on me. Just dog snacks.” Then he treated me to a piece of a frozen chewing gum. “Have a fun, Santa, and don’t catch cold.”

Before I could wish him good day, he turned around and followed his happily barking dog.



For a while I watched the man and his dog slowly walking away towards a nearby fishing village. The wind was getting stronger, but the sun was reappearing from behind the rainy clouds. A few more surfers entered the ocean.



In an odd way, the changing weather and the remains of the footprints on the shifting sand, brought memories of another beach. A beach over 10.000 km away that a recently deceased teenage British poet Matthew Pullan memorialized in his book “A Trip to a Beach. Poetry by the Sea.”


Rain or shine it’s great

To go to the beach and play

With sand and memories


Still fully dressed and holding my trunks in one hand and a frozen piece of chewing gum in the other, I was recalling Matthew’s poem. The poem he had sent me to Japan a few months before passing away due to a brain tumor on September 9, 2021.



Though I have never met Matthew in person, I shared a Japanese translation of his poem about beach life with my fellow Shonan lifesavers and the members of our Kamakura Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC). To keep Matthew’s spirit alive and continue our HGSC’s donations for a Brain Tumor Research Charity, we had set up several memorial rough water swimming events along Shonan coast.




And though the unpredictable December weather delayed several of the swimmers and their supporters from joining our Christmas Rough Water Swimming Charity on time, we didn’t give up our hopes to hold the beach event before the sunset.


When I re-joined our steadily growing beach group, my chewing gum had already melted in my fingers and stuck to my trunks. The sun was back.


“What kept you so long behind that beach garbage?” I was scolded by a newly arrived Chairman of our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club, Phil.


“I lost my face mask,” I said.


“As long as you still keep your face, you could still make it…” One of the Japanese latecomers handed me his reserve mask.



Our SURF90 lifeguard Atsuko, kept chatting with our currently quarantined Spanish lifesaver, Carla, about their doggies and the latest deadly Covid mutations in Europe.


They were just discussing how the Covid variants had switched from delta to omicron, when I pointed at the smoke coming out from the strange tent just a few hundred meters away.


“Have you ever seen a beach tent with a chimney,” Atsuko asked our major charity donor, Yasuko.


“Nope!” Yasuko turned to her two adopted poodles. “My husband may know. He walks Chris and Hugo along the beach daily.”


As neither Yasuko nor Keitaro, her physician husband-turned-beach-cleaner had any idea who might have set up a warming stove in the tent just a few meters from the shore, I ran towards the increasingly heavy smoke.



I was trying to look inside the tent through an opening when suddenly a reflection of a distorted face appeared in the plastic window. I stepped aside and bumped into someone standing right behind the tent’s entrance.


The man, who was moving a surfing board closer to the tent, greeted me with a jolly laugh. “Don’t be scared! No Obon-ghosts here today… Are you vaccinated?”


“Am still waiting for my third shot,” I said.


“OK.” Then after noticing my trunks, he added “Getting windy again. Why don’t you change into the trunks and warm up with the other folks inside. Be careful of the iron stove. It’s right next to the entrance zipper. The rocks are bloody hot and that Russian…”



Before he finished, an almost naked man ran out from the tent. After picking up a can of beer and few chopped wood pieces, the man hurried back through the unzipped dark hole.



A while later, I change into my swim trunks behind the beach debris and joined a group of surfers squeezed into a portable Russian-made sauna, I noticed a few familiar faces.



A man drinking his non-alcohol bear next to the chopped wood offered me a sip. “Haven’t seen you on the beach for the last few years. Did you move from Kamakura?”


“Yes, but still along the Shonan coast. Fifty minutes biking away.” I said.


“To Zushi?” He wondered.


“No. In opposite direction. To Kugenuma.” I said.



“Are you still doing lifesaving?” The owner of the sauna tent, Hoshino-san, interjected.


“Yup! Actually, I brought two of my fellow SURF90 lifesavers for our Christmas Charity Swim…” I moved closer to the plastic window and pointed at Atsuko glancing into the tent from the other side, and Carla playing a dancing Santa.



The folks in the mobile sauna were rotating every few minutes. Some were returning after a short dip into the ocean; the others were changing into their wet suits and waiting outside for the waves.


Nobody seemed surprised when I mentioned that our little lifesaving team included two middle aged women.


“Bring them in! They need some warmth!”



The mood was upbeat and our conversation, shifting. When after my first swim I introduced my two fellow team members to the sauna folks, they welcomed Carla and Atsuko with a cheer!


“Are you really going to have a winter swim in a bikini?” A mustached man approached Atsuko.


Instead of replying, Atsuko ran out into the ocean. The guys through the plastic window followed her as she swam through the water!



And when Carla joined her with an even faster free style, the guys were curious to learn who was going to be the winner in the race.


“Matthew Pullan,” I said.


“Is he also on your team?”


“No, not in a physical sense. Matthew lost his fight against brain cancer in England last fall. So we had organized a Christmas Rough Water Swimming Charity event to keep his spirit alive.”


“But why in Kamakura?” A newly arrived surfer asked.


“When Matthew was still struggling against his terminal cancer, his lifeguard grandfather, Alan Holmes, was elected to an overseas membership of our Kamakura Henna Gaijin Swimming Club. We wanted to support his 100 km swimming challenge. Alan pledged to his grandson Matthew to swim every day around-the-year with a 100 km goal to gather 1.000 pounds for Brain Tumor Research Charity...”



“... Matthew, who was energised by his grandpa's long-distance challenge, hoped that the pandemics would be soon over, so he could visit Kamakura with his grandpa and enjoy one of rough water races in Shonan. And though Alan succeeded to surpass his 100 km swimming challenge and gathered over £5.000 pounds for the charity, Matthew was in the meantime loosing his race against the cancer.


When we got the sad news from Alan that his 18 year old grandson passed away, we decided to held a special Christmas swimming event in Matthew’s memory…”


My story about Matthew and our Christmas Rough Water Swimming Charity was interrupted by the return of Atsuko & Carla. Though they were both shaking, they hesitated to re-enter.


“Come on! Get in, ladies! It’s freezing cold outside. Two guys are leaving…”


The tent-owner, Hoshino-san, who had invited me to join his local sauna community just a while ago, was now worrying about two other swimmers whom he had never met before.


We rotated again. The space freed by me and another guy was taken over by two freezing middle-aged women.



After my third swim I went back to the sauna. The place was crowded with a new group. One of the new arrivals, who owned a surfing school, was exchanging with Carla their mutual experiences of surfing with a parachute over the water. Another newcomer, who was an office worker, encouraged Atsuko to take up surfing again. Someone else who learned I was from Sweden wanted to know more about winter swimming in Scandinavia.


As we were talking, people came in and out. Some people wanted to know how much the cost of the annual membership was in our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club.


“It’s like your sauna, free of charge,” I poured more water over the hot rocks and added “Any rough water swimmer is welcome. Japanese or foreigner, it doesn’t matter. Free for all around-the-year- swimmers.”


And though we all belonged to different walks of life, and were born in different countries, we all shared similar emotions of love and fear of the unpredictable power of nature. Fear didn’t seem to be shameful, or something to hide from.


When Carla, Atsuko, and I were leaving the sauna, Hoshino-san, the Japanese owner of the Russianmade sauna tent wished us good luck in our next memorial charity swimming.


“Whenever you would need to warm yourself up between your rough water lifesaving, you and your friends are always welcome.”


Though our late British friend Matthew Pullan and the Brain Tumor Research Charity were never mentioned by name, we all felt his presence on this freezing, and yet heart-warming Shonan Kamakura beach.



In an odd way Matthew’s beach poem kept overlapping the sound of waves. The ocean was getting more peaceful.


Gradually my thoughts drifted to another side of the Shonan coast and to one of my Japanese friends who was living a rough life in a self-made tent.


By the end of the week, after one of our team members had sent an additional check to the Brain Tumor Research Charity, I bicycled with Atsuko to the other side of the Shonan coast to revisit my rough living Japanese friend.



His tent was patched up from a variety of plastic sheets that he had collected on the nearby beach. Though we had known each other for almost two years, we have never talked about the reason he had left his steady job in a globally known corporation and became a free camping homeless.



He remained aloof for the first few months, but gradually we managed to break the ice and realized that we shared similar interests.


Instead of talking about his past, we began to chat about the novels and poems he loved and overseas places he dreamed to visit.


After discovering that we both loved the outdoor life and the same writers, he didn’t shy away when I was sharing with him the remains of my unused camping gear and the books from my friends. One of the books I had shared with him was Matthew Pullan’s “A Trip to a Beach. Poetry by the Sea.” Gradually he accepted that I would drop by with another member of my SURF90 lifesaving team & Henna Gaijin Swimming Club.



There were times I could not catch up with him for weeks. His dwelling would remain empty. And then he would reappear out of the blue.


Though he was living rough and spend his time cleaning the nearby beaches for free, he was always clean and cheerful. The last time we visited him, I learned he got his second vaccination shot.


“Do you want to join me and Atsuko to visit one of our free camping Shonan friends before returning to Europe ?” I asked my fellow Spanish lifesaver Carla a few days after leaving the sauna venue.


“Sure. How faraway does your camper friend live from Kamakura?”


“Around 15 km,” said Atsuko.


“Close enough to invite him for a get together with our sauna friends.” I added.


When a few days later we parked our bicycles at the secluded side of the Shonan coast, where my friend kept his rough dwelling between the wild growing bamboos, there was no sight of him.



After leaving a message with a few camping supplies and a paperback novel inside his tent, we cycled back to the side of Shonan with more affluent dwellings. If he will ever re-join our newly set up sauna community, I am not sure. The Shonan winter is getting colder with each passing day, but there are still heart-warming outdoor places ready to welcome him and the other life-travellers.


“A Trip to a Beach. Poetry by the Sea.” Though Matthew has already travelled to the other side of life, it feels to me at times that his spirit is freely floating among the Shonan beach loving people.



Rain or shine is great To go to the beach and play With sand and memories




雨または輝き


雨でも晴れでも素晴らしいです

ビーチに行って遊ぶには

砂と思い出とともに


「ビーチへの旅」

海の詩

マシュー・プーラン 2020 による著作権




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