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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Jan 21, 2023

They were fighting to save a foreign climber’s life. But his heart attack was too massive. Mt. Fuji’s wind was too strong for a rescue helicopter to land near the First Aid Station at 3.100 m above sea level.

The station was manned by a veteran physician and an experienced climber, Keitaro. Though for two hours, Keitaro was trying to revive the heart of the middle aged American tourist, sadly the heart refused to respond.

Keitaro’s bilingual wife, Yasuko, who assisted as a volunteer social aid and interpreter, comforted the shocked companion of the deceased climber. Then Yasuko accompanied the victim’s body on the bulldozer, while her husband remained on duty near the summit.

The summer weather was always unpredictable after passing the 3.000 m altitude. In no time, the sunny skies could be replaced by dark clouds, heavy rain and lightning. Or hail-storms.

Suddenly the temperature could drop to zero and a deficiency of oxygen near the summit would make some people panic. The dizziness brought by mountain sickness would make an easy climbing path more difficult, and injuries more common.

During these rapid weather shifts, the number of injured tourists requiring first aid was always unpredictable.

Though their nationalities varied as much as their injuries, at the time of pain, it didn’t matter. What mattered was a quick access to medical aid and a few comforting words. Through his sixteen years as a volunteer doctor at Japan’s highest placed medical aid station, Keitaro was only twice defeated by death. In both cases the victims were visiting foreigners: An American man and a South Korean boy.

As the number of foreign climbers was increasing steadily, Keitaro needed a volunteer social aid with bicultural skills to assist the distressed overseas visitors. That's why he scouted his wife, Yasuko, to join him as a teammate over ten years ago. They became known as The Hashimoto Teammates: A Husband & A Wife.

How many of some 250.000 people who every summer climbed Fuji-san were treated by Keitaro and comforted by Yasuko, they didn't remember in detail.

But many foreigners who conquered the summit and safely descended from a 3.776 m high sacred volcano might still recall the Japanese couple for whom volunteering has been a way of life for decades.

Yasuko and Keitaro lived for some years in the USA and Germany, before joining Japan’s volunteer groups and making their home in Kamakura.

I incidentally bumped into Keitaro five years after my son and I had safely descended Mt. Fuji during a hail storm.

As I didn't need any medical aid then, I had no idea that the beach-cleaning-volunteer in my Kamakura neighborhood, and the Mt. Fuji doctor was the very same person. Neither had I known that the middle aged lady picking up beach glass from a sand strip linking Yuigahama and Zaimokuza beaches was his wife and teammate, Yasuko.

Yasuko and Keitaro used to come to the beach daily and they were usually accompanied by Chris, a huge black poodle with slightly crooked front legs.

One summer afternoon, after finishing my daily swim training in the Kamakura bay, I found Chris playing with my sandals behind my beach-chair.

Through Chris, I got to know his adopted parents, Yasuko & Keitaro, who happened to have been my neighbors since 2012.

Gradually our beach chats became more frequent and our differences clearer: they were into adopting unwanted dogs, and I was into caring for blind stray cats. In between, we picked up plastics rubbish from the beach we loved.

During one of our early beach encounters, I noticed that Chris had difficulty running. First, I thought he had stepped on a piece of glass that the ocean washed up along our beaches, but Yasuko explained to me that Chris was born with distorted joints.

As nobody wanted a handicapped large dog, she and Keitaro adopted him and nourished him with healthy food supplements and regular exercise. His legs gradually improved, and except for the seasonal changes of weather that affected his joints, Chris enjoyed his life like any other beach doggie: chewing on my sandals, or peeing behind my chair.

Then in the middle of my first summer in Kamakura, the three of them stopped coming to the beach.

They returned after the bathing season was over; the seaside tavernas were gone, and our beach became quiet again.

It was then I learned that Keitaro & Yasuko left their house in Kamakura for their annual volunteering at the weathered First Aid Station 700 meters below the crater of Mt. Fuji.

As their architect son and musician daughter have been living outside of Kamakura, Keitaro & Yasuko still had plenty of energy left to share: they adopted another dog in need of a family and called him Hugo.

Though they were aging and though taking care of two huge poodles required a lot of stamina, Yasuko said, they were blessed with good enough health and a comfortable enough house.

At first, some of the beach-goers watching Keitaro cleaning the Kamakura shore in the company of Hugo became confused: Hugo was almost a copy of Chris, but white.

Yasuko, from her daily beach walkouts with the dogs used to bring home colorful glass pieces, broken ceramics, and shells.

While Keitaro was out to treat patients at our small neighborhood hospital near a 800 year old statue of Great Buddha (Daibutsu), Yasuko was turning her beach findings into multi-dimensional artifacts.

Looking at her artworks illuminated in darkness was like a magical journey.

It almost felt as if the sound of the ocean waves at sunset was preserved in the glass pieces she had brought home from our Yuigahama beach and turned into art objects.

Some other of her artifacts reminded me of Mt. Fuji’s sunrise reflected in the glass pieces she had picked up from nearby Zaimokuza beach.

Sometimes, on Yuigahama when I bumped into Yasuko walking the dogs with her clarinetist daughter, Yukiko, we would end up talking about music.

Yukiko who formed her own classic music group, was occasionally performing with Yasuko. As my daughter is also a professional singer, and Yasuko plays piano, during one of our home visits we came up with an idea of forming a neighborhood trio.

Being invited to Yasuko and Keitaro’s home parties was always like going for a multi-cultural adventure. The guests were frequently varied with their mixed ethnic heritage, unusual professional experiences, and unpredictable accents.

Sometimes, the native Japanese were the minority at the dinner table. Among the diners were Japanese-Swiss, Flemish-Belgians, Polish-Swedes, French Canadians, Germans, multicultural Americans fluent in Japanese language and culture, overseas Japanese less fluent in their mother tongue, or just nomadic cosmopolitans feeling comfortable anywhere and everywhere where they felt welcomed. The guest musicians were mingling with doctors, teachers, architects, writers, social workers, life guards, and long distance swimmers.

There was even a retired American drummer who ended as a submarine commander secretly remaining in love with the Beatles but still loyally married to a Hawaii-based Ikebana artist.

Some guests were more colourful than the others, and their ages varied: from a teenage schoolboy Seitaro who loved computer games, to the chatty adults who, like me, loved anything drinkable... The mood was becoming more joyful with passing time.

And frequently, there was after dinner music entertainment provided by Yasuko, with an occasional guest duet or a trio. Bach and Chopin were followed by Japanese jazzy crossovers and Symphonic Metal. The performers varied: from the US and the EU-trained musicians to a Japan-educated composer who recently married a fellow Kamakura life guard.

The Hashimotos two floor house that was designed by their son, Rentaro, is an artwork itself: it doesn’t have stairs! Unbelievable! Rentaro, who like his wife Yumiko, is an architect, got some of his unusual ideas during his postgraduate research in England.

When I asked Rentaro why the house wall that faced the garden was entirely made of windows, his explanation was also striking.

He said he wanted his parents to enjoy observing the growing plants from the inside even during bad weather, and to enjoy the seasonally changing colors of the leaves on the tree that was planted long ago by his late grandfather.

It seemed that the past and the present were flowing together in this magical Kamakura house until the pandemic struck and the home parties were replaced by social distancing.

And yet the Hashimoto House continued to live on its own. The Covid didn't disrupt its inner fabric; it actually made the family bonding even stronger with each passing months.

On the last Sunday of June, Yasuko and Keitaro, invited me for dinner. That time, due to the still ongoing Covid danger, only the three of us shared the table that used to accommodate twelve or more people.

There were no guest musicians. Yasuko played Chopin for the four of us: Keitaro, Chris, Hugo, and a nomadic writer. It was for the first time for years that the Hashimoto Team was not going to do their volunteering service: Mt. Fuji was closed due to the pandemic for the entire tourist season.

But they were already making plans to join the First Aid Station in the summer of 2021.

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1 Comment

Jul 10, 2020

Dear Joseph Polack,

Thank you so much for the article about Mr.and Mrs. Hashimoto.

I enjoyed it very much.

I have had a long association with Yasuko sensei for more than thirty years as one of her students in Kofu ,Yamanashi.

I do respect them and am proud of being close to the Hashimotos .

I look forward to the next article (^^).

Yoko Fushimi

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