After a two hour drive through the countryside, passing countless rice fields juxtaposed against the imposing concrete structure of the tracks for the Shinkasen (soon to open in 2015 connecting Honshu with Hokkaido), we arrive at the desolate and wind-blown Tappi Misaki. Processing my first glance of Tsugaru, this intimidating windswept body of water, I am struck by the magnitude of the journey upon which I am about to embark. Sensitive to the weather conditions that will dictate whether or not I swim, I estimate the wind is blowing well over 20 knots. I hope with desperation that it calms down. My precious two-day swim window begins tomorrow.
Winding our way down to the tiny cove below the cliff, it becomes clear to me how isolated we are from any of the conveniences of modern life. Passing this traditional fishing village nestled up against the gigantic cliff face upon which the Hotel Tappi is located, we arrive at the harbor. The plan is to meet my boat pilot Captain Mizushima – an older gentleman who is a tuna fisherman from the local community - and my official swim observer, Mika at 3pm.
I introduce myself and as the culture dictates, I present Mizushima with a gift. His face lights up with delight as I hand him a bottle of whiskey. I jokingly suggest perhaps he shouldn’t indulge tonight and as we share a laugh, I feel an immediate connection with him. This is extremely important for me. The boat captain is ultimately responsible for my safety and well-being during a swim. As he navigates his boat across the sea, and I follow alongside in the water – the only human in the water - he will keep watch over me. During the swim he will also maintain contact with nearby vessel traffic and the Japanese Coast Guard. He will try his best to pick the optimal course across the sea based on the currents and weather. He will also make the final call if it is determined I need to be pulled from the water due to hypothermia or debilitating interactions with wildlife. I am trusting Mizushima with my life.
Discussions about my swim plan follow. I explain my swim speed to help determine the course and Mizushima talks us through his predictions as to the weather and the chance for a good crossing. As if on cue, the wind begins to subside. I am struck by the timing. Mizushima notices too. Infamously treacherous and equally unpredictable, Tsugaru is known by the locals as the Flying Dragon. Yet should the weather cooperate as planned, Mizushima predicts the dragon may in fact be sleeping tomorrow. A very unusual event, this would make it a very lucky day indeed.
Feeling more comfortable with Mizushima, I ask him if there is a possibility for displaying the New Zealand flag on the main boat. It isn’t a problem and he offers to hang the flag. After careful consideration, Mizushima seems to have found the perfect spot on his boat. I watch with wonder and gratitude as the task is treated with great dignity and respect. Not entirely satisfied with the first location for my flag, Mizushima spends many moments pondering this task further. In our earlier discussion I mentioned that I would prefer to swim on the starboard side of his boat. Mizushima honors my request and soon discovers the exact spot that would enable the flag to fly on my preferred side. I feel supremely proud as the New Zealand flag is raised into position.
With preparations in place and my scheduled departure time from the harbor to be 2:30am – a mere 8 hours away - I need to eat dinner and rest. But there is one more task to complete. At Mizushima's invitation, we walk up the narrow alleyway between the tiny homes in the village and come upon his local temple for one last prayer. I slip off my shoes and follow my team into the small and modest temple. Mika hands me a small copper prayer bowl and the accompanying stick. Following her instructions, I lead us into prayer. A long silence ensues. Caught in the emotion of this moment, tears stream down my face.