17.03.2015 - 17.03.2015
Two days ago, en route to where this story is actually going, we went to a fancy shiatsu/massage clinic to schedule an early evening appointment for Pam, who hasn't been feeling well pretty much the entire trip. (The massage ended up being wonderful and very reasonably priced)
Scheduling accomplished, we hopped a couple of trains to get to Kameoka on the Hozugawa River, where we were to undertake a mildly adventurous two-hour river boat descent that would eventually deposit us 16 kilometers downstream at Arashiyama -- featured 2+ years ago in our fall colors spectacular blog. Water levels were fairly high, rapids interestingly rapid, the trees were just beginning to blossom, bird sitings--and even a monkey--were frequent, if fleeting, and everyone could wave at the people in the sightseeing train above; look around the site (http://www.hozugawakudari.jp/en) and you'll get a reasonably good idea of what we experienced and expected.)
What none of us, including our four-man crew (who probably had at least a cumulative 75 years on the river), had ever experienced or expected occured maybe two-thirds of the way through our journey. We passengers were enjoying the thrill of our seasoned crew navigating us through rapids, narrow chutes and past boulders, shrieks, laughter, river spray and applause punctuating their good-humored patter and displays of expertise. It's worth noting that the company that runs these river rides has departures every hour on the hour, except for ours (by my delberate decision because I wanted the difficult, but dramatic, late afternoon light for photography), the last departure of the day, one and one-half hours after the previous boat.
The design of the boat more or less requires passengers to look forward, rubber-necking to the right or left as sights approach. We were dodging through some big boulders when, for a brief moment, no more than a second I reckon, I glimpsed the back, head and legs of a black-haired, motionless man draped over the top of a Smart-car sized boulder in mid-river -- like a piece of wilted spinach on a baked potato -- no more than six feet from our boat. In the time it took to twist around to try to confirm what I had seen, we were past it; he was linear ancient history. Pam and I were the only non-natives on board -- everybody else spoke only Japanese -- so it wasn't immediately clear who had seen what, when, or for how long. Pam had seen a tad more than I, and both of us immediately began to watch the crew, looking for whatever their faces would reveal. Of course it was their job to be hyper observant, and certainly at least a couple of them had seen the man . . . but there were still several moments of uncertainty, during which time maybe 250 meters and 25 seconds passed, and we were several river turns past where the man had been spotted. But a plan had been hatched, evidently, and we swung into shore as quickly as we could. The crew secured our boat, someone was on a cellphone or walkie-talkie, and two of our crew disappeared on foot, heading back towards the sighting. Within short minutes we heard sirens and within mere moments more we spied a couple of cop-types scrambling over a fence high above, and down the steep canyon walls -- all unfolding amazingly quickly. Though the man was motionless and I had observed him for less than a second, I've seen people freshly dead or dying from accidents or wounds, and my instinct was that he was not dead. Over the next twenty minutes or so we watched as emergency vehicles and their personnel gathered on a bridge high above the river, then resumed our own river descent, a slightly more somber congregation than before. When we finally arrived at Arashiyama roughly half an hour later, there was a further assembly of fire, EMT and rescue vehicles still awaiting . . . extraction of the victim from the canyon cannot have been trivial. Nobody spoke English, and we were now in a previously unexpected rush for a Shiatsu appointment back in Kyoto.