Shinrin’yoku (森林浴)

Essay by Isaac Tait

“Many [people] go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Henry David Thoreau

September 15, 2009 – Semper Fi

I am awoken by the sound of rats scurrying beneath my rack. Someone had failed to throw away their trash and the rats had scampered in to clean up the mess. How cordial of them to clean up the mess… I think to myself while I stare into the darkness of the Quonset hut.

My thoughts drift to my wife and what she must be doing at this moment. Even though we are still in the same country, even the same state, we could not be any further apart. Pushing the nostalgia into the back of my mind I reach for my boots, making sure to give them a good shake to dislodge any unpleasant critters who might have taken up residence in them while I slept.

The sun was still several hours away from cresting the horizon and so with a twinge of sadness I flipped on the lights, yelling “reveille” with false motivation. Several curses were directed my way, but eventually everyone was awake and bundling up to brave the cold desert wind.

Groggily we made our way outside into the dark cold to fire up the engines of our “pigs”, the name we half lovingly bestowed upon our Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs). A few hours later I find myself sitting on an unnamed bluff while F/A-18 fighter jets scream overhead lobbing 500-pound bombs into the blue void.

The explosions, I am told, are far enough away to not pose any danger to us. However, I was told the same thing, just over six years ago, during an explosive ordinance disposal mission in Iraq; and then we were all diving for cover as shrapnel came raining down all around us. Consequently, I am enjoying my breakfast inside the turret of my pig – with the hatches closed.

While tanks are the sexy and haughty sister of mechanized warfare, the homely and disheveled stepsister is light armor. Conceived to bridge the gap between truck and tank she has the merits of none and the shortcomings of both. Despite her shortcomings though she does, somewhat surprisingly, excel at reconnaissance and plays a central role in maneuver warfare. For this reason, the U.S. Marine Corps Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalions (of which there are four) were the perfect tool for a nasty job that needed doing in Afghanistan. That is why I found myself listening intently for the telltale sound of incoming shrapnel while baking inside the turret of my LAV under the intense California sun – my battalion was scheduled to soon rotate into Helmand Province and we had to complete the necessary training before shipping out.

Seven weeks later, on the Marine Corps’ Birthday, I am sleeping in the back of a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter (as soundly as one can when they are being buffeted by wind, intense vibration, and noise that does wake the dead) when I am awakened by bullets zinging through the hull. It is pitch black and I could only make out my buddy’s face, who is sitting across from me a mere ten feet away, when the flash of the door gunners’ machine guns lights up the cargo bay. I take off my helmet and sit on it. Welcome to Afghanistan! It is going to be a long seven months. I think to myself.

I think about those days, and the many more like them quite often – when I am having a beer with old buddies, in the middle of night when I wake up in cold sweats, and when I am out on the river tenkara rod in hand with nothing but the silence of nature, and my memories, reminding me of how precious life is.

September 15, 2014 – Eldersburg, Maryland

It is a cold, dreary, and wet morning – a bit of a change from the long hot summer (really the only difference is the temperature; it is always wet in Maryland). My buddy Nick and I are gallivanting through the countryside in a Buick looking for a trout stream. Both of us have never been to this river and we are following directions that are proving to be a little more than vague. After getting things sorted out, we park in the mud at the end of a long dirt road. We step out of the warm and dry car and follow a narrow footpath into the misty, humid, and dripping forest. Judging from the increasing stentorian call of the river we suspect that we are headed in the right direction.

Even after several months of fishing the rivers of Maryland, my Southern California sensibilities are still unaccustomed to the dense and abundant vegetation that grow with an incredible voracious nature in these parts. The foliage, combined with the threat of Copperheads and Rattlers, makes navigating to and from a river almost always an adventure in itself.

Safely standing on the riverbank we begin fishing. My buddy hooks into a nice Fallfish (he almost always catches the first fish), but we are here for trout, so we press on deeper into the forest, following the lazy bends of the river. I come across a bit of faster water and cast into the riffles not really expecting to find anything there. Rather, I am trying to set up a nice drift into an undercut bank.

As my fly drifts towards my target the line suddenly goes taunt. Thinking it has gotten snagged I try pulling my line upstream and then the water erupts in a violent explosion. This is not a snag – we have found the trout that are rumored to shelter in this river through the summer! After a hearty fight I bring to hand a beautiful 15-inch Rainbow. After a few quick photos, we return her to the water and press on downstream.

Seven weeks later, I find myself sitting in the cabin of a 747 peering out the window to the Pacific Ocean over six miles below. Glancing forward I catch my first glimpse of land since passing over the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington – the Kashima Coast of Japan. As we fly into the interior, I see the flash of the sun against lakes and rivers hidden in the tumultuous topography. From the air I realize in an instant that I am going to fall in love with this island, the “land of the rising sun”, which is to be my home for the next three years. Suddenly three years, or possibly even a lifetime, does not seem like enough time to get to know her.

September 15, 1916 – The Somme

I consider myself an appreciator of military history – if I ever went back to college, I would get my Masters in Military History. Because of this affinity with the history of battle and tactics I know many seemingly useless facts. For example, the centennial anniversary of tank warfare is this year. The British have the dubious honor of being the first to deploy tanks into warfare – they did so during the Battle of Somme on September 15, 1916.

The first ever mechanized warfare deployment during World War I not only changed an entire generation, causing ripple effects in the following generations that may never fully be known, but was also the testing ground for new technology and science that through many iterations and trial and error impacted my life some 93 years later! Sometimes I wonder if the creators of the Mark I tank would have rethought their plans if they knew what it would bring about?

While many horrors were realized, experienced, and endured during the Great War there were a few good things that did come from it. For example, two of my favorite authors both fought in the Battle of Somme. Through that experience of raw and horrific human emotions forged in the fires of battle their stories were born. Lord of the Rings and Narnia are just a few of the stories that these two men wrote. Those stories are based, more deeply than first meets the eye, on their experiences in the Battle of Somme and the continued conflicts after that score had been settled.

Their imagination created a world where nature, heroes, love, and selflessness reigned supreme over the ugliness of the mechanical horrors that the enemy wielded. Some years after the war, C.S. Lewis (the author of Narnia and many other greatly loved books) said: “There are times when I wonder if the invention of the internal combustion engine was not an even greater disaster than that of the hydrogen bomb!” In the immensely popular trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the abominations of the machine world are even more clearly defined, and the glories and beauty of the natural world raised high and shown as possessing true merit and honor.

Their view of the world, as seen through the prism of the Great War, inspired them to create stories about the splendor and majesty of the natural world – and how this world was at war with the mechanical and progressive forces of the machine and of science. While their view may seem a little extreme and outdated, I do find myself pondering if maybe they were on the right track. Some 100 years later breakthroughs in science and machinery have vastly improved the human condition – as well as harmed it. Theirs was a call to return to the spiritual and natural while simultaneously moving away from the intolerance, hate, and jealousy that had caused so much horror. Unfortunately, this is something we as a human race have never seemed to be able to master.

Seven weeks later, the Battle of Somme is decided, and the world moves on to other battlefields. The lessons learned from that battle “that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” The memory of the carnage, and what caused it, slipped from memory into the realm of lore and conspiracy.

September 15, 2015 – Asahi Mountain Range, Japan

It is a beautiful afternoon albeit a little hazy and on the warm side. I am anxiously watching numerous hornets and wasps buzz around the trailhead and so when the two other expedition members, Kado-san and Wan-san, are ready to leave I gratefully shoulder my heavy pack and lead the “charge” into the forest – if only to put some distance between me and those vile flying insects. However, I soon find myself knee deep in a muddy bog and so the epic slog up the side of the mountain begins.

As we struggle for altitude Wan-san becomes hopelessly stuck in the mud on the side of the near vertical hillside. Together Kado-san and I link arms while he hangs from a tree with his free arm. I grasp our friend and together we pull him from the quagmire. Maybe we packed too much wine and whiskey; these packs are proving to be insanely heavy. Stubbornly we continue upward, stumbling over roots, contorting ourselves and our packs through a maze of downed trees, and feeling our way through dense thickets of bamboo. Finally, the echo of the river that is our destination, reaches our ears and gleefully we slip and slide down the far side of the muddy mountain, and plunge into the icy cold water.

As the cold water washes away the mud, the blood, and soothes our burning muscles the retrospection of our journey to get here slowly fades into a more pleasant memory than the actual occurrence. I cannot help the reversal though because my awe and splendor at the majesty of the place I am now standing in overwhelms me and overcomes my senses of reason.

That night as I lay in my hammock staring up at the stars, the sound of the babbling river mingling with the crackle of the fire I think about days gone by and the card my wife got me for my birthday, a few years back, that said “I have survived damn near everything!” I can now add to that list of survival: a Japanese cross-country backpacking tenkara trip. I think my sensei Kado-san could give Mr. Yuzo Sebata a run for his money in the “most daring tenkara angler” award; if there is such a thing. The modesty of the Japanese people would probably not allow it, but still if there was such an award Kado-san would at least be inducted into its Hall of Fame.

As exhaustion tugs at my eyelids I reflect on the simplicity and pureness of tenkara and how it has been cathartic in taming the intensity of my past experiences. It blends natural beauty with serenity in a way that I have not been able to replicate with other endeavors. It is not the fish I am after (although it certainly is a good reason) but rather the adventure, the natural beauty, and the peacefulness that combine to create a revival of my spirit.

Finally sleep comes and when I awake the sun is already much too high in the sky and my companions are fully dressed and eating breakfast by the smoldering fire. I stumble out of my sleeping bag and engulf a delicious breakfast of tamago and ramen smothered in fresh green onions and then, half begrudgingly I pull on my cold and grimy sawanabori shoes.

That day we bring to hand 53 beautiful Iwana (between the three of us) and release 51. That afternoon though the blue skies are replaced by storm clouds and we spend the evening struggling to get a hot enough fire going to cook our two fish. Eventually we succeed and then we dine on Iwana, freeze dried rice, sake, wine, and whiskey – and fall asleep to the sound of rain, and the occasional massive seeds falling from the trees above, pelting our tent. That night there is an earthquake, or maybe it was a trio of trolls out looking for dinner. Whatever it is I am too exhausted to care and quickly fall back to sleep, with talking beavers and mice dancing in and out of my dreams.

Seven weeks later, the fishing season is over, but I find myself in yet another magical location, this time in the shadow of Mount Fuji, where there is a forest that thrives in a harsh and seemingly uninhabitable landscape.

Deep in the mist and moss of this forest though it holds a dark secret while nearby there are waterfalls that erupt from the earth, yet another secret concealed by this landscape. The rivers’ subterranean journey suddenly ends, and the cold and clear water escapes the bowels of the earth and leaps into the light! As I take in this landscape and marvel at its wonder my mind begins to wander to past times.

While Tolkien’s and Lewis’s writings were a sort of cathartic process for them to sort through the pain of the ordeals they endured during the Battle of Somme, my cathartic process is immersing myself in the serene and beauteous environments of the natural world. They created a make believe world filled with all that they found good and held dear in the world but I have found a real world that could easily have stepped out of the pages of their best stories!

During the course of my travels in Japan I have found river valleys that rivaled Rivendell, a forest that looks exactly how I imagined Fangorn Forest would look like, and skied in landscapes that so closely resembled Narnia during the 100-year winter that I found myself wondering if Aslan was going to come lumbering out of the forest in front of me. Through the power of the pen, and their faith, Lewis and Tolkien began to find solace, peace, and a purpose. How tiny and inconsequential must their writings have seemed to them at the time? Yet even after they had left this earth their stories continued to enrich and enlighten.

Much like a tiny bubbling spring our actions today can seem inconsequential but when given enough time and space that spring grows into a cold, clear, and pure mountain stream filled with life and creating life – or it becomes a flood decimating and maiming a landscape… Places like the ones I have discovered in Japan are what give me reason to pause and reflect on how blessed I am to be here, alive and experiencing a side of the world I thought only existed in fairy tales.

In memory of the fallen few who were a few too many, you will not be forgotten.

  • Corporal Douglas Marenco Reyes – KIA May 18, 2003
  • Lance Corporal Gregory E. McDonald – KIA June 25, 2003
  • Lance Corporal Jeremy M. Kane – KIA January 23, 2010
  • HM2 “Doc” Xin Qi – KIA January 23, 2010
  • Sergeant David J. Smith – KIA January 27, 2010 (listed incorrectly as January 26, 2010)
  • Lance Corporal Carlos A. Aragon – KIA March 1, 2010
  • Lance Corporal Nigel K. Olsen – KIA March 4, 2010
  • Lance Corporal Rick J. Centanni – KIA March 24, 2010
  • Sergeant Major Robert J. Cottle – KIA March 24, 2010

Isaac Tait is an angling and outdoors enthusiast who has spent time fishing across the world. He was fortunate to have spent an extensive residency in Japan, where he chased amago, iwana, and yamame in the magnificent backcountry keiryu. He recorded many of those experiences on this website Fallfish Tenkara.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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