Mixed Plate: The quiet life of a Japanese river-farer

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Japan has a long history of seafarers. Less known are the country’s river-farers.

In another time long ago, timber was carried by river to build the great city of Kyoto. Now, it’s the thoroughfare of the wasen, the traditional Japanese flatboats piloted by a dying breed of navigator.

Kinosuke Tanaka has been rowing the Hozugawa for nearly 50 years. He knows every rock, every tree along the 16-kilometer winding course from Kameoka to Arashiyama.

He knows the mood of the river by the feel and color of the water, knowledge he hopes to pass on to his sons as it was passed on to him.

Three men work in concert silently, hearing only the moaning of the oar against the hull. One is at the rudder to steer, another at the single oar to propel the boat forward, the third with a bamboo pole to push forward in shallow water and repel the rocks.

The river-farers once transported grain and firewood to the south, a task now accomplished by trucks and trains. So the wasen today are filled with tourists and weekend thrill-seekers. They come for the mountain air, the wildlife, and the rapids.

While inflatable rafts and protective head gear might be more prudent on the Hozugawa, the wasen relies solely on the skill of its crew to keep the wooden craft and its passengers dry and safe.

At age 69, Tanaka hopes to retire when his sons are ready to take over, if they take over.

He’s concerned that higher-paying jobs may lure them to the city. He himself has no interest in leaving. Why should I, he asks, when this is my office?

As we near Arashiyama, the food vendors approach. On the menu today: hot dog turnip soup and beer.

The covered lake boats stick close to shore, catering to tourists a little less willing to take a more adventuresome journey to the delta.

But to the remaining river-farers, the only way to see the Hozugawa is in a scuffed and scarred flatboat, flying through the crystalline waters.

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