We headed out early that morning to visit Fujita-san on location at his seaside oyster farming business. As we arrived, I noticed that there were mountains of bleached white oyster shells stacked high behind his buzzing and humming temporary-looking factory. It looked like his business was doing well after the disaster, and I was glad to see it.
Our aim that morning was to steal a bit of his time to show him some photos of found items. We waited for the right moment, and finally, he broke from his rush. Fujita-san seemed content to listen to our story and then catch a glimpse of dozens of buoys, balls, and crates that Dave Baxter and I had found over the past few years. In a serious, almost purpose driven way, he quietly stared at the photos before him. I couldn’t believe our luck when he picked out not one, but two items that he recognized.
The first was a crate owned by a local caterer, and the other was a seared family name pressed well into the surface of a plastic buoy. He was most excited about the buoy. He lit up and told us that it belonged to Suzuki-san, who would be very happy to see it. He also said that Suzuki-san was one of the oldest farmers in the region, and may be able to identify more owners.
He thought that we ought to surprise him, but also hurry, because Suzuki-san was an old man. He lived up on a hill at the edge of town and would need a proper introduction (given by Fujita-san) in order for us to see him. That precluded a same day meeting with Suzuki-san, so we made a plan to meet Fujita-san the next day at his place and then follow him up to pay the elder fisherman a visit. I have to admit that it was a little bit hard to sleep that night because of the anticipation.
The next morning, we were taken up the hill. Suzuki-san’s house was amazing. Fujita-san joked that Suzuki-san had the best property in the area and was the envy of his peers. Unlike most of what I had seen of Japan to this point, his property spanned a substantial acreage. It also ended in a drop off that faced vertically to the sea, and presented an incredible vista. When we found Suzuki-san on his property, he was tending to his garden. He stopped briefly to see what was going on, and then turned to meet us in his driveway.
Suzuki-san appeared to be about 90 or so, but oddly youthful with his Seattle Mariners jumpsuit and ball cap. Old school pimp meets Mr. Miyagi. He looked sinewy and strong. His hands were the weathered hands of a life-long fisherman. As I drew near, I noticed that one of his eyes was blue-yellow cloudy and his lips were curled up inside of his mouth due lack of tooth support. His Japanese was almost indiscernible, even to the translators. When I explained who I was and showed him the photo, with Fujita-san, he was silent and still. Fujita-san asked me to zoom the photo in and after I did, we all got excited about the big toothless smile that appeared. He chuckled, and Fujita spoke excitedly to him about how I was from Alaska and how this buoy had travelled so far. Suzuki-san’s wife came over and she also became happy, and seemed somewhat amazed. They both looked through the rest of my photos, and visited a little more with us. It felt really good to see their smiles and answer their questions about Alaska. Somewhere along the way, I asked them about how he marked his buoy. He told me that he used a hot branding iron, and began to hobble away to get it. I thought a bit about it, and then asked him if he would brand something of mine so that I would remember our meeting. He chuckled again, and I think probably said something about a silly white man, but in the end agreed.
I ran up to the van, grabbed my laptop case and brought it down to him. He fired up a propane torch and heated an older looking, slightly rusted, wooden-handled branding iron. Later I learned that this branding iron had been passed down through generations in his family and was over 300 years old. Just after the iron end reached a glowing red state, Suzuki-san emphatically pressed it into the hard plastic. When he did, he not only seared his family name into my case, but he also seared the entire meeting and feelings about the encounter in my mind. I couldn’t help but to tear up a bit. He asked me what the case was for and I told him that it was for my computer and business papers and that I carried with me everywhere.
I asked him if I could run down to the end of his property quickly to look at the ocean. I think he took that as me wanting to see the ocean, so he loaded himself up in his car, beckoned for us to follow him, and took us down to a boat-launching dock. There, we spoke some more, he showed us what the tsunami did to the land, and indicated how high it pushed up towards the houses. We eventually bid him farewell and I watched him waving and tipping his hat with a smile to us as we travelled back towards town to continue our search. We passed his wife and she stood and stared at us, still seemingly amazed, maybe even stunned, yet smiling, about the events that had just occurred. It was a solid visit, and a great return.