One morning in the heart of cherry blossom season, I took a walk by the Kamogawa river in Kyoto. It should rank high as one of the best things to do there.
The Sakura was in full bloom, which was perfect, because I wanted to stretch my legs to compensate for all the sedentary sake-drinking the nights before. And we all know it didn’t happen if there is no photographic evidence of cherry blossoms.
It turned out to be a good decision because the scene was straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.
Plenty of locals were out enjoying the crisp, cool air. I saw a couple of teenage girls in school uniforms, cycling on the riverbank.
They had identical backpacks, shoes, and the same shoulder-length hair. I couldn’t tell if there were sisters or just really good friends. Their shiny bicycles glimmered in the sun.
They were giggling and showing all their teeth at the same time, as happy Japanese school children are wont to do. Their luscious, black hair danced in the wind.
Their gleeful expressions suggested they had no homework for the week.
Overhead, in a clear, open sky the colour of a baby’s bedroom walls, a couple of kingfishers glided lazily. The majestic and shallow river, the size of an eight-lane expressway, gargled lazily. It was idyllic, like a real-life Pleasantville.
That’s when I saw the old man.
He was a whittled being, small in stature. He had an old baseball cap and surgical mask on. He was dressed in an oversized mechanic’s overalls and rubber boots.
His raisin-skin was dry, and his jaws were straining. The thin veins on his wrinkled neck popped, betraying an on-going battle between man and fish.
His gaze burned, pin-sharp, on a point somewhere below the water 30 metres out.
The old man was pulling slowly and purposefully with his fishing rod, leaning his upper body as far back as he could, as if warming up for a Jujutsu bout. There was something angry at the end of the line.
I wasn’t the only one witnessing the fight. A handful of curious onlookers had dutifully whipped their phones out to record the scene (only to show it to uninterested friends later, I assume). We stepped closer to the old man, who was oblivious to us.
We could have been dressed in The Avengers costumes and he wouldn’t have cared.
This unflinching tug-of-war continued for another 5 minutes before a giant carp appeared, floundering in the mud on the shallow riverbank.
The old man didn’t high-five anyone in triumph. He didn’t call his wife to say dinner was sorted.
In fact, he had the facial expression of granite. He put the fishing rod down and stepped slowly towards the twitching, hapless animal.
Some of the by-standers moved in, hoping to witness some savagery. The carp was about a metre long, weighing at least 15 kilos.
But instead of clubbing the defeated prey on its head, or bagging it, the old man squatted by the river, and skilfully removed the hook from the carp’s lip.
He cradled the thing in his hands, lifted it, and dipped it into shallow waters, petting its head gently, like you would a Golden Retriever.
He checked its fins and underbelly, like a mechanic at a bicycle repair shop. He faced the fish upstream, so that the soft current washed the muddy gunk out of its gills.
All the while, he was stroking the fish gently, singing a strangely pleasing Japanese folksong. After a few minutes, he let the river carp glide into deeper waters.
Then he returned to his fighting spot, and cast another line.
All photos taken with Sony A7Rii ©Tommy Wee