penny dreadful malibu japan 1999

21 June 2009 07:57:00 AEST

I remember steaming into the harbour at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay ready for anything. It was a busy port to enter, the mouth of the Bay criss crossed by international merchantmen bringing raw materials in and line after line of cargo ships with decks bloated with stacks of cars heading out. It was early December, the start of the winter and most of those ships were going to run into heavy seas. They ran on the assumption they would lose 5% of their cargo overboard due to heavy weather, so placed the cheaper cars on the outside. I always wondered how many Toyota Carolla's lie at the bottom of the oceans of the world.

As we pushed into the harbour, the oceangoing ships turned into local Japanese craft that serviced the islands of Okinawa and the coastal ports; weird one off constructions tailored for specific purposes and roles. I expected half of them capable of transforming at any minute in preparation for Mothra's latest imminent attack. Then we rounded a bend and I thought we were back in Pearl Harbour, an entire US Carrier Battle Group alongside at the base, along with about 20,000 jarheads - phoney tough and crazy brave. Yokosuka was a pretty cruisy posting for these guys, shore respite before they rotated back to some hell hole.

I had been receiving the swell report for the last few days and was keen to get up north to the beaches and reefs off Hebara. The same lows that steam down from the Aleutians to power the North Shore of Hawaii spin off to the east coast of Japan. Its always smaller but often cleaner. It looked like about 5 feet from the NW, 16 second period and no wind. First night in would be a bender but I planned to head up there the next day somehow.

Some of the Marines were hosting us alongside so they set up a dinner at a local sushi house. They had assumed that the first thing we would want to do was eat a traditional meal and then go to a strip club where the girls dressed up in school uniforms. I have to admit that they were right on both counts. Technically we were in Japan at this point but only a few miles from the base it felt like a Japanese simulator from Disneyland. Bud Light neon buzzed in harmony side by side a Kirin sign - testament to the post WW II US / Japanese pact.

This was a sushi bar with a twist, here you picked the fish you wanted and got to watch the chef butcher it in front of you; marines found this particularly appealing. All of the fish were crammed into a tiny tank, faces stuck to the surface gasping for air. It was a little like picking out your first goldfish as a kid out of a tank of hundreds of them. For this fish though, this pick was a far darker lottery. I half picked and nodded as the chef scooped some generic looking redfish out of the tank and watched him take it to the bench. I wasn't particularly interested in watching him eviscerate it before my eyes so I sat down and grabbed a beer. That was the moment I first met first Lieutenant Clifton M. Shoup, USMC.

Shoup was from Duluth, Minnesota and was living the middle American dream that was traveling and whoring his way around the world on Uncle Sam's dime. There were about 15 Marines with us and I has asked one of them if they knew much about surfing in Japan - he pointed me at Shoup. As we chatted about the coming swell I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. Over on the bench the chef was working on my fish. From my seat all I could see were the top of his hands working at a frantic speed. A whole side of scales sprayed out to the side in one deft movement and he took up the knife. I saw the tail of this fish stand up, quivering as he got to work. After about 10 seconds it started to slump out of my view, twitching in spasms. Less than a minute later a plate went down in front of me. There were a dozen perfectly rolled pieces of flesh scattered around the rim of the plate. In the middle lay the head of the fish, still attached to it's spine. The chef beamed at me like an idiot. Shoup jumped in;

"It's a special technique they use, they cut up the fish so quickly that it doesn't have time to know it's dead."

We had just agreed Shoup was going to take me surfing tomorrow. I looked down to my plate, the jaws of the fish opened and closed mechanically, still gasping for water; the wet unblinking black eye looking up at me. I placed a piece of the still warm flesh in my mouth and then the fish realised it was dead. I looked around the table and watched some of the marines fixating on this moment - the point in time when something knew it was dead. It only occurred to me afterwards that there wasn't a single Japanese customer in the restaurant.

Shoup picked me up next morning at 6 am. It was pitch black and freezing, no wind though which was good. We had a 6 hour drive to get up to the Hebara area so today would be a write off anyway. We agreed to spend 3 days up there so I was thinking an afternoon session today and the early the next. We were going mid week so the crowd should be low. The largest Nissan factory in the world was just down the road and it didn't suprise me when Shoup pulled up in one of their cars. It was some sort of big chevy pickup look a like that obviously didn't make it to large scale production anywhere out side of the US Base. There were two longboards in the back tray, all trussed up in their covers with frost around the tails and fins. Shoup was playing Peter Frampton as we started the long drive up to Hebara.

When I was young I had always imagined Tokyo to be some gleaming city from an Astroboy cartoon. On the road to Hebara you really just kiss the edge of the sprawl as you make your way up the coast. We hit the edge of Tokyo around 0900. In place of the gleaming city in my mind lay an endless middle class sprawl. Grey people shuffled around rabbit warrens of lowrise ramshackle housing. Satellite dishes jutted here and there amongst the jumble as an endless number of small family businesses glumly opened their doors to no customers. We topped a small rise before getting back onto the coastal route and I caught sight of the gleaming silhouette that was the Tokyo skyline far in the distance - unobtainable.

Shoup stopped at the lights as a train blurred past. I caught sight of a small park with about 15 men in suits. Some sat down reading the paper, others rummaged nervously through their briefcases; one was crying into his hands. These were the unemployed executives, victims of the 'lost decade' of the Japanese economy. Some lost their jobs years ago, others last week. They came here every day, still unable to tell their wives and family of their unemployment and their shame.

Shoup's Nissan made short work of the roadway, no one headed to the beach mid week in winter. A complex, bleak roadscape replaced the suburbs. I noticed Shoup had his street directory on his lap, he strained to read the Japanese characters on the roadway signs and tried to match them with his guide. Shop had 'inked in' a line on the maps which were the road to Hebara. In the true style of street directories around the world, I watched him flick expertly through the book a hundred pages at a time before needing to flick back to the next map 39 pages behind that.

Slowly the roadscape was replaced by stunted trees, giant bonsai specimens with heavily swept braches. I caught my first glimpse of the ocean as we stopped for fuel on a rise; the station covered in multiple complex advertising banners. There was a safety sign on the fuel pump of someone holding a fuel pump with a mobile phone in their other hand; bursting into flames.

It was mid afternoon, not a breath of wind, a low cloud base hung heavy on the coast. The ocean was a slick slate grey, creased with heavy swell lines. I couldn't see it breaking but it 'felt' like it was going to be big.

"Its big" said Shoup as he looked up from the pump.

"If you see it moving from back's big."

I started running through some bigger wave scenarios in my head as we wound down the coast road. I hadn't been in big surf on a longboard for a long time and Shoup's boards in the back were both 9'6"'s.

We pulled up at Hebara, it was a zoo. A heavy, clean 7 foot swell pounded the beachbreak and there was really only one peak in the middle that was handling it. My heart sank a little. Hordes of longboarders struck out from the beach lying way too far back on their boards. Some started off in the rip but left it way to early as they peeled off towards the peak. About one wave every three sets was a cleaner and each one of them claimed dozens of riders. Once they were swept into the impact zone it was over. Set after set, wave after wave pummeled them relentlessly until one by one they turned tail and caught a wall of white water in. A pack of shortboarders were on the peak, some great riders amongst them; three to every wave. It was a steep drop, bottom turn, stall routine. It was a little steep for a 9'6" but that was okay. Problem was I couldn't see myself getting more than one wave an hour with that crowd. Shoup rubbed his hands across his stupid jarhead haircut and said, "Let's check Malibu."

The jarhead buzzcut always looked out of place on Shoup. In the car he told me that he had grown up surfing the Great Lakes. Shoup was from Duluth which was right on Lake Superior and had arguably the best surf on the Lakes. Shoup told me about Stony Point, the 'L' Train and the reef up towards the Canadian Border called 121's. His family had a little holiday cabin on the Lake up that way, he showed me a photo from his wallet taken on his fifth birthday. A young Shoup, beaming from ear to ear in shaggy blond hair struggled under the weight of his first longboard - a birthday present. Shoup's Dad had his arm around the back of his son; holding the rail up on the board to lighten the load. They both wore homemade boardshorts with rope belts that his Mum had put together from a picture out of a surfing magazine. I pictured his mum taking that shot, the early morning sun behind Shoup and his Dad, illuminating them.

Malibu was a small bay south of Hebara, the northern tip curled around to close the swell window down substantially. All the charts showed wharf and fishing infrastructure along part of the bay - that said to me if didn't break too often. As we pulled up to the bay the shore was a hive of activity, not with surfers but with fishermen. There was a small fleet of boats at anchor, some were getting underway whilst others rode heavily in the swell. Small runabouts heaved under the weight of crews desperate to reach their boats before one of the anchors parted. Clouds of black diesel exhaust screamed from cold engines. It was Shoup who caught sight of the first set cracking across the head of the Bay.

It was breaking so far out that it took me a few seconds to understand where and how the wave was breaking. A long way out on the northern point there was a rising bulge of water that swelled into a soft crumbling peak. The wave broke slowly to the left like this for about 50 metres before doubling up on a reef section and racing along as a hollow point break for about another 200 metres. After that it crumbled again as the energy moved into deeper water. These were the bumpy lines echoing around the inner bay that were threatening the fishing boats. Three more waves broke through along exactly the same line. We watched in silence before Shoup mumbled, "I wonder why they named it Malibu? Looks nothing like it"

It was achingly beautiful to watch, that takeoff looked so easy but the hollow section looked big and fast; it might be hard to get the speed up to make it through. There was no one out, when I thought back to the other option of getting worked on the beachbreak at Hebara, it wasn't really a contest. Shoup had never surfed the northern point here either so we started scouting around to try and get a bit closer to the break. We bumped down a few roads and some un marked tracks that started off heading towards the point but ended up looping back away from the break. One of the houses looked like it backed right onto the break but it was a queer ramshackle place covered in nailed up pictures of calligraphy and chimes. A small television blared mindless game shows from somewhere deep inside. We couldn't raise anyone so moved on. An old woman a few properties up looked a little puzzled but showed us the view from her backyard. The breaking point was a magnificent view but we were basically standing on a cliff, I couldn't see a way down to the water at all. The light was already fading in the deep winter so we drove back to the fishing port and opted for the long paddle.

Shoup pulled the boards out and handed me a pristine 9'2", double stringer; beautiful clean lines with glassed in fins. I had always meant to find out who that shaper was. Shoup told me at the time but I forgot it. The logo was the head of a cat, gently bowing with the shapers name written in Japanese characters beneath it. Years later I saw a Japanese surfer riding a board with the same logo at Snapper Rocks. I paddled up to him immediately and started firing questions at him about "who shaped it, where do I get one, do you have a contact number?" He looked back at me with confused black eyes and I realised I was babbling. Three of his friends started moving towards us in the lineup, suspecting I was trying to pick a fight with him. As we suited up back at Malibu, Shoup told me that he bought these boards in Okinawa out on the outer islands. I came to imagine the maker of these boards as a genius recluse who went only by the whispered name of, 'The Shaper From Okinawa.'

We paddled out through the fishing boat chaos inshore and starting rounding out towards the point. The air was freezing and getting colder in the growing gloom but the water was warm. A weird fog clung to the slick black waters inside the bay. As we got closer to the point I started getting really concerned about being caught inside here. I hadn't seen any sets for a while and we seemed to be way too far to the left. We kept on until the first sets came.

I was suprised how far out we had made it, there was probably a counter current aiding us. We weren't too far from the point itself, achingly close but still, it was all academic; we were clearly caught inside. A blackish mass rose out past the point and at first just drifted, left then right, feeling the uneven shape of the outer reefs. We started scratching out towards the middle of the bay at right angles to the wave.

I knew Shoup was behind me somewhere, though I lost the feeling for range. I made an attempt at an eskimo roll as 10 feet of whitewater steamed over me. Upside down, inverted underwater I hugged that nose and tried to bring it down with me. I looked over my shoulder down into the turbulent column of water, down to the black reef drifting below us. I willed myself down there with that board. A heartbeat later the board was gone, ripped out of my hands. There was barely time to stroke for the back of the wave before the legrope pulled taught and dragged me towards the rocks. I remember feeling as though I was moving really fast, must faster than usual; the reef must have been shoaling rapidly. I kept rolling and going under with the boils. There was barely time for half a breath of the frozen air before the second wave hit. The rocks had to be close now. I managed to spin my head back when I bobbed up again; the headland was looming above now. There was a lone windswept stunted cherry blossom tree with the look of a giant bonsai to it on the cliff. I was close enough to see that someone had nailed a fluttering piece of calligraphy on cloth to the trunk as the third set cleaned me up. Drifting under I remember really wanting to know what it said. I could hear my heart beating.

Then it was over. An oily slickness returned to the lineup as the sets faded. I started paddling out hard for the channel, away from the rocks. I was annoyed to be in this position now, out of breath and wasted without catching a single wave. I looked back and saw Shoup, he had to be on the rocks; he was paddling cautiously and hitting out for the channel. About then I plunged my arm in, mid-paddle stroke my hand smashed into something slimy. It had to be a rock but it really spooked me. I quickly checked the bloody knuckle of my hand and kept going. I screamed out "Rock" and Shoup answered "Roger That!" It made me smile, such a fucking jarhead response.

Neither of us stopped paddling until the next sets went past and we could see we were well clear. Shoup flipped his board over to check his fins, he laughed "what the fuck was that all about?""Shoup, I thought this was Malibu?""Hey, its like I'm saying, this is nothin like Malibu. I bet some asshole from Texas named it that. This place is somethin else aint it?"We giggled like maniacs as we stroked over to the peak.

Shoup got the first wave, he had a nice style about him. Obviously used to catching borderline waves on the Lakes, he humped his board like crazy with some massive double arm paddling action for the last few strokes. There was no point in doing it though, there was no way he was going to miss this wave. After his drop I saw nothing but the back of the wave. 200 metres later he burst in smoking foam over the back holding his board, it was a nice routine.

The sets were getting further apart and more inconsistent. I had to wait 20 minutes for my first wave. I went way to fast, not wanting to blow it under any circumstances. I took off on a very hard angle and stayed well up front. Before I knew it I had passed the hollow bowl - way too early but managed to get past the fast section that had tagged Shoup. Another 100 metres of fast wall opened up, I perched up high and took it all the way to the channel.

Paddling back out I could see a distant Shoup punching the air. He had this wave wired already. I watched him drop down the face vertically and use the bottom turn to set up the stall for the hollow section; he drifted a little high to ensure he had speed available if he needed it, once the barrel started to form he moved forward one step and burned it. Five seconds later he blasted out of the barrel with the spray behind him and leapt over the back of the wave. By then it was dark, some of the fishing boats inshore flashed on their anchor lights. The grey, distant town on the shore flicked over into neon mode. In a strange way, the low cloud seemed to absorb and reflect the surrounding shore light. Light rain started to fall and help scatter it even further. We agreed on one more before heading in. I grabbed another long speeding wall, missed that damn hollow section again. I wasn't happy with that so kicked off early to redo the last wave. Shoup fell into the wave of the day as I headed back out, he kept the smallest amount of his corner rail angling along the face; it was some weird 50 foot long bottom turn stall technique and it kept him in the pocket the entire time.

I'd call it night time when I got my last wave. If it was that dark in the morning I would have waited before paddling out. I drove straight down the face and flared the board for a moment. There was a lot of spray and it felt as though I had overcooked it. Instead of the inevitable gut kicking sensation however there was the faint rumble and speed of a steep wall to my left, the rushing overhead noise and the impact of water to my right. I had fluked it. It wasn't pretty but I got the job done. After the hollow section the wave started to close out, I angled towards the shore on a crumbling section and pushed on as far as I could. The wave petered out about 50 metres short of Shoup and he waited up for me to catch up to him. We were both black shapes in the water with white shit eating grins. There was another kilometre or so to paddle in. I couldn't speak from exhaustion but Shoup was fine, he layed out his plan for the night ahead between quick breaths. "A quiet one... some steaks and beers at a restaurant... nice clean rooms upstairs... Good bikini bar out the back as well... It's winter though so they wear little fur coats... only lap dances though" I managed a smile."You fuckin jar head Shoup"He laughed a lot at that "Sempre fi man, Sempre fi"

We finally reached the shore in pitch black. We had landed at the wrong end of the cove and had to walk over sharp stones to reach the beach ramp, we didn't care; neither of us could feel our feet anyway. As we walked across the road to the carpark there were young Japanese couples walking along the promenade, they looked at as oddly, whispering under their hands. I realised what an odd sight it must have been to see two dripping wet foreigners in wetsuits with boards walking along a night time street in a winter fishing community. We did a few comical bows as we moved through the streets, everyone laughed back at us. When we arrived at the car it became apparent that we were parked out the front of some weird underage nightclub. Mums and Dads pulled up to drop their kids of to the disco while Shoup and I stripped down and got changed in the street. Shoup had a big 'Charlie Don't Surf' tattoo on his shoulder which I was kind of happy no one noticed. Pissing ourselves with laughter we dumped everything in the back and headed to the restaurant. The beer was just magical, a local brew that I had never seen before, our steak came out as I finished my second brew. I felt that warm glow you get from surfing in the winter; not sunburn but that muscle burn from your pores freezing and defrosting under intense car heater bloom. Another beer and I was hammered. It was only 7pm and we went next store to the bikini club. The manager told us the girls didn't come on until 9 so we vowed to drink until then. By 8 pm we were done. Shoup was just pissed wreckage and I was the same. We agreed to make the most of this swell event, get up for the early tomorrow and tie one on tomorrow night. It took about 3 seconds to fall asleep in that bed. Immaculately starched pure white sheets with a counterpane that looked like a kimono. There was the faintest sound of wind chimes rising up from the street below, the offshore wind already coming down from the mountains.

I woke up to see Shoup with his face pressed to the small window, we couldn't see the main break from our room but most of the bay was visible. "Oh, its glassy man, like its gonna be on again!"

That was enough for me, I rolled out of that rack into a ski jacket and we stumbled down the stairs half asleep. There was hot rice congee and coffee down in the dining room and we grabbed it to go. Outside it was icy. A cloudless sky flecked with fleeting fog banks, not a breath of wind. Shoup tipped coffee on his windscreen to break up the frost and I checked my watch. It was eight o'clock and I was kicking myself, we could have been up at least an hour ago. Inside the pickup, my rolled up soaking wetsuit covered in grit, sand and course shell looked very unappealing. We bumped down to the bay and sprinted out onto the sand for a look at the point. My heart sank a little, it was a lot smaller and it looked like there were four, maybe six guys already out. We agreed to get a closer look from the old lady's house near the cliff. We couldn't raise her so just wandered out the back of her house and went to the lookout. It was six guys, the tide was a little high and was eating the dying swell. No one was getting past the hollow section and some waves weren't even carrying that far. I caught sight of the cherry blossom tree at the end of the cliff I had seen from the water yesterday and moved down to have a closer look at it, Shoup followed. It startled us both when the old woman appeared behind us, silently. Shoup said hello, good morning and some other generic Japanese and she smiled back politely. She pointed out to the riders on the crumbling waves and hinted we should go back out today. I tried to tell her we might have a look at Hebara first but she didn't understand. The piece of calligraphy nailed to the cheery blossom fluttered gently in the offshore breeze. "Shoup, do you know what that says?"

"No, not sure, I'll ask her" he tried his best but he couldn't work out what she was saying.

"Shoup, is this a shrine or something? A prayer?"

"No, I don't think so, I don't think it's anything"

I used my best sign language to ask the old lady if I could take the piece of calligraphy as a memento of our surf here, she looked back strangely and I thought I had offended her. I started to back off but suddenly the penny dropped and she knew what I was asking. She moved over and patted the trunk of the tree gently before taking the piece of material from it. After staring at the characters for a few seconds she thrust the piece into my hand and closed my fist around it. I thanked her profusely and wished I had something to give her. I secretly searched my pockets hoping to find one of those stupid clip on koalas the embassy had given us back at the base to hand out to the locals. Shoup saw me pull out a few beer bottle tops from last nights session and he turned away to smirk.

Without saying anything, we had both decided to come back this afternoon at low tide and check it out. We waved goodbye to the old woman and got back into the car. As Shoup headed us towards Hebara I put the piece of calligraphy deep into the pocket of my coat. "What do you think it really says?"

"Locals only?" I shot one back at him "Blow ins fuck off?" we both laughed at that and went down with the rest of the population of greater metropolitan Tokyo to take our lumps at Hebara. We drove back to Malibu after lunch on the low tide but it was flat. The next day we chased out a few points and reefs that Shoup knew about and managed to score a few waves before the swell totally faded. As we left Malibu for the last time I looked out across the open bay, it was hard to believe there ever was a wave here before, the fishermen patching up their battered boats said otherwise though.

It was a quiet trip back to Yokosuka, slowly the landscape transitioned from countryside to suburban sprawl to industrial coffin. Shoup told me some more about the legacy Tom Blake had laid down on the Great Lakes in the 1930's. I couldn't get enough of it. Before I knew it we were back at base. We swapped addresses and promised to catch up for a surf if either of us was in port again but we never did. We planned to catch up for a drink before I sailed but both of us were too busy. I had two days to plan an ocean passage to Canada and Shoup had an exercise to prepare for. As he drove away waving out the window with those boards in the back of the pickup I wished I had said something.

Before we sailed, I found someone on base who could translate the calligraphy marker the old lady had given me, it said:

'The snapping of the west wind...beating of a warriors heart'

That phrase has always stood out to me as the ultimate description of surfing; simple, direct...visceral.

Years later I was in Pearl Harbour and bumped into one of the marines I recognised from Shoup's unit back in Japan. His name was Spirowitz, 'Spiro'

"Hey Spiro, I met you in Japan with Shoup." He shook my hand with a cool stare. Three other guys next to him focused on me.

"Oh yeah, hey man, Shoup took you surfing right?"

"Yeah that's it, we scored at Malibu big time." The senior Officer next to them spoke up;

"You knew Shoup?"

They all tensed up, waiting to see if I would say something disparaging against one of their fellow marines, something about the Corps - call them jarheads or something. If I did they would have tried to tear my head off.

"Yeah, absolutely, how is he Sir?

"Son, Shoup died last year, roadside bomb in Fallujah"

They saw how that deflated me and stood down. Spiro placed a hand on my shoulder, "He was a good man."

I had a few beers with them but backed out as soon as I could. I found my own crew down in a bar at Waikiki and got really drunk.

Later when I got home I cried my eyes out.

I had a dream about Shoup that night, it was like a home movie on 8mm film playing through my head. I saw a young Shoup from the photo he had shown me with his Dad on the shore of Lake Superior, the early morning sun behind them. They put their boards into the shallows and Shoup's Dad showed his son how to lie on the board and paddle. I saw Shoup's Mum on the shore, a pretty lady behind horn rimmed spectacles. I remember being really excited and running up to her in my dream to let her know that I had known her son; she tilted her head slightly and looked out onto the lake. I turned around as well but couldn't see Shoup anymore, he was too small in the morning son, I only saw his Dad moving out into deeper water. Before I could turn back the film had ran out. Numbers and clock leader spun past before turning to scratchy static.

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