Oirase stream

Have you seen water dance?

I’m not talking about the cheesy pre-programmed jets of water in co-ordinated fountains – that’s just fake. There I was at the northernmost tip of Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, deep in the woods corded by a rushing stream of water. And I was watching it dance. No ordinary body of water –  this one had personality.

This is the Oirase stream. The water is by turns pretty, dramatic, coy at times and then boldly gushing.  Sometimes it was playful, skipping over rocks, swishing in between them and then whooshing out around the bend. Other times it was introspective, meandering, contemplative in its stillness. Sometimes it was just in a hurry, eager in its rush to move, falling over in sheets in waterfalls. It was fascinating to watch. All the time it was surrounded by green dressed in all its various shades – darkened to near black by shadows of branch and root and then shot through with light so sharp the green turned luminous and transparent.

mossy wooden bridge

At first I mused, who on earth would come all this way just to see a stream? After all, a stream is just a stream isn’t it? Why should this be so special? It had taken us the better part of two hours by shinkansen and bus to get here from Sendai. I could not believe we were expending all this effort just to see ‘a stream’. This had better be good, the jaded travel writer in me warned.

And you know? It was.

We spent barely an hour in the area. Yet to do it justice, it would take you five hours to walk the length of the stream from Lake Towada onwards. Or you could take the easy way out and just hop on a bus. The public road runs parallel to the stream, with convenient bus-stops for you to get off and explore the area. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, bicycles are available for a one-way ride. Novice cyclists like me should be warned that you are really competing against cars and big buses for road space.

Several waterfalls dot the famous stream. Some are just tiny rivulets of water trickling down a rockface. Others are powerful gushing roars of white water. All have names. And yes, personalities.

While not teeming with people, there was a sizeable number walking the banks of the stream, taking pictures, kids scrambling ahead of adults, the elderly ambling along slowly.  There was something weird about the picture and at first I could not put my finger on it.

Then it hit me: No one was in the water! No one was splashing about, swimming in the rock pools, even dipping a toe!

I saw some kids tentatively touch the water, but that was all. Given the fact that it was the height of summer, the water was deliciously cool and beckoned tantalisingly for some splashy water games if not an outright dive and swim, but yet no one went into the water. Everyone obediently stood at a reverent distance and just took photographs.

Curious, I asked the tourism official with us if there was perhaps a rule or law forbidding people to get into the water (although there were no signs to indicate so). Coming from Singapore and used to the No Fishing, No Swimming, No Feeding signs at Singapore reservoirs, I was half expecting something like this.

She looked a bit stymied at my question and then finally said slowly, “Well, there isn’t a rule, but Japanese people just don’t do this. We value and admire the water like this. We don’t like to dirty it.”

Yeah, I can see that is ONE way of admiring the water, but honestly, if this were a similar waterfall/river scenario anywhere else in the world, you’d have kids whooping it up in the water before you can finish saying “Oirase”. And why would that be wrong?

And yet.

When you look at Kota Tinggi in Johor for example, you’d see a waterfall where the water is sudsy no thanks to people who wash themselves, litter abounds and is caught in the roots of trees, in the undergrowth. Empty drink cans, cigarette butts and the like are scattered around, noisy kids in clingy wet t-shirts make a racket and let’s not even mention the spitting and peeing that goes on in the water! I went there once and never went back. The gunk just got to me. I could not bring myself to even get in the water.

Oirase stream is pristine simply because the custodians of the land, the Japanese, take so much pride in it. They respect it too much to despoil it with litter etc. Perhaps it is also the familiar mindset of community before self that the Japanese are known for, that give them due consideration not only for the land, but for other users – that they too, and generations after – may be able to enjoy and marvel at the beauty of the space.

This though I feel, is the other extreme. How do you enjoy nature by just looking? Whether you kayak in a bay, hike up a mountain or swim in a lake or river, nothing beats getting in there and just enjoying the gift nature provides. Standing, observing and taking pictures seems like such a cold, clinical approach.

Perhaps what is needed is a happy balance between restraint and abandonment.

Splash or get a quick dip by all means, but respect the the water and the land by not littering or carelessly using it as bathroom or toilet. Respect the space of others. Maybe then one can still dangle a toe in the Oirase stream without feeling a twinge of guilt and perhaps only when some Japanese-style restraint and consideration are practised in Kota Tinggi can the waterfall return to its less polluted origins.

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