Fire Station 21, Matsumoto, Japan

Matsumoto Fire Station #21 covers Uchida and Kotobukidai areas south-east of Matsumoto CBD where 2,646 households and 6,357 residents are there. This cross-cultural exchange had been arranged via Yuri at the Matsumoto City Government (see another post on Volunteer Guides). One of his colleagues is a member of this Fire Brigade.

With typical Japanese precision and punctuality, Yuri got me there right on the appointed time of 8:00pm. On the apron were 3 or 4 fire fighters looking over equipment, running pumps and the like. With Yuri acting as interpreter, I got the gist from the Brigade Captain that this team had many similarities to my Hazelbrook Brigade:

  • 45 members, about 25 active, about 10 likely to turnout for a call;
  • 2 calls a month on average;
  • many members work in the CBD, up to an hour away;
  • very few young people joining. Most members 35 to 50yo;
  • servicing a rural community on the foothills of the mountains;
  • get together for meeting/training once a month;

As with all fire trucks in Japan, their 2 vehicles were immaculate. Not a scratch, everything polished. Even plastic over the seats! I was proudly shown the $A20,000 portable pump the Brigade recently purchased. Bloody hell! Takes 4 people to carry, but suits the needs of this Brigade where small roads and laneways mean accessing fires is always going to be difficult.

After 10 minutes or so on the apron, then upstairs for the meeting. I did ask how many members turn up usually for the meeting/training, and 10-15 are expected. The meeting had already started well and truly, with many cans of beer and empty food plates strewn around. This looked familiar my my fire station!

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Through broken english and my interpreter buddy, we talked a lot about our respective roles, and the nature of volunteerism in Japan, and the long history of fire-fighting. Fascinating stuff. Again the similarities were uncanny – members of  #21 Fire Station came from varied backgrounds including farmers, truck drivers, an architect, an electrician.

Each of the farmers bought in their produce for sharing at the ‘meeting’. Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons. In line with my desire for cultural immersion and personal enrichment, I also gave other local fare a go. Like the fleshy stuff swilling around in cold black broth. Pass it round boys, yum. And what was that? Something from the ocean, and it got a good laugh when I ate it. Probably marinated cuttlefish.

I took with me a series of RFS action photos, but there was no computer at the Station. I had printed out a thumbnail of each photo and had a few word description of each in English and Japanese (thanks to BabelFish). This went down a treat and generated a lot of discussion of forest fires in Australia and particularly in my Blue Mountains home.

I got the Blue Mountains Christmas Fires DVD playing in the background as we continued to eat, drink and more increasingly talk crap. I must say though, that attention was quickly drawn to the video when the money shots of 30m flames roaring up and over fire fighters came on. No common language needed to interpret shock and awe.

My status as a visitor also meant that there seemed to be people assigned to refilling my cup of beer every time I took a swig. What I can’t work out is, if I never got to finish a single cup, how come I found it quite a challenge to stand up straight and to speak without a little slur. All for the betterment of cultural exchange I say.

As the visit was pre-arranged, I had my RFS blues, and bought with me a collectors yellow shirt. This was proudly worn by the Captain. I had heard one guy being referred to as ‘koala’ during the night, and by chance I had a koala toy to give him. Funny as! In appreciation of the help he had given me during the day, I gave Yuri an RFS cap.

I have always found Japanese people to be very hospitable and generous. At this point, the guys were obviously discussing what they would give me in return, and what they did was extremely humbling. For various festivals and community events, all firefighters in Japan have a particular “Happi Coat” which is like a coat of arms, and indicates the organisation you belong to.  They go back to the 1600’s. I was presented with a Happi Coat.

In addition, I was presented with a Fire Officers cap. While my head is way too big for the cap, the generosity shown to me was, as I said, humbling.

Then to cap it off (no pun intended) as I was leaving the whole crew came downstairs and gave me a formal send off, including a salute. It really was a fantastic experience. In fact, of all the good things that have happened in what is now 4 visits to Japan over 30 months, this ranks in the top 2.

(Monday 1 August, 2011)

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