Last week, I took a short trip to Sado Island. I had a lovely time. I saw some nearly extinct birds, I went out on the sea in a big wooden tub and I bought some senbei from a man who deserted the US Army, went to North Korea and married a Japanese woman who was kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents – the usual holiday stuff. I also visited an old gold mine and tried my hand at panning for gold.
Now, perhaps I watched too much Champion the Wonder Horse on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, but I thought panning for gold meant I would be sitting by a river, perhaps wearing a neckerchief and a cowboy hat, and swilling gravel around a big metal pan until I found golden nuggets the size of the breakast cereal ones I used to eat in front of the telly way back then. It wasn’t to be. Instead, my wife and I took our places in one of many lines of people standing next to very long and shallow troughs of water in a building containing nothing but such troughs. It wasn’t even outside. We didn’t sit on rocks by a river. Our pans were no more than small plastic bowls. And, to be honest, I think a few people were sniggering at my leather chaps and holster.
Anyway, a Japanese fellow demonstrated how to scoop up some gravel from the bottom of the trough, swirl it about a bit in a repetitively dull manner, and eventually find some tiny, tiny flakes of gold which had obviously been put there just for this purpose. We did it for an hour and at the end of the experience I had managed to collect two minuscule flaky pieces of gold which may actually just have been shiny sand. Nobody was thinking about selling up and moving here full time. The man opposite me had more gold in his teeth than the entire room could hope to find in a year. Oh well, It was just a bit of fun. Apparently.
As we left the hall a small, tubby woman in her late sixties or early seventies caught up with my wife. ‘I took a photo of your husband and you in there,’ she said. ‘I’ll send you the picture. May I have your address?’
‘Email?’ asked my wife.
‘No, I want to send a picture,’ said the woman and I guessed she wasn’t the most technogically minded person in Japan.
My wife wrote our name and address down for the woman and she thanked us. We thanked her for the offer, too. ‘Bit weird,’ I said as we walked away. ‘Asking to send photos to complete strangers.’
Well, today the photo arrived. It wasn’t the best. It was a bit blurred and showed me at an unflattering angle which managed both to accentuate my baldness and multiply my chins. It’s not a wall-hanger, that’s for sure. But with the photograph was a letter. It was immaculately handwritten on beautiful paper and told us a little about the woman’s life. The fact she was a calligraphy teacher explained the wonderful script, but there was no explanation about why she had written the letter other than the simple fact that she thought we might like the photo. She could have just stuffed it in an envelope with ‘Here’s the pic,’ scribbled on the back, but she didn’t. She spent some time neatly writing a couple of pages because, I suppose, she thought it would be a nice thing to do. And she was right. It was lovely and thoughtful. The photo may not be a keeper but the letter is. An email would already have been deleted.
There was gold there on Sado. We were just looking in the wrong place.