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Blind athlete, holistic health practitioner sees through his fears

By Fred Dickey

Nov. 28, 2016

Life can spread cruelty like an artist covering a canvas. It’s applied by design or whim, we don’t know which. But we do know it doesn’t spare children.


Hiro Iwamoto was 13 when the lights started to dim. He was going blind — slowly like a sunset but with no dawn to follow, slow enough that he could fear it like footsteps growing louder in the dark.

Hiro grew up on a small island close to Kyushu in southern Japan where life was placid and normal — for other children.

“Terrifying. Life was terrifying. When I was playing baseball, I started not being able to catch the ball, and my teammate was telling me, ‘Why you cannot catch the ball? Why you don't catch the ball? You want the other team to win?’ But I couldn’t see the ball.”

Hiro, now a 49-year-old family man and San Diegan, can look back on those days with equanimity. He is a medical professional in a small Kearny Mesa office where he practices a form of holistic medicine called shishinjutsu, which is a therapy similar to acupuncture but without needles.

But those days of creeping darkness are perched on the wall of his memory.

“Even riding a bicycle, I started bumping into the car parked on the side of the street. I started falling down the stairs. My mom told me I have to start using the cane, a white cane. I throw it away and told her, ‘I'm not blind.’ ... It was terrifying. Even when I tried to put my toothpaste on the toothbrush, I put on my finger instead.”

In fear and frustration, the boy cried out to his mother: “Why you gave me birth?" Finally, at 16, total blindness closed out the world. In despair, he walked onto a bridge, determined to commit suicide. He gripped the railing. His arms tensed. He looked at the water far below, paused indecisively, then walked off the bridge.

Something had snapped in his mind, but in a good way. “I stopped thinking I want to die. I started living positively, slowly.”

Over the years, Hiro went to specialist after specialist in both Japan and the U.S. The conclusion was always the same.

“No one could help. No one could figure out even the reason, the cause of my blindness. No genetic cause, no family history, no disease.”

Through it all, Hiro carried on, studying medicine in Tokyo, learning English and then coming to California, where he studied at San Francisco State and became a Christian. In 2006, he and his wife, Karen, settled in Linda Vista with their daughter, Leena, now 11.

During an extended visit to Japan three years ago, Hiro reconnected with his love of the sea, which seems ingrained in the islanders of Kyushu. It is what surrounds their lives and provides them sustenance.

Karen had been a sailor and encouraged him. He joined the Japan Blind Sailing Association, where he honed his sailing skills. However, he formed bigger plans than weekends on the bay.

“I love the ocean and I found my lifelong dream: to find what lies beyond. I want to encourage people, inspire people. I kept saying I want to sail across the Pacific.”

He knew his destination — San Diego. But “beyond” was more than a place, it was a symbol of what could be done. It meant knocking down the barrier of blindness. It was vindication for the despairing boy who did not jump off that bridge.

He had become a skilled sailor, but of course, he needed a sighted mate to tell him where he was going, and equally important, what might be coming toward him.

Hiro made a deal with Japanese TV to film his adventure. His crewman and “eyes” were a TV newsman named Jiro Shinbo, 57, who was fighting his own demon — cancer. Four cameras were fixed to places on the ship to record the trip.

The two departed for blue water on June 16, 2013, for what was planned as a 55-day cruise to this city. Their boat was a 28-foot schooner.

It was smooth sailing until six days out. At 7:20 a.m., the men were jarred by three loud booms in succession.

“Shinbo told me, ‘That must be waves,’ and I answered, ‘I don't think so.’ I thought it was a whale. But he just went back to sleep. But just as I thought, I started hearing the water coming in — slosh, slosh, slosh.

“I woke him up. ‘Shinbo! Shinbo! Water is coming in!’ He didn't wake up so I called him again, louder. ‘Shinbo! Boat is sinking!’”

Later the SIM card from a camera confirmed that a blue whale, of perhaps 50 feet, had collided with the boat. But that would be academic to Hiro if they couldn’t get off the sinking vessel.

It happened fast. In minutes. He recalled, “Water was above the knee. I knew what things are important from the training. I put my hands in the water and took the floorboard out. I took two gallons of water from the bottom and the emergency bag (which) contained a satellite phone, GPS and a VHF radio. Important thing was telephone numbers.”

He quickly made a distress call, but talk about bad timing: Their accident happened as a typhoon was chasing them and drawing closer. They pushed their covered rubber raft overboard into waves cresting to 15 feet, fueled by winds of 30 knots.

Since the shipwrecked men were 700 nautical miles out, the Japanese Coast Guard became aware of their emergency but couldn’t get there in time to save them from the storm. They were also beyond the range of a helicopter.

As a last alternative, the Japanese navy sent a US-2, a four-prop rescue plane. It has the capability of landing and taking off in 10-foot waves.

The plane circled and circled. The pilot was not willing to chance losing his own crew of 11, but also not willing to abandon the two amateur sailors tossing in the water below. The aircraft was running low on fuel, so the pilot reluctantly returned to base.

For the two amateur sailors, seeing and hearing the plane disappear into the darkened sky was the severing of a lifeline. Hiro couldn’t see the roiling sea, and that worsened the dread.

For hours, they were rubber ducks bobbing around in a Jacuzzi. Hiro had only Shinbo’s panicked, blurted description, his own imagination and the gut-curdling sensation of falling 30 feet from the crest of a wave to the trough of the following one.

Sunlight dimmed, turning the surging sea gray until evening was upon them. Night with its terrors and loneliness would soon descend. Hiro remembers his emotions in those moments: “Getting cold, getting nowhere. We cannot hear anymore and the plane, they said they couldn't make it. They had to go back and we are so frightened and discouraged.”

Then their hopes soared as another US-2 started circling overhead. However, minutes later, the engines died away, and so did their spirits.

Their hopes were crumbling. In a few minutes it would be dark, and the next morning the drifting raft would be beyond the reach of rescue planes — if they were still aboard it.

Finally, good fortune remembered them. They heard an outboard motor and the whomp-whomp of an inflatable boat, and then saw the hands of rescuers reaching for them. The pilot had chanced a dangerous landing to save them.

Hiro’s dream voyage across the ocean to his San Diego home ended with being fished out of a raging sea on the edge of darkness after 11 hours on a small raft. But he made his peace with it.

“I’m thinking it’s meant to be like that. I don’t know, maybe God planned it this way.”


Hiro returned to his medical practice. For people who have a fear or dislike of needles, Hiro says it can be an attractive alternative.

“I taught and practiced acupuncture in Tokyo for 14 years, but when I moved here, I realized there are tons of people who doesn't like needles.

So, instead of inserting the needle, if you put the finger at the same point, same angle, it is more effective. I treat them for pain, migraine, backache and knee pain, stiffness, among another things.”

Though he is fully licensed in Japan in the needle method, he doesn’t have a California license because, he says, in this state the acupuncture license also requires qualifying in Chinese herbal medicine, and he can’t pass that exam because he can’t recognize the herbs. Instead, he operates under a city license as a “holistic health practitioner.”


Hiro still sails out of San Diego, now only for pleasure. He has turned his energies to completing an “ironman” triathlon next November in Arizona. That is a grueling test of will and conditioning. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles of cycling and a full marathon (26.2 miles).

Blind contestants are allowed companions or guides to direct them through the events, but when it comes to gutting out the agonies of the race, he’ll be doing that himself.

He has completed five triathlons of lesser distance this year as part of a demanding training regimen.

How many hours a day do you train?

“I have been doing now around two hours. Weekends, three to four hours.”

You are almost 50; you must have many aches and pains.

“Yeah, but never give up. Swimming is the hardest for blind people because I cannot see in the water. With water, it is very hard, so we have a 3-foot tether (linked to his companion). The bike is tandem bike, two-seater, so we can communicate. Running, I can talk and listen.”

Hiro has folded the trials of his life into motivational talks he gives around the county.

“First time I practice in the ocean, it is very scary. But in my talks, I say that this is the message: Face your fear, and if you keep moving forward, fear will disappear.”

Gone, but not forgotten.

Hiro reminds me of what Marines say about being wounded: “Accept the pain.” The fullness of what that means is: This is your challenge — prove yourself.

In Hiro’s life, he substitutes fear for pain. But it means the same thing.

Except for maybe love, nothing comes with more advice than dealing with fear. Therapists make a living counseling about it. But reduced to gut level, it seems to me that when you fear doing something that you should do, the best antidote is to substitute one fear for another. Learn to fear failure more.

Like Hiro has.


Fred Dickey’s home page is

He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at

Copyright © 2016, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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