Thursday, January 31, 2013
The old woman sat in the front of the restaurant, looking out the front door. The snow was beginning to flurry, but it wouldn't amount to much. She'd seen far worse.
How many days add up to 98 years? On how many of those days had there been snow? How many rainy, or clear? She'd seen tens of thousands of people pass by on the other side of the glass, some stopping, most not. Did she long to follow any of them, a man who who caught her eye, or a girl of enviable dress? Did she wonder at their lives, lived worlds away from this restaurant born in the days before travelers became tourists?
On the wall above her were the framed photos of two women balancing baskets on their heads, once a common scene here in the village of Ohara. I pointed at one and asked if this was her photo. She smiled, eyes and all.
I asked her how she stayed so fit, so healthy. She leaned in close and said only, "Work." Then as if to prove it, she lifted my tray and its weight of dishes, and tottered with them held in one hand toward the kitchen.
On the turntable: "Red Hot + Bothered"
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Thursday, January 24, 2013
How narrow is the line which separates an adventure from an ordeal.
A couple mistakes, some wise decisions....
When Wes fell down the slope onto the rocks, I thought that we were both finished.
About eight hours earlier, we'd pulled into a small village at the base of the ridge. Initially, we 'd intended to snowshoe up from the ski area, but as we drove north in Shiga, there wasn't as must snow as expected, so we decided to do a simple hike instead. I aimed the front of the car toward Jyatani-dake, and parked where the road ended at Hata, which advertised itself as one of Japan's one hundred most beautiful villages. Jyatani itself had been specifically chosen as today's goal since the first character in its name 蛇谷 could be read as "snake," and we were three days into the Year of the Snake.
I was a bit too warm on this pleasant afternoon, dressed in my ski wear and in insulated boots. We moved up past the rice fields, along a small stream, and onto some simple trails. Most of the paths through here looked like they were used more by local farmers and woodsmen than hikers. We tried to make sense of multiple trails criss-crossing one another, until we found a definitive white sign which had an arrow pointing us toward the mountain. Up we went.
Not long after telling Wes that I don't mind hiking during this season because you rarely have to worry about bears or snakes, we saw prints with their unmistakable outline of five fingers and claws. They, like the snow, were a few days old, but it was obvious that the bears used this trail too. In fact, we followed those tracks all the way up to the pass.
There hadn't been much snow on the trails, and even here on the ridge the path was pretty obvious. I took a quick reading off the GPS, and thought that the peak was probably only about 2km away. We prudently agreed that if we weren't on the peak by two o'clock, we'd turn around and stay safe.
The ridge rose gradually, the snow deepening somewhat. It was still only about mid-calf deep, and except for the occasional post-holing, we made good speed along the ridge. The final half km was pretty steep, and it was here I pulled out my trekking poles. Wes was just ahead, and I found him waiting on top when I arrived, the snow swirling around him in small violent eddies. It was about ten minutes past two at this time, so we decided not to linger. Magically, the clouds parted then, and rewarded us with incredible views in all directions. After a few photos, we headed down. It had taken us less than two hours from car to peak, so we'd easily get to the car by four, with a buffer of more than an hour until dark. Then the hot springs, some hot noodles...
We saved even more time by glissading down, laughing as we skidded down the snowy hill on our waterproof skipants. Then following our own prints back along the ridge again, appreciating the warmth of the sun on our faces. We came to a sign we'd somehow missed earlier, telling us that in another half km we'd be back at the trail junction and out of the snow.
It was around here that we made an honest mistake. Rather than follow the blazes of tape that we'd seen earlier on branches along the trail, we kept following our prints, which led down to the left. It turned out that those hadn't been our prints after all. They now looked to be those of a woman, or a small man, though they could've been animal prints that had broadened as they melted during the warming of the day. In any case, we were off the ridge and off trail.
Here was our second mistake, one we created. Rather than backtrack, we looked at the stream in front of us and thought that it was probably the same stream we'd crossed a few times lower down, so if we followed it we'd meet the trail further down. The snow started to lightly fall.
The terrain was relatively flat for awhile, but after awhile the walls on either side of the water began to rise, and we wound up walking in the stream itself. Still no problem; the water was only a few centimeters deep and we both had solid waterproof snowboots. Eventually, the waterfalls began to appear, forcing us to shuffle sideways along the cliffs above the water, kicking footholds into the snow for ease of footing. At one point, we had climb fairly high up to get around a steep curve in the stream. From here, it didn't look too far to the ridge itself, so we decided to climb back up. Following a set of deer prints, we angled up the steep rise, taking good care.
At the top of the ridge, we found some taped trail blazes. I checked the GPS, and we doubled back the way we'd come, assuming that we'd find the trail we'd come up fairly soon. Instead, the trail led us back to the stream again, a section we'd walked down about thirty minutes before. I knew that if we headed in the opposite direction toward the next peak, we'd find a logging road which we lead us back down to our village and the car. So we turned around and climbed back up the trail. It was a stiff ascent to the next peak, and atop it, we found a faded sign. The only thing we could make out was the red dot marking out location, and the faint squiggles of a logging road somewhere nearby. The GPS showed it to be to the south, unfortunately down into a very dark stretch of forest. It was just past five now, the dark coming. I can't speak for Wes, but this was the first time that I thought we might be lost. The batteries on my iPhone were just about dead.
We dropped into the gloom. I pulled out my compass and kept it close, trying to keep us heading west. We came to another stream and decided to follow it, thinking that even if we missed the road, the stream would be the source of irrigation for somebodies rice fields, and we'd pop out above a village somewhere. I lost this optimism about a half hour later when the first of the water entered my boots. Then the situation became fucking serious. We were in a far steeper watershed than the one earlier, and the waterfalls got taller and taller. Arriving at one pool, I couldn't see the depth because by now it was well past dark, the snow still falling. I lowered my trekking pole into the water to check the depth. Up to the grip. We sat and talked awhile, then I leapt forward, hoping to land in the shallows beyond the pool. I found myself in waist deep water. I scrambled out quickly, but was wet to the skin. Behind me, I heard Wes make his own leap and the corresponding splash.
Things began to spiral. The snow was falling harder now, and the strength of my headlamp was like a car headlight, making it difficult to see against the swirl. Wes broke his trekking pole, and we were down to one each. At some point I fell sideways, and was now wet to the chest. I pulled my gloves off my sopping hands and poured the water out, then put them back on. Down the stream we went.
Finally, we were near constantly climbing around waterfalls. The risk was getting too great, so we decided to climb to the top of whatever ridge we were on, and hope to see lights from above. As Wes was making his way toward me, he dropped his light. He took a few hesitant steps toward it, then he accelerated into the darkness, followed by the sound of tumbling stones. I thought then, if he's injured, neither of us will make it out of here alive. All night we'd been diligent in not getting out of each others' sight, but now I could no longer see or hear him down there in the dark.
I heard him call up to me. He was pretty banged up in the fall, splitting his shin and forehead, and bruising his knee. Worst was that he'd somehow lost both his gloves when he'd tried to slow the rate of his fall with his hands. But he could walk. And climb. Slowly, laboriously, he made his way up to the ledge where I was, and sat heavily beside.
He went into his pack and pulled out a down jacket, reasonably dry, and some of those chemical hand warmers. With the hand warmers in his palms, he pulled his closed fists into the sleeves of the jacket for warmth. This sort of thing should generally take only a couple of minutes. Wes took ten. He was fumbling and dropping things, obviously beginning to go into shock from the fall. My own situation was getting out of control. Though I had fallen repeatedly into the stream, my insulated ski wear had down a pretty good job keeping most of the water out. As it wasn't very breathable, my own body heat dried me out pretty quickly. When I was moving, I didn't feel the cold at all. But since Wes took his fall, I'd been sitting for probably twenty minutes, and was finally starting to shake. When he was ready a few minutes later, we started to climb.
It was incredibly punishing work, pushing upward, trying to find decent footholds in the snow and the spongy, slippery leaves underneath. We deliberately followed a line that had the most trees, so we could grab their branches and pull ourselves up. Too often they would break, the weight shifting scarily backward. Between the trees were exposed roots, and small ground shrubs that offered a grip. If the gap between these was too great, often I'd lunge for a handhold somewhere. We would take a step, then pause, breathing heavily. It was agonizing.
And at one point, I wanted to just give up. It was a pretty casual feeling, like when you're involved in some monotonous task, and you suddenly think, "This sucks!" and stop doing it. I just wanted to stop right there and do anything but what I'd been doing. But I knew that that would be the end.
Yet even that idea seemed okay. In those heartbreakingly painful months and years after losing Ken, I had an attitude that I didn't care if I died. Not that I wanted to kill myself, but that I just didn't care either way. Perhaps to die meant a chance to be with my son again. And I thought that now, halfway up some nameless ridge north of Kyoto. I liked the sound of it, and the fatigue and tension in my body began to release. But then a stronger voice suddenly said, "You have Sora now. Ken doesn't need you. Your daughter does."
After what must've been at least an hour, we finally reached the ridge, sat in the snow, drank the last of the hot tea from the thermos. We seemed to be on trail, and passed a few trail blazes, saw a few concrete surveyor's marks. We tried to follow the ridge, but it was hard to figure anything out due the snow, falling in a blizzard by now. My headlamp made it impossible to see any perspective, and turning it off brought complete darkness.
But Wes now had cell phone reception. We called our friend Mike, who called the police. We were sitting beside surveyor mark 074, and surely that location had been input into a database somewhere. They should be able to pinpoint exactly where we are. We started to gather kindling to make a fire. If a rescue team was coming, we needed to stay put, but if we did, we'd get cold. I had some good stormproof matches, but had a hard time getting them lit, since the striker was damp. Wes tore some pages out of the guidebook. (We later got a big laugh out of the fact that they were the from the winter survival section!) A few pages started to burn, then blew out quickly. The wind and snow were just too much, the wood too wet.
Then a strange thing happened. We both saw what we thought were lights over on an adjacent ridge nor far away. The rescuers must have taken a logging road up. We started shouting, and I was sure that they could see my headlamp. But as our eyes got used to the swirl of snow, we sat that the lights were from villages miles away down by Lake Biwa. At least we were sure which way was east.
The police called back and told us that the storm had prevented a rescue until morning. We'd be dead by then. Hours earlier, as it was first growing dark, Wes had said to me with a serious face, "We're going to get home alive." And I said calmly "I know." I don't think that either of us truly felt that we were going to die, yet we were realistic enough to recognize that we wouldn't survive until morning. I'd hoped that we could get the fire going, and could get warm and dry and just tell stories for the rest of night. A snow shelter was not a real possibility, since we were already wet and to lay down in the snow meant sure hypothermia. Most of our food was gone, the water in my backpack reservoir had frozen long before. If the cavalry wasn't going to save us, then we had to find our own way down.
If we sat too long, we got cold. I thought that if we couldn't get down, we could at least keep walking the ridge until dawn, and stay warm. We began to notice that many of the trees around us had been wrapped in blue tape, signifying a cedar forest harvested for logging. Some stumps verified it. If there was active logging up here, then the road was close by. We kept going back and forth across the ridge top a few times, hoping to find a road or trail, but the snow kept disorienting us, our tracks now pointing in all directions.
Then Wes saw the lights, close in, just below us. More wrapped trees lined that side of the ridge. We were both worried about entering another watershed again, but decided to shoot straight down toward those lights. We did come to a stream, which mercifully wasn't very steep. The loggers had really done a job through here, the streambed covered by a jumble of discarded branches and trunks. Though the water level was low, it was hard work making our way through them, and at one point Wes slipped and bruised a rib.
Moving downward, I looked up to the right and noticed that there seemed to be a gap between the standing trees and the edge of the stream. Many trails in Japan tend to follow watersheds. It took me a few minutes to pull my exhausted self up and out of the river, and I finally flopped onto trail. I called to Wes who was a little ahead of me, and he too climbed up.
After about five minutes, we came to a road, and better still, a gate on the far side that was there to keep the animals out of the fields of a village that would surely be no more than few hundred meters on. After passing through, I wearily joked to Wes, "This is the point of the night where we meet the bear."
To our right, the rectangular indentations of rice paddies. Triangular silhouettes of thatch-roofed farmhouses. If this wasn't one of the 100 most beautiful villages in Japan, if was certainly the single most beautiful one to me.
Our plan had been to find a house with lights on, and ask the inhabitants for tea and a hot bath. We'd deal with the car later. We made our way through the village down a road flowing with hose-drawn water in order to keep it from freezing. And there at the bottom, miraculously, was my car. When we had set out at noon, there had been no snow at all here. Now exactly twelve hours later, I wiped about 30 cm off my windshield before opening the door.
We sat in the bus shelter next to my car, out of the snow still falling. Wes had some dry clothes to change into. My own had mostly dried under my waterproofs, but my socks were still sopping. I changed into a dry pair shoes that I happened to have in the car,, but went sockless, planning to buy a pair at the first convenience store we came to. As we changed, we assessed the damage (though it wouldn't be until later that we'd know the full extent).
Compared to Wes, I was pretty lucky: only a handful of scratches, some soreness around the back and chest from some unremembered fall, thigh muscles occasionally cramping from fatigue. Despite the fact that my feet had been wet most of the night, my toes seemed okay. The real worry was my fingers. Even as I type this a few weeks later, I still don't have full sensation in two fingertips of my right hand. Wes had given me two disposable heating pads to put in my gloves, which probably saved me from worse. Strangest was that if I bent my thumb, I couldn't straighten it again. This was probably due to muscle fatigue in the wrists from grabbing trees and the tight grip on my trekking poles. Luckily, my thumbs would be fine in the morning.
Wes was much more banged up. He'd bruised a rib, had nasty bruises along both legs, and had ugly cuts down his shin and on his forehead. He'd injured his knee pretty badly, which he hadn't felt due to the natural icing effect of the cold. (By the time we returned back to my house, it had swollen to the size of a softball.)
We threw our gear in my car--wet and muddy clothes, bent trekking poles--and drove off down a road covered deep in snow. Wes called Mike to tell him we'd gotten out, and he passed that on to the police. It was little surprise when they called back a few minutes later.
They wanted us to come to a local police box. We asked them if could wait until morning. All we wanted was to get to a convenience store for something hot. Plus I didn't like the look of the roads, and we were over an hour away from home. The cops promised that it wouldn't take long. We entered a cold police box, waking an officer as we did. Two others came in, and the paperwork began. The cops were pleasant, but it was apparent that they were more interested in finishing their paperwork than in caring for our well-being. The only heater was on their side of the desk. No blankets or hot drinks were offered. Wes finally asked for water, which was thankfully hot. And as we went through their questions both pertinent and not (why do you need to know my occupation, or my wife's phone number, or want my fucking photograph?), something dawned on me.
While we'd still been in danger up on the ridge, they'd told us that any rescue would have to wait until morning. And this wasn't due to the storm or the lack of available team members on a holiday night. They simply weren't prepared for this kind of thing. This idea solidified in my head over the next couple of days when reading the news. Two climbers dead on Fuji. One more in Hokkaido. Half of an eight person hiking group dead in Nagano. A party of twelve in Gifu managed to survive two nights in the wild. The storm we'd been in had packed a wallop across the country. Hikers were lost and dying. And the police didn't have the training nor the plan to get them home alive. I thought of the efficiency in which Search and Rescue operates in the Western Rockies. Japan needs to train their firefighters, or their SDF forces, to tackle these emergency situations. It is indisputable that this current hiking boom will continue to grow, and the body count will surely rise along with it.
Wes and I warmed ourselves at the counter of the Family Mart, eating cup noodle and downing multiple bottles of hot drinks. The storm outside was getting worse. I normally don't like driving in snow, especially in a kei car that weighs little more than a paperclip. But as we drifted slowly over the snow, I didn't have the usual fatigue in the shoulders, the usual eye strain from intensely scanning the surface for black ice. I was calm, happy to face this lesser danger after our near escape from a greater one.
Yet one last point lingers, albeit a silly one. I think of that Ambrose Bierce story, and of old Peyton Farquhar. Three weeks have passed since we came home, weeks filled with the usual peaks and valleys of a life lived. But how can I be assured that this isn't all just a game of the mind, and I'm that I'm not still sitting up there on the ridge in the snow, dreaming our escape, and a subsequent life that will never actually come to pass?
(Wes has written his own take on it all, in five parts. Part One is here.)
(And video of my telling the story at The Flame can be found here.)
On the turntable: Lucinda Williams, "Live @ the Fillmore"
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Walking through the suburbs, sunny skies. Curtis Mayfield in the earbuds putting a little glide in my stride. Kind of surreal to be walking through the suburbs with a grin on my face, belting out a falsetto, "I'm your Pusherman!" I was in a great mood, and it would be hard not to be with all the wah-wah guitar in my ears.
It was the last day of the year, and I needed one more walk. I'd spent most of December working on a book translation, with the last few days of the year spent hunched forward over the keyboard. I hadn't been on a good walk for about 6 weeks, and my feet felt neglected. The Chosenjin Kaido seemed an obvious choice. I'd walked it in 2009, or so I had thought. While walking the Nakasendo into Yasu last June, I saw a sign indicating that the Kaido branched off here, rather than over in Omi Hachiman. So it was that I walked with wet hair through the pre-dawn to a train that would take me back out to my beloved suburbs of Shiga.
And suburbs there were. As historically this had been a relatively minor road, without the post towns and features of a Tokaido, or a Nakasendo, it had never been built up in the modern area. It was wide enough to be lined with houses, and it continued to follow the path between them, away from the places of business. You could see them a short distance away: the proud roofs of temples; the smokestacks and brick of the sake brewers. Definitely a feeling of being on the wrong side of the tracks.
The suburbs finally dropped away and the land opened up. The road was narrow here, cutting through rice fields. In warmer times of the year, this would be shaded by the sakura trees lined up as namiki. The music was fitting here too, having changed from the '70s funk of the suburbs to the mellower mix of the Buckleys, Tim and Jeff revolving like some bizarre father-and-son freestyle folk battle. Across the stubble of rice fields, the first thing I saw was the white snaked Shinkansen coming out of a tunnel. An auspicious sight, as the white snake will represent the year to come. To the west were the snow covered peaks of Hira-san, out beyond the Lake. Cloud continue to build up above them, and before long, Biwa's far shore was no longer visible. The storm moved in, and by the time I reached the next village, the snow had found me.
I crossed the Hino River. The bridge was lined with old paintings of the Kaido, from the Edo period. (Note my ghostly reflection hovering over the procession in the photo above. Great metaphor there.) The residents of the village on the far bank were hard at work in the year-end clean up, including a bizarrely large proportion of them washing their cars. In all my years in Japan, I've never understood the timing of this, considering the large amounts of water used on what is inevitably a freezing cold day.
I left the village behind, and entered rice fields again. Amidst them, an older couple was washing a family grave in a plot shared by a couple dozen families. The graves were unlike any I've ever seen, the markers tall, like overgrown wooden mushrooms. Surely they don't get enough snow here to warrant their height.
A series of masugata turns led me into Omi Hachiman, where the road was marked as the Kyo Kaido. As I'd already walked (most of) the next section into Hikone, I decided to take the train. It didn't take me too long to hitch a ride to the station, a welcome bit of mercy on such a cold morning.
After a quick lunch, I walk through Hikone toward the spot where I'd stopped walking a few years before. I've been here multiple times on my Nakasendo tours, but never through this particular section, where bars begat shops which begat banks which begat 'burbs. I had to duck a little as I crossed through a low tunnel beneath the train lines. Somewhere on the outskirts of this little cluster of houses was a trail that led through the forest beneath the castle ruins. The castle here had been famously burned a few days before Ishida Mitsunari, its resident daimyo, had been soundly thrashed at Sekigahara. The Tokugawa forces had had better luck than I in finding my way up there. I asked a man washing his car(!), but neither he nor his wife seemed to know the way. So I pushed on, beneath a sculpture garden of slightly tacky replicas of Gingakuji and Hikone Castle. At the far end of a long tunnel, the road led diagonally down a road lined with love hotels. Then into Toriimoto-juku, and onto the Nakasendo again.
It took on a completely different character than it had on that rainy day in August when I'd last been here. And finally to Toriimoto Station, where I had a short wait for my train. I was thankful for a small enclosed shelter on the platform, which kept me out of the wind. I was thankful for the bench, as my feet hurt. Those six weeks off the trail had shown up in a large blister on the mound of my big toe, and in some surprising muscle fatigue that showed up later in the day. I sat here listening to an interview with Ewan MacColl, which was punctuated at regular intervals by a temple bell tolling from somewhere, as if in practice for the 108 tones to be rung later that night to signify the New Year. A hundred meters or so across the fields, the Shinkansen was another reminder, racing past back and forth, loaded with travelers headed home. Then my train pulled up, a 'one-man' carriage of an ancient vintage. It was like the old man in the old pictures who hands the year over to the newborn baby. And another Shinkansen raced by.
On the turntable: Natcha Atlas, Foretold in the Language of Dreams"
On the nighttable; Lian Hearn, "Grass for his Pillow"
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
I'm taking part in The Flame event again. Looks to be a good night.
And on Friday, I'll teach my haiku workshop.
If you happen to be the neighborhood for either of these....
On the turntable: The Greyboy Allstars, "What Happened to Television?"
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Saturday, January 19, 2013
August 24 & 25
I suppose saying something like, "For the first time in my three years in Japan, I found myself afraid," is overstating it a little. I found myself not afraid, per se, but cautious.
The guy seated next too me was the drunkest and particularly aggressive. He would start conversation as a pretext to entertain his mates, who roared in laughter at his asinine questions and atrocious English. After such a long day, I really didn't need this. A couple of times I nearly told him in my roughest Japanese to knock it off.
The martial artist in me began to formulate a strategy. As he was the transgressor, and sitting beside me, I would deck him in the face as hard as I could if things escalated. Then I'd strike the side of the neck of the guy directly in front of me, hopefully taking him -- the biggest -- out of commission. The driver would of course be too occupied to retaliate quickly, and the two behind me were pretty small and seemed harmless. As how to get out of the van, well, I'd have to deal with that later.
I'm a bit disappointed at this whole yanki thing. When I first came to Japan, I was intrigued by these people who fought so hard not to assimilate in this country famed for assimilation. Yet it wasn't long before I realized that this bark has no real bite, being mere fashion with no real depth at all. Many of the yanki I've talked with are surprisingly unintelligent. I once asked a friend, a reformed "bad girl," her opinion, and she said that theirs is a world very narrow, and alone they're quite shy, unable to resist the pressures to confirm. They find strength in others of their ilk.
The truth in that was ever apparent now. Yet as the ride went on, the guys up front turned out to be pretty nice, and the one's in back quiet. As the ride wasn't long, I decided just to ignore the loudmouth's bullshit. A couple of times he told me that his job was to help hitchhikers, and at the next parking area, he set out to prove it. He wandered around, asking every driver to give me a ride. I groaned, knowing that these guys with their hair and their clothes were going to scare off absolutely everyone. So I wandered to the fringe of the parking area, hoping to find a dark and quiet corner where I could put up my tent. I thought that I might as well give hitching one last shot, and walked to the on ramp. I winced when I saw the driver of the van running toward me, but he merely handed me a coffee and apologized for his friend's behavior.
Within minutes I got a dream ride from a couple heading to Osaka, who over the next three hours sped at 150kph about a quarter the length of Honshu. At Tsuru, they tried to help me find a place to camp, but since they had a couple more hours driving and had to work in the morning, I asked them to just let me out and I'd fend for myself.
The whole area seemed little more than a single road and some rice fields. I decided to camp on the beach. Facing a 5km walk, I made a half-hearted attempt at hitching, and was surprised to get a lift from a man just past middle-age. He explained that his daughter had studied in Australia and was now a local English teacher. There were many Canadians in the area, so he'd had lots of experience with foreigners. Asking me if I was hungry, I lied and said no, but he took me back to his restaurant anyway, the place long closed this late on a Sunday. He served me coffee and eggs, then pushed a couple of booths together and told me I could sleep there. We talked a while until his attention turned more and more toward the television. I saw this as a chance to beg off and go to sleep. After a long seventeen hour day, I finally came to a dead stop.
As I drifted off, I thought of the nature of fortuitous timing and good luck. Of how each ride had set up the next, and any single missing link would have brought the whole thing crashing down. Watching one ride blend into the next worked as well as counting sheep, and it wasn't long before I was gone...
...I awoke the next morning around six. The owner had yet to get up, and rather than wait, decided to leave him a note. I started to write in Japanese, then settled on a simple "Thank you" in English, followed by my name in katakana. I figured that it made for a better souvenir.
Out on the main road, I caught a short lift from a salaryman on his way to work who dropped me just this side of Obama. It was a glorious day, bright and clear, yet I wasn't fully awake enough to trudge a few kilometers with a full pack. I almost reverted back to my initial plan of sightseeing here, then decided once again to return in the future. Sometime yesterday, probably as I flew past Oga-hanto, the purpose of this trek morphed from a slow, four or five-day meander in the direction of Yonago, into an all-out burst of speed and endurance. And as a truck surprised me by stopping on a narrow road at the center of town, its driver telling me he was going to Kyushu, I knew I was as good as home.
I've come to the conclusion that all Japanese truckers are a bit loony, crazed for company, prone to chatting incessantly in a way that people do when they've been devoid of sleep for such a long time that their brain is tricked into functioning at a high rate of speed. This driver was a nice guy, a bit younger than I. A typical week for him consisted of taking carpets for Nissan cars from Shizuoka to Fukuoka, then a day off, followed by the return trip and a day off again. I asked him why he took backroads rather than the expressway, and he explained that the owners didn't want to pay the 30,000 yen in tolls. It is for this reason that the narrow country roads are jammed with rigs too big to traverse them, ofttimes carrying hazardous cargo through sleepy fishing and farming villages. (I asked the driver what was the most dangerous freight he'd ever carried, but he just laughed and said that he wasn't allowed to tell me.) In one such village, a narrow lane lined by homes centuries old proved an impossible place for two big beasts to pass one another. One vehicle inched forward, then waited for the other to do the same, their driver-side mirrors gently tapping each other out of place like some gentle bout of sumo.
My driver told me stories of the road, of accidents and ghosts and junior high school aged hitchhikers. A trucker's life is one that doesn't allow for girlfriends, or even possessions. I recognized in him a loneliness and a need to talk, and as the sole duty of hitchhikers is to provide a good companion, I sat back and let him go. He had a remarkable way of continuing on a single topic for around 30 minutes, this time about greasy fast food, the next time about why Land Cruisers are the perfect vehicle. So I listened to his talk as we passed two Japanese warships and an oil tanker anchored in surprisingly small, cove-like Maizuru harbor. Onward into scenery unmistakably San-in, where the rocky coastline is nudged by rice fields, and the villages are indistinct from one another, yet each one just as charming as the last.
In Yonago, I walked the last kilometer home. The sight of my fiancee's truck out front made me congratulate myself of my continued good timing, catching her on her lunch break, since I didn't have a key. Yet after five minutes of knocking, I realized that she wasn't home. I trudged to her office, where I was told that she'd been in the hospital for the previous week. And in a moment of horror, I didn't realize that the unrecognized Japanese word "kensa" meant "tests," and mistook it instead for its English sound-alike, "cancer."
Fifteen minutes later, I entered her hospital room, and the look on her face was as much a delight to me as my presence was to her. For a long while, she looked at me like I was a hallucination, like she couldn't quite grasp that I was real. She told me that she had had some stomach trouble which had passed days before, but the doctors wouldn't let her go home. My return gave her the strength to insist that she check out a week early.
So I guess that my Hokkaido trip had purpose after all. Like in a fairy tale, this ronin had literally traveled back from the end of the earth, through hostile environments of volcano, bramble, and ice; encountering severe weather conditions and spirit-bears; moving at an inconceivable pace in order to rescue a princess being held captive against her will.
On the turntable: Cat Stevens, "On the Road to Find Out"
Friday, January 18, 2013
August 24 & 25
Blurry details of a marathon streak down the west coast of Japan, two jaunts of seventeen and seven hours respectively. I was woken around 5:00 by Greensleeves being played loudly through an unseen speaker. I quickly packed up my stuff and drank a canned coffee bought from the adjacent machine which the ryokan owner had kindly turned on a few minutes before. I welcomed the morning by strolling for a couple of hours around the eponymous twelve lakes, which were barely even ponds. Small too was Nihon Canyon, little more than a hill whose face had slid into the river below.
At this early hour, there was no one else to be seen, barring a couple of sleepy caged bears, poor things. Bidding them adieu, I headed down to the highway. I walked awhile through the morning sunshine alongside the sea. Due to the early Sunday hour, few cars passed, maybe one every five minutes. I met a small group of hikers readying for their assault, looking overdressed and over-prepared.
After about 45 minutes, I finally got a lift from a guy who'd lived in the US for three years. Nearly a decade later, he couldn't speak English anymore. During the next few hours, he regaled me with his American adventures, singing a few songs, and really sinking into reminiscences.
I had originally planned to go around the coast of the Oga-hantō, but suddenly the skies opened up. I told my driver that I'd changed my mind, and would continue with him to Akita, and from that moment, every time we'd pass a sign for the peninsula, he'd joking say, "Are you sure you don't want to get out? It's not far, you know."
Entering Akita, I had been worrying about getting a ride out of a city this size, but ended up getting one immediately. The trouble was that it took me two more rides to go a mere 60km. In between, I had a long walk through a modern seaside town, raising surprised smiles from a group of employees at an auto fair.
In Sakata, I was dropped in front of the Domon Ken photography museum. As I was exiting the car, the driver who had said nothing through the entire ride, began to ask questions as if grilling me in a job interview, no doubt probing me for information to tell his friends. In order to give him some good material, I told him that I was a professional photographer.
But it was inside the museum that I could see the work of a true master. His eye, choice of subject matter, and attention to detail were spellbinding. It was like a Kurosawa film on still film stock. His series on the hands of Masters was brilliant, and the photo of a single leaf on a single stone left me amazed. I'm now completely sold on black and white photography, and hope someday to steal his image of Buddha's hands. One of my former English students had compared my work to his, and in certain shots I could understand why. The mere comparison leaves me flattered. I was also greatly impressed by the building itself, an architectural wonder in complete harmony with its surroundings. Yet its large grey blocks seemed a little too modern and "linear," at odds with the simplicity in which it enshrined.
After a brief lunch at a roadside stall, I was picked up by a guy on his way back from camping and hiking. As I was going to Zempo-ji, our talk was on temples and yamabushi. A great conversation, passing through the beautiful forest scenery of the Yamagata coast.
The temple itself didn't disappoint, the buildings and five-story pagoda dwarfed by tall hinoki trees. From the hill behind, I had the rare treat of actually looking down on the pagoda. Inspired by Domon Ken, I delighted at the simplicity of the place, inspired by the details of tatami, shoji, and polished metal.
I got a lift to the edge of town by a young surfer, just in time to be picked up by a couple who followed the windy, coastal road a good 60km out of their way. I got out, apologizing profusely, but the guy merely shrugged saying that since it was Sunday, they were just cruising around anyway. (I promise not to smirk the next time someone tells me that their hobby is driving.) Despite their good deed, they let me out near the train station, so I had a good long look at the town before getting picked up on the outskirts. This time it was a woman and her junior high school-aged daughter. They apologized for being unable to take me more than 20km, but the daughter had wanted to talk to me. The daughter spoke to me in exceedingly polite language, the mother in a slow deliberate voice usually reserved for children. They were concerned about money and where I would stay, suggesting I try to find fellow Americans studying at a local branch of Shinshu University International Center, which for some bizarre reason had been plonked down in this little town in the middle of nowhere. While hitching, its simply amazing how many drivers will stop for you, them commence to tell you how difficult it is to get rides in Japan. The reality is that you are probably traveling as quickly as they are. Japanese seem incredulous to the idea that you want to hitchhike, and rather than leave you on the side of the road, inevitably try to take you to a hotel, or a train station.
In this case, I was able to compromise on a 7-11 on the edge of town, where I chatted briefly with two Americans from the local college, then was picked up seconds later by a Japanese guy and his Chinese girlfriend, embarking on one of the most interesting conversations of the day. A couple of rides ago, the driver had asked me about my travels in China and Korea, curious how they referred to things Japanese, and I had found myself translating into Japanese words from languages that I don't speak. Now 30 minutes later, I could go right to the source. Here we were, three people from three countries, doing as in Rome by speaking Japanese. Being foreign, she and I could ask particularly direct questions, yet wrapped in the indirect speech that defines the Japanese language, they didn't sound altogether harsh. I asked her a great deal about China, her life in Japan, and whether people in Japan could tell right away that she was gaijin. I later regretted asking her this last question. At the worst of times, I loathe being singled out as different, yet how natural it is to do the same to someone else. Is this a trait that I've picked up in Japan, a place where people have the unique habit of welcoming you with open arms, while simultaneously hold you at a distance with one arm or the other? Or is it simply human nature to inquisitively look at that which isn't familiar? Ironically, it was she who was surprised when he, rather than she, was the first person this entire trip who understood how tired I must be of answering the same questions and tried to find new things to discuss. As we rolled on, I noticed the Shinkansen tracks rising from the rice fields, and realized that if I could set aside pride, i could be literally anywhere in matter of hours.
I waved goodbye to the couple from the mouth of a huge expressway, the first I'd encountered so far. Sheltered behind some trees was a patch of grass where I could pitch my tent if I needed to. It was 6:30 as I waited just inside the row of toll booths, the sky growing dark and dimming my prospects. But in the next ten minutes, five vehicles stopped, the first four going the wrong way to Tokyo. When I yelled "Tottori," up to the trucker in the fifth, he said okay, and we were off. However, this guy was real idiot, agreeing to take me to a place that he didn't know, and when he realized that it wasn't on his way to Tokyo, got confused. He seemed really cranked up on caffeine and legal speed, jabbering away in a dialect I couldn't understand, while simultaneously reading a map and balling along at 130kph. I may have met the muse for those horrific photos of truck wrecks.
His mistake turned out not to be such a bad thing. Once past the junction, I'd at least have weeded out the Tokyoite. But at the interchange, he brought his rig to a complete stop, and for a moment there I thought that he was going to make me get out in the middle of the nighttime freeway, without an exit in sight, and traffic racing by at dangerous speeds. In Japanese, I said the rough equivalent of, "My, this certainly is an unpleasant predicament!" to him, and "Fuck fuck fuck!" a few times to myself, before he roared down the ramp leading west and let me out at a rest stop 10km out of his way.
In the parking lot, I quickly downed a hot dog and a coke before hopping into a van. Inside in the darkness I found myself surrounded by five young yanki types, drunk and acting tough. For the first time in my three years in Japan, I found myself afraid...
(To be continued...)
On the turntable: Jack White, Blunderbuss"
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
August 22, 1997
Shortly after I awoke, I walked to the train station nearest the campsite, and found that I had a ninety minute wait until the next train. I hitched instead to a station on a different line, but that train was an hour later still. I decided then to hitch to the intersection of the two lines. My reason for wanting to take the train was that I could completely bypass Hakodate, a large city that would be nearly impossible to hitch out of, and go instead to the station at the base of a large Trappist Monastery. Luckily, the family who picked me up lived near the monastery, so I didn't need a train after all. The car was somewhat decked out and the driver young, driving slowly, since his mother, child, and pregnant wife were aboard. Yet I could feel that he really wanted to floor it. We stopped to look for frogs in a large pond, then checked out a secluded waterfall that fed a beautiful stretch of river that made for the perfect place to lay up a few days camping and fishing.
The monastery was a large brick structure built on some beautiful grounds that overlooked the sea. It appeared closed to the public, so I sat instead in the forest and read some of Thomas Cleary's translation of old Chinese zen sermons, hoping to soak up some of the place's energy.
Back down at the sea, I was picked up by a young guy whose father was a Protestant minister, educated in England and at Princeton. The ride was pleasant, and he treated me to a nice seafood lunch at a restaurant that was the childhood home of a once famous Sumo wrestler now decades retired and quickly becoming forgotten.
In Matsumae, the entire camp site had disappeared (a fact I was pleased to discover while in a car rather than after doing the 6km on foot), so he doubled back and dropped me at the town's castle, a small rather unimpressive structure that admittedly had a good view of the sea.
I walked around the temples of Teramachi, the centuries-old. It felt refreshing somehow to be back in the peaceful atmosphere of Zen which I haven't felt in 6 months. Here, on the cusp of Honshu, I had found traditional Japanese architecture again. This town, like all the other seaside towns on the southern coast, was filled with sturdy, nondescript buildings erected to withstand a harsh winter. Most of Hokkaido looks like this: new, Western, and completely at odds with the beautiful environment that surrounds it. But there's a lot to be said for old wood and tile to bring about a sense of peace and quiet. Each of the four protective deities of one temple gate had zori on, as if they sneak out at night in order to fight desires.
Further up, out of sight in the old cemetery, an old woman chanted sutras for her dead relatives. The towering trees offered shelter from the freaky burst of rain which came on and off like a faucet. I tore myself away, and was able to catch a ride immediately, a bit of pure luck as moments later the faucet was completely opened, and the rain poured down for two full hours, all the way into Hakodate.
In the city, the rain was like a typhoon. I don't know if it was the fogged up windows, or because I hadn't been a city for awhile, or because I'd had more caffeine than food, but I was feeling antsy and wanted to get out of cars for awhile. After I checked into a cheap and friendly hotel, the rain stopped and the sky cleared completely. I walked down the gentrified waterfront and was delighted by all the warehouses refurbished as restaurants and beer halls. Maybe it was the rain, but everything looked new, clean, and neon-cool. My walk took me to the Motomachi area with its mixture of old and new, of Japanese and western. At time, I felt like I was in San Fransisco or Seattle. Other times I was in an Asian port city like Singapore or Shanghai. I kept walking through quiet residential districts, with old wooden homes kept by old women walking old dogs and hocking up old phlegm. On past huge Nishi-Honganji to the foreigner's cemetery, the segregated Russians, Chinese and Protestants treated to a view of the Bay that they're not in a position to never enjoy. Lots of churches and an old blue Victorian house which looked a mere facade. Up a speedy ropeway for the city's famed night view, then into a museum of trick paintings. As I strolled the quiet streets, I thought that this city would've been a great place to have been a university student. I continued in this spirit by downing a couple of pints at the local microbrewery pub. It brought on a silly kind of drunk, and as I walked around the waterfront area, I sang songs made up on the spot, inspired by what I saw around me.
Up and out early, to the Trappist Convent. Unlike the monastery's peace and quiet, this place was full on tourist hell with vending machines, souvenir stands, and a parking lot filled with buses. I really felt for the nuns inside. Perhaps this says something about me as a Buddhist, or as a Catholic. For some reason, this frenzy doesn't bother me at a temple, but at a church I still see it as sacrilege. Another thing to ponder: if this sickens me so much, why am I here, and why didn't I happily partake in buying some of those famous cookies?
For the first time in a long while, I hopped the wrong bus, but didn't mind the walk through the Goryaku Fort toward the train station. There I hopped a train, riding on a seatless car with only a large raised platform on which I could stretch my legs and look out the large windows opposite. Since I didn't have the option of hitching across the sea, I took the train, but made a point to get off at the second stop, it being closer to the sea than the first. From here I would circumnavigate nearly the whole of the Tsuruga peninsula and be far enough away from Aomori City to easily thumb a ride. In addition to all this, I was excited to pass through the eerie 23km tunnel under the strait. Being down that long was strange enough, but for some unexplained reason, we stopped for a while in the middle next to another train. From the window, I could see other parallel and bisecting passages, as if this whole thing was one big interconnected underwater maze.
In daylight again on the other side I hopped out in Kanita. Immediatly, the hot clear weather, vegetation, and architecture helped me recognize the Japan that I know and love. Ah, to be back on Honshu! I flagged a ride with an English speaking guy from Osaka, an irony in that I didn't meet a local and be forced to deal with the infamous Tohoku dialect. The driver and I kept up an interesting conversation up the coast to Tappizaka, then back down the other side to Kanagi. I wanted to see Dazai Osamu's birth home, but it was under renovation. Luckily, an old woman waved us in. Albeit without furniture, it was one of the most beautiful homes I'd ever seen, with dark wood, alternating western and Japanese rooms, chandeliers, and even a three-way staircase which met on a landing in the middle. After having such a wonderful, warm place to play a child, I couldn't understand how Dazai wound up so twisted an adult.
I parted with my new friend, and started on my long trek south. Mount Iwaki stood out across the rice fields. It took awhile to get a ride to a town whose name I can't remember, so will call Gochisosama. When the driver initially passed me, I could see though the windshield the surprise on his face, then he swung around and picked me up. He was too shy to ask questions, but what was worse was that he let me off in the center of town after passing an turnoff that could've been more useful. Cursing, I walked a long way back.
Then three young local guys picked me up. They each had really long names, which I forgot in seconds. Little wonder, since I couldn't remember the name of their town either. So began a fun ride where I taught them swear words in English, and they taught me Tsugaru-ben which I also promptly forgot. As they were basically out joy-riding and little else to do, they took me 80km to Jūniko Lakes, along a breathtaking stretch of coast through little fishing villages, and a sun that turned into a bit pat of butter that melted into the sea. Well past dark, I set up camp in the parking lot of a restroom across the road from a ryokan. I had all I needed here, a patch of grass for the tent, a toilet, and a vending machine for morning coffee. The curious ryokan owner came out and we chatted for a few minutes. He came at me in mid conversation, and due to the darkness, it wasn't until he was a meter away that he saw that I was foreign. He assured me that there were no bears about...
On the turntable: Gerry Mulligan, "The Gerry Mulligan"
Sunday, January 13, 2013
"When a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. Or is it that he hates his own failure? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy."
On the turntable: Gerry Mulligan, "Mulligan Meets Ben Webster"
Thursday, January 10, 2013
August 20, 1997
Zazen at dawn, lakeside. Hit the road early, catcing a ride with a guy who liked to drive very fast on the curvy country backroads. The countryside was stunning, dotted with small villages and roadside vegetable stands which reminded me of the Hallowe'en of my childhood back in New Jersey. His car was low and handled well, so it was all quite thrilling. I wasn't really surprised when he told me he'd driven all the way from Kumamoto in three days.
The speed of his driving made up lots of time, but he dropped me off in the unfortunate town of Ashoro which, as I'd experienced a few weeks back in Obihiro, was very difficult to hitch out of. Was I in some ultraconservative bible-belt region of Japan? As I walked for half an hour or so, I cursed the passing cars, in particular the guy who slowed, saw I was gaijin, then roared off. I finally got a ride (and free Pocari Sweat), but this guy dropped me off on the near side of Obihiro, the sight of my former troubles. I figured that I'd be there for awhile, but was able to get a ride surprisingly quickly to the opposite side of town, where I was picked up by three young dudes from Tokyo who played excellent music, including Rage Against the Machine, blaring as we raced up and over a high mountain pass. The scenery was incredible, the weather beautiful for the first time in weeks.
They dropped me on a road just shy of Sapporo, on a road nearly devoid of cars. I finally got a lift to Chitose for a nice long lunch. It felt late but was only 1 o'clock. I walked to the edge of town and was given a lift by a middle-aged woman who at first told me that she'd drop me three km short of my destination, although she not only waited for me while I bought food, but also drove me seven km up a dirt road to the trail head.
It was only a bit past three, so rather than wait around until the next day, and not wanting to oush my luck with the weather, I decided to do the hike. It was a simple thirty minutes up a path laid with railroad cross-ties that seemed to hinder rather than help. With my pack, it was slightly difficult, but nearer the top the going became easier. Since it was a mere 1000 meters high, it well below the cloud layer, and visibility was good. I walked across the volcanic plain amidst billowing pores, then up a steep adjacent hill. On top, I met a couple who offered me tea, and told me I should have taken the lower road. I walked straight down the crumbly slope until I found the trail I needed. It was fairly flat and through sparse forest. Unfortunately, my mind was still on bears, so I broke out my bell. (Written in 1997: "I'll be glad to get this new phobia under control." Written in 2013: "You still haven't.") The latter section of this trail was excellent, along a sand track that zigzagged through a narrow, moss covered canyon, beneath five meter high walls.
When I reached the road at the far end of the canyon it was well past 6, so I didn't have much hope for a ride this close to dark. Luckily, I was picked up. Thinking he was doing me a favor, the driver took me to a campsite, and dropped me right in front of the office of the manager, who was standing outside and couldn't miss my arrival. I begrudgingly paid 500 yen for a tentsite. (This encounter did prove useful since I could later hit him up for some hot water for my ramen.) There weren't many people about, so I was lucky to set up away from the other campers, on a nice beach down at Lake Shikotsu's shore. This was a nice change from normal camp sites where the campers plop tents down so close to one another like they're suburban tract homes. (As usual, the nearest campers are usually the loudest ones in camp.) I sat eating my noodles, watching the lake experiment with the color blue, and the mountains fading in such a subtle way that any magician would be jealous.
After all my good luck the previous week hitching, today took 3 hours and 2 rides to go 20 km. My first ride was with a WWII veteran who I'd have loved to chat with, but could barely understand a word he said. My second ride dropped me dead center in Tomakomai, and it took an hour of backtracking before I could get a lift. Because of the traffic signals, cars would come at me in clusters, like those old video games where alien ships fly in group formation, yet in this case, I couldn't hit a single one.
I was about to ask direction to the nearest train station, when a driver stopped and took me all the way to Shiraoi's Ainu folk village. It's basically a huge shopping arcade built close to six small huts and a museum. The latter was informative, and kept my interest for awhile, but I couldn't understand what 1950's type vintage shops and athletic shoe stores have to do with Ainu culture.
I walked down to the sea for a ride to Noboribetsu Onsen, and went immediately to Kannonji. I had planned to stay here, but the ferro-concrete structure made it look like a cult headquarters. I decided to push on. But first, I dropped into Dai Ichi Hotel and partook of their wonderful hot springs, soaking in twenty different tubs that varied in design and temperature.
At this point I made a small compromise and decided to take the bus. I wanted to travel over a series of confusing roads and thought that hitching might strand me somewhere awful. The deciding factor was that this bus was the only one of the day going to Showa Shinzan, a detour that would save me lots of trouble later. This volcano turned out to be a big steaming pimple, around which grew the usual cluster of souvenir shops and restaurants, all abustle. There was an entire genus full of stuffed bears in various stages of decay, looking more ferocious than those poor creatures in Shiraoi, locked in small cages with their spirits broken. I hoped that the stuffed ones were the bodies formerly captive bears. It was disgusting to think that a few beautiful creatures had been killed simply to amuse tour groups from the city.
Also pathetic was the consumer frenzy that overshadowed the museum. It was dedicated to the man who had made this volcano his life's study, and without whom none of this would be here. The proprietor was a quiet, gentle sort of man who I assumed was the scientist's son. He led me to some of the exhibits, the most fascinating ones about the bizarre governmental cover-ups, since it might be considered an unlucky omen as the volcano had formed during wartime.
Later, I also visited the volcano museum in Toyako Onsen, with its cool pictures and film clips accompanied by a powerful subwoofer. When Mt. Usa erupted in 1977, the town was pretty much wiped out. They've now installed vents and run-offs cut into the mountainside, as if that'll help. What they hope to save was an admittedly picturesque town, a little too dedicated to consumerism, and a hotspot for onsen culture. (Nightly fireworks!) This was all a bit too garish for my mood. After so much time in the mountains, I now found myself hopping from one tourist trap to another.
I decided to hitch to a campsite on the coast further south, but since my ride was going all the way to Hakodate, I asked them to drop me a few miles shy of Onuma National Park. This was a fun, silly trip, with frequent food stops. We arrived after dark and had some trouble finding the camp site, but they didn't seem to mind. I could tell we were near a major city due to the large number of car campers and weekend warrior types. A few cars raced along the roads around the lake, and some biker college students seemed interested only in drinking and making noise. The advantage to arriving late to this kind of circus is that you can wander away from it, grabbing some peace after a long, full day.
On the turntable: Billy Cobham, "Inner Conflicts"
On the nighttable: Murakami Haruki, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"