The roof of the monsoon passed earlier this evening, regaling the city with a fiery evening sunset and later opening up the sky to the stars. I went out for a short stroll, to buy some milk and some pudding dessert, passing from shadow to shadow. The neighborhood cats perched atop the alley walls, staring at me as I passed beneath them. One family of newly moved-in neighbors, foreigners, their British accents ringing out incongruously in the still Japanese night, sat in their tiny rear garden, drinking beer and laughing. A party of teenage boys squatted in the corner of the nearby playground, smoking and bantering. A woman stood by the open window of her kitchen, humming to herself and washing dishes.
The monsoon is a shield of cloud hiding the sun and letting down its rainy hair. And everything is water colored and drenched. This is the time of year when summer water levels are determined and the leather shoes shoved into the back of the shoe closet turn fuzzy white with mold. And when the hot breath of humidity makes its way into the walls and windows.
I have been sitting all day by the window, and the threat of rain has been slow in gathering. For some reason the grey sky reminded me of a day thirteen years ago when I was on my third whalewatching boat trip out in Stellwagon Banks, off the coast of Boston. It was a windy day, the sky overcast, and the waves as grey as lead. All day the boat had been searching for the telltale signs of humpback whale spume, but nothing. Most people had retreated belowdecks to warm up by the stove and a hot mug of cocoa, but I preferred to sit by the gunwhale, still staring at the sea.
Suddenly, like a net of blossums dropping out of the sky, a blanket of Cape May Warblers descended on the boat. They landed everywhere: on the gunwhales, the deck, the deck chairs, the awning above the cabin door, the roof of the cabin, the life boats, and even on people’s shoulders and heads. The tiny, sparrow sized birds barely moved about, looking a little dazed. The naturalist on board explained that they were on their cross-the-bay leg of their migration, having started earlier in the day from Provincetown and heading up to Gloucester by the evening, a distance of several hundred miles. They were so exhausted from their ordeal that their normal reaction of fleeing was temporarily forgotten and, sighting a lucky reprieve from the unbroken open water, took a detour from their flight path. For about twenty minutes humans and birds co-existed in perfect harmony. I can well believe the story of “Life of Pi”. It is not really that improbable.
But what a wonder to get so close to a wild creature and have it look back at you without fear!
I told myself that I would never return to Oze Marsh after my 1994 let down. It is a beautiful place, but the hordes of people and the train track-like wooden walkways make it impossible to enjoy the place as it ought to be experienced. Japanese park authorities seem never to have heard of eco-tourism. There were times as I walked, that the package tour hiking groups that passed would make a steady line of bodies that stretched the entire length of the marsh, as far as the eye could see. The sense of tranquility and self-reliance that draw me to the mountains gave way to teeth-gritting impatience as hundreds of people hobbled by, each requiring a bright smile and a hearty “Good day!” that didn’t reflect my real mood.
Yet here I was again, tromping the wooden slats and again seeking communion with a grace that never quite made it through the invisible barrier between boardwalk and broad marsh expanse.
I went to the marsh because of months of inactivity and problems with diabetic neuropathy that left my toes and fingers twinging with pain. I needed a flat walk, easy on the climbing and backpack laden treads. Oze Marsh was about as easy as a mountain walk could get. I was hoping to get my summer start here, try out my new lightweight tipi, and work up to the higher mountains over the summer. By autumn I hoped to be scaling the peaks of the rocky roof of Japan, perhaps Yari-ga-take or Hotaka.
The weather broke through the monsoon grey with the first real summer heat, sunlight bathing the marsh in ultraviolet generosity that just barely managed to retain the alpine coolness of the elevation. I was in a t-shirt, my walking pants rolled up to the knees, but others clad themselves in woolens and umbrellas against the sun, vests, and clomping leather boots. Many people grimaced under their sweat and I wondered why they didn’t just remove their excess. Out over the marsh grasses a stillness hung, as if all the creatures waited with bated breath for the caravans to pass.
I did get a number of moments of reprieve and insight into the place; and to find these interludes I needed to stop and look hard. I waited until a lull in the traffic jam presented itself and then I would kneel down at the edge of the boardwalk and peer into the tea water of the marsh bogs. Cold water with water lillies just beginning to reach for the surface, stands of azalea, mountain cherry trees, and mugwarts. If the lull was long enough the hidden frogs would venture tentative croaks that blossumed into a full-scale chorus. Suspended in the clarity of the water, wriggling brown bodies of salamanders, gulping bubbles of air, shuttled between mud and atmosphere. On the water surface flotillas of whirligigs danced caffeine-laden polkas and waltzes while beneath them jerked the rowboat forms of water boatmen and waterbugs. Everything moved with deliberation, in slow motion, as if conscious of the spending of precious calories. Only the mad calling of cuckoo birds in the scattered islands of birch trees indicated any squandering of resources; but perhaps for the cuckoos, who leave the rearing of their young to others, there is leeway for their extravagance.
With the evening appeared one of Oze’s designated lodging areas. My tipi went up at the back of a bulldozed clearing, just shy of a village of bigger, rounder tents. Campers moved about in a hush, the smoldering evening light snuffing out loud voices, even the army of teenagers staked out in tents big enough that they could stand up in them. As the darkness descended blackflies rose from the grass and clouds of midges attacked my exposed arms, face, and legs. I had forgotten the misery of these biters, and all evening I squatted swatting absently at them. Under the enclosure of the tipi the blackflies receded, but the midges continued their rampage.
Dinner was Thai green curry, dried tom yam kun soup, some sliced celery and cucumbers, and a package of parboiled mixed rice. Dessert was a cup of steaming cappucino coffee.
Sleep took over as the darkness fell. Like a bird under the shell of the sky, I drifted away into dreams.
And at 2:30 in the morning woke with the need to pay a visit to the toilet. Out in the crisp air, the rising moon threw blue shadows onto the ground and got tangled in the fingers of bare-branched trees. It was cold enough for wisps of breath to waft from my lips and drift up towards the stars. The constellations awaited them, until the Milky Way and my breath merged, indistinguishable. I stood craning my neck, reaching with my eyes, yearning.
The tipi walls weeped condensation and the foot of my sleeping bag soaked it up. I fitted a garbage bag over the end, and went back to sleep… until the teenagers came alive and woke the camp with their teenage urgencies and indifferent boots stomping by the tipi walls. Long moments slogged by until the tipi walls grew bright with dawn and the hysterical laughter of the nightjars gave way to distant ring-necked pheasants bugling, to cuckoos and bush warblers competing for choral dominance.
I scrambled out of the sleeping bag and tiptoed along a neglected path behind the campsite, listening and watching for birds. The great hoary grey birch tree trunks and glowing new leaves grabbed the spaces of light and left a tangled profusion of vegetation from amidst which the cuckoos sang and the secret creatures hid. Nothing moved.
The rest of the day brought the sun again, and skies laced with tree swallows and lazy, drifting clouds. The hordes tromped diligently according to the signs, stopping at the designated rest areas, buying Hello Kitty trinkets and drinking cans of 600 yen beer at 9:30 in the morning. Cameras blinked and hovered everywhere, quick glimpses of the scenery, the moments captured on film before the eyes could register what they were looking at. Hiking in a daze.
And back out of the valley, up to the pass, where buses waited. The suddenness of immobile concrete and asphalt. The glare of human structure, treeless and spent, individuals hurrying away in their cars. Heads nodding among the bus seats, silent blood pounding from the effort of two days.
And home, back to the frayed lights and rush. Back to the heart of remembering.
I have always held a strong dislike for zoos, feeling that all creatures ought to have the full expression of their evolutionary complexity in the way they live. All creatures became what they are out of an inextricable relationship with their surroundings and thus should live within those surroundings.
However, upon starting the book “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, his argument that animals don’t feel stress when in confinement, as long as that confinement fulfills their individual needs has gotten me thinking a lot about the nature of both what habitat means and what our own lives mean as we live in cities today. While I won’t give up my contention that wild animals ought to live their wild lives in wild places, I now wonder if perhaps zoos, good zoos, are a necessary part of caring for endangered species today.
Martel knows his animals. He has either really done his research or spent a lot of time with animals, because he knows details about them that only someone who has spent a lot of time with them could witness. And he doesn’t “cutify” them either, a practice here in Japan that has reached epidemic proportions (and is the sad source of the Japanese illegal trading in endangered species).
I remember stepping into a pet shop in Shin-Okubo about six years ago and coming upon a fennec fox curled up in the corner of a tiny cage. I was so shocked that such a rare animal was being displayed openly like that, that my anger left me speechless. But I didn’t even know what to do. Who to approach about this here in Japan? The country where whales are killed now more out of chauvinistic resentment than any need for the meat, where whale meat is brazenly sold on mid-day women’s variety show commercials, by a woman who presents the whole product line with such a pleasant voice you would think she was hawking perfume.
People too often think of animals as mere commodities. And with the world getting smaller day by day, any reform of such pot-bellied thinking seems quite unlikely.
Still, Martel has made me ponder my own prejudices. Time to look at my own motivations.
I almost died on Sunday evening. I was bicycling along the Nogawa River near my home, returning from a pleasant glide downhill beside the chest-high grass-overgrown banks, when I entered an unlit stretch under the darkness of an arbor of cherry trees. Suddenly, before I realized what was happening, my bicycle jerked up from under me, the tree canopy and bicycle path whirled up and around, and the next thing I knew the asphalt hit my outstretched hands and shoulder. It was as if an invisible person had just thrown me over their shoulder. The impact badly gouged my palms, right elbow, right knee and shin. My (stupidly unworn) bicycling gloves, bandana, and bicycle mirror flew across the pavement. Stupidly I gazed back from whence I had flown and recognized the shadow of tree root heaving up the asphalt and forming a perfect launch thank-you-m’am. Naturally my first oh-so-dignified reaction (I am not neko-gata, cat profile) was to jump and and stamp about swearing at the sky. And then kicking the bump. And then swearing at Chofu city authorities. And then picking up my poor bicycle to check if she was okay. (All right outside the open window of a family’s house, wherein the occupants were sittiing down to dinner while watching tv) And only then, after wasting about 5 minutes in impotent fooldoggery, feeling the pain and staring at the lacerated skin and blood all over. After picking up my things, I gingerly got back on my bicycle and creaked home, while pipistrelle bats twittered and looped above the river.
My skull continued to swivel on my vertebrate. The eggshell had not been cracked and no soup had been spilled. And all while not wearing a helmet. I never do learn. Except that the spark that I carry sure seemed precious when the fingerhold snapped away for a moment.
Behind my old home in the town of Susono, at the foot of Mt. Fuji, huddles a small group of mountains known as the Ashitaka Mountains. It is a small group of rugged peaks, the interior of which is mostly inaccessible because of near vertical slopes and rotten rock, created thousands of years ago by the violence of Fuji’s blast from out of it’s southern flank. Every year a few visitors make their way to the northernmost and tallest of the peaks, known as Echizen Peak. At about 1500 meters, not very tall by neighboring Fuji’s towering standards, the view of Fuji from the top is breathtaking. It is one of the few places where you can see Fuji in its entirety, giving the full sense of the volcano’s long rise from the surrounding highland.
The Ashitakas were the first mountains that I began to seriously climb and after having pointed my boots up its narrow track through all seasons and all weather, it came to occupy a special place in my heart. I could walk the trail in the dark and anticipate the rocks in the path and the four places where one edge of the trail dropped off into a crumbling precipice. I watched the mountain alter with the years, as typhoons off Suruga Bay ate away at the old volcanic rock, causing landslides along the steepest portions of the trail. One year an entire ravine collapsed, and a new path had to be bushwhacked through to the old trail up along the ridge. And the trail itself, after decades of tromping boots, eroded along the forested portions, gradually washing away into head high gullies through which, on rainy days, you could barely make your way along the slippery, iron-red mud. Only a tiny company of volunteers, all in their sixties and seventies, cared for the trail.
These same volunteers, who had been climbing the mountains since the thirties, had also built a tiny cabin just below the first ridge, a third of the way up the slopes. The cabin stood next to a natural spring, from which ice cold water bubbled, and in summer, frogs croaked unseen from within the rock fissures. I weathered a heavy rain storm in the cabin one autumn day. The floor was covered with layers of old blankets and an old, blotched guestbook sat on the window sill. As the rain drummed on the corrugated metal roof, I sat reading entries from past visitors.
A wooden plaque was nailed to the cabin door, which read, in Japanese, “Please make sure to latch the cabin door closed when entering or leaving, to make sure the macaques don’t get in and cause a mess.” The troop that roamed these mountainsides once appeared on an outcropping above me as I made my way up the rocky trail. Some of the members balanced upon the quivering, ropy tendrils of an akebi vine, munching on passion fruit-like akebi fruit.
The last time I went to Ashitaka was to camp at my favorite secret spot under a stand of four, towering, ancient Japanese cedars. The old grassy area where I used to nap on weekend afternoons had overgrown with brush bamboo and there was little space left comfortable for a tent. As night descended I listened to the snuffling and grunts of raccoon dogs, red foxes, and sika deer, but never saw a soul of one. At dawn I emerged from my tent, naked, and stood gazing for a long, slow time at Mt. Fuji catching the first fiery glow of the rising sun.
It is rare to have such solitary space, free from the possibility of someone happening along, in Japan. It is good to know that somewhere in the world there is a tiny, but significant place, where I can retreat to if I want to sit in silence, being part of the old world.
Dawn is always my favorite time of day. People are still sleeping and the quietness draws attention to things that are often overlooked later in the day, things like the speed of the clouds passing overhead, the sway of the trees, the quick chirrups of sparrows darting over the rooftops, and the shifting of the light. Because of my night job teaching English it is usually difficult to get up so early, and so I usually miss the dawns these days. But today, here I am, and like the hush of the breeze through the leaves of the false acacia outside my window, there is a quietness beating slowly in my chest. The sky is bright and it feels good to be alive.
In the midst of Tokyo, which struggles to retain any of the wild creatures that make their home here, the rivers still manage to sustain quite a large number of creatures, despite the walling up of banks and straightening of river courses. There is now not a single river left in Japan that hasn’t been dammed and much of the former rich riverine biosphere has been lost. Once, for instance, fireflies inhabited Japan throughout the islands, including, until thirty years ago, downtown Tokyo (Takadanobaba area), but since fireflies can only exist in pristine water conditions, with the polluting of all water sources, fireflies have virtually disappeared. Much of the inspiration for Japanese folklore, the fireflies, the tree frogs, the catfish, and even river otter and salmon, now exist only as memories for children.
The rivers now seep along their courses as reduced, shallow streams that often dry up in the sweltering heat of the summers. Tokyo, with its voracious appetite for water, leeches away most of the volume, leaving little for the wildlife and plants.
Still, on any given dawn or evening, if you wander down to the water’s edge, flotillas of ducks and lone hunters like egrets and herons ply the waters for what few fish and insects continue to lurk in the river bed. Perhaps one of the most rewarding sights is the flash of an emerald green and cobalt blue jewel of a bird, the common kingfisher. Such sights have the shock of invoking a common memory of a world long lost, but that still remind us of where we came from and what we are made of.
One of my childhood dreams, ever since I first visited the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, was to one day witness the ice floes filling the bay of the Okhotsk Sea. I got my first taste of what the cold and the ice from the Arctic meant when the cohort of 10-year-old summer camp companions and I dashed down the beach of Abashiri and plunged into the lead grey water. Within a minute our legs and lips turned blue from the frigidity and we scrambled out, gasping and squealing with joy. I still recall the suck of the grey sand and how the cold gripped my ankles the deeper I sunk.
That summer seemed to shake loose the stiff joints of Tokyo and, for a child who spent a lot of time alone and had few friends, to suddenly be sharing this new world of wide horizons with other children, just as excited as me, left me almost giddy with joy. I hardly rested a moment indoors within the three day ferry ride north. There was too much to see. Out across the waves glided black-tailed and laysan albatrosses, their wings held outstretched and still for impossibly long spells, just a handsbreadth above the waves, never seeming to need the aid of flapping. Among them, skirling like dark knives over the water’s surface, slipped sooty and short-tailed shearwaters, one of their wingtips skirting the water. Storm petrels danced on the waves like angels, at play with the wind. We saw fur seals, and common dolphin, and humpback whales, and once, far off, even an orca. On the second day, when the sea was lifting and dropping the ship on its heaving shoulders, some of us stood near the prow, daring each other to get drenched by the wings of turquoise spume that crashed over the gunwhales. Later in the evening, drowsy with fatigue, we sat in the great public bath amidships, sliding back and forth across the bathtub floor as the water sloshed like a drunk hippopotamus.
Hokkaido has always generated a kind of granting of my book-generated longings. Each of the five times I was there, over a period of 24 years, I met extraordinary people and encountered wild animals still very much alive and not yet just characters in a fairy tale.
And in May of 1994 my wish to see the ice floes of the Okhotsk Sea came true. As if set up purely for my viewing pleasure, the ice floes reversed their northern drift and returned to the northwest shores of Hokkaido in late May. Such a thing had not happened in anyone’s lifetime according to some locals I bantered with as we stood and prodded at a floe. “And it is awful for business.” grumbled an old fisherwoman. “We can’t set the boats out to go squid fishing.”
A day before we boarded the ferry back for Tokyo, we climbed some bluffs off the trail in Shiretoko National Park and sat basking in the sun for a whole day, hardly saying a word, hardly needing to think. The floes seemed to reach out toward some land in a dream.
At this time of the year birds are nesting all over the northern hemisphere. Many birds have already long gotten underway with hatchlings that now varaciously demand that the parents deliver their food. Like pizza delivery boys, the parents oblige by hurrying back and forth looking for the local fare.
The female rufous turtle dove pictured here, which is almost the size of the rock dove (otherwise known as the common pigeon), picked a spot outside our old apartment in west Shinjuku, right next to the kitchen window. All through late spring, through rain and storms, frustrated cats and heat, she and her mate tended to the eggs, preparing for that year’s family. Unfortunately, an early typoon razed through the city one night and the next morning the nest was abandonned, the eggs gone. The following year she and her mate were back, picking a new tree further away, but I never got to watch the family-raising drama, since it occurred right when I was leaving that place.