Journal Nature

The Little People Are Real

Flores FeetAll my life the lure of the old stories about dwarves and giants and elves and ogres always held a unreasoning fascination that seemed all out of proportion to the experience of daily life. Just what is it that draws so many people to love these old stories? It is almost as if some genetic memory from a world far more ecologically diverse and integrated than our world today stimulates us to feel fascination when we stir up pictures of these mythical relatives. And every culture has them; all of us talk about the Little People and the Magical Folk.

So it is with great delight (so much so that I jumped up from my chair in front of the computer and cried out “FANTASTIC!” when I came across the news of the discovery in Indonesia of Homo florensiensis today (Other sites include The Panda’s Thumb, National Geographic, and Nature). Here is a three foot tall homonid who lived as recently as 13,000 years ago, during which they probably had interaction with Homo sapiens.

Flores Sapiens

It is like discovering that when children tell you that they saw a little man under the bed they were telling the truth. So the dwarves and giants of the old stories really did exist. Now we just have to find the dragons.

With all the hyper activity and meaninglessness of the American election campaign; with the ongoing suffering of the people in Niigata (area north of Tokyo) subject now to a week of unrelenting earthquakes (over 100 quakes measuring at least 5 on the Richter Scale, and 5 quakes measuring at least 6) and more than 80,000 people evacuated, half of whom are living on the streets with snow in the forecast; and with, until last weekend, more than four months of unbelievable amounts of torrential rains and monster typhoons, this little bit of magical news is a welcome change. It’s good to see that there is still at least a bit of mystery and wonder in the world. I hope this discovery leads to more unexpected stepping stones in our understanding of ourselves and our world.

Flores reconstruction

Humor Japan: Living Journal Life In


On my way home on the train this evening I over heard two drunk senior Japanese business men having this conversation. It was interesting for several reasons: First, it seemed to represent the two main faces of how Japanese are feeling about themselves today, one a very polite and amiable face, the other, much more rarely seen unless the personage happens to be drunk, full of trepidation and suppressed anger and frustration. Second, because one of the men was slyly directing his comments at me, a foreigner whom he imagined could not possibly understand their conversation, their words rang against the bell of my own two-faced feelings about Japan right now. Third, their conversation budded directly from the seed that Bush planted three years ago, digging deep into the feelings the world’s populace has about their own place in the world and how outsiders see them and how they see outsiders. To a different degree I’m sure this same sprouting seed is growing throughout the Muslim world, albeit in much more explosive and anguished ways. But if a self-effacing Japanese businessman can feel like this, than just imagine what others feel.

I surreptitiously listened to the two businessmen while playing a game of Othello on my cell phone…

“Have you been to the Kabuki-cho district recently?”

The other man shook his head, his face tomato red with alcohol. “No, my dear sir, I have not,” he replied with exaggerated courtesy. “Spend most of my drinking time around Ginza after work.”

“You should go. It’s still got quite a few good places left.”

“You mean you still go?”

“Well, yes, occasionally. My son lives near there.”

“Your son? The one with blonde hair?”

“That’s him. Gives me hell when I tease him about the hair. Now what business does a Japanese have walking around with blonde hair, you tell me?”

The other man leaned over and smiled. “You shouldn’t say mean things about your son. It’s not seemly.”

“Ah, you’re right. You’re right. But it makes me so mad.”

“What, that he has blonde hair?”

“No, no. That he lives near Kabuki-cho.”

“But I thought you said it is still a good area.”

“Well, yes, there are still a few good places left there, but my son shouldn’t be living there.”

“Why ever not? He’s got to live somewhere.”

“True, but that’s not a place for decent people to live.”

“Is he a decent person?”

“Of course! He’s my son, isn’t he?”

“Yes, yes. That he is. That he is.”

“It’s just that people don’t watch out for one another any more. These Tokyo people don’t talk to each other any more. You live somewhere and you don’t even know your neighbors.”

“Things are changing. They’re always changing. It’s the way of the world.”

“But it wasn’t like that thirty years ago. Neighbors made an effort to be there for each other then. Like back in my hometown in Kyushu.”

“You from Kyushu?”

“Small town outside of Fukuoka. You’re from the country, too, aren’t you?”

“Sort of. My family moved around a lot. Tokyo’s been the longest.”

“My son is being sent to Hokkaido next year.”

“Ah, it’s starting then, is it? The years of moving around for work?”

“Yes, and his company doesn’t have drinking after work. It’s all work until late at night, without even a little chance to have some fun. I say he ought to quit a company like that. What’s the point in working if you can’t enjoy a little of the fruits of your labor?”

The other man nodded solemnly, grunting his agreement and swaying a bit too far with the jolt of the train.

The first man continued, “Something is really wrong with the Japanese people.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, first you got them all stampeding to the cities and forgetting who they are and where they come from. Then they start only thinking about themselves and forgetting what it means to live as neighbors.” His voice rose a notch, causing the woman sitting opposite his friend to look up from her stack of computer printouts. “And finally they start letting foreigners roam the streets as if they own the place. I’ve nothing against foreigners, but this is Japan and they should remember that this is a country called Japan! Why would they choose to come to a place like this?”

The other man squinted at the first man with some concern. He reached over and patted the first man on the lap. “Whoa, whoa there old man, you’ve no reason to get so upset. We’re all on good terms here.”

The first man deflated and hung his head. “You’re right. You’re right. You’re always right. I get angry too easily…” He paused to reflect for a moment. “That’s what my wife says, at least. I get angry like an old dog. That’s why I’m glad it’s you I am talking to now. You’re an old dog just like me!”

They both burst out laughing, only realizing too late that they are making a lot of noise, and putting they’re hands over their mouths in embarrassment. The second man leaned in and behind his hand whispered, “We really are a couple of old farts, aren’t we?”

They burst out laughing again, slapping they’re knees. They laughed until they gradually fell silent. Outside I could hear the clackety-clack of the traintracks.

The first man leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. He sat up, shaking his head slowly. “But seriously, I am very worried about the future of Japan. Very worried.”

The other man nodded and grunted agreement.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the Japanese. Look at us. Here we’ve got this fool [Prime Minister] Koizumi. A fool! And we just go along with him: the Iraq war, the economy, the useless government… If I were a foreigner I would think the Japanese are a bunch of stupid gits.” He looked at his partner and shook his head. “I really think so. We Japanese are a bunch of stupid gits!” He hung his head again, a deeply pained expression gripping his face. “There is nothing wrong with our genes, that I know, but all the same we are an idiot people. We’ve got great genes though.” He looked up at his partner. “What do you think? Is there something wrong with our genes? Have foreigners got better genes than we do?”

The other man gripped the first man’s hand and held it. “My old friend, there is nothing wrong with your genes or with mine. Or with any Japanese genes. We are doing all right. Don’t fret yourself so. The world is just going through a difficult time. Everything will work itself out, you’ll see. You just have to be patient.”

“I truly hope so.”

Here the first man glanced up at me and for a split second held my eyes, before looking back down again and continuing his dialogue with his friend. “I’m glad that I ran into you here on the train. I’m so glad it was you and not my son. My son would have argued with me and just made me feel bad. It’s always like that. With you I can open my heart.”

The second man smiled and patted his friend’s hand again. “That’s exactly the way it should be, no? You and your son, me and you.”

“And me and my wife. She would have kicked me off the train with all my whining!”

They both broke out laughing again. The train arrived at my station and I turned to get off. The doors closed behind and from out in the cool night air I watched the two men continue to trade assurances from inside the warm glow of the train’s interior. The train pulled away, leaving me with a curious feeling of outrage and empathy negated. Above, the moon shone. Tomorrow would be a lunar eclipse, the whole world party to the same shadow. I wondered what the two men would say, sitting and drinking together, watching the night sky.

“It doesn’t look right through all this Tokyo smog.”

“But the tinting effect is that much more accentuated, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Hmm. Now that you point it out, so it is. So it is.”

Hiking Journal Outdoors Trip Reports: Hiking

Leafy Days

Aizukoma Beech
Beech tree on Aizu-Komagatake making the first nod towards winter.

It wasn’t all rain over the last two months. A few intermissions did manage to part the curtain of rain. Two days walking in the Aizu region north of Tokyo that I have rarely visited surrounded me with the kind of glowing green and yellow screens of leaves that I’ve been longing for all summer. It was quite a surprising area actually, a locale covered with a kind of corrugated blanket of hillocks and flat-bottomed vales which kept the scale of development down by the sheer privacy of separated valleys, sort of like an overturned egg carton. The train snaked through these valleys as if entering from room to room, and each room seemed more isolated than the one before, until, when I arrived at Aizu-Kougen station, I felt as if I had time-warped into a Japan of thirty years ago: a station built of wood, a station master standing by the ticket gate waiting to greet each passenger individually with a big, gold-toothed smile, and a bus stop out front that seemed to dissipate into a rice paddy.

The bus took another two hours to carry me beyond the reach of the trains into an unspoiled rural farming community that seems to have been largely lost throughout most of the rest of Japan. Just the evidence of the old trees preserved along the roadsides and the hand-made way people hung bright orange persimmons to dry under the great eaves of their houses or stacked rice stalks and rushes in cylindrical bales in the fields brought back images of organic connection rural people used to live by in older Japan. The rivers and streams rushing by along the sides of the roads, frothing with whitewater after all the rains, held a kind of icy blue light that could only come from pristine mountain sources.

It was too late to climb the first day so I found a roadside campground and set up my tarp way back among a stand of willows, beside a vagetable garden of lettuce, tomatoes, daikon radishes, and eggplants that the camp proprietor kept for his family. Darkness descended like a hammer; no sooner had I turned off the stove and sat back to sip my tea, than I could no longer make out the forest starting at the edge of the camp. The mountains surrounding the valley loomed into the sky like the black backs of huge, sleeping beasts. I sat a long time at the entrance to the tarp, looking up at the sky. Stars began to appear, with intermittent hands of clouds passing in front of them, leaving patches of blindness in the vast expanse. Sirius shone like a bright eye for a while, looking down at me and unblinking until the clouds won over and the sky ducked behind the gases.

Rain began pattering the tarp during the night, waking me from dreams of the baking red rocks of Australia. I lay in the dark listening to the tapping until it lulled me back into my dreams.

Dawn was a veil of mist that entered the confines of my tarp and hung over the slowly breathing earth like a poised egret, its grey net almost indistinguishable from the grey shield of my tarp. I sat up, brushing my head against the dew-laden under-surface of the tarp, and the chill of the water droplets shocked me to full waking. I rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed away the unused clothes, and set a pot of water to boil. Breakfast consisted of the ubiquitous cold granola, its sweetness cloying in the watery green tea of morning. I promised myself to find a new meal to start the days with, something more akin to the chlorophyll and meat of the mountains.

By the time the tarp was rolled up and stuffed away and my pack hoisted on my back fat missiles of rain again sent the world into a repeat of the white noise of rainfall that had been overwhelming most of the last three months. I strode along the road to the trailhead and started up along the flank of Aizu-Komagatake, whose summit was lost in the clouds up above.

Two weeks of course made little difference in the state of my body and the going, like my last trip, was tough, despite a lighter pack. First I felt the drag on my muscles up the steep climb, and soon after could feel the peculiar heaviness in my bones, clutching of my brain, and derailing blurriness in my eyes that signal the onslaught of low blood sugar from my diabetes. It was a surprise because I had eaten my usual dose of heavy granola and the granola, with its relatively low glycemic burnout, usually kept me going for hours. Instead I collapsed on a log and chewed on an energy bar until my eyesight cleared and my muscles could spring up again. Several other hikers passed by, all offering much too cheerful greetings for my current state and I could only feebly wave back at them. One Japanese man, speaking in uncharacteristically well-pronounced English, boomed. “Hey, you going up or coming down?”

“Not sure yet,” I replied.

“Well, it’s a good place to think about it,” he said and kept on.

The sun suddenly broke through the canopy and inundated the whole world in green and autumn yellow brilliance. All my discomfort evaporated. I sat up and gazed around and felt the backboards of my eyes burn with new heat. That sense of being cloaked by your surroundings bloomed along the hairs of my skin, what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, and from that moment the old terminus of my love for the natural world kicked in; I forgot myself and instead ran on the heat in my eyes, all at once feeling the world with all my senses as if they were one beating sense and I were just an organ acting to give these senses expression.

Invigorated and filled with renewed joy I started up the trail again and took my time to climb while at the same time stopping now and then to just absorb it all. The huge beeches had begun to turn cadmium yellow while around them Japanese maple, rowan, and lacquer vines blushed bright red. The higher I climbed the brighter the world seemed to grow. When the forest finally broke and the first view out across the mountains caught me by surprise, I was ready to run and jump and click my heels.

The mountains breathed clouds like hirsute gentlemen walruses lounging in a huge steaming pile, smoking pipes and puffing smoke. All around the clouds rose from the ravines and valleys, climbing with a gentle unconcern toward the sky. Ravens flapped through them, and called across the treetops. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every other step had me halting to peer into a bush or fingering some tree bark or nosing up close to a mushroom. I tried to capture the glow of sunlight through the translucency of a yellow leaf, but the camera couldn’t capture the ineffability of touch and ephemerality. In frustration I lingered longer and longer at each investigation, until the sun had climbed quite high in the sky. How to express the expansion in my lungs or the intuitiveness of spreading my fingers and discovering in them the completeness of the stillness of a tree’s life as it spread in glory above me? How to rein in time so that I could exist out here without being a stranger or an intruder? How to step so lightly that my passage is the the brush of the wind or the trajectory of a falling leaf? How to come home and so sink in that I am indistinguishable from the mountain and the forest?

So much time I spent lingering that the halfway point at which I had to turn back came and went. I missed my chance to gain the mountain’s summit. I could see the summit just fifteen minutes away. But that would mean a half hour round trip and if I took it I would miss the bus going home. Warring emotions had me wasting more time until I forced myself to turn away and head back down. I passed all the spots I had stopped at along the way up, sometimes seeing them in the different light of the opposite direction. The intensity of the light also reversed as I descended. Like coming down from the roof. Step by step the rocks and roots slipped behind me until I reached the base of the mountain again and stood on the road, all semblance to joy replaced by asphalt and passing cars and signs. The asphalt always felt too still and level, and that nagging self began to speak again, telling me that I needed to make something of myself, finish projects, redefine the me that stood separate from the world it lives in. It was safe and warm and nourishing here, but I always forget who I am here. My body seems to lose justification for why it is formed the way it is, eyes and legs seemingly irrelevant now.

I headed home on the bus, then the train. WIth another mountain slumbering and unassaulted behind, speaking alone to the oncoming skirt of winter. When next I come this way white might be the color of choice.

Hiking Journal Outdoors Trip Reports: Hiking Ultralight Backpacking

Autumn Rains

Komorebi Kinpu
Rising mist an hour after a huge rain storm hit my campsite near the summit of Mt. Kinpu during the night.

For more than three months it’s been pouring rain nearly every day throughout Japan. What I had promised myself would be a summer of copious walking along ridges, turned into days in my tent waiting out downpours and a summer washed away with thundering rivers and mountain sides giving way. During my climb of Mt. Kinpu in Chichibu, west of Tokyo, with a precious two-weeks of vacation lined up, I thought perhaps that surely the gods were frowning upon me, seeing that every single weekend since the first green blush of spring brought me up square against a wall of rain. It was as if someone was trying to tell me that there were things left unfinished back home and I had better sort them out before taking the leisure to go traipsing around in the hills.

The Kinpu walk was the first venture out of doors since my big design project ended, and being out of shape from too much computer worship gravity played havoc with my knees and wind. I ended up thirty minutes from the summit in a small clearing of larches and huge, rounded boulders. Most of the larches had been blown clean of their lives so that when darkness fell and no one disturbed the spooky stillness, the skeletons of the trees seemed to close in around me like goblins. I was using my homemade camping hammock set up with a tarp, and though the system worked as I had hoped, personally I just didn’t seem to fit in very well with the cloth wrapped around me like a taco. I ended up lowering everything to the ground and sleeping with my eye cocked up at the voluminous sail of the tarp breathing over me.

Just when I was beginning to relax with the tiny noises, like dripping leaves and creaking branches, and to drift off into slumber, the tarp flexed, then stretched as a wind barreled into camp, followed by a volley of raindrops. Within fifteen minutes the storm was howling overhead among the fingers of the dead trees and the naked rocks outside the copse of trees. Luckily I had picked a good site, with only tendrils of the storm swirling among the tree trunks and a brace of rhododendrons blocking the brunt of the wind. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag, switched on the white arm of my headlight, and found myself staring into a soup of fog.

The roar of the storm and the ominous swaying of the trees kept me awake the rest of the night. I lay reading Tim Cahill’s “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and stopping to ponder the mentality of those who willfully venture out into such predicaments as the one I was presently engaged in. I mean, there I was, the storm and the dark forest beating down on my courage like a hammer, loneliness enveloping my earlier smirking at the self-sufficiency of my backpack, and worries about the exposed ledges I had to scramble past in the morning nagging at my confidence, and I had to ask myself, “Exactly what pleasure am I getting out of packets of freeze-dried food, a flimsy skin of nylon between me and the gods, and shoes sopping with dew?” As the dawn gradually enlightened me to the true nature of the storm, I huddled in my rain jacket on the log beside my tarp, brewing cafe latte and spooning through cold granola with milk. When a warbler flickered onto a rhododendron branch right beside the tarp, looking for all the world as if I had plundered his backyard, I raised my spoon in greeting, only to be cold-shouldered by a warber’s equivalent of a huff, with which he flitted off into the fog.

I had five days ahead of me, but the storm didn’t let up, rain was pelting down, and the wind was engaged in a wrestling match with the boulders. I broke camp and started heading toward the summit of Mt. Kinpu, but halted in my tracks. I must have stood there for fifteen minutes, undecided, occasionally peering ahead and then glancing back. I took in the grey trees, the ankle deep mud in the path, the tips of the trees bending in the wind, and something inside me drooped. Not today, I told myself. Not while I had doubts.

So I turned back and started down the mountain. The first part had me bracing against the punches of the storm, leaning on my trekking pole as I negotiated the slippery boulders and tangle of tree roots. My rain jacket and windshirt were off by the time I reached the lap of the mountain where I could relax a bit and make a steady descent. I stopped beside a hoary old larch to pack away the rainwear when, like opening a package, sunlight sliced through the clouds and inundated the forest with the first bright light in days. It was like steaming gold. I stood transfixed, as if a tight shirt had popped open, before I could gather my wits and fumble my camera out of its bag. Streams of sunlight cast through the branches. And I was breathing with each breach in the clouds.

Five hours later I was walking along a logging road sweating from the sun, the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up, and late summer insects singing beside the road. I looked back and saw Mt. Kinpu lazing away among the summer clouds. Maybe the mountain god, like me, just needed some relief. Whatever the reason, even a short walk like this would prove to remain with me a long, long time.