Spring is in full swing, with the cherry blossoms billowing along the streets and in the parks everywhere. It happened all of a sudden, sudden because just a week ago today we still had the heater on in our apartment. Two days later the air switched dresses and the next thing you know the sun was wearing gauzy petticoats of humidity. And the dawn tiptoed in earlier, too, just before what anyone might consider a sane hour for the alarm to go off.
It was just this patting about to turn off the alarm that caused me to oversleep my Sunday wake up call meant for the day’s hike. I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and getting up was not a top priority, so I snoozed until about 9:00… by then too late for the longer hike I had had planned.
Without really thinking about where I would be heading I wolfed down a breakfast of tea and rice with natto (fermented soy beans… an acquired taste) and raw egg. Then I was out the door, just walking foot in front of foot, with no plans, or even a map. A bright, almost summer-like brilliance lit up the neighborhood. The sky stared down with its big ole blue eyes, unclouded by thoughts of rain and for once blinking away the usual smoggy grime. I sauntered along, and hot, stopped to remove my jacket, then continued sauntering all the way to the train station, and humming Tears for Fears’ “Call Me Mellow”, a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past three weeks.
First I headed for the train that goes downtown, from where I had a vague idea about taking the Japan Railways train fro downtown Shinjuku out to Nikko northeast of Tokyo, but while standing on the platform and eyeing all those passengers heading toward the big parks I suddenly changed my mind. Instead I tripped down the stairs and climbed back up to the opposite platform, to wait for the train there and just see where it took me.
Forty minutes later I got off at Takao station… not the usual end-of-the-line Mt. Takao Trailhead station, but the big town just before it, the one that I had gazed out at countless times on my way out to the far off mountains. So many times I had glimpsed the hills surrounding the town and wondered if it was possible to just head out of the station and follow the ridges all the way back to the bigger mountains to the west. Idle thoughts, all those times, often at the end of a weekend of grinding walks, and then too tired to do much more than wonder.
A mountain walker would scoff at the petty little stroll that the town could only offer, but today I just wanted to follow my nose and to hell with always trying to prove myself on higher ground. Why not kick along the curbside like I loved to do so much as a kid, and take time to really look at things?
It was lunchtime by the time I exited the station so I trundled over to a “Moss Burger” joint, the local MacDonald’s offshoot franchise that specializes in high quality hamburgers and salads, to sit a while and just munch on a burdock root burger and gaze out the window at the Sunday strollers. And they were out in force, families browsing the streetside stores and all heading off in the general direction of the imperial garden north of town. Half of them wore surgical masks in a futile attempt to ward off the onslaught of the hay fever epidemic that plagued Tokyo. For the first time in months fathers walked about in t-shirts while mothers wore the bright colored, long sleeve shirts that spoke of summer but warded off the harmful effects of the sun while preserving their “bihaku”= “beauty white”.
Continuing my sauntering I crossed the train tracks and took the main road toward the hills that I could see at the other end of town. Along the way I watched an old woman wearing a white sun hat and a tiny back pack and hiking boots, bend down to the curbside, grab a handful of the pink cherry-blossom petalbanks that had accumulated there, and toss it over her head like snowfall. She followed the petals with her eyes, a big smile stretching across her face, and giggled like a little girl. I stopped discretely to watch her. Her laughter echoed in my own chest.
Camellia blossom resting in the late afternoon sun, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan
The road led further into the throngs of tourists visiting from all over to gawk at the cherry blossoms. Busloads began to pass me by, and the sidewalk became more and more difficult to follow, as strings of people bottlenecked at the street crossings and by the overpasses. Eventually the sidewalk led to the gate of the imperial garden, where hundreds of people stood like packed cows waiting to pay the fee to enter the garden. It was hot and I hadn’t bargained for crowds of people so I stepped out of the crowd onto a side street. No one disturbed the stillness there and the further I walked along it the more distanced from the spring fever I became. To my surprise I found a neighborhood of small gardens and old, wooden, post-war houses, many of them run down and in disrepair. Flowers bloomed everywhere: in the gardens, on the rooftops, in planters by the entrance gates, along the tops of walls, from windows, from planters hung in the branches of trees, the trees themselves. Delighted, I followed this little road around the chin of a knoll until I was out of sight of the main body of the town.
There a little river gurgled along the side of the road. Houses kneeled at the very edge of the river, some spilling stairways down to its banks, some wading out over it with small terraces and sloping lawns. Crooked cherry trees and weeping willows, still waiting to bud, and plane trees lined the banks on both sides.
It wasn’t all beauty and joy, though. All along the river plastic bags and discarded cans, rusting bicycles and tires, wads of toilet paper, some tossed out mattresses, and once even an old refrigerator marred the river’s charm. Typically Japan, this. For a people who take so much meticulous care of their bodies, they certainly are slobs when it comes to taking care of their land.
The road entered a hidden vale that only walking up to this point could have revealed. It degraded from asphalt to gravel, then to simply to dirt, dry and dusty now from more than two months of no rain. A cemetary lay just off the left side of the road, surrounded by dogwoods just budding and the air golden with the haze of pollen and strands of spidersilk. Bird songs lifted from the quiet corners and I saw my first Siberian Meadow Bunting fluting to anyone who would listen from atop a newly budding Japanese maple.
The road narrowed to a crumbling path strewn with windfallen branches and unmoving eddies of old leaves. At the end, nestled in the crook of the ravine, stood a dilapidated old house that had been abandoned long enough that the windows had cracked and splintered and a sumac tree had grown through the rear end of the roof. The timbers had rotted through and carpenter ants thronged like the cherry blossom viewers in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was so still that instinctively the tension lifted from somewhere behind me and for the first time in a very long time I was unselfconscious enough without all the overly prying eyes of Japanese curious and sometimes disapproving of a foreigner in their midst to be able to stop and take a look at things the way I love so much to: slowing to a crawl and mimicking a praying mantis with incremental steps taken with the breaths of wind and then standing still for uncounted moments while peering hard at things around me, sometimes even getting down on my belly to see things from a different perspective. I lost myself in the trickling of a tiny brooklet that had created a new path from the slope overlooking the house, watching a water strider flick wavelets across a puddle.
Behind the old house a derelict shed revealed itself. It was strangling on thickets of bamboo and two flax pants growing right up against its crumbling wooden walls. In the corners two old delivery bicycles hid in the shadows, their tires blistered away.
Derelict shed being reclaimed by the forest
I discovered paper wasps building nests under the eaves, baby orb web spiders hanging motionless in the sunlight, blue bottle flies fiercely buzzing over the roof of the house, fritillary, cabbage, and sulfur butterflies… hardy species all… protecting their little islands in the new sunlight, wolf spiders dashing up the blue painted outsides of the house, and a lone inchworm hanging from a thread more than 20 meters long from the tops of one of the surrounding trees.
A look through the broken window of the front door of the house revealed rooms abandoned with many of the former dwellers’ belongings still scattered about: a calendar of a young woman in a skimpy bikini advertising Kirin Beer, a pair of rotting slippers, a ceramic tea cup, two floor pillows covered in dust, and a sticker of Hello Kitty plastered to a paper closet door. A dank, acrid odor rose from the floor and gave the interior a slightly sinister feel, in spite of the tranquility of the area.
After making a round of the house I started back down the road the way I had come. Earlier I had spied a side path leading up along the hill overlooking the road so I went back to find it.
This path took me up over the little vale through a cedar forest, to one of the ridges I had seen so often from the train. i was surprised that there was not another soul around. The wind blew with a moan through the trees and lent the end of the day a mournful feeling, so that when I found a glade atop the hill surrounded by a council of old chestnut and beech trees, still naked against the sky, I had to sit down and take a deep breath. I was so happy and lonely at the same time.
The trail led over the top of the hill then back around to a clearing where an ancient and grizzled old camphor tree, its trunk a mass of cracks, wrinkles, and growths, stood guard over what must once have been a shrine to the deity of the hill. The tree was so badly in need of pruning that people must have quit coming this way long ago. The trail led back down the hill from here, passing through stands of bamboo and camellia and eventually ending up behind a ancient temple so old it was housed in a protective wooden latticework house (the oldest temples in Japan used no paint and often had thatched roofs). All the artificial trappings of a usual temple had been removed except the two guardian dog statues and the stone entrance lanterns. A huge cherry tree branched out across the temple square, aching with white blossoms that no one came any more to see. Japanese often say that viewing cherry blossoms, while beautiful, is also profoundly sad, even frightening. Standing there alone in the last rays of the sun, in a place that no one had set foot in for many years, while not far away hundreds of people thronged to see cherry blossoms with more star status, I could feel the sadness and fright of being abandoned, of beauty left unnoticed, of something that must once have been loved left here to fall to ruin. Part of me rejoiced in this return to nature, but I couldn’t help but see that we weren’t following along. This was nature making a comeback, but with no respect on our part.
I bowed to the temple and also said a silent thank you to the Shinto hill deity still residing up by that old tree. Then I took the steep, broken stairs back down the hill to the level asphalt roads below, from where I slowly made my way back home, my eyes filled with silence and the heat of life persisting even through our efforts to remain immortal.
Old stovepipe protruding from the roof of the old abandoned house