Categories
Hiking Hiking In Japan: Group Japan: Living Journal Walking

We Are The Leaves In The Wind

Trailside Kamikochi woods

I was late. The train would arrive in ten minutes. It would take about 12 minutes to get from putting on my shoes by the front door to hustling through the neighborhood streets to the train station, crossing the bridge, and getting down to the platform. So I would miss the train. I cursed while fumbling with my shoelaces, and, sweating profusely in the chilly air, I hefted my backpack and charged out the door. I guess waking up at 3:30 in the morning after 2 hours of sleep wasn’t helping my mood either.

Everything went wrong from there. I did catch the next train, but it got stuck halfway to my destination when someone decided to mosey across a train crossing and hold up the entire train line. When I did finally arrive at my final station, and half run through the downtown business district, I stopped to buy a Starbucks latté, glad, at least for something to make the morning nicer. The bus station from where I was supposed to take the long-distance bus west to Kamikochi wasn’t where I thought it would be, so I ended up circling the buildings, frantically looking for the bus terminal. with only 10 minutes to spare before it took off. Still unable to find it, I called my friend Satomi, who was also going the following day, about where the bus terminal might be. She tried to explain, but it made no sense to me, because the location of the bus station wasn’t obvious. While we talked, I set the extra duffel bag I was carrying down on a planter, and promptly knocked the latté to the ground, spilling its contents all over the sidewalk. No, not a good morning at all!

Mae-Hotaka
Mt. Mae-Hotaka

It did finally get sorted out. I found the bus terminal, got on the bus, and relaxed, as the bus headed into a perfectly blue Friday morning, straight for the Japan Alps.

After spending a month traveling and walking in the Pyrenees in August, coming back to Tokyo had brought me right back to the crowded trains, endless concrete, and overly preoccupied lifestyle that characterizes this city. The transition from a month of mostly silence amidst the mountains, with only intermittent conversations with various fellow travelers along the way, sent a wave of melancholy through me, enough that, paradoxically, I despaired of getting myself outside. Japan, after so long away in an environment much closer to my own family culture, seemed like a land of endlessly working souls who knew no rest and spoke an alien language. Even the food seemed monotonous, tasting always of soy sauce or miso paste. So it was about time that I joined a group of like-minded people who also loved walking in the mountains and sharing conversation, food, and knowledge in that cheery, gung-ho way that mountain walkers have.

Trail to Tokusawa
Trail to Tokusawa, along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River

The Facebook group, “Hiking In Japan”, started by Osaka mountain enthusiast Wes Lang, had been steadily growing ever since people got wind of a group of walkers in Japan who loved mountains. I’d been steadily following the posts and occasionally actively posting myself; my feeling was that somehow a group of people in Japan with both a serious interest in hiking, yet also a sense of fun and silliness, had somehow touched the right combination. One evening, while reading yet another post by some members who seemed as if they would enjoy meeting one another, I suggested that we actually try to get people together and meet somewhere in the mountains… the very place that we all loved most.

So it was that the Kamikochi Camping Event got started. Wes set up the event invitation page and many of the members started suggesting places to meet, dates, and what to do. Since members lived all over Japan, the first thing was to choose a place central to people living in Tokyo and Osaka, which meant somewhere in the North or Central Alps. At about the same time one member, Tomomi, and I, hit upon meeting in Kamikochi. I remembered the huge open camping ground at Tokusawa-en that I had visited twice before, and how easy it was to walk there, and Tomomi thought about the accessibility of Kamikochi, being about equal in distance from both Tokyo and Osaka. Most people seemed happy with that, so Tokusawa in Kamikochi it became.

It was a beautiful morning on the bus, with not a cloud in the sky, but I only saw it in between bouts of deep naps. Normally I can’t sleep on buses, but I was so tired, that as soon as I sat down I was out. Every now and then I’d wake and peer around, catching glimpses of the last vestiges of Tokyo petering away, droning through the still-green hills of Oku-Chichibu, a view of the snow-dusted peaks of the Houou Sanzan range and taller Kai-Koma Peak, whizzing through the dry woods east of Kofu, making a wide detour around the wide base and sharp peaks of Yatsugatake, sailing above the edge of a deep slate blue Lake Suwa, and a momentary spying of the Central Alps off in the distance. I slept right through the last portion of the journey, only waking when the bright yellow wash of Kamikochi’s larch forests engulfed the windows of the bus in the last spurt up to Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Home of the Permanent Kamikochi Painter
Live-in Kamikochi painter’s home in Konashidaira Campground
Azusa Riverside Fir
Azusa Riverside fir tree

Outside, the parking lot was so choked with tour buses I couldn’t see the terminal itself. The spaces between the buses bustled with throngs of leaf peepers, and a low din of hundreds of voices hovered in the chilly air. Going by the view of the Hotaka range above the bus tops, I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot to a quiet bench among the trees, where I pulled out a sack of lunch and sat on the bench munching a rice ball. The air was cold enough to prompt me to pull out my microfleece midlayer and windshirt. I sent a message to the event group on Facebook, warning everyone to dress warmly.

Because I was carrying a duffel bag stuffed with several tents and extra stoves and pots, I didn’t want to linger too long walking, so I set off at a brisk pace, by-passing the hordes of walkers. It was a flat, easy trail along the banks of the still wild and untouched Azusa River. But though I moved fast, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to gaze at Mae-Hotaka peak looming above the trail, or the scarlet leaves of the Nikko maples. A few times I whipped out my camera and got down on my knees to photograph the autumn colors in the underbrush, or just stood there, feeling the cold breeze. The numbers of walkers gradually trickled down to a few slow walkers who would most likely stay at the mountain lodges.

Kamikochi Trailside Maple Leaves
Kamikochi trailside maple leaves
Kappabashi
Kappa Bridge
Kamikochi Wild Berries
Kamikochi wild berries

The waning sun had already dropped into the crook of the mountains to the west by the time I reached Tokusawa-en campground and lodge. Deep shadows crept across the expanse of grass, and to my surprise, most of the camping spots had already been claimed by earlier arriving walkers and their ubiquitous dome tents. I registered at the lodge, then quickly set up my pyramid tent and one of the extra group tents in one larger area so as to have some claim on tent space the following day. Night time fell fast and in the waning light I made a simple dinner of couscous in a bag with corned beef mashed inside, egg drop soup, my special olive oil and garlic sauce, chopped carrots, and instant cappuccino. It was cold enough for my fingers to be stiff while I prepared the dinner, but once I sipped the soup and chowed down on the couscous-meat entree, and then savored the steaming coffee, my whole body warmed up. I sat for a long time quietly sipping and watching the stars wink on above. The muffled noises of the campground died down, and soon I felt quite alone, with only the dimmed light of the lodge to remind me that people were still about. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag when the coffee was done.

First view Tokuzawa Campground
First view Tokuzawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokusawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokuzawa Campground

My summer sleeping bag was barely warm enough to help me make it through the freezing hours. I kept waking up shivering, even with my puffy down jacket on. I would roll over, tuck in the edges of the sleeping bag a bit tighter, adjust my fleece cap and down hood, and try to get back to sleep. One time I woke up with a start and bumped my head on the shelter walls, sending a cascade of frost drifting down over me. I reached up and ran my finger through the white crystals. Like grippy, powdery snow.

Morning sunlight was sifting through the translucent white walls of my shelter when I woke. I’d actually made it through a cold night using mostly summer gear! I’d been wondering how cold I could go; now I knew. Definitely not comfortable, but I didn’t die, either. Feeling groggy, but elated, I struggled out of my sleeping bag and zipped open the door. The whole world had been powdered in frost, and everything was limned in a white crust of sugar. High above the trees the first fiery rays of the sun caught the fingertips of the mountains, while down here a chilly shade cast across the field of grass, and when I stood to go get water for breakfast, the grass crunched beneath my shoes.

Shelter frost
Shelter at dawn
Frosted glass
Frosted tent stake

I spent the morning exploring the minute corners of the leaves and branches around the campsite, photographing ice crystals and seeking to get the traces of light beginning to spill into the valley. Other campers had already finished breakfast and started to pack up their tents by the time I surfaced and took note of how the whole campground had lit up as the sun cleared the mountains to the east. Whole trees of yellow and red glowed with in the warmth of the morning, and people began to spread out on the grass to close their eyes and bathe in the sunlight, or sit and murmur over their cups of steaming coffee.

Frosted rounded grass
Frosted leaves
Frosted red leaf
Frosted hairy leaf

Around that time, as I sat on a bench, one of the Hiking In Japan members sauntered up to me, a Chinese man wearing loose jeans and a big grey backpack, and introduced himself as “Fred”, or Gameboy, as he was known in the group. We sat talking for almost an hour, not quite able to get ourselves to move in the early morning warmth. He explained that he had arrived at dawn and had walked in the darkness here to Tokusawa. He was heading up to Hotaka Hut much higher up in the mountains and would stay there overnight. I was worried about his jeans, since he had told me earlier that he had only walked a few of the hills around Hong Kong, but never really a bigger mountain, though he said he’d been to Kamikochi before. I couldn’t really say much, except to take care and hope that he made it to Hotaka all right. It was a long walk.

HIJ Rie's Arrival
Rie’s arrival

Soon after he left, Rie, another member, happened by and asked me if I was Miguel from Hiking In Japan. She was cheerful and easy to talk to, and once she had her dome tent set up (in a nice sunny spot, unlike my shelter), we went to the hut to have some curry at the restaurant there. She was delighted when she discovered they also sold beer in vending machines, so we each got one, and over a merry conversation about each others jobs (teaching), we whiled away more time as the afternoon slowly passed on by.

HIJ Preparing Dinner
Preparing dinner
HIJ Isao making coxinhas
Isao making coxinhas.

Just as we returned to our tent sites, Wes, the leader of Hiking in Japan, called my name from across the campground, and there he was striding toward me with that characteristic mop of wispy brown hair, and trailing behind him, fairly tuckered out from carrying a huge cooler bag along with a full backpack, was Grace, the tireless Brazilian hiker who seemed to be hiking every other day. Seeing Wes was a bit of a strange thing: I felt immediately as if I already knew him quite well, though this was our first time to meet in person. We’d been in touch through our blogs and through Facebook, for quite a few years and upon meeting we gave one another a big embrace. Grace was shy, though we’d talked to one another a few times as friends, we still didn’t know each other well. Wes and Grace had stayed overnight at the car park outside the national park and had walked in since early in the morning, via Lake Tashiro. They both looked pretty tired, since it had been freezing the night before and neither had gotten much sleep. Rie announced that she was going to go for a short hike, probably towards the Panarama Walk on the way to the famous Karasawa valley, where most of the hikers who passed the campsite were headed up to.

HIJ First tents set up

Hungry, Wes asked me if I would join him for something to eat at the restaurant. I’d already eaten, but I was looking forward to talking with Wes, so headed in with him and bought a can of coffee while he ordered some soba. We sat chatting about people we know and hikes we had done over the summer and also about our respective diseases, his asthma and my diabetes. There was something reassuring in opening up about something that gave us both extra worries to think about when hiking, and sometimes scary experiences. Not many people really understand what it is like.

Kettle In Tokusawa Lodge
Kettle in Tokusawa Lodge

Back outside, Sonia and Isao, a couple from Brazil, arrived with their selection of Mountain Hardwear gear, including a very nice 2-person tent that I had never seen before. They had a peaceful air about them, and though I had never met them before I immediately felt comfortable talking with them. While they set up their tent, yet another member came wandering into the camp… this time Tomomi, the Japanese woman who had suggested Kamikochi as a place to gather, and who had walked over the hard route in the Hotakas since early this morning. She looked totally worn out, but immediately announced, “I’m just going to leave my pack here and go down to Kamikochi Bus Terminal to pick up the food I brought.” (she had offered to hold a cooking class for everyone). Wes and I stared at her in disbelief, since it is a two-hour walk one way, four hours there and back. “Don’t worry about the food, Tomomi,” we told her. “You did a hard walk today. Get some rest.” I think she must have been relieved, because she collapsed to the ground and sat there resting for a while before getting up to put up her big two-person tent. Wes and I assisted her when the fly didn’t go on right. I showed her and some of the others how to tie guyline knots while Wes realized that the fly had gone on backwards, an easy mistake to make with the design, because it wasn’t obvious which side was which.

HIJ Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes
Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes

At about that time a big whoop came across the campground and there was Jana, a tall American who along with Wes gave a lively presence to the gathering. It was Jana who had the most active presence of mind in taking photos of the whole event and who started a lot of the topics in the group conversations. She dropped her pack and made a point of going from person to person to greet them and get their names.

HIJ Evening Tokusawa

Dinner preparation had already started, with Grace pulling out item after item after item from her cooler bag and backpack. The rest of us looked on in disbelief at the sheer amount of food she had brought. She alone had containers of different kinds of salad, wheels of cheese, finger food made with palm hearts, bread, a bottle of wine, paté, avocado dip, ham and slices of cold cuts, smoked salmon, tuna salad, and olives. Tomomi, together with Rie, started making her miniature pizza’s under that open canopy, while Isao and Sonia pulled out their burner with big pot and deep fried coxinhas, a Brazilian dumpling. Jana started on her caesar salad.

HIJ Sunset Tokusawa

Kevin and his young daughter Mona arrived just as it began to get dark. Kevin was an old friend whom I had met before and we’d been touch for years through our blogs and emails. He lives on a farm in rural Nagano, grows his own vegetables and rice, and runs an adventure company (One Life Japan) that takes people on bicycling and walking tours around his area. He was carrying a huge sack along with a baby carrier. It was my first time to see Mona in real life, though I’d seen many of her photos on Kevin’s Facebook page. Her charm and playfulness immediately had everyone vying for her attention.

Satomi, my friend, arrived after sunset. I just barely made her out in the dim light, slowly walking up the path. She’d taken the long way around via Lake Tashiro and had taken her time. Her right leg gave her a lot of pain, and so she couldn’t move fast along the trail, but she’d wanted to see something of the area and make the most out her time in Kamikochi.

HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering
HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering

Everyone joined in on making the meal and helping with cooking. Satomi started her tabouli. With the sun now gone, a chill crept through the campsite and people pulled on their warm layers and rubbed their hands to try to stay warm. We gathered in a circle around a sheet spread out on the grass and with our headlights shining onto the food, talked long into the night, Jana asking everyone to describe an object that they always brought out hiking, Wes telling tall tales from his ventures hiking around Japan, Kevin inserting hilarious jokes that had everyone laughing quite loudly. My only regret, for myself, was not making more effort to get the conversation balanced by speaking in Japanese. More people probably would have opened up if we hadn’t focused so much on English.

HIJ Satomi feeling cold
Satomi feeling cold

In the midst of this a voice suddenly spoke up out of the darkness outside the circle, “Excuse me, is this the Hiking In Japan group?” It was Grigory the Russian I had exchanged emails with days before. He had told me he would be climbing from Kita-Hotaka from early this morning, but hadn’t been sure if he’d make it all the way down to Tokusawa today. That he had was quite astounding. He’d traversed the dreaded Daikiretto (a section of the trail that dropped off vertically in a precipice and that you had to cross using your hands to hold on) and Yari peak, all in one day. A great distance of lots of ups and down over very rough terrain. We invited him into the circle and he sat down with a big smile on his face, happy to get a banquet to feast upon. We named him the “Russian Superman”. He hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag, so we improvised by opening up one of my group tents, Kevin lent him a summer sleeping bag, and he rented a ¥500 blanket from the hut. He didn’t even have a ground mat, and though it was freezing out, he reported that he’d slept like a baby the following morning. Only a Russian!

8 o’clock was lights out in the camp, and we were making quite a bit of noise, so it was finally time to wind down the party and get in our tents. Grace hadn’t been able to carry a tent and sleeping bag in addition to all her food, so she’d opted to stay at the hut. She seemed a little regretful when she walked off to the hut. But at least she was the only one in the group guaranteed to stay warm! She had a wood stove in her room!

I zipped up the door of my pyramid and got ready for the night. I’d also rented one of the wool blankets from the hut to beef up my sleeping arrangements, but this evening was warmer than the night before, so I never really needed the blanket. No frost formed in the night. I’d drifted off to sleep, when I became aware of a big roaring sound from the mountains sides, and a strong loughing of my shelter walls. I woke and realized that a big wind had picked up and the whole mountainside was booming with billions of dried leaves rasping under the arm of the wind. I listened a while and became concerned that it might strengthen and blow all our stored food away or snatch up one of the badly staked tents. So I got up and battened down the stores of food under the open tarp, and then went around to each tent to announce to the person inside that I was checking on the stakes. All of the tents needed securing, some quite a lot. When everything was tight and free from flapping, I returned to my shelter and sat by the entrance, looking at the Milky Way sprayed across the sky straight above. Wes lay quietly in his bivy sack a little off from my shelter. I wasn’t sure if he was awake, so I tried to keep my movements quiet. I pulled out my camera and tried to take some time lapse images of the stars, but I hadn’t figured out how to do that with this camera yet, so none of the images were clear.

HIJ Rie's tent on a frosty morning
Rie’s tent on a frosty morning

When I returned to my sleeping bag, I barely put my head down on the inflatable pillow before I was deeply asleep.

The shelter walls were bright with morning when I awoke. I could hear the metal clang of pots outside so I zipped open the door and saw Grace sitting there preparing breakfast for everyone. Others were still asleep, though Wes stirred in his bivy sack and looked around. Grace looked up with a shy but joyous smile that gave away just how much she enjoyed being out here and being with other hikers. Again, she had food galore, this time making grilled ham and cheese sandwiches using a sandwich grilling tool. Others came awake as the campsite awoke, and soon Rie, Satomi, and Sonia were busy helping prepare the breakfast. Wes, continued to lie in his bivy right next to the kitchen area, staying warm and regaling everyone with stories of encountering bears and hitchhiking way off course with a carload of cute girls. Tomomi was the last to wake, probably still exhausted from the walk the day before.

HIJ Wes avoiding breakfast chores
Wes avoiding breakfast chores

We took our time eating breakfast and telling stories, and as the sun broke over the ridge and bathed the campsite in a warm autumn light that lit up all the yellow and red leaves, we fanned out across the ground and lost ourselves in taking photos for a while. Jana got us to gather and pose for a series of group shots, and we all felt like a family, making silly jokes, lingering by the tents, laughing a lot. But buses were waiting and the need to travel the long distances we had all come, plus the hordes of other walkers all heading in the same direction, meant that we eventually had to take down the tents, pack up, and start home. Reluctantly we said good-bye to the campsite, and, carrying whatever leftover food there was and the extra tents and other gear, we sauntered back along the path towards Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Some of the member wanted to take the slightly longer way around to Myojin Lake, while others needed to get back in time for the buses. I walked with Satomi, Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, to head straight back, while the others turned off to head to Myojin Lake. I felt a sadness at the parting of the fellowship. It wasn’t often that I met with and spent an unforgettable time with likeminded friends. Still, I had a chance to talk with Isao and Sonia, who I discovered had walked the Camino de Santiago. It had changed both their lives and seemed to figure in much of how they saw their way of life now. I wanted to talk more about their adventures with them. Tomomi I discovered was a nautical engineer, actually fixing parts on ships herself, and traveling abroad as a consultant for ship parts. In Japan, a woman doing such work is extremely unusual, but, as she put it, “I believe that if you want to do something, just do it. Being a woman is no excuse.”

HIJ Last view of Tokusawa Campground
Last view of Tokusawa Campground

So, I had met some amazing people and found a group that I could relate to and feel comfortable with. It was hard to say goodbye. And two days just wasn’t quite enough, especially since we hadn’t done any real hiking together. It would be great to get these people together for a walk of several days and together share the hardships and joys of being out there, on the peaks, in the wind and rain, laughing, crying, cursing, consoling, helping one another. Perhaps another time soon.

The Fellowship
(photo courtesy of Jana McGivern)

Satomi and I said good-bye to Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, and boarded our bus for Tokyo. The cold had settled in again, and the afternoon sun burned a fiery orange on the distant peaks. Neither of us had much to say at first, perhaps because we both felt the lingering sadness of having something special end, but also from that slow-burning fatigue following a walk through the autumn woods. My last view of Kamikochi was over the glittering waters of the dam, all signs of the trees and autumn colors lost in the shadows.

HIJ Lake Tashiro in the evening light
Lake Tashiro in the evening light
HIJ Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo
Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo

Neither Satomi nor I anticipated the monster traffic jam going back to Tokyo. But that is something better left out of the story.

Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Home Places Japan: Living Journal

The Sun in the Hollow

I wrote this near the end of 2011, right in the midst of facing my own possible personal tsunami, when my doctor informed me that I might have necrosis, or rotting of the bones, a complication due to high blood sugars from badly controlled blood sugars as a Type 1 diabetic. For three weeks my landscape shook and trembled, and every fiber within myself prepared for inundation and devastation. The wave swept over me and then subsided, with the reassurance that I’d be spared the horror of necrosis, but was instead left with osteo arthritis. No pleasure in the diagnosis, but certainly better than amputation or even, and a painful one at that, death. Following the meeting with the doctor and this news, the wind seems to have been knocked out of my sails, and like that sense of inhalation following a punch, I’ve been sitting still a lot, looking around, marveling at the visceral immediacy of the possible, wondering how, once again, I escaped more or less unscathed. So my thoughts on the Year 2011…

A year that I will never forget draws to an end and perhaps more than any time before in my life I ask myself what exactly it is that I got out of it. In many ways the March disaster seems like something a world and era away; the tremors have for the most part stopped and the most dire aspects of the tsunami clean up have more or less been addressed. Life seems to have returned to normal, at least on the surface.

Sometimes you’d think that nothing had happened, that either the people here are so resilient that they shake off the thoughts of fear and grief and move on with their lives with the full and discerning understanding that this is what life is all about, or else they’ve buried all the mess and pretend that outside of direct immersion in the actual events it really has nothing to do with their lives. Time and time again Japanese I’ve spoken to who were not there in Tohoku, or who have no family there, tell me simply, “You are alive, you made it through, what you feel now and experienced have no lasting consequences.” In a way this seems eloquently wise, a reaction that dispenses with the unnecessary and focuses only on the facts. But look around at all the posters and television commercials cheering the populace on with slogans like, “Gambare Nippon!” (Do Your Best, Japan!) or “Makeruna, Nippon!” (Don’t Give Up, Japan!), it is sorely obvious that there is much more going on under the surface than the Japanese are willing to openly face.

Only two people I’ve spoken to owned up to having been terrified, one who went through the whole earthquake experience essentially alone, and the other who had gone up to the tsunami and nuclear disaster zones to see for real what had happened there, and therefore denies himself the comfort of denial. Nearly everyone else relegates the whole thing to the “inconvenient” heap, so that even speaking about it comes across as an assault on their private sensitivities, rather than as a communal concern that everyone ought to be contributing to. And quite a number of people pop back the criticism, “That’s really selfish, to be questioning what the government does and to talk of leaving because of the possibility of radiation danger.” “Life goes on” might be the credo of a survivor, but as the fear-based outrage by Osaka residents over the Osaka City government’s plans to accept debris from Tohoku (the vast majority of which is completely outside the reaches of the radioactive claws) reveals, more revolves around watching out for one’s own neck than in working together and finding solutions as a single society. The lack of willingness to talk about any of this is not just an attempt to retain dignity, but a rather a giant brushing-under-the-carpet.

Even in Tohoku itself, where the destruction and horror affected nearly everyone’s lives, you’d expect that the unquestioned societal mores that usually run the hierarchies, would have been shaken up a bit and the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Ten months later, with universal agreement that the low-lying towns needed to be moved to higher ground, most of the unhomed populace continues to wait in temporary housing because landowners of the surrounding mountains refuse to sell their land or work with town representatives in creating places where the town might move. So almost no progress has been made. Frustrated, people, especially the elderly, are flouting the restrictions over building upon tsunami devastated land, (or in the case of Fukushima Prefecture, the scourge of radiation) and returning to build new homes right over the old. Such is the spell of ownership and possessions; tens of thousands having lost everything doesn’t seem to count in convincing those who still have everything to give back so that everyone might re-establish their lives.

Nevertheless, most of the ruinous debris and damage from the tsunami have long been cleaned up in Tohoku, so when you go there now, you see wide swaths of emptiness, with punctuations of reminders, like lone standing houses or trees that somehow survived the onslaught, or incongruous, silent monsters, like the big fishing boats that have not yet been removed, or gouges in the silent railroads like giant bite marks. The horror of the human cost seems to have seeped into the earth, more out of sight. The Tohoku people themselves have by-and-large weathered the storm with grace and courage. Instead of complaining about the problems, they simply get on with things, cleaning what needs cleaning, building what needs building, improving what needs improving. They even put out a YouTube video to voice their gratititude to the world.

Personally the year scoured me. I’ve emerged much more tranquil and self-confident about being myself than I’ve ever felt before, but at the same time wary of everything, including people. The months following the big quake, when constant aftershocks rocked the city night and day and got me so tense that even the slightest quiver of my bed or blink of the light on a subway would set my heart racing and get me tensed up to jump to safety. Nothing felt trustworthy. Walls and ceilings could suddenly fall, subway tunnels could crush me, elevators could get stuck high up between floors, the Internet could wink out and connection to loved ones wiped clean, friends could turn away and break down, the sun could fail to rise. And worst of all, as happened to me when August rolled around, our very bodies could fail to keep holding onto the edge of the ledge and plummet into uncertainty and illness. It didn’t matter what I did, I fundamentally came to understand that attempting to stay the juggernaut would ultimately knock me aside. Who was I, but this infintesimal spark, just barely flickering at the edge of the candle?

But my eyes were also opened to the grasp of others’ concern and generosity, to the faith our communities and friendships draw out of us when the worst occurs, to that resilience and fierce determination to live and continue that we and all living beings inherently carry within us. During all the shaking, during the meeting with people who had lost everything and had reached the nedir of their lives, during the height of the pain of my disease, people were there, to help, to listen, to voice encouragement, to simply offer companionship. The kindnesses sometimes touched such an undeniable simplicity and rightness that on the spot I’d often break down weeping, I think because in our societies it happens so infrequently and was therefore such a surprise. By going through such a completely appropriate test of nature it made me think that our lives in civic society are too insulated, that only reminders of our mortality can keep up a healthy respect and awareness of one another and our place in the world. When life draws up to its full height and allows no escape, it simultaneously rips out the best in us. I realize now that we are capable of much more than we tell ourselves. I’ve also come to despise cynicism; it now seems like a cop out, a lazy way of condemning the harshness of reality and living, while making no attempt to become stronger and more adaptable.

I’ve learned to say, “No.” to things that I feel are wrong or unfair. I’ve learned to say no to anything that smacks of wasting what little precious time we have to live, or to anything pretentious or seeking to subject others to its will. Perhaps more than anything, 2011 was the year that reminded me of the treasure that life is. That I want to live, as best I can. And that I want others to live, too, and I will do all I can to be part of helping to ensure they can can make it. Seeing all those possessions obliterated and swept away by that enormous force that cares nothing for human vanity or hope, and how little of those possessions figured in what survivors yearned for, the futility of finding completion in what you own made itelf starkly clear. This might not be obvious when the nights are still and stopping by Seven-Eleven for a case of beer and packet of fried chicken is as easy as opening your wallet, but when it is no longer there and you are hungry and around you there is no one to plea to for help, the connections with others becomes more acute and all of the extras, like TV’s, computer games, five pairs of shoes, make up, that subscription to National Geographic, the Starbucks Cafe Latte, 794 friends on Facebook, first class flight to Mexico, or even the useless required language course at university, more and more come across as unnecessary and distracting, while at the same time their very luxury can help soothe the fear and frame the craziness with the familiar.

What are the answers, or the “guidelines”, then? Perhaps that there are none. Life goes on and you make do while valuing life itself. That life is the reason for living. That life other than your own is just as precious, just as pertinent, just as fiercely scratched for. And perhaps that you won’t find a caring deity hiding in the midst of the destruction, but rather, perhaps, the destruction is the deity unto itself, raw and unfiltered, inhuman, such that you must reach for your humanity and fill in your own captions. Empathy, compassion, and action are the responsibilities of a human being, not something that concerns the gods.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

The Lost Peak of ’76

Kiso Couple Clouds

Jump back to 1976, Japan, the summer when I was 16, and picture the gangly teenager with shoulder-length hair, who loved wearing bell bottoms jeans, lace up lumberjack boots, and a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with a Navajo bead band and bright blue, jay feather. And picture this youth ambling along shouldering a huge yellow Mt. Whitney external frame backpack, complete with giant synthetic fill sleeping bag strapped to the bottom and a guitar slung across one shoulder. Beside him trudged his best friend, dressed more conservatively in straight leg jeans and sneakers, but none the less burdened by a big external frame pack, too… orange, hip-belt too low, sleeping bag strapped on haphazardly with cotton cord. Two typical backpackers of the 1970’s.

Kiso Komagatake Feet Me

Here we were just outside Kiso-Fukushima station, walking the road under a sweltering summer sun, seeking the way up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, the highest peak in the Central Alps. We’d both camped quite a lot, but had never been so high in the mountains, and knew nothing about what to expect or whether or not we were even prepared for such a venture. All we knew was that the pictures in the Japanese guidebooks looked adventuresome with their green crags and impressive, sweeping abysses and patches of summer snow.

Kiso Komagatake Kamiigusa
Kiso Komagatake First Range

The problem was that neither of us could read Japanese well and therefore we had little information to go on. For one, we had landed at the wrong train station and though we could see the peaks from where we had started, they were still too far way from where we needed to be. We spent the better part of the afternoon seeking a path up the mountains, wandering through little farming villages, eliciting shocked exclamations from the locals, many of whom had never seen foreigner before, especially not one wearing a big black hat and toting a guitar. Odd indeed.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Cloud Puff

Eventually we found our way back to the train station and realized our error and took the next train to Komagome, which was the proper starting point for climbing Kiso-Komagatake. Unfortunately it was getting late by then, so we looked up the local youth hostel and booked a night there. A number of mountain climbing groups were also holed up there for the night, and at dinner we sat with all of them, chatting. Two high school mountain climbing clubs, one university climbing club, and even a troop of acolyte Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and loose blue robes and who would be climbing the mountain as a kind of spiritual training, all sat together at a long table, eating dinner. It was obvious that we were the odd men out; our clothes certainly gave us away.

Kiso Komagatake Col

Photos of the mountains we hoped to climb hung all along the walls and the scenes of the crags and windswept slopes soon had us doubting our own plans, making us think we had taken on more than we could handle. The way the club people spoke, with all the talk of wind and rain and cold nights, struck fear in our unprepared hearts.

Kiso Red Leaves

Discussing our options, we decided that attempting the summit of Kiso-Komagatake was perhaps foolhardy, so we decided to camp along river down here in the valley and try the peaks another time, when we were ready.

Kiso Komagatake Couple Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Asian Peak

Now jump ahead 35 years. High school graduation, moving to the States, university, grad school, work, many mountains and long bicycle journeys later, I was back. I’d recently recovered from a month long bout of sickness and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain slope, so after taking the gondola up to 2,600 meters, I stood there in front of the gondola station gazing up at the peaks that I had dreamed of at 16, and felt a mix of trepidation and joy. There they were, the green, wild rocks that the guidebooks had tempted me with, the same light grey stone, the same lush vegetation, the same deep blue sky. But alive and real this time. As if no time had passed at all since I was still a boy. I watched clouds rise, sail, and fan across the sky, moving as fast as the swifts that darted across them. The gondola had carried boatloads of tourists up, but a hush had befallen all of them, so that even the noisy ones tended to speak in awed tones. One university girl in high heels, obviously seeing such magnificence for the first time, couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful and overwhelming it was. She snatched the camera from one of the boys and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! It’s not real, is it?” She attempted a few shots, but soon gave up. “I can’t take a picture of it,” she said. She tossed the camera back to the boy and stood gazing up with her hands on her hips, a stern grimace on her face, as if the mountains had somehow outsmarted her and she had quite figured out if she should forgive them or not.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Rocks

I started climbing and immediately it was obvious that both the altitude and the exertion were going to take their toll on me. I took it really slow, stopping every hundred meters to regain my breath and clear my woozy head. People passed me every time I stopped, and at first it bothered me that I was so weak, when in the past I would have strode up such a slope, breezing by everyone, but the simple feel of the wind and the familiar act of putting one foot in front of the other on the rough randomness of a trail soon took my mind off such silly concerns, and all that mattered was losing myself in the landscape. This was a trial run after all, to see what I was capable of after so long being housebound. After the shaking up of my confidence in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake, nothing was whole anymore, it seemed. I jumped at every shiver of the earth. Elevators made my heart race. Big, thick-kneed buildings inevitably brought out a moment of hesitation before entering. And as if there were strings attached, my body followed suit, seemingly welling up with hormonal and systemic aftershocks, with inexplicable rashes, internal aches, stomach fluxes, and wild blood sugar swings that had nothing to do with what I was eating. In the middle of the summer, just before I was supposed to head out for a month-length traverse of the Japan Alps, something imploded inside, sending my brain into a tailspin every time I tried to stand up, robbing my toes of sensation, retracting my breathing so that I felt as if I was suffocating as I slept, and punching out lumps and blood spots in my eyes… The doctors had no idea what it was, just vaguely guessing that perhaps it was “a virus”. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” they said. But I knew better. My body was typing out Braille messages, with the warnings, “You are NOT exempt from the consequences.”

Kiso Sweep Down
Kiso Nakadake Sign

The aftershocks lessened after a month of lying in bed. And I emerged feeling much the same as I did coming out of the big March quake: shaky, but oddly windblown, with an aimless, compass-less sense of selflessness.

I stopped often along the first climb, trying to regain my breath. But I made progress, slowly gaining each step of the rock masses, ascending higher and higher, until the gondola station had shrunk to a tiny blip in the circle of mountains. My nose touched the underbelly of the clouds as they ripped and shredded amidst the crags, passed in front of the sun, cast galloping shadows upon the slopes. Tiny, multicolored beads of people crawled infinitesimally along the scratches of trail, all aiming for the top.

Kiso Morning Peak
Kiso Komagatake Kiso Grass

Lungs burning, it almost seemed to be happening to someone else when I gained the ridge and came face-to-face with the sweeping panorama of the col. A troupe of macaques scribbled down through a grove of white birches, plaintive ululations echoing throughout the valley, at once playful like children, but something also immensely lonely, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way home. The wind buffeted me, giving me a shake, letting me go, then racing away laughing. I laughed, too, giddy with joy. Here I was, I really was, above tree line, alive, looking down at the whole world, up where I feel connected to grace. Because it was still raw and new, the photographs I tried to take fell flat each time. I was trying to look in too many directions at the same time. So I stashed the camera away for later when the wind felt more like it was blowing through me, rather than against me.

Kiso Komagatake Gorilla 1

It’s always funny how the place that you end up standing in seems to have no relationship to the imaginary collage you had pored over for days on the map. The peaks and valleys came out in relief right where you expected them to, but there is a presence they all exude that immediately tells you that they are alive, in spite of the seeming indifference and silence. They come across as being bigger or smaller, darker or brighter than at first imagined. And when you step out on them, to trust your feet to their care, you realize that rocks are harder, the branches sharper, the drops far steeper, and the wind so big that that sense of mastery that a map can trick you into quickly gets whisked into fantasy.

Kiso Precipice

Thick clouds had crowned the ridges, and so it was hard to see beyond the first hundred meters ahead. Visible was a flat saddle between two shadowy peaks lost in the shrouds of mist. The lines of people who had climbed up to this point broke off in different directions, most of them heading for the mountain hut neaby where they could sit down to take a breather and get a nice hot lunch of curry rice or egg-chicken rice bowl. Those wearing proper climbing gear or carrying the extra loads of camping equipment, and a few less mindful, or knowledgeable, of their safety, set off for the peaks. A few tourists in high heels and loafers stood at the edge of the cliffs, taking photographs of one another and laughing loudly. In the thinner air and huge, racing clouds, their voices were swept away.

Kiso Komagatake Rock Mound BW

The thin air made it hard for me to breathe and without stopping to rest and consult my map, I followed the crowd and veered off toward the charismatic spearhead of a peak off to my left that was Hokendake, but that I thought at the time was the peak I was aiming for, Kiso-Komagatake. Immediately the trail left the flat saddle behind and shot up into the air, in no time turning into a hand over hand scramble up a steep, tortured stone path, complete with chains and ladders. I thought it vaguely strange that the map hadn’t said anything about this, until a small group descending slowly from above stopped to talk with me and told me I was on the wrong peak. Embarrassed, I sat down on a narrow ledge and consulted my map, and sure enough, there I was heading south instead of north, right along the ferrata path that crossed the dizzying razorback col between Hokendake and Senjiyojiki. I sighed with relief and turned about, making my way gingerly back to the saddle ridge and crossed north, in my intended direction. I met the group again further down the descent and we took photographs and exchanged email addresses.

Kiso Komagatake Hutte Wide

The walk north was completely different, more of a level ridge stroll, with gradual rises and, as the clouds began to clear, views of the valleys and the distant ranges like the South Alps, Mt. Ontake, and the winding path toward the northern half of this range. My breath still came with big gulps of air and I had to stop frequently, but a spring came into my step and I almost bounced along, heady with the joy of walking on an alpine ridge again. My camera came whipping out at every new rock formation or flower or cloud, one wonder following another, though the sense of immersion still eluded me… the weakness of my body continued to stay in the foreground, punctuated by all the stops and dizzy need to get my heart to slow down. People kept passing me by and I nodded to them, trying my best to smile.

Kiso Komagatake Campground Above

When I reached the top of Nakadake, a minor peak providing a sheltered place among boulders to take a break and view the way back down, I lowered my pack and surveyed the path ahead. I had intended to walk all the way to the top of Kiso-Komagatake and then backtrack to the campsite directly below, but knew that, in this condition, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the walk, so I decided to just concentrate on making it down to the campsite and call it quits for the day. Arriving at the campsite in the early afternoon would allow me to grab a good camping spot among the rocks that littered the campsite, before all the other campers had returned from their climb to the top of Kiso-Komagatake.

Kiso Komagatake Clouds Rising
Kiso Dawn Cirrus
Kiso Komagatake Morning Cloudsea
Kiso Komagatake Three Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Thunderheads BW
Kiso Komagatake Wild Clouds BW

Getting down to the campsite took a lot less time than I anticipated, and before I knew it I was picking my way among the campsite rocks, looking for a level and dry site. Already a lot of campers had set up their tents, and the bright orange and red bubbles of their canopies stood out like limpets amidst the dry grass and stones. I found a spot at the bottom of the campground, right at the edge where a rope warned people off pitching in the protected swale below. Beyond that the mountain dropped away to an unseen precipice, and beyond that was nothing but open air, wild clouds, and hazy, distant peaks.

Kiso Komagatake Shrine Roof BW

The ground was hard as rock and getting the stakes in for the simple, open tarp I was using proved quite a challenge. Two of the stakes bent at the head and immediately became useless, while the other stakes required several tentative probes to push past the hidden rocks beneath to get a proper purchase of the ground. Even then the pitch of the tarp, though tight, kept a few wrinkles and off-center veerings that would later in the night prove to make it hard to sleep in the wind. Nonetheless, the campsite made a comfortable little space where I could relax, all my belongings set out on the groundsheet under the tarp, and the sleeping quilt laid out beside the tarp, snug in its bivy. A neat sanctuary. I lay down on the quilt and closed my eyes for a while, feeling the waning rays of the sun warm my face and hands.

Kiso Komagatake Campsite
Kiso Komagatake Campsite Me

Other campers steadily arrived and set up camp, until there were few places left. Latecomers had to make do with rocky sites or their tents pushed up against bushes or along the verges of the campsite where water pooled during rains. One couple traveling with a third person produced two tents that they proceeded to pitch around an old tree stump, and all three went about setting everything out with much laughter and photograph taking. Another couple had arrived earlier than I had and now sat lounging in inflatable seats, gazing at the sky while sipping coffee. Still another group, two fathers and five children around 12 years old, hollered and shrieked from the center of the campsite as if they were lounging about the privacy of their homes, but strangely the noise was comforting and familiar, and the delighted discoveries the children were making at being inside a tent or watching a stove burst into flame reached across the hush of the mountain and made me smile.

Kiso Cupo Coffee
Kiso Komagatake Me Coffee

The sun dropped below the edge of the peaks, drawing for a while, a brilliant orange heat from the waiting rocks and boulders, and in its fire the moon slipped unannounced, still pale with daylight, but impatient, seemingly, to take the stage and give an equally brilliant performance across this stark landscape. For a full ten minutes the two stared in defiance at one another, until the sun backed down and sank beneath the horizon. The sky blushed indigo, and the crags darkened until their outlines raked a crenulated midnight out of the base of the skyline. Clouds swam like dim, silent whales through the dark, overhead ocean, rising, cresting, diving into the abyss.

Kiso Komagatake Mist BW
Kiso Komagatake Moonrise Rocks BW

I made dinner as all these celestial events played above me, a simple bag of curry rice with a side of cream of asparagus soup and a cup of instant cafe latte. The fuel tab stove took quite a time to heat up the water, so I waited with my arms wrapped around my knees, shivering a little in the chilling air, and looking up, looking around, looking down at the ever-so-slightly crackling stove. Goups of people huddled over their stoves here and there in the field of stones, their headlights light-sabering through the darkness, and the subdued hiss of their cannister stoves issuing soft threats like snakes. People were telling stories and laughing and sitting together pointing up at the sky, and as I watched it hit me that this was a scene our kind have played over and over again for most of our time on earth, and that it was as human and indicative of who we are as anything that we have ever done.

Kiso Komagatake Bowl Silhouette
Kiso Komagatake Night Wacthmen

To the northeast an enormous anvilhead thundercloud rose up and flashed with lightning. Here and there the flash echoed itself, in lesser thunderclouds, all silent, all distant, all safe from where we sat. One flash sent out a spiderweb of lightning so bright all the tents exhibited their colors for a moment, and the faces of the tribe lit up like spectators at a fireworks event.

Kiso Komagatake Night Spinnshelter

As I ate, one of the men from a neighboring campsite made his way over and asked if that was a tarp I was sleeping under. He’d seen them in the magazines, but had never seen one in person, and hadn’t expected to see one way up here at 2,600 meters. We talked. His nickname was Chilli and he was here with his wife Junka and their close friend, Yuri, the couple and the third person I had noticed earlier. We got to talking about ultralight backpacking and how to use gear to do double duty and get your pack weight down. He’d already started learning about it, even mentioning some of the relevent stores in Tokyo where UL enthusiasts could buy a lot of the specialized gear and exchange ideas. It was still quite a new movement here.

Kiso Komagatake Chili Tent Stars
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Junka
Kiso Komagatake Shadow Puppets

Chilli invited me over to their tent to talk and get out of the cold. We sat hunched up in the small space, sleeping bags draped over our legs, and getting to know one another and telling jokes and stories of past mountain adventures and mishaps. I loved their cheer and the enthusiastic embrace of being outdoors, in spite of the inconveniences and hardships that sometimes characterized getting out here. As I listened to them I was once again reminded about what I take to mean loving life and feeling alive. It had nothing to do with sitting at home watching endless TV reruns or spending the weekend going shopping at the mall.

Kiso Komagatake Star Door

When people began yawning, it was time to head back out to my tarp and dive into my quilt. I put on my down jacket, pulled on a layer of windpants over my regular pants, placed my water sack near the head of the quilt, slipped into the quilt, and lay back to go to watch the stars. Already they had spilled across the northern sky opposite the moon and I could see the outline of the mountains where the stars were blocked out. The moon cast a hard blue light across the field of tents, bright enough to read a book under. The white tarp canopy glowed in this blue light, and when I swiveled my head I could see all around, the openness of the tarp keeping me in touch with accumulating stars, the sailing moon, and the silent tents one by one winking out as the inhabitants switched off their lights and went to sleep. I pulled out my camera and took some time lapse photographs of the heavens and tents, finally feeling immersed in the mountains and in the moment, feeling that wonderful sense of being tiny and insignificant with big eyes for the sky and the wind.

Kiso Komagatake Apex Stars

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of wandering aimless trails. My sleep pulled me down into the earth, further and further from the thin film of my tarp and into the well of my deepest shores. I felt safe, enough to dream. Then the wind hit. I shot awake. A hard, series of punches that snapped at my tarp and set off the telltale crackle that I had been warned about concerning spinnaker cloth shelters. Since I hadn’t been able to get a drum-tight pitch the tarp shook incessantly, whipping all about my ears, and snapping me awake with every gust of wind. I tried a number of solutions… adding more stakes to the side, tightening the guylines, trussing the trekking poles-cum-tent-poles up a little higher, but to no avail. Finally, at about 1 in morning I gave up and I sat out on a rock, gazing at the sea of clouds to the east.

At about that time one of the men in the tent next to mine set off on a snoring campaign from hell, so loud and distinct that I couldn’t believe no one else didn’t wake up. But the campsite remained still, most likely individuals here and there lying awake in the dark, waiting for morning.

Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Door
Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Dawn

I did manage to finally get back into my quilt, stuff ear plugs in my ears, and get about two hours of sleep. The sun had already poked under my tarp by the time I woke.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Me Smile BW
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Tents

And what a morning! A storm-tossed blue ocean of clouds below us, a fan of sun beams illuminating the heavens, and a chipper accentor calling from up the slope, telling us to make breakfast and start the day.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Tent
Kiso Komagatake Wide Cloudsea

While chatting with the three friends from the night before, I heated up some muesli with egg soup and chai, and packed up. The shortness of breath of the day before seemed to have disappeared, and though I had hardly slept and felt sleepy, I felt as bright as the sun. I left my full pack by the mountain hut, took my windbreaker, some snacks, and my camera, and headed up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, about a half hour scramble. The wind blew so strong that when my feet balanced on sharp rocks or I swung around on a switchback it sometimes knocked me off balance.

Kiso Jizo
Kiso Little Shrine
Kiso Komagatake Torii BW

I reached the summit of Kiso-Komagatake 35 years after I had started out. When I saw the weathered wooden sign, creaking in the wind, I let out a whoop of pure joy and found myself watching that boy of 16 run the last 10 meters up the slope to reach out and touch the sign. And I heard myself shout out, “You finally did it, Miguel! You finally made it here! I knew you’d make it here one day! Good job!”

Kiso Komagatake Me
Kiso Komagatake Top Me

It wasn’t the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and certainly not the hardest. But there was something about dredging up that past and placing it in front of me again, tying up old loose ends, that felt more satisfying than a lot of other summits I’d reached. Maybe I won’t fulfill all the dreams I’ve ever had, but it sure does feel good to put my arm around that shy 16-year old, and slowly head back down the mountain, this time together.

Kiso Sun Shrine 2 BW
Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Japan: Living Journal

Aftermath

car lifted to apartment building roof by tsunami

Six months have passed since the Great Tohoku Disaster. During these bright, sunny, late summer days, when the buildings hold still and the nights pass unperturbed by moments of terror when even the smallest movement of the bed shoots me awake from restless sleep, it is sometimes hard to remember that just a few months ago the whole world was shaking off its hinges and seemed to be tottering at the edge of ending.

Manami Sanrikucho torii gate knocked over by tsunami

I can’t quantify what the whole experience did to me. All I know is that I haven’t been able to write in the blog all this time; all ventures within sight of the events would leave my thoughts blank. Words almost seemed to lose their lift before anything coherent even began to form. And not just written words, but anything uttered, too. When I wasn’t clacking along in rush hour trains, lurching and swaying with everyone else, trying to think of nothing but work, it was timeless catatonia, sitting by the bedroom window, just watching clouds scud by. The world seemed to be moving elsewhere. For months nothing seemed to be happening at all around me, not even while being tumbled and kicked in the confusion of university work.

And it’s not as if evidence of the quake disappeared when the shaking began to let off. On the trains and subways, in supermarkets and shopping centers, in office buildings and sports centers, lights and unneeded electric devices remained switched off, and you stepped down into stairwells and lobbies and glided through a hushed gloom. Perhaps because so many people have volunteered to turn down or turn off their air conditioners, the whole city felt distinctly cooler than most of the summers of the last twenty years. Daily the news poured out statistics of the invisible threat from that gaping maw spewing nuclear ichor across the land, just north of us, from the region that was beloved for its green lushness and vegetables, now, just the name “Fukushima” conjures up ghosts and ostracism, human ugliness and unspeakable sorrow.

memorial shrine for a family lost in the tsunami

Further north lurks the “Place That Can’t Be Mentioned”, that vast, vast swath of wreckage and erasure that cannot be taken in by one mind, reaching far beyond the ability of the eye to register anything familiar, and harboring such a teeming chorus of lost voices that you cannot encounter the scenes without breaking down.

sparrow sitting on an overturned bicycle in the tsunami rubble

Two weeks after the big quake and tsunami, I decided to head up to Tohoku to see for myself what this horror was that had visited us, and to offer whatever I could to help, however small my contribution. It was better than sitting helpless in Tokyo, agonizing over the photos and videos I kept seeing on the Internet.

home foundations devastated by tsunami

I had no plan upon first looking for a way up there. News was broken, much of it hearsay, with rumors going around of long lines of cars running out of gasoline long before making it up to the zone of destruction. Telephone lines were out and any food available up there was meant for the survivors, many of whom were starving in remote, inaccessible towns. And so it was like heading north into the Heart of Darkness, my trepidation very real, my inexperience and ignorance warning me that I was being a fool, that the disaster could easily eat me alive, too.

cars wrapped around telephone pole after tsunami

I found a volunteer organization downtown that referred me to another lone volunteer heading up north in two days. She had a connection up there in Minami-Sanrikucho, the hardest hit town in all of the tsunami zone. I went into a frenzy getting myself prepared, gathering all my camping gear, buying all the food for a week, scouring the city for water jugs, almost all of which had been bought up by the panicking people in Tokyo, where food was running out in the supermarkets and cars had to wait for hours to buy gasoline. I managed to get it all together before my travel partner was due to arrive to pick me up. I sat on the couch in the living room, my heart pounding, not at all sure of what I was getting myself into.

calm sea and sunlight after the tsunami
devastation of Minami Sanriku seen from edge of town
tsunami smashed house on top of 4 meter bluff

The drive up north was surprisingly normal, with almost no stops, smooth sailing along an unbroken highway that seemed not to have seen one of the biggest earthquakes in history. My travel companion and I bantered about our backgrounds, our interests, even listening to her collection of iTunes songs and singing along. It was surreal. We kept glancing out of the car windows, seeking signs of destruction and misery, but seeing nothing but the usual Japanese rural landscape. No damage seemed to have been done.

road from evacuation center into devastated Minami Sanrikucho town

The ride took much longer than we had anticipated, so it was already dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Minami-Sanrikucho. All the street lights were out, so we drove in darkness, along deserted roads that passed through town after town with not a soul visible in any of the houses or walking the streets. As if a harbinger for what we were about to encounter, a gigantic dog-like creature appeared suddenly in the headlights on the verge of the road and we swept past without being able to identify what it was. The road ran out of pavement and we started bumping along a dirt track, when suddenly, like an exhibit in a ghost house, an upturned house loomed out of the darkness, right in the middle of the road. My companion shrieked and slammed on the breaks. We sat there, hearts pounding in our mouths, staring as the headlights shone into an empty window. When we peered around the car into the darkness, we became aware of the mountains of wreckage, wooden beams piled like matchsticks, houses and cars mashed together in impossible heaps, huge steel I-beams wrapped like spaghetti around building corners. It was piled so high we couldn’t see over it, all around us. The air was thick with dust, and when I rolled down the window it stank of brine and dead fish, mud and rotting vegetation. And we realized that it wasn’t an earthquake that we had come to, but the horror of the tsunami.

bicycling through the tsunami devastation Minami Sanrikucho

We drove gingerly through the detritus, picking the way carefully over the debris, until we found the evacuation center, where my companion’s contact waited.

The rest of the week in the town was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I was totally unprepared for it. I had imagined camping amidst the wreckage, and working with volunteers to help clear this up, but in reality it was much too dangerous to spend much time in the wreckage, due to the danger of infection and proliferating bacteria, and to the forest of razor sharp edges everywhere, even underfoot. Instead, we stayed at the town’s sports center/ evacuation center, protected and organized by the local government and the Self Defense Forces. The whole population of the surrounding town was housed in the gym, thousands of people crammed together on every square inch of the floors. On the floor of the gym itself was a scene straight out of the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark… a gigantic warehouse of stacks and aisles of boxes of foodstuffs, basic survival goods, clothes, and blankets. Everywhere outside giant trucks and heavy machinery rumbled in the parking spaces, with lines of soldiers, teams of doctors and rescue workers, and an army of volunteer workers doing all the menial work like handing out food, cleaning toilets, carrying boxes, and answering the questions of the scared evacuees.

view of the Sanriku Bayside Arena evacuation center
view of Minami Sanriku Bayside Arena evacuation center toilets
view of my akto tent at Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center
view of Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center parking lot
group of survivors at the Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center

During the week I met quite a few of them, listened to their stories, ate with them, helped them with basic chores. Nearly all of them revealed having lost someone, and the stories were harrowing and painful to listen to. And yet, everyone attempted to laugh and bear all this with dignity and grace. Walking around the evacuation center for the first part of the week a sense of mutual respect and calmness pervaded everything. That is until the second to the last day, when, after nearly three weeks being crammed together with hundreds of other families, eating the same instant food, boredom settling in, and anxiety over having lost their homes and livelihoods finally kicking in, several brawls erupted in the parking lots. Some of the locals began to grow suspicious of people like me who had come from Tokyo, where none of this destruction existed at this level. One man, catching sight of the only foreigner besides the Israeli rescue unit to have come to the town (nearby Ishinomaki was being called the “Harajuku of the Disaster Zone” because of all the young and non-Japanese volunteers), shouted at me in the worst tough-guy guttural Japanese, that I should stop butting into private people’s lives and that they didn’t need outside help. I later managed to get him to sit down and tell me about his experience: he had lost everyone, including his 7 year old daughter, his 10 year old son, his wife, his father, and brother. Only his aging and sick mother had survived, but, after driving out of the small coastal town up the coast, he had been waiting for six days to get his mother into a medical facility and he was worried she wouldn’t make it. He broke down sobbing in the midst of this story, and he was so ashamed that he got into his car, and locked the door. To see this proud and determined man get reduced to sobbing because he felt so helpless made me ask myself if coming here was not just being selfish and novelty seeking. What difference could I make here? I spoke to quite a few victims, and each time the stories were similar. One old man related how he had been standing on a hill overlooking his house when the tsunami hit, and he could only stand there helplessly as he watched his wife and 20 year old son get swept away in the house. He never found their bodies. Another man, while I was doing volunteer work in the vicinity of his demolished house, approached me to ask what I was doing. When he learned who I was working with and what we were doing, he began to tearfully tell me about being in the apartment building just behind us, with his wife and 3 year old daughter. When they saw the mud wave rolling in from the fields below, he shouted to his wife to get out of the house. He grabbed his daughter and started running up the valley, away from the oncoming mud wave. His wife, however, decided that she needed to gather a few valuables before escaping and while still in the apartment, the mud wave engulfed the house and crushed it. The father had managed to run far enough up the valley to reach the point where the mud wave let off. Weeping, he repeated over and over that his daughter kept asking when they could go home to see mother.

view of Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena disaster relief headquarters
Minami Sanrikucho officials and Self Defense Force task force in evacuation center
bleachers sleeping quarters volunteers at Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center

My volunteer group’s responsibility was to search for family photographs amidst the ruins. It seems like an easy job, but climbing amidst all that debris, in the heat and rain, and even snow, while wearing layers of protective clothing, helmet, boots, gloves, face mask, and over layer of red uniform so that we would be identifiable to both locals and the possibility of injury or death, was hot and exhausting work. We lifted thousands of beams and metals sheets, dug through silt-clogged old bags, broke open orphaned cabinets, and once even stumbled through a wooded area with a fishing boat suspended above in the tree canopy as it creaked and groaned in the wind, just outside our circle of safety. The worst moment for me was one freezing, rainy morning, while I was digging, with a photographer from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper photographing me, through the foundations of a house that had been washed away. I came upon the remains of a teenage girl’s bedroom, her colorful photographs of her and her friends, her collection of stuffed dolls, her little paper boxes of plastic jewelry and trinkets, her wads of sopping wet clothes, even her cell phone,adorned with glittery, stick-on glass beads, all strewn about the grey, muddy ground, rain soaking everything, me and the photographer soaked to the bone and cold. It all hit me at once, I was holding a photograph of the girl smiling into the camera with her chihuahua, and I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. The photographer himself slumped onto a mud-covered log, and just sat there, in shock, not caring that his camera and clothing were getting soaked. The leader of our volunteer group had to come over and coax us to stand up and get back to work. “You didn’t come here to feel sorry for yourselves, right?” he asked us. “You came here to be strong for the people who really lost something here, right? You can cry later. Right now we really need to do this.” He wasn’t being cold or heartless; he’d seen a lot of newcomers like us break down like that.

baskets and bags of found photos amidst the tsunami rubble
some of the volunteers for the Minami Sanrikucho tsunami Memory Seekers
view of the whole of devastated Minami Sanrikucho town
view of devastated shopping center in Minami Sanrikucho
Minami Sanriku building wrapped in trawling nets by tsunami
tsunami devastation of Minami Sanriku downtown
tsunami wreckage of building frame in Minami Sanrikucho
tsunami wreckage of the Minami Sanrikucho harbor fish market
two volunteers surveying the tsunami destruction of downtown Minami Sanrikucho

As I gained confidence and experience, a real sense of camaraderie developed with both the survivors and with the volunteer workers. We could even say we were enjoying working together and giving each other courage. The week went by more quickly. Volunteers came and went. Those of us who had stayed longer took on the leading roles and watched those who were dealing with the shock of the enormity of the disaster. We gathered thousands of photographs, cleaned them of sand and salt and mud, hung them up to dry. News reporters and camera crews from all over Japan came to interview us and film us, and our group became known as the “Memory Seekers”. One member, a 72 year old superhero who had driven all the way up from southern Japan, became a national celebrity and even had a documentary made of him. Townsfolk came up to us to tearfully thank us for helping them find and preserve their precious memories.

daffodils blooming above the tsunami devastation of Minami Sanrikucho
new telephone poles being put in only a few days after the tsunami
local volunteers serving food at a Minami Sanrikucho high school evacuation center
Japanese self defense force gathered at tsunami evacuation center
volunteer serving soup at Minami Sanrikucho high school evacuation center
last of the remaining Minami Sanrikucho fishing boat fleet with traditional blessings after the tsunami
Minami Sanrikucho local fishermen set up makeshift gasoline stand after tsunami

It was both hard and easy to leave all this. Hard, because I had made some good friends and felt I had done something of some value. Easy because I was exhausted and sad and filled with more than I could handle. I wanted to get home, feel safe again, wake up to a quiet morning without the gunning generators and cranes and bulldozers chugging through the air. The daily earthquakes, one of them a magnitude 7.2 that shuddered through the evacuation center like a derailed train and actually did more damage than the big earthquake in March, were rattling my nerves. And I just wanted to forget about all the destruction and death. It was enough.

my friend and co-volunteer 72 year-old Mr. Obata at Minami Sanrikucho disaster evacuation center

Driving back to Tokyo was a quiet, almost reverential time. We hardly spoke. We passed through Sendai, whose damage was on a scale so hugely wide that we drove through utterly speechless. It went on for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer, all the way to the horizon, an endless brown blanket of mud and debris where once rice fields painted the entire coastline bright green.

Earthquakes were still daily rocking Tokyo when we got back. There would continue to be earthquakes for months still. But Tohoku always lies in the back of my mind. So much of what goes on in Tokyo now, what so many people consider vital to everyday life seems frivolous and petty. And I wonder how it would have been had the earthquake been much worse here in Tokyo? Who would have come to help us? Could we even have survived? And what of Fukushima? A hole in the heart of Japan. I will probably be thinking about how I’ve changed for many years to come. Will I ever be the same?

lone seagull sitting atop Minami Sanrikucho fishing boat mast after tsunami
Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Japan: Living Journal Tokyo

Trembling

Japan Quake Map
Map of the big earthquake in Tohoku in 2011

Whenever someone writes about the beginnings of an earthquake the story inevitably starts off with that lull before the event. Usually the story takes a humorous twist, because the experience only lasts a moment and then fades into a memory, and when the adrenaline drains away and the heart stops thumping, you’re left with this void that laughter does a good job of filling.[1. Japan Quake Map, A time-lapse map of the series of earthquakes just before and after the Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Author: Paul Nicholls, from Christchurch Earthquake Map, of The University of Canterbury, New Zealand.]

The Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., in northeastern Japan, started the same way. Seven days ago I sat at the living room table, working away at my blog design, atypically outside of my studio, lounging back against the sofa, sipping Prince of Wales tea from a mug. My partner lay fast asleep on the floor in her room, still exhausted from a hard day working at the hospital the day before. The sun shone through the window from a cloudless blue sky, gray starlings twittered and chortled in the branches of a young gingko tree, and the street stood quiet, the elementary school children still not out, a day like any other.

When the first tremor came it felt almost gentle, a soft bumping against the floor that made the hanging potus plant sway in the window sill. It was followed by an impatient shudder that rattled the window glass and spoons in the sink. Then all of a sudden this titanic shrug shoved against the floor and walls and knocked my mug off the table. For a moment it subsided, a breathless moment, then it rammed into the building again and bucked, shaking, the way a dog shakes a mouse in it’s teeth. The movement generated an almost inaudible, faraway rumble, the same sound you hear when you press your fist flat against your ear and clench your fist hard, growing steadily louder and more indistinct.

I was already up, first unconsciously grabbing my insulin kit, then dashing to my partner’s room, shaking her awake. But she was a deep sleeper and just moaned, throwing her arm over her eyes. “Get up! Get up! Get up!” I insisted, still not quite scared yet, still having no idea. I pulled her by her arm and she reluctantly woke, mumbling, “It’s only an earthquake. Stop getting so excited.” But the earth kept heaving and the walls creaked and groaned and the window glass of her room skittered against the frame. “It’s big!” I said, louder. “Come on, get up!” She moaned again. A huge fist slammed into the floor, forcing it to buckle under me and I almost toppled over, caught myself. She was still slow, so, shouting now, I wrenched her to her feet and pulled her through the living room into the corridor. My partner walked to the bathroom door while I threw open the front door, and stopped it with the old, chewed up plastic door wedge. I glanced out at the sunny day outside, everything telling me to get out and fly the coop and get away from this pile of rock, but I stopped myself. To the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom. Where had I heard that it was safe there? Right. The bathroom. We stood in the doorframe as the walls seesawed back and forth on either side of us, dust spilling from small fissures that split along the corners of the wall, and my thoughts seemed to flutter in the darkness, without direction, frantic flashes of old lessons repeated over and over like a litany… don’t go outside… falling masonry… bathroom tight frame safe… why didn’t I buy those helmets?… I should have finished putting that emergency backpack together… oh no! My cameras!… but nothing coherent that could think my way out of whatever this huge thing was.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God…

A siren punctuated the air, howling over the city. Down the hallway another alarm, an insistent electric beeping, echoed down the hallways.

I kept glancing at the ceiling, wondering when it would crash down on us and crush our skulls. Outside I heard the sharp crack and then heavy thud of a concrete wall falling down. A woman in a neighboring apartment kept bawling over and over, “Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa!” (No! No! No! No! No!) in a high-pitched, keening voice. A baby’s thin wail started up in the apartment above us.

In Japanese mythology a gigantic catfish is said to reside beneath the islands. Whenever it rolls or turns it takes the island with it, a muscular shifting of bones. The catfish had started wildly awake, shuddered under the inhabitants, and broken the old sleep with violent fits. Only after the mud had clouded the depths and cloaked the catfish in darkness, did the catfish begin to settle down. The swaying began to die down, but not completely, just enough to get our wits together and think what to do. My partner got her coat and bag and some food ready, while I gathered, as quickly as I could, two packs with lightweight backpacking equipment.

studio rubble after the quake
Fallen bookshelves and books in my studio after the earthquake.

One look into the living room convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to look for anything precious, even if I wanted to. All the dishes in the kitchen cabinets had slid out and crashed to the floor. The wine bottles lay smashed and bleeding amidst the dishes. The kitchen counter that I had built had shifted two meters toward the center of the living room. In my studio, the entire bookshelf system had collapsed into a huge mess, books scattered over everything, the shelves buried under boxes, the guitar broken in half, and no way to get in. I’d have to stick only to what we absolutely needed, if I could find it.

For the first time since I took a passionate interest in learning how to go backpacking and mountain climbing with an exceptionally low weight pack, I felt grateful for the hours and hours, over the years, poring over gear lists and putting together and using in the mountains, combinations of gear necessary for surviving outdoors in all kinds of conditions. WIthout even really thinking consciously, I stuffed two packs with what we needed, including a shelter, water filter, wood burning stove, special clothes, sleeping bags, headlamps, gloves, etc. I knew we’d be okay outside, even in the snow or heavy rain. My partner impatiently stood by the door, keeping back her thoughts that I was wasting time and looked ridiculous with my geeky obsession. Within five minutes I was ready and followed my partner out the front door, into the afternoon.

Trees still registered the ongoing shaking, like metronomes ticking down the heartbeats.

To be continued…

Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Japan: Living Journal

Disaster Japan Information Gathering Site

The “Chamber Moon” photoblog and “Tracing the Wind” drawing blog have been retired and all content moved into Laughing Knees itself, to keep everything in one place. The information here is merely for record-keeping purposes.

Hi Everyone. I have been quiet again for quite a while on Laughing Knees, but not, this time, due to neglect. I’ve been very busy setting up my other concurrent blogs, Chamber Moon, a photoblog, and Tracing the Wind, a drawing blog. I still have to finish setting up my fiction blog and professional illustration site, but for now the two above are online and started. I will still mostly post to the photoblog because I just don’t have time to write a lot of long posts to Laughing Knees, but I want to keep it moving along more frequently, too.

Also, I’ve just been through the horrors of the earthquake here in Japan, though luckily quite far away from the nightmare of the north. I’ll write more in-depth about the experience in my next post, but for now I wanted to announce a blog I put together in hope of centralizing much-needed information in English on dealing with the crisis. It is not a news blog, or a place to discuss politics (in fact there are no comments open), but rather a sober and practical approach to bringing some measure of order to the chaos of information about the crisis. This includes information on where shelters are, what the trains schedules are, who to go to for advice on trauma, etc. I want to help, not cause further panic. Please take a look at Disaster Japan.

Quite a few people are helping with gathering the information and working on the site. If any of you are interested, please join the Facebook group “Disaster Japan Information Gathering” (it’s closed and you have to knock to get in… don’t worry it’s not exclusive!)

Hope to see some of you there!

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

Cold Dry Wind

Okutama Mukashimichi Mountains and Gorges
Mountains and gorges of Okutama.

The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.

Two more days and the new year begins.

Okutama Mukashimichi Rest Stop
The Okutama Mukashimichi Trail leading down toward the flatter section of the trail.

I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.

Okutama Mukashimichi Susuki Head
Autumn susuki grass seeds.

I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.

Okutama Mukashimichi Garden Bodhisatva
Bodhisatva statue in the midst of an overgrown garden filled with old figurines and flower pots.

Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.

Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.

Okutama Mukashimichi Lake Hillock
Tree-covered hillock overlooking the Okutama Lake Dam.

I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.

Okutama Mukashimichi Okutama Dam
View of Okutama Lake from Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.

Okutama Mukashimichi Wind Leaves
Leaves blowing in the wind along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail

I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.

Okutama Mukashimichi Forested Ridges
Forested ridges lit up by the last rays of the sun.
Okutama Mukashimichi Quiet Road
Quiet back country road along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Feathery Seeds
Feathery seeds ready to be blown to new seeing grounds.
Okutama Mukashimichi Old Well
Abandoned old covered well.

All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.

Okutama Mukashimichi Sunset
Sunset over the hills along the Okutama Mukashimichi.

Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.

Okutama Mukashimichi Bridge
Bridge over a ravine along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Car Tunnel
Approaching a car tunnel along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.

Okutama Mukashimichi Foundation Beech
Beech tree growing out of an abandoned house’s foundation.
Okutama Mukashimichi Stone Lantern
Abandoned stone garden lantern
Okutama Mukashimichi Shrine Chochin
Paper lanterns hanging outside a small shrine at Okutama Station.

I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.

Okutama Mukashimichi Me
Me, taking a break along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail
Categories
Japan: Living Journal Tokyo

Spirit in the House

Balcony Garden 2

There really are no words that can comfort or explain why when a loved one dies. The death comes as expected or not, but in its wake we enter a room or a place that the departed called their own and find ourselves at a loss. A great, silent loss that no matter how hard we try to rebuild the blocks defies our comprehension. And so we turn to words to try to give it structure and provide a beginning and an end to what we shared. A story.

Georgio Casellato Lamberti (or “Lan” for short) was a Shi Tzu dog, that my partner M. had befriended 17 years earlier at a pet shop here in Tokyo. He had white, chestnut brown, and black hair and a face that immediately reminded me of an Ewok, with great, liquid eyes and a black nose and lips that never smiled. I first met him nine years ago shortly after M. and I became friends. He was a humorless dog, constantly snuffling and snorting and completely without interest in other dogs during his walks. His interest in walks remained limited, at least by the time I met him, to doing his bodily functions and that was it. As soon as the chore was done he yanked on the leash to go home. It was for this reason that, for a breed of dog that normally weighs about 4 kg, Lan weighed about 7 kg and waddled more than walked. I only saw him run one time in all the time I knew him.

He never barked. Violence and temper tantrums were alien to him. He was a lover and not a fighter, though even the allure of the female persuasion never seemed to cross his mind. One time when M. and I were shouting at one another he walked over to us, stood there looking up until we noticed him, and then reached out a paw to touch M.’s leg, silently pleading for us to make peace. M. and I broke down laughing, partly out of love for him, partly out of sheer embarrassment.

As he grew older he took more and more to sleeping. He was plagued with ailments and pain, from a weak heart, bad skin allergies that left his skin constantly red and itching (until I suggested using baby shampoo and the allergies went away), cancer of the liver, anemia. Four years ago he started going deaf and blind. When we moved here to this apartment last year his hind legs were giving out and the new environment terrified him. For three weeks he cried constantly while bumping around the unfamiliar corners and walls. I’d never heard him wail before and the worry about the landlord finding out about having a dog in a place where no pets were allowed made that first month stressful and uncertain. There were times when I got so fed up with his whining and doing his mess all over the apartment floors that I wished he were dead.

Kamiigusa New Years Charm

Sometime around the middle of July his legs got worse and he had a hard time standing up. He was still alert and full of his doggy appetite, never getting enough to eat. Without his eyesight and hearing he took to scanning the room with his nose and every time we made dinner the waft of cooking food would shake him from his stupor and prompt him to find his way to his feet. When no food was forthcoming he’d let out a huge snort and plonk back down onto his pillow and fall asleep. M. and I constantly teased him for his lack of contribution to the household upkeep.

When we returned from Canada at the end of August, after leaving him at the vet for a week suddenly Lan took a turn for the worse. His legs gave out completely and he was no longer able to walk. He took to sleeping with his spine curled in toward the left and he’d struggle in pain or dizziness when we turned him over onto his left side facing right. The doctor didn’t know what it was. M. spent every spare moment nursing him, getting up at 4:00 in the morning to quietly and patiently hand feed him, wash him, talk to him. He lost weight, lots of it, so that the pudgy, waddling gentleman of indifference slowly wasted away to nothing but skin and bones. Even then he had the energy to crawl across the living room floor and attempt to reach the potty spot at the end of the entrance hall, even though he had long since been enclosed in his fenced-in pen. He’d hold in his bowels until we got home late in the evening, unwilling to relinquish that last source of dignity that had defined his world since he was a baby.

Lan Daru Last Photo Together

M. was beginning to reach her limits around the middle of December. She was exhausted and emotionally just hanging on. Sometimes it seemed as if Lan would hang by a thread for the rest of eternity, breathing and shitting and eating and sleeping. He was a tough little monster, and wasn’t going to go out without a fight. Then around the middle of January he began to fade. He stopped eating for days then would wake up with a voracious appetite, then stop eating again. His breathing grew labored, raspy. When we reached into his triple layer of blankets and hot water bottle his feet felt cold and often he made no reaction, giving us a fright. M. had to take him to the vet several times to change his food since he refused to eat his usual fare and more and more would only take the best choices in canine dining. I guess he intended to die a gourmand, none of that fiber-filled, grainy cereal that he’d been eating day in and day out for so many years!

At the end of January he started wheezing terribly. We knew then it was the end. One night, after two days of refusing to drink anything we took him to the vet in an emergency in order to rehydrate him. The doctor gave him an intravenous saline injection, but suggested that it might be time to let him go. His gums were a deathly white from anemia and he was so thin the doctor had a difficult time finding a suitable spot to insert the needle. Lan vomited up nearly everything that he attempted to eat, but after the saline shot he quieted down and slept all night without making a sound.

Daru Lan Embrace

The next morning M. had to get up early to go to work. I had work, too, but remained home until the very last minute just to make sure Lan was alone as little as possible. He began to wheeze badly again and vomited bile and blood. I sat with my hand on his side until it was time to go and he had managed to fall asleep again. I hurried through everything at work so as to make it back home in time, just in case Lan was ready to let go. The silly and innocuous questions of a lot of the lazier and more immature students unprepared for upcoming tests made the waiting interminable. Their taking time and their lives for granted made me want to shout at them to start living and not waste the precious gift they had. Meanwhile Lan was struggling to breathe back home.

When my last class ended I rushed home as fast as I could. It was about 1:00. I reached to door at about 2:00 and unlocking the door and kicking off the shoes and dropping my coat and bag on the floor I ran to Lan’s side and kneeled down beside him. I held my breath and peered hard at him, hoping I’d see the slow rise and fall of his shoulder as he slept. It seemed like time stopped. There was no movement. I knew he was gone. I squatted down beside the pen and placed my hand on his head. Still warm. He had died only a little while earlier, but had died alone. That was the last thing that M. had wanted. That he would die alone.

I went numb for a long while, not knowing what to do or what to feel. All I knew was that I needed to let M. know what happened, but that I didn’t want her to break down in the middle of the street or at work. I contemplated what had to be done about the body, and thought about going to see the vet, but even though I was much less attached to Lan than M. was, I found that I couldn’t move and that I still didn’t want to see Lan’s body moved. So I went about cleaning his pen and neatly folding the blankets and sheet so that Lan looked clean and comfortable. Then I searched online for pet crematoriums and information on what needed to be done with dead pets in Japan. I got no where not being able to read the level of Japanese necessary, so I gave up and just sat beside Lan, stroking him.

Lan Last Photo Alive

At around five M. sent me an email asking how I was and then how Lan was. I wrote back briefly, in Japanese, “You should come home.”

She replied, “Is Lan okay?”

I answered, “Just come home.”

I went out to buy some dinner for M. and me, then some flowers for Lan, and while I was waiting for the take out food to be fixed at the store I got another email from M. telling me she was near the station. I stopped by another store for some candles for Lan and met M. at the station.

We said nothing, just walked hand in hand back toward our apartment. While we walked M. silently began to weep and I held her as close as I could.

M. being M. she was up at the crack of dawn the following morning. She spoke little, but was full of energy and purpose. When we had eaten breakfast she discussed with me what we ought to do about Lan, so we looked up information about nearby crematoriums and found a temple where there was a long tradition of cremating and keeping the graves of pets. M. made a number of phone calls and then we gently prepared Lan, wrapping him in his favorite blankets and placing his body in a big Boston bag so we could carry it in the taxi to the temple.

Looking back now I’m surprised by how beautiful and cheerful that day, two weeks ago, was. M. and I managed to joke about Lan’s bad humor and constant royal demands. Between laughter and fits of sobbing we brought Lan’s body to the temple and were ushered into a small reception room where Lan’s body was placed in a basket.

The funeral director was a woman about our age dressed in fashionable black slacks and jacket and speaking with a deferent and quiet voice. She explained what would take place and what we should do. We were led to the back of the temple were a building with a smoke stack stood among some huge gingko trees and asked if it was all right to burn the body with the blankets. Then we were led back to a traditional, tatami mat waiting room where we sat talking and drinking green tea. An hour later the funeral director returned. “The bones are ready to be viewed,” she said.

Daru Funeral Altar

I really can’t express what it felt like when we were taken back to the crematory and we stood waiting as the door to the retort was opened. What slid out was a black tray of bleached bones and the shock of the transition from Lan to those bones almost made my knees buckle under me. M. broke down crying. The cremator was obviously familiar with such reactions and stepped forward to show us the second vertebra of Lan’s spine, which in Japanese is called the “Nodobotoke” bone ‘Throat Boddhisatva”), because it resembles a Buddha with his hands out. M. managed a smile as she peered closely at the bone. “Ah, that’s why the bone is called, ‘Nodobotoke’,” she said. The cremator gently placed the bone on the tray and handed us each a pair of bamboo chopsticks. My hands were shaking as I joined in the Japanese tradition of “Kotsuage”, placing, with chopsticks, the bones into the urn that we would bring home.

We then made our way to the pet temple proper, where rows and rows of pet graves lined the hall. Many of the graves were open with small offerings of the pets’ favorite foods lining the boxes. I stood at the end of the hall watching M. make her lonely way to the alter and regretted the anger I had shown during the last few months over her hanging on to Lan. Maybe for the first time in our relationship I clearly understood how devoted M. was to Lan and, strangely, in those circumstances, to me. She beckoned me to kneel beside her and together we lit a stick of incense and prayed for Lan.


Daru Lan Ashes

Two weeks later it snowed. I was sitting at my desk working on test correction when I glanced out of the window and saw snow drifting down in the dark. I called M. and together we stood by the window watching it come down.

“Lan would hate this!” M. said.

“He definitely liked his comforts,” I added.

“I’m sure right now he’s lying somewhere with his face pressed right up against an infrared heater,” observed M.

“I always wondered how he did that without burning his hair off or melting his eyeballs,” I continued. “Maybe he was made of asbestos.”

We took a walk in the snow and laughed at the stray snow bombs that the telephone wires dumped on us. The streets were empty and silent as most people slept, oblivious to the silent change the city was going through. M. and I snapped photos of one another, both of us smiling.

Daru Funeral Snow

Each time we return home Lan is waiting there in his corner. M. lights a candle and a stick of incense and cheerfully waves good morning. Sometimes it all hits home and she breaks down weeping, but she always looks up and smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m just happy that Lan lived a life in which he was loved.”

Lan Shrine
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.

I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”

I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.

“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”

I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”

“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

We introduce ourselves (sorry, guys, I didn’t catch your names and though I’ve looked I can’t find it on the Japanese UL sites. If you’re there please contact me!…ごめんなさい。ピラタスで話した時ちゃんと名前を聞き取らなかったのです。もしこのサイトに訪ねたらぜひ名前をもう一度教えてください!かんべん、かんべん!) and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”

I nod.

One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”

I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”

“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”

I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”

Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”

“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”

“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.

We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.

The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.

The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?

I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.

The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”

“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”

I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”

He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”

“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”

He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.

Comet Over Mugikusa

I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.

I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.

First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.

They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.

I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.

“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”

I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”

The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.

“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Chiba Japan: Living

Floods

It’s been raining hard for four weeks now and made it impossible to enjoy camping, but for the last two days things have gotten totally nuts. Record rains with constant thunder and lightning. Most areas have been getting about 100 millimeters in one hour, one area got 200 millimeters this morning. Earlier today many areas in Japan were inundated in major floods. Houses have been washed away and thousands of people have been evacuated. The area that I live in, Sammu city, Chiba prefecture, is set to have rivers overflow their banks tonight and all the trains have stopped. I wouldn’t even think of going up to the mountains again this week. Mudslides and landslides are bringing mountainsides down everywhere.

I’ve never seen anything like this in Japan. Just seeing how easily all the trappings of society get completely turned upside down makes me wonder what will happen when the sea levels really begin to rise. We are so fragile.