As I had hoped it has become a summer of mountain walking, probably one of the activities I love best. I’m finding that when I return to town the cloying heat, the unfriendly crowds, the mindless rushing around, and the general inattentiveness to the surrounding world has gotten me spending every spare moment seeking a way out, towards a way of life more conducive to my temperament. Even time at the computer is falling away; I’m finding that I cannot stay seated in front of the computer for more than a half hour or so before restlessness hits me and I have to get up and pace the apartment or go for a walk.
The photographs here I brought back from my walk over Mt. Senjo, west of Tokyo in the South Japan Alps. It was my third attempt. Twice before torrential rains washed the trail out and I had to turn back. This time the rains hovered overhead for two days and constantly threatened to come pouring down, but somehow I managed to slip by unnoticed by the Lady of the Gaseous Screens, as Mt. Senjo seemed to me.
The walk was easier this time than the walk up Mt. Shirane a month ago. The exercise has been paying off, and then Mt. Senjo lent itself to a comfortable pace, with the succession of views and exertion just stretched out enough that the walk could be taken in comfortable increments. The main concern was time, because the new bus system didn’t allow for much leeway in terms of the first and last buses down the mountain. So, though I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, I had to rush a little, too.
Mt. Senjo acted like a coquettish lady, peeking out from behind the screen then dancing away to another before I could get a glimpse of her face. The whole day was a series of just missing a grand view; I would be huffing and puffing up an incline, look up, and just catch a new screen of clouds sliding over a sunny panorama. The clouds rolled and slid over the peaks like great white-gloved hands, the fingers whistling in the wind.
The most difficult part of the walk took me through a razorback ridge where some rock scrambling left me hanging over thin air at times. My heart pounded as I twisted myself over ledges and heard the wind boom from behind me, nudging me toward the edges. None of it was terribly difficult, though, and with just enough scary footing to add spice to the grayness of the sky, the walk lifted me up over the whole world. I stood atop the narrow peak, stared out into the wall of cloud, and then sat down to warm myself with some curry and rice.
Rounding the walk off I followed a roundabout path that led around the peak opposite Senjo’s summit ridge, taking me down through an alpine garden of pink flowering rhododendrons, black lilies, white birch, and rowan. The trail lowered itself gently here, drawing away from the rocky ridges and coloring everything with rain-washed emerald green vegetation. waterfalls spilled down along the steep slopes and seemed to dance like children over the dark rocks. I was filled with oxygen and joy, and sang as I walked. Following the contour of the mountain, it took me back to the trail upon which I had first stepped onto the shoulder of Mt. Senjo and then took me down into the larch forests below again. The clouds still followed me, but held back their rain.
I packed up my tent and just made it to the last bus of the day.
It wasn’t all rain over the last two months. A few intermissions did manage to part the curtain of rain. Two days walking in the Aizu region north of Tokyo that I have rarely visited surrounded me with the kind of glowing green and yellow screens of leaves that I’ve been longing for all summer. It was quite a surprising area actually, a locale covered with a kind of corrugated blanket of hillocks and flat-bottomed vales which kept the scale of development down by the sheer privacy of separated valleys, sort of like an overturned egg carton. The train snaked through these valleys as if entering from room to room, and each room seemed more isolated than the one before, until, when I arrived at Aizu-Kougen station, I felt as if I had time-warped into a Japan of thirty years ago: a station built of wood, a station master standing by the ticket gate waiting to greet each passenger individually with a big, gold-toothed smile, and a bus stop out front that seemed to dissipate into a rice paddy.
The bus took another two hours to carry me beyond the reach of the trains into an unspoiled rural farming community that seems to have been largely lost throughout most of the rest of Japan. Just the evidence of the old trees preserved along the roadsides and the hand-made way people hung bright orange persimmons to dry under the great eaves of their houses or stacked rice stalks and rushes in cylindrical bales in the fields brought back images of organic connection rural people used to live by in older Japan. The rivers and streams rushing by along the sides of the roads, frothing with whitewater after all the rains, held a kind of icy blue light that could only come from pristine mountain sources.
It was too late to climb the first day so I found a roadside campground and set up my tarp way back among a stand of willows, beside a vagetable garden of lettuce, tomatoes, daikon radishes, and eggplants that the camp proprietor kept for his family. Darkness descended like a hammer; no sooner had I turned off the stove and sat back to sip my tea, than I could no longer make out the forest starting at the edge of the camp. The mountains surrounding the valley loomed into the sky like the black backs of huge, sleeping beasts. I sat a long time at the entrance to the tarp, looking up at the sky. Stars began to appear, with intermittent hands of clouds passing in front of them, leaving patches of blindness in the vast expanse. Sirius shone like a bright eye for a while, looking down at me and unblinking until the clouds won over and the sky ducked behind the gases.
Rain began pattering the tarp during the night, waking me from dreams of the baking red rocks of Australia. I lay in the dark listening to the tapping until it lulled me back into my dreams.
Dawn was a veil of mist that entered the confines of my tarp and hung over the slowly breathing earth like a poised egret, its grey net almost indistinguishable from the grey shield of my tarp. I sat up, brushing my head against the dew-laden under-surface of the tarp, and the chill of the water droplets shocked me to full waking. I rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed away the unused clothes, and set a pot of water to boil. Breakfast consisted of the ubiquitous cold granola, its sweetness cloying in the watery green tea of morning. I promised myself to find a new meal to start the days with, something more akin to the chlorophyll and meat of the mountains.
By the time the tarp was rolled up and stuffed away and my pack hoisted on my back fat missiles of rain again sent the world into a repeat of the white noise of rainfall that had been overwhelming most of the last three months. I strode along the road to the trailhead and started up along the flank of Aizu-Komagatake, whose summit was lost in the clouds up above.
Two weeks of course made little difference in the state of my body and the going, like my last trip, was tough, despite a lighter pack. First I felt the drag on my muscles up the steep climb, and soon after could feel the peculiar heaviness in my bones, clutching of my brain, and derailing blurriness in my eyes that signal the onslaught of low blood sugar from my diabetes. It was a surprise because I had eaten my usual dose of heavy granola and the granola, with its relatively low glycemic burnout, usually kept me going for hours. Instead I collapsed on a log and chewed on an energy bar until my eyesight cleared and my muscles could spring up again. Several other hikers passed by, all offering much too cheerful greetings for my current state and I could only feebly wave back at them. One Japanese man, speaking in uncharacteristically well-pronounced English, boomed. “Hey, you going up or coming down?”
“Not sure yet,” I replied.
“Well, it’s a good place to think about it,” he said and kept on.
The sun suddenly broke through the canopy and inundated the whole world in green and autumn yellow brilliance. All my discomfort evaporated. I sat up and gazed around and felt the backboards of my eyes burn with new heat. That sense of being cloaked by your surroundings bloomed along the hairs of my skin, what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, and from that moment the old terminus of my love for the natural world kicked in; I forgot myself and instead ran on the heat in my eyes, all at once feeling the world with all my senses as if they were one beating sense and I were just an organ acting to give these senses expression.
Invigorated and filled with renewed joy I started up the trail again and took my time to climb while at the same time stopping now and then to just absorb it all. The huge beeches had begun to turn cadmium yellow while around them Japanese maple, rowan, and lacquer vines blushed bright red. The higher I climbed the brighter the world seemed to grow. When the forest finally broke and the first view out across the mountains caught me by surprise, I was ready to run and jump and click my heels.
The mountains breathed clouds like hirsute gentlemen walruses lounging in a huge steaming pile, smoking pipes and puffing smoke. All around the clouds rose from the ravines and valleys, climbing with a gentle unconcern toward the sky. Ravens flapped through them, and called across the treetops. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every other step had me halting to peer into a bush or fingering some tree bark or nosing up close to a mushroom. I tried to capture the glow of sunlight through the translucency of a yellow leaf, but the camera couldn’t capture the ineffability of touch and ephemerality. In frustration I lingered longer and longer at each investigation, until the sun had climbed quite high in the sky. How to express the expansion in my lungs or the intuitiveness of spreading my fingers and discovering in them the completeness of the stillness of a tree’s life as it spread in glory above me? How to rein in time so that I could exist out here without being a stranger or an intruder? How to step so lightly that my passage is the the brush of the wind or the trajectory of a falling leaf? How to come home and so sink in that I am indistinguishable from the mountain and the forest?
So much time I spent lingering that the halfway point at which I had to turn back came and went. I missed my chance to gain the mountain’s summit. I could see the summit just fifteen minutes away. But that would mean a half hour round trip and if I took it I would miss the bus going home. Warring emotions had me wasting more time until I forced myself to turn away and head back down. I passed all the spots I had stopped at along the way up, sometimes seeing them in the different light of the opposite direction. The intensity of the light also reversed as I descended. Like coming down from the roof. Step by step the rocks and roots slipped behind me until I reached the base of the mountain again and stood on the road, all semblance to joy replaced by asphalt and passing cars and signs. The asphalt always felt too still and level, and that nagging self began to speak again, telling me that I needed to make something of myself, finish projects, redefine the me that stood separate from the world it lives in. It was safe and warm and nourishing here, but I always forget who I am here. My body seems to lose justification for why it is formed the way it is, eyes and legs seemingly irrelevant now.
I headed home on the bus, then the train. WIth another mountain slumbering and unassaulted behind, speaking alone to the oncoming skirt of winter. When next I come this way white might be the color of choice.
For more than three months it’s been pouring rain nearly every day throughout Japan. What I had promised myself would be a summer of copious walking along ridges, turned into days in my tent waiting out downpours and a summer washed away with thundering rivers and mountain sides giving way. During my climb of Mt. Kinpu in Chichibu, west of Tokyo, with a precious two-weeks of vacation lined up, I thought perhaps that surely the gods were frowning upon me, seeing that every single weekend since the first green blush of spring brought me up square against a wall of rain. It was as if someone was trying to tell me that there were things left unfinished back home and I had better sort them out before taking the leisure to go traipsing around in the hills.
The Kinpu walk was the first venture out of doors since my big design project ended, and being out of shape from too much computer worship gravity played havoc with my knees and wind. I ended up thirty minutes from the summit in a small clearing of larches and huge, rounded boulders. Most of the larches had been blown clean of their lives so that when darkness fell and no one disturbed the spooky stillness, the skeletons of the trees seemed to close in around me like goblins. I was using my homemade camping hammock set up with a tarp, and though the system worked as I had hoped, personally I just didn’t seem to fit in very well with the cloth wrapped around me like a taco. I ended up lowering everything to the ground and sleeping with my eye cocked up at the voluminous sail of the tarp breathing over me.
Just when I was beginning to relax with the tiny noises, like dripping leaves and creaking branches, and to drift off into slumber, the tarp flexed, then stretched as a wind barreled into camp, followed by a volley of raindrops. Within fifteen minutes the storm was howling overhead among the fingers of the dead trees and the naked rocks outside the copse of trees. Luckily I had picked a good site, with only tendrils of the storm swirling among the tree trunks and a brace of rhododendrons blocking the brunt of the wind. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag, switched on the white arm of my headlight, and found myself staring into a soup of fog.
The roar of the storm and the ominous swaying of the trees kept me awake the rest of the night. I lay reading Tim Cahill’s “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and stopping to ponder the mentality of those who willfully venture out into such predicaments as the one I was presently engaged in. I mean, there I was, the storm and the dark forest beating down on my courage like a hammer, loneliness enveloping my earlier smirking at the self-sufficiency of my backpack, and worries about the exposed ledges I had to scramble past in the morning nagging at my confidence, and I had to ask myself, “Exactly what pleasure am I getting out of packets of freeze-dried food, a flimsy skin of nylon between me and the gods, and shoes sopping with dew?” As the dawn gradually enlightened me to the true nature of the storm, I huddled in my rain jacket on the log beside my tarp, brewing cafe latte and spooning through cold granola with milk. When a warbler flickered onto a rhododendron branch right beside the tarp, looking for all the world as if I had plundered his backyard, I raised my spoon in greeting, only to be cold-shouldered by a warber’s equivalent of a huff, with which he flitted off into the fog.
I had five days ahead of me, but the storm didn’t let up, rain was pelting down, and the wind was engaged in a wrestling match with the boulders. I broke camp and started heading toward the summit of Mt. Kinpu, but halted in my tracks. I must have stood there for fifteen minutes, undecided, occasionally peering ahead and then glancing back. I took in the grey trees, the ankle deep mud in the path, the tips of the trees bending in the wind, and something inside me drooped. Not today, I told myself. Not while I had doubts.
So I turned back and started down the mountain. The first part had me bracing against the punches of the storm, leaning on my trekking pole as I negotiated the slippery boulders and tangle of tree roots. My rain jacket and windshirt were off by the time I reached the lap of the mountain where I could relax a bit and make a steady descent. I stopped beside a hoary old larch to pack away the rainwear when, like opening a package, sunlight sliced through the clouds and inundated the forest with the first bright light in days. It was like steaming gold. I stood transfixed, as if a tight shirt had popped open, before I could gather my wits and fumble my camera out of its bag. Streams of sunlight cast through the branches. And I was breathing with each breach in the clouds.
Five hours later I was walking along a logging road sweating from the sun, the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up, and late summer insects singing beside the road. I looked back and saw Mt. Kinpu lazing away among the summer clouds. Maybe the mountain god, like me, just needed some relief. Whatever the reason, even a short walk like this would prove to remain with me a long, long time.
This is the sixteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Food and Place. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.
In this fast-tracked modern world, where the goods that hold up our daily lives magically appear, cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and ready to eat, more and more it seems as if we’ve lost touch with how and where it all comes from. Even when we do head out into the “wild” to harvest some measure of communion with our green past, we carry all the implements with us, like an astronaut walking on the moon. Throw away the backpack, the quick-drying clothing, the stove and pot, and most importantly, that nylon ditty bag of sustainables, and we’re lost. Most so-called “outdoorsmen” today, if suddenly left to fend for themselves far from the road and the aid of transportation, would quickly find themselves starving to death, even if an abundance of food presents itself an arm’s breadth away. Just watch a “Survivor” episode; those people know nothing about actually surviving.
In the late summer of 2001, upset and disoriented from an argument, I set off one weekend for the back country mountains north of Nikko, a national park area 2 hours north of Tokyo, without properly checking my packing list. All I could think of was that I needed to get away from people and from my home. I hoisted my pack and set off to the train station, intent upon images of forest trails and windy ridges.
Things went badly from the start. I had forgotten the map for the area and so missed the campsite that would have set me right at the trail head for the following morning. Instead I had to pitch my tent in an auto camping area, a few kilometers from the trail. It was hot and muggy and all night I lay swatting mosquitoes while drunk campers nearby reveled until the coming of dawn. I got perhaps three hours of sleep, and when morning broke, my muscles and head felt as heavy as the wet mist that sat upon the tent.
I packed quickly and headed off toward the trail, leaving early so that I might avoid the crowds of hikers. The approach to the trailhead zig-zagged along a river valley, with no signs posted, and only by querying a few farmers tending their sweet potato patches did I manage to make it to the trailhead. By that time the sun had already climbed quite high and the Japanese summer heat had begun to melt away the mist. There were no other hikers, which, because I was glad to be alone, I didn’t take note of.
The trail led into an overgrown wood with downed trees across the path and thick, almost impenetrable bamboo thicket lining the inclines on either side. Much of the walk involved scrambling through branches and stepping around crumbling ledges. Luckily a few faded wooden signs pointed to the one name of the mountain I was trying to reach and I followed them on faith.
The trail grew steeper and entered a dry ravine riverbed, old painted trail markers polka dotting the boulders and outcroppings. Walking here meant digging my boot toes into gravel and pedaling through loose scree, pumping heart and breath in an effort to stay afloat on a steep slope.
Huge, fat, wingless grasshoppers began to appear all around in the gravel and dry grass. All of them moving in the same direction, adjacent to my own movement. They were so heavy they could barely hop, but even when I approached they seemed not to notice my presence. When I reached a small ridge, I sat on a stump, eating a rice ball and watching the mass movement of the swarm, like a flowing green carpet displacing the stillness of the terrain.
I reached the summit at about noon. The peak overlooked a tarn with lead blue water across the surface of which dragged shadows of the storm clouds, mounting behind the peak opposite. Thunder rumbled from the distance. I stopped to evaluate the trail and saw that I needed to traverse a treacherous slope of loose rocks and slippery mud.
That’s when my hypoglycemia, a diabetic reaction to insulin, too little food, and high energy exertion, hit. I absently reached into my pack’s top pocket for the chocolate bar I always kept there for just such occasions. My fingers fumbled around and found… nothing. I threw the pack down and rummaged more carefully throughout the pack, hoping that I had misplaced the bar somewhere in the main compartment. Nothing. I paused, looking into the pack, then pulled out the ditty bag of food I had brought. That would do, I thought. I’ll just eat the lunch I had brought. When I opened the bag though, only a package of freeze dried rice, another package of freeze-dried spinach, a packet of soup, and a tea bag fell out. Panicking, I emptied the contents of the pack onto the trail and sifted through everything I had. Nothing.
The hypoglycemic reaction was beginning to make me dizzy and my vision blurred. I forced myself to sit still and think. Carefully I placed everything back into the pack, leaving the ditty bag of food out. I sized up the incoming storm cloud and figured I had just enough time to get my stove going and cook all the food I had left. I found a sheltered space beside a huge boulder, set up my stove, and placed a pot of water on top to boil. I waited.
I observed the landscape around me. With my vision blurring and hands beginning to shake and an uncontrollable sweat slowly drenching my clothes, the mountains seemed surreal. I hugged my knees as a frigid wind blasted the shelter and howled among the treetops back behind the trail. I pulled on my insulated jacket and watched the water in the pot, counting the tiny bubbles forming on the bottom. Steam curled off the edge of the pot and was whipped away by the wind.
During those fatal moments, when I thought I might die, all I could think of was how soft the clouds looked and how I missed my wife, with whom I had argued. The mountains seemed cold and pitiless and my stomach had no belief in the bounty of nature. Everything felt like bones around me.
I was breathing fast when the water started to boil. I emptied the open packages into the pot, not caring what mixed with what, and whispered a litany to myself, of the dream of an explosion of flavors in my mouth. Of warmth streaming down my veins. Of a pact with the world in which my body must sacrifice its independence to house the freewheeling flight of my soul. Food is life, and life is food. There is no such thing as life without the death that food requires.
I could barely hold the bowl as I spooned through it, my hands were shaking so badly. I ate so fast my lips and tongue were scalded. Lights swirled in my eyes and I was shivering from the cold sweat. I used the remaining hot water to make a cup of tea and while it steeped I finished the rice soup. The soup poured into my recesses and glowed like a firefly, reaching into niches of sustenance that only the heat could revive. Gradually the shaking died away and I squatted beside the pot, breathing slowly, in and out. Breathing slowly, slowly. When I switched off the stove the stillness clapped shut around me, with only the wind speaking.
That was perhaps the best meal I ever ate, not because I had abandoned preferences and simply enjoyed the taste of rice and spinach and egg and salt, but because that meal was stripped of distractions. The cold wind, my beating heart, and the flow of calories and nutrients made up the entire moment.
It began to rain.
I put away the tools and scraps and cinched up my pack. I stood up on steady legs. I picked my way across the slippery slope and reached the ridge on the opposite side of the dale. From there it was just a matter of crunching down the steep trail towards the road below, just discernible. And a step ahead of my next meal.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed on Monday, but with a day off and bright, sunny weather, I threw together my day walk kit, slung the pack over my shoulders, and stepped outside. A stiff wind, smelling of blue ice and tropospheric cold, skirled into the apartment entrance area and tousled my high-strung emotions; I hadn’t slept well the night before and the noise of banging feet from the upstairs neighbor lingered upon my jangled nerves. It was like the after effects of a bout of coffee drinking, muscles tensed and eyes flicking left and right, catching in some dust mote or the twigs that hold a stray, winter leaf quivering. But luckily the street outside waited without a soul moving about, and so for a time, most of the way to the train station, it was just the sunlight and me, in silent companionship.
The evening before had been filled with too much bad news on the internet and errant reactions to yet more infuriating Bush spectaculars. The two and a half years of heightened anxiety, level orange, along with one statement and action after another of disrespect towards people in the rest of the world, drove up the acuteness of self disharmony, like an off-key counterpoint in a chorus. The outrage reared its head out of concern, but the anger burned like an over primed engine, with the waste lingering in my breath, bitter with poison. People might ask why I, living here in Japan, would bother with the vagaries of American politics, but it is the gradual chopping away at my tether that links to America that eats at me. I have ties there and more and more I can’t see myself as being welcomed to participate. America was home and now it is thinning away into a tasteless and mediocre gruel.
So I was heading toward the mountains off-balance, wound up enough to possibly snarl at a pedestrian or two and knowing that my eyes would pull the shutters over any proper seeing of the mountains. Nerves seemed to fight a war all their own.
But there I was on the train, with no real plan but that the speed take me out of the city, if just for a while. The ticket amounted to the end of the line, which happened to be Mt. Takao Trailhead. Mt. Takao is this knob on the edge of the Chichibu range, just west of Tokyo. It is the place you go when you haven’t the time to take the trains further into the countryside and where it seems all residents of Tokyo end up together, to go conveyor belting around the standard loop trail. I was a little late, though, so the trains no longer carried the morning walkers, and I could sit stewing alone in the overheated car, eyes resting on the horizon, willing the city sprawl to come to a quick end.
So many people came swarming up the Takao-san-guchi station stairs I had to step to the side and wait their passing. I proceeded out of the station and up past the trinket shops and the big, giant-cedars-surrounded temple, and past the cable car that the majority of the weekend walkers take. Putting my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of the hordes of returning walkers and thereby having to initiate the tradition of saying hello to every passer-by, I stepped onto the trail and headed up.
At first it was a hard clamber up a dusty slope, the autumn leaves now all pulverized to potpourri by the passing of thousands of boots. A thin film of dust covered the tree trunks and the leaves of the bushes at the edge of the trail, evidence of the dry winter. Hikers trudged by, most of them spent from the climb and many of them stumbling half-heartedly down the inclines. I kept my face down, not meeting their eyes, depending on the ruse that I am a foreigner and therefore don’t understand the customs and can therefore be forgiven. But the clouds of discontent continued to whirl about inside me. I attempted to peer into the trees and between the trunks out at the view of the mountains beyond, but try as I might I saw no beauty. I fingered my digital camera at my waist, scouting for photographs, but the glint on the leaves and the dull colors of the vegetation registered only as hard light in my mind. Ideas failed to flower.
A hiker in wool breeches, and a white down jacket in his right hand, showing off as he puffed along in just a white cotton t-shirt, his shreds of white breath floating past my head, dropped behind as I kept up my small, steady steps. The moment I passed him he renewed his efforts and took the rocks and footholds in long, reaching strides that soon had him wheezing for air. But he wouldn’t let up, so intent was he to prove how macho he was. I kept my steady pace for a while, hoping that eventually he would just give up, but he dogged my heels right up to the first lookout that faced Mt. Fuji, which unfortunately was lost in the afternoon haze today. I turned off the trail and took a seat on an exposed root, where I turned to watch the follower wheeze on up the trail, free to find another target.
A comfortable heat worked inside my belly. From down slope a katabatic wind rushed through the trees and chilled the sweat on my back. In response I sat facing the sunlight, letting the warm rays bathe my face and chest and folded legs. From my pack I pulled out a small thermos filled with milk tea and poured myself a small steaming cup, sipping it while gazing at the bosque at the foot of the slope. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) ratcheted up along the dead branches of an old beech tree, occasionally tapping at the bark, digging for beetle larvae. The furtive chipping away at the wood settled my nerves and I began to breathe in sync with my mind, the pump slowing down, easing the pressure, a slow equilibrium between what I was looking at and the images issuing from my imagination.
The walk went well after I finished eating two rice balls. Slowing down, I took the climbs philosophically, probing ahead for each new step and evaluating how my muscles reacted, gauging the level of my fatigue. To my surprise I didn’t tire, and even the last, long bout of stairs, which stretched up ahead like the stairway to heaven, I only needed to pause once or twice. The crown of the mountain lay in filtered sunlight, the afternoon haze catching the last rays and distributing warmth throughout the open space.
In typical Japanese fashion the summit included the obligatory restaurant and trinket shop, from which the cable car riders trotted bearing their paper plates of hotdogs and grilled rice cake sticks. I took a seat on a bench and watched a hiker bend over his camp stove and cook a pot of ramen noodles. He sat with chopsticks poised and slurped up the noodles with a loud grunt of relish. On the opposite side of the bench a family of five waddled across the gravel in their ankle length down coats. The father held a chihuahua on a thin leash and it scuttled after him as he strode up to the restaurant. As he ordered some green tea, the chihuahua squatted at his heels and promptly crapped on the gravel. No one in the family noticed the mess and I sat mute as other visitors passed the spot, their hiking shoes, sneakers, and cross trainers just missing stepping into the steaming pile. I was just about to open my mouth to inform the family when a woman wearing what must have been new sneakers, so white and bright they were, stepped slap dash clean upon the mess. As her stride took her past the store counter, so did her sneakers bear away the point of contention. The mountain had exacted its toll upon the unsuspecting adventurers.
The way back down followed a less frequented trail into a ravine along which a stream flowed. It was the catchment area for the waters of the surrounding hills, so as I descended more and more rivulets joined the stream until it grew into a small, rushing river. The trail led straight through the river for a while, requiring some balancing on moss covered stones, until it stepped away from the banks and skirted the water all the way down the mountain. Here the afternoon sun did not reach and the walk sank into a cool gloom, evening settling faster here, with trees hanging heavy over my head. Calories burned beneath my jacket, flickering like a flame.
Near the end of the trail a series of tiny shrines appeared, embedded in the rock walls lining the trail. Within the shrines huddled tiny figures of boddhisatvas, the corners decorated with chrysanthemums and camelias recently picked and placed in vases. In front of each of the figurines stood lighted candles, their golden light illuminating the dark interiors of the shrines, and the constellation of flickering candlelight issuing from shrines here and there dotting the way down the growing shadows of the trail, like unmoving fireflies. Passing through this silent gauntlet of silence and light a deep peace overcame me and I took several deep breaths as I passed through.
I paused at one shrine and peered inside. The figure of the Buddha looked back at me. And it hit me why I needed to get out of the house and just take a walk, no matter where it led me; even if just for a moment, I needed to commune with something bigger than myself. I needed a sense of magic. A reminder that the importance of the mystery can still be found in a simple walk, or that the joy of just breathing and working my legs could be so much more profound and indispensable than all the earnestness of the news.
The train was waiting at the end of the trail, a metal box creaking in the oncoming evening. I sat down, closed my eyes as the burning of movement buried itself inside my closed eyes, and let the train rock me back to the city.