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.