I realize that I have been away a long time. Lately I am finding it harder to get my thoughts together and to sit at the computer, writing. I start putting a few words down and then just give up. I become restless and distracted, feeling perhaps that the time I sit at the computer is time wasted from an active engagement with the real world, and as the years go by this time in the real world has grown with poignance and significance.
At the university that I am working at I’ve made a few friends with whom I get together three times a week after work to do Crossfit workouts. Besides beginning to finally get myself back in really good shape (after 24 years I did my first 53 pull ups again the day before yesterday), the time spent with these friends has made all the difference in emotionally handling being in this place. I find myself eagerly looking forward to the workouts and even when I am not feeling too well I try to make it there just to hang around with everyone.
It is almost as if I’d forgotten just how important other people are in my life, how much they reflect who I am and help me find purpose in making it through each day. I’m finding that so much of my reasons for getting so depressed and despondent over the past two years had to do with being alone and spending too much time with my own thoughts. Now I finally have people I can laugh with and share common experiences with and both let out the pain I am feeling and to listen to theirs. I still don’t like this place and the work, but with these friends it has all become a lot easier.
So two weeks ago when Kevin from Bastish.net invited me to visit him and his wife Tomoe on their farm in Nagano, north of here, I was both nervous and fascinated about the possibilities of what a different lifestyle, one based on sharing and sticking close to one’s beliefs, might be like. For a long time I had wondered if it would be possible to find a place in Japan where people still took care of one another and lived close to traditional Japanese values, in part a place where the land still meant something deeply spiritual and sustaining to those who lived on it.
For three days Kevin and Tomoe took me into their lives and showed me just how rich such a community could be. It seemed every moment of the day had some neighbor visiting or stopping by or saying hello on the street or driving by to offer some vegetables or bread or rice cakes. The other people Kevin had invited and I joined Kevin and Tomoe for walks in the hills to gather wild edible fiddleheads, or dig out rocks in their fields, or take a stroll through the town to look at the old farm houses and temples. There was talk of the hard winters such as this last one where the snow reached three meters (in 1945 the snow reached 7 meters deep!) and everyone had to pitch in to make sure all everyone could get through the winter. The first night three friends of Kevin and Tomoe, a family that supplied the village with delicious, homemade bread leavened with apple juice, dropped by suddenly and the modest dinner immediately turned in to a feast for nine. We laughed and joked and drank champagne and beer and wine while gobbling down barbecued local produce and I have not felt so at home and peaceful and satisfied in a long, long time.
It is what I long for.
I don’t know if I can be satisfied being a farmer, or if living in a such a rural community without access to books and talk with non-Japanese can be rewarding enough for me to put down roots in such a place, but it definitely is the right direction. LIfe is still uncertain for Kevin and Tomoe, and they both struggle with how they are going to make a living once their savings run out. But perhaps that is part of what living in such places entails, that you find a way to live there and that is what makes you strong and that is why you rely on the community to make it through hard times. It feels right.
That is the direction I want to go, and though, like Kevin and Tomoe, I am uncertain about how to go about doing it, I think my life will be the richer for bringing in community as the slate of my way of life. And I think it is the future for us all.
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The cloud, huge and black and shaking with fury, lowered its brows as I stepped over the finger of a ridge. It had enveloped the mountain, sending the world into a shifting grey sea of veils and doubts, daring me to pass. Arms of vapor muscled their way across the trail, now so washed out by the featureless blankets of cloud that the ground beneath me seemed to turn to gas, and only the firmness of footing reminded me of its solidity. My eyes followed the thunderhead down into the bowl of mountains where I was to spend the night, and I saw nothing but roiling soup. Lighting sang staccato within the belly of the cloud, like frenzied fireflies, and the cloud responded with a series of stentorian whiplashes, on vocal chords so heavy and pure that the mountain beneath me jumped in fright.
I hesitated. Looking back down the trail I had just climbed I could make out the thread of the stream far below, and the last of the sun’s rays pooling in the ravine. My whole body burned from the last eight hours of exertion and my knees felt about to give way. There was no going back. I turned to face the rumbling monster in the valley and started down the trail. Lightening and thunder greeted my decision, as if in exultation.
Tokyo lay sweltering in summer forgetfulness. Like a finger poked through tissue paper the train carried me out of the steam and deposited me gently along its bright, sleepy reaches, just at the edge of wheels and pavement. With my discount ticket that only allowed carriage by trains that walked, not ran, my arrival in the hot spring town was greeted, in the first store I stepped into for a can of coffee, by closing-time music over the speaker system. Most of the throngs of tourists had already retired to the inns and the parking lots waited, deserted.
I crossed the bridge over the roaring river, from the town, over a no-man’s-land of snow melt-off, to the wilderness waiting on the other side. It began abruptly: a wall of cedars that radiated a shell of cool air and hid its innards with tangles of lichen-bearded downfall and brush. The trail skirted the edge of the forest as if timid, only reluctantly entering the silence when the laps of the cliffs left no alternative. Within a hundred steps the forest and the mountain had me to themselves. I began to whistle, a sliver of sound declaring my own little territory.
I walked past kneeling grandfather spruces and Mother Earth breathing from openings in the ground. Flotillas of dragonflies, like angels wrapped in cellophane, circled my brow, the cranes of their legs and mandibles working the air of gnats and mayflies. Grasshoppers set up bandstands in the grass and zithered the blues to the accompaniment of jays screeching in the canopy. In the late blue sky tufts of clouds set sail for the peaks, marking mileposts for me to follow.
The four men, clad in rock-stomper hiking boots and nylon pants, had been friends a long time. With an ease and camaraderie borne of years of mountain walks together, they trudged up the trail in single-file, grunting at the same boulders to scramble up, and breaking out in laughter at the same old jokes and recounts of past mishaps. The fabric of their packs had faded in the sun and each wore a different, worn-out baseball cap, stained with sweat and adorned with medallions from previous walks. One of them had obviously been drinking too much and when he, red in the face, but oblivious, farted loudly while hauling himself up a steep embankment, the other three politely referred to him as “Mr. Aromatherapy”. They slapped their thighs in merriment and had to stop and let me pass while they sorted out their composure.
We did a kind of relay race, those men and me. I kept up a steady, but slow, pace, stopping to take photographs or to gaze at the mountains opening around me, while they trundled on in bursts, huffing and puffing to some next vantage point, where they would stop to take breaths and smoke cigarettes. One of them, cigarette in hand, nodded to me as we stood on an overlook with the entire valley below, and mused, “Ah, mountain air! It tastes fresh as a young woman’s kiss, no?” With that he took another drag on his cigarette and blew a plume into the afternoon breeze.
The man in the neighboring tent, who must have eaten something disagreeable, punctuated the night with various demonstrations of his bodily functions, most notably a medley of wet and dry farts, from squeaky to tuba-like, combined with more ominous interruptions of a more throaty nature. When he finally decided to proclaim his virtuosity to all the world by exiting his tent and crunching back and forth across the gravel in front of my tent I decided to battle sleeplessness with a sortie into the darkness. To my astonishment and utter delight, the Milky Way had sprayed itself across the sky with particular fervor; I could almost feel the Earth swing along the outer rim of our galaxy. Aside from the debilitated musician wandering about the campsite, no one else was awake and I had the stars to myself. The air had been inhaled by the mountain and held, so that all was still, and a kind of downy heat bloomed in the valley. I snuck away to the opposite side of the campground… and came upon a scene I will never forget. Beneath a blazing full moon wooly dollops of clouds bathed in the silverly light and splashed feathers against the great bathtub of surrounding mountains. It took my breath away. I sat on a rock, beyond which the world dropped away into darkness, and lost myself in the magic of the moment. Then I broke the spell. Thinking I could capture what I saw and felt in a photograph, I ran back to the tent and retrieved my camera. When I returned the moment had passed. All the clouds had drained away into the plumbing of the forests below.
The clouds had covered the sun. So far the talk back at the camp of a typhoon surging in hadn’t materialized into winds yet, so, cheerful in the rain that sprayed the flower meadows along this lonely side trail, I meandered along with my camera, stopping every few feet to kneel down among the fronds and flower heads, legs and hands and face wet with dew, every separate, tiny life a wonder. For the moment at least, until I reached the next mountain hut only a hour’s hurried march away and could determine whether the storm’s potential was too risky for further climbing, I could linger and not worry about time for once. Everything caught my eye, everything photogenic and new. Such moments bring out fierce joy in me, a real sense of what makes me happy and knowing who I am. I often imagine what I would have been like as a prehistoric hunter. The pleasure of immersing myself in my surroundings and learning to see would have felt complete, I think, as much of what a human being can hope to make out of life as any modern aspiration for a career.
This brings the story back to the beginning when the thunderclouds rolled in. The day’s walk had taken four hours longer than planned and I arrived in camp in a pouring deluge. Everything got wet and the campsite was a quagmire of running mud. To my dismay I discovered that the tent leaked like a sieve and to stay warm and dry I resorted to covering my sleeping bag with my rain gear. Most of the night was spent sponging up pooling water and wiping down the tent walls. In the middle of the night, with the thunder clapping right over the campsite, I felt as if I were trapped in some B-rated horror movie using Chinese water torture by dripping the water onto my head from the soaked seams. It wasn’t a matter of fearing for my life, but more of enduring the misery of nightlong discomfort and sleep deprivation. I dozed off just as the rain let up near dawn. The camp began to wake up then, everyone else well-rested from holing up in their snug, dry shelters.
The highlight of the morning was greeting Englishman Sam Short, who had arrived the same time as I the evening before. We both had a good laugh at the events of the night. Later on the trail, even though I had left two hours before him, Sam locomotivated right past me, churning up the trail like a mountain goat and leaving behind a trail of dazed hikers who down the trail later marveled to me at his speed. “Do all you foreigners have such wonderfully long legs?” an elderly woman remarked to me. “If you ask me,” grumbled a middle-aged man who had fallen far behind his wife waiting for him at the summit, “I don’t come to these mountains to go speeding along the trails like some race car driver.” Sam must have covered twice as much distance as I did that day.
I was walking along a level section of the trail when I recognized an outcropping upon which, seven years earlier, my wife and I had eaten lunch. We had laughed that whole day, even along the hardest stretches of the trail. Today the sight of that outcropping drove the feelings for my wife back up to the surface and churned in the pit of my stomach. I kept walking, each step slower than the last, until I passed into an area alight with flowers. I gazed around me, looking at nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere it seemed, I burst out sobbing. It came on in waves, so hard that I fell to my knees amidst the flowers. I couldn’t stop, in spite of being half conscious of the possibility of other walkers appearing along the trail. When I finally managed to pull myself to my feet I stumbled along the trail still heaving sobs, clearing some invisible clot that had lodged itself in my chest. I don’t know how long it was, perhaps fifteen minutes, when as suddenly as it had come, like clouds opening, the crying vanished. The pull of the end of the trail lost its relevance, and instead I let my feet take their own baby steps through this indifferent wilderness. And I found comfort in not worrying about the end. All I needed right now I had with me right here. It was simple, a pack, a shelter, some clothes on my back, something to eat when I got hungry, and two pairs of still-serviceable legs. I was free to go where I wanted. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.
(Click on the photos for a new, interesting effect!)
With a whole summer exempt from work, shades of childhood summer vacation crept back into my daily routine, all of four months with more time on my hands than I’ve had in over ten years. Of course, with bills to pay and food to eat and other people to think of, it wasn’t as if each day came on a silver platter. But it did leave me some time to set out on some walks that I’ve been meaning to do here in Japan for quite some time. In July and August I decided to pack my beloved backpack and take the time to walk in the North and South Japan Alps, to Karasawa, the Kurobegoro Route, and along Houou Three Peaks. I’d been to both Kurobegoro and Houou before, but the Kurobegoro vale being one of my favorite alpine areas in Japan, it would be like visiting an old and lovely friend.
Part of these walks was to see if my knees could handle the high ridges still and get up to the heights that I loved so much when I was younger. For the last seven years I’ve slowly adopted the techniques of ultralight backpacking (see here, too. This is where I spend a lot of time discussing and learning about refining my pack weight, gear, and walking techniques) and my pack weight has more than halved since my 18 kilograms pack weight from back in the nineties. This brings mountain walking so much more pleasure and I find myself actually slowling down more to take photographs and sometimes to just stand there drinking it all in. Still, the trails continue to be steep and the weather unpredictable. The two tents I was using hadn’t yet proved their viability in above treeline conditions so I headed into these walks with some trepidation.
The first series of photos here hail from my first walk from Kamikochi up to Karasawa, a two-day, easy climb.
I’d been wanting to visit Karasawa for years, but had always been dissuaded by the stories of the enormous crowds. The crowds were definitely there, but there is a tranquility and intimacy about the whole valley that mutes the human presence. I came home from this walk with a lingering affinity for all those other people who made the climb with me. There are some pilgrimages that defy your preconceptions.
Returning from the mountains this last weekend was like descending from a great height. For three days I walked along fern festooned paths, my head literally in the clouds, all the while counting raindrops that seemed to have taken over the whole world. Originally the walk was meant to start along the higher, steeper crags of the South Alps, but with all the rain this summer landslides took out the one road that leads up to the riverine valley of Hirogawara. A whole mountain range that in normal years is overrun with hikers, this year sits in relative silence as most walkers avoid the astronomical ¥25,000 ($220) taxi fare for the long detour.
Yatsugatake was a good choice though. Keeping my tent staked out in one place allowed for light jaunts up along the ridges around the pond. Everything stayed dry in the tent. On the second day, while attempting to climb up to the ridge dropping off into a sheer cliff to the south, thunder rolled in like the stomping boots of some giant strider in the clouds. Two walkers came stumbling down from above, calling out that they had just recieved notice on their cell phones that a huge thunderstorm was brewing and that a deluge would accompany it. I heard the thunder pass overhead and rumble away south, so my experience told me that most likely the rain would pass. Big, fat, chilly drops began bombarding the trees and I stood hesitating, caught between the need for safety, and the desire to traipse along the ridge. Caution held out, and I retreated down the mountain, only to be greeted at the base with streams of sunlight through the trees.
Some slow walking along the perimeter of the pond revealed light, texture, and color of all the basic elements of water, fire, air, and earth. It was like stepping along with some slow music that caught the eye and begged to be taken seriously. And with each discovery of some subject for the camera, the steps slowed further, until at times I barely moved a pace before I was kneeling and examining something through the lens or just sticking my nose right up against the curiosities. Insects, roots, leaves, swirls of water on the pond, the light tiptoe of mist across the tree tips, the strings of lichen bristling from branch notches… There was too much to see. I could have lost myself in the passages from one discovery to the next moment. It had been a while, but the mountains opened their complexity and allowed me to wallow for a while.
Packing up and pulling up stakes brought back thoughts of the crowds and rush of Tokyo. Another world. Like a great magnet, the roads drew me back down out of the ether and back into the boiling pot. I’m still in a bit of a daze, straddling the stones between neccessity and desire.
Motorcycles don’t usually impress me all that much, especially when they roar through the backroads where I’m trying to get away from the noise of the city on my bicycle, but this one moment has stuck with me.
It came after a grueling 12 hour grind up the “wrong” side of Mikuni Pass… the side which even four-wheel drive landrovers had a hard time negotiating because of all the ruts, protruding rocks, and gullies. I had figured that the climb would take only about 6 hours, but halfway through, with half of the time spent shoving the bicycle up the steep gradient, I knew that I wouldn’t make it to the top before evening fell.
All through the day all terrain vehicles and motocross motorcyles came bouncing by, occasionally spraying gravel or spitting pebbles like bullets that had to be dodged. I wasn’t too thrilled then, when, reaching the top of the pass and just wanting to stop and take my breath amidst the stillness of the lowering evening, yet another motorcycle puttered up behind me. But this driver took his time. He stopped, switched off his engine, and stood beside me as the sun set. Neither of us said anything. When it began to grow dark, he mounted his motorcycle without a word and slowly zoomed off down the other side of the mountain.
I decided to set up camp in this lonely location, along a side road overgrown with susuki grass and kudzu. After that motorcycle the place fell into a different kind of solitude. The trees seemed to loom larger and noises amidst the underbrush at the side of the road grew more distinct. I heard rustlings and chirrups and pattering of feet. Insects seemed to multiply into millions of crickets and katydids and buzzing, bumbling cockchafers and whirring sphinx moths. A shadowy ghost of what I figured must be an owl stitched its way amidst the shadows of the trees above. I set up my tent in the middle of all this and made dinner.
I hadn’t noticed earlier, but from back on the main road an eerie, white light glowed over the thicket there. I picked up my flashlight and sauntered over to check it out. Upon rounding onto the main road I was surprised to discover a lone vending machine, humming in the darkness, its flourescent light illuminating the new asphalt pavement that started on the other side of the pass.
I walked up to the vending machine and peered at its contents. Would you believe it? Milk! Four different kinds of milk! Plain, strawberry, chocolate, and banana. I pondered this a moment, weighing my policy about not relying too much on convenience when out in the mountains. But, this was too much. A vending machine? Here? Milk! Who would ever have thought…?
I dug in my pocket for some change and bought a chocolate milk. The carton tumbled into the tray and I picked it out. Stabbing the hole at the top of the container with the provided straw, I shuffled back to the campsite, humming the tune to the Christmas carol, “The Boar’s Head”.
No one but the insects heard the satisfactory slurp as the straw sucked out the last drops of chocolate milk.
Down here in Tokyo a summer storm might cause people to grumble about sopping pants hems and forgotten umbrellas, but rarely does it make for more than passing banter. Up in the alpine regions of the mountains, though, a storm can stop you in your tracks to reconsider all your plans.
On my first solo climb of the Japan Alps back when I was 24, the third morning of the traverse of the ridges found me crossing an open col, blissfully unaware of what the mountains were brewing up for me. One moment I was sauntering along, gazing at the 2,000 meter drop on both sides of the trail, the next I found myself staring at this gargantuan black cloud, rising up from the valley like Godzilla. Ten minutes later Godzilla was angry and started to blast the ridge with winds so strong that I soon found myself crawling on hands and knees to keep from being blown off the mountain.
Needless-to-say, I was utterly terrified. I hadn’t a clue as to what I should do. I crawled as far as my courage would take me, but each stretch from protected boulder to protected boulder was like jumping into a wind tunnel with your eyes closed. Twice I witnessed ptarmigans, those tough, surefooted mountain veteran fowl, blown across the ground like paper bags. I ended up behind one venerable outcropping, wet as a rat and whimpering. I must have huddled there for about an hour and I thought surely I would die there.
To my wonder and luck, three old Japanese men appeared out of the maelstrom, like prophets out of the wilderness. They were strung together by a lifeline and trudging slowly along the windward side of the ridge. When the leader came upon me he stopped and looked down. He must have thought he was seeing things, to have this skinny foreigner hunched in a ball, crying. He furrowed his brow and cocked his head, and seemed to take a while to find the right words to say. Nothing wise or momentous came out, just “And just what are you doing there?”
I must have babbled, because all three men glanced at each other, then began to laugh. The second in line patting me on the shoulder. “It’s not safe to stay here,” he said. The leader lifted me up and told me to join them, adding me to the trailing end of their lifeline. “Follow us and do what we do.”
We kept to the windward side of the ridge, making our way just over the final peak of the range, before taking a break amidst the creeping pine on the leeward side of the mountain. Here the wind stopped dead. We sat eating manderins and commenting on the tiger lilies that stood motionless in a sloping meadow at our feet. We could hear warbers burbling in the undergrowth and the steady drip, drip, drip of water falling off our wet hats and the dewey fronds of the creeping pine.
We got out of the storm after that, taking the path that led down the east side of the mountains, the bulk of the mountain blocking the worst of the storm. The three men hardly spoke a word the entire descent, just short, gruff murmurs of encouragement.
At the base of the trail they invited me to join them in the local hot spring, an old place with wooden bathtubs. We sat in the steam and sloshing water, rubbing our aching feet and sighing away the fear in our muscles. It was one of the best baths I have ever taken.
To this day I am forever grateful to those men for saving my life and for their generosity and discretion. They never made me feel ashamed. That’s what the mountains bring out in you. Why I love the mountains so much.