Japan: Living Journal Tokyo Walking


Last fallen camellia blossoms
Last of the winter’s camellia blossoms fallen on last year’s leaves, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan

Spring is in full swing, with the cherry blossoms billowing along the streets and in the parks everywhere. It happened all of a sudden, sudden because just a week ago today we still had the heater on in our apartment. Two days later the air switched dresses and the next thing you know the sun was wearing gauzy petticoats of humidity. And the dawn tiptoed in earlier, too, just before what anyone might consider a sane hour for the alarm to go off.

It was just this patting about to turn off the alarm that caused me to oversleep my Sunday wake up call meant for the day’s hike. I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and getting up was not a top priority, so I snoozed until about 9:00… by then too late for the longer hike I had had planned.

Without really thinking about where I would be heading I wolfed down a breakfast of tea and rice with natto (fermented soy beans… an acquired taste) and raw egg. Then I was out the door, just walking foot in front of foot, with no plans, or even a map. A bright, almost summer-like brilliance lit up the neighborhood. The sky stared down with its big ole blue eyes, unclouded by thoughts of rain and for once blinking away the usual smoggy grime. I sauntered along, and hot, stopped to remove my jacket, then continued sauntering all the way to the train station, and humming Tears for Fears’ “Call Me Mellow”, a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past three weeks.

First I headed for the train that goes downtown, from where I had a vague idea about taking the Japan Railways train fro downtown Shinjuku out to Nikko northeast of Tokyo, but while standing on the platform and eyeing all those passengers heading toward the big parks I suddenly changed my mind. Instead I tripped down the stairs and climbed back up to the opposite platform, to wait for the train there and just see where it took me.

Forty minutes later I got off at Takao station… not the usual end-of-the-line Mt. Takao Trailhead station, but the big town just before it, the one that I had gazed out at countless times on my way out to the far off mountains. So many times I had glimpsed the hills surrounding the town and wondered if it was possible to just head out of the station and follow the ridges all the way back to the bigger mountains to the west. Idle thoughts, all those times, often at the end of a weekend of grinding walks, and then too tired to do much more than wonder.

A mountain walker would scoff at the petty little stroll that the town could only offer, but today I just wanted to follow my nose and to hell with always trying to prove myself on higher ground. Why not kick along the curbside like I loved to do so much as a kid, and take time to really look at things?

It was lunchtime by the time I exited the station so I trundled over to a “Moss Burger” joint, the local MacDonald’s offshoot franchise that specializes in high quality hamburgers and salads, to sit a while and just munch on a burdock root burger and gaze out the window at the Sunday strollers. And they were out in force, families browsing the streetside stores and all heading off in the general direction of the imperial garden north of town. Half of them wore surgical masks in a futile attempt to ward off the onslaught of the hay fever epidemic that plagued Tokyo. For the first time in months fathers walked about in t-shirts while mothers wore the bright colored, long sleeve shirts that spoke of summer but warded off the harmful effects of the sun while preserving their “bihaku”= “beauty white”.

Continuing my sauntering I crossed the train tracks and took the main road toward the hills that I could see at the other end of town. Along the way I watched an old woman wearing a white sun hat and a tiny back pack and hiking boots, bend down to the curbside, grab a handful of the pink cherry-blossom petalbanks that had accumulated there, and toss it over her head like snowfall. She followed the petals with her eyes, a big smile stretching across her face, and giggled like a little girl. I stopped discretely to watch her. Her laughter echoed in my own chest.

Last Camelia 400

Camellia blossom resting in the late afternoon sun, Shirayama Temple Hill, Takao, Japan

The road led further into the throngs of tourists visiting from all over to gawk at the cherry blossoms. Busloads began to pass me by, and the sidewalk became more and more difficult to follow, as strings of people bottlenecked at the street crossings and by the overpasses. Eventually the sidewalk led to the gate of the imperial garden, where hundreds of people stood like packed cows waiting to pay the fee to enter the garden. It was hot and I hadn’t bargained for crowds of people so I stepped out of the crowd onto a side street. No one disturbed the stillness there and the further I walked along it the more distanced from the spring fever I became. To my surprise I found a neighborhood of small gardens and old, wooden, post-war houses, many of them run down and in disrepair. Flowers bloomed everywhere: in the gardens, on the rooftops, in planters by the entrance gates, along the tops of walls, from windows, from planters hung in the branches of trees, the trees themselves. Delighted, I followed this little road around the chin of a knoll until I was out of sight of the main body of the town.

There a little river gurgled along the side of the road. Houses kneeled at the very edge of the river, some spilling stairways down to its banks, some wading out over it with small terraces and sloping lawns. Crooked cherry trees and weeping willows, still waiting to bud, and plane trees lined the banks on both sides.

It wasn’t all beauty and joy, though. All along the river plastic bags and discarded cans, rusting bicycles and tires, wads of toilet paper, some tossed out mattresses, and once even an old refrigerator marred the river’s charm. Typically Japan, this. For a people who take so much meticulous care of their bodies, they certainly are slobs when it comes to taking care of their land.

The road entered a hidden vale that only walking up to this point could have revealed. It degraded from asphalt to gravel, then to simply to dirt, dry and dusty now from more than two months of no rain. A cemetary lay just off the left side of the road, surrounded by dogwoods just budding and the air golden with the haze of pollen and strands of spidersilk. Bird songs lifted from the quiet corners and I saw my first Siberian Meadow Bunting fluting to anyone who would listen from atop a newly budding Japanese maple.

The road narrowed to a crumbling path strewn with windfallen branches and unmoving eddies of old leaves. At the end, nestled in the crook of the ravine, stood a dilapidated old house that had been abandoned long enough that the windows had cracked and splintered and a sumac tree had grown through the rear end of the roof. The timbers had rotted through and carpenter ants thronged like the cherry blossom viewers in the heat of the afternoon sun. It was so still that instinctively the tension lifted from somewhere behind me and for the first time in a very long time I was unselfconscious enough without all the overly prying eyes of Japanese curious and sometimes disapproving of a foreigner in their midst to be able to stop and take a look at things the way I love so much to: slowing to a crawl and mimicking a praying mantis with incremental steps taken with the breaths of wind and then standing still for uncounted moments while peering hard at things around me, sometimes even getting down on my belly to see things from a different perspective. I lost myself in the trickling of a tiny brooklet that had created a new path from the slope overlooking the house, watching a water strider flick wavelets across a puddle.

Behind the old house a derelict shed revealed itself. It was strangling on thickets of bamboo and two flax pants growing right up against its crumbling wooden walls. In the corners two old delivery bicycles hid in the shadows, their tires blistered away.

Old Shed 400
Derelict shed being reclaimed by the forest

I discovered paper wasps building nests under the eaves, baby orb web spiders hanging motionless in the sunlight, blue bottle flies fiercely buzzing over the roof of the house, fritillary, cabbage, and sulfur butterflies… hardy species all… protecting their little islands in the new sunlight, wolf spiders dashing up the blue painted outsides of the house, and a lone inchworm hanging from a thread more than 20 meters long from the tops of one of the surrounding trees.

A look through the broken window of the front door of the house revealed rooms abandoned with many of the former dwellers’ belongings still scattered about: a calendar of a young woman in a skimpy bikini advertising Kirin Beer, a pair of rotting slippers, a ceramic tea cup, two floor pillows covered in dust, and a sticker of Hello Kitty plastered to a paper closet door. A dank, acrid odor rose from the floor and gave the interior a slightly sinister feel, in spite of the tranquility of the area.

After making a round of the house I started back down the road the way I had come. Earlier I had spied a side path leading up along the hill overlooking the road so I went back to find it.

This path took me up over the little vale through a cedar forest, to one of the ridges I had seen so often from the train. i was surprised that there was not another soul around. The wind blew with a moan through the trees and lent the end of the day a mournful feeling, so that when I found a glade atop the hill surrounded by a council of old chestnut and beech trees, still naked against the sky, I had to sit down and take a deep breath. I was so happy and lonely at the same time.

The trail led over the top of the hill then back around to a clearing where an ancient and grizzled old camphor tree, its trunk a mass of cracks, wrinkles, and growths, stood guard over what must once have been a shrine to the deity of the hill. The tree was so badly in need of pruning that people must have quit coming this way long ago. The trail led back down the hill from here, passing through stands of bamboo and camellia and eventually ending up behind a ancient temple so old it was housed in a protective wooden latticework house (the oldest temples in Japan used no paint and often had thatched roofs). All the artificial trappings of a usual temple had been removed except the two guardian dog statues and the stone entrance lanterns. A huge cherry tree branched out across the temple square, aching with white blossoms that no one came any more to see. Japanese often say that viewing cherry blossoms, while beautiful, is also profoundly sad, even frightening. Standing there alone in the last rays of the sun, in a place that no one had set foot in for many years, while not far away hundreds of people thronged to see cherry blossoms with more star status, I could feel the sadness and fright of being abandoned, of beauty left unnoticed, of something that must once have been loved left here to fall to ruin. Part of me rejoiced in this return to nature, but I couldn’t help but see that we weren’t following along. This was nature making a comeback, but with no respect on our part.

I bowed to the temple and also said a silent thank you to the Shinto hill deity still residing up by that old tree. Then I took the steep, broken stairs back down the hill to the level asphalt roads below, from where I slowly made my way back home, my eyes filled with silence and the heat of life persisting even through our efforts to remain immortal.

Stovepipe 400

Old stovepipe protruding from the roof of the old abandoned house

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nature Tokyo Walking

Walking in the Snow

Takao snow tunnel
End of the trail on Mount Takao just outside Tokyo proper. First snowfall of the winter on New Year’s Eve. A delightful good bye to a heavy year

I hadn’t expected to walk in the snow, but already the first flurries batted at the nylon face of my jacket when I stepped out of the train station. I had left my house in a rush, deciding on the spur of the moment to just get out and try to clear my head. I had had an argument with someone close the night before and hadn’t slept, still clenched tight with conflicting thoughts, and still resentful for all the days of arguing having eaten away the bulk of my ten-day winter vacation. Now the last few days of the vacation left me with few alternatives but jaunts into neighboring, uninspiring molehills. I didn’t expect Takao to offer much more than an exercise routine.

Few other people headed up the road toward the base of the mountain, where Takao Temple and the cable car awaited thousands of weekend daytrippers from the city. It being December 31st the whole country was in hometown migration mode, everyone getting ready for the solemn New Year’s celebration with family and friends. An old man in black tights and cross-country running shoes jogged past, just down from the mountain. Several other hikers in traditional heavy leather boots, spats, and Gore-tex rain jackets came lumbering past, looking beat. I strode past lightly in my own black tights, approach shoes, and daypack, still groggy, though, and a bit woozy in the head from lack of sleep. My digital camera was out, ready for shots, but images didn’t form in my eyes as I scanned the trail ahead. Voices continued to whisper at the verges of awareness, like birds flicking out of sight in the bushes.

And birds there were, mostly just heard, but occasionally giving themselves away when they tossed forest duff aside in their search for insects. They were hardy little fists of gray and russet feathers called Gray Buntings that forayed in hunting parties through the underbrush and dashed through old leaves like adzes. Here and there their fluting calls echoed through the ravine and the fluting mingled with the chuckle and gurgling of the creek running through the growing blanket of snow. Besides the water and bird calls the only sounds I could hear were the creaking of my shoe soles on the dry snow and the brush of snow falling against my jacket.

My eyes only held fleeting moments of potential contemplation before the thoughts slipped away again and the acuity of vision blurred into dark thoughts inside. Part of it was the hurried breakfast this morning, with too much sugar railroading through my arteries up into my eyes, the diabetic poison dulling perception of the world around me. It was like pushing through cotton and no amount of waving my hands could clear the cobwebs that stretched across my face with each step I took. Trapped in ambiguity I struggled for breath, to feel in focus with the trees and biting air and blue scent of snow. The anger nearly ripped out of me again when I tripped over a a root.

I put my hand out to stop my fall and felt dry bark. I looked up and saw the tree, a huge, heavy-footed, giant of a cedar, descending from the white sky down to the black earth in one, leathery, ponderous boot of trunk, like a pole of heaven. Without a sound it boomed down at me, a lord to a paean, admonishing without spelling out a single word of disapproval. It just simply stood there, not even swaying up there in the air. And for some reason I woke, right then and there. All the anxiety of the past few days washed away, my heartbeat slipped into the background, and it was just me and my breath, spilling unclothed into the air.

I took a deep breath and started walking again. Photographs rearranged themselves in my head and soon I couldn’t get enough out of each step, picture after picture crowding the rooms until soon I was barely crawling up the mountainside, camera in hand, and light and shadows reforming into ever more enticing compositions.

I was deep into trying to find the right angle and exposure for one picture of snow balanced on some branches when a soft, male voice greeted me from behind.

“Good afternoon! It really feels good, doesn’t it?”

I turned and faced a suntanned man about my age, smiling as if he had just conversed with the face of the sublime. I smiled back. His voice was just the timbre for this silent place and moment.

“Yes, it certainly does. It’s so quiet,” I responded.

He laughed. “Ah, yes, a rare moment on Takao. I’m so happy I came today.”

“Are you going to the top?”

“Yes.” He paused to contemplate the scene of which I was taking the photograph. “Please enjoy your walk. And please take care in the snow.”

“You, too.”

And he was off, crunching up the trail, snow enveloping him in its veils.

Though I was out of shape the walking felt more like a distant decision between two lovers, an effortless sliding between covers. I took the stairs that I usually hated climbing so much as a simple spell of slides in a visual display. The white of the snow obscured all the familiar landmarks and muffled the usual hard edges between remnants of wilderness and human superabundance. For these few hours the edge of Tokyo was untamed and remote, a familiar world made lost and irrelevant.

As mountains go, Takao is but a pimple among rashes, and so reaching the top as I have so many times would normally elicit no fanfare, but today it was different. The trail left off on an asphalt road which came to a stop in the open stillness of the summit. The snow had discourage the crowds and now the open top lay white and pristine. A natural history museum, several restaurants, and some temporary booths set up for tomorrow’s New Year sunrise celebration all sat in silence today, waiting. I kicked through the shin deep snow cover to one of the covered sitting areas, donned one more jacket to keep in the warmth as I sat down, and prepared to eat lunch. Three other people huddled on the other benches, a Chinese couple heating up instant ramen over a cartridge stove and a lone man eating his lunch out of a thermos. I ripped open the curry rice package and, with bared fingers, shoveled the near-frozen food into my mouth. I took sips of hot milk tea from my thermos, but it was hard to hold the stainless steel cup in the frigid air. Most of the meal consisted of a series of stops and goes as I took bites of the curry then slipped my hands into my gloves to warm them up again.

In spite of this a light had gone on inside me and I kept turning around in my seat eager to look at the new things the snow was trying to show me. A bench on the windward side of the shelter had upheld a bank of snow that almost blocked the view north. The oak trees surrounding the clearing kept dumping sprays of powder snow that drifted across the open space, like smoke. The cold seemed to hold everything in a breathless trance, as if all the plants and wood and rocks were somehow surprised by this unusual display.

Eager to be off I packed away the garbage, drank a last sip of the tea, and set off through the untouched snow going south. A rope had been suspended between the trees at the head of the south trail going back to the bottom of the mountain, in an effort to control the hordes of people preparing to come tomorrow.”Danger! Be careful of the steep slope!” the sign read. I had to laugh. For someone who had walked the Takao trail twice at night because it was so easy to follow, the warning was a joke. Most people who came to Takao for New Years had never climbed alpine mountains or gone snowshoeing among the snowdrifts so the precaution made sense, but I had followed this trail more than twenty times and it certainly posed no risk, even with the low cut shoes I wore. Another set of tracks passed through the rope barrier and I followed them down the slope.

From here it was like dancing. My camera was out at every step, it seemed. Bamboograss bending under loads of snow. Cypress needles variegated with textures of snow trim. Slivers of grass slicing through the whiteness like green knives. Small icicles dripping from the biceps of beech trees. Intricate webs of snow-crusted twigs interlacing all around the trail, diverting the light like a single-hued kaleidoscope, all the while tinkling and sprinkling with a myriad of dry snowflakes. I pranced through this like a five year old boy, singing as I went along and not caring that I almost couldn’t feel my fingers as I snapped shot after shot after shot.

Halfway down the trail, after having been showered by a whole load of snow suddenly released from above, I came across a single, bright, lime green speck amidst all the white of the branches. Almost at eye level I discovered a moth’s crysalis, in which a relative of the giant American Cecropia moth slept. It’s green was like the promise of new leaves in spring and completely out of place amidst the snow. Without eyes, it seemed more like an aberrant leaf than a silk sleeping bag, but the pupa lay within, mixing primordial ingredients. I snapped pictures of this, too, holding my breath as long as I could to keep from disturbing the fragile life within.

I danced further down the mountain. What normally would take only about two hours to walk, took me over six hours as I skipped back and forth, kneeling in the snow, peering under dried out ferns, nosing into the crooks of tree trunks. And I came to the viewing point which looked out over Tokyo which, on moonlit nights, lets you gaze out over the entire vast brooch of Tokyo, its lights glistening as far as you can see. Today there was a white curtain in place, no horizon in evidence, not even the base of the mountain visible. The snow fell here as a single, slowly descending waterfall of white noise, blocking all recognition of earlier passages. I stood a long time at the lip of the cliff, brooding. The head of a foothill across the ravine kept slipping in and out of view, like woman behind a fan. I could almost hear the Snow Queen tittering.

Darkness bled the scenery of white and blue seeped into everything. Trees turned aquamarine, then indigo, holding very still as the night undressed them. It was like wandering through a backstage dressing room, frills and petticoats and white dresses falling away to reveal the black tights beneath. I passed a tiny shine protected by two stone fox deities, behind which a blonde-haired North American woman (North American because she was wearing L.L. Bean duck boots) laughed to herself as she built a life-sized snowman with long, lithe limbs. I passed another little old woman, puffing up the final steps, probably preparing for a New Year’s Eve night hike, taking a step ahead of the coming crowds.

I reached the bottom of the mountain and found a different town from the one I had ascended from earlier in the day. It was like something out of the north, old tiled roofs laden with snow, lanterns glowing under the ancient cedars, smoke from the restaurants billowing above the streets. Not like a tourist town at all. The air seemed to taste blue with evening. And the warm gold in the windows welcomed those out in the cold to step in for a cup of tea. I lingered here until the darkness swallowed all that was visible away from the lanterns. Then it was time to snap out of the spell and blink again under the fluorescent lights of the train station.

I stomped the snow off my shoes and pants and, dripping, made my way up to the waiting train. For a moment the mountains behind the town stood above the scene, indifferent. Then the train doors hissed shut and with a jerk I was carried away from what must surely have been a reverie. I held on to the trails of bitter air and light that clung to my jacket, all the way home. And I promised myself mountains for the year ahead.