In 1998 my dear friend Sally and her boyfriend Jim came to visit me and my wife Yumi here in Japan. Initially we were supposed to walk the South Japan Alps, but due to a huge landslide that took out the road going up there, and time constraints at my job, we had to cut back the walking time, and ended up walking the Houousanzan traverse instead. On the second day, moving faster than we had planned, we had time to stop and take our time to enjoy the scenery. I did this sketch on a small peak just past Kannon-dake.
(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
Some photos from an afternoon walk in the summer of 2012, out in Chiba Prefecture, from Togane to Naruto. It was as always a quiet, lonely walk… quite a relief from the work earlier in the day, and the crowds of Tokyo.
The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.
Two more days and the new year begins.
I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.
I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.
Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.
Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.
I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.
I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.
I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.
All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.
Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.
But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.
I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.
Please click on the images to enlarge them and see them closer to the way they were intended.
When I lived in Naruto I would go on very long walks. One place that would bring me peace and make me feel less lonely was this quiet nature reserve about 20 minutes walk from my apartment.
I hardly ever saw anyone in this area. So few people passed through that the egrets and night herons and grey herons relaxed and settled down here to roost. I would sit for hours listening to their calls at night.
People often talk of their secret hideaways when they were kids, but seem to think they are unnecessary when we get older, but I think such places are even more important as adults. They help center us and soften the harshness of everyday life.
A different tack, back in the city, into the heart of gods and fate.
I’m not sure how I would feel with all those strangers and tourists taking pictures of my wedding…
Dusk fell and the gate guard began industriously shooing us out.
No matter how many times I turn up at them, many shrines have a way of instilling great peace.
All summer the miasma of diabetes had wrung havoc from my legs, rendering me at times incapable of taking a step without excruciating stabs of pain shooting through my thighs. So as the Tour of Mont Blanc trip loomed before me I worried that there was no possible way I was going to be able to complete the journey. The first steps up the foothills to the southwest of the Mont Blanc Massif filled me with apprehension, for the further I ventured away from connections with towns and up into the wilder region of the mountains the greater the risk of getting stuck up there. I had to grip my shoulder straps tightly and set my heart for the distance, telling myself I could do this and that I wasn’t going to let diabetes defeat my love of mountain walking.
All throughout the foothills surrounding the Mont Blanc range, especially in France and Switzerland, young families have returned to the villages to bring new life back to the old chalets and byways.
I moved much slower than I would normally have walked in days past, but, in spite of being out of breath and falling behind everyone along the way, the hills and slopes rolled by and by mid-afternoon I found myself gazing at the vista of the alpine crags.
The mountains grew bigger and bigger, almost frighteningly so, with a mass and ominousness that I had never experienced with the high mountains in Japan. At once both a sense of dread mixed with unutterable joy nagged at the back of my mind. It was all still too new to get lost in; even my photos felt tentative, as if trying out a grander horizon.
As the late afternoon sun began to approach the line of peaks to the west and I still hadn’t reached the refuge where I hoped to stay for the night and no one else was in sight, I began to lose heart that I would make it. Clouds were gathering and it looked like rain. Breathing heavily I topped one rise and came upon this memorial to winter. Out of breath I plopped down on an outcropping and laughed like a man drunk.
The Refuge de Bonhomme sat above a tumbling valley resplendent with emerald green grass on every rounded slope. Upon setting my pack down and scanning the panorama below, I witnessed the famed alpine sheep seething across a distant peak. For the first time I could picture the landscape the Heidi so adored.
All my life I had dreamed of glimpsing Ibex. They represented an almost deity-like symbol of the remote and legendary world of the Alps, a place where only intrepid mountaineers and hardy shepherds could venture. So when I finished my dinner and glimpsed a lone Ibex tossing his horns along a dark ridge, I grabbed my camera and stalked outside as fast as caution allowed. The Frenchman, Sebastien, who had befriend me over a beer, laughed and cried out, “What’s the hurry? They’re so tame you’re guarantied to see one! I just wonder about that bright red windshirt you’re wearing, though!”
The refuge was so different from what you get in Japan. People sat around meeting one another and welcoming people they didn’t know. Two refuge staff members brought out guitars and sat on the kitchen counter singing songs to candle light. Outside night fell, turning the world blue while a powerful wind howled across the rooftop.
I fell asleep to the pattering of rain against the bedroom window and the rise and fall of Sebastien’s breathing. The stout wooden walls felt solid in the mountain air and the bed a safe haven. I slept so deeply that I cannot remember that night.
One thing I discovered as I walked was that you were never far away from at least a hamlet. To my surprise the Alps in Japan were much wilder and required that one be a lot more self-sufficient. I was able to buy fresh Tambe cheese and still-warm baguette at a local bakery near the bus stop here in Chapieux.
My first glimpse of an alpine glacier came here in Villes des Glaciers. At one time the glacier must have held an otherworldly spell over the village below, but today so much of it had melted away that mostly only orange hued rock remained. Throughout the walk I saw clearly that all the glaciers had melted away to but a fraction of their former grandeur. It was humbling to such powerful forces of nature burned away to nothing.
Trying to keep up with developing the photographs for the blog really takes up a lot of time, especially the 800 or so images I took during my European trip last summer. I’m about a third of the way through the collection and hopefully can now get the images up to go along with more frequent posts. But I really have to find another way to work with the images, featuring fewer of them in the blog posts and more of them in a gallery. For now I’ll post what I have…
Dark rain clouds had followed me from central Switzerland and by the time I reached Martigny at the western edge of the country both the apprehension of nearing the might of the Alps and the prospect of crossing over into another country had manifest itself in the heaviness of the rain and the dimness of the daylight. There was a train I had to transfer to but in the rush to run down the stairs to the other platform I had accidently thrown away, along with my lunch garbage, my month-long Swiss Railpass. I realized my mistake moments before the train I had just disembarked from took off and, thinking that I had left the pass on the train, I ran back and jumped on the train, only to be trapped on board as the doors closed behind me. There was no pass on board and I panicked over someone possibly having stolen it. When the conductor came strolling down the aisle he laughed when he saw me, admonishing me for not having gotten off the train to make my transfer. He was sympathetic with the loss of my pass though, and offered to write me for free a ticket to my Chamonix destination. He then wrote up a new schedule for train transfers, but saying that I would arrive quite late in Chamonix. Resigned, I sat on the train till the last station and then rode it back to Martigny. The rain had redoubled, roaring outside the train window and filling the landscape with a depressing gloom. I felt really far away from home.
Luck would have it that back at the Martigny platform I discovered my rail pass inside the trash bin where I had thrown my lunch bag away. Relieved I crossed to the other platform again and found the cogwheel train that would climb up to Chamonix. Other walkers already filled half the seats, sitting with their packs balanced on their knees. I found a place between a gang of young teenagers from Britain. When the train lurched to a start they proceeded to smoke cigarettes and bombard the compartment with shockingly lewd stories and much-too-knowledgeable recounts of experiments with strong drugs. They were the noisiest people on the train and made it hard to concentrate on the passing scenery outside.
As the train gained altitude the cold set in. Even the train conductors wore winter jackets and stood on the platforms along the way swinging their arms to stay warm.
Chamonix huddled in a deep grayness, shot through with a wall of torrential rain. The rain was so strong it hushed everyone as they emerged from the station. The streets were deserted except for a few stragglers heading for the tourist information center in the center of the town. I followed these lone individuals and managed to get into the tourist center just before it closed. All the hotels were booked and those that had a room or two available were far too expensive for me. One place, however, a backpacker’s lodge called “Ski Station” took in travellers who had little money and who didn’t mind sharing rooms. THe tourist center agent got me a room there and then gave me directions to the nearest bank machine.
Here is where everything went wrong. I tried to use my American Express card, only to find that the bank didn’t take Amex. I had just enough money for one day of food and not enough for paying for lodging. Concerned I wandered around town seeking every ATM I could find and each one refused my American Express card. I ever stepped into a hotel and asked if they might change money there, but they, too, told me that they didn’t take American Express. After about the eighth bank machine I began to panic. With my need to take insulin and then necessity to eat afterwards I couldn’t afford not to have money. When nothing worked I walked up the steep hill in the back of the town to the backpacker’s lodge and presented myself to the caretaker, an elderly woman with an angelic smile and quiet demeanor. I explained my circumstances and, without pausing, she said, “No need to worry. You look tired and wet and are obviously a traveller. Put your pack down, choose a bed, and get yourself dried off. I’ll lend you a little money so you can eat.” Then she looked directly into my eyes, “Just promise me you’ll try to pay me back as soon as you can, okay?”
I was astounded! Hospitality still existed! What travellers dream of. I thanked her so profusely that she laughed and said, “Now you’re making me regret what I said! Go get dried off!”
I changed into dry clothes and then headed down into town to get something to eat. I found a small Italian restaurant in a tiny side street and ordered a cheap pizza with a beer. The effect of the fear of not having money still coursed through me and eating the pizza was like floating through a dream. All around me sat families and couples who laughed and reveled in tabletops of food and the sound of clinking glass and utensils rang in the yellow light of the lamps. I ate my fill, paid up, and strolled back to the lodge. The lights in my room were out already and I undressed in silence, pulled the rough wool blanket over me, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The backpacker’s lodge, Ski Station, where I found kindness and selfless hospitality.
First view of the Alps on that bright, sunny, following morning. They were so high I had trouble believing they were real.
The form and flora of the hills surrounding Chamonix town reminded me so much of the Japan Alps that it was like deja vue. Only the fauna, like ants and butterflies gave away the difference, and of course the sheer height of the peaks above.
The start of the Tour de Mont Blanc began as a quiet climb through early morning mists above Les Houches, southwest of Chamonix.
I landed without wings right in the middle of a faraway city, Zürich. I brought with me images from childhood, of green foothills towered over by shining peaks and corner shops selling chocolate and watches. Almost as if waking from a long sleep I took to the streets and felt as if I was peering through a window. I walked for hours that first day, letting myself get lost in the side streets and unplanned water’s edges.
I hadn’t expected short sleeves and burning sunshine and crowds worshipping the light or deeply suntanned numbers of men and women with beautifully toned bodies. They bobbed past me while I stared at them in surprise. And smiles everywhere. In one afternoon the stereotype of the dour Swiss evaporated. Like a benediction after the furtiveness that you nurture in the trains and sidewalks of Japan, the quick smiles and acknowledgement of women passing me reawakened that sense of interactive street life that I so missed in Japan.
It might be postcard perfect, but there is something to be said for cities that step beyond mere convenience and practicality. Walking here was a joy; even in the city you could feel as if it was a place meant for people to appreicate their presence there. Everywhere there were seats to lounge on, coffee shops to stop and unwind in, views to look out at to remind you of where you were located. Unlike Tokyo where you would never know that the ocean its right at your doorstep until you round a corner and find it there, almost as an afterthought, here the hills and the river and the big lake hold pride of places. You could tell that the inhabitants loved what they had. The water in the lake was clean enough to swim in, and proven by the hundreds of sunbathers who had crossed over to the platforms floating a hundred meters away from the shores.
Jetlag slowed me to an aimless stroll and with the sun beating down it took me a while to count the strange coins when I bought a mineral water and a bockwurst sandwich. Japanese kept springing out instead of German, but even then the Swiss German sounded garbled and oddly gutteral, even for German. Luckily just about everyone spoke perfect English, so I allowed myself some lapses in kick-starting my German again.
It took a while for my head to begin swiveling into photography mode, where my eyes begin to sink into the light around me and scenes present themselves one after the other, often before I am aware of what I am looking at. When I can let go like this walking with a camera turns a place almost into glimpses of streams of consciousness. The world grows incandescent and full of meaning, and even the lowliest flake on a wall holds the weight of the world within itself.
Like most places in Switzerland tourists overrun all the prettiest areas. As I walked about I wondered how the Swiss could put up with the constant intrusion. I don’t think I would be so hospitable if strangers were continually tromping up and down the street outside my window.
Humans painted everything red in Switzerland. They even wore the color on their hats and shirts. I never saw so many flags hung out of windows and draped from flagpoles, not even in conservative America. I never imagined Switzerland as a nationalistic country, but without even having heard anyone speak about it the Swiss never let you forget where you were.
I love to get lost and let the turns in an alley or trail surprise me. In the old part of a city like Zürich the walkways are narrow and crooked and sometimes you literally brush up against the walls as you navigate. When you look ahead at a certain unusual light and follow your nose, often you come upon gems of courtyards and secret, tiny cafés.
Europeans take their eating and their time to talk very seriously. At noon all the shops but the restaurants close down and don’t reopen until two-thirty or three. As a boy in Germany it was always a difficult time to get through because I always wanted to go rushing outside after lunch and burn up energy, but my grandparents insisted that I stay in the living room and take a nap on the couch. It was much the same here in Switzerland; I wondered what Japanese or American tourists would think, with their inability to stay still and wait.
The popular tourist spots always exhaust me after a while and for the time I stayed in Zürich I often took refuge in the alleys and out-of-the-way hills. Here I could watch the local populace go about their daily lives in peace. Since these walkways were so small and narrow cars never passed through and the tranquility gave me an inkling of what cities must have been like thre hundred years ago.
I would have wandered Zürich for a week, but I had come to go walking in the Alps. So, after three days of rewinding my clock I headed off to the train station to take the train west.
I’ve only begun to work on the 850 photographs I brought back. Looking through them and working with PhotoShop on them I’m beginning to find a few that I really like. To think that I was honestly considering not bringing the camera because of the weight!
Some photographs I took during a walk to Kujukuri-hama (Ninety-nine Leagues Beach) from my home. What you see is the beach during off-season. In summer it resembles a seriously peopled garbage dump. Until the walk I hadn’t realized just how close the ocean is. It explains why the climate around here never gets really cold or hot like Tokyo two and half hours away by train.
Reed warblers sing their clicking songs amidst these rushes.
I never saw the horses, but it was a surprise since there is so little room for horses to manuever in Japan.
In an effort to evoke the spirit of California and Hawai’i the beach is lined with windblown palm trees.
The wind began to blow stronger when I arrived.
The sand tells stories of all who pass…
…and has a way of hushing conversation.
You can walk for hours thinking of nothing, and letting the waves wash in and out of your consciousness.
It is hard to deny that the ocean is alive and as moody as any singer or storyteller.
There are those who seek out the edge of the sea to ask its advice, so often at the beginning or end of things.
The answers are often harsh, but they never relinquish the beauty of each encounter.
When the storm came I retreated to a restaurant and listened to the wind outside buffeting the windows. The beer and pizza gilded the beginning of forgetfulness.
I just managed to escape the downpour at my apartment door. The wind blew and blew all night long.
Yesterday evening I set foot back in Chamonix and ended the eleven day walk. The actual walking time was nine days, which is one day shorter than the usual routine. Upon seeing Chamonix from high up on the col overlooking the valley I knew that I had come full circle and that soon I’d be back in the “real” world. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like a real world at all, but like unnecessary complications and undue worries and too many choices and an unhealthy concentration on things that are unimportant. During the last two weeks I was able to filter out those things which occupy too much of one’s time and about which we all worry too much about, and concentrate on things like how good something you eat tastes, the wholesomeness of simply talking to another person, laughing with them, sharing worries and information about what you need to continue on, and revelling in their presence, immersing yourself in the logic of placing one footstep after the the next and moving forward within a landscape, exactly as we were designed. For the entire route I never once picked up my book and read anything. Nights were for sleeping and resting, days were to waking and using your body and to take moments to look around you. Of course, there is more needed to survive, but I really wonder if we’ve loaded ourselves down with way too much gear, trudging through our lives with nothing but thoughts of how to add more gear to the pack and how to make money to purchase more of this heavy gear. It’s insane. And to allow oursleves to be subjected to others who seem to assume that they have a right to place themselves above us and order us to live according to their values, who think of nothing but possessions and assume that all of us must dedicate our lives to that. Exactly what is wrong with us?
After the evening the other day when the doldrums hit me and I wrote about being sad, I returned to the campsite and encountered two British rock climbers who invited me into their tent for a beer. We eneded up talking most of the evening and their sense of humor really cheered me up (I love the way the British counter hardship or adversity with laughter). We got together the next day, too, and sat in a pub talking for hours about problems with young British kids, about equipment for walking, about global warming, movies, good places to travel, environmental education, the best kinds of cheese, and again about outdoor equipment. I left Champex with a feeling a contentment and completion that belied the loneliness I had felt earlier.
Tuesday turned out to be a miserable day in terms of weather. The climb up to Le Bovine Pass just kept getting colder and colder and by the time I arrived at the tiny mountain hut at the top my fingers were numb and everything was wet and freezing. So when I opened the mountain hut door and found a glowing atmosphere of walkers sitting around a wood stove and eating the wonderful food the proprietor was cooking for everyone it was like, as a fellow walker claimed later that day, “Opening a present.” We all sat in there cupping our mugs of hot chocolate between our palms and praising the warmth. For lunch I ordered a “roesti”, a Swiss mountain specialty of pan-fried potatoes mixed with cheese, onions, tomatoes, and egg. none of us wanted to head out into the cold again.
Everything was wet again, of course, within an hour of heading down the other side of the mountain. Because the trail passed through several mountain ranches the trail had been trampled into a sea of mud through which I had to trudge. I had forgotten to take my afternoon insulin while in the hut, so my legs started cramping up and walking became really painful. I finally reached the campsite in Le Peuty, near Trient, at about seven in the evening, and there no one there, just a wet, lonely field of drenched grass with a small shelter under which to eat. I thought I’d have to spend a cold night alone here, when I discovered the fireplace in the shelter and the proprietor of the campsite drove by just then, offering dry wood for the fireplace. I fairly danced for joy at the prospect of being able to sit in front of a roaring fire, eating dinner. Just then two women… actually the same women who had camped above my site at Champex and who had arrived earlier in the day at the mountain hut at Bovine just as I was leaving… arrived on the scene, also dripping wet and worried about the idea of a cold wet night. We teamed up and outfitted the shelter so that it was protected from the wind and rain, hung up our belongings to dry, set up the wooden table in the middle for a nice dinner of couscous and chili con carne, and lit a warm, dancing fire. We spent half the evening praising the fire and voicing our joy at its warmth. After a filling and delicious dinner (it was just chili con carne and couscous, but it tasted like the best meal you could buy at an expensive restaurant) we sat back sipping tea and talking about our dreams and traveling in distant lands. WE all agreed that this eveing would be one that we’d remember for the rest of our lives.
Yesterday was glorious. The sun broke through and after climbing the long and steep trail up to Col de la Balme, I crested the last high point of this journey and came face-to-face with Mont Blanc again in all its glory, floating on the sunlit morning clouds. Walkers from all over sat with their backs against the Col de la Balme mountain hut, soaking in the sunshine and basking in the wonder of the distant mountains. The two women sat next to me and we cut slices from the bread we had brought with us and sat laughing at the difference between last night and today.
Then it was time to saw good bye. They headed on further toward the place I had started the journey, while I headed down to the valley, to Le Tour, and beyond to Chamonix. The end of the walk. And a mixed bag of sadness and relief. Soon I’d have to return to Japan and to my miserable little apartment and the oppressive job I had gotten myself mixed up in. But it had been a wonderful walk, one that would remain one of the best memories of my life, in spite of hardships. But that is what makes such journeys so memorable and special. I got to know a new place, made some great new friends, and revived an old ghost inside me that I’ve needed to talk to for a long time. I’m ready to go home, for now.
I’ll be in Europe for another week, visiting Interlakken and Zermatt. I’d love to go to Italy, but I just don’t have the money to travel around a lot any more. Besides, Italy needs its own proper stretch of time in order to appreciate the right way. Three or four days is just not enough.
I’m happy with what I got and found. And that’s all you can really ask from a good journey.