Run

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact the first 700 words are from a draft I started back in October. Those of you reading from the beginning will remember the time I drove eight hours just to see my track team run 12 miles in December. I thought about trying to tackle the subject then. That was an inspirational peak to the dedication I put towards the often least fun and uninteresting (especially in this country) hobby I have: running.

From the spring of 2015 I really got back in the mood for running. Post graduation had left me confused, and I really only used running while living in New York to keep a routine in my otherwise work filled life. As usually is the case, come winter I was back to a sporadic schedule of fitting in the time to run. I had to figure out how to get to where I was going — because after work was always dark it was only safe to run inside — or force myself to wake up and shiver my bones as I paced a slow jog through the neighborhood. When the snow finally melted and I was surrounded by my former college teammates starting their track season, I knew I had to get back into the condition I once had. My closest friends from college had decided to meet up from across the country and run a race in the beginning of April, and I certainly wasn’t ready to be shown up by them.

From there I only improved, even beating the times I’d barely been motivated to reach previously. There are plenty of things I loved about my college town, but the thing that comes to mind most when talking about running are the endless dirt roads. You could run undeterred; you would seldom worry about impact; you had no need for direction because counting miles was as easy as counting cornfields. Of course, there was the occasional rabid dog, but everyone needs a little pick up now and then. I was in a great environment. Only one day during April, in a foolish attempt to drop time off my steeplechase, my foot caught while jumping the barrier, and I staggered, and twisted, and tumbled. I hopped right back up at the same pace, but there was an immediate difference. I made it a fifty meters before I decided it wasn’t my vision, but indeed my body which wobbled unnaturally.

I’d always been cynically unfair about running injuries until then. Actually, to a point I still am. I totally blame my mental lack of focus for slipping up on that barrier. I definitely think I could have prevented it with a smarter race strategy. Regardless of the preparation, though, the outcome was the same. I rested, iced, stretched, and didn’t do what I wanted for two weeks before I slowly got back on my feet. Of course, I had a race to run. My mom had already signed me up for the TC One-Mile on a corporate team with her work, and heck, why not, it was just one mile, I’d been jogging pretty well until that point. The race was set in drizzling race down Hennepin Ave. I got out well, in the at the front of my heat, and pushed my way through the finish line to second (something like 17th overall). The race was a relief. I sprang where I needed to, burned through what hurt. It was when I finished that I started limping again.

So I was out for most of the summer. I had my first MRI to show that all I needed was some more rest, and as I prepared to head to Japan it really was better for me to focus some of that time elsewhere. I ran in San Francisco, Fargo, Seattle, working my way up from a couple minutes to half an hour. Of course, then I landed in Japan. A humid and rambling Tokyo. I had no time, let alone energy to run. It wasn’t until the lull that I actually made it out early on a grey and foggy morning  for an ethereal run along the river. I was back. I was fine: free of injury and ready to become the fastest man in Japan.

Of course, that was before I met Carmelo and was convinced to join him at beach for a foam party in Kanazawa. The next morning of seven stitches on the bottom of my foot put me out for another two weeks, just in time to start the school year with a new job and no clue what I was doing.

I joined up with the junior high’s track team in October, as soon as the speech contest ended. It felt great running with a team again, even if they were teenagers running kilos a minute slower than my normal pace. I truly admire the person who can run on their own at will with complete determination. Most times I’m with them. I love the feeling of fatique, the aching highs, and  glorious views from the middle of nowhere. They can easily get me out of the door on spring days. It’s the summer mornings, the winter winds, the storms in fall that need motivation. Seeing these kids (although compulsory) get out and run everyday including weekends was more than enough proof that I could do it too.

So, I ran in the warm winter which left Christmas Day with a high of 50°, and then the school’s season slowed down, and the snow came in. No one believes me when I say I put on weight. They always think it’s a good thing. It’s never a good thing. For me at least, the only reason I know I’m putting on weight is because I can see I’m putting on weight. My legs start to even out, my stomach loses definition. My butt certainly looks better, but sacrifices must be made to stay fit. One of the biggest things I’m afraid of is getting old. It’s not quite a fear of death, but it’s the fear of not being able to do what I want to do (and partial vanity). Sure, there’ll be a point where I won’t be able to break records while running, where I won’t have the energy to travel to new countries, and one night at an izakaya will put me out for a week, but that time is not yet. It’s bad enough my hair is falling out, but I can’t do anything about that. My strength, my fitness, and health, however, I can maintain. It’s a necessity for me now. I would be uncomfortable otherwise.

Last year, in a post I never got around to publishing, Ole track star and former teammate Joe Coffey came and visited me before gallivanting off to China. We went for an hour long run in the middle of July noon, and I was pretty happy I could keep up with his jet-lagged pace. It’s hard to think that I’ve maintained any bit of fitness, but coming off a National Championship team my senior year of high school probably helps. Running is as much about the spirit as the actual training. It’s never about how far or long you run, but the quality of those miles and minutes. Even between long hiatuses there’s no laziness to getting back into it. Even when I run alone, I’m always running for the team. That was early July, and it refreshed my running routine.

By the end of the month I ran my first race since my failed steeplechase a year before. It was a 10k, my first, in the early morning of a sunny day. Carmelo and I had stayed the night before at the house of one of his student’s. They’d fed us plenty of food, but I think we were prepared enough for the task. However, it would be my first time running over 5k since the end of my cross country season back in 2014 (which now seems scarily too far away). Due to last minute bathroom breaks and a false crowd at the starting line (there was literally a queued line for the next race one hundred meters back from the actual start line) we were running to the race before the gun went off. I made it to the front and took the lead by 2k clipping along at a 3:15 pace. After all, this type of running isn’t really a sport in Japan (I thought) so winning it shouldn’t be too far out. The actual winner to the lead by the third kilometer, and I dropped to fourth right after the halfway turnaround. Fourth wasn’t too bad for beginning the season, at least until the last kilometer when I got passed again to take fifth. I still got a medal and nice certificate proclaiming my place. I took it as many lessons learned, determined to improve.

The next month I went to Tsuruga, a beach town an hour south. This time I had no expectations, and no one knew I was there, so I decided to just run how I wanted. Not many people consider a 10k race as a leisure activity. Maybe I should’ve taken it a bit more seriously. From the gun it took twelve seconds for me to even cross the line, and after that getting into any position to move took plenty of dodging between older raisins chucking along in tube socks and nylon jerseys. By the end of 2k I was running alone with just a few others stretched out in front and back of me. I tortured myself through the seventh kilometer, just waiting for the point when we’d start to circle back towards the finish line. It wasn’t until another three minutes that I found the next gear on a narrow path under the shade of trees. I wound up 11th, which isn’t too bad considering I ran it alone and had no one to impress. (A side note, after the race I ran into another ALT who’d just arrived from England and wound up eating lunch at the beach. It was pretty cool not to rely on the regular events or social media and meet someone the old fashion way. As a foreigner, I think it’s hit or miss in this area to strike up a random conversation with someone friendly. Usually they only think I’m asking for directions.)

After that race in September I had my final 10k of the season in late October. The weather here is much nicer that what I was used to in final season championships back in Minnesota, so it wasn’t too bad. The race was sandwiched perfectly between two bouts of rain. I wound up second to the guy who beat me in the first race. Could that all really have happened over eight months ago?

I lost my fitness again, a bit, over the winter. From the beginning of the year I signed up for four races all within five weeks to keep me motivated. As far as I know races in Japan don’t let you sign up the day of, and the deadline for even local races can be months before the actual event. I came in prepared and spent over $100 on entrance fees by the end of February. The snow this winter was pretty mild, too, so it didn’t inhibit my will to run. I made a task out of running everyday by April. Thanks to tests at school, club practices were cancelled, so I had to run at my own pace with no excuse to slow down.

The first race was local, just in the neighboring city. I got there by train in the early morning, and after wondering around to check in and find a place to put my stuff I ran into another English teacher.

“Hey are you running! I hurt my leg, but a couple other ALTs are here doing it to. Do you want me to watch your stuff?”

It’s always better to have someone at a race. Even if the chills and anxiety are fleeting, a familiar face does a lot to cheer up an over serious mood. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about where I’d put my stuff. (Being this is a small town in Japan, I wouldn’t worry anyway, but just saying.)

The race was quite like jumping into a pool for the first time in the summer. While you’ve leapt into the air you get the sudden sense that you’re body isn’t quite ready for this because although it’s hot out, that water is freezing cold. Then the plunge excited you and sure your body reacts badly, but once you stretch out and bob you realize the feeling is kind of nice. I started in the middle of the pack again behind guys twice my age. This was like waiting in line for the diving board. The start was actually on half a track so I wove between the legs, as the real leaders took off. I had a pace in mind and came through the first kilo in 3:30. Was this too fast or too slow? I tried to do the math. Ten kilometers, 3:30 a clip, would put me at 33 minutes, right? That’s not too bad. I ran through the second k thinking this way. Wait, that’s wrong, though, that’s not how minutes work. I readjusted and figured I was going ten seconds too slow in the start which would put me right on time for this split. I think.

Running is a sport to focus on the ahead. It’s a sport to ignore all thoughts in your brain. It is not a sport to be thinking about math outside of a base ten system.

By the halfway point I thought I was right on time, and I’d been holding back to make sure I had enough energy for the finish. I picked up the pace, taking a couple of guys drafting with me. By the time we were less than a mile I was running alone with death sucking the air from my lungs. I couldn’t pull out any more energy like that, but managed to stave off any chasers. I wound up third. Alright, but admittedly unprepared.

I rented a car for the next race. It was in Ono, a mountainous town over an hour away. I was in much better shape two weeks after the first race, and even came with energy gels for before the race and muffins for after. I wrote the pace on my arm this time: 3:18, 6:36, 9:54… I’m genuinely surprised at how many people come out for these events. They fill all kinds of races from family 2ks to high school 5s. The biggest contrast being, I never see a lot of people running around. Like, does anyone practice to race, or do they just live healthy enough lifestyles to wing it. In the US I think it’s the opposite. Everyone is keen on getting out and showing off their bodies by the lake or bike path, but when it comes to actually competing the races are left to more serious runners. I guess there are pluses and minuses to each.

ono marathon field of participations

I tried to restrain myself from the start as the leaders didn’t go out too far ahead of me, but still seemed a bit over my pace. I didn’t want to run alone, but we also caught up to the previous half marathon that went off five minutes before, so it wasn’t like I didn’t get a gust of enthusiasm every time I passed someone. There was a point during the third kilo when we finally broke into flat land, surrounded by green rice fields and the encircling mountains. It was about that time my brain was complaining to my body for working too hard. I took the moment to look around and soak in everything. It was beautiful, the best sort of distraction, and refreshed every part of the race. I was behind my pace, and behind the leaders, but I had the mindset to keep driving.

Reaching the halfway point, I started to panic. Picking up the pace wasn’t pulling me any closer to the leading two runners, and as much as running is physical it’s also mental. I knew I had to act. I had to get at least right behind them before we turned around. If they saw how far behind I was they’d only get a boost to keep it that way. I myself would also suffer a perspective of futility. I pushed toward them, glancing at my watch, calculating the possibility of making it. And then they reached the cone, and turned around, and still fifteen meters behind in a crowd of upbeat half-marathoners, I turned around after them. And then I did something stupid. I surged.

It was a ridiculous and bold move that I’ve certainly never tried before. It wasn’t a surge, but a full on sprint, like watching the final kick of a two mile, but just halfway through the race. I didn’t actually mean to go so fast. I whipped past the guy in second already dropping behind, and then met the guy in first and kept going. With a couple of strides more I thought I was done for. The pace was unsustainable and I just waited for the moment that my legs stopped moving. I did slow down, but my watch was not far off from the pace I wanted. More importantly, I’m pretty sure I passed that crushing mentality I was trying to avoid onto the runner I’d passed. With no one ahead of me this time, I had nothing but the bike ahead of me to try and catch up to. It was a fun notion, like track dogs chasing a rabbit, an irrational motivation that I somehow believed was attainable. If only I could get closer to him, and draft away from this horrible wind, for just a little while.

ono meisui marathon award ceremony

I ended up winning that race. The first win for me in Japan, actually. It felt good, and when I crossed the finish line I became revitalized. Out of all the races I’ve done, this certainly was the one to win, too. When we lined up for the award ceremony I bowed and received my certificate. Then I got an even bigger certificate, and a trophy. They put a medal around my neck and handed me a keychain. To top it all off, my full hands were given a final paper bag with a container of locally made miso.

The next week I traveled south, to go to a race that some of my former students were participating it. They’re a few that went to this high school specifically for running, so I was excited to see if they improved. The course was entirely on a highway, without so much of the good views as the previous. I knew before I ran I had to be careful because there was a long straightaway and the wind was absolutely brutal. My first kilometer was 3:05 versus my last which was about 3:33. I got a bit swept into excitement at having some people there who’d be watching my race, but I also paid attention to something I hadn’t before: the record. Now that I’d won a race it wouldn’t be much of a goal to just keep winning. I needed to go for the next step: be the most winningest of them all. Some of these race records have held up over decades, so they wouldn’t fall easily. But they also weren’t to far off my current time, or my best. Unfortunately, without preparation and the right mindset, I fell short of getting this one by half a minute. The wind on the final stretch slaughtered any hopes. Even if I thought to push forward a bit, it walloped me back tenfold. I still won, with minutes between me and second place, and got a few rewards for the effort (although, they were pickled vegetables which I don’t quite have a taste for). I stuck around to enjoy the weather and talk to my students, two who’d just started school in April and one who’d graduated last year, and was very thankful they’re English hasn’t degenerated to just “I have a pen” quite yet.

dillon with mikata high school runners and awards

The last of my races until end of July was on June 11. It was at the Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama. I drove up with my neighbor, Yukie, because she’s from the nearby area. We met her family, an aunt who’s 87, and went to the race a bit early. I’d just come off of a rotten week where I had full on flu and even took a sick day for the first time in my life. Put that together with a runner from out of state who held the current 10k record from the previous year’s race and I was maybe doomed from the start. On my warm up I ran into the guy who’d gotten third place from the race I ran in Ono. I suppose I’m easy to recognize, but I noticed him because his hair is relatively curly and  height above average for Japan.  He told me he was also a teacher in the nearby area, where he grew up, and mostly he ran races to stay fit for skiing in the winter.

“Do you know cross country skiing?” He asked in Japanese.

“You can do that here?!”

For all my time in Japan — especially living near a nationally renowned ski resort — I’ve had to explain to people that I in fact do ski, but it’s not the downhill kind, and thus the kind that they maybe even didn’t know existed. He told me about the areas that were OK for nordic skiing, and that his older brother was a world competitor on the Japan team. Being that I’ve never gone downhill skiing here, I doubt I’ll ever have the means to go cross country, but since he’s almost the same size as me, it’s nice to know there’s an option.

From the beginning I took the race a bit fast in the lead. Most of the first half was entirely downhill, though, so with my long legs I tried to use that as an advantage. Almost immediately I could feel the effects of the flu dragging on my muscles. The entire thing was a drag, and I when we finally left the wooded area in the sun, I was passed. It wasn’t until halfway that I found the spirit to actually try and catch up. For a while I was, too, but the leader also had the energy to split the distance between us. The final 2k seemed an impossibly long distance to cover in seven minutes, and it actually took me a bit longer. I had no clue who was behind me, but when I crossed the finish line it wasn’t too long before my warm-up partner finished in third. Well, I guess I get to focus on winning again.

dillon in front of dinosaur head at katsuyama marathon katsuyama marathon 10k winners

Five weeks of four races isn’t really the smartest thing to do, but with the heat of the summer rolling in, I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities. I’m taking a week off (with plans to go to Tokyo), and then will have another month until my next race. That one is local so I’ll have to try even harder to guarantee I win.

 

 

Waterfalls

The sun rose at 4:28. I know this because I had already been up for an hour. I’d gotten out of bed to use the bathroom, but when I laid back down my eyes stayed open. It was ridiculous to think I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was still full after drinking enough wine last night because my neighbor was having a party in honor of her husband’s seventh year of passing. I’d only been asleep for four hours. I closed my eyes and rolled over.

When half an hour passed I pulled out my phone. I felt completely sober as well, but a dry mouth made me get up to gulp down a couple glasses of water. No smart decisions are made or lost with a cell phone and nothing to do. I immediately pulled up the REI app which I’d downloaded sometime early in the spring. It was their anniversary sale, and I still had a couple things to check off my list if I wanted to start camping by summer. For three hours I scoured the pages, going between REI and Backcountry (despite my membership, I found the latter to have some better deals). I was repeating almost the same process I had done a year ago approaching July 2016, with visions of Japan mountaintops and morning hikes. Back then I was making less and just gotten out of debt. I decided to clear my cart at the last moment and be done with it. I think I’ve mentioned this habit before. I’ll spend hour(s) shopping online or in real life — I’ll create these alternative realities where I’m fully enjoying a product I can’t live without — and when it comes to checkout I put everything down and leave the store. I think it’s a good practice in restraint. It’s always smart to wait before making a purchase, and after a year of having the urge to go camping I finally had to act.

I wrapped up all the shopping around the time my alarm went off. I could’ve stayed in bed a little longer, but really I had the mindset to get up and work so why put it to waste. Originally I had wanted to spend the day studying, applying to jobs, getting things in order and focusing on my side projects (which there are plenty), but those original plans fell through and I arranged to hang out with the only Japanese friend my age left in the city.

“Wanna hang out on Sunday?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Bring Hazuki with you.”

“You mean in the morning, then?” he asked.

Hazuki is his … let me do the math, eight month old daughter. Wow, it’s weird to think that’s she’s only eight months, and at the same time she’s already eight months. Babies, I guess, are weird like that. Like only now among my third year students I’ve noticed the different in height and loss of chubby cheeks from when I first got here, but this girl has barely even existed for a year and she’s already practicing how to walk. Just weird. Let’s not think about that. Although I enjoy her company, even taking care of pets for more than a month I’ve found to be too intruding so I’m certainly not going to think about children within this decade. Well, not that I have a choice at the moment anyway.

Dillon with a baby

They arrived just before noon. She gave me huge confusing eyes as I looked at her. When Kubo, her dad, passed her over to me those eyes shone up at me, then over to her father, then back at me. Then they turned to twisted black raisins on roiling over puffy red cheeks, as her hands sprung out back towards her dad. I quickly passed her over, amazed at how immediate the crying stopped. He chuckled and then put her back in my arms where she started crying until I set her down on the floor. The last time I saw her she wasn’t much smaller, but she had stayed silent most of the day and didn’t seem remotely aware of what was going on around her. But now she was crawling and exploring and practically a hazard on four legs.

Hazuki standing Hazuki Crawling

Eventually I had to unplug my mouse and keyboard from my computer because she was so determined to play with them. We left when she got curious enough to dig into the floor plant I have.

We didn’t really have a plan so we first went for lunch at a restaurant near my school. It was my second time being there and basically solidified sauce katsudon as my favorite Japanese food. It’s pretty tough to describe. On the surfuce is just tenderized pork deep fried, dipped in sauce, and put over rice. It’s half a common dish in Japan but the way it’s done in this prefecutre is a bit of a specialty. I eat it as much as my healthy lifestyle will allow.

From the restaurant we stopped by his home to see if someone was around to take the baby. With the driveway empty and nothing else in mind, we took a quick detour to a walking trail. The weather now is basically summer. It’s a little hot directly in the but we put Ha-chan in a stroller so she was pretty comfortable. As soon as I strapped her in — maybe even a bit before — her head plopped against a shoulder and she fell asleep. The path took us down and around to a small baseball stadium where a minor league game was going on. At first I thought it might’ve been a high school match where I could see some former students. When we saw the entrance fee was roughly five bucks we decided to turn around and find something else to do.

That’s when I learned you never want to wake a sleeping baby. As soon as I lifted her out of the stroller she started squiggling, and wailing a bit more. When I set her in the car seat I noticed she burped a little milk. I’m not sure I expected what was coming when I decided to pick up again and pull her out of the car, but then she threw up a little bit more on my arm.

“Oh, no.”

Truly in these types of situations you can never move as quickly as you know you need to. The next thing was a jet-stream of white baby formula cascading down my shoulder. I’ve seen this happen in the movies, but I always thought it was some kind of trope. The obvious reaction would be to point her mouth in a different direction, but instinctively I just held her closer until it all poured out. Kubo just laughed at that reasoning.

“Don’t you have a towel?” I asked.

“No.”

“What! You’ve been a father for eight months and you don’t have a towel?”

He rummaged around for some baby wipes and started scrubbing her arms and legs.

“Well, has this ever happened to you?”

“It used to a lot, but recently not so much.”

I guess I’m just lucky. He pointed me over to the restroom where I washed my shirt in the sink and tried to clean the side of my shorts. Only being familiar with wine and nose bleeds, it seemed like it’d take a bit more than cold water to clean out this mess.

This little predicament settled our own issue of trying to find something to do. We went back to his family’s house to leave the baby with his wife and he tossed me a clean shirt. He had a place in mind in the neighboring area, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to explain it to me in words I understood. I could guess, though, what he meant when he said bridge. After all, in a rural area such as this, there isn’t a variety of sightseeing attractions under that category.

kazura vine bridge

It wasn’t nearly as long, or rickety, or high as I thought it would be, but maybe that’s just from a 6’3″ American’s point of view. The planks were tied a decent ways apart actually, but Kubo made fun of me because my foot size is so big I couldn’t even notice.

Under the bridge ran a stream with a path leading down to it on the other side. The water was a bit cold, but completely clear and I couldn’t help whipping my socks off to go stand it in. It was nice to be back in the nature, which only affirmed my morning camping purchases. The other side had a garden, a small koi pond, and even a dojo to make soba noodles. We went into a tiny hut with a map of attractions around the area. Kubo was attracted to one particular image of a waterfall that didn’t look too far away. It was already four o’clock and I had planned to run and hit up an onsen before the night’s end, but I didn’t mind a little more adventuring.

The trip was a forty minute drive into the woods on a narrow path without any signs. I pulled up google maps, but even that didn’t know exactly where we were trying to go. Luckily, I have never once come across a dirt road during my time in Fukui so the only real worry you ever have to have while driving is avoiding the open gutters on either side (which is occasionally a problem when two cars have to pass by on a curving hill in the woods). We actually passed by the parking lot, driving straight up to where the waterfalls were. It was pretty stunning, but we drove to make a u-turn because Google Maps actually didn’t know where what road to take us on.

waterfall gif

The fall is huge, and really there’s no good way to capture it all in a picture. It’s too wide, and too tall. Because it’s sandwiched between the ridges there isn’t much sun, but at that time of day it was shining perfectly to feel like a fantasy novel. It’d be a great place to have a picnic. There was literally a family with two boys splashing around at the base of the waterfalls. I thought it might be a bit too cold for that, but I envious they’d thought to bring a towel.

When we left we drove a different way back to town. I remember on the way there I was struck by how high we were going and how vast the woods seemed, but this time was a bit quicker. I figured it was OK since I’d seen enough. Pushing myself to the limits of my motivation, I did go out and enjoy a half hour run before the sun went down and immediately biked to the nearest onsen, one I hadn’t been to before. I felt a bit uneasy the whole time because the entryway and lockers were plastered with signs that said they didn’t allow tattoos (seriously on everything that I would touch). That’s pretty common in Japan, but usually the signs are tucked away and ignored. This place felt a bit different. On top of that the admission was ¥200 more than what I normally pay, I didn’t get a stamp card, and their outdoor pool wasn’t even working. Well, at least I can feel more assured about the quality when I go back to my regular one. Unfortunately this is all a Sunday, and I’d be much happier living in the future where they’ll almost certainly have three day weekends (at least). For now, I can only bask in the laziness and get back to work.

Colors

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been moving since Halloween. I wasn’t looking forward to this past weekend because I had to come in for class on Saturday. Usually my school makes up for it by letting us take the following Monday off, but unfortunately all the ALTs had a conference in the city scheduled for that day. Eventually I will take the Monday off, but for now I have to suffer. Because of all that I was really looking forward to Sunday being as lazy as possible. Maybe catch up on a ton of self-help organization I’ve been trying to fit into my life, and also fulfill some other obligations I’ve given to other people. Alas, somehow I managed to talk to Yukie, my friendly-neighborhood-English speaker, on Saturday night who almost immediately invited me to join her the next day to go with another couple to Shiga prefecture to see the colors change. As my great art professor John Saurer once told me, “say yes to everything.” Of course, he was mostly talking about work-related situations, but I’ve began to adapt it to every day life. Organizing my lazy life could always wait, and I had never been to Shiga before.

We left early in the morning, a little after 8 o’clock. The couple we were going with, Mr. & Mrs. Takahashi, are actually pretty close to me. I met their three sons at a wine party last New Year’s Eve, and since they seem to look out for me like their own. They donated their bike for my use back in January, and over spring vacation I joined them to the youngest son’s college graduation in Osaka. I actually have been trying to go around Japan to visit where their sons live, but instead it seems I’ve been running into them more often. Mr. Takahashi pulled up to the apartment with his wife, Yukie, and to my surprise her thirteen-years-old Norfolk Terrier in the backseat. From there we were off, to a place I couldn’t even point out on a map, with a mix of Japanese and English, and some CDs I’d brought with.

 

192We arrived maybe two hours later, to gorgeous weather, at the steps of Eigen-ji (A-gen-G, the ji stands for temple). Now, it may be a bit confusing because Fukui-ken also has (the oldest temple in Japan) Eihei-ji, so going to another prefecture to see something that sounds similar was a bit misleading. Really, the temple is less pronounced than the nature that surrounds it. Here especially the changing colors were blazing.

The place was pretty popping. You could tell that people were just coming out to enjoy the warmth, but there were also a suspicious amount of artists with books or canvases scattered about the grounds. We discovered that there was a contest on that specific day for whoever made the best painting within the allotted morning. As we went along it was pretty fun to snoop over the shoulder of  everyone and try to discover why they chose the specific spot. Also I was experimenting desperately with a new camera lens.

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From the temple we ate some hot soba noodles and delicious various foods on a stick before setting out back on the road. Before heading back we took a detour to see this famous temple that at one point might have housed the sun goddess/mother of Japan Amaterasu or was built by her parents or something like that. This month is also a traditional time for families to celebrate the shichi-go-san holidays when children turn 3,5,or 7 years old. The temple had plenty of dressed up visitors and adorable kids wrapped in kimonos so it was a fun stop to watch.

From here on out it seems the weather will start to go downhill, so I’m not quite sure when I’ll enjoy tourism as much as I have lately. Already my school is talking about introducing Thanksgiving in class. It’s a constant reminder to make my stomach growl wishing for all the delicious home-cooked meals I won’t be able to find here.

 

Daytripper

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the changing weather it’s you’ve gotta take what you can get. So many days now I come to school wearing a light jacket only to have it dark and freezing by the time I leave. Often it’s begun to rain. Sooner than last year I expect it’ll start to snow. Sometimes I wonder if I should go for a run, or wait until I’m free in the evening with less errands to do. Too many times I’m stuck at 9:00 bundling in gloves and long pants, when during the day I could’ve gone out in shorts.

Thus before I’m completely shut in for Winter, I’ve been able to go out and enjoy the season just a little bit more. This has probably fatigued me a bit, being my weekends have been booked completely since Halloween, but I’ve also at least been more active than I would’ve otherwise.

The first weekend trip followed a day where I volunteered as a judge for a high school English debate tournament. Seeing the dozens of students compete in such advanced English made my average work seem inadequate. I doubt there are many opportunities in a junior high school where they can learn such enabling English, even after three years they’re barely learning how to use prepositions to connect verbs with nouns. I did find a reward though meeting one of my students who graduated last year. During the last round he asked me to sit by him and we talked pretty fluently about the points each team was making, as well as how he studied English, and what he was enjoying in high school. At least that gave me some hope that not every student I teach will go on to expel any hint of English by the time they graduate high school.

I woke up my usual weekday time on Sunday morning to car pool with some neighbors to the train station where we’d be picked up by a Japanese lady. I must admit I didn’t really have any clue what I was signed up for. Another American English teacher who arrived in the summer had invited me to go, so I didn’t even look at any of the details. Just that we’d be taking a tour of some ruins basically only famous in our prefecture. Maybe they were some sort of heritage site, but on that I can’t be sure. I didn’t even know how to dress. For some reason I had the impression we’d be hiking a mountain, so I packed extra snacks and gloves in my backpack just in case.

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We drove out of the city and arrived to meet two other cars of people at the entrance of a small museum. Literally, it was the most budget friendly museum in just an open foyer and a single humidified room. Most of the objects in glass casing lining the walls were broken pottery somewhat assembled back together. There were some scale models of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago, but the most interesting object to me was an old sword.

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After that short tour we drove out to the actual valley where these ruins were partially reconstructed. From what I gleaned a ruling family, Asakura something, had set up shop in the area about 500 years ago. Even more surprising was at the time it was the 3rd most populous place in Japan right behind Kyoto and Tokyo! The inaka countryside that I’d been living in for over a year used to contain the center of Japan. How things have changed.

Seeing the ruins and replicas they built was definitely not spectacular, but there was some solace about the place. If you imagined the type of people that would have lived there and the strains that society has taken to evolve into the present. Even among the inequalities and famines, the simplicity of the life appeals. This is certainly a weather-changing-another-year-overworked-pessimistic-me point of view, but the focus on living instead of life has some advantages.

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One of the best uses of the day came while strolling down the village street and finding inspiration to write. Actually through the whole day I realized I’d been gaining experience helpful for any sort of fantasy or old-world story I might dive into. Just being there and seeing what life was life gives my writing a bit more authenticity.

I’m quite surprised I’ve made it this far in my description because at the time I really didn’t seem to feel so affected by the tour. I suppose I was happy to be out in the nice weather, but to be honest I was more distracted by Pokémon Go half the time. Then again, there really wasn’t much to look at.

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Maybe the highlight of the day actually came in the afternoon once the tour was finished. We moved from the outdoors more into the valley to an old restaurant lodge specializing in soba noodles. They had an entire hall full of tables to teach how to make soba. Of course, you’ll remember from my post last Christmas about how to make soba. Well, maybe you won’t, I almost didn’t. It was fun to make again, especially since our tiny grandma of a teacher kept interrupting what we were doing to fix any mistakes. This time we left the cooking to the actual chef, though, so the end result lost some of its majesty.

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Still delicious, and I topped it off with a beer from the cooler.

Tokyo

It reminded me of the first time I lived there studying abroad, and even a bit of my life in New York. I’ve been going back and forth on Tokyo ever since I left four years ago. It’s a sprawling but dense city of monotone concrete but eccentric culture. The pros and cons are bipolar and throw off any scale you try to weigh them on. You can’t find a trash can anywhere and yet the streets are sterile. The nature is equally as sparse apart from tourist traps and out of the way parks of which there is an abundance. Foreign people are few enough to stand out, but common enough to not warrant overt friendliness. It’s a dream city where literally any hobby is respected and any behavior tolerated — if not first marginalized. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world (beating out any city in America), and despite shrinking apartment sizes it’s ranked high for quality of life.

Last year I wrote a length about it when I went with Carmelo to celebrate a concert and Silver Week. It was hardly thought out, nearly affordable, but still a decent amount of fun to be had.The days before I was getting a paycheck, could remember how to speak Japanese, or even knew how to enjoy the city as a non-tourist, non-student. This year the holidays lined up well enough that I could take a Wednesday off and still have up to six days of vacation. Longing for the summer freedom again, I figured the end of September was good enough as any anniversary to make another venture to the city, my first in a year.

My weekend wasn’t as long as I’d originally thought because of the two day culture festival the bit into the first Saturday. Now, the culture festival is great. I took plenty of pictures I’d love to post here. I had franks on a stick, fried chicken, ice cream bars, shaved ice, donuts, juice, and a matcha flavored cream puff before I felt like I couldn’t eat anything more. The talent show was pretty entertaining, though I did feel a lingering nostalgia too that shadowed everything a bit. This was about the time I really started knowing my students last year, finally remembering their names, and caring about their successes. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen in a years time, and no matter what happens my favorite class (the current third years) wouldn’t be around.

That all, however, was on Friday. It’s Saturday that really bites. Twenty-one classes — luckily, because last year it was twenty-four — performed songs, usually traditional staples, one after another the whole day in the gym. Last year I remember falling asleep a little too early, but this time I managed to stay alert the whole time. Perhaps I can thank two surprises. A bit before lunch one of the English teachers who switched schools at the start of this year, showed up. He’s the same guy I went to Kyoto with, so the rare moments he shows up are always good. Then in the afternoon one of last years third years found me. He was the same student who I’d spent three months with working on the English speech contest. His was visiting because his younger brother is a second year. At first I was shocked just to see him, a bit taller with the adolescent badge of a sparse peach-fuzz mustache along his lip, but then he started talking and I was flabbergasted. Last year I felt like I had to pry words from his mouth, even as he was rehearsing his speech. Now, however, we were speaking almost normally. He told me he’d visited Australia for two weeks, joined the archery club at school, and had a continued hobby for guns. Not for the first time since my birthday did I feel like an old man. This kid had only graduated four months ago, and already he’d changed so drastically. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

So, the Saturday was worthwhile if not monotonous. I took an afternoon shinkansen the following Sunday with just my backpack and an umbrella. The weather on my side of Japan was holding out, but in the midst of rainy season with a typhoo on the way, I’d learned not to take chances. I got off the train at Tokyo station and instantly remembered why I hated the city. Tokyo station is a distilled version of all that’s bad. It’s a tangling mess with multiple floors, thousands of people, and every direction. There are gates that exit, gates that go to different trains, gates for trains that go to different cities. You can wrap your way around hallways of shops that sell nothing but tiny packaged sweets to give out as gifts to your co-workers without ever seeing an exit sign. Certainly some for of direction is intended by the way the floor plan is laid out, but really people just dash in and out like a school of fish. Occasionally, especially at night, it’ll slow down, but then you’ll just see the people overworked, or homeless, or drunkenly stumbling and passing out from the clubs. With that in mind, and excluding its sprawl, it is also effective as the quintessential station. You’re either going or leaving, and never wanting to stay.

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By this point I realized I might’ve packed a bit too much, too. I would inevitably be shopping and buying things, so I probably didn’t need the spare book to read, the extra clothes. I even brought running clothes and shoes only to be neglected. Carmelo was at the same concert we’d gone to last year, so I was stuck making my way to his apartment outside Shinjuku. Another two friends of ours were staying with him this weekend, too, so I decided to try and meet up with them. After stopping for a hour or two at a cafe, I decided to ditch my bag at a station locker to lose the weight and head out to start my night. I’d messaged my college roommate Yasushi who’s now working in Tokyo doing important things. We planned to meet at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya (a place I thought I knew, but in fact didn’t actually know) but eventually we found out way out to a dive for drinks and food. It didn’t feel like a year since we’d last seen each other, but I could tell his time at grad school in DC had matured him. He spoke way more fluently, and I was happy to see he hadn’t gotten fat (even if smoking was an occasional vice). We caught up well over the next two hours, and then went back to the statue to join up with Carmelo and friends. I offered for him to come with, but a bit more responsibly he declined because he had to work in the morning.

The remaining five of us — the unemployed Carmelo and his girlfriend, and vacationing ALTs — did not have to work. So, fresh off the vibes of an outdoor EDM concert, Carmelo took us down the streets with Coke bottles of gin and ginger beer in hand to what is one of Shibuya’s most reputed nightclubs: Womb. I’d like to say I went into it open minded, but the appeal was almost instantly lost to me. Through a smoky entrance, ¥3000 cover charge, and the grim realization that we’d have to stay out until the first train at 5am I tried to disagree with the fact that I was not drunk enough. Nor was the club packed enough. There were plenty of people, as it was deemed the after party for the mentioned concert, but there was certainly open space, too. I went through the crowds, occasionally dancing, trying to work up a sweat to at least seem like I was having a better time. As the night wore on, it simply became a meditation for survival more than anything, though, I did have some fun embarrassing moments with some local Tokyolites.

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We did make it on the first train back to the apartment, and I did pass out until two o’clock the next afternoon. Carmelo, Eri, and I left the apartment bravely at my prompting under clouding skies. By the time we’d made it a block the sprinkling mist was turning to a full shower, but I was determined to make it to the same event I went to last year: the Tokyo Art Book Fair. As cheapskates we decided to walk the hour to the campus it was held. My raincoat, pants, and shoes were fully saturated, but also so was everyone else. It also made the place feel a bit more crowded since everyone was inside roaming the aisles, trying to get away from the rain. We perused, I bought some postcards, but nothing as good as last year. One the way home we diverted under a train overpass, and stopped by a specialty food store to pick up some curry for dinner.

That night we stayed up catching up on the latest episodes of the anime Dragonball Super, a weekly ritual we used to do. The next two days were still just as rainy, and just as lazy. I think I slept until noon both Tuesday and Wednesday. Following a small breakfast and we planning I went out to find the geekiest shops around. We started in Shibuya, but I also ran solo to Ikebukuro and Akihabara, discovering some new places that I hadn’t really explored. Usually when I’m out travelling alone I don’t have too much fun, but Wednesday when I set off by myself I was kind of having fun. I think this time without having to lug a backpack around, or be on a time constraint to check in somewhere really helped. That night, meeting up with Yasushi, we went out to Shinjuku, trying to wind up at a club that I’d enjoyed as a college student. Eventually we got there and the passage of almost five years felt like nothing. If it’s to get from point A to point B without any references, I’m usually a dunce for directions. But give me a place I’ve visited before and I can trace my way through parts like it’s my hometown. So being there in the night, a bit more refreshed and at the end of a vacation, felt a little bit better than the start of the week. I had a good time, stayed out all night, and didn’t mind catching the first train home.

I took the night bus home the next day, almost missing it when I couldn’t find the right loading zone. It was a grueling 8 hours and some of the worst time I’ve spent traveling.

Nonetheless, I had already started planning when I’d be going back.

Pokémon

When the game first came out I heard about it from Carmelo. He pulled it up on his phone, and I watched baffled how such a thing could exist. I downloaded it, and learning it wasn’t released in Japan, set it aside for later use. When it did get released, I was still using a disintegrating iPhone 5C wihtout a working clock or GPS. On one hand all my lucky eggs and incense were infinite (a bug now solve, by the way), on the other I could hardly catch any Pokémon because I was stuck in one spot. Once I finally got a new phone in the mail, I logged on and twirled around the screen, hopping at any moment a Pokémon would pop up. I was a bit disappointed. The gameplay for Pokémon Go still has a lot to make up for, and without the surge of popularity I probably would’ve deleted the app and just bought a DS and Japanese copy of Black or White secondhand.

Then midway through August I was strung out on my cash. My unexpected vacation to the Narita airport set me back almost $300. The lack of school activity also made my weekdays a bit more translucent. At night I my typical bedtime was moving further and further back. With a bit more time on my hands, and not too many free things to do (in the countryside) I found any excuse to be distracted. It came on a Sunday morning. I woke up earlier than usual for the weekend, feeling refreshed, and instantly did my laundry. By 10 o’clock, I had a vacuumed apartment and a bright and sunny day ahead of me. So thinking I’d go downtown to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and (because I’m a dangerous fool with ignorance to caution) pulled up the Pokémon Go game.

The next seven hours was filled with me riding around in the sun, waiting for my phone to vibrate, hatching several eggs, and searching out whatever Pokéstops I could find. By the end of the day I’d leveled up, attained a couple medals and increased my Pokédex. I felt pretty accomplished, but not only for my status in the game. Following the tiny map on my phone, I’d discovered parts of the city I hadn’t bothered exploring before. Perhaps one of the biggest visitor’s spots we have, Murasaki Shikibu Park, which was always just a block away from my apartment, is something I never stepped into before. I took a tiled pathway from there and found the back roads past the community pool to the post office. I discovered the town has way more shrines and temples than I ever imagined. There are plenty of remnants from decades ago, too, where the city was bigger and full life. That was during a baby boom before the population decline fell into crisis mode.

Playing the game made me realize more about the community I’m placed in, what has been thriving, just how many other people play Pokémon Go. There are plenty of restaurants that look delicious and even side streets that at night turn into a time machine for the past. So often as I make my way home, I’ll get distracted by a rare Pokémon that will divert me to a difference way.

Often this happens when I’m running. Granted, it’s not the best thing to play as a runner (you tend to stop and reorient yourself a lot), but it’s also one of the main supporters in getting me out the door. I’ve been running everyday for over a month now — something I could hardly do in college. It also keeps me out longer, going just a bit further, to see what’s around the corner, or to hatch that second 5k egg.

On trips it can be especially fun. When I went to Tokyo last month, I kept getting a buzz from my phone, looking at the map to catch some Pokémon, and then noticing a bunch of Pokéstops in a nearby place. Especially in bigger cities, if you follow the trail it usually leads you to some sort of tourist attraction or sightseeing place, or even just something locally worth knowing about.

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I write this because when you ask me what I’ve been up to the past 2 months I would definitely be lying if I didn’t mention Pokémon Go. In light of the election which I’ve been following off NPR podcasts and radio fervently, it’s nice to have a lighter distraction. It’s a mind-and-time sucking game with significant amounts of room for improvement. But it’s also kept me active, choosing to go outside on a better (or even typhoon) weather day than stay in and watch movies. I suspect the fads and interest in parts of America are dwindling as they are in Japan. Whenever I do go out to hunt down a silhouette on my Pokétracker, though, I still see the devoted fans, walking by with cell phones raised, or standing still and flicking their screen, and at least for now I’ll join them.

Eiheiji

Previously I said that I wouldn’t be making any resolutions for the new year. In reality I think it’s almost impossible to follow that rule, or at least unlikely that you can avoid the influence and meandering thoughts that consider what part of your life needs improvement. In past years I’ve had some success with these ideas: giving up pop (soda), learning guitar, writing more; I’ve also had some short lived denials: keeping a planner, travelling the world, writing more. From the past couple of years, I’ve resigned to not make any changes in a life which on a whole is pretty content.

With everything in mind, though, it’s still hard not to try the future outlook, especially with the unique and impermanent situation I find myself in. For example, I’ve been living in a foreign country for four months and still haven’t really made any native friends. OK, so that’s not entirely true when you factor Yukie and my two English-speaking co-workers, but even they’re not particularly the company I can unwind with completely. Similarly when I lived in New York I had a similar series, where it basically wasn’t until the third month that I finally went out with someone I hadn’t known in college. So if the new year isn’t a time for me to make new guidelines or set out to achieve goals, I think it can be a period for me to completely reset.

Basically a winded entry into discussing my new habit of approaching every weekend fresh. I never decided to make the most of my time, and I haven’t really sought anything out. Maybe my zest for exploration is just continuing off the curtail of my winter vacation excess. As it had just seemed right to finally go out and surf, it also just seemed right that I’d finally make it to the oldest temple in Japan.

Besides, I didn’t really have anything better to do, and certainly wouldn’t have had any other plans, as I rode my newly donated bike to Yukie’s house on a cloudy but fine Sunday morning. She greeted me with her lap dog in her arms and with a boisterous, “Hello! Shall we be going?”

We made a pit stop for gas and then stopped at a garden store where she picked up a couple of plants before setting off on our way. At least that’s what I thought until we stopped in the neighboring city. “Oh, why don’t we have obento, it’s really nice. You’ll like it, really cheap and beautiful.”

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With the bento on board we were finally set. We drove about an hour away, past the city into the reclusive town of Eiheiji. Well, I guess reclusive is not the right word because, in spite of it being far out from the city with hardly any train access and a small population, it is among the most touristy places I’ve visited in Japan.

As we drove up to the castle we passed parking lot after parking lot with people outside them waving signs and trying to schuck the oncoming traffic into their lanes. “Oh we can get one much closer,” Yukie said, driving uphill at full course, “I know the place.”

We parked quite literally as close as possible in the back lot of a tiny souvenir shop. The weather was a bit cloudy but seeing how it’s winter you can’t ask for less. Although, I do think the whole area would look pretty great covered in snow. Because the area is pretty inland their chances are higher of having it, but apparently it had all melted the night before. Instead as soon as we were out of the car it started to drizzle rain. The woman running the souvenir shop handed us two umbrellas and wished us a good time. Sometimes nothing beats small town convenience.

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From the outside I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the temple. You really don’t see much of the grounds from the approach as it’s dug into a mountainside and surrounded by forest. From the entrance you meander down a hall taking off your shoes and being reminded not to take photos of special places or any of the monks there. I’ve yet to discover the reason behind this rule, but I suppose it’s probably to keep the temple separate from a full out tourist spectacle and respect the monks who practice there.

We followed a decent crowd up the staircase to a grand hall with a fantastic painted ceiling of individual vignettes depicting nature. It was a place you could easily just lie down in and spend over an hour wiggling around to glance each frame. I snuck (honestly accidentally) a picture with flash of what was probably my favorite scene:

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The extravagance immediately stopped in that room, as we followed the way to the main building. The tatami and carpet on the floors, the sconces lining the wall and the decorated ceilings dissipated.The rest of the temple was tranquility unbound.

I could see why someone would choose to study there to escape the superficial forms of life. Apart from the abundance of nature outside the walls, only the minuscule things could distract a keen mind. There was a doorway we passed, where the line of visitors slowed and hushed and peered in. Monks were lined sitting seiza on pillows facing wooden barriers inches away from their face. I can only imagine that room isn’t the most ideal for meditation as anyone squeaking by with their mumbles and coughs could wreck a train of unthought.

The entire structure was built from wood, and in Japanese tradition probably lacked any nails or metal holding it together. We walked up steep slanted steps peering through the plastic covered windows to what seemed like the main ceremony hall.

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Apart from the gold it was actually pretty dull without a high ISO. I saw some pictures of the space being used full of light and people and it does seem like a fantastic thing to join in. It’s pretty hard to imagine living in that space. First, it is saturated with traditions and rules and systems that even growing up around the culture doesn’t prepare you for immersion in the lifestyle. I have a third year student who recently wrote a speech about how when he graduates high school he wants to become a monk. I don’t wonder the reason why so much as to how. The whole thing seems like quite the process. Also, there’s the slight inconvenience of having no heat. I mean, I get that you can stoke fires and everything, but I struggle every night not to run up the electric bill with my air con, and I certainly didn’t take off my coat anytime walking around there. I wonder what the constant feeling of cold in the monks robes must be like. I get the appeal of camaraderie and life skills and finding inner truth through hours of meditation. Except there is such a history that you’re carrying on your shoulders, it seems like quite the burden as well. I wonder if it’s much like a men’s college cross country team.

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All in all, quite a good place to contemplate. There really isn’t too much to see, but in that case it also makes it a good day trip–especially if you bring obento. I think I’ll have to go again in the spring to see all the flowers blooming, and it is certainly full of color in the fall as well. It’s strange to think about how long the temple has been around, nearly 800 years, and even perhaps how constant its culture has been through that time. Compounding that incredulity is the comparison to some of the places I went to in Germany with a history equally as long. These places existed in the same Earth, but in such different worlds.

I’ll wrap up before I get too deep and embarked on my own meditation of time. In college I learned an amount about religion in Japan (unbelievably enough to have written a twenty page paper about the history of Shinto), and since that time I’ve even been able to retain some of it. In my senior seminar “Buddhism, Peace and Justice” taught by the beatific Barbara Reed we learned about a practice of meditation called Vipassana. There have been many revivals and uses of it in the past couple decades, and I’ve looked into retreats here in Japan that offer the ten day teachings. I don’t want to go into it unprepared, but who knows. Maybe next time i have a vacation I’ll give it more thought. Sometimes the real meaning of a break is not going out to the most decadent places, but realizing what you don’t need to have in the world

Surfing

There are plenty of things I hadn’t expected about this winter vacation. Last year I worked between Christmas and New Years, so I didn’t really have much to consider. In September I’d had dreams about skiing and snowboarding down the famous slopes of Fukui’s ski resorts. Even at the beginning of December I’d thought about making a dash to get back to America for a little while. The least likely of my unexpected plans would have surely been surfing.Yet, with the end of winter vacation upon us, and a random Monday off the first week of school, surfing is exactly what I found myself doing.

You may think it’s crazy, and I’ll admit to it being not the most appealing winter sport, but you’ve gotta remember that it hasn’t even snowed anywhere short of the mountaintops. Not even two weeks earlier I’d gone for a run in shorts and a t-shirt. Really the weather was not an issue. In fact, as my advisor and soon-to-find-out surfing virtuouso, told me that the winter in Japan was the best time for waves to form. After nagging from me for over two months he finally gave in and offered to take me. The nagging was more persuading, though, as every time I asked to go he got this longing look in his eye as if there’d be nothing he’d rather do than ditch school for the waters.

It only adds to his resume as the coolest teacher I’ve met. He’s been at my school for three years, but told me that his previous school was closer to the beach. He’d wake up early most morning in order to drive out to the sea and surfing for a couple hours before heading into class. He learned back when he lived in California after high school and continued when he moved to Australia after that. By the time he was back in Japan he competed near a semi-pro level, and I could see that surfing for him was like a long run to me.

So my persistence finally paid off and we were off predawn on that Monday morning. The weather was a bit cloudy, but looking to be good at the point a little over an hour and a half drive’s north. At first we drove out to a beach with roaring waves and no surfers. It looked awesome and I reassured him that I could figure out how to surf after my few years of skateboarding and boogie boarding when I visited my aunt in San Diego. He deferred to his better judgement and scoped out a more mainstream section with more regular waves.

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We parked and he tossed me an old wet suit he’d had. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but lifting it up to me it was clear that we were in the “make it work” mindset. He is after all third of a foot shorter than me. I struggled slipping into the thick lining of the suit, thankful I’d decided to wear compression shorts when he had to yank the waist up while I held my body down. With a final squeeze it zipped up and I was off to waddle with the penguins.

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After a short bit of stretching on the beach we waded into the sea. I was pretty giddy with excitement so I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be going into tumultuous waters, nor the fact that I hadn’t swam in a couple of months. My stretching could hardly be considered anything by the time we got afloat and started balancing on our surfboards. Well, Keisuke was doing just fine, but I was more like the long forgotten diversity promo of a Weeble Wobble.

I think I probably would’ve been fine had it not been the couple of other surfers clearly more experienced than me. It’s not really that I was embarrassed, but more that I just didn’t want to try to get up on a wave and end up crashing into someone else. So I stuck more to the edge, paddling into waves and chilling with a woman who also was a bit new fine to chillax on the outer edge.

Eventually I ran into a problem. I had gone out the night before (it was after all a three day weekend), and though I didn’t really feel so hungover I also didn’t realize how much the waves would rock me back and forth. Combine that with the ever-crushing squeeze of the wet-suit and you’ve got a bigger mess than a Tijuana truck stop. I shuffled off to the restroom, also for the first time realizing how freaking cold my bare feet had become. It was as if my outer limbs were the glaciers in Antarctica while my innards were the hole in the ozone layer rapidly depleting. Also, a pretty unique anxiety to feel, but there’s almost nothing like having to take a too small wet suit off in two minutes urgency.

I shivered my way back to the sea, contemplating not getting back in. Alas I decided I’d have to stick at it, and there was an idea that I’d learned long ago that water temperature is usually warmer than air temperature. (I think I understand how that doesn’t work in this case, but with bone white toes I needed anything to convince me I could get warm.) Luckily the nausea subsided, and I was still flip flopping around.

The sun had risen high in the sky by this point and the blue sky was quite stunning. It was really staggering to believe it was barely January on top of the situation entirely. Really almost the most ideal conditions I could imagine, though it could’ve been a bit warmer. Keisuke swam over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I hadn’t been able to keep any track of time but he’d said we’d been in the water for over two hours. I didn’t believe him at first, no way had I survived that long, but I guess it seemed plausible. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the beach I started to feel the aches. I supposed for the most part my body was completely numb, so I didn’t realize how much work I’d put in until I warmed up.

Luckily the veteran surfing master came completely prepared. After stripping out of his wet suit in the blink of an eye, he brought out a container and poured hot water into a bucket. I was helpless and so thankful to just pad my feet around until they got any sort of feeling in them. It’s a good thing I lost all the nerves in most of my toes from Nordic skiing or else I would’ve faced a world of hurt.

 

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When I finally, with much assist, ripped my wet suit off, Keisuke asked if I wanted to go into the town. Within a fifteen minutes drive is one of the more famous natural monuments in Fukui and even among some crowds known in Japan at large. The thing is, the cliffs of Tojinbo are mostly known because they’re a popular sight for people to go and commit suicide. But when in San Francisco you’re not gonna avoid seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, so I figured this had the same reasoning.

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They weren’t anything super staggering, maybe because the tide was higher from the rain, but really the biggest thought was how unappealing a spot most of the cliffs would be to jump off of. Japan is pretty famous for having spots like this around the country, but I would hope this isn’t the first choice of most people. When we arrived the sea was clear and there was a pretty sweet rainbow off in the distance. It was good just to check it off the list, top off the day, and enjoy the weather.

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In the winter Fukui is pretty famous for its crab, so we stopped by a restaurant for a quick lunch of crab ramen. Fresh and fantastic. At first I was worried at the cost, but Keisuke pointed me to a different menu. Turns out the one I was looking at listed the prices for crabs reserved to be sent to the Emperor’s palace.

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All around a bomb diggity way to start my interest in surfing. Wouldn’t mind going again, but definitely need to scour the YouTube for more technique and practice videos. For now, I just hope it can snow soon so I can surf the slopes instead.

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.

Thanksgiving

For me there is hardly a day worth celebrating more than any others. When I was a kid I used to pout at my own birthday parties. I’ve had the hardest point remembering anyone’s birthday (a bane because everyone can remember mine falls on a holiday), and really one of the days I’ve enjoyed more than others in the past years is Black Friday. Maybe that particular attention is why I’m only now realizing how different my timeline is in Japan. I mean, after all, Halloween was seen and talked about pretty well among the students and commercialized places, but I haven’t seen a single display for Thanksgiving and thus–almost thankfully–nothing about black Friday.

Obviously Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday–food, family, and football–but for me its always been a little more. Through the past couple of years I’d gotten into looking at Thanksgiving as a time to do something nontraditional in my life. One year I traveled to Charlotte to eat soul food with the family I’d only heard about in stories (or even letters to prison). Another year I traveled to Tacoma to make a truly college but independent dinner with a completely different type of family (#trackhouse). Christmas would later be the time for the family I saw everyday, so it seemed that in times of thanks I needed to reach out and be with the people that I didn’t always show gratitude for.

OK, and that above has convinced me to completely change my direction on the feelings I had for this post. Originally I was planning and pointing out how much I missed Thanksgiving this year, when really I guess I did what I normally would (even if it did technically come a week later). I should mention the weird feeling I got explaining Thanksgiving to a class of kids who literally had no clue what I was  talking about, but really I think those moments do more to remind me everything I miss from America.

Anyway, living in a foreign country full of people in the same situation with a pretty strong network of events or communication it seems pretty obvious that there’d be more than one somewhat traditional Thanksgiving celebration. Even the night before, gathered in an apartment for a “California beach” party wearing shorts and eating Costco sheet cake, a group of us were discussing what types of foods we’d contribute to the weekend potluck. I’d really considered trying to put something together at the last moment: mashed potatoes, fruit salad, steamed vegetables. I think apart from laziness I just lack any sort of equipment to make a decent dish (in my small sized kitchen), and despite being days away from a paycheck I was (as it always magically seems to be around this time of the month) strapped for cash. Thus, I decided to just pay the fee and enjoy the joys everyone else felt like sharing.

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I think we were there for a good four hours, and damn I was glad we got there early. I think the last time I was at a potluck was my senior college year of cross country running, an annual event after our first home race, and that–after from delicious baked goods–had nothing to compete with this. There were Japanese, Irish, Vietnamese, Chinese, American, and so on dishes of all variety. It seemed like every time I finished my plate and felt like I was finally full, someone new would show up and put a different dish on the table. (Really, I should’ve thought ahead before typing this and eaten something because now I’m craving it all again). It really was a Thanksgiving dinner because I kept eating and feeling good and eating some more.

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Apart from the food, it was really just good to see everyone again. I mentioned earlier about how obvious it would be that the powers that be would organize an event to get all us (majority American) foreigners together for the holiday, but I often forget just how many of us foreigners there are (a really bad problem when I have to avoid using someone’s name I’ve forgotten after three months). Not only foreigners, but also local Japanese people showed up to join in the celebration.  As someone who usually spends a Sunday cleaning, vegging, or just generally sticking to his apartment, it was a good occasion to get out and enjoy the community that I can’t always interact with.

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And the food, again, was fantastic. I even had to pull off the remnant of one of the five or so turkey’s they brought in because of how quickly they were devoured. Really between the Irish soup, the home-baked bread, the eggnog, and the no-bake cookies, the turkey was the least of my options. I really need to practice more varieties of cooking now, or at least figure out where everyone gets their ingredients. I think the biggest hub is Costco, and oh, how I long to get to Costco.