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.

Nagoya

The title of this post is a bit misleading because even though I’ve been in the city a night and a day, the reality is I’ve hardly experienced or even seen any of it. Remember the rain Friday night delayed my arrival and any chances of going out, and the entirety of my Saturday was spent at an event center full of folding chairs and two thousand men.

Thus, it comes down to Saturday night. Blake drove me back downtown closer to midnight than I was expecting, and I met some of the other ALTs he traveled with at his hotel. I half considered crashing on his floor, but I wasn’t quite sure what my plans were for Sunday (if I’d go back to the tournament) so in order to avoid being a hindrance I headed back into the night. I didn’t have much of a plan or clue on what to do. Luckily I’d charged my phone in his hotel so my GPS was useable, and of course, this was far from my first time wandering in a big city. Very much like my time over Silver Week in Tokyo, I headed first to find a place to stay at one of the elusive capsule hotels.

I say elusive because really, even when they’re on a map, they’re hard to find. Like most cities in Japan the shops are built vertical. You’ve got to constantly glance up at the unreadable signs to make sure you don’t miss anything. Even when you have a map, the shop or place you’re looking for could be on the third or sixth floor and you can easily miss it. For foreigners I’ve found this to be one of the biggest problems in enjoying time out.

I reached the first capsule hotel quite easily, but tentatively walked in after passing a chalkboard sign that I was quite certain read “no vacancy.” The small lobby was brightly lit and pretty extravagant for a capsule hotel so when I reached the desk my suspicions were confirmed.

Wanting to conserve my phone battery I asked the woman behind the desk if she knew where else another hotel might be and she pulled out a mapped and started circling a couple places. “But… probably, they’re all full,” she said in polite Japanese. I knew the probably was unnecessary. Still, lugging around a bag and tote full of clothes, cards, and camera finding a place for it all was the only mission I had.

Somehow I made it to the heart of the downtown nightlife, to a district that used the kanji for princess in its name. As I approached I was a bit surprised by all the light and sound, and even amount of people still strolling the street. Most of them were drunk, in some pretty risque fashion for January, and I was wondering if my second plan of going out would be too late. In general I think Japan’s nightlife starts early ends early, or else goes all night, without much in between. The fact that most metro systems stop around midnight probably contributes to that lifestyle. It can be a hassle, but also a pretty brilliant way to encourage both responsibility and indulgence.

Anyway, these are the things I wondered about as I wandered clearly not going anywhere specific and without many options. This was becoming less like Silver Week where I had four hotels before I could find a room, and more like my first night in New York where I spent most of the night exploiting the subway system.

Maybe that’s what led me to find the post office that was still miraculously and a bit strangely open even after midnight. When in doubt you can always count on government services (I do pay Japanese taxes, after all). So, walking on set to what seemed like a Stanley Kubrick movie, I sat down at one of the open tables and unfurled. It was a small area, more like a lobby, with an alcove of metal P.O. boxes and an escalator that was turned off. I sidled against a column and stretched out my legs hoping to be as discreet as possible.

There was a sole open post counter framed between the P.O. showing a slice of the ghoulish fluorescent office behind. Occasionally there would be a shuffle or loud mechanic noise, but for the most part it was subdued. For a while, except then someone came in from the dark and went to the counter. A woman appeared and they exchanged some words and then both vanished again. The threat level of my scene was diminished (no lurking anomalies to worry about as long as the worker was around), though now my film seemed more like a David Lynch feature. Again a man came in carrying a big cardboard box of what looked to be the latest sell off Amazon or eBay; an older woman purchased stamps and sat down at the table across from me to glue them each to a stack of envelopes; a slew of other people for whatever reason decided to make it to the post office at two in the morning to deliver their letters.

Eventually the strangeness was upon me, and not willing to commit to sleeping there I wrapped up my stuff and headed back into the night. I followed my phone in search of a net cafe, but had no certainty about the turns I was making. Somehow I wound up around Osu, a huge covered intersection of streets flooded with shops and arcades and hobby stores. It’s also referred to as Kamimaezu which sounds a lot like it translates into “Maze of the Gods.” At this point the streets were vacant and I felt like I’d entered Twin Peak’s red room. The paint off the wall literally gave everything a rose hue, and as I kept walking I wondered if I’d ever find my way back to the street. It’s hard to believe I could just stumble into such a place without realizing it, but it also seemed like a good reason to stick around and explore that part of the city in the morning.

I made it to the net cafe (open 24 hours of course), emerging back to the midnight blue streets. I went inside, but even as I walked down the stairs to enter  I was calculating the amount of money it would set me back. Even if I only stayed for the five hour minimum, I’m not sure I’d feel any better. My leniency while shopping at Costco the weekend before was coming back to haunt me. After looking at the nonsense paperwork I’d have to fill out just to get a membership card I exhausted said no thanks. Back on the sidewalk, now facing the way I’d come, I saw my respite.

Like some sort of mirage in a Vegas desert, illuminating the hollow street in yellow light was a great big sign with retro style font reading in plain English: Denny’s. If I’d cared to wonder why on earth there was a Denny’s in Japan, it came second to me being thankful that even in a foreign country  some habits never change. It’d been a while since I’d been for breakfast so late at night — if only Nico were around — and although I was guaranteed this wouldn’t be as good as the hash browns in Fargo I’d had a week before I left the states, after forgoing a proper lunch and dinner it seemed like breakfast in order.

The place was doing a decent amount of business which a strange crowd. Groups and couples of all ages who’d mostly looked liked they’d left the nightclub, but I even saw some people playing Magic. Had it not been for the lack of sleep and probable body odor I would’ve attempted to join them, though, at that moment I could barely focus on anything other than ordering.

I got a set with tea. The first plate was a salad dressed in fruit, followed by a hamburger patty drizzled in sauce with both fries and rice. The cap was a dish of ice cream with strawberries, whipped cream,  bananas, and chocolate sauce. It revitalized me a bit, or at least made the night worth it. Not as good as the Perkins I was expecting, but fine for a close substitute for home.

Really, in the corner of the restaurant I was in, I doubt it would’ve been a problem if I’d just laid out in the booth and passed out there, but being the civilized young man I am I headed back to the Post Office to finish out the hours before sunrise.

This time even the P.O. window was closed, though, that didn’t stop people from coming in. I didn’t really fall asleep, or maybe I did. I wasn’t exactly tired throughout any of the night. Luckily the stamina from cross country running can be used in many ways. I think I just tried to preserve any amount of brain power I had. Being in Japan helps, too, because I didn’t really have to worry about any mess of problems I could encounter in America (but even those are mostly irrational).

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In the early light of the morning I went back on the street. With the disheartening realization that most of the shops would still take two to three hours before they would be open, I headed into a coffee shop that is supposedly famous in Nagoya. There I recuperated the rest of the night and tried to make my day’s decision. I looked through the program from yesterday’s tournament and found the list of side events. In poor translation I figured out another mysterious game titled “Super Sunday Melee” with a couple of rules in bulletins I couldn’t quite understand. The sign-up started at nine, which was still before the rest of my days was planned to begin. Really, I’d come to Nagoya to play Magic so I figured I might as well do just that. When I want to enjoy the city I’ll come back and do it with proper planning.

When I got back to the convention center I was fully awake. I signed up for the tournament and even got to see the Day 2 main event start. After last night, I’m a bit relieved I didn’t have to go through another nine rounds today, but it also gives me something to work for. There’s another tournament in Tokyo over Golden Week and then in Kyoto in the fall. What was the most impressive was being able to see some of the well known pro-players. Especially this guy named Yuya Watanabe who’s one of the greatest currently competing.

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The game that I was joining in was the most bizarre format that I’ve participated, and it will probably remain that way for a while. At the last moment I had to rush and get a playmat because it was a requirement to play. They setup everyone at a long row of tables and handed out masks to every eighth player or so. In total there were over thirty people, and among my crowd I was definitely the only English speaker. Like the day before we were given six packs to make a new deck, but this time we would be competing with the people on either side of us. When someone lost, then they’d leave the spot and everyone would squish together — hence the melee. The catch is you could only play offense toward the person on your left, defend against the person on your right, while targeting both of them with other effects.

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There’s a format called EDH/Commander, which is touted as one of the more socially enjoyable ways to play. I imagine this was like that on steroids, but was actually some of the most fun I’ve had playing the game. It was just ridiculous to have to worry about if the guy six seats down from you had just hit ultimate on Kiora while encouraging the guy you’re supposed to attack in the future to attack the guy on his left. The masks were used as place-markers and being required to use them only forced the silliness that much. (Don’t worry, they were worn like hats instead of actual masks, no fear of the flu, maybe just lice.)

I lost just about the time one of the guys I’d driven with came and found me. Surprisingly he also had a bundle of packs in his arms he said he’d won from other side events. Seemed like I’d been playing the wrong games, since I’d won nothing but the belittlement of Japanese players much more intense than I.

I guess there’s not much more to this story than to say I also lost my backpack. Well, at least that’s kind of what everyone seemed to assume when I said someone took my backpack. I caught it when I was starting the melee and looked under my chair to find it vanished. Quite impressively too since it had my rain jacket, yesterday’s clothes, my lucky shirt, iPad, headphones, DSLR camera… Like me alone lugging it around was a feat, but to make off with it unnoticed is skill. I told a judge, who got event staff, and I went to lost and found, I backtracked everything, and despite everyone else’s disbelief I was certain it was gone because of someone else’s accord. I mean, yes, in Japan crime rates are lower, but not invisible, and at an international event like that with so many temporary people it’s not hard to believe. I definitely was a bit too lax about it, too, with too much trust in the system. Perhaps my best and worst quality is my faith in the “it can’t be helped” mentality, and when I started the melee I tried not to let it wreck my experience.

Honestly, though, the most annoying point was seemingly everyone putting the fault on me. Even when I searched out among my coworkers the word for stolen in Japanese no one seemed to believe that I hadn’t just lost it. Yes, plenty of fault on me for not keeping it connected to me at all times, but I mean clearly I hadn’t lost it right? I was starting to even doubt myself.


My vindication came almost two weeks later when my school got a call from the local bank. My adviser told me the police had found my backpack outside a train station, and found my bankbook (which only works in Fukui and can’t withdraw cash anyway) that has my name on it. Afterward the bank called the school, and we called the station.

I stood dreadfully trying to listen in as I asked my adviser to ask them what else they found.

“Oh, a jacket,” he translated. “And headphones.”

“What about a camera?”

“A tablet.”

He asked about the camera.

“No, no camera.”

Exhale. Damn. Strange and impractical and thankful, only one thing, but also the most expensive to replace by far. At least I’ve got my lucky t-shirt. I suppose this makes it even luckier.

They were even able to mail everything back to my apartment instead of me having to go back there just for it. Still my only backpack and rain jacket (hauled through Thailand and New York), and it was a pretty big hassle to go without them — especially now that winter is ending and spring is starting.

So, yeah, another trip outside the safety of Fukui complete and when all is said pretty successful. My faith in the system is restored, my acceptance of my nerdy habits is complete, and my ability to travel alone became a bit stronger. Although, being the beginning of the month, I really didn’t budget very well, and it became a bit of a problem stretching out what cash I had left before the next paycheck so I don’t know how soon it will be before I get off on another adventure. Spring break is still a month away.

 

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.

 

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

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.

Kyoto

The past week seemed to fly by. I was all aches for Monday and Tuesday still from the mountain trip, but my classes were very subdued. All the students have been studying more and more recently, focused on upcoming tests that Friday, so most other activities and classes were cut short. On Thursday and Friday me and my co-ALT had hardly anything to do except knock out revisions of the tests one by one. Of course it’s still mind numbing work, but in the swing of things it’s manageable and gives some leeway for me to spend time studying Japanese or be preparing for random lesson plans.

Come Friday, though, I was already looking forward to the end of the weekend.

In the beginning of October my school started implementing morning English lessons (improperly called “English Club”). In small groups of four or five I would ask the students, “where do you want to go in Japan?” I got some varying answers, but typically it came down to five places: Okinawa, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. These places were actually the most sought after that I would have uncanny moments during the conversation where my responses and their answers became verbatim to discussions I’d had groups before. Later I joked about this fact with one of the English teachers and mentioned that I had only been to Tokyo out of that group. He suggested that we should go to Kyoto sometime, maybe a weekend at the end of the month and I politely agreed.

You see, from what I’ve heard from the JET grapevine, invitations (in the future tense) to do things or see places operate in about the same state as Americans treat meetings among their acquaintances. The “let’s do this again sometime” adage comes to mind. You say it as an obligation, and although you probably wouldn’t mind to do it again, you’re just never actually going to have the time. Thus were my expectations with this. Something along the lines of “Oh, you silly American, you’ve never been to Kyoto. It’s so close and easy to get to, I will make you cultured and take you there myself.”

So come Monday I was a bit surprised when he (sitting in the desk next to mine) asked casually if I was excited for this weekend.

I tilted my head for a moment wondering and asked, “Why? What’s this weekend?”

“Oh?” he said, “We go to Kyoto.”

I flicked up the calendar on my computer to see that it was indeed the end of October and he was indeed being true to his word. Another Japanese cultural myth busted.

“Alright,” I said, trying to act like, of course, I’d known. “I’m excited.”

Yet, as the week went by, I got my salary and had enough to go, the feeling still remained like: are we really doing this?

After all, this is Kyoto we’re talking about, probably the second most well-known city in Japan my foreigner standards, and arguably the city with the longest history. But Sunday morning came and I was ready with a rain jacket and camera packed in my bag.

The English teacher, who I’m used to calling Isopp, is the same age as me a coincidence I’m pretty grateful for because we’ve got a decent amount in common. He’s the one who’s gotten me into League of Legends, and will be the savior in helping me navigate Japanese computer parts when eventually I can afford to build a computer. He picked me up at 10:30, a little later than planned, but we shot off to catch the train at 10:50. (So much for Japanese punctuality.) Apparently there had been some sort of volunteer group the teachers participated in to pick up trash around the local river, so he’d already been up for three hours. (Side note, there are certain things that go on at school that as ALTs we’re never bothered to be told about. I feel like had I known, I probably would’ve gone and enjoyed it. At least I know to ask.)

The round trip the train cost about $60, and again it only shames me to think of all the weekends I wasted in Minnesota, not deciding to cheaply travel elsewhere. Hopefully–at least the way things are going–one thing I’ll learn from living here is how to seize the location or get out and explore the world a little better. I’ve made the argument that American cities are so far apart from each other (L.A., New York, Chicago, D.C.) but that’s also pretty contrary to my socialist beliefs of supporting the local communities in between.

Anyway, the train ride takes a little under two hours on a Thunderbird train so I had plenty of time to think. We both were pretty tired so after a couple of ear popping tunnels we fell into napping.

Off the train, though, was completely awakening. Kyoto’s main station is huge by any standards I’ve meet. Sure, Tokyo Station is vast, but it’s still all underground, so it feels more like a labyrinth. Here, though, seems more like an airport. As we waited on the platform for our train, the departing passengers flew out like a swarm of locust, a mash of people coming and going on the narrow track. It’s always a strange feeling now to be instantly surrounded by so many people.

We stopped for a quick bite at a Lawson’s conbini. I got a nikuman, and a sports drink, although I could’ve eaten more. Had we not only had the day to spend there I probably would’ve forced us to get a proper lunch, but being frugal I was fine to be on our way. The sun was bright with clear skies and I was thankful being that it was a torrent of rain the night before (rain I got stuck in walking to and from the grocery store).

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The first place seemed to come out of nowhere. I still actually don’t know what it’s famous for, but it is a zen temple on the outside of town known as Tenryu-ji, or (based solely on learning certain kanji in my students’ names) I would guess it means heavenly dragon temple.

The temple actually takes up an extreme amount of space. From our entrance we walked along a long pebbled road, passing by various smaller huts and temples. We stopped outside a small Shinto altar and I learned the proper Japanese way to pray for a wish for my ¥5 offering.

We first paid ¥500 to enter a building with the sole purpose of looking at the dragon painted on its ceiling. Now, the dragon is pretty large, as you might see on the website, and it’s even pretty inspiring, but not only as someone who studied Japanese art history, but with the western values of the Sistene chapel I can tell you it wasn’t worth ¥500. Especially because there were no photos allowed. But, no matter because I was soon to find out that basically everyplace worth site-seeing in Kyoto cost ¥500. And as someone who earlier mentioned that I should have no problem supporting local communities (not that they need that much support) I put the cost of the trip behind me and decided to indulge.

Isopp with not Daruma

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The gardens of Tenryu-ji

The temple would actually be a great place to lounge around in the day, and the gardens surrounding it are beautiful, but I think it’s most known for its bamboo forest. Now I thought I had known what a bamboo forest would be like. After all, throughout my life I’d seen my fair share of bamboo fight scenes.

Tenryu-ji's Bamboo garden

There’s something overwhelming about the sheer size that bamboo to get to. I was thinking that a thicket would be all pressed together and smothering, but instead this forest was incredibly tall, easily reaching 15 meters, with each shoot a good stride apart from each other. If I went again I would suggest probably going in the summer when the bamboo is more green, and definitely on a day with less people (if that were ever possible).

Pose at the Bamboo Forest

Short on time I didn’t get to see if there was more to explore, but it didn’t look like it. We cruised back down the hill, I hadn’t realized how high up we were, and found an outlet along a river and popular tradition bridge. Eventually we walked to a different station with smaller old-style trains and got our ticket to head to Kinkaku-jiI, the golden temple.

The Golden Glory that is Kinkaku-ji

The approach to this temple is similar to Tenryu-ji, where it’s a long walkway to get to the actually entrance. After paying another ¥500, we were mashed with a line of people shuffling along the narrow road to the view of this temple. It was particularly cool to see it in real life after briefly studying it in my Japanese art history class. Despite the tranquil facade the pictures often elude to–an insolated beauty in the mountains of Japan–the place is over commercialized, and it’s pretty hard to really enjoy among the mass of people. The fact that it’s actually leafed entirely in gold, though, is pretty stunning in real life as it radiates a special shine in the sunlight. The rest of the park is actually worthwhile, too.
After rushing ahead of the school trip and Scandinavian tour groups, we decided to take a break to get some matcha (again for ¥500). There’s a specific way to drink traditional green tea, which I learned, and it was pretty sweet that our little sugar/salt/anko dessert came with gold leaf on top. The warm matcha was well worth the pause.

Matcha and sugar snack Making an offering Shrine at Kinkaku-ji

By now it was nearing four o’clock, and we still had one more stop out of the many options to go to. Apparently, it’s Isopp’s favorite place to visit in Kyoto, and seems like the general must see place. After flopping around to find the right bus, we finally got on the right one, cramped but seated, and made the forty minute ride across town.

That’s probably what surprised me most. Kyoto has its own subway system, but nothing near to the extent of Tokyo. Still, the city is spread out, and it can’t take a while to get from one side to the other. We got off the bus and found our way along a famous road full of a majority of shops selling omiyage and souvenirs. Seriously, not a place to spend a quick day. It was super effective in getting me to see what Kyoto has to offer, but I’m already thinking about what do to when I go back.

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A temple in Kyoto

Isopp orders crab

We took a brief pre-dinner stop at a random temple intersection. Once we got up the step and saw all the food stalls there was no stopping the hunger. Especially seeing the crab for (the trendy) ¥500. It’s been a long while since I’ve actually had crab (since a delightful dinner in Port Angeles, WA summer of 2013), and apart from the typical costs I don’t know why I don’t eat it more often. This was a great snack and lead us away from the busy street, almost magically, into 19th century Japan with the streets of Higashiyama.

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With the sun setting and the lanterns turned on, this place really felt like a different world. Around certain parts there weren’t many people, so even though we were getting low on time, I still could enjoy the feeling of being in the heart of Japan.

Of course, then we hit the final stretch up the hill to the famed Kyomisu temple and it’s iconic red pagoda. The streets were packed with stores solely selling omiyage and souvenirs, and people in kimonos, and foreigners afoot. It was bustling for a Sunday past 5 o’clock.

We made it to the temple with half an hour left to peruse what easily could’ve taken half the day. Isopp through some change to the ticket counter and led me up steps and past altars.

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“You can see it?” He asked as he flew strides ahead of me past the aforementioned pagoda.

“Yeah,” I replied snapping a quick and grainy photo.

“Good.”

We made it finally on one of the higher platforms past the main building when Isopp finally slowed down.

“This is my favorite spot. When I come to Kyoto, I always go to here.”

It’s funny, when something is so well known for it’s location and history it’s usually completely overlooked for the littler things it has to offer. I feel like during the day this view of Kyoto would’ve been neutral and mundane, but at night it really justifies the beauty of Japan was like. Among the places and the people I got to see a lot. Plenty of kimonos and old buildings mixed with school uniforms and souvenir shops.The country’s culture has evolved so drastically in the last century, yet it still tries to maintain the values it’s held for the last millennium.

View of Kyoto from Kyomisudera

Hike

This past weekend started on a whim. I got back from school early Friday evening and went for a quick run wearing shorts and a tank top. The day was quite warm, but I knew it would be one of the last that I’d get to enjoy. When I got back and started cooking dinner there was discussion over LINE messages over who would be around and what to do this weekend.

I had asked around on Thursday to see if anyone wanted to climb Mt. Hino, the highest point in the nearby area, and enjoy what was supposed to be perfect weather for the weekend. I got some pretty weak responses, so now on Friday I was committed to finding something else to do. That’s when one of my neighbors sent out an invitation to climb an even higher mountain on Saturday, with the caption “This could be where you’re sleeping tomorrow night.”

Without even clicking on the link I replied back with agreement, and we were quickly making plans. I went to his place to pick up a hiking backpack and figure out what other things I would need. From America I didn’t really pack with great backpacking trips in mind. But I ended up pretty set with the various running clothes I’d brought for winter.

We decided to leave at midnight. Yes, midnight, another thing I didn’t consider before I gave my response. The mountain was, of course, no where near us and required a four hour drive to get to the start of the multiple hour hike. I think my neighbor was a little skeptical of my ability at first. After all, he is a pretty well known and experienced outdoorsman and I…well, I come from a land where the best hiking trails wind up in Canada. I guess I too was skeptical of how much I could handle, being it’d been a while since I’d done any camping and not a while since I started running, but as I mentioned I was committed to doing something great this weekend, and I couldn’t imagine something better coming along.

On the road, leaving finally at 1 o’clock in the morning, I managed to stay awake and keep the conversation while Mac downed energy drinks and avoided speeding tickets. Given some more time I probably would’ve passed out–as the drive passed my seat slowly reclined lower and lower–but as we rolled into the parking grounds at 5 o’clock I perked up significantly. On the way we stopped by a conbini to stock up on the next five meals and snacks for the weekend, and before we set out I chomped down a plate of fish, rice and some pickled vegetables. It also took time to pack everything up in the car, as it was barely over 40 degrees out. I had long underwear, under shorts, under track pants, with a shirt and a pullover and my winter jacket.

Start of the hike
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first thing I noticed stepping into the chilled night were the stars. It’s something I’ve been disappointed about looking at the stars around my apartment–mainly the fact that there are none. Here, where the nearest conbini was a good half hour away, the stars speckled the clear night sky. After reading A Brief History of Time, it was really great to imagine the science Stephen Hawking tries to explain and the practicalities of it through our own understanding. I would’ve been fine just setting up camp in the parking lot for a while and looking at the stars, but with dawn soon upon us and the frigid atmosphere already seeping through my skin we set off.

Sun coming over the ridge

It didn’t take too long into the trek for the sun to crest the mountain ridge with an amber glow, and I could finally appreciate the forest that surrounded us. Out to our left the mountains rose above a river with trees curried in colors of autumn. Everywhere around my home has stayed the same tone of green; it was like skipping ahead in time. Soon it was warm enough to take off my jacket and hat (while at the same time, Mac set out that morning in shorts).

Autumn colors in the morning
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first hour of the hike was pretty mundane, while we followed a gravel road cut into the mountainside. It made for a good warm up, as I would find out that Japan trailblazing has some unique features American trails don’t always follow. We made a quick stop for second breakfast, and chugged the water in our bottles to refill at a spring before crossing a small dam and hitting the actual start of the hike.

On the trail in the shadow

This is where things turn difficult. It was actually as if the whole day’s hike followed an exponential formula in terms of difficulty over time. At first the hike was a mixture of muddy, leaf and rock ridden trail that didn’t really go in any particular direction. We actually passed a guy who had started out the day at the same time as us, so it seemed like we were making good time. I had my Bluetooth speaker playing in the background (a playlist of various best-of albums rushed together the hours before we left) and it helped keep a rhythm. After about three hours, though, the mud and leaves waned and the rocks increased. It was like the person who crafted the trail used a blunted machete to clear the path and was followed by a truck with the most rigid ottoman sized boulders they could find. Really it was a wonder that we didn’t fall while going up. At this point I did notice that I felt like I was losing more energy than I was spending, the realization that we were gaining altitude. After scrambling over some rock slides and river veins, we reached the base of our first ascent, and I very slightly demanded that we take lunch.

photos via halfwayanywhere.com
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The whole time I hadn’t looked at my watch (on my phone). I wasn’t exactly hungry, but I figured I should stay on top of eating to avoid any gnawing pain that could crop up. I could’ve guessed that it was rounding noon, Mac took a shot at 11:30. I’m not sure if we were glad or disheartened when I checked and saw it was still 10:30. We had been hiking for a long while, but then again, we still had a long way to go, we hadn’t even started the ascent.

That’s what came next. Packing away the onigiri wrappers, the cheese and meat sticks, the bottled water, we moved across the river to the edge of a peak and began the trek up short and steep switchbacks. Looking back I think this was actually my least favorite part. We finally came out of the shade of the trees and were on the side drenched in sun. I’d stripped down to shorts and a shirt, but still felt overheated. It really was a scramble with the occasional safety rope tied to a tree as well as parts that were swept away by dirt and rock slides.

View from the trail

2440 meters high, the first peak
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Once we made it to the top of the first peak I definitely questioned what it was all for. The mountain we were on was a bit shorter shooting up in the center of the valley. The view was grand, seeing the colors of the basin, but the surrounding ridges seemed to curve up around us. It didn’t hold as much umph as I was expecting, but it allowed me to see we still had a far way to go. It was kind of just an appetizer.

The real start

We got back on the main trail, pushing even further up. Our conversation had long since mellowed out to the occasional statements, and I noticed that I’d stopped singing along to the music playing. When I tried I was out of breath, and it was the first time during the hike that we started taking regular stops. The effect was gradual, but the lack of oxygen had finally reached us. I took the approach to go in bursts along the grassy trail, tackling the height and recuperating while Mac went steadily one foot in front of the other. Even along this lower ridge we were still higher than the peak we’d came from, all the while being able to see across to the place we wanted to get to.

The way up

peak reference

It was grueling.

Once we reached the final stage, a switch from grassy terrain to rocks and pebbles, I felt doomed. I ignored the ache in my legs and focused solely on how much energy I could be exerting. Never has my heart beat so fast while my body has moved so slow.

The precarious stairway

Top of the stairway

End of the dirt and start of the rocks
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This by far the most thrilling portion we’d hit for the day. It seemed that any time the rocks could shift below my feet and I’d be rolling to pain. Also, the lack of oxygen played with my mind a bit, keeping it focused on one thing, letting my body go forward on its own accord. We got back onto, somewhat solid ground, and then started hitting the snow. With 500 meters to go the chalet we were trying to reach seemed so close, but yet it hadn’t grown in my perspective. We took a brief stop for lunch, downing a sandwich, more jerky, some chocolate, and lots of water.

I had to start changing my layers, switching out my jacket a couple of times, as we moved into the mountain’s shadow. I really wish I’d had gloves as my fingers were the coldest part on my body. Gripping rocks and lifting myself along ledges sucked any heat out of them.

All this time climbing up this mountain, clouds had started to move along the other side of the ridge. For a while they just lingered there, but now they were starting to move over the top and come onto our side. They weren’t the heaviest looking, but definitely a darker shade of gray–an ominous motivation to move a bit faster. They started to block out the sun and really helped to cool things down. I was convinced that any moment we would be rained on.

So far to go

 

Almost to the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Within 100 meters to the top we still probably took fifteen minutes to get there. The path we were on had dissolved into short switchbacks and rocks with painted circles on them, directing us where to go. It seemed like any path was a good path as long as we went up. The chalet had finally disappeared, covered now by the rounding of the hill we were about to summit. The full ache of my body was coming to now. My bruised collarbone, the soreness of my lower back, the burning in my calves, the sleep deprivation and the occasional twitch where the scar from my foot hadn’t fully healed all surmounted to my sensory overload. I was just about done when we finally made it.

Standing by Mt Yari

I had made it, and actually staggered out a laugh with the joy. Not because we had made it to the top, or at the beautiful view, but because we were next to the chalet I knew we would enter to rest and warm up in. I needed it bad, and if it hadn’t been for Mac I probably would’ve stayed there for a while. Or at least passed out on the counter. Alas, we couldn’t stay there forever, and with my fingers hardly warm, water-bottles refilled, track pants back on, and much prodding from Mac, we got back out to finish the day.

Rest at the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com