Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ono marathon field of participations

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

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

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

ono meisui marathon award ceremony

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

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

dillon with mikata high school runners and awards

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

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

“You can do that here?!”

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

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

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

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

 

 

Waterfalls

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

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

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

“Wanna hang out on Sunday?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Bring Hazuki with you.”

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

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

Dillon with a baby

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

Hazuki standing Hazuki Crawling

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no.”

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

“Don’t you have a towel?” I asked.

“No.”

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

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

“Well, has this ever happened to you?”

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

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

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

kazura vine bridge

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

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

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

waterfall gif

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

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

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.”

093

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surfing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yamaguchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween

It’s funny to think that one of my most memorable Halloween would come not only in my twenties but also in a country that until this century didn’t even know Halloween existed. I’d begun to see the candy sold in the stores, and then the themed signs and advertisements up, as the conbinis even started to add in a couple of halloween themed songs to their evening mixes (mostly, though, just “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas). Truly, it seems that anything that can rack in sales from commercialization can become a global phenomenon.

It started in school. Of course, two American English language teachers can hardly pass off the chance to dress up and amuse their students with a day that mostly revolves around them. All the teachers seemed to be on board with having a big party, and although the board outside our language room was void of any decor I think we managed to introduce Halloween pretty well. For about a week I gave the same presentation, and found out a lot about the holiday myself. Turns out, plenty of cultures have a days similar to the roots of Halloween. Japan has a festival called Obon during the end of the summer that I’ve really been looking forward to ever since my third year in Japan class when we had a unit about Japanese festivals. Sad to find out I’d have to wait a year until we got to that point.

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Somewhat strange to report on something so modern. The presentation wrapped up with how long lines for Haunted Houses can get and the fact that a dozen new scary movies winds up featured across movie theaters. Still got to mention the differences between a hundred years ago and now the evolution between the two, so I don’t feel like it’s a complete waste of educational resources.

At the apartment complex the Thursday night before Halloween we had a bunch of students from a nearby junior high school and even some younger ones come around a go trick-o-treating. With over ten doors to knock on it seemed like quick the hit. I spent over ¥2000 on candy and ran out half way through. I didn’t even have a costume at that point, relying on a pirate skull daizo mask that one of the teachers lent me. I was surprised how much fun I’d had, only realizing just now that it is the first time I’ve actually been the one in charge of passing out the candy… weird. My grandparents have a neighbor who used to take care of me, and every time I trick-o-treated there he’d creep to the door with a god awfully scary mask. I suppose I learned a lot from him, as I crouched next to the peep hole in my door, listening and waiting for students to get close. Once the reached out for the doorbell I’d crack open the door with a “Boo!” All night I was a bit worried I’d wind up toppling one of the kids with my antics, and it’s just my luck that on the very last one another ALT happened to get rammed by the door.

So, two days before Halloween and I was rounding out the night in high spirits, looking forward to the weekend. You see, Fukui City’s international club had this annual gig going where they hosted a Halloween party. The only catch is the party was hosted in a city almost two hours away. Well, I guess that’s not the only catch because in order to get there the IC rented out a train, old style since retired by the main transit, and to make sure the party went as long as possible decorated that train with black lights and sound systems. It’s something I’d been told was one of the best events this side of the New Year, so I’d been wanting to go. However, the tickets initially sold out, a pre-sale that I’d never even been privy to. Luckily one of my friend hit me up right away when the club was selling the remaining tickets, all I had to do was be at the station an hour before take-off.

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After a Friday night out for nomihoudai and some karaoke, Saturday comes and everything is good, except that I’m going to a Halloween party, and I have yet to get a costume. After pedaling slow in the morning I rushed out in the afternoon to trek to the not so near mall in search of black duck tape. Yes, because what other material would you have in mind for a last minute costume. Actually, I must admit, a lot of help came from the Internet (the true killer of creativity). Originally the night before I’d borrowed a cardboard box used for bulk microwavable popcorn and had initially decided to make some sort of mask out of that.

If you look back at my earliest Halloween photos you’d be hard to distinguish year from year. Not because I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid for five year, but since I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid in a Batman costume for five years. Honestly, looking back on it I have know clue when or where the Batman obsession came from since even in my pre-teens I was definitely rooting more for the Marvel/X-Men side of things. But in those early years it was only the wealthy, detective solving, crime fighting, bachelor I wanted to emulate. Thus, it seemed a worthy costume to attempt in the course of four hours.

I ended up buying the last roll of black tape they had in stock, and with yellow for accents as well as some fingerless gloves and black trash bags I was on my way to making the best costume yet. It had been a while after all, since I had come up with anything to wear for Halloween. Last year, I hosted a party for fifty in the space of my 300 ft living room and kitchen, so ain’t nobody got time for costumes, and every before that I’d been able to rely on my aribeito at Ragstock to provide me with endless Halloween fun. I knew the toddler sized pumpkin outfit would be a tough one to top, but I think I did it this year.

With four hours before my train left, I thought I’d be able to round out a decent helmet and utility belt. I stuck a plastic bag on my head, whipped open the tape, and scissors already on my hand, pulled up this quick and easy instructable. Perhaps, it’s a little too quick and easy. Of course, at first I felt like a fool, and wishing there was more documentation on the website clearly under stood why there isn’t. I didn’t only look like a fool, I was whole-heartedly foolish for a least an hour into the process. You’re basically just rolling tape around your head, while starting to break into a sweat because hey, it’s duck tape layered plastic you’re strapping to your head and that’s generally not a good way to allow breathability. I ended up using the popcorn box to form the nose and that’s when I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. That’s also when I realized there was no way I’d be able to finish off the costume, run to the station and make the train in time.

Luckily, Mac came to the rescue, offering a ride to the station. I wounded up shaping the eyebrows and attaching the ears to the mask before donning anything black in my closet, shoving all my materials into a shopping bag and rushing out the door. Of course I looked even more ridiculous halfway into the costume buying a ticket and waiting for the train, but thankfully I ran into two other ALTs; one dressed as a pirate and the other wore a hand sewn Popeye outfit brought all the way from South Africa.

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By the time our train arrived in Fukui station my outfit was complete. Needless to say we were gawked at by many people, but once there was a decent crowd of foreigners we were also asked to pose for multiple pictures. I think I was actually surprised by how many Japanese people were also dressed up, and not only those who were going on the Halloween Train. Mostly younger, but all wearing some form of cosuplay and bloodied makeup. It was a lot of lingering around for the next hour after I’d gotten my ticket, but also just a crowd of giddiness as people showed up in more and more ridiculous outfits. I think Ghibli themes win out, but I must’ve seen at least and equal amount of Marios and Luigis.

The train ride was gradually epic. I hopped on with a slight buzz, and once everyone got comfortable in the tight quarters and rolling experience it was really all new and cool. The one thing that I’m always anxious about in these situations, though, is recognizing people, but never remembering their names. We’re all spread across the prefecture so it’s really hard to remember so many names without ever seeing them often. Add to that the amount of first years and veterans mixed together and I’ve gotten used to never assuming anyone, Japanese people included, can 1) teach English and 2) even speak Japanese.

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Hard to describe the atmosphere of the train apart from that as part social club part night club (and I guess, also, at the very front part kid’s venue where all the parents brought their Minions (literally dressed as minions from Despicable Me) to chill and be all cool with their roles as parents in Japan’s society), and I won’t go into much of the feeling apart from decent music, the occasional bumping of the train off the tracks, and  really you sometimes had no clue where you were relative to everyone else.

On the train time didn’t seem to pass quickly or slowly. I hadn’t checked my watch when we got on so at any given time I had known clue to know when we’d arrive or how far we’d come. Eventually the train slowed, and everyone filtered off. We were literally herded off the platform and through the tiny station where a crowd of people had gathered to greet and take pictures of us all. I felt somewhere between a celebrity and saved hostage. Everyone wanted to see us, but I had no clue why. Not of course, til I got outside and saw the filling dance floor.

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It was definitely a new experience to add to the unexpected ones I’ve had in Japan. We basically had a huge party in the station parking lot. Many people cruised across the street to raid the remains of the closing supermarket. I felt I was good for the night, but ran into their backroom to use the toilet. It’s funny, but I could sense a difference in the way people reacted to me. Being Batman kind of gives you this sense of trust or protectiveness, probably along with some sort of invincibility, so it’s pretty good I was staying tame that night. On the whole. I took many a pictures with various people, and even found a tiny Batman (a me of years past?) and accompanying Cat woman. At some point, somehow, I got onto someone’s shoulders, and I’m not quite sure. One of my neighbors went as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, so I can only assume he was strong enough to hold me. It was during the song Jump (the Kriss Kross one), and I was pumping my hands in the air getting while everyone was getting as high as they could. Pretty sweet moment.

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Surprisingly the night ended with everything still in tact. I thought for sure the cape wouldn’t make it on the train ride back, but it actually acted well, being slippery enough that anyone who wanted to squeeze past me had no problem. When we made it back to the station and said our goodbyes many people were headed to the after party at a venue nearby. Looking back it probably was a missed out opportunity to meet new people, but I decided to go back with Mac and some the neighbors, thinking two nights out would be pushing it for Monday morning class.

 

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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

Peaks

Leaving the Chalet took a lot of effort on my part. But it was already 2 o’clock and we had a decent ridge to scale before we arrived at our destined campsite (or so we hoped). The clouds that were sweeping over us on the way up the mountain were now passed and on the other side, lingering behind. With full water bottles and a bit of respite we were off. Soon I found the fatigue had passed with invigoration.

Mt. Yari and the Chalet

At the top of this ridge line we finally reached one of the higher points on the range, and had a completely 360 degree view. It made the climb significantly more interesting and better. We also were moving more at a level pace, so the lack air seemed to have less an effect. Of course I still had no clue where we were going apart from the direction, and every time Mac pointed toward a crest or curve my eyes got lost among the grey.

The direction we were going
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

By this point we were around 3,200 meters high, about two miles, with around a three hour hike left for the day. I was thankful for not having many switchbacks anymore, and really just a straightforward climb. The top had a lot more snow than what we saw coming up, but on a whole the clouds moved away to allow the sun to shine full on. Mac had been vigilant about putting on sunscreen, but I was a little less worried (but with the dry air and sun combination, I’m feeling a bit of the consequences). It didn’t seem like long before I looked back and the chalet and Mt. Yari resumed being immeasurable points in the distance.

Mt. Yari from a distance

Can you see the chalet? It’s actually a rest point for a lot of climbers and they have a significant amount throughout the range. Of course, they’re pretty expensive, which is why we were heading to a campsite. Typically they charge you to use those (as Mac will say, a ridiculous amount per person!), but since the one we were headed to was closed for the season we’d get off free.

There were still a number of peaks to hit along the way. We headed toward this place called the daikirete, something we spent some time trying to translate. I was convinced it stood for “The Great Cut” for indeed that’s what it was, a severe gash across the mountain line (a huge but brief drop in elevation). As we crawled along the ridge I kept looking for what could be such a place that it would get its own name. In the name the first kanji ‘dai‘ does stand for big, but the ‘kirete‘ is strangely in katakana.

Scaling the first mountain
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

We picked up the pace as we hit the first big peak. Don’t get it wrong, though, we were still moving as infant toddlers learn to walk. I would find myself trying to make it all in one shot, but then forced to pause for fear of my heart working so fast it’d stop. It made for a good excuse to take in the view. Behind us the clouds were looking pretty overwhelming, but we could still see in front of the valley where we’d originally started, and across to our left where the mountains sprawled out for what seemed forever. Mac started pointing them out, and it’s amazing that he’s been to so many. Japan have three peaks in particular known as the “Holy Trinity”: Mt. Fuji, Mt. Haku, and Tateyama. Mac pointed far off to the southeast (our left) where Fuji would be without the clouds, and then to the opposite direction where we could see Haku-san. He gestured behind us and said if we were on a higher point we’d also see Tateyama over the ledge behind us. When I got here and fell into the peril that stopped me from climbing Fuji, I decided I’d climb all three before I left. It was quite inspiring to see them all from one place.IMG_0126

But of course, at that point, all the views are inspiring.

The peak of this mountain was pretty flat, shaped almost like a bowl with the rocks throughout. We stayed up there a moment relishing in the view. It was a bit of an oasis, you’d have to climb up one side to see, and then drop down to the bowl to go up the other and see the other side. I felt like any moment I stopped looking, I’d drop back down into rocks and the view would disappear.

Into the Mist
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Which, given the amount of fog rolling in wasn’t that far from the truth. As I mentioned before, when we made our ascent the clouds were coming at the mountain–piling up but stifled on the other side. At some point before we came out of the chalet all the clouds decided to head to the other side, but their density was hard to grasp. In a breeze, though, they all drew back like a tide against the mountain. Unraveling across the ridge, the blocked out the ground below and reached higher than the sun.

Wall of Fog

It was so bizarre for a while, to be going along with one side facing a vast amount of mountain range and the other completely blanked out in white. It didn’t last, though, because soon the clouds from the east reeled in towards us. You could barely see it happen until it was upon you. They started out as large clouds in the distance, but then as they got closer dropped low and spread out. So, it wasn’t until the tendrils started curling out along the mountain that you realized what was happening.

Off into the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Not to mention that off in the distance (where we came from) we could start hearing thunder. There’s nothing like being stuck on a mountain and an impending thunderstorm to get you to move a bit faster. From a stint during his conquest of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mac had become a bit anxious about thunderstorms so I was doing my best not to let my imagination get to me.

The hike seemed never-ending, though, as we kept going toward the campsite. By now we had caught glimpses of the chalet by the site, but each time we reached the top of a peak it seemed farther away. Truly, it was as if the fog had created a mirage, a mythical chalet that we were striving for, but would never reach before the lightning came down and took us away for good. It was actually the curving of the ridge that made everything in front of us seem closer than it appeared. I kept on looking for the Great Rift, but Mac was certain it was ahead of us, so we knew that somehow we’d make it.

Climbing a ladder to the top

Another peak, thunder in the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This was the last peak of the day, and by now the fog was inevitable. The hike became less of a pleasing feat, and more of a threatening challenge. The thunder didn’t get closer, but would still rumble, and there was no telling if the clouds causing it would roll in our way anytime soon. At this point we were worn out for sure, I’d been hiking off no sleep and by now we reached over ten hours into the endeavor. Drinking water and eating food wasn’t enough to save me now, I desperately wanted to stop and rest.

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Out of the mist, the shape of the elusive fort formed, signalling the end of our trek. Painfully, though, we realized it wasn’t over yet. Frozen to the bone and numb in the head, we still had to set up camp–Mac’s two person tent–and replenish with dinner before we could pass out like lions.

The campsites, flat grounds spaced out by the chalet with stone built walls curving around one side, were not ideal in any way, and we couldn’t figure out where to place the tent. If the ground wasn’t partially covered in snow it was saturated with mud and it seemed we had to chose the lesser of two terrible. Instead we decided to roam around the chalet a little more, looking for maybe a flat spot that would work. I ended up sitting on the scoop of a mini tractor, idle next to a pile of rocks. I put my hand to my chin, and closed my eyes.

It must’ve been about fifteen minutes (maybe more) before I realized I dozed off. I looked over to see Mac seated cross legged next to me, looking equally defeated. Sensing my presence he looked up and said, “I guess we should just go back to that first place.”

We chose the mud, making a futile attempt with prairie grass to make some sort of mat for the footprint. It’s funny, now we were coming to a close (I wanted nothing more than to get into my sleeping bag and warm up), but the fog was rolling away, or at least lower, so the setting sun became visible. We debated not using the rain-fly, Mac firmly suggesting against it. I made the other case, and with the thunder in the back of his mind he acquiesced with the promise that if it wasn’t raining by night we’d pull it off to see the stars. To be true, my concern was less about thunder and more about heat, but I agreed because the stars were one of the main reasons to spend the night.

By now it was rounding 5:30 at night, and the sun quickly sank below the top line of the fog. I’d chomped down a seasoned chicken breast shrink wrapped from the conbini while Mac ‘marked our territory.’ When he got back we flicked on our headlamps, cranked the tunes, and cracked open the beers we brought. It was a good way to fall asleep and–with literally every piece of clothing on or in my sleeping bag–I was starting to warm up. I had a couple bruises on my collar bones from the pack, but otherwise I didn’t seem to ache either. I forget how soundly I fell asleep, but after finishing the pumpkin flavored beer it doesn’t really matter.

I woke up once to the sound of my name. It came out in a cough and I rolled over to find Mac on his stomach, with his head sticking out the entrance of the rain-fly, muttering incomprehensible words. Looking back it was a hilarious scene, as he could’ve easily been mistaken as a drunk person. Instead, I heard him hacking, and the words “so sick” come out. Of course I was baffled and had no real action but to watch. “Are you OK?” I asked, to the reply of “Yeah, just sick. Just need to throw up.”

I heard it, the loudest of the hacking, the final satisfaction that vomit brings about, and instantly myself felt sick. Could it be the conbini food? Was I going to meet the same fate off my herbed chicken? At this point I really had to take a leak, too, despite my mind trying to will my bladder into submission. I did not want to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually the spewing became too much for me, though, and I rushed to slip on my shoes and shiver into the night.

This was perhaps the best decision I made in the last 24 hours.

The fog was still there, as expected, but it had settled back, maybe 50 meters, to the edge of our cliff. The white clouds still reached up like columns, but this time It wasn’t impending fog saturating our path, but a gate to guard the night. There was a benign form to them and they didn’t reach as high. Instead the sapphire clearness of the sky took over the ceiling. The moon like the crescent of a thumbnail shot light all over the campsite, illuminating the sky so it shone azure in some places. I’m sure if I dared to look longer I would’ve seen a multitude of stars, but there were still enough to make me gape up for a while. It was brilliant, surreal, perfect.

Alas, the chill was superior and I hustled to make my way back into the sleeping bag. I checked on Tyler who also took a moment to get outside, but came back to his bag with an OK and a theory about dehydration. This whole trip he’d been making sure that I was drinking plenty of water but I didn’t take him serious until now.

my sleepingbag
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I’d estimate that passage happened around 9 or 11, and later into the night I started to lose sleep. I had a problem where eventually the arm of the side I was laying on would fall asleep, so I’d have to transition to the other. I made it to a point early in the morning when it was still dark out, but I knew the sun would be coming up soon. I was tempted to go out, and I probably could’ve convinced Mac to join me, I bet he was sleeping as well as me, but my comfortable complacency won over.

In the end we still woke up within half an hour of sunrise. Our tent was caked with ice from our condensation. I pulled out a pint of orange juice and my final onigiri for breakfast as well as chomping down a power bar. I made sure to put on all my clothes (including jacket) before leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag, and then it didn’t take long to pack up the rest (since I was already wearing most of my luggage) and exit the tent.

Packing up the tent

Campsite's morning view
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I was baffled to find the landscape that morning. The wall of fog disappeared to reveal the barren mountainside clear to Mt. Haku. At first I had mistaken the lower clouds for a lake in the distance and it all seemed majestic. I did a bit of exploring and found the sun bright in the side on the other part of our cliff. It took me a bit, but after doing some math in my head I recognized the flat topped silhouette in the greatest distance as Mt. Fuji.

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I found it baffling. Such a change in the landscape from the previous day and night in just a couple of hours. What before seemed wild turned to tranquility. It was supreme and isolating. I had no way of knowing if we weren’t the only ones in the world at that moment. The only form of wildlife we’d seen was the rare raichou (known in Japan as the Thunderbird and in the US as the Snow Chicken…), and even that seemed like it should’ve perished overnight.

Morning on the mountaintop
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

But of course, now we ran into the obvious problem of how we would get down. Originally we thought about making a longer more difficult trek across the spine above, making it to a lift and then taking the commercialized way down. With Mac’s health and my lack of gloves in the mix, we decided to make a quicker time and head back to the main trail, somehow. We really were in new ground, though, because it was a path that Mac hadn’t been on and that we would later find out, had been detoured due to a few rock-slides.

What goes up... A slippery slope a sheer drop

On the snowy path

looking back at whence we came
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

It really was a winding path, and we actually descended alongside the mountain, only to be diverted back up another ridge. We spent a lot of this time in the shade and it was all filled with tentative steps. The narrow trail, the ice under snow, and frost on the rocks made everything unreliable. By the time we got down the peak we started on but back to the spine of another ridge we already gassed a lot of our energy.

The sun at least came onto our side, and we stripped off the jackets (of course, Mac was still in shorts all this time.)

Mac on a cliff

On the cliffside
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

From this point it was a long and dismal way down as the rock turned back into forest switchbacks. It was a swash of snow and mud and leaves and rocks at a sever downhill. Even when the mountainside became less steep, my knees found it unbearable. They started trembling and I started taking breaks. It’s funny as the way up we went at a similar pace, only stopping for different reasons. The way was absurd and Mac even commented that he’d never go this way again.

A tangled way down

I can’t not describe how relieved I was to get to the bottom. Even just the rounding out toward the base when the ground finally flattened out. I just about jogged the remainder so I could stop killing my legs. We came out at exactly the same spot we’d eaten lunch the day before. It was oddly content to complete the circle like that. Yesterday we had gone the completely opposite way, so it was a testament to how much effort we actually gave.

That was until Mac reminded me we still had three hours to get to the beginning.

Mac having lunch
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The trek down certainly seemed easier than yesterday, and I tried to lead us at a good pace. It still took a while and we didn’t have the added incentive of getting to the top of a mountain. Alas, the valley was just as beautiful, and we were chipper with the idea of onsen and rest.

The valley overall

On the ground

The last stretch

We made it back to the car completely satiated. I downed the remnants of my food and chugged some water while massaging the aches from the backpack straps. We took a trip to the nearby onsen, brushed our teeth, and cleaned off the grime. I actually didn’t feel too dirty, and I think it was just too cold and dry climbing to really work up a sweat. It was only my second time in an onsen, and I’d forgotten how incredibly hot they were. We got a great view of the mountain as we dipped in to our shoulders. With a four hour car ride ahead of us we didn’t linger too long. This time, though, the ride was even better, as I could really take in the mountains and surroundings of the prefecture. We made it back Sunday night by sunset. A weekend completely fulfilled, and even with the aches I’d have for the next couple of days, the suntan and scrapes, it was all well worth it.

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

 

BBQ

The past week I started to put up my school bulletin board, but once I glued the final touches of my name in cut out fluorescent orange bubble letters I realized since I didn’t have access to a printer or any art supplies my job was put on hold there. Instead I focused on the beef of this month’s work: the jikoshoukai, my self introduction. Being that it’s what I’ll be doing for each class the first time I visit, and there are three years, and eight classes per year, I’ll be presenting my self introduction roughly 24 times. Except, due to sports day festival and silver week, there are only 14 days of class this month. In which case I’ll be performing my self introduction at least two times a day, each taking up roughly half an hour, meaning I’ll be spending at least half a day introducing myself, and the other half answering questions like: how tall are you? What do you want to do in Japan? and of course, do you have a girlfriend?

So even though I got the layout of my presentation completed, I was still lacking in which photos to add and and even what software I would use. I was determined to finish it up over the weekend, but after waking up to a temperate and sunny Saturday morning I decided it could wait just a bit. Instead, I cleaned thoroughly for the first time, moving plenty of things around, sweeping the floors and organizing my closet. Really, it wasn’t much of a challenge since the only furniture I do have is a fold out futon mattress that goes into my closet. Still, it was nice to put things away and imagine what I’ll be doing come next paycheck. I keep going between a desk, chair, and monitor, or a couch; really, the conflict is do I create a space for myself to work and play, or a space for others to relax and socialize. For now, I’m leaning toward the latter, but also my lack of internet might be skewing what I’ll really want to have time for after a ten hour work day.

Anyway once the place was clean, I pulled out my iPad where I’d downloaded those Japanese textbooks, and spent some time studying and waiting for one of my neighbors to wake up. We had planned to drive to a nearby town where the local board of education and international club were hosting a yakitori at a local park. It’s weird to think that this was the last weekend I’d be having as part of summer vacation (especially since I’d been working most of the day for the past two weeks), but I really wanted to enjoy it.

We got to the park a little after the barb-b-que had started, but were welcomed by the people there. It was cool to see some of the ALTs we knew but also get introduced to a plenty of Japanese folk. A couple spoke very fluent English and started to pass raw cuts of meat our way.

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They had what seemed like an unlimited supply and the most ultimate of awesome secret sauces produced from a local restaurant. I gorged myself, with the thin strips of beef, chicken, and pork taking almost no time to cook (it gives me wonder to how I was vegetarian for five years). On top of that we also had a couple of bowls of yakisoba, some sort of slow roasted pound-cake, and a prawn and rice dish served by this awesome guy who owned his own miso shop and spoke English perfectly from living in Toronto for three years. Before we left with promises of future events we said we’d be visiting his shop and I really hope that I can soon because he seemed like a sweet person to get to know and enjoy the area better.

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That night after much internal debate, I decided to join a party of ALTs in the area for karaoke. Initially I was on the fence because of last week’s hangover and an overall lack of sleep that I’d be getting this week. I knew I needed to get into a better sleep schedule in order to feel good for school, but I figured I should take the opportunities that are given to get out and not be stuck in the shell that is my apartment. In the end I had a good time, but we stayed out way past midnight. My Sunday started early with the hope of carpooling to Costco some 2 hours away. Alas, no one else woke up early enough to make the drive before I met my adviser at 2:00 to get his old college washing machine. Kind of bummed, but hey, I saved what was probably a lot of money, and I finally have a washing machine… well, I do have the washing machine, but I still have to figure out how to hook it up to the spigot without having water spray everywhere else. All in good time. First, I’ve gotta set my sights towards the first day of school.