Friday, June 30, 2006

a golden week (IV)


The book I had brought along for the trip was Kappa by Ryonusuke Akutagawa, one of the most gifted and most depressed writers modern Japan has produced. Akutagawa finished his short writing career in 1927 at the age of thirty-five by swallowing a handful of pills and jumping straight out of his skin into the land beyond. He left behind reams of short stories, several novels, a colossal literary reputation, and a wife and three sons, aged seven, five and two years old. Kappa was published three months before he died.

I didn’t know about the final novel, the suicide, and the three abandoned sons when I threw Kappa into my backback. I only knew that Kappa were froggy little water spirits that I’ve always gotten a real kick out of. And that somewhere up in these mountains there is a bridge called Kappa-bashi where Akutagawa started his novel.

The little bus wound up through the mountain passes, the driver occasionally stopping to point out natural features of note. “These are the Oya-ko waterfalls. As you can see, the name Oya-ko (parent-child) really fits, as they branch apart into a larger and smaller stream.” We all nodded and looked appropriately awed. I went back to my novel, where the human protagonist had just stumbled out of the abrupt mountain fog and bumped straight into an amphibian kappa-man. Our own bus was rolling through alternating patches of deep fog and clear blue skies that alternated at weird and irregular intervals. When I failed to spot a kappa I went back to the book, just as the narrator begins to chase the fleeing frog-man. Right there, just as it was starting to get interesting, the dorky American two seats in front of me decided he wanted to chat.

“So you going hikin’?”

“Un. Yeah.”

“Umm, do you have any crampons in there?”

He eyed the cheapy white backpack I’d bought on sale. I tried to remember what a crampon was. Oh yeah. Those spiky things for your boots. I looked at my boots. They were closer to sneaker-boots.

“Well, how far in you planning to go? You remember all the news about the snow this year.”

It had even been written up in the New York Times: Nagano’s record snowfall, rural villages buried in snow drifts that nipped at second story windows, old men and women clambering onto roofs to clear off heavy white piles that threatened to crack house frames. The region on earth with the highest annual snowfall buried and humbled. This dude was definitely ruining my fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel philosophy. I didn’t like the look of that expensive looking ice-pick sticking out of his backpack.

“Yeah, you know, not too far,” I told him, trying to look as confident as possible.

I found out what he was talking about when the bus stopped to let out the hikers and the day trippers. We were in a highland valley, twenty five hundred meters above sea level. The sun was shining, the air was crisp sweater weather, and there was four feet of snow on the ground. The American and his two Japanese friends strapped on their crampons and waved good-bye, crunching down a trail and into the woods.

Luckily I had company. I had thought I would be heading for an obscure valley known only to experienced hikers and to the owners of the 2001 edition of Lonely Planet: Japan, but the place was absolutely teeming with people more clueless than I was. A string of behemoth resort hotels lined the river, and a visitors center dispensed trail information that pretty much boiled down to one thing: amateurs stay off the trails.

Kappa-bashi was just a few minutes walk up the river, which was still lined with hotels and tchochky shops. What I found was a bridge. A rather nice looking bridge for pedestrians, with nicely polished planks and suspension wires. A steady swarm of tourists buzzed around it, snapping pictures and flashing peace signs. There wasn’t a frog-man in sight. Didn’t even feel like the place to meet a frog man. Not unless you counted the millions of kappa keychains and figurines that were being hawked along the river.

Feeling vaguely cheated and a desperate need to make myself feel cooler than all these people I marched back to the visitors center, striding past two young woman who were stumbling across rocks and ice patches in high heels, past a feeble elderly couple who mounted a two-inch rise of snow like an arctic expedition. “Hah!” I thought, “When I get that old I’m not going to look that stupid and helpless.” Once I arrived I scoured the maps for a hike that was feasible in sneaker boots. Hell, I didn’t need crampons, I didn’t even need a proper pair of boots. I wasn’t some lily-livered tourist balancing in high heels or a city-slicker outdoor weenie draped in sparkling new gear: I was a young and resourceful traveler, living by his wits. Unfortunately my wits had decided against packing a tent or snow gear, so I would have to actually pay for a room up here. The map showed a lodge for hikers about an hours hike, and the trail up to it only had a few mild snow warnings posted, none of the skull-and-crossbones post-it notes that dotted the higher passes.

Aside from a few ice patches the trail was essentially clear and flat, with some deep muddy bits to skip around, and best of all, no people to make fun of my sneaker boots. The path wound along a valley, playing tag with an eager spring river. There were great drifts of heavy spring snow as high as my waist on either side of the trail. Towering over everything was a string of some of the highest mountains in Japan, jutting through a sky so blue it looked like a beer commercial with the hue and contrast tweaked just this side of real. It was like seeing movie stars in person. You kept waiting for the wonder to kick in. That is a beautiful craggy mountain. That is Martin Sheen.

Before I knew it the sky was a fuzzy gray, the trail swerved into the woods, and there I was, the Tokuzawa Lodge. They were already making dinner when I arrived, and the clerk checked three or six times that it was okay they didn’t have any dinner for me. While the rest of the lodgers ate hot meals of tempura and wild herbs in the mess hall, I was ushered into the lounge to eat the bread, cheese and apples I’d brought with me. I took a beer from the little refrigerator in the lobby and sat down to eat my dinner, trying to ignore the stuffed mountain goat on my left, his ears propped up in feigned alertness. Hark! Is that the baying of wild bears that assails my tender ears?

Luckily the lounge filled up after dinner, half a dozen hikers piling in for beers from the fridge and after dinner smokes. There was a couple in their forties with a kind of large fleshy exuberance and braying good nature that for some reason struck me as thoroughly Midwestern. There were two shy newlyweds who made faint inroads into the conversation, but spent more time with their noses buried in a large fluttery map that spread across both of their laps. There was a single furtive smoker whose innocent comments all seemed to dance atop a great well of frustration, like water drops skittering across a heated skillet. Then there was the grandfather monkey, a limber and muscley gray haired old gibbon that smoked and held court in a thick country accent from deep Kansai.

They talked trails, told tales of the mountains, made jokes about the stuffed goat. The stocky Midwesterners with their thick jolly honks of laughter wanted to with the American about the American, but thankfully the old baboon kept us on topic: we’d come for the mountains, we’d talk about the mountains. I heard about the old school of alpinists, wild eyed adventurers who roamed the mountains with rucksacks and buckets of fire in their bellies. Poets and hermits who would stick through the harsh and snow heavy winters, living in snow shelters. And they came back to this lodge, to this room, to tell stories and dry blankets by the fire. There were writers, mountain adventure novelists, whose soft and yellowed paperbacks sat on the shelves. They all mentioned this lodge, you know? The Tokuzawa lodge.The old man sat with his feet propped up on the corner of his chair, knees splayed out to either side, toes wiggling beneath the thick wool socks. Heard about the communal shared caches scattered throughout the mountains, different groups carefully marking their stashes of food and fuel, tucking them neatly into wooden boxes locked against bears. Sometimes a stash would stay there for years, untouched, and unmolested by other hikers, backcountry honor. But with all these newbies crawling all over the place now. Didn’t used to be like that, no sir, it’s all since the bullet train. No, you know, all since the Olympics! Yeah, used to just be the night bus from Tokyo. I took that bus out from Kyoto station, drove all night through the mountain passes, you woke up in Shinshu, in old Nagano, that’s for sure. Yeah, then the Olympics, and that train. You know no one knows the real way to say Azumi anymore? People come into town, look at the kanji on the sign and scratch their heads. I tell you, it’s losing the old Shinshu spirit, people don’t even talk like they’re from Nagano anymore, everyone talks all stiff and Tokyo, and hell even there they’re speaking English half the time.

The Midwesterners started to look nervous for me, but what can I say, I agreed with the guy. Cigarettes were stubbed out, last inches of beer guzzled, bodies were hauled up to bunkrooms and mattresses with clean sheets, all of us wondering what kind of hordes the next day would bring.

a golden week (III b)

The straw donkey was about as big as I was, but the two straw humans balanced on his back wouldn’t have reached my knee. They had been woven with a quick and crude artistry, arms sticking straight out to either side, the woman with two lumps on her chest. They were riding through the basement of the Matsumoto Museum and Cultural Heritage Center, perched on a little roped off pedestal. Next to them was a large black-and-white photograph of the icon being borne out of the village by a wave of weary looking old village folk. The men wore baseball caps with farm equipment logos and the women had tied back their hair with polka dotted bandannas. The tour guide must have been the same age as the farmers in the photograph, but her smooth skin and elegant bowl of silver hair radiated a life of philosophy seminars and nine-to-five days.

“This is a ritual still enacted in some of the more rural towns in these parts. The old people of the village will weave an old man, an old woman and a beast for them to ride from rice husks left over from the harvest. The icon is then carried out of the village and set aflame. This was done in the hope that it would appease death for that year and not come for any of them.”

Death, or their grandkids.

The Cultural Heritage Center was in a flat scrubbed concrete building that looked like it had been built to be as anonymous as possible. Maybe the architect was intimidated by the neighborhood. Right next door was one of Japan’s all time coolest castles: Matsumoto-jo, “The Raven Castle, a black obsidian fang of a tower that reached up and split the Nagano sky.

An extant Japanese castle is a rare thing, a great pile of timber that has somehow tricked its way through several hundred years of lightning storms, earthquakes, sieges, anti-feudal wrath and spontaneous combustion. Those that have made it through seem a little bewildered about what the hell they should be doing. There they are, propped on the highest hill, paper tigers commanding cities that ignore them. The tourists that fill them look a little confused as well, gingerly stepping through the lord’s chambers and squinting at the explanatory plaques posted here and there. The inside of a castle gets real old real quick: once you’ve seen the holes used for dropping things on people the rest is just cold floors and staircases. They spruced this one up a bit with a little exhibit on the history of guns in Japan. There was an extremely useful chart with the names of lords and the date that they got their hands on guns. There was a lovely drawing of a coterie of courtly ladies gossiping and forging bullets. The sign said that bullet forging was women’s work, right along with nursing.

There were men in baseball caps and gloves to direct traffic on the stairs. Being a castle, the stairs (or “ladders” as we call them in the West) were designed more for invader-hacking than for tourist-strolling. Old ladies with massive rear ends sweated and giggled as they tottered down, the traffic conductors always ready to jump in the way and cushion a fall. If you were fit enough to make it to the very top you were rewarded with a lovely view of the town of Matsumoto, nestled in the mountains, every apartment block steadfastly ignoring the castle. Somewhere in the slant of the windows and the dizzying height you could feel the arrogance of this place, this black tower built to look down on cowed peasants, this onyx blade to tear at the edge of their vision. The city now sat with its back to the keep. You could buy postcards, keychains and black castle cookies in the gift shop.

I had lunch at a local restaurant that handmade buckwheat soba noodles for the tourists. The rich Nagano soil makes for good buckwheat and famous soba noodles, so I felt I should have a plate before I left. Buckwheat was about six months out of season, so the noodles tasted pretty much the same as everywhere else, but we all packed in anyway. I sat at the counter and watched as two high school kids tried to navigate their first day on the job, forgetting to bring cups of tea, getting snarked at on every side by the cooks and the senior waitresses who had probably been doing this their whole lives.

Back at the train station the hikers were swarming around the coin lockers and the bus queues leaving the castles and the shopping to the tourists with large asses. I collected my stuff, bought some fruit, a loaf of bread and a hunk of locally produced cheese at a supermarket and bought a bus ticket to the mountains.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

a golden week (III. a)


I awoke somewhere around three or four in the morning to the whispering sound of rain. It was demure and polite, barely making a sound as it tiptoed across the ground and over my sleeping bag, and I liked the thought of drifting back to sleep on this misty river bank.

I changed my mind a few minutes later when the rain turned from Romantic to Biblical, fat drops falling like bullets and flashes of lightning detonating on the horizon. My poor loyal sleeping bag was hastily stuffed away, dejected and sopping, and I made an idiot dash across the rugby field, jumping through waterfalls and praying there wasn’t a thunderbolt up there with my name on it. I sprinted into the first shelter I could find, a little concrete tunnel shot straight through a hill for pedestrians, cyclists and sopping morons who think tents are for sissies.

It wasn’t exactly the most auspicious way to start my trip, but I had plenty of momentum in me. I changed into a dry set of clothes, confident that I was the only one stupid enough to be outside at four in the morning in a lightning storm. Like most spring storms it had the demeanor of a two year old, screaming hysterically for half an hour then fading into whimpers and forgetting about what the big deal was. So by five we were back where we started, in a transparent drizzle that instead of getting you wet was merely decorative.

The night before Takasaki had seemed atmospheric, otherworldly, and I had enjoyed the shock of wandering a city with no people in it. But in the dull drizzly morning the city looked about as romantic as my sleeping bag, wet, gray and getting moldy. I tromped into a convenience store for a cup of coffee and spooked the clerk stocking the shelves, gaping at this lanky white man who had materialized at five in the morning in a rain storm. I walked around the remnants of Takasaki castle, which was now a public park. The remaining fragments of the castle were weird little non-sequiters, carefully buffed and labeled. A single corner of the outer wall, the central gate, opening onto a playground, a two story public library sitting quietly where a towering keep had once ruled the landscape. An old man was taking his dog for an early morning walk, the mutt eagerly sniffing out traces of his medieval ancestors, then peeing all over their scents.

I had planned to hitchhike out of Takasaki, but the sky continued sniffling, and still threatened to break out into tears at any moment. The night before I’d decided to head for the mountains of Nagano, but without a car the only way in was by bullet train, which was a lot less badass and infinitely more expensive than freeloading rides off of strangers. Come to think of it, the ticket was just about the same price as a night in a reasonable hotel in Takasaki.

We slid through a craggy volcanic landscape, through mountain passes, in and out of tunnels and into misty valleys that plunged straight down, then disappeared before you could spot the bottom. The ghostly sleek train sliced through the landscape so cleanly it scarcely seemed real. Sharp cliffs and raging spring rivers that had swallowed centuries of travelers flicked by in bursts and flashes as petite women in suits and scarfs pushed carts of beer and coffee down the center aisle.

In Nagano city the clouds hung so low you could reach up and pluck them out of the sky. I switched to a hobbly little two car train, munching on an apple as we chugged through vegetable gardens and people’s backyards. We passed a station where every square inch of the platform was covered in screeching six-year olds in matching red hats. The whole train breathed a collective sigh of relief when they stayed put. The sign of one stop said Ba-sute, which at first I thought was funny because it sounds just like the Japanese pronunciation for “Birthday”, but when I looked closer I noticed the characters meant “Grandmother” and “Throw Away”. The nine year old sitting across from me asked her grandfather what it meant.

“In the old days when the people grew too old to work they would run them out of the villages and into the wilderness, because there wasn’t enough food for everyone.” The little girl nodded, fully satisfied and apparently undisturbed by this answer. “But,” he added, watching her nervously, “That was a long time ago.” She nodded, unconcerned.

“A long time ago…” he repeated, just to make sure.