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.

1 comment:

nicole said...

Your writing is bewitching. I must imagine the voice, but even this alteration does not diminish the potency of your vision, and words. Wish you were from the Midwest and in need of another friend. Thanks for making your musings available.