Saturday, August 26, 2006


Okay, yeah, that took me entirely too long. The thing stretched out to twenty-seven single spaced pages in Microsoft Word, and for what? A few notes on a vacation? A million times during the whole thing I wondered: "the longest single blog entry to date, and it's just an account of a five day trip, without much of an purpose

This was basically me taking a crack at travel writing, trying myself against Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" and Will Ferguson's "Hokkaido Highway Blues", which are two of my favorite books, not just about modern Japan, but about life and loneliness. It was me tackling that whole form of travel writing, the little figure wandering through huge landscapes, hoping a pattern or something will fall out of it. I can't hold it up against any serious writing, but when I look at the stuff I wrote last year I can't help but think it was better than that stuff.

The whole thing could definitely use some editing and I should probably prune it down, but the idea was to just get in finished. So there it is, about three months after the fact, still pockmarked with weird grammar and typos. I'll try to be more brief from here on out.
Promise. Thanks for sticking through this.


a golden week (VI.)


Nagano was overflowing, so I decided to give up on mountains and just find a place where there weren’t so many damned people. I hadn’t come all the way out here just to hang out with the same jokers that sweated and farted up my morning train. I’d had enough of Tokyo people.

I spent the next two days with Hiroshi. Hiroshi had come from Tokyo, and he looked it. He wore his clothes carefully, his backpack was covered in elaborate straps. He born in Aomori, a cold, forbidding, mumbling prefecture, famous for apples. I can do a pretty good imitation of an Aomori accent by speaking standard TV Japanese while eating a bowl of oatmeal. Brings down the house everytime, even in Aomori.. Aomori is kind of like the Idaho of Japan, the nerd so thoroughly and unashamedly himself that he’s actually kind of cool. But not really. And Aomori has apples, not potatoes.

So Hiroshi from Idaho walked up while I was squinting at a large board with a map printed on it. But we weren’t in Idah… Aomori, we were in Naoetsu, on the north coast of Japan, winds from China rattling the shutters.

I learned a few things about Hiroshi. 1) He was a university student in Tokyo, and he looked normal enough. 2) He’d never been here before either, was traveling for Golden Week. 3) Yeah, he liked to travel, he’d done two weeks in the states by himself, had been to see the Grand Canyon. 4) He’d arrived at the Grand Canyon without enough money for lodging, so he decided to sleep outside, the check-in clerk pointing him to the warmest group of rocks in the area. 5) The first night he did this he was bitterly cold and the second night a pack of coyotes smelled the beef jerky he was eating for dinner, so danced and screamed til the early morning hours to keep them at bay. 6) He had once left his disposable contacts on, day and night, for two months. "Don’t ever try that," he told me seriously. "You know you can damage your eyes that way?"

I met Hiroshi ten minutes after arriving in Naoetsu, and we quickly bonded over our shared lack of common sense. My reasons for getting off here were about as carefully considered as my desire to go to Kamikochi because of frog-sprites and cave baths: the three characters in Nao-e-tsu all had a beautiful symmetry, each one a series of strokes balanced on a vertical axis, like branches off a pine tree. It was also ten o’clock at night and the very end of the line. Right here the train line running north bumped into the Japan Sea, splitting into an east-west line than hugged the coast.

If Kamikochi was the roof of Japan, this felt like the back-door. Japan’s population tends to run along the Pacific coast, facing out into the world’s largest ocean. Somehow this little sea that divides Japan from Asia always looks darker and colder than the vastness of the Pacific. Bitter winds blow across this ocean from Asia, and sixty years ago Japan made a choice and turned their back on them, eyes turned across the ocean to America. More than once I have been told in all seriousness that “Japan is not an Asian country.” This seems to me like the Minnesotan living in New York, swallowing their accent and hiding their high school yearbook. This cold northern sea is the gap between what they were and what they want to be, it faces towards everything the country would rather not think about. Out across the Pacific anything seems possible, out here everything is wrapped in bad memories and old grudges.

I didn’t see much of Naoetsu, it was a rows of dark shuttered shops that dissolved into the full inky blackness of the ocean. I hadn’t expected so… little. One side of the station was a small pool of yellow light with two or three hotels with worried lobbies and shocking prices. The other side was black. Hiroshi approached me as I stood squinting at a public map of the area, a graph of little gray squares. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked with a refreshing directness. I said the hotels were out of my range, so I was going to check out the green blotches on the map and see if I could find a patch of ground for a sleeping bag. He said his plans hadn’t gone farther than finding a relatively flat bench. We shook hands, spent thirty minutes wandering Naoetsu, and promptly decided to leave.

Hiroshi and I didn’t have much in common besides our aimlessness and our lack of planning. We took the last train to an hour or so down the coast, found a city only marginally brighter, found that every hotel in our budget had been fully booked months in advance, got beers at an all night bar, talked life stuff, country differences, regretted not packing warm enough clothes. There were at least a dozen people hunched in corners around the station, heads resting on duffel bags and briefcases, Golden Week travelers who had missed trains and been stranded here as well. Our conversation didn’t seem to have enough staying power to keep us up all not, so we found our own corners and joined them. And then the monsters came out.

I have never heard voices like this. These were voices warped, scraping, furious, full of bile, the voices of animals mad with pain, cartoon villains filtered through bad acid and paranoia the screams of a mind gnawing on itself. As the voices grew closer I could begin to distinguish one from the other. One had the shrieking quality of nails and blackboards, tearing sheet metal, cats rutting and fighting, high, shrieking. One more (were there two?) was a broken speaker, distorted bass amp shaking a box of nails, goats dying, every rut and pothole in his throat shattering syllables. Hiroshi and I looked at each other. “What in the hell is that?”

That was a shuffling shadow moving through the dark corners barking at coffee cans and people huddled against the walls. A stumbly shadow of a man and trailing it was a shrieking little harpy: ropy gray hair, tiny little body. “What are they saying?” I asked Hiroshi. The rhythms were Japanese, but the syllables poured out as pure sounds. “I have no idea. But it has to be Japanese, right?” The shadow heard us speaking and moved over to crouch in front of Hiroshi. It crouched against the light, a black outline, turned its head straight towards Hiroshi, breathed in and spit out a howl that seemed to last for hours. Hiroshi took the standard Japanese response to the insane or the annoying: blank indifference. The shadow got up after the roar and dragged itself outside onto the pavement, the avian little witch twittering around him, voice of broken bottles. I have never heard anything so soaked in terror, have never heard anything so desperate.

* * *

The morning came, we left on the first train. The night before I hadn’t felt fear so much as… awe. Awe at the human animal; broken, half-finished creature, grasping at the apples swaying in his mind, stumbling on the stones at his feet. Awe at the weird binding of men and women, of the things that burst out of their couplings. A lone maniac is a burst of flame in the darkness, but a couple is an infinite amplification, a circuit of emotions, a positive feedback loop.

I don’t know what they were but I know what they felt like: old and evil ghosts, wailing helplessly out of the past. They were just ghosts: their violence was all gurgling cartoon voices, their hands would pass right through us. But they could scream. Christ, they could scream,. These were not the polite shuffling creatures from the cities, the downsized and the despairing men and women building cardboard huts under bridges, curling out of sight. These were spirits from the fields and the mountains scratching on this new concrete world in a blind terror.

I know, it was just a poor old couple from the country, weird on age and time and liquor, but those voices brushed on something huge.


Hiroshi and I ended up in Kanazawa, which is the loveliest city in all of Japan, but maybe that’s just me. It’s the Japan I wished for before I arrived, a clean little city between the sea and the mountains, wandering little streets of wooden houses, hunchbacked old women with twinkly faces thronging the fish market, school children screaming and pointing at white people. Everything you could want in a Japanese city. It is also one of the few cities in the country that seriously values its architecture, preserving the old stately town houses with their tile roofs and stark little gardens, preserving the stone Prussian government buildings from the 19th century, and lining its downtown with boutiques of glass. We arrived just as the sun was sprinkling onto the mountains, walked through the temples and parks terraced along the hill. In late morning we walked down to the center of the city where a large glass circle sat in the middle of a park like a coin dropped in the grass. It was Kanazawa’s 21st Century Art Museum, and today it was open free to the public, kids tumbling around ear trumpet lawn sculptures, old men tapping canes on benches, a DJ in a goatee and a cap spinning music, young and beautiful people dancing. Downtown everything was on sale, and I found a pair of jeans for two dollars. That night we found a rowdy little place with local sake, local food, and local people getting thoroughly toasted. The local specialty: Transparent tadpole-size fish swimming frantically in a bowl of chilled soup broth. You eat them alive, crushing the wriggling bodies between your teeth. They didn’t taste like anything, so I guess that it’s all about the texture, frantic tails tickling gums, the sadistic crunching away of those little slivers of life, breathing in their last, frantic moments. A taste of evil in Japan’s golden city.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

a golden week V.


Humans recreating in the great outdoors can be divided into two main types: Waddlers and Gearheads. I formulated this theory on the first day of Golden Week, when I passed a big enough chunk of humanity to get a pretty decent estimate. The quiet, carefully tended trails I had hiked along the day before were now simply overflowing with people desperate for nature, vacation, relaxation. Clans of two or three tubby generations drifted up the trail while smartly attired alpinists fumed behind them. People of every age were spilling around all over the place, tripping on rock, roots, ice and each other. Mostly each other. The last time I had seen this many people cramming through small spaces was… two days before, on my rush hour train out from Tokyo. Now they were all in their weekend attire, suited up and ready for some fun! What kind of fun depended on whether you were a Waddler or a Gearhead.

For the Waddlers, fun was pretty simple: scoop the kids into the car, head for the mountains, concentrate on doing nothing for a few days. Fun is the reverse image of work: it is sauntering along a gently sloped mountain trail in soft clothing, relatives scampering all around you. You alternately sip the crisp clean mountain air and the crisp clean beer you brought along for the morning stroll. The stream is sparkling, your children are screaming, your mom is still spry enough to keep up with everyone, the heaviest matter on your mind is lunch. You lazily observe your first born son using all his ten year old arm strength to thwack a skinny little branch against the snowdrifts. You’ve finished the can of beer and wonder whether to carry it all the way up the trail or to toss it discreetly behind an evergreen for a ranger to pick up later. But with all these people around… maybe just wait for a waste bin ten minutes up.

Gearheads know that fun isn’t quite that simple. Fun is elusive, it has to be tracked, spotted, wrestled to the ground. At any rate, fun is out there, maybe up somewhere where the air is thin and the trails prone to falling away beneath your feet, so best to armor yourself appropriately and efficiently. Gearheads are equipped for maximum efficiency: bags packed with synthetic lightweight apparel, rubber hoses snaking out of their backpacks to deposit water directly to their mouths, packs, gators and baseball caps helpfully emblazoned with brand logos to shave off seconds of valuable conversation time. Don’t want to spend all day chit-chatting about pack straps and cubic centimeters of stuff sacks. Of course not, we’re here to enjoy the mountains!

Waddlers drape their bodies in shapeless bags of soft, invitingly rippable cotton, they travel in family based packs or tour groups, matching scarfs wrapped around their necks for easy identification.

Gearheads travel solo or in small units of two or three, a few college buddies, a newly married couple,

You think I’m taking this a bit far, don’t you? Sprucing up the story, smooshing hundreds of lovely individuals into caricatures that at best describe their taste in clothes. But within my first five minutes on the trail this idea popped into my head, and it kept on snowballing the more people I passed. As a firm believer in the scientific method I submitted my theory to rigorous testing, silently judging every person I walked by. Waddler, waddler, waddler, GEARHEAD! Waddler, oh, now there. is. a. Waddler. At least he’s considerate enough to ash his cigarette in his used beer can. And a Gearhead…

Out of a random sampling of what I am estimating to be several hundred people (I told you it was crowded), I only found two specimens that refused categorization. One was a family of five Gearheads that had walked out of a television commercial, the photogenic father stooping to explain a bit of geology to his eager young progeny, a gurgling little blob strapped to his back, young healthy wife beaming at all of them. The other was a man in his early thirties with a serene expression, a walking staff and a bell clanging from the back of his rucksack to let the bears know he was coming. He was the only serious looking hiker I spotted whose equipment looked seriously used, but had clearly been well cared for: pants carefully patched, Italian leather hiking boots polished smartly. Thinking back on it there wasn’t a single logo on him. He probably felt terrible.

At first I thought you could explain away the difference by money or jobs, but from the few people I talked to it didn’t come out that clearly. The Gearheads were all over the place: a brisk and tidy executive at Goldman Sachs, a floor worker at an auto-parts factory, a dentist. The Waddlers I met included a middling looking office worker and his sour looking family, a bank teller with two plump and rosy little girls, and a construction worker with hair died the color of golden retriever with his tanned young wife. They insisted on giving me a 10 am slug from their flask. We compromised at a dainty little sip.

The Gearheads seemed to be more economically diverse than I had imagined, while the Waddlers only varied from navy to sky blue collars. But it seems to me that any Waddler with the cash would buy their way out of the crowd, find a nice secluded villa in a vallery somewhere: deep cushioned sofas, a fridge stocked with beer, massive living room windows that frame a dramatic line of mountains, peaks leaping up and down like a cardiogram.

For a good two hours I was the only person I saw walking down from the mountains, pressing against the great surge heading back into them. I spent the time honing my powers of stereotyping and social sciencing until I found the sign that pointed me the way I needed to go.

The night before I’d stayed up with a few folks at the Tokusawa Lodge, planning a route for someone with ambitions of climbing mountains and stupid enough to have left his boots at home. I heard all about the valley getting flooded with people and decided to leave it behind me, so we settled on a slender little route that took me over some of the milder little mountains to the south, out of the valley and right onto the road I’d come come in on.

Turned out the most dangerous thing about the hike were the mud patches. I didn’t see a soul the whole time I was there, just a faint little trail winding through the evergreens, all manner of birds tweeting and whooping at full throttle, all of them tipsy on the brisk spring air, screeching out their personal ads. It’s fucking spring! This is my tree! This is one virile male with plumage like you’ve never seen! Virile male virile male virile maaaaale!

I broke a sweat clambering up the incline at a swift pace; after two hours of sludgy traffic I was anxious to test my horsepower on the open road, and scrambling up one little slope I lost traction and dropped four feet down the trail, a mud patch slurping my right pants. On the way down I passed a stream and stripped to my undies for two minutes to wash off the muck that had started to dry on them. My legs were getting goosebumps in the mountain air, and when I slipped the slacks back on the icy right leg clung to me like a poltergeist. Gehhhh. Luckily, I am half gearhead, and my cheap looking slacks were made from some synthetic materials that dry unnaturally fast, and don’t need any more prompting than body heat. (I had bought them in a clearance sale six years before at a department store in Kyoto, the clerk’s face lighting up when he saw my pink Caucasian face. “I am…” he labored, “Bon Jovi fan! Bon Jovi!” That’s all he felt moved to say, and once he’d gotten it off his chest he very calmly gave me change for the slacks.)

After an hour or so of traipsing around the woods by myself, drinking up the space like the Takasaki drunks from the night before, I burst back into civilization. Civilization was a two lane strip of highway with holiday traffic of cars, vans and tour buses whizzing in both directions at impressive speeds. Most of them seemed to be carrying pop eyed faces of people gawking at a skinny white man who had popped out into a stretch of road that was at least forty or fifty kilometers near to anything you could call a town. I sucked in my courage and stuck out my thumb.

Hitchhiking is a lost art, something that Americans probably associate more with serial killers than the freedom of the open road. In the late 1970’s the bodies of dozens of hitchhikers were found mutilated by the side of the road. By the time the police and the media had the Freeway Killer case sorted out it they were left with not one, not two, but three Freeway Killers who had all operated independently of each other, unaware that anybody else shared their hobby of picking up perfect strangers and then savaging their bodies until their souls simply gave up and left. Not one, not two, but three. Based on pure anecdotal evidence I’m guessing hitchhiking somewhat survived through the 1970’s, carried on by generations that had grown up with it, but by the time I came along they were cranking out instructional videos that taught kids “The Honk.” The idea behind “The Honk” is that kids screaming for help sounds a lot like kids crying for ice cream or playing tag, and a much better way to get people’s attention is to press your hands to your stomach and emit a firm, confident HOOOOOOOONK. My third grade friends and I decided we would rather be remembered as that poor little brutally murdered child than as the boy who honked to live.

I could hardly believe the stories when I came to Japan. Friends who had traveled the breadth of the archipelago without settling for a single train, the guy who hitchhiked to work almost every single day, even hitchhiking contests ; packs of foreigners racing from A to B on waves trucks, sedans and two-doors. Possibly my all time favorite book on modern Japan is “Hokkaido Highway Blues”, Will Ferguson’s rippingly funny account of his three month journey along the full length of Japan totally on the strength of his thumbs. I had stumbled upon a lovely little byproduct of Japan’s infatuation with all things Western: free rides anywhere on the archipelago! And no serial killers! The only charge of admission was a face that did not look noticeably Asian –Will Ferguson’s advice to Asian-American hitchhikers: write your destination sign in English— and a friendly, non-threatening demeanor. More advice from Will Ferguson: when hitching give a shy, apologetic smile, as if you would never be doing something like this under normal circumstances.

This landed me a ride within minutes. I had walked a bit down the road to a nice long stretch with a decent shoulder where the cars would have plenty of time to see me, decide what to do, and have enough space to pull over. The blue Subaru station wagon stopped about fifty yards up the road in a sputter of dust, and I trotted up to meet my serial killers.

They were Hiro and Toshi, two local outdoor bums vaguely in their late 20’s, both with smooth coffee skin and ponytails. We got going once we worked out where I was going and what language we were going to speak in (they attempted to say absolutely everything in a weirdly broken English they’d picked up from compulsory high school classes and hanging out with surfer dudes in Australia.) They were anxious to get at some of the fresh fields of spring snow: you could hike right up to a virgin slope and ski down to the bottom, provided you were willing to carry up your skis with you. They were.

Toshi had just started on his hitchhiking in Australia story when we arrived. We did a screeching halt, scattered dust and pebbles, got a few horn blasts from cars swerving around us. I piled out and Hiro and Toshi disappeared up into the highland valley, dissolving with all the other gearheads. I don’t know if it really counted as hitchhiking, since I was in and out in ten minutes. There was no question of walking: every inch of the road had been scraped, carved or blasted out of the cliffs, I felt a little selfish asking for a sidewalk too.

I had been dropped off by a shack that was delicately perched between a fifty foot gorge and the black gaping mouth of a tunnel boring straight through the base of a mountain. This was the only paved road up to Kamikochi, the highland valley I had just hiked down from. Right on this narrow little strip between the mountains and the river gorge a bridge, a tunnel and two skinny mountain highways smooshed into each other. There were two men with buttoned blue uniforms and orange cone sticks who checked traffic for the proper stickers: only authorized vehicles could drive up to the roof of Japan. I wouldn’t want just anybody driving around on my roof either.

I could have stood there all day looking at this weird little house that looked like it was trying to gather up courage to jump into the gorge, but given I had a meager three feet between the door and the traffic I had to scurry inside. The whole place was probably the size of your living room, but they managed to fit quite a bit inside. There was a functional little kitchen, a heavy wooden table for eight or ten people depending on how tiny they happened to be, and shelves positively dripping with souvenirs. Even here, at the ends of the earth, there were five people on benches round the table, sipping tea and ogling all the stuff to buy. A little run off from the humanity that was slowly flooding the valley in polo shirts and North Face sportswear. Rats, I thought I would be the only one here for the cave bath.

A hurried man with a baseball cap and rough dark skin plopped me down at the big wooden monster in the middle of the room that ate up space and conversation. He hurried back to the little kitchen nook and started to dice spring onions, then remembered me again and hurried out to pour a cup of brown tea from the hot thermos. “Take as many as you want.”

Traveling as a frame of mind is all very nice, you open yourself to the Oz-ness of the world, your notebook fills up with notes and sketches, you take too many photographs, you try to make them good enough not to bore everyone afterwards. But I suppose you also need things to push you along, little details to get you out the door. I’ve read the books, I know the score. I’ve got my hand straight in the air, Life Lessons 101 is in session, and the teacher is looking for someone to call on. It isn’t the destination, it’s the journey! I had to choose a few little markers to aim for. So the cave bath it was.

A cave folded into the walls of a sixty foot gorge like a forgotten jeans pocket, walls dripping with minerals, water gurgling red with iron deposits. I admit it, I’d come out to Nagano for a bath. Are you surprised that I was kind of disappointed? I was. I mean, everything was there. A wooden Bilbo Baggins kind of door in the cliffs, the little wooden changing room, mats of dried reeds hanging for curtains, you could peek out between them to see the river crashing around fifty feet below, then slip your gangly little body deeper into the cave, into the steaming crimson bath that tastes like blood.

It sounds awesome when I write it down. It’s impossible to make it sound bad, the natural hot spring deep in the craggy mountains. It makes a great story, you can sit there and think: adventure! But you know, it was just a bath. I kept on wanting to turn up the temperature, give the walls a kick and let out a little more geothermal energy. I was like the freshman virgin with their hand up in English class. Well… I think what Lawrence is trying to tell us is that sex is like death.

So let me tell you what really hit me. I sauntered back to the little hut, gave the owner the key and paid for my thirty minutes of cave bath. The couple behind me in line sported the most incredible Osaka accents: a forty-ish man with the clothes and the posture of money, sunglasses on inside and out, a hard looking woman in her late twenties who did enough talking for both of them. They walked off to their bath, towels slung across shoulders, and I was left with my pack, the little man scurrying with the dishes, the massive wooden table, the walls of dusty souvenirs. I was anxious to get on and try the hitchhiking again, but I was afraid that another Hiro and Toshi would try a sixty-to-zero maneuver, cars screaming and flying into gorges. So the frantic little man in the baseball cap looked up bus times for me and then poured me another cup of tea. It was just me and him now, the little guy scrubbing pots and me just sipping tea. “Umm… do you need any help?” I asked. Hell, I always feel weird just sitting around when the host is fussing over you. Even if you’re paying him. Even if you don’t know his name.

He looked up. “Are you serious?” Nodded yes. “I’m almost done, really.” But I’d already made the offer, so…

He had pretty much finished up, but I scrubbed up a few noodle plates and wipe out a few tea cups. He’d shrugged his agreement and here we were, elbow to elbow, scrubbing pots and watching each other silently out of the corner of our eyes.. Just after I’d started one of the traffic guards came in from the road, patting the dust off his blue uniform, laying his stiff visored cap on the counter. It smelled of car exhaust. He reached to the shelves heaped with dusty souvenirs and pulled out a styrofoam bowl packed with instant noodles, less than half the price of a plate of local buckwheat noodles. He’d worked out the change in his pocket and put down the exact amount on the counter in a single pile, helped himself to the thermos of hot water, split a set of chopsticks over the meal. By then we were done with the dishes and sitting on either side of him at the counter.

It was funny. Here the traffic guard was still in uniform, the cook still had an apron on, but these men didn’t look at all like their jobs. They looked like… individuals. This man made soba noodles for tourists, that man stood in a dusty street and checked the stickers on cars. But that as just what they did, it wasn’t who they were. It had been ages since I’d seen that. Human beings more than their jobs. The shop man only let the scurrying seep in so far, under all that he had a gruff little life that was all his own, the traffic guard let that blue suit take all the dust.

It was Children’s Day. For reasons unclear to me, on this day people chew on sweet buns of pounded rice, each one wrapped in a pickled leaf. Like they need an excuse to chew on sweet buns. The shop owner pulled out a tray of them, and we munched away, three deep at the counter, the clerk, the guard and the tourist, eating cakes on the roof of Japan.