Mountain Adventures: Five Days on the Kumano Kodo

Note to self: do not buy new boots for a five-day hike. You will regret it.

My boyfriend and our best friend, Angela, found a famous pilgrimmage hike just a few hours south of us in Wakayama Prefecture. The Kumano Kodou is made up of several routes that cross the largest peninsula in Japan and visit hundreds of small, historic shrines. (Originally, we had wanted to go to Yakushima, a southern island famous partially because of the Ghibly movie Princess Mononoke, but decided travelling there would be a bit expensive. I was happier about the trail change later when our friends did this hike and explained how hikers were supposed to poop in bags and carry them with them until they came across a – rare – disposal site. Pooping in the wild? I’m game. Carrying it up a mountain? Helllll no.)

The Kumano Kodou crossed mountains, small towns, several rivers, and two incredibly famous and beautiful large shrines. (In all honesty, I’m not a big shrine person. In my opinion, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most of them. But these two were still impressive: Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha.) The trail was often cut along the side of a mountain, with a sharp incline on one side and a steep decline on the other. If you’re afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. Several times, we worked on the quad muscles with some steep rocky stairs, but the trail occasionally took a leisurely flat break along the highway.

We started our journey by taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Osaka, then an express JR to Kii-Tanabe. From there, it was a short bus ride (alongside a couple other foreigner hikers) to Takijiri-oji, the “spiritual entrance” to the mountain trails. I took a short nap on the hour-long bus ride, dreaming I found my boyfriend in his hammock being constricted by a large boa – which don’t live in Japan – and I had to cut off its head with our tiny pocket knife – probably not the best plan – to save his life. Best girlfriend award, right here.

The information center just next to the bus stop offered us a last bath of air conditioning, a few pictures of traditional hikers, and my personal saving grace, a bamboo walking stick (which, naturally, we named “BamBoo Radley).

We took the Nakahechi trail, the easy route – don’t be fooled, it wasn’t easy – which was considerably safer than the trail for experts, on which you have to hammock because there’s almost never enough floor space to set up a tent. There also may or may not be a larger number of snakes and bears on that trail, but that just adds to the fun, right?

From Takijiri-oji, the trail begins with a hazing ritual of rock stairs that take you about 300 meters up – elevation-wise, not distance. I immediately regretted my “wearing a hoodie is a good idea” decision, but the excitement of the hike starting pushed us onward – and upward – at a good speed. Maybe fifteen minutes in, we passed a giant rock with a small cave underneath. A sign near the rock told a story about a couple who had a baby while on the trail and left it behind, inside the cave, to be protected until they finished their pilgrimage and came back for it. Fortunately, a wolf apparently took the child under it’s wing…or paw… and took care of it until the parents came back. Thus, any woman who enters the cave and climbs through the birth-canal-like hole at the back is guaranteed a safe delivery. Naturally, we all braved the dark cave and pulled our way out – “Hes’ crowning!” – through the tunnel. It seemed like a good omen. And on we continued, though a bit dirtier than we’d started. Later that evening, we passed through a small village. Maybe “village” is a generous word – there were a few houses with large gardens, a rocky carpark with  a great view, and a couple of sign for the hikers. The people we passed by were very friendly and seemed excited to have travelers coming through. One of them, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, let us fill up our water bottles in her shop. She also offered us shelter from the three minutes of rain that appeared out of nowhere. A few minutes’ walk farther, we found a coffee shop where the owner brought us fresh oranges and pizza with our coffee, which we drank in a small clearing with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. She even offered to let us camp there, but we decided to use the next hour of sunlight to move a little further on the trail. Observation: people in small towns tend to be much more friendly and approachable to strangers than people in big cities. In my experience, Japan and the U.S. appear very similar in this way.

The first night, we hung our hammocks in trees just next to the path, which had recently been logged. The forest still seemed pretty dense, but about one third of the trees had been cut down to stumps. We ate dehydrated pasta boiled on the camping stove my boyfriend had brought, created our first “bathroom,” and went to bed around 7 pm, because it was too dark to do anything else.

The next day, we saw our first fellow hiker, our second snake, I started to sunburn, and the sweetest man gave us all little origami kimonos. Soon after, we had to take a sunny, up-hill detour because part of the trail had cracked open during an earthquake a few years before. An hour or two of sweat, sunlight, and a splinter under my nail later, we made it to the top and were close to our planned campground; a rest stop with a bathroom and small eating area. We set up our camp in the trees close by. A trio of French travelers camped out in the rest stop and we ended up sharing our dinners, our whiskey, some oranges, and a few travel stories. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

On day three, we discovered that going downhill might just be worse than going up. I like to think of myself as being in pretty good shape. Not as good of shape as I was in college, due to – in effect – being paid to work out (hello, college athletics), but I still run a couple of times a week and do HIIT Youtube videos when I don’t feel like going outside. But this hike killed me. Every day was a full day of “how far can we go” and “how fast can we do it.” Now, my knees aren’t what they used to be (hello, college athletics), and eventually it got to where going down the mountain hurt as badly as going up. My new boots had formed quarter-size blisters by the second day, and by the third I was walking like and 80-year-old. By the fourth day, my boyfriend was hobbling alongside me. Angela, on the other hand, looked like she was enjoying a breezy walk in the park.

But it was beautiful. That day, we made it through Hongu Taisha, where we stopped for some touristy things, udon, and Kumano Kodo beer with a view of Japan’s largest tori gate, before continuing on the trail and making it to one of Wakayama’s top 100 sunrise/sunset view points. That alone was worth the pain. Nothing but mountains, as fare as the eye can see, the sky every shade of gold as the sun moved towards the farthest peaks. Unfortunately, we had to camp another hundred meters down. Don’t tell my father I slept by a drop-off in a carpark in the middle of nowhere. We were close to running out of water, and though we knew we’d be passing a place to fill up the next day, that was a whole night and about 2 kilometers away. By some stroke of luck, the Japanese couple that we passed heading to the sunset point as we were leaving it drove past our campsite and offered us a two-liter bottle of tea. I thanked them about seven times the next morning when we ran out of water.

Before we left the campsite for our fourth day, I made the discovery that compost bathrooms are crazy. It took me about two minutes to realize that underneath the toilet was supposed to move and make noise and it wasn’t a killer coming to get me. My mom always said I had a great imagination.

We missed another stamp and took an unexpected detour through a graveyard on our way into the next town. Finding a place for water, we each gulped a stomach-full before filling our bottles. How good is water? At this point, my feet were hurting so badly I almost couldn’t walk. DO NOT HIKE IN NEW BOOTS. Newb. We were close to a bus stop that could take us the rest of the way, so as Rory went to check on bus times, Angela and I sat down to cook a late lunch. When he came back with news that the next bus was four hours away, we decided to just tough it out and continue for the last several kilometers. I was being a wimp, but I knew he really wanted to be able to say he’d walked to whole trail, so we agreed to finish on foot.

That was before we realized the next 800 meters were up. UP, up. You know how, when you run a race you’re supposed to pace yourself and then at the end, when the finish line is in sight, you switch to an all-out sprint, giving everything you have to those last hundred/thousand steps? That’s what we did. And damn, did it feel good at the top. There’s a sign there, at Echizen-toge Pass, with a quote from an old, famous poet (Fujiwara Teika) who hiked the Kumano Kodo in 1201 (yeah, that’s how old the pilgrimmage is), saying, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” I imagine it was a little tougher in traditional Japanese wear, but bro, I feel you.

Not too long after that, just before it was too dark to continue, we found our last campsite. It was probably our best, with a table for our dinner, perfectly-spaced trees, and an amazing view of the end-of-the-trail valley right next to the ocean. We ended up paying the price for the view that night, when the wind came through and nearly froze us. (Or maybe just me; the other two said they slept fine, whereas I shivered and peeped my head out of my sleeping back every thirty minutes to see if it was light enough to wake them yet so we could get a move on.)

Having somehow lost the last of our granola bars, we ate a breakfast of nuts and Earl Grey tea before traveling the last kilometer down to Nachi Taisha. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, with a three-story orange pagoda right next to a tall waterfall offering the best backdrop for tourist photos. At that point, I was too hangry to fully enjoy the area – we’d thought there would be a cafe and a chance for a more filling breakfast, but no such luck. After getting our fair share of pictures, we were ready to move on to the final leg of our journey – although it took us a solid twenty minutes to figure out where the bus stop was. It was a short ride to the JR station that would take us home, but we all agreed on lunch being a top priority. We found a cafe – a beautiful, warm, home-cooked meals cafe – and we each ate two full meals, either totally impressing or completely disgusting the locals at the nearby tables.

Happy, full, and exhausted, we boarded the train an hour later and settled in for the four-hour ride along the coast back home.

 

Not Every Day is Sunny

Once you’re happy, you think that’s it. You’ll be happy forever. You move to a new place, start a new job, make new friends, and you breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, this is where I’m supposed it be. This is what everything was leading up to.

But that’s not always the happy ending. It’s a continuation and every day isn’t perfect. Every day isn’t great or happy, and sometimes you feel yourself sliding back into the grayness, looking for a handhold to hang onto to keep yourself out of it. Sometimes you find one. Sometimes you don’t. And there you are again, in the black hole of Why am I even here? Was this a mistake? Would it have been better if I’d stayed? I miss everything. I want something different. It’ll never be okay.

But then, one day, all of a sudden the sun is shining. Not the faint rays of morning in the spring, but the direct heat of a mid-June picnic. Everything is perfect, and as you scratch the itch that whispers its doubts, you think, again, that it’ll last forever.

 

幸せですか?

Taking Care of Business, and…

Japan’s schooling is fascinating.

In Japan, working overtime is the cool thing to do. You don’t actually have to be doing anything important. But you have to stay at work 1) as long as your boss does, and 2) long enough to tell people that you have ridiculously long hours. (Now, this isn’t always true. In some jobs, you actually have that much work to do – is it necessary work? I’m not sure. But the “overtime is cool” rule applies to almost everyone I’ve met.) The long hours have gotten so bad that many companies have to go through lawsuits based on claims of overworking their employees.

This transfers over to students in school. Being busy, ALL DAY, is the key to being (or looking) successful. I have junior high school students who come to my class at 9:00 pm, after a day of going to school around 8:00 am, going to some sort of sports club after school, and then usually going to cram school after that. They’re exhausted, physically and mentally, before my class even starts. They have a solid 14-hour day, every day. An exception here – at least in that particular class – was one boy who told me he also woke up at 5:30 every morning to study before school. Clocking in that overtime.

But with heavy competition to get into the right university, there started to be be intense competition to get into the right high school, and eventually more competition just to get into the right junior high school. So huge numbers of hours studying in order to get the right job are necessary before most students have even decided what their favorite class is.

If you pass the test to make it into one of the highly-selective private schools, you’re on the right track to a *bright future. But if not, you’re stuck in public school – which isn’t really where you learn things. Sleeping during class is okay. There are levels of respect to your teacher that must be paid, but the daily procedure is “listen and repeat.” Critical thinking isn’t required. And if you have any real questions, ask your cram school teacher. You just have to pay them a lot of money first.

Footnote: living in a country doesn’t make me an expert on it, and I can’t assume knowledge of the entire country based on the one prefecture I teach in. But these overtime, high-pressure tendencies are hardly out of the norm.

I Believe

Mom asked me if I went to church today.

I didn’t have the guts to tell her

I don’t have the faith to pray.

I know she just plain wouldn’t understand

She’d be worried, concerned,

Certain I’d be damned.

To her, there is only one right way.

There is one question,

and one answer.

There is one right

and one wrong.

There is one creator

and one world.

Her life must seem so simple.

Often, she will say how she doesn’t understand how some people don’t believe in God.

Never do I tell her that I don’t understand how some people do.

Because I don’t want to worry her, and I already know what she would say:

“In a world where a little boy can be gunned down

by a neighborhood police officer

for playing with a borrowed toy,

Where women are raped

by friends they think they can trust

and no one does anything about it,

Where men are accused of crimes

they didn’t commit and forced to pay

a price that they don’t owe,

Where individuals are still identified,

first and foremost,

by the color of their skin.

Where mothers are crying

and children are dying

and fathers are trying their hardest just to keep their families off the streets,

Where do you find your hope, if not in our Savior?

Where do you find your peace?

What do you believe in?”

I thought I dreaded that question.

I thought I had no answer because

I was taught that there was only one answer,

and if you didn’t know the right one,

you were wrong.

I saw a picture once that presented two ways to produce nine: four plus five or three plus six. I showed it to my father. He said yes, but there is only one nine. I said no, there is nine, neun, neuf, and nueve. He said yes, but there is only one meaning. I said, but it’s a measurement, right? So there are still different nines, just different kinds of nines being measured; whether it’s nine apples or nine oranges, whether it’s nine white men or nine black men or nine children or nine Arabs or nine Jews or nine Christians… So not only is there not one answer, there’s not one question.

“What do you believe in?” she asks.

I realized that I don’t dread that question.

I realized that I had an answer because

there isn’t only one answer

so you don’t have to know the right one

and you aren’t wrong.

Because, you see,

I do believe, I really do.

It’s just from a different point of view.

I believe in smiling, and sharing some brightness

with someone

whose day might seem a little too dark.

I believe in families; of blood

and of choice,

that give you their strength when you can’t find your own.

I believe in loving: loving hard,

loving deeply,

loving unconditionally, irrationally, uncontrollably.

I believe in music, the ultimate drug

that loses you

in it without you even realizing you’re gone.

I believe that you can find evil

in the soul

but you can also find goodness.

It is the home of a god but also of a devil and

the choice is yours

as to which you let run free.

I believe in heaven, not as a place but as a

state of mind

that can be found in yourself and in others.

I believe that the good outweighs the bad, and when that appears

to not be true,

the change may only come from one place: you.

I believe that truth does not

set you free,

that it proves that you already are free; from fear.

I believe that it doesn’t matter what happened yesterday because

it’s not today

and a fresh start is always possible.

I believe in tomorrow, and in the changes

it may bring

if you just give it a chance.

See, I believe in laughing,

in imperfection,

in people,

and in connection.

I believe in magic,

in passion,

in goodness,

and in action.

I believe in friendship,

in family,

in love

and in equality.

I believe in miracles,

in trust,

in hope,

and in us.

I believe in writing,

in truth,

in second chances,

and in youth.

I believe in experience,

in wisdom,

in peace,

and in freedom.

I believe in music,

in forgiving,

in happiness,

and most importantly, in living.

To me, there is more than one right way.

There are many questions,

and even more answers.

There is wrong and there is right,

but they aren’t always black and white.

There is so much more to believe in

than a man and a book.

It doesn’t need to be simple.

Because there will always be bad things that happen, but

We live in a world where a college basketball team wears t-shirts

in support of the lives and deaths of people they’ve never met

just because it’s the right thing to do,

Where policemen rescue shelter dogs

that would otherwise be caged and killed

and give them a second chance at life,

Where a man uses his last dollar

finding a meal and a bed for a complete stranger

who has nothing to give in return,

Where a teenager who can’t swim

jumps into deep water

to save the lives of three struggling children,

Where people on a busy street

help a woman give birth in the freezing cold

to a baby who wouldn’t wait for an ambulance,

Where a man pays for the meal of

a family at a neighboring table because

he overheard their discussion of a “diagnosis”,

Where a little girl donates her Christmas presents

to a charity that will give them to children

who don’t have any of their own,

Where a young woman shares her coffee

and offers conversation to a lonely veteran

who just lost his wife,

Where a nine-year-old boy

pushes and pulls his paralyzed younger brother

through a triathlon he would never be able to finish on his own.

Where mothers are caring

and children are sharing

and fathers are bearing the weight of problems for others who couldn’t carry them alone.

There I find hope.

There I find peace.

That is what I believe in.

Why a Semi-colon?

Moving to Nagoya, Japan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Life-changing. Life-saving? Dramatic semantics.

One year ago, I had recently broken up with the boyfriend I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. The one who was my best friend, who I could talk to about anything, who I shouldn’t have been with because he’d already broken up with me once to get back with his ex. And after that – the final break-up – I was okay for a while, because I thought it just hadn’t worked out but we’d still be close friends forever and I’d always be his “day one,” until I found out that he was back with his ex, again. The ex I’d worried about during our whole relationship. The one he’d sworn he couldn’t see a future with anymore. And it wasn’t even him who told me.

And then it felt like I’d lost everything. I didn’t have anything left; a direction, a purpose, a future. And for the second time in my life, I wanted to kill myself. Sometimes, you don’t realize a relationship is toxic until you end it.

I’d already decided to take the jump and move to a foreign country. But at the time of the decision, a thought in the back of my mind was that when I came back, he’d be waiting for me. And then I realized the only person he’d ever waited for was her.

So I broke down. I cried in front of my friend and played happy in front of my family. I got black-out drunk at a bar and went to work the next morning like nothing happened. And then I packed all of the pieces into two suitcases and a backpack and changed the course of my life forever.

It wasn’t perfect immediately. I went through ups and downs so quickly it terrified me. But, slowly, everything started to fall together. The job title of “teacher,” the one I’d sworn I’d never stand under, started to tattoo itself on me and I discovered that I loved it. The freedom and beauty of walking around my city instead of driving through it gave me air I didn’t know I hadn’t been breathing. I stopped working out with the purpose of looking good when I went out to clubs with boys who had no interest in knowing me for longer than one night, and I started running so that I could breathe and feel again. And I started to return to music.

Nagoya is a city most people consider a passing-through point. It’s like my home state of Kansas, known as a flyover state. But if you’re in either one long enough, you realize they’re so much more. People playing music in the park or close to train stations, small bands meeting and joining to play like they’ve always known each other, bars that welcome you in like you’re family, and people who listen to you play week after week and encourage the beginners just as much as the experts.

Last night, I went to a jam at the house of a couple I’ve only known for a few months. I was encouraged to sit at the piano, pick up a ukelele, belt out some Beatles, and go home with an extra pair of drum sticks and a Rudiments practice sheet. And I realized I have a reason to live again.

 

 

 

Forever a Foreigner

I wine have not.

Say whaaaaat? …It’s a real problem, though.

Kon’nichi wa!

I sometimes wonder about the psychological differences between people who grow up speaking English and people who grow up speaking Japanese. (Or any other similar languages, but these are the two I’m familiar with.) Because English is subject-verb-object, while Japanese is subject-object-verb. For example, the English sentence “I don’t like llamas” becomes “I llamas like not” in Japanese. So, listening to the same sentence in both languages, English speakers know sooner whether it’s a negative or positive statement, and Japanese speakers first hear what the object is that is or isn’t being liked. I wonder if this slight difference results in different thought processes, not only in such simple sentences, but especially in more complicated ones.

(Just Googled it. I can’t find any studies on the exact topic, but apparently, there are some pretty significant differences between the thought processes of different language speakers. If you’re interested, read this essay by Lera Boroditsky: “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” https://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think)

Japanese also does this cool thing where the subject – in the above example, “I” – is not needed. You can just say “Llamas like not” and it’s a perfectly normal sentence. Actually, “Like not” is also acceptable as long as the object is already understood.

I asked a group of my adult students, “If a man from Australia and a woman from America have a baby in Japan, it grows up in Japan, and it speaks Japanese, is it Japanese?” The whole group made a noise that is incredibly familiar to anyone who has asked a Japanese person a personal or difficult question: it’s the sound of sucking in air between your teeth and it generally means, “No, of course not, but I’m too polite to say those exact words.” Other translations can be: “I don’t know” or “It’s difficult to say.” When pressed, they all agreed that the child (in order to no longer use the word “it,” let’s say this child is a girl) was most definitely not Japanese. Although she was – hypothetically – physically born in Japan, her ancestry is not Japanese and she therefore is not and will never be Japanese. This is a stark contrast to the built-by-immigrants country I was born in, where if your first breath is above American soil, you are forever a citizen.

The Japanese word for “foreigner,” if you’re wondering, is gaijin. I hear it often, said by both foreigners and Japanese people alike, and I realize that is always what I will be here. It’s strange knowing that no matter what I do, I will never “fit it.” No matter how much of the language I learn, how much of the culture I absorb, or how much time I spend working here, I will always be gaijin. The struggle of a majority member becoming part of the minority.

Anyway. Later, gator.

じゃあまたね。

 

 

Life is Like a Sushi Roll (or something like that)

I fully intended to write blog posts every week. But life is crazy, and nine months after beginning this blog, I’m writing post number two.

Hey, it’s a start.

Switching from life in America to life in Asia is like seeing a koala for the first time after a life full of dogs and cats. Like, who are you? What are you doing? Why are you eating that?

For one things, trains are a beautiful invention. And Japanese trains, which run like clockwork, are absolutely fantastic. You can spend what would have been an hour-long drive listening to the same radio music you heard yesterday preparing for work, sending messages, playing a ridiculous number of Sudoku puzzles, or – gasp – taking a nap. But not eating. That’s a pretty solid no-no in public.

My parents seem to think I eat sushi every day. And, I mean, I can. But this country provides a plethora of other options, as well. Many specialties include ramen – gourmet or from a Styrofoam cup; lesbehonest, it’s still delicious – pizza, hamburgers, pasta, and OH MY GOSH curry. If you’ve never eaten curry, do yourself a favor and try it right now. Indian or Japanese, they’re both delicious. Just prepare yourself for the heat if you choose the top spiciness options; you’ll feel that heat again the next day. Of course, there’s also fish jerky, tiny dried fish that you eat eyeballs-and-all, chicken neck, cow tongue, raw horse, poisonous-if-cooked-wrong puffer fish, and this weird thing called natto that’s kind of like a mix between beans and Laffy Taffy. Lastly, one of my personal favorites in Japan is this brilliant thing called “Nomihoudai” (飲み放題), which means all-you-can-drink. Kind of like a buffet, but for alcohol. Solid 10/10, guys.

You also get to prepare answers for the inevitable question: “So, uh… Trump?” To which I usually grimace and say, “I’m so sorry.” The whole world was watching us on that one. And it’s pretty obvious we let them down.

One of the reasons I moved here was to learn Japanese, and let me tell y’all – it is SO much more difficult than I expected. You get pretty good at understanding things, picking up words here and there and puzzling them together to form a main idea, but forming sentences in a language that has a grammar structure almost entirely opposite of your own is harder than Calculus and Chemistry II combined. But if you’re not challenging yourself, what’s the point?

じゃあまたね。

 

Current favorite Japanese phrase: しょうがない

“Shouganai.”

It can’t be helped; oh well.