My headlamp illuminates a hedgerow atop cement foundation, and there are suddenly a pair of eyes fixed on me. Thinking I’ve finally crossed one of the marauding moon bears or boars I’m constantly warned about, I quickly tamp the switch on my headgear. The world goes dark, save the headlights of the rare car that runs through the dirt pathway between the rice paddies. The eyes — like some creature of science fiction that feeds on light, they’ve absorbed the rays of my torch and continue to glow in the darkness.
The bulbs only keep their pose for a moment longer. If this is an animal, its eyes stretch impossibly far apart. As the two specks of bioluminescence dance in the darkness, others join in the revelry. A sentient ember rises from the irrigation ditch; another couple emerge, entwined in something beyond my understanding from a green house. The pulsating population paints pyres across the smooth glass of the surrounding fields. I stumble into the enclave of the firefly.
“See Them While You Can”
Growing up in rural New York, fireflies were fascinating but ultimately mundane parts of my childhood. When a friend offered to take me to a heavily wooded part of Aichi prefecture during my university days — a trip planned with the simple hope of laying eyes on tiny flecks of waltzing flame — I was interested, but I couldn’t understand why the special trip was needed.
The archipelago’s most famous firefly species are named after two warring clans from Japanese history and folklore: the Genji and the Heike. Legend holds that following the Battle of Dannomura in 1185, fallen samurai from both sides were reborn as fireflies. I can’t say how much the story is believed, but as a lover of history and someone who thinks the world is a better place with a touch of magic, it’s fun to entertain.
Immortal souls of fallen bushi or not, fireflies — like so many other creatures — are losing the battle against habitat loss and the mass destruction of industrialized agriculture. Some modern conservation efforts have proven extremely effective, quadrupling local populations of fireflies. Still, as Japan Times writer Rowan Hooper puts it, fireflies are running out of fuel. You’d do best to “see them while you can.”
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My dad had this wonderful train set when I was a kid. Built atop a slab of plywood the size of a small bedroom, he’d wrought mountains from papier-mâché, built villages populated with policemen, grocery stores, and sports cars. I loved that train set, so I destroyed it.
I peeled locomotives from their tracks and — using a flat-head screwdriver and the powers of Hell — peered into their guts. Whole lines disappeared, imaginary travelers vanishing into the ether forever. Eventually I moved on, but not before tearing through dad’s once majestic world like Godzilla on amphetamines. To this day, I still love trains, though, so it’s great to live in Japan, where life necessitates a daily ride.
Vapid: there’s no other word that better describes the way I talk. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t say anything unless it means something. Still, I have a hard time making sure that when I speak, each word is worth breaking the silence. It seeps into my writing, too — if you read my really early blog work, I somehow managed to be even more long-winded.
That all changes when I speak Japanese. I’ve reached a point where I can hold good, meaningful conversations. Gone are the days when talks with friends and co-workers start with “How are you?” and end with “I’m fine.” I can communicate, but I am so far removed from any level of fluency that vapidity — my default mode of English — simply isn’t possible. I’m forced to really think about what I’m about to say if I don’t want to sound like a baby who mistook dad’s bottle of Glenfiddich for mother’s milk.
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I’d been getting bored with the type of photos that fill my digital albums and Instagram portfolio. I’m usually working or writing or otherwise distracted when the sun sets (and until sunrise is after 5:00am, sleeping while it rises). Tired of the saturated blues and greens that I usually love, I made an effort to go out an hour before sunset. This is one of my rewards: still hints of blue and green, but a welcome debut of pink, orange, and red over the rice paddies as the sun lays down for the night.
After four months of trying to find my way to the top of the mountain, I was sure I’d finally found the trail. A cement torii framed aged cement steps that eased the sharp ascent through sun-spotted bamboo and humidity. A place that looked like the beginning of a level in Uncharted or a new iteration of Tomb Raider couldn’t possibly be anything other than the trailhead I’d looked for in snow, rain, and oppressive heat. And yet, it was just another dead-end.
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I had only known work to be a curse. It’s described in a number of ways, ranging from the simple but illustrative “Hell” to the euphemistic “putting in my time.” Sure, I’ve heard people say they love their jobs, that what they do makes them feel fulfilled, but I never understood that feeling until I got here. I never understood that, while work may be something we can never escape, it can — and should — be something that we take pride in and struggle everyday to make ourselves better through. Continue reading →