TLT: Among Mountain Spirits

Hiking — being outdoors for any extended period for any reason, really — offers different things to different people. Some find that they can push their bodies to points they previously wouldn’t have dared. Others, like Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame, find peace and healing in the sun that chars off skin layer by layer, in the wind and rain that are as abrasive as they are cleansing.

Putting miles and mud on my boots, I’ve found that peace, and I’ve certainly redefined what my physical limits actually are. Unexpectedly, though, I’ve also found some connection to god. I say god and not God, because I don’t subscribe to any of the Religions of the Book, nor have I found any anchor in the other organized faiths I’ve run into.

God, if that’s even the right word for me, has come to mean the beautiful closed system we live in — or, if you like, the ecosystem. There is enough magic to be found in the krill who fill the bellies of the greatest sentinels of the open sea, the powdered allergy that keeps gorgeous swallowtails through to the end of their short season.

I didn’t come off the trail ready to give any credence to the myth of the winged tengu, the faces of which pop up across Japan’s temples and her trails. I’m not ready to invest in the idea of Gaia. I am more open to the idea of sorcery in the real world, though, and I think that can only be a good thing.

This post is part of a weekly series.  Each entry focuses on a single photograph to tell a story. If you liked this week’s version, take a second to check out the rest of Through the Lens Thursday.

TLT: The Furry Friends We Leave Behind

My cat was collateral damage when I moved to Japan. I often joked that I got her in “the divorce,” a self-deprecating reference to a failed engagement I felt sure would define my life. Billy, my calico American short hair, never wavered; when I stopped eating for two months and dropped thirty pounds in a bout of nearly terminal depression, she sat on my chest while I cried, purring and demanding to be pet. When her sister died suddenly at three-years-old, renewing my devotion to bottles and nights without REM, she demanded the same.The sociopathic beast was my stability for a very long, very dark time. I left her.

Now, I know: she’ll carry on just fine without me, and by all accounts that’s proven true. Selfishly, though, I’ve missed the steady demand for a scratch behind the ears when the world is blocking out the sun, when I’m made to stare my Sisyphean struggle against myself in the scorching, hating eyes.

The recent trek along the Tokai Nature Trail put me in touch with a number of temporary analogues for my quadrupedal therapist. I’ve often said feral cats are to Japan what squirrels are to Western New York, my snow battered home. Whether on a trail in the middle of the Japanese wilderness or snuggled up with kittens beneath a Buddhist temple, you can always find cats. And where there are cats, there is the tiniest smidgen of crepuscular solidarity and sanity.

Miss you, Bill.

This post is part of a weekly series.  Each entry focuses on a single photograph to tell a story. If you liked this week’s version, take a second to check out the rest of Through the Lens Thursday.

TLT: For Relaxing Times…

For a month before I left to take on a small chunk of the Tokai Nature Trail, the 1700km collection of trail systems ranging from Tokyo’s Mt.Takao to Osaka, I couldn’t stop thinking of how badly I wanted to be out of this city. I was tired of the way I had to stop and wait for the train to pass before I could go home after work; I hated that everybody seemed to know who I was and where I worked; I couldn’t stand another trip to my local supermarket to stock up on a week’s worth of vittles.  Nothing against Sabae, Japan’s eyeglass capital and my current home; I just needed to get away.

For relaxing times, make it Suntory time. #Japan #lostintranslation #travel #whiskey #鯖江市

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When my hiking partner, Travis, and I made it to Shizuoka City and had our tickets to return to our regularly scheduled programming in hand, I felt no real excitement. I wouldn’t have to pay 6,000 yen to sleep on an actual bed for a night, and not walking 25 kilometers a day also had its appeal, but excitement?

The night I got home I was sure I’d flip to where I’d left off in my most recent read-through of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and let the darkness take me at its leisure. Dropping my pack in my apartment with a loud thunk, I realized that I needed to be moving, needed to be out doing something. Continue reading →

Through the Lens Thursday: Home Ain’t So Bad

Woe is any town unfortunate enough to be home. It’s the first place to be maligned when asked, and often when not . The biggest complaint is that there is nothing to do. This may not be true if you live in New York City, Tokyo, or some other metropolis, the borders of which seem to house a small planet’s worth of spectacle.

I’ve never lived in such a place, though. Whether by chance or fate, mine is always the home with more fields and trees than people, more mountains to climb than reliable pubs to soothe what ails you. And so it’s always been that I’ve looked away from my home for my adventures.

Continue reading →

Through the Lens Thursday: Is It Time to Leave Japan?

It’s time to decide. In two weeks, I have to let my bosses know whether I want to extend my teaching contract in Japan for six months to a year.  Truth is, I both really want to leave and stay.

You can imagine all the usual reasons for wanting to call it quits — family, friends back home. I also want to make sure that in the next year I can travel a bit more. I feel this need in the center of my chest to get back to Montreal. Last time I was there, I was still so anxious about being alone that I cut my trip short by two days. I was there for a night, a visit to the market, and a gut-filling trip to La Banquise.

Whether my craving for the City of a Hundred Steeples or my want to get to Spain to finally take that hike along el Camino de Santiago, these are things I feel I must do before I head to graduate school in the fall of 2016. I’m just not quite done in Japan.

I can’t leave my kids yet. They’re growing and learning to speak English in a way I didn’t expect. With big staff changes at my school, I feel like I need to be there for the transition, at least for six months. My Japanese, too, is just reaching some semblance of fluency. If I leave now, just when things are getting good, what will have been the point of all this?

So, while so much of me wants to see other parts of the world, to spend lazy summers getting drunk on mom and dad’s patio — or at the wonderful Victoire in Rochester with friends — it’s just not the time. Montreal will still be there in another six months.

Through the Lens Thursday: Philosoraptor Lives in Japan

You quickly come to notice just how many characters there are in day to day life in Japan. Pikachu smiles cheerfully from the side of a bus; Anpanman gives the peace sign outside of the local agricultural co-op; Hello Kitty warns you to keep the air clean for everyone and not smoke at the local train station.

Character advertisement is nothing new. Mickey Mouse and his ilk are plastered across the U.S. trying to get people to buy junk, visit the Happiest Place on Earth, and what have you. Here, though, it’s taken to another level. My Japanese teacher put it like this: movies, companies, etc. that have good characters succeed. The rest don’t.”

Which is why you can find the prefecture’s mascot printed on 100-yen shop tissues. It’s why every town you visit offers its own spin on anthropomorphic creatures, ranging from the marine to the avian, the cute to the ridiculous.

Tsuruga, a hub city that connects central Fukui prefecture to the coast, recently upped its character game by installing a riff on the famous “Philosoraptor” at the local JR station. Fukui is quite famous for its important role in dinosaur finds, research, and the like, so the move makes sense.

He or she isn’t called Philosoraptor outright, mind you; might be somebody would have to be compensated for that. Instead, the Hamlet-esque pose is just enough to get those of us who spend too much time on the web thinking.

If you’ve spent some time in Japan, what’s the most interesting or absurd character you’ve come across? Let me know in the comments below! 

Through the Lens Thursday: The First Train Out

Though I didn’t think so when I was growing up, I had a really good childhood. I can’t remember a year when we didn’t take at least one trip. Sometimes it was only as far as Gettysburg, PA, though often we’d make the 20-hour trek to Walt Disney World, some 1,100 miles south of my home in Western New York.

I hated how early we had to get up to make our trips. Getting to Disney meant leaving at three in the morning; that way we could make most of the trip by midnight. Gettysburg, only a five-hour tour in the motorized carriage, still required beating the sun. Especially in my oilier, grumpier teen years, I was not fun to get going, I’d bet.

Now, though, there are few things I like more than getting up early for a trip. The world smells and looks completely different at sunrise. Muggy summer air blowing through the train windows, sweet with hints of flowers and baby crops, makes the perfect companion to processed orange juice at 6 A.M.

Especially here in Japan, where everyone is so close together, it’s hard to find a time in the day when you aren’t hearing what others are up to. Catching the first train, then, is a cure for a few things: nostalgia, the insanity that comes with constant ambient noise, and the need to see the world without it looking back.