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.

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“When in Rome…” Needs to Die

Few things are as ubiquitous to the travel experience as the phrase, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s not bad advice. Experiencing how people on the other side of the world do things — whether that’s communal bathing or getting together to tell bad jokes to foreigners — is the whole point. Why bother going to China, if you’re just going to hang out at McDonald’s instead of expanding your waistline with the wholly sexual treasure that is the soup dumpling.

Do you believe in life after soup dumplings? Not sure I do. #dimsum #food -Dim Sum Go Go, New York

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If you’re about to hit the road, do so with an empty, open mind. Strip off the tighty whities and relax in the onsens of Yamanakako, with strangers’ dangly bits presented in panorama; stuff yourself with one more stick of the starchy debauchery that is La Banquise in Montréal; black out for a spell with some new friends in Osaka and almost miss your train. Take whatever you can from the local way of doing things. Please, though. Please don’t feel guilty when you need a taste of home. 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.

Charlie Brown Face Palm

The Nickname and Terrible Joke That Followed Me 6500 Miles

I guess I grew up lucky. Charlie-boy, Chas — my nicknames were rarely more exciting. Well, of course, the intelligentsia of my high school sometimes got really clever, transforming my last name from Hayward to Gayward. Get it?

More often, I got what were apparently hilarious question and answer exchanges that always risked the asker cracking a rib, so effective were they at “busting a gut.”

“What’s upChuck? Get it? Upchuck!” Seinfelds, every one of you.

The most abused joke, though, has to do with a certain character from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.

“Your name is Charlie? Charlie Brown?”

None of this was terribly egregious. Very few things I was called were homophobic or otherwise too hurtful. No, my nicknames were so dull and unimaginative, they could only be rendered offensive by frequency.

I haven’t heard any of these jokes or names in years. Charlie-boy is an exception; it’s a term of endearment used by my family and, occasionally, ex-girlfriends who think it’s an acceptable moniker. Imagine my bewilderment, then, when that wonderfully comical Charlie Brown joke made an appearance, here in Japan, a full 6500 miles from where I first heard it. Continue reading →

Learning Japanese Business Culture the Hard Way

On its surface, Japanese business culture is easy to understand. You do the work assigned to you, and then you try to help out your team. Whatever you do must be directed toward the good of the ecosystem, the greater organism that you’re a part of.

Up until recently, the consequences of living and working within such a system were only positive. When I was sick, my bosses took me to the hospital — where I embarrassed myself by placing a thermometer in my mouth, instead of in my armpit, as is the local way of doing things. They filled my refrigerator with electrolyte drinks, rice gruel, and easy to prepare noodle dishes.

Likewise, when coworkers were sick or buried in work, I offered vitamin-rich snacks and offered to help shoulder some of the load. The result? This is the only job I’ve ever had that makes me feel like I’m not just part of some corporate entity. To offer a tired cliché, we feel like a cohesive family unit. A recent blunder, though, is showing me the –well, darker side is a bit melodramatic — less desirable side of working within a more symbiotic, less individual body.  Continue reading →

Midori Matsuri Sabae Fukui

Japanese Hospitality and Summer Hangovers

Summer in Japan: hot, humid days that turn the act of sandwich building into an Olympic event;  cold noodles with equally chilled dipping sauces; and festivals offering grilled food, live music, and a chance to embarrass yourself on a public karaoke stage.

I have no trouble taking part in the latter two summer experiences alone. Heading to my local festival — or matsuri (お祭り) — alone, however, seemed more daunting. There is a sizable population of foreigners in this part of Fukui prefecture, but most tend to come from socially oppressed parts of Southeast or Central Asia. White faces tend to stick out like the proverbially painful non-finger appendage. Woe is the fate of the white man.

Despite my reservations, I went to the festival armed with a budget of 1200 yen (~10 USD) and the certainty that, at best, I’d be stared at uncertainly as I munched my way around the festival. My meager budget proved more than enough for a wonderful experience, and my assumption about my reception, well, that was more than just a little cynical.  Continue reading →