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.

Through the Lens Thursday: Japan’s Old School Trains

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.

Sorry, dad.

Arashiyama monkeys Kyoto

How Being Broke Helps Me See Japan

I remember getting the offer to teach English in Japan. I don’t remember reading anything more than “We’re pleased to offer you…” before writing a hasty reply, telling my new employers that I’d absolutely accept the position. It was the opportunity to check a goal off my list, one I’d ignored to personal and professional ruin before.

I wasn’t completely sold on going. Emotionally and in most other ways that meant anything, I knew I could go. If I didn’t like it, well, you can survive anything for a year. Still, the nagging thought that my ongoing student loan payments and the cost of living here would perpetually land me in the poor house made me doubt my decision. You could chalk it up to pre-move jitters, but the predictions of my low-income bracket quickly came true. It turns out it’s not such a bad thing.

Continue reading →

Rice Paddies Sabae

International Romance in the Time of Tinder

There is nothing wrong with the Japanese countryside. My window frames the chain of mountains encircling Sabae City, offering a spectacular view as I wake with the sun each morning. Unlike my Tokyo-based friends, getting to work doesn’t require that I literally be stuffed into the narrow metal frame of the local train. For those reasons and many others, I’d say that I prefer this rural existence to the city life.

The only downside to teaching and living in the backwoods of the Province of Pokémon is the difficulty of forming new relationships, both romantic and platonic. The big issue is the disparity between my demographic and that to which the majority of my fellow Sabaeans (Sabae-ites?) belong; though I’m stepping dangerously close to 30, I’m still in my twenties. My social circle these days has been reduced to 50-year-old bar patrons and the occasional hangout with an illustrator and a writer I met at the cultural center.

It’s nothing to complain about, not really; friends in any form are welcome. Even so, if there is one thing that will eventually drive me back home into the embrace of ‘Murica, it’s the difficult social situation. Just how bad is it? I’ve started using Tinder. Continue reading →

Tokyo by Bullet

Tokyo stinks of fish and beer — at least, this tiny compartmentalized version of Japan’s first city does. The thin, gray plastic armrest beneath the window looking out at a metropolis in hyperlapse is adorned with a half-empty can of Asahi Super Dry, the sent of chilled malt filling the immediate area with the scent of a night out. The freshly opened package of squid jerky — saki ika in local parlance — blankets the compartment in a salty, sweet haze, invisible to the eye, but dense enough that the passenger in the seat next to me visibly tilts away from the noxious vittles.

I’m genuinely sorry to bother her, but I can’t be bothered to say as much. I press my head to the convex glass of the window, just in time to see the crimson spire of Tokyo Tower make a few brief appearances between man-made mountains climbing increasingly higher toward the sky; the rain, so light it’s nearly a mist, catches the orange-yellow glow off the tower, seeming to set the atmosphere alight around it.

The frame of the landmark inspires equal parts excitement and regret as it teases its appearance, the Cloverfield Monster in my own personal kaiju revival film. The stink of cheap self-medication, the want for something more than a small room full of people you barely know for eight hours of training — this is all I know of the capital. These experiences make Anthony Bourdain out to be a liar; where is the revelation, the “life before acid and life after acid” I was promised in so many travelogues? I see only the cinereal high rise punctuated by the occasional alleyway. Where are the neon-inflamed pathways that Lost in Translation promised?

Tokyo, seen at the speed of a bullet train, at least, hardly seems the part it’s so often allowed to play.

Progress, One Fried Hunk of Meat at a Time

“Would you like your miso soup with clams, seaweed, or tofu?” she asked, though I didn’t know it at the time. I stammered on, begging her to forgive my language skills and asking her to repeat herself just once more. She slowed down, repeating the question. She asked three times, at increasingly slow speed, until I understood just what she wanted.

There are few things that help heal a traveler like food. Whether it’s the familiar taste of home or the notes of expertise pumped into local dishes by a cook who’s spent her life working the same flavors, a good meal can be a powerful salve for homesickness. In the case of the understudied or the lazy — I was admittedly in the latter category for too long — what should be a time to recharge and shrug off the shock of a new culture, of chronological and emotional displacement, can quickly turn stressful. I managed to order that first meal, miso soup and all, but the taste of it sat heavy with guilt and self-doubt. If I couldn’t even manage to order a meal without fitting the part of the ignorant gaijin, how was I going to live here for a year? Continue reading →

On the Mad Genius of “An Idiot Abroad”

Days of laying in bed, crying fits in the bathtub, nary a sleep without nightmares for two weeks. When I set out to start my year long adventure in Japan, I didn’t exactly have these things penciled into the itinerary. Japan, I can remember thinking, was the place I had spent the best summer of my life. Japan would be a newer, happier chapter to help punctuate a few rough years. Japan, I was certain, would be the start of something new.

Luckily, with a little time, assorted offal cooked on tiny halberds of timber, and an addiction to exploration, real Japan has since fallen more in line with the Japan of fantasy. Well, that’s almost true; I’ve yet to visit to the smoke-filled halls and booze soaked rooms of a karaoke joint since my return in December.

Of all the salves that kept me from taking the next flight out of Narita, the ramblings of an idiot — a famous idiot — were likely the most potent. Continue reading →