Monday, August 14, 2006

Mt. Mitake and terror

Last week I tried something I've never done before—backpacking. I've camped a bunch of times, yes, but I've never hiked to the site and then set up. Alright, so taking a train to a place, hiking to the site, and then setting up isn't quite the same, but I have to get there somehow.

My plan was to camp in an area west of Tokyo called Okutama—Tama is the name of a river and a region in the area, and oku means "deep", thus it is the deep reaches of the Tama area. In particular, I planned to hike Mitake, a celebrated and fairly accessible mountain, then head to Otake, a larger mountain further south, on my way to the campsite.

I have had a great deal of difficulty sleeping recently, and the night before my trip I didn't get to sleep until about four or five in the morning, so I didn't get up until 11, and didn't actually get started until much later. I think I reached Mitake at 2 in the afternoon.

It is a beautiful place. I was surprised: my experience of Japan to this point has been entirely of cities and farms; I wasn't sure there actually were uninhabited places. Even uninhabited places, I was worried, would have huge, straight staircases carved into them, like Tai-yan in China.

But this had beautifully simple trails the envy of any on Mt. Tamalpais in California (there is an area near the mountaintop shrine that is paved, though). The path I took was strenuous, and I was sweating like crazy (though, in my defense, I was carrying an extra 30-40 pounds on my back), but it was beautiful.

After a while I noticed I was way behind the hour and five minutes my guidebook claimed the first stretch should take; I hadn't reached the first guidepost mountain and it had been two and a half hours. I still think they are crazy; you'd have to run to get up the mountain that quickly.

I arrived at the peak about an hour later (yes, something that "should" have taken an hour took three). I found a sign at the Mitake shrine that gave more reasonable estimates for the time it should take; the point I was at before, it said, should take two and a half hours. And according to that map, my campsite was still three and half hours away or so. I was looking at a walk in the dark for two hours of that, and I had no idea if I would be able to camp when I got there.

At first I considered staying on Mitake after that and, when people woke me up roughly the next morning, I'd just explain I had no idea you couldn't camp in an undesignated area in a national forest in Japan. There was a wonderful area opening onto what must, under the early-morning sun, be spectacular. It was completely unmanned and with a little covered area where I could have slept even without a tent. But I just couldn't make myself do it. It probably was a good choice, but I wish I had a bit more fortitude.

I made a bad choice after that, to try to get to a different site nearer a train station (if the other campsite I mentioned was full I would have been screwed because there was no train or bus nearby). This involved me going down a path in the dark, by myself, with nothing but my bike light. I was afraid to use the bike light on full-time beam because I was worried the batteries might die and then I'd really be screwed, so I put it on flash instead. This saves battery by flashing on and off, but it can be disorienting. In the pitch dark, worried that there might be some wild animal ready to attack, the effect of that flashing light was like being in a horror movie. Every time a leaf hung over into the path of the flash, the shadow it cast looked like a small, black animal heading towards me--an animal unafraid of me and thus dangerous. After about a half hour of trying to use my keys as a bell to scare off any predator that might attack me if surprised along the path in the dark, I hit upon the idea of using my cell phone speaker to play some music that might scare them off. The only mp3's I had on it at the time were a voice recording of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, something I didn't think would interest scary forest animals very much, so I tried the various ring tones on the cell phone instead. The first ring-tone sounded like the soundtrack to a horror movie, so I quickly changed it. The next song was a bit more soothing; I walked along and, after a while, I calmed a bit and became absorbed in getting back to the station—of course by this time I'd given up camping and just wanted to go home. It was difficult judging my path (remember, I'm going down a mountain) with the small, flashing light, and I fell down at least four times, nearly sprained my ankle, and ripped a hole in the knee of my pants, where I still have a nice purple bruise. I promised several times on the trail not to take nature so lightly.

I managed to make it for the last possible train that would get me through to home that night. In that way I was lucky. Exhausted, my legs barely carrying me at that point, I got home around 1 am.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Shinjuku and Saitama

To celebrate the vacation that began last Friday, my friends from training and I got together at an Australian bar in Shinjuku last Saturday. Officially it was the planning party for a trip to Mt. Fuji, but it ended up being an all-night bash.

As some may remember, I mentioned last year that the trains in Tokyo shut down relatively early—this results in a mad dash for the last train (or trains) at around 11:30 to midnight. For people like me who live on the other side of town, it usually means the earlier the better.

Very often, though, people don't make it home—purposefully or no. We all decided to stick it out and run around until the first train, around 5:30.

Some fall asleep on benches, others hang out in bars; we did karaoke. Amazingly, for ¥3500 apiece (about $30), we could drink as much as we wanted until 5 am. We had a great time, I scared everybody with my off-key enka, and somehow we managed to pay on time (I don't remember a 2-3 hour space). It wasn't at all as difficult as I first thought. I wouldn't want to get in the habit, but it makes the prospect of missing that last train less scary.

And instead of a cramped train ride, I got to ride on the first Hibiya line train of the day. You'll never see it even close to this empty at regular times. In fact, the Hibiya is one of trains that gets so crowded that women have their own cars during peak hours so that they can avoid men...ruining their day.

The next day, I slept until 3, which I hated. I spent the day relaxing, then today I went for a bike ride.

This time I rode up fairly far into Saitama, the prefecture to the north of Tokyo prefecture. It was odd, because I suddenly felt I was in the country. It was pleasant.

Then I looked to my left and almost fell off my bike:

I had no idea you could see Mt. Fuji so clearly from here. I'd seen pictures, but I thought they had used a telephoto effect or something. My picture doesn't really tell you how monstrously big the mountain looks; it stands out like a watchtower. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn't getting closer, trying to jump me.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Shinsuke and dreams

I met my friend from Hiroshima, Shinsuke, today. He comes to Tokyo once a month, so I'll get a chance to see him quite a bit. We were only able to meet for a couple of hours, but it was a great time, as usual. We met in Shibuya, the site of the huge crosswalk seen in "Lost in Translation", though neither of us knows it much—I was working there today, so it was the best place to meet. We went to an izakuya—a Japanese pub and my favorite kind of drinking establishment—and talked about friends and "old times." I felt close to Shinsuke from the time I first met him, and everytime we meet that closeness is renewed. The meeting was a good start for my two week vacation.

I decided to jump off the last train home at Kitasenju to walk home and try to get a feel for the city nearest my house. Unfortunately, though, Kitasenju shuts its doors after 1 am, and all that is left are some sketchy characters. Nothing dangerous, but certainly nothing I wanted to be a part of. I had hoped to maybe stop in at a jazz club I'd seen before, but everything near the bar was closed and I felt uncomfortable going as far as the club.

I decided to go home and, while crossing the bridge over the Arakawa, I grasped a feeling that has been sort of haunting me since I got here—I sometimes have a hard time believing in Japan. It is difficult to explain the feeling if you haven't experienced it, but I catch myself sometimes wondering "is this for real? Do people actually live like this?" It was sparked, in this case, by the rather eye-catching semi-trucks crossing the bridge. They look so fake, tiny trucks with neon and flashing lights that matched the traffic cones that blink in the night, that I can't help thinking "those aren't real." But, then, of course, a Japanese person must look at semis in the US and think "god, those things are so ridiculously huge—they can't possibly be real."

I think in the back of my mind some part of me reserves the right to not believe any of this is real, that somehow this has been a big show and one day a Japanese Alan Funt will slap me on the back and tell me it was a vast Truman Show-like joke. I wonder if this is a common feeling among expats. I admit I've felt this way, on a much smaller scale, in Georgia, in San Francisco, and in other places I've visited. It might be called alienation, but that's a bit stronger than I'd like to present it as. For one, it is far more humorous than that, and it makes it easier for me to not feel alienated, because I am able to keep the oddity at a comfortably humorous distance. But it also has a tendency to render Japan "quaint," a designation that is not true of any society in the world, certainly not Japan, and that keeps any foreigner (including myself) from truly participating in that culture.