Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Straddling the Edge of a Knife, or Spring Comes to Hokkaido

Spring is here, in force and without hesitation. Steady rain gives way to sun returns to rain, making the earth in my vegetable garden black and turning the grass deeper and deeper shades of green. All of the rice fields are flooded now, some already planted with rows and rows and rows of skinny shoots. Snow has retreated towards treeline in the mountains, and the valley walls are becoming brighter and brighter every day as buds open and blossoms burst. Cherry trees scattered across the hill sides look like individual petals lying on a bed of new moss. Last week, as I sat in the pine grove behind my house, the first mosquito of the year homed in and touched down. I squooshed it.

On Saturday I climbed Mt. Hamamasu with several Japanese and American friends. Hamamasu is a strange mountain, in truth barely more than a hill, but more technically difficult and physically striking than most of the larger peaks nearby. It sits surrounded by rice fields on the edge of a broad valley only a few miles from the Sea of Japan in an extremely isolated corner of Hokkaido, about halfway between the towns of Ishikari and Rumoi.

Imagine a Himalayan Peak, steep and craggy, tapering to a impossibly narrow summit ridge. Now, in your all-powerful mountain-crashing imagination, neatly lop off the last 800 meters of that peak and plop it down in the ricefield of a Japanese farmer who suddenly became very religious. Let the peak settle in for a few millenia, and you probably have a good approximation of what Mt. Hamamasu looks like.

It took only an hour and a half to pull ourselves up to the summit. Japanese trail builders tend to ignore details such as waterbars, switchbacks and pitch, with the result being trails so heavily eroded that it is difficult to see over their banks. The trail up Hamamasu was the worst I've ever seen. It went straight up the side of the mountain, quite literally in many places, where the soil had eroded entirely and left vertical cliffs of loose rock and tree roots. Without the climbing ropes strung along the trail it would have been quite impossible to ascend without forging a more sensible path.

Frustration over trail conditions eased when we pulled ourselves over the last cliff and onto the summit ridge, a bare strip of narrow rock about 100 meters long. The sides of the mountain fell off vertically from this granite knife-edge all the way to the ricefields below. In the narrowest spots, which I crawled to on all fours, it was possible to sit cross-legged with both knees hanging over different sides of the mountain. We sat up there with all the time in the world, swinging our feet off the precipice and watching the sun glint off of the backs of hawks circling hundreds of meters below as we ate our riceballs and laughed the giddy laughs of sugar-highed children at the top of the jungle gym.

Around lunch-time a group of elderly Japanese men and women joined us on the summit, pulling six pack after six-pack of tall, cold cans of beer from their oversized hiking packs. One of them wore at shirt that said, "I AM PERFECT HIKER" on the front.

The summit was clear of snow, but great tongues of hard-packed drifts spilled down the sides of the mountain like Boardercross courses. Instead of lowering ourselves down the trail, we took exhilarating rides down the snow patches, going far too fast at times and narrowly avoiding disaster when one member of our group only just managed to halt his wild descent at the edge of a sheer waterfall.

Missing skin in patches and soaked through, but thoroughly happy, we bushwhacked through thickets of bamboo to the trail, emerging in front of the extremely surprised and mildly drunk picnic party. Later, soaking in the public bath up the road from the trail head, some of us talked about how easy it would be to live on the road in Japan.

"Look at all the mountain vegetables we found today," someone said. "All that good food free for the taking."

"You wouldn't even have to deal with those," said another. "Last week, when I was resting in a parking lot after we climbed Shokanbetsu three different Japanese people gave me things, beer, chocolate and some kind of dried sea creature. And I was only there for an hour!"

"Yeah. If you look a little dirty and tired and far from home, you practically have to fight off people trying to give you food, or a ride, or a place to stay. Being a bum here really would be great."

"It's true," said the first person. "Unless you were a Japanese bum of course. Then everyoen would just be giving you dirty looks and wondering why you hadn't killed yourself yet."

We didn't laugh, because that was completely true.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Inside the robot factory...

Today the 7th graders took their first school trip together. Before getting on the bus to the zoo, they gathered in the parking lot for a pre-departure briefing, lined up in their uniforms like West Point cadets at graduation.

The newly elected class officers faced the group and began the proceedings. I'll try to translate the Japanese as literally as possible.

Class President: "Stand at attention! From now, we will begin the pre-departure briefing for our school trip in this, the 17th year of the Emperor's reign! Begin!" (Bows to the group)

Group: "Begin!" (Bows to the officers)

CP: "We will now hear from our class Vice-President, Watanabe. Mr. Watanabe, please."

Watanabe: (Bows to the Group. Group bows back.) "Soon we will depart on our school trip to the Asahikawa Zoo. We are happy to be going to the zoo today. Because it rained yesterday, it may be slippery at the zoo. Let's all make sure to walk carefully so that we can return safely. I'm finished." (Bows to the Group. Group bows back.)

CP: "Thank you! We will now hear from Student Government Representative Takahashi! Mr. Takahashi, please.

Takahashi: (Bows to the Group. Group bows back.) "Soon we will depart on our school trip to the Asahikawa Zoo. When we get on and off the bus, let's be sure to greet the honorable driver properly. If we fail to greet him properly, we will commit a rudeness. Also, while we are on the bus, let's take care to be quiet and respectful, or else the honorable driver will be unable to drive safely. I'm finished." (Bows to Group. Group bows back.)

CP: "Thank you! We will now here from our highly honorable Principal. Highly honorable Principal, please!"

Highly Honorable Principal, recently dragged from his office and blinking in the sun: "OK, good morning." (Nods head)

Group and teachers: "Good Morning!" (Bow deeply)

HHP: "So, today is your class trip. You're going to the zoo. You know, when I was your age, we didn't have zoos. Now, there is an excellent zoo in Hokkaido. You should be very grateful for the opportunity to go to such an excellent place for your school trip. Make sure to return safely having conducted yourselves properly. I'm finished."

CP: "Thank you highly honorable Principal! This now concludes our pre-departure briefing in this, the 17th year of the Emperor's reign! Stand at attention! We're finished. (Bows)

Group: "We're finished! (Bows)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Not quite The Inquisition...

“ServiceMaster Co., parent of Terminix and TruGreen Chemlawn declares that a core corporate objective is that employees honor God in all they do.”

- from the current issue of Business Week

Yup, sure extinguished a lot of life by poisoning this good Earth today, praise the Lord.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Don't just do something, sit there.

"I don't know why I do zazen, but when I wake up in the morning, the world is so beautiful I cry."

In my last post, I mentioned zazen, or sitting meditation. This form of passive meditation is antithetical to every tenet of modern society, because it refocuses energy away from external stimuli and back on the internal self. Practicing zazen goes against our instincts, which are typically preoccupied either with achieving instant gratification (channel surfing) or ineffectual, unending patterns of worry. By doing zazen, you conciously take a timeout from the cyclical information overload of daily life. The effects are impressive.

I like to do zazen in the woods, but location is not terribly important as long as you can find a clean, quiet place where it is comfortable to sit, away from visual or audio distractions. After slowly stretching out the body, sit cross-legged with your left hand cupping the right, wrists resting in your lap. Eyes can be shut, or left half open but relaxed. Try to keep good posture. Then, just sit for a while.

For the first few minutes, I've found that my mind fights hard to get me up and doing something. It takes discipline to just stay still, deal with small muscle aches and not get distracted. Funny when you think about it - we're so accustomed to constant action and stimulation that one of the most difficult things to do is simply sit still for any length of time.

Thoughts rise up from here and there while I sit. It's impossible to stop them, and I don't try to, but I don't engage them either. The key to zazen is passivity, even in regard to your own thoughts. If a joke from a The Simpsons wanders into your mind, it wanders in, but without gritting your teeth and concentrating on getting rid of it, it's better to just let it wander on out again. If it gets too crowded up there, you can try focusing on breathing - in and out, in and out.

If you make it 5 minutes without shifting your weight, looking up at something or getting distracted, the physical effects of zazen begin to develop. For me, it starts with my hands. First fingers and palms feel unnaturally light, as if they could float away in a heavy breeze, but I also become aware of a heaviness holding them down, a ball of energy balanced ever so delicately in my lap. The more still I manage to hold my body, the lighter my hands feel and the more tangible the ball of energy becomes. After 15 minutes or so, the airy feeling spreads up my arms, to shoulders and chest, encircling the energy in my lap. At this point, the relative scale of my body and spirt seem to move apart, like a feeling I remember from childhood when I couldn't sleep but lay still anyway, until my sense of self rose up like a helium balloon barely connected to the huge physical mass of the body to which it was still anchored.

This feeling is extremely delicate. A woodpecker ratatats on a tree from the other side of the hill and the state shrinks down suddenly as your focus swings over to the sound. It takes time to build it back up again, and after 30 minutes or so I'm usually unwilling to keep going once my focus breaks.

When it's done though, after getting up and stretching again I'm invariably in a good mood, comfortable and happy, as if I just jumped into a cool pond at the end of a long bike ride on a muggy day in August.

Give zazen a try - hold it as long as you can, use a timer if you have to. It's free, and you don't need accessories. The high doesn't quite touch marijuana, but it's comparable to the endorphin surge you get after running up a steep hill.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Shokanbetsu Snowfields

Sunburned face and aching calves - it's been a good weekend.

Winter dragged on into May this year, late even for Hokkaido, but last Friday felt like spring. By 3 pm I was pedaling hard against the wind down the valley, heading west towards the Sorachi plain. The riverbottom willows were fluffed out in pale green and hawks circled high in the thermals overhead. Making good time despite the headwind I crossed over the Ishikari River and into a vast checkerboard of rice fields, some already flooded but most plowed over only recently. Old women in bonnets crouched shoulder to shoulder, planting seedlings in the dark mud.

Turning North, I rode up the valley to Shintotsukawa, a small town where my friend Ryan teaches English. At his house we were joined by Mark, another English teacher from a neighboring town. Mark was worried about how his bike would hold up on a long trip (justifiably as it turned out) and so the three of us piled into his car and drove over the mountains to Mashike, a small fishing village on the Sea of Japan coast.

This part of Hokkaido's West Coast reminds me of the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest. Tall snowcapped mountains plunge down to the ocean in dramatic rocky cliffs and small rivers carve out narrow valleys where people cluster in friendly fishing towns. In the fall, these rivers are choked with salmon.

We arrived just in time to watch the sunset, climbing out on the breakwater at a river mouth and sending hundreds of gulls wheeling indignantly away from their perch. The beach was littered with enough driftwood to start a roaring fire with one flick of the lighter, and in minutes we were happily roasting baby eggplant, sweet potatoes and salmon steaks. As the water boiled for miso soup, Ryan added bits of fresh seaweed he found in the surf. We ate the hot food slowly with chopsticks in the dark. Full-bellied, I scooped a pillow from the sand and burrowed deep into my down sleeping bag next to the fire.

During the night a fox crept up to the campfire coals looking for salmon scraps. Apparently Mark woke me to point it out but I only opened my eyes, muttered "not a bear" and went back to sleep. Don't remember a thing.

Even Western Hokkaido is well east in the Japan/Korea time zone, and without Daylight Savings the sun rises early in the spring and summer. At 5 am I stretched at the waters edge and checked e-mail on my cellphone, chatting briefly with my Mom back home in Vermont. Improvements in mobile technology are making the structured workplace an anachronism. If I need to trade stocks for a living, there isn't a good reason why I can't do it from the beach or the mountains, in whatever timezone I please.

Mt. Shokanbetsu shone white and pure above the rusty rolling hills East of town. After eating bananas and handfuls of a popular salty snack charmingly named "Cocky Pee," we unfolded our bikes and set off for the snowfields.

Asking directions in Japan is always an adventure, but I've learned to trust my translations and accept even the strangest advice. The clerk at 7-11 told us to turn right at the big apple for the road to the trailhead, and sure enough, before long we spotted a large plastic apple spiked on a tall concrete pole. Trusting, we turned right.

Oddly enough, the road wound through cherry orchards as we climbed into the foothills. The last farmhouses ended where the snow began, and for the last 10 km the only sign of human activity was a large gravel pit and several small concrete dams. Below the last dam the river flowed wildly, leaping boulders and flooding stands of bamboo. We stopped to rest on a small beach clear of snow, bending over backward to dunk our heads in the numbingly ice cold rapids.

Mark's tire eventually gave way to the changing air pressure, shooting its valve across the road in a burst of air and deflating in an instant. We walked the last kilometer or so, arriving at the trailhead at 9 am.

Snow was packed thick among the scattered birches at the start of the trail, but it was hard enough to hold our weight. With no idea where the trail might be we started off in the general direction of a ridge that led up to the summit, picking out our own path through the trees. The trail may have switchbacked, but we didn't, and were soon sweating hard despite the snow. Stripping down to long underwear bottoms, we wrapped our shirts around our heads to protect pale winter skin from the reflecting sun and continued up the mountain.

The atmosphere, strange to begin with, became downright surreal when we crested the ridge that led to the summit. Gnarled trees were spaced out like gravestones on the edge of a an encroaching desert, trunks and branches protruding at all angles from the blazing white snow. In the distance, the Sea of Japan was indistinguishable from the hazy blue horizon, extending the dome of sky to the foot of the mountain itself. Wilting in the sun, the snow grew softer and the going more difficult. We pushed ourself from tree to tree, up and up, fifty yards of head spinning muscle screaming baby steps, then a chest heaving rest, then fifty more yards. Mark, wearing tennis shows and cotton socks, became especially uncomfortable.

We stopped for a lunch of snickers bars, dried squid and riceballs on an outcrop of rock that stuck up out of the snow like a chocolate chip in a vanilla ice cream cone. I downloaded a song called sanpo (stroll) to my phone and played it for inspiration.

Near the summit, the wind picked up dramatically. First the shirts went back on, then the jackets and finally our wool hats, but the wind still bit through each layer, and Mark's shoes filled with snow. With lunch sitting heavily in our bellies, we retreated from the wind behind a clump of sturdy little pines at the edge of treeline. The sun beat down heavily, and it was so comfortable out of the wind. With silent agreement, we curled up among the scrubby pine trunks and napped lightly. I dreamt little flickery dreams that I can't remember.

The peak was in sight, but it was time to go back, out of the wind and into the trees. I sat on my windbreaker and slid wildly down the mountainside, feet in the air, steering past the scattered trees and listening to Mark and Ryan whoop and yell behind me. Where it was too flat to slide, we ran, great wild strides past the poor trudging prints of our ascent. Mark continued down to thaw his feet, but Ryan and I stopped at the rock outcrop where we had eaten lunch and did zazen (sitting mediation) for a half hour, breathing slow and deep, hands folded, eyes open but left unfocused.

At the bottom a Japanese man in his early thirties pulled up in a new Jeep. He looked strikingly like a mountain climbing version of Ichiro Suzuki, decked out in Lowe climbing pants, jacket and baseball cap. Ichiro walked over to us. "You guys want a beer? he asked, in perfect English. We did. And it tasted great.

Mark hitched a ride down with two ski mountaineers who showed him their secret spot for sansai, mountain vegetables. the five of us picked bags of ainu negi (Indian onion) and fiddlehead ferns, split the bounty and coasted down to the beach to build another roaring fire.

The bags of vegetables seemed to have no bottom. We propped a pot of water in the coals and boiled batch after batch of tender ferns and onion greens with rice, scooping the food out as soon as it cooked and constantly adding more. For dessert there were more sweet potatoes wrapped in foil and left in the coals until the skin was charred and the middle was soft and creamy. That night, it drizzled a bit towards morning, but I slept like a log.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Very Sad...

"Very sad. It is truly a sad thing when an American boho says fuck this and picks up and leaves this fucking tailfin and shopping plaza and war-crazy civilization and goes to live among real people, the honest folk-type folk, in the land of Earth feelings, Mexico, and the hell with tile baths - and then he sits there, in Mexico, amid the hunkering hardcheese mestizos, and, man, it is honest and real here...and just as miserable as hell, and he is a miserable aging fuckup with no place else to go."

- From "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe

One more class, and then it's off to the coast with two friends, sleeping bag and pack strapped to the back of my bike, but no tent, because it doesn't look like rain, tents are heavy and there are lots of bus stops to sleep in. Still a fair bit of snow in the hills but we'll get as far up Mt. Shokanbetsu as possible on Saturday, then go back to the beach and cook fish in the campfire coals. That's the plan anyway.

It just got cloudy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"No Problem, no problem..."

Living on limited funds is easy in most of the world. In South East Asia, India, most of Latin America and Africa it is not difficult to sleep between sheets, eat well and get around on a budget of between $5 and $20 a day. This budget could be reduced a lot more through commitment to a place for an extended period. A hotel in Kashmir might run to 5 bucks a night, but an extended lease on an apartment or small house could cut sleeping expenses dramatically. Without a job to get back to, there are few practical difficulties to renting in the 3rd world. It's not a matter of looking up a landlord in the yellow pages, but there will be no shortage of people eager to meet your needs and keep you nearby for as long as possible.

To locals, Westerners are walking gold mines. Many people in poor countries scrape together a living by latching on to tourists, serving as interpreter, agent and tourguide all at once, without a set fee. Every taxi driver in Manila, Bangkok, Havana and Lagos has a brother who owns a restaurant, or a cousin with a hotel. In Cairo's Khan al-Khalili market last year a tall, thin, dark skinned man of about 40 took me to his father's spice shop, which was run by a short, pale man in his early thirties. Likewise, when I bought cigars on the black market in Havana, the guy who latched on to me at the taxi stand had a "cousin" who worked in the Monte Cristo factory and miraculously appeared in an alley at the exact moment I asked about cigars.

The refrain for these agents is "No problem, no problem." It is in their interest to make themselves indispensable to you, which means facilitating your requests and even protecting you to some extent. Finding a place to live for a week, or a month, is often as simple as asking.

This doesn't mean you don't have to bargain. Agents work on commission, so they want you to spend as much money as possible. At the same time however they want you to be happy, so getting the price you want is as simple as expressing displeasure or walking away. The laws of supply and demand are on your side. Although the best deal available for even the most stubborn bargainer will be much higher than the local rate, it will also be much lower than the cost of staying in tourist hotels.

For this type of living arrangement to work, the key is to respect the people facilitating your accomodation. Coming home drunk late at night is not an option. For many travelers a visa to a 3rd world country amounts to a vice license. Live simply and quietly. There's no job to rush home to and no need to waste money, energy and dignity in the red light district.

I'm writing this out as if giving advice, but don't think I know what I'm talking about. This is how I imagine it might be like, ideas I can't wait to test in the real world. If bears can live in Zambia, anything is possible...