Obon! (Week XXXX)
Another quiet week around here. The highlight came on Thursday when my new washing machine was delivered. The old machine had been falling apart at my previous apartment. After the move to my new apartment, the machine finally broke. Thankfully the school purchased me a new machine and helped me with the whole process. So Thursday morning the delivery men arrived outside my apartment. I let them in and they set it up. I feel a little old being excited for a washing machine!
The rest of the week was spent gearing up for the coming break. Next week will be the Obon holiday. Obon is a summer holiday when many people return to their homes to honor their ancestors. For everyone else, primarily the young and foreign, it is an opportunity to relive the glory days of summer vacation. But before we could enjoy the holiday we had to finish up at work. I stayed late each night getting things ready for the holiday. Finally it was Saturday and the week was over. I left the office ready for a 10 day holiday!
My weekend started Saturday night. I returned home after work to change clothes and grab my backpack. I hopped some trains and went two hours north. At midnight I arrived in Konosu, Saitama. Elisha met me at the station and we returned to her apartment. We did some brief chatting before calling it a day and going to bed.
At seven am the alarm clock sounded and I shot straight up. Time to get moving! Elisha and I readied our packs for the day. We were going to visit Ryokami yama, a mountain in Saitama. This mountain is one of the “Top 100 Mountains to Climb in Japan,” as said so by some expert. At 7:30 Yoshinori arrived outside with his car. We tossed our bags in the back and set out. We had the same team together that had conquered Fujisan. We were ready for our next challenge!
We had a two-hour drive north to get to our mountain. The drive wasn’t made long by distance, but rather the roads. We weren’t ever able to take a highway and so had to contend with stop lights the whole time. This didn’t deter our moods and shortly after 10 we were in the parking lot in the mountains. We strapped on our packs and tightened our boots. Time to hike!
The trail started out steep and hard. Within the first two minutes I was second guessing my decision to pack six liters of water. It didn’t take long for us to find what we had come for; chains. The steep dirt path suddenly stopped and turned to rock. The way up looked menacing. Luckily the trail was equipped with a metal chain. I picked up the heavy linked chain and started climbing. Unsure of how best to climb I relied on instincts. I kept the bulk of my weight on my legs carefully placing each foot so I could shift the weight. The chain, I quickly learned, was for balancing. I soon found my rhythm and ran up the slope. At the top I turned back down below, “okay desu,” I shouted. Elisha then grabbed the rope and followed my lead. Yoshi came quick after her.
After scaling the first chain my legs were warmed up and strong as ever. I no longer noticed the 6 liters of water. We followed the trail up and down the mountain at a decent pace for two hours. Deep into the woods we were using the chain to climb our tenth peak. Suddenly Elisha lost her footing, slipped and fell on the sharp rocks. She regained composure and made it to the top. We took a break to collect our breath. The clouds above us moved quickly and we felt the occasional sprinkle of water on our necks. Optimistic, we then pressed on.
Three hours in to the hike and we were an hour from the summit. Our pace had slowed to allow for Elisha who was a little beaten up. However the severe mountain weather hadn’t slowed at all. We we started our hike the skies were clear and blue. Now gray rain clouds had settled in above us. And then the rain started it. It was light but consistent. From one of the peaks I could see the whole valley. The wind was blowing hard and the new rain clouds above us were only the beginning of longer storm. We all agreed to cut our hike short and head back.
The rain began as very light. Our hike back was almost entirely under the tree line so we were able to stay fairly dry. However the trees couldn’t keep back all of the water and so the path beneath our feet turned to mud. What’s worse, the rocky slopes we were scaling, and the chains we relied on, were now wet and very slippery. Our pace further slowed down. All three of us are seasoned hikers and have good common sense. So we were especially careful when scaling down the rocks with the chains. But accidents happen. Midway back to the car, Yoshi slipped climbing down the rocks. Fortunately his fall was short and he wasn’t terribly hurt. But he still sustained cuts on his arms and legs. Again we stopped to collect ourselves and to make sure our friend was okay. He was and we pressed on.
As you can imagine, I was now convinced I would be next to slip and hurt himself. This sense of doom was intensified by the thunder over us. It was very, very loud. So being very cautious, but without injury, I moved at a brisk pace, often faster than my friends. Past halfway back, and a few minutes ahead of my friends, I stopped in a clearing to eat a rice ball and drink some water. The rain had broken and my friends caught up and we took a break. The thunder clapped right above our heads and Elisha shrunk inside her clothes. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “It’s not the thunder you should be worried about, it’s the lightning. Thunder can’t hurt you, but lightning… well that’s the real killer.”
As if Mother Nature herself had heard me, a lightening bolt flashed in the sky and was quickly followed by the sound of thunder. My heart sprung in to motion and moved fresh oxygen to my brain. “Let’s go, now.”
We packed up our bags and went back into the woods. It was three pm and we were still an hour away from the car. The tree canopy grew thick above our heads. The rain clouds came in over us and it began to rain. The thick trees kept most of the water off of us. But they also kept out much-needed sunlight. It grew very dark in the forest. 10 minutes before it had looked like broad daylight, now it resembled dusk. The changing weather made me anxious and I increased our pace. My friends, both with injuries, kept up.
Then the storm broke. With no warning the rain came in heavy and hard. It was like standing under a broke water pipe. In three seconds we were completely soaked. I screamed out a lion’s roar, and beat my chest “owww!”
“Rain can’t stop me!” I shouted to the skies.
Mother Nature responded to my taunt with a flash of lightning and immediate clap of thunder. I looked back at Elisha, she was sheet white. With the weather turning for the worse I decided we needed to move, post-haste. The path under my feet began to wash away from all of the water. Above us miniature waterfalls appeared. The water pouring over and down anything that could channel it. I kept us going but briefly lost the trail, Yoshi picked it up and took the lead. I fell in and kept up the rear.
The lightning and thunder intensified. The storm was directly over us. By now Elisha’s fear had grown into a full panic. She had curled into the fetal position and was non-responsive to communication. I picked her up from under her arms and she turned to look at me.
With water washing over my face and a thunderstorm above my head I raised my voice to speak to her. She was unresponsive.
Yoshi tried talking to her with no success. For a moment he humored her and they took shelter under a shallow overhang next to a boulder. That was futile. What she needed at the moment was not reassurance. She needed a slap to the face. A big brother to tell her to pull it together. To do the only thing any of us could do at that point. To walk out of the forest.
I walked right in front of her and shouted as loud as I could, “Elisha, this weather is going from bad to worse. We’re 15 minutes from the car. I need you to walk now. I need you to walk fast. I’m right behind, so don’t worry. Okay? Let’s go!”
She acknowledged with a head nod. I’m sure the whole situation looked very dramatic to her boyfriend. A crazy white boy shouting in some one’s face while apocalyptic weather set a backdrop. It looked straight out of a movie. Awesome.
Yoshi briefly comforted Elisha and I resumed the lead. Ahead of my friends I let out a laugh and said to myself, “fine day for a hike, isn’t it!” We kept moving and finally saw the parking lot below. The sight of the car motivated everyone and we moved down very quickly. Back at the car we stripped down in the pouring rain and jumped into the car soaking wet. We had made it!
Yoshi fired up the engine and started the drive down the mountain. Elisha, still jacked on adrenaline, was fully alert and served as copilot. Sitting half-naked in the back seat I buckled my seat belt and did what I do best in a moving vehicle. I fell asleep.
I woke a half hour later when we parked at an onsen. A hot spring was exactly the cure for our wet and tired bodies. We checked in and promptly began the ritual. Strip naked, take a shower, soak and relax. Sitting up to our necks in the hot water, Yoshi and I chatted about the day. We deemed it a success given the circumstances. After a while we stepped out of the water and returned to the showers. Per usual, I was the only white man in the area. So per usual, I drew many stares. Normally I don’t mind being looked at by everyone, but it’s a little odd when you’re walking around in the buff and everyone is staring at you.
After our baths we ate some dinner at the onsen and enjoyed an ice-cold beer. Our tummies full, we returned to the car for the two-hour drive back to Konosu. Before getting settled into the car I offered to drive for Yoshi. He politely declined and so I climbed into the backseat. Before Yoshi had pulled out of the parking lot, I was again asleep.
Back in town Yoshi took me to the train station. I stuffed my soaking wet clothes into my pack and fastened the straps. I gave Elisha a goodbye hug and Yoshi a farewell handshake. Our team had made the best of another mountain. I turned my back to them and caught a train out-of-town. Two hours later I was back home drying my clothes and getting to bed. What a day!
As if one mountain wasn’t enough, Monday I would climb another.
I met up with Moto, Emma, and her boyfriend Daniel, in Machida at 1pm. We took a few trains to arrive at Mount Takao. If you remember, I had climbed Takao in November last year and was returning for another go at it. Takao, contrasted with Ryokami from the day before, was a piece of cake. I wore sneakers and carried one bottle of water. The hike, from base to summit, only took us 70 minutes. Too easy!
When I had previously hiked Takao we were unable to make the summit. The sun was setting and we needed to get back down. So I was very happy to finally make it to the top. Hiking up, we took Trail 6, different from the time before. This trail hugged a small river all the way up the mountain. It was a little more difficult than the first time, but still very manageable. The scenery was beautiful and I didn’t mind the cute mountain girls either.
Finally we had hiked to enough to see the summit. Moto and I were leading Emma and Daniel at a brisk pace. I looked over to my friend, “Hey Moto, wanna race?” He looked and with a smile said, “sure!” He and I sprinted to the top and finished at a tie. We looked at each other, blue in the face and sweaty all over. We laughed at each other. Emma and Daniel soon caught up and laughed at us too. From the top we took a few pictures and then began the hike down.
20 minutes from the top we were greeted with our actual Takao goal: the beer garden. We paid the admission fee of 3,000¥ and set to work. It was a nomihodai/tabehodai (all you can eat / all you can drink.) For two hours we ate and drank like royalty. We played some fun drinking games and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a good time.
After our two hours had expired, we wisely took the rope way back down. The cable car took us back to the station in only 5 minutes. From there we returned to Machida where we sang some karaoke for two hours. Finally at 9pm we went our separate ways. My body was exhausted from two consecutive mountains. I returned home to read some Poe and was off to sleep.
Obon: so far, so good.
-Kindness of Others-
I owe much of my success in Japan to the kindness of others. I have been very fortunate to have a network of people whom I can rely on to help me out. My friends have helped me out with everything from moving, to translating Japanese, to giving me advice or even just someone to talk with. Without them I would be a stuck in my apartment, hating my time here.
I’ve always been one to ask for help. I try not to inconvenience people and I will always return a favor. I know some people enjoy helping others. And I know some people who view it as a responsibility. Back in America, I would never hesitate to ask a friend for help. And subsequently I never had to move alone or struggle by myself. In Japan, I am always asking for help.
So I wanted to take a brief moment to thank everyone who has helped me get where I am today. No matter how insignificant the assistance, I am very grateful. I feel very fortunate to have so many great people around me. I hope that I can be so helpful to anyone that asks. Because I know firsthand, what is a minor event to one person, can be momentous to another.