Out of the Frying Pan…

I got a failed delivery notice from the Post Office. I get these a lot – I’m at work during normal delivery hours. So I went through the arduous process of rescheduling. By “arduous,” I mean scanning a QR code and translating the different boxes so I know which information to put where. I selected a night delivery, since I knew I’d be home. In the process of doing so, I forgot to add my name. This reset parts of the form, which I did not realize. This detail will become important in the next bit of the story.

I got a second failed delivery notice from the Post Office. They had tried delivering while I was technically on my commute home. How had this happened? Well, when the form reset, it reset the delivery time. I harumphed up to my confirmation document, and sure enough, under time, it did not say “19-21.” It said something in Japanese, which I know is not a good sign. I put two and two together, and realized that when the form reset, it changed my time to “any.”

There is a rule I had learned – one of the many rules I had been trying to follow. It is this: never miss the second delivery.

I asked my coworker Harry what I should do. “Babe,” he said. “Never miss the second delivery.” (I like Harry. This was not helpful.)

I asked up the chain of command, to one of our PCs.
“Was this the first delivery?” She asked me.
“…No.” I had to grudgingly admit, sensing the answer.
“Ah,” was her response, followed by a solemn pause. “Well, you must call the number. They will have your package. And maybe they will resend it.”

So I called the number, which had been conveniently programed into my work cell phone (I must not be the only one to break the commandment). After a long message letting me know how much the phone call would cost down to the tenths of yen, I spoke to a nice gentleman who I am going to call “Charlie.”

“This is *Charlie*, how may I help you?”
“Yes I need to reschedule delivery of a package.”
“May I have the package number?”
“Yes” *reads package slip number*
“One moment…ah.”
“What?”
“This package cannot be delivered unless released by the sender. Who is the sender?”
“The slip says ‘Japan Post.'”
“No, Ma’am. At the top of the slip, under the line labeled ‘Addressee’ you will see a line labeled ‘Sender.’ Please read me the name on that line”
“It’s in Japanese, but I had it translated. The sender is ‘Japan Post.’ You are the sender.”
“We cannot release the package unless it is released by the sender.”
“You are the sender.”
*Frightening long pause*
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I cannot help you with this. Maybe you must go to Kawasaki and reclaim your package in person.”
“I don’t understand. If you’re the sender, then you should be able to release my package for delivery.”
“Yes ma’am. I don’t know why it’s labeled that way. That is a strange decision. But we cannot help you. Will there be anything else?”
“I suppose not. Thank you.”

I have seen glimpses of the bureaucratic web here in Japan, touched the outer edges with the help of a native speaker. Mostly I avoid it as much as possible. There’s too much paperwork, too many redundancies that must be crossed and recrossed. I think that’s why the rule is so simple. Don’t miss the second delivery.  And I did catch the popular speech pattern of “maybe/must.” The Japanese don’t like to speak in absolutes, though they certainly use them. In order not to offend, a “must” gets softened with a “maybe.” But the must is still there, iron under all that linguistic cushioning.

Japan Post sent me something from Japan Post, and Japan Post could not resend it until it gave itself permission to do so, which it could not do. This is the sort of kink that might send one to Kawasaki, to the customs and immigration mail depot.

No, I’m not going to Kawasaki. I’m convinced that something will happen to right this situation. I’m also wondering what the package might be. I think I have all my important Japanese documentation – what could Japan Post be trying to send me? Why is it standing in its own way?

I was going to find out what happened in about ten days. I will write the conclusion in my next post.

Current Events

I won’t write about the election. I know this is the space to do so, but I don’t think my voice is going to tip any scale out there.

There has been too much about it. Too much noise, too many opinions, too much grief, too much glee. And the instant backlash in too many directions – suck it up, love with love, be angry, don’t be angry, keep your head down, fight the power, love thy neighbor. It’s like America is a rubber band that snapped back in on itself after being pulled too tight.

I will say this: my students don’t know what to say, or what to ask. They can’t believe it. One of my older students is afraid. One of my economics students is worried about the TPP. Some laugh, because they believe he is a joke and don’t understand enough about politics to see what he means for my country. They ask me what I think, how I feel, and what it all means.

What would you say?

Here’s what I’ve been saying, “Well, I’m scared. I’m upset. I’m confused. But I have English to teach, and we have work to do.” And I leave it at that. Soapboxing here does nothing. I am honest, because it’s best. I am brief, because I won’t waste words that will go misunderstood. And I focus on my work, because otherwise I’d start ranting and raving, which doesn’t help my EFL students and doesn’t help me.

I feel as though anyone who goes abroad has an obligation to build good relationships and set a good example. Now? Now I’ll have to work harder, because now we have a president who is regarded as a dangerous buffoon by the global community. Now I’ll be pre-judged, and I’ll have to try and explain what is going on back home.

I know people on both sides. I pass judgments of my own, but judgment doesn’t solve problems. Communication is essential. Teaching is essential.

 

So that is what I do. I teach.

Nikko II: Ghosts, Gods, and Good Food

So I arrived at Takino’o Shrine, not as far as I expected from the main shrines of Toshogu and Futarasan. It’s a smaller shrine, more encased in moss than its counterparts. I loved it, and its relative solitude. In the half an hour I sat under the trees, I don’t think ten people walked by.

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I sat and thought about faith, and where we find solace. I think that there is something to Shintoism, though I am not a practitioner. There is a great American literary tradition of “taking to the woods” to find oneself, or to find peace. I think that, while the worshiping of certain stones and trees might fall outside my spiritual practices, I do find peace in the woods. It’s nice to feel small sometimes, to feel dwarfed. I felt something akin to what I felt when I climbed Emei Mountain, the sheer size of the world compared to myself. Going to the Grand Canyon does the same thing – it’s a comfort, in a way, to see how big everything else is. In Nikko, it’s not the size, but the age of the trees. Like staying with the nuns in Iowa, or being in the Sequoias in California. They’ve been around far longer that I have been or probably will be. And isn’t that nice? I don’t have to worry about them; they’ll be there. Assuming we don’t chop them down/burn them down/otherwise behave in a way that is unbecoming and yet distinctly human.

When I think about faith, especially “foreign” faiths,  I also think about that scene in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where Mr. Wednesday calls out the hippie for not actually worshipping Mother Earth, for essentially giving lip service to her religion. I am aware that it is one thing to be an actual worshipper, and another to feel a resonance or kinship with the idea of a faith. I don’t want to be that hippie, casually throwing around transcendence terminology without actually doing any of the work that faith asks of the faithful.  Then again, I also don’t want to blaspheme the Catholic faith with which I have had a tumultuous relationship. So, what is one to do, when one idea carries great resonance, and the other carries all the traditions, ceremonies, and obligations?

I rested my hand and forehead against one old tree that I thought had a great deal of character, halfway asking for advice. I felt a little cliché doing so, but because I need to stop self-censoring I decided to go with my instinct. Turns out the tree was less than impressed with the speed of my life. I felt distinctly like it was chuckling at me, this quick little thing that never seemed to hold still.

 

Turns out I’m not as weird as all that. When I started walking back I approached a gaggle of very giggly Japanese women walking up towards the shrine. They were still some distance off when four of them stopped, walked up to an old tree, and rested their foreheads and hands against it. They fell into a reverent silence, and stayed like that for a full minute. Then they all carried on walking and laughing. It’s nice to feel that you’re not alone in seeking wisdom from your elders.

I had mixed feelings as I walked back, partly because I didn’t want to, and also because it turns out that there was a flat path back, parallel to the service road. I had climbed the steep stairs unnecessarily. So, let it be known, tourists, that if you want a longer, but easier route to Takino’o Shrine, turn right from Toshogu and walk up from the parking lot. The path consists of large, uneven stones, so it has its own difficulties, but it’s not a climb up and down (for that, see my previous post and take the path along Futarasan).

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See how lovely and flat it is? DO YOU SEE?! Whatevs – climbing is good for the calves.

Before I left, something glittery caught my eye along the path. Upon inspection, I found the most beautiful beetle I have ever seen. While I like beetles in general, this one was different. It sparkled, iridescent thorax twinkling on the fence, and two blue-green antennae tested the air around it. It moved with great deliberation. I am convinced that this was a Kami – a Shinto spirit. This was the incarnation of the spirit of all beetles. It was a giddy moment for me – I haven’t had a moment of spiritual grace in years. I did not bother him as he walked, but I did try to get a picture.

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When I arrived in Nikko, it was raining and misty. I walked to the Narabi Jizo then, in the late afternoon rain, and saw the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. In all the damp, my phone shorted out, though I did get a couple of good photos. The Abyss is not quite appropriate – the waterfall does not go down into nothingness. It is a steep drop, however, full of beautiful sound and aquatic fury. The Narabi Jizo line one side of the abyss like thoughtful sentries.

The Narabi Jizo are nicknamed the “Bake Jizo,” (pronounced Ba-keh) because if you count them front to back and back to front, you will wind up with a different number (“ghost Jizo”). I did not count. I trust that the number is not the same, and that there is a ghost guardian wandering the Kaman-ga-fuchi Abyss. It’s better to leave it unknown.

The Abyss and the river walk are down a ways from Toshogu, on the opposite side of the river, tucked back along the south mountain ridge. I highly recommend seeing them, both for the beauty and regal-ness of the statues, as well as the glorious sounds of the rapids.

As I did not want to trek back up the mountain to my cabin in the dark again, I started walking back. I stopped at the Zen café, a tiny eatery on the Nikko main road. It only has four tables, two menu options, and an industrial chic vibe that does not match the rest of the town. Their specialty is “Yuba rolls,” which upon researching I learned is bean curd sheets (and actually are Chinese in origin). I had their “set meal,” which was a series of small plates and one yuba roll. Though not a bacon cheeseburger, I did wind up satisfied. I recommend it!

And then (le sigh) I hiked home. I couldn’t tell which was more difficult, going it in the dark and the rain, or seeing the incline. Seeing it was definitely more irritating. Looking up every so often and seeing how far I needed to go made me wonder how I had done the climb with a suitcase. Perhaps it was for the best that the light faded quickly, and I had to turn on my solar light. I used music to get me up the last third of the climb.

Here I am again, cozy in my heated kitchen. Tomorrow I return to Tokyo, to work, and to the grind of teaching. I think, tired though I am, I am incredibly happy to have been in Nikko for this weekend. Do I regret not going out with my friends? Certainly. But I know that my soul needed trees and fresh air, which I found in abundance here. I’m a country girl at heart, and a little solitude is healthy.

Still, next time I will bring people with me. Maybe I won’t mention the climb…

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Nikko? Oh, it’s all flat valley land and sacred bridges. Certainly no unnecessary hiking…

 

Nikko Part 1: Uphill Always

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Today I awoke to a pristine mountain morning – far earlier than I intended. It turns out that when in completely unknown circumstances my imagination really lets loose. I woke up twice thinking there were hunter spiders in the room, and really all it takes is twice to ruin a night’s rest. So I awoke at dawn tired, but filled with a sense of purpose. I was going to see some temples before the tourist buses arrived.

The 5 million kilometer walk downhill was much easier, as anticipated. I took a back way that cut off 15 minutes of walking time, since I did not need to go back to the train station. It also unexpectedly cut out all food options. I arrived at the Inari-gawa bridge, just off my destination, without finding a single café. Luckily, my rental came stocked with welcome snacks – dried dates stuffed with walnuts. They wouldn’t last me long if I didn’t find anything within the temple complex. But then, in my experience where there are tourists, there are food vendors.

Nikko’s most famous attraction, apart from its rugged natural beauty, is Toshogu shrine. While there are many famous sights in the area, Toshogu Shrine is what earned Nikko a place on the World Heritage Site list. My plan was to see Toshogu and all the heavily trafficked places early in the morning, and then hike up to find Takino’o Shrine, as I had read that it was largely not crowded but also beautiful. My second reason for wanting to beat the crowds concerned the season. Fall is a big tourist season in Japan, especially out in the mountains when the leaves start changing. Much like the hanami parties in the spring, flocks of tourists come out to look at the flaming and golden Japanese maples. I had no desire to be shuffling along in that mess.

I made it to the sites just as they opened (8am). The parking lot already had cars in it, and there was one tour group already passing up into Toshogu when I arrived. I got some good photos, and took all the “required” tourist pictures. Chief among them? The “see no, hear no, speak no evil” monkey engraving. The original monkeys are somewhere on the site, but as the whole shrine is under construction they could not be seen. There is a lot of gold leaf, and some really beautiful painted engravings all along the walls of the shrine.

Note: Entering Toshogu costs 1300 yen (about $13.00). You get to see some beautiful architecture, but there is a lot of scaffolding and restoration going on.

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Oh! I finally started filling my calligraphy/seal book (shuinchō). The monks/priests in two of the Nikko shrines put in their markings – one for the Toshogu shrine, the other for the Roaring Dragon Shrine. And because I have my own book, the on site cost is considerably less – only 300 yen each!

Another note: You can buy calligraphy books at temples, or at tourist shops. They vary in price. I bought mine at a religious store in Minatomirai (Yokohama) for 1900 yen. I saw them at Toshogu for 2100 yen.

I wandered around, fighting hunger. I listened to the “roaring dragon,” a trick involving the acoustics of the roaring dragon temple. Standing under the dragon and banging two sticks together reverberates, making the dragon appear to “roar.” I can’t tell if it’s a gimmick for tourists or something that was believed at one point. I mean, the ceiling has the dragon painted on its length, so perhaps it was always a point of reverence. It felt a little more like a tourist grab when I saw it. I wonder how faith and ceremony alter when you begin to incorporate tourism into the mix.

In any case, when I finally left Toshogu, there were vendors at the exit selling hot vegetable soup and mochi balls. I lack the space here to wax poetic about the vegetable soup, but I will try. It’s chilly. I’ve been walking for about two hours, and I’ve eaten two dried dates with walnuts. For a mere 300 yen, a man gives me a bowl filled with hot broth, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, tofu, and probably radish or turnip. I sprinkle some chili flakes on top. Let me tell you – it was Heavenly. Or Nirvana-esque, or…I’m not sure what the Shinto version of paradise is *Google check* Takama-ga-Hara.

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Sated and saving the mochi for later, I walk over to Futarasan shrine. According to my map, I should be able to walk around behind it and eventually wind up on the path the Takino’o. Futarasan is less crowded than Toshogu, but also far simpler in terms of architecture and grandeur. It also seems far more functional. Is that intentional? And I found the path, wandering up the side of Futarasan.

In a way, it reminds me of being in Sequoia National Park, or Kings Canyon National Park. The ancient towering cedar trees glow in the morning light with the moss on their trunks. Old dark stone steps climb higher and higher up, and the air is crisp and clean. I may not be a climber, but I appreciate a good hike, and this path does not disappoint. Not too strenuous, plenty of gorgeous scenery – this is exactly why I came to Nikko.

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And then I had to walk back down.  This surprised me, as reviews suggested the shrine was at the top of the mountain. Nooope.

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It occurred to me, rounding a bend to reach Takino’o, that I had just walked the entire hill in vain. There are two paths to Takino’o – the more arduous up and down of the hill, or the relative flatness of the service road/main path leading from the parking lot near Toshogu. I was mildly put out, but then I consoled myself with how my harder won victory would make me all the more appreciative of my final destination.

I was right on that point – Takino’o was removed enough from the temple complex that there were very few people there. I stopped and spoke with a Frenchwoman, who was waiting for the path to clear of the couple in front of us so she could take some more atmospheric pictures.

“Do you know the story of the stones?” She asked me.
“Yes,” I respond. “You throw a stone through the hole in the gate, and your wish will come true.”
“I did it,” she said. “And I missed.”
“You could always try again,” I said. “No one would know.”
“It’s alright,” she replied stoically. “I’m ok with missing.”

I felt that was a very French way of handling the situation.

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As this post has gotten quite lengthy, I’ll wrap it up here and continue on from Tokino’o (including my walk back to my house…uphill. Always uphill.)

Nikko: Uphill Preface

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This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.