Nikko: Uphill Preface


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.

Just a Hint of Blood Rage…

(I swear in this post – be advised)
In an effort to not turn into a total pudge-pot while here , I have been walking around the track at the school. My school has a really nice quarter-mile track, so walking 5K every other day, or making a laughable attempt at running it, is an easy goal. Whether or not I’m athletic is not the point – exercise is a great way to release tension. When I’m stressed out about driving, or language barriers, or work difficulties, a brisk walk makes me feel better about things, normally.

But I’ve come to dread it. It’s not my body issues, though they are ever-present. It’s the students and the cat calls.

There’s never a moment when there isn’t someone on the track. I don’t care about other walkers, and I certainly don’t expect to be alone. It’s just that there are always students lounging about, or getting ready for classes of their own. And every day it’s the same. The girls aren’t so bad – they remind me of gaggles of geese. They clump together and stare at me and jostle and point and giggle and eventually one shouts, “Hello!” because she doesn’t know how loud my music is (it’s never loud – I keep a watchful ear going). I’ll say hello, one will say she loves me, they laugh, and I keep walking. This repeats for a few laps, and then they lose interest. Same with the girls in the upper story windows. They yell down at me, and a simple wave is enough to satisfy them.

The boys, though – teenage boys are much worse. Uncivilized and crude, they lounge on the grass and scream at me as I walk by. “What’s up?” “Hey, girl!” “Baby!” “Hello!” I keep walking, but I want to do something more direct. I hate this kind of bullshit. When I first arrived, I thought maybe they just didn’t understand how to use the language. Like Ariel with the fork in The Little Mermaid – it’s a tool, but what does it do? I know better now. And it’s always screeched at me – rare is the student who actually says “Hello” in a proper tone. I hate getting yelled at all the time – it’s warping how I respond to the most basic of English greetings.

Yesterday this happened:

“HELLO!” Screams a boy from my left. I stop, and remove my headphones. I do this every so often as a sort of teaching point – you can’t just shout at someone and expect no response. He looks at his friends, pleased that he’s made me stop. I can almost feel the smugness radiating from him. He doesn’t get that I chose to stop because he’s wrong and I’m going to try and address that.

“Hello!” I say, much quieter and far more polite. It’s a teaching moment. I repeat mentally. It’s a teaching moment. “How are you?” The boy tilts his head to one side and stares at my chest, saying something in Chinese in a tone that did not hide the meaning of the words I did not understand. He purses his lips at me. Ah, so that’s what this is – you little puke.

“Hmm?” Rather than ask in Chinese, I force a light tone, hoping (futilely I know) to prompt at least some English from him. Inside, I feel like I do before I start a game of tag – tense, maybe a little too focused.

“HMM?!” He mimics me, in a high pitched, overly loud and sarcastic voice. I roll my eyes, put my headphones in and force myself to start walking. I hear his self-congratulatory tone as he says something else to my back. My shoulders feel stretched, and I realize I’m digging my key into my thumb. My breathing is shallower. It surprises me, how angry I am. Once I recognize that I am angry, the emotion only gets stronger and more focused inside my head, calling for action. But I walk, thank goodness. On more than one occasion I’ve had a real disconnect between my rational response and what I actually do, my impulsive side getting a foothold in a moment of confusion.

Worse, because I stopped for one, they all start up, like horrible parrots. A pack of boys intercept me on the track. Their emissary comes forward. He’s wearing black and red – a different vocational track at the school. He wants small talk. I am in fight/flight mode. I barely make it through, and have to bite my tongue at his concluding remark of, “Ok now we’re good fine yeah ok friend.”

Just about every day it’s something like this. Yesterday was just one of the bad days.
This sort of problem raises a myriad of issues, some of which I address here:


  1.  I am almost twice as old as most of these students. I’m not a teenager to be riled. I’m an adult. They’re stupid little fuckwits, and that’s just how boys are.
  2.  I am a teacher, and as such I am held to a different standard of behavior. I can’t go attacking students, even if they’re disrespectful. And these are not my students. I can’t fight every fight.
  3. I am an American. I have to create a positive impression about my country’s behavior abroad. Fighting will not do this. If I respond I’m just proving the stereotype.
  4. I am sick of feeling like I can’t do anything for fear of upsetting others. I am not a doormat.
  5. If I keep walking, they’ll lose interest like the girls. They always do. But it’s so unsatisfying….
  6. I don’t speak enough Chinese to take him down verbally. He doesn’t understand English well enough to feel properly put down if I yell at him in English. And I know making me yell is his goal – it’s all their goals. They want to rile me and see what I’ll do. It’s a predictable scene – I get upset and yell, they smile and laugh because they don’t see me as a person. It’s like poking an animal in a cage to make it angry.
  7. How dare they…Screw maturity and screw being an adult! I have just enough strength and just enough wiles that I could make it to that little pig, grab his throat and knee him in the balls before he’d have time to react. I could put what little actual fight technique I know to use. Maybe sing the theme from “Team America” while I do it. Now that’s a story everyone would remember! I’d get deported in glory!
  8. They’re ignorant, and their ignorance comes from living in a closed society with limited access to Western influences. Like the Greek security guards at the Embassy, who got all their information about America from watching BET.

You might not believe me, but all this whirls around my head as I walk. Maybe not as articulate as I just wrote it, but something like every one of those thoughts is there, simultaneously. And likewise, my solution floats above it all. I’m not going to tattle to the principle. I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to lecture.
I’m going to walk. Disappointed, frustrated, angry, sad, and resolved.

There’s no joy in it – I’m running my thumb along my key groves like it’s a totem. Rather than feel relaxed, I’m more stressed. I can barely concentrate on my audiobook – I can feel my blood pumping, my muscles demanding something more than putting one foot in front of the other. On the second loop, more calls, more words, and I ignore them. It’s rude – anywhere else it’d be so rude of me to not acknowledge people at all. Even a catty retort is a response. Dismissal is expected in certain places, like with merchants and taxi drivers. But students – you’re supposed to want to teach students, not club them.

I’m angry at myself for being angry. I’m angry that my mental state has gone so uncivilized. And I’m angry that I’m not proud of my not engaging. I can’t even feel good about doing the right thing, because I’m so angry that I’m in this situation at all.
It’s the safest place to exercise, physically and theoretically. Mentally, I’d be better off dodging traffic in the streets of Wenjiang. At least there yelling an obscenity at a taxi is not frowned upon.

Patrick Swayze would know what to do….


But I leave for Shanghai tomorrow. A little distance will help I am sure.


OBE is an acronym – a military acronym which means “Overcome by Events.” It is used to describe a situation in which nothing has gone correctly, and there is no salvaging a plan.

Today I was OBE. Interestingly enough, I also found the point at which I walk out of a situation. I’ve never walked away from something – it took ten hours and an IKEA.

Note: The original draft of this post was a lot longer. I’m editing it down to highlight why today was rough.
The plan was as follows: Get up early, get to IKEA and set up delivery of goods, get perfume at Sephora, go buy bracelet at Tibetan district, maybe hit up JinLi or one of the monasteries and relax. If it’s too late, I’ll take a taxi back. At one point during my horrible day today – when Vega realized he left his umbrella at IKEA and had me watch his backpack for twenty-odd minutes in a mall – I can only think that this was supposed to be a fun, quick trip. IKEA was supposed to be, at most, maybe half of my day. Pick out some cool things for my room and move on. It was not supposed to be a maddening full day of Hell.

But it was – IKEA was not a fun experience. There were so many people, constantly moving and stopping. I don’t speak Swedish or Chinese, so nothing made sense. The workers were not really interested in helping me, and Vega was so…I’ll say polite…that he just kept agreeing to do what they said, which was mostly go find someone else. This was when he showed up at the end to help me buy my list – I let him go relax while I walked around because he was so clearly bored. In short, what was supposed to take maybe two hours took closer to five, and ate up the entire day. I got my first case of anxiety ever, and I blame the music – they kept “Let it Snow!” and “Let it Go!” playing on repeat.

I got the perfume at Sephora – nonrefundable I’m told. Brilliant.

On the metro, I’m in line to get on the train. It’s going to be packed – it always is at the junction at Tianfu Square. It’s the only stop where Lines 1 and 2 of the metro meet. Exiting passengers go out the middle, entering passengers enter on the sides. I’m in line – there’s a guard trying to keep people from getting too close to the doors. As the people start exiting, something goes wrong – no, not wrong. I’m told this is just how China is. A second line forms next to our “official” line, and they start cutting people off and shoving through the exiting passengers. The guard stops our line, and I’m not allowed on the train. Vega is. I’m staring at my angry, pudgy face in the glass of the tunnel, fuming. I tell myself it could be worse – the footage of Ukraine on the TV makes me guilty for feeling so put out.

On the second train, I’m shoved hard into the doors, as I think someone fell over in the jostling.

There’s no line for the WenJiang bus – a blessing! The driver takes a strangely circuitous route to avoid traffic. The was no line for the bus because all the buses have stopped running in Wenjiang for the day. Vega apologizes again and suggests we get a taxi. The first taxi we see doesn’t know the IBIS hotel. I say I have the address, but Vega wants a taxi that knows the hotel.

That’s when I walk away.

I’ve had enough – I spent hours in a store in utter confusion, I got cut out of my subway line, there are no buses, I’ve been dealing with unhelpful people. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I will not walk around in circles trying to find a specific taxi, and I will not hear one more word.

So I tell Vega it would be easier if he found himself a taxi to the school, I will be “just fine” walking. Because English is not his native language, I don’t think he can hear my tone change. But I can – I recognize what’s going on. I am being hyper-chipper, which means I am just about to snap. He’s not comfortable with me walking, but I don’t care. And before I say anything cruel or sarcastic (I’ve been biting down cruel, sarcastic, mean-spirited things all day – if I start, I won’t stop), I’m off. I sort of know where I’m going. It might be a mile and a half or so to the hotel.

I think it can’t get any worse – but it can.

In my angry walking, I step wrong or hit a weird spot in the sidewalk. My heel decides to remind me of every nerve ending in my foot. It hurts, bad, but I can still walk, and now I’m really angry walking. I’m stewing and I like it. I like how hurtful I’m being to the world in my head, squashing the nice voice that tells me to chill and just roll with the punches. The only thing that voice can get through is to tell me if I scowl more people will stare. I try not to scowl.

I know I have to head south, but there are no intersections for a good long while. I’m worried about my foot and don’t realize that I’ve started to cross the first intersection I find just when the light turns green. I dodge cars (mindful of moody foot) and keep walking.

A man hits me with a flyer – I won’t take it, so he jabs my arm with the pointed end as I pass. I don’t know how I kept a calm exterior – I murdered him in my brain.

At last, I see my landmark – the Gloria something Hotel, with its shark fin top. WenJiang Park – I know where I am! In the park over a hundred Chinese people are dancing some sort of soft Zumba to a techno beat. It’s twilight, but I will make it.

I stop at the HongQi chain to get a milk tea once I get close to my hotel, to calm myself. I reach for the tea, and somehow upend the price tag shelf. I’m holding this plastic shelf thing in my hand, staring at it like it’s an alien. I fix the shelf and rest my forehead against the door for a slow exhalation. My hotel is a block away.

I make it to my room. My room, which was not cleaned today.