Reverse Culture Shock or What is Real?

I mentioned before that I’d pretty much ran out of things to say about Japan. It’s true. It isn’t. It’s true. It’s difficult. I’ve exhausted nearly every topic I wanted to address.

But what I discovered in my recent writings was that I was looking outwards again, something that hadn’t happened to me for a long time while I was in Japan.

That’s right. Was in Japan.

I have returned to my native country and all that comes with it.

But I’m not finished with Japan. How can one just be finished with something that was such a large part of their life for more than two years? It’s a place that I lived and worked for 27 months. I’ve worked jobs and lived in places for far shorter than that. The people I met there, the things I saw, the festivals, the cultural experiences, all these and much more than I can think about and process will impact my life in ways I just can’t know yet.

So even though any new experiences in Japan are finished, my experiences of Japan keep giving me rich subjects to reflect on. A grand experience like travel, particularly living and working abroad, has lifelong impact.

It’s now been about a month since I’ve returned. Returned? Was I meant to come back? I just don’t know, but that is the language I use. It does illustrate a certain amount of the transitory experience I felt while living in Japan. A part of me knew at some point that I would have to leave and return to the “real” world. As if Japan is somehow “fake”. Or that I was on vacation for two years, neglecting my true homelife for adventure in the great and mysterious land of the rising sun.

Well here I am.

You know what?

Things do feel more real.

Why?

There are many more questions plaguing me now. I invite you to continue with me as I explore this new piece of cultural experience.

Reverse Culture Shock

I’ll be returning to regular updates again. I plan on posting on Mondays at 7:00 P.M. Eastern Time. Just one post a week. That’s it.

NihoniWas

NowHereiAM

Posted in Culture Shock, Reflection, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Yakushima: Day 2

The sun crept over the horizon and struggled through the trees surrounding the hostel. My eyes creaked open and took in my surroundings. Childhood memories from my days at the Mosquito Lodge filled me with longing. In particular, the one night we spent catching mice. All night those mice just kept coming. There were cheers all around whenever one was caught. The whole situation seemed to turn into one huge celebration, but it wasn’t all that great for those that wanted to sleep.

IMG_7669Today would be the first free day to explore so my wife and I decided to take a different route that would take us to a beach on the Northwestern edge of the island. The rest of the group was already gone by the time we woke because they had to take a bus to another bus into the place they wanted to explore. As I observed before, the bus transit system on Yakushima is not as convenient as it is in the rest of Japan. At least based on my experience.

As I waited for my wife to get ready I decided to wait in the common area. When I sat down I was able to meet many people. There was a girl from New York backpacking through Japan for a month, a Japanese couple with two children from Tokyo on vacation, a young couple from Germany also on vacation, and a retired couple from France. There were all sorts of languages being thrown around but English was definitely the most used. Sometimes I feel I have an unfair advantage because English is my first language. Somehow it has become the travel and business common tongue.

I tried to converse in French by I failed miserably. They just started using English with me. That’s usually the way things seem to go with me when I try other languages. I must try harder.

What struck me most about the experience was that I was communicating with many new people. We had some great conversations. I mention this because as time passed in Japan, I found it difficult to hold an engaging conversation with some people. It gave me the impression that I am unlikable, boring, an asshole. Maybe I am. I’m sure everyone has at least a small piece of negativity in them, but I think there comes a time with some people when you exhaust common ground to talk about. I know you can create new common ground but that is easier said than done. Clashing schedules, clashing food, and clashing interests just don’t cultivate long-lasting relationships. Perhaps it’s a weakness of mine. But, my encounters that morning gave me new energy. It was with this feeling that my wife and I left to catch the bus.

IMG_7473We walked back to the main road. The night before was pitch black, no streetlights, only the light from our phones to show our path. But now it was full light and the plants were amazing. Neither my wife nor I had ever been so far south. There were palm trees everywhere, even what appeared to be fern trees, with their fronds uncurling like enormous fiddleheads. Then we saw a huge succulent-like looking thing that resembled aloe. Except I never saw any aloe like that before. It seemed to be reaching to the sky, at least a good ten meters tall. It was so huge and amazing! Plants like that just don’t exist in my hometown. Sure, we have some huge trees but those are supposed to be tall. Regular plants are supposed to be small and short.

IMG_7477A misty rain began while we waited for the bus. Not the kind of rain that actually gets you wet, but enough to realize it was raining. The bus came and we took our seats. There was an elderly woman sitting in the front seat carrying on a lively conversation with the driver. We had about an hour ride ahead of us so we used the time to familiarize ourselves with the schedule and future plans.

But first, we needed something to eat. Nothing appeared to be open as the bus wound its way through the nearest settlement. But we remembered there was a Drugstore Mori across from the airport. Not the most exciting breakfast concept but nothing else appeared to be open; it was Sunday after all. We departed the bus a little past the store into a wicked strong wind that drove the misty rain through us like sharp needles. We struggled our way to the entrance but it looked closed as well. Another failure. But to our fortune, an employee came out and unlocked the doors as we neared. Perfect timing. We rushed inside to take refuge against the driving rain.

As I’ve thought about the nature of Yakushima I can’t help but feel guilty that we stopped at Drugstore Mori, which is most likely the only chain store on the entire island. But what else were we to do? The only other places we saw were omiyage shops and what appeared to be closed restaurants and stores. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot during my time in Japan. Do I brave it and go into this random shop or just stick with the familiar? That, I feel is the greatest weakness when you’re unfamiliar with a language. It is easy to miss the hidden gems that could offer a wonderfully satisfying experience. It’s my own fault, really. I didn’t know the language. But I still feel guilty.

IMG_7488While at the store we loaded up on a protein heavy, easy to carry breakfast. I was not happy. One of my favorite things about traveling is to taste the local fare. But on this particular trip the island of Yakushima seemed to be working against us. We left and waited for a while in the driving mist, watching a small plane taxi and take off from the airport. It was such a relief when the bus finally arrived and we settled into its strangely comforting embrace.

Here I was able to see the sights of the island from the bus. Or rather, how people lived on the island. From my observations, Yakushima’s economy didn’t appear to be very strong. Many of the houses looked run-down and out of repair, a scene that is all too similar to some of the older, small locations and villages around my hometown. It’s a poverty that I’ve seen and known. Survival is not a question and there’s a roof overhead but escape is nearly impossible. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. But first-world poverty has a certain look to it.

The bus dropped us off at our original landing point on the Northern point of the island. We browsed the omiyage as we waited for the next bus to Inakahama beach. It soon arrived and we hopped on. The clouds broke, letting the sad sun shine through. Whereas, the East coast was cold and flat, the Northwestern side revealed to be warmer and full of mountainous terrain. The beautiful blue sky and the warmth of sunshine felt so good. The bus wound its way along sheer cliffs skirting the ocean shoreline. This side of the island felt like a completely different climate. Nature seemed more prolific here.

Finally, the bus driver asked us if we wanted to disembark. Our beach was on the horizon. We jumped off and walked a few meters up to find the beach. A magnificent white sand beach with turquoise water revealed itself. It felt like we had found a secret beauty of the island. The trees got all the attention but this hidden gem of a beach was totally worth the journey.

IMG_7511The waves lapped quietly on the shore. Inside, I could feel my tied up stress uncurl and wane. After a few moments I realized what it was all about. I must be a water person. It’s something I never thought to question before. I always lived near water, whether it was Lake Superior, the Atlantic Ocean, or a major river. Even Hita is blessed by the Mikuma River. But what I realized was that what my soul needs is not a river, but a great body of water.

Almost two whole years I had spent away from a great body of water. Two years of stress and fuddled thinking were washed away by that powerful water and those relaxing waves. Two hours of exploration up and down the beach discovered some ancient lava flows that reached out into the ocean like giant fingers. We wound our way barefoot through the towering monoliths, admiring each one’s unique story.

IMG_7623It was about then that the clouds started rolling in. The sky darkened a shade followed by a light mist. We trudged our way with sore and weary feet from the rough sand up to the bathroom area/entrance to the beach.

While washing our feet, we noticed the family from Tokyo making their way up from the beach. We said hello and exchanged pleasantries.

Now, what’s about to follow is perhaps the most eclectic collection of bad decisions, bad luck, and spectacular displays of kindness I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

But first, let’s take a small step back to the morning:

Cue early morning light. Small cups of fruit flavored yogurt, black coffee, and burnt toast. Fade in the retired French couple and myself. Layer on a slice of awkwardness. It wasn’t the break of dawn but early enough to mean that a few people were still sleeping. Others were awake at dawn and long gone. I munched on the last dregs of my bag of peanuts.

They asked me where I was from. The conversation visited the usual subjects, work, where do you live, why here? But then came the interesting question. What are your plans today?

That’s a good one because I didn’t know. I’ve never really touristed before.

They told me that the western side of the island is quite beautiful. They told me that one could rent bicycles and ride along the coast. It was very beautiful and only about 25 km or so. A nice two to three hour ride.

Such a great idea!

Back to washing our feet:

A little fun with waves. Magical!

A little fun with waves. Magical!

The couple from Tokyo came over and asked our plans. Well, we were going to get to the next little town to rent bicycles so we could ride south along the west coast path through the UNESCO site. It was raining but we figured it would let up. It was always raining somewhere on Yakushima. We figured it wouldn’t be so bad. Besides, we had our trusty 100 yen ponchos from Daiso. They would certainly do the trick!

We started pulling on our ponchos to walk to the station where we could rent bicycles. The mother came over to us and offered to give us a ride because of the rain. Right then it wasn’t really raining. Just sprinkling really, the normal stuff. But she insisted on giving us a ride. We felt pretty bad because she had to leave her husband and children behind for a while. I’ve always been embarrassed to accept charity. It was also impossible to refuse. She brought us to the next small town nestled in a horseshoe valley surrounded by steep mountains inland but open to the ocean. She dropped us off at a service station with an army of red mountain bikes lined up outside.

We thanked her and went in. A kitty with no tail played with us as we sat for a while in dusty old chairs. It felt like nobody had been there for a while. The cat purred and rubbed against us; a brindle cat it was. An unexpectedly long time passed while the guy processed our paperwork. Normal in Japan. All paperwork seemed to take forever. I’m still not sure if it is true or not. I just know how it felt. Finally, he motioned us outside and lead us to the bicycle army. The rain had lessened to little more than a mist. They sky was still dark but it didn’t look threatening. Boy was I wrong about that one. One among countless things that I’ve been wrong about in my life.

We got on our bikes and made sure they worked. The gears shifted and the brakes seemed to work. We adjusted our seats and handlebars to our liking. We donned our cheap ponchos and biked away, ignorant of what was to come.

IMG_7703You see, the brochure called it a bicycle trail. We expected to go for a way along the road and then merge onto a path through the woods. What we found was the mountain road that snaked along the rocky, craggy western coast. Up and down it went.

Then it happened. My wife started complaining about how difficult it was for her to stop her bike. At first, I thought it was because she wasn’t familiar with the way the brakes worked. She had never ridden a mountain bike before. Bringing a bicycle to a stop down a steep hill can be harrowing at best. It wasn’t until she flew by me with her feet scraping the asphalt did I realize the seriousness of the situation. She managed to stop safely whereupon we inspected the brakes to discover both front and back were gone, stripped down to a greasy gray stub that stained my fingers.

To add to the fun/adventure of the situation, this was also when we noticed a few things:

1. There was no electricity running along this road, which meant no street lights or the ubiquitous roadside vending machines Japan is so famous for. We had half a bottle of water and a Snickers bar between us.
2. There was no path. If there was one we completely missed it. Mountain road it was then, up and down and twisty and narrow.
3. It was raining now. Hard. It wasn’t windy but the rain was pouring steadily and we were soaked to the bone.
4. We had no idea where we were along the path. The last sign we passed was a while ago and said we were one-third complete. Which meant we must be more than halfway by now.

IMG_7653All of which raised new questions as we took a short break under thick branches and split the Snickers and the water.

Do we give up and wave down a vehicle for assistance? We couldn’t call for help because no signal. Do we head back? Or go ahead?

Something fell in the forest behind us. We looked up and saw two eyes staring at us. Yakushima monkeys. The same ones we were warned about. I froze with the candy bar in my mouth. Another one showed up. Oh my! There were like six of them! We decided to move on. Our sense of adventure (fear) was at its peak, besides, how much worse could things get? Right?

IMG_7666My chivalrous self decided that I couldn’t allow my wife to ride such a dangerous bicycle. My shoes were more suited to scraping along the road after all.

So off we went.

Things chugged along. Slowly creeping up the hills together from our lack of food energy. Me careening like a madman down hills, scraping my shoes along the asphalt periodically to check my speed. It was a narrow road. There was very little traffic but the risk of meeting a vehicle, or a bus, along a blind turn were substantial. There would be no way for me to stop.

IMG_7655Luck was on our side for a while. The turns were sharp but the inclines and declines were gradual. We started coming across tour groups wandering around a large bus parked on the side of the road. We had a fun time illustrating that I had no brakes on my bicycle.

Still we continued. On through the rain. On through the hills. Onwards forever and ever it seemed.

All seemed to be under control when my body turned on me. An old knee injury sparked up, making pedaling nearly impossible. By this time we figured we were about three-quarters complete. We had no idea where we were though because the signs never showed up again. I suddenly looked forward to going downhill because it didn’t hurt my knee. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I’m pretty sure my stubbornness insisted that we finish our adventure under our own power no matter the circumstances. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but it certainly is a thing.

Suddenly, the up and down stopped and the road widened. The trees thinned out, showing the crashing waves on the coast far below. It was pouring by this time and the wind picked up, lashing us and our cheap ponchos in the wind.

IMG_7658Desperation took hold. The end must be near! Must be. We just had to get there. We stopped at the start of a long decline. The road was wide and open. Only fools would be out in this weather. Us. I decided to go for it. I took a deep breath and let the bicycle coast down the hill. My speed picked up quick. I put my feet down to control my speed, sprouting two waves in my wake. My poncho flung out behind me like a superhero. I was and am no superhero. Definitely not.

A long, slow turn curved to the right and straightened into another straight stretch. I could see the ocean looming forever. Rain pelted my eyes. Wind lashed at my body.

A left turn.

Another stretch.

People crossing the road!

A bus parked on the side of the road waited for a group of migrating tourists; their rain suits and umbrellas looked so kind.

My speed seemed to increase. An unbroken line of tourists stood between me and the next turn. To the left was a ravine. To the right were trees. I planted my feet to slow but there was no way I would stop on time. The noise from my shoes got their attention. My hands gripped the handlebars and the useless brakes.

A few looked my way from under their umbrellas.

“Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” I yelled. I took the risk of removing a hand from the handlebar to make the symbol for passing through. A small break formed in the line.

I passed through at speed and yelled thanks. I don’t know what they heard or what they saw. In hindsight, the sight must have been strange and comical, in the moment my body and possibly my life was at great risk. I could only focus on what was coming next.

Another turn. Rain pelted my face. Waves and rocky crags loomed closer, wind nudged me around. My poncho fluttered behind.

The descent continued.

I would like to say the whole thing was brave. I would also like to say I did something cool.

It was stupid.

IMG_7646If there was ever a time to ask for assistance it was then. But I made my stubborn decision and completed the journey through rain-soaked madness. My knee-pain prevented me from enjoying the final leg along the flat coast but we finally managed to arrive at our destination. We got a little lost looking for the station and had to ask for directions but we did. We made it! The sign shone like a beacon in the overcast sky.

We walked our red bicycles up to the front of the building that turned out to be a small convenience store, parked them, and stepped gingerly into the vestibule. I looked at my wife. We were a sight to behold! Soaked from head to toe, hair in complete disarray, cheap white ponchos hanging limply down our bodies jutting out in the back from our backpacks.

We ripped off the ponchos.

There were a few people inside. They tried their best not to stare but it was difficult not to. I didn’t and I still don’t blame them, because we must have been a sight. Soon one of the most incredible acts of kindness ever was about to happen. Out of pity or kindness I don’t know. Nor do I care.

We waddled to the counter and I pulled out a wadded, drenched receipt to turn in the bicycles. I thought I kept it safe but we were too wet. Everything was soaked. The cashier managed to figure it out while my wife started shopping. She found some towels which were a sight for sore eyes, magical almost.

She asked about the bus stop. They told us we probably wouldn’t make it.

Defeat.

But, they would give us a ride to our hostel! They were going that way for a delivery. A bit of fortune shined our way.

Remembering the fiasco of no food the prior evening, we decided to stock up. By the time we checked out they were ready to go. The rain came down harder than ever and the wind blew gale force. We profusely thanked all in our presence and entered the comparative security of the little white delivery van.

I never even thought to say anything about the bicycle brakes. Probably should have. Not that it would have made a difference. The rental was only 1000 yen and the danger was over. We had conquered this little slice of adventure. They would easily discover the lack of brakes.

Thus a legend was born!

Probably not.

IMG_7672At any rate, apart from a leech sucking on my ankle, knee pain, and some wonderful conversations that evening with the married air traffic controllers from Germany, the young lady from New York, the couple from Tokyo, things smoothed out from there.

Sleep like death came.

The rain poured.

Daylight breached the clouds and a new day dawned with a clear, blue sky. Waves lashed on the ocean a few hundred meters away. There’s not much else to say. We returned home by boat and a few busses. Then we inserted ourselves back into the grind, a little older, a little wiser (maybe a little more foolish), and full of the remarkable kindness of strangers.

Posted in Creative Nonfiction, Japan, Narrative, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hita Gion Festival

Today I was going through some older pictures and I found this gem. We were pushing our bicycles through Mameda Town and got trapped between Yamaboko. And here is four minutes of raw energy from that moment.

Enjoy!

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Yakushima Travel Log: Day 1

IMG_7350A ways back I had a conversation with some people about where to visit in Japan over coffee and chocolate. There were the usual suspects: Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo. None of them places I wanted to go. I’m sure there is plenty to do and see, I just don’t have the interest or the drive to make it happen. I wanted to see natural destinations rather than the man-made ones. Luckily, I live on Kyushu, which has numerous natural destinations to visit.

The places to see came pouring out. Mount Aso, Takachiho, then Yakushima.

What’s this Yakushima?

At it’s most simple it is one of Japan’s UNESCO natural heritage sites. There are mountains full of ancient trees, primeval forests and turtle nesting beaches. One of my friends worked there studying turtles. It reminded me of Isle Royale in Lake Superior and sounded like the right place for me. Thankfully, another person in the area wanted to go, and it would soon become a reality.

IMG_7294It took two busses and a jet-foil boat to reach the island, about ten hours of travel.

Mountains rose out of the ocean as we approached the island. The sky was overcast and the dark clouds threatened rain. I was told that it rains 400 days a year on Yakushima, so I wasn’t exactly surprised.

The boat slowed down and I was able to finally feel the reality of it all. For so long I had looked at pictures and talked with people about the fabled island.

IMG_7299It’s the home of Joumon Sugi. A 4,000 year old cedar tree. It’s the type of thing where stories begin and become legend. There’s the Shiratani Unsuikyo area. That’s the place where the Princess Mononoke story originated, not to mention the place where Studio Ghibli went to do research for the movie. Apparently, there are landscapes in the film that were directly inspired by reality. These stories and more framed my perception of the island. Even with all that I was given, all that was shared, the reality was much different than anything my imagination was capable of, especially since my last two years was influenced by my time in convenient Japan where you’re never far from a convenience store or vending machine.

But first, a little backtracking. As my feet landed on the island I began to realize that I had never done this before. Not the island. Of course I had never been there. It was the first time I had ever been on a trip specifically to sightsee. I’m almost 36 years old and I’ve never gone on a sightseeing vacation. Almost daily I hear stories about it but it was something I had never experienced.

Why?

I should have been excited but all I could think about was the commercial nature of such a place. I was torn between the pure nature and the string of omiyage shops. But enough of this existential nonsense. I pushed away my over-analytical brain so I could focus on enjoying the experience.

IMG_7313Yakushima is a fairly small island, coming in at around 500 square km and has a population density of 26/km. To compare, my home county, Houghton, is 3,339 square km and has a population density of 14/km. It is arguably the smallest piece of land I have ever been on separated by open ocean. It made me feel good. My primal instinct kicked in, prepared for hard effort that is so far removed from the everyday sedentary life that plagues so many in our modern world. Memories of Deer Camp flooded my brain. Two weeks of no electricity, no running water, and nothing but the wilderness to keep company. The struggle for life and death, starvation and survival, welled up inside my guts. I could almost feel the hair on my legs and arms rise in response. The tree-covered mountains pulsed a slow invitation to me. Mist crawled over them. I had to be there.

IMG_7457We caught a bus that took us up to Shiratani Unsuikyo. It wove its way through mountain roads that got thinner and thinner as we ascended. At some places the road was washed out and the mist became thicker as the altitude increased. If the bus went off the edge, it would end up being the trip of a lifetime, most likely the last one for us all.

It can be frightening to place your well-being in the hands of total strangers. On the surface it isn’t really anything. Millions of people everyday do it without a second thought. Airplanes, boats, taxis, busses, trains, and so on. Those professionals have great responsibility. I thought about this because of the recent ferry boat disaster in South Korea. The news playing on the ferry we took to the island covered the sad event non-stop to the dismay of many passengers. I was just another passenger to the driver but he held my life in his hands.

We met a few cars coming down the hill but everything went well. Shiratani Unsuikyo sits at around 650 meters or so above sea level. The mist we had seen covering the mountains disappeared from sight, instead invaded our skin deep into our innards. It wasn’t so much cold as sharp. Maybe sharp is the best. Not warm. Not cold. Just sharp.

IMG_7321As we walked from the bus stop I noticed what appeared to be a small hydroelectric generator behind glass in a small building. I learned later that it powered the area. Not only that but a large portion of the island is powered by hydroelectric. Cool little factoid.

The generator was powered by a crisp mountain stream. The water was bitter cold and clear to the bottom full of magnificent colors. Near the stream was the entrance cabin. A map of the area laid out some of the basic hiking paths along with the average time. We didn’t have much time to explore since the last bus back to town left around six. We decided to play things safe by spending more time exploring one of the shorter paths and then branch out from there.

IMG_7323We followed the path up the rushing river. Huge stones were bashed by the unforgiving water. Water flowed into caves and spit out the other side with falling vengeance only to rest the next moment. The huge rocks were patient, stoic, at the unending onslaught. I felt compelled to jump in but my logic thankfully won out. It would have resulted in an incredibly uncomfortable time. We enjoyed the water and the moss covered trees.

After a while we found ourselves led away from the river up the side of the mountain to Yayoi Sugi. It’s the easiest to see of the named trees and the third most famous. Things are done like that in Japan. Everything is rated and you have to go somewhere to see a specific thing. Or maybe it isn’t just a Japan thing and it’s just something I notice now that I’m considered a traveler.

DSCF2337As the path led higher up the mountain there were no other hikers around and a comforting, misty rain began to fall. Moss covered everything. Trees, rocks, an old bench, nothing was safe from its touch. Moss crept up trees that wrapped around and into each other, creating a symbiotic relationship that reminded me of the basic tenants of pluralistic society. It seemed as though everything was thriving. It was pure beauty and infused me with a cleansing power I hadn’t felt since I came to Japan two years ago.

IMG_7398But I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of unease. Or was it discomfort? Anyway, it was a feeling deep inside me that I couldn’t put my finger on. As we continued our ascent up well-traveled paths, sometimes cordoned off from the forest by the wooden look concrete fences Japan is so famous for, stone pavers created an easy to traverse path through the pristine, almost primeval, forest. My unease suddenly dawned on me. We were in a forest but we weren’t IN it. Barriers stopped us and told us where to go, subtly forcing us to fall in line and have a uniform experience. It is something I’ve been battling with for a long time since I arrived in Japan. A core feature of Japanese Zen is the concept of balance. It’s a wondrous concept that I struggle every day to find. Japan has an uncanny balance with nature. It can be difficult at times to draw a hard line where buildings end and nature begins, and vice-versa. It is awesome.

DSCF2282But as I traversed that path through the forest I felt I was seeing the ugly side of Zen. The hand of man infiltrated this place and I couldn’t unsee it. It was the same feeling I experience in zoos when I see proud animals crushed under the oppression of cages. This forest was a zoo. I felt guilty. I was part of the problem. Now bear with me. This was the particular line of logic I used to explain the unfamiliar sensations rumbling inside me. Maybe I was as simple as me being overcome by the pure power of nature.

IMG_7370The rain continued dribbling through the thick canopy as I struggled to make sense of my feelings. We kept walking until we finally came upon Yayoi Sugi. A steep climb up narrow wooden stairs brought us to the majestic monster. Twenty-six meters tall with a surprising girth and said to be 3,000 years old. It is perhaps the most ancient living entity I’ve seen. It’s made its home for all those years on a steep mountainside. I’m afraid my words can’t do it justice, just as photos can’t quite capture it. It stands majestic in so many ways, rising through the canopy with no thought about who or what surrounds it. The root system is particularly magnificent, flowing down the side of the mountain like a wooden waterfall. I felt an insatiable urge to touch it. So I bent down and stretched my arm through the fence. I know it was wrong because if every person that walked by touched it, there wouldn’t be much left. I am only one, and I don’t make much of a difference, but one turns to two and two turns to four and so on. I was wrong but I had to contact that magnificent creature.

DSCF2364I am not ashamed.

I didn’t feel any massive boost of power.

I felt no insurgence of new meaning in my life.

I did feel calm.

Nature is like that. There is incredible power in Mother Nature, but I find it to be a raw, calm power. One with absolute empathy for the whole but not a care for the individual. The tree didn’t care that I touched it. In the grand scheme, my touch was completely inconsequential. Three seconds compared to the many centuries it’s been watching meant nothing.

DSCF2369But it meant something to me. What? I’m not quite sure. Maybe I just explained it. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’ll never understand. It doesn’t matter. I won’t say it changed my life. It did. Every second changes our life. I won’t say it infused knowledge or understanding. It did. Every moment our eyes and heart are open is good.

That moment will live on inside me. The drizzling rain that permeated the air. The smell of fresh air infused with the aroma of rich soil and cedar. The love of my wife as she absorbed the scene in her own special way. Droplets of water dripping from the canopy overhead. The snap of a digital shutter and Japanese being spoken nearby. My breathing. The ache in my right groin. Blood rushing through my body from the recent climb.

It was only a few moments. Gone. But not forgotten.

We circled up and around the tree along the path. It felt like our mission was complete but we still weren’t satisfied. We talked about our feelings as we descended the path. This natural “zoo” was prohibitive. People are brought to and ferried along the correct path. The only way to look at things. It’s at once beautiful and sad.

DSCF2307Everywhere humanity has made a mark. I don’t think it is bad. It just is. But I still struggle with it. I see nature as a magnificent space where humanity has struggled for eons to carve out a special space. Humanity has created some of the most amazing things but they still pale in comparison to the accomplishments of nature, which humanity tries to take partial credit for by creating paths and other natural zoos or parks.

Please forgive me. I know I am being overly cynical. I am grateful that me and countless other people are able to see nature in a comfortable way. I guess I’m a little selfish that way. You see, the guided/preferred/manipulated/coaxed experience is not unique. Perhaps it is because I am from America and we are supposed to be all about individualism. Perhaps I’m insatiable in that respect and nothing is ever good enough. Maybe it’s my hometown that is buried even further in the bush. But, I now have a shared experience with all those other people that have seen Yayoi Sugi. We can talk about it and have relatively similar experiences. It’s a good thing. It is. It is in how we interpret that experience that makes the difference.

IMG_7382But it lacks a certain passion.

The experience is homogenized, McDonaldized, manufactured for the masses. One size fits most and the rest are subtly coaxed into submission. I know. I know. Anti-establishment rhetoric. Blah. Blah. Blah. Yakkity-Schmakity.

The fact that I had such a soul-rending experience proves the value of the experience. I was able to see a magnificent natural creation, be guided there by the hand of man, and feel the irony of it. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the experience was because now I can explore these feelings of misbalance that I’ve been struggling with since my landing in Japan.

IMG_7423The balance between man and nature is defined uniquely be each culture, or (shall I even say it?) each individual. A core part of me wants to understand. It’s my natural curiosity. In the end it is useless in the larger picture. But even a small sliver of understanding is an improvement from nothing.

Stay tuned for part two of Yakushima.

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Wakuwaku Japanese Language School

If anyone is interested in learning Japanese or traveling to Japan, I highly recommend Hita as a place to see. It is full of wonderful sights and things to do, particularly the incredible festivals like Kankousai and Gion. I’ve really enjoyed my time here and I’ve wanted to figure out a way to get more people to visit this great city in the heart of Kyushu.

Then along came Wakuwaku Japanese Language and Culture School. I know this sounds like a sales pitch but I am really excited about their program. The people are close friends of mine and are wonderful. You can learn Japanese as well as participate in a variety of traditional Japanese cultural activities. If you’re interested in that type of experience, check out their website at http://wakuwaku-japanese-school.com/

Hope to see you around!

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The Alcoholic Lie

Let’s talk about addiction.

It’s been on my mind for a while, floating like a misguided salesman hell bent on selling me a product I don’t need. Don’t get me wrong, it could be a great product for somebody else; it just isn’t for me.

I’m angry.

I’m frustrated.

I’m confused.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but hearing about someone’s “experiment” with quitting drinking for a month or even a year doesn’t even get close to what it’s like to be an alcoholic.

At times it is offensive to read them. Their words sound so dispassionate about the experiment, analyzing how their body reacted and how they thought about it. It’s no big deal. They can quit whenever they want. I know I’m supposed to feel relieved that others are trying to understand what I’m going through, it is appreciated, but they don’t understand. Just as I don’t understand them.

I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just trying to be critical. It’s easy to tolerate something when you know there’s an end to it. Work ends. The school day ends. The movie ends. It’s the basis for daily life and setting goals.

“One Day at a Time” says my beginner’s chip in AA. One day turns to two, turns to three, and hopefully so on. There is no end except the real end. Alcohol, any addiction, is a powerful force in a person’s life. It cannot be controlled except by pure force of will. Every day. It never ends.

For many addicts there is no redo. We hear stories about famous people and criticize them. Fine. Everyone deserves criticism. But everyone has moments of weakness, some of those weaknesses are more serious than others. A relapse for an addict can mean the end of everything. It is utterly frightening. Freezing. The ultimate weakness. I seriously believe that if I drink again I will die. I don’t want to die. I also don’t want alcohol to have control over me.

These types of thoughts wrangle my brain every day. They sneak up when I’m unaware or just enjoying something.

You think this person is weak.
You think this person is sick.
You think this person isn’t normal.

Maybe you’re right.
Maybe you’re not.

I thought all of these and more. I still do. In the end. It doesn’t matter.

Addicts have to live every day with their addiction.

It is now nine years sober and counting for me. It is harder now than it was at the beginning.

I’ve struggled with alcohol for a relatively short time, 18 years now. I started late by many standards, age 18, but it took over my life. I would drink at any time I wanted to. It didn’t matter if I had any responsibilities. I was a high functioning alcoholic so I could still get things done. As I got older I became confused and frightened of alcohol. So I would quit for a few weeks, a month, six months.

It was easy and it made me feel good. Gave me a feeling of control over alcohol. I knew there was an end to my sobriety. I marked the day on the calendar and waited with baited breath and big plans. New drinks to try. New places to drink. That day. That day. It was something to look forward to. I could drink again.

A few cycles passed. Drink. Don’t drink.

I was an on again off again drunk.

An alcoholic.

I just didn’t know it. Each time my drinking cycle came around my drinking was worse. It was as if I was making up for the time I missed. I drank more. I drank harder. But it was okay because I had a dry cycle coming up soon.

Maybe it was my fault in the first place. Maybe, if I had just kept drinking without worrying about my planned breaks I would have been fine. Moderation, they say. Drink in moderation and everything will be okay.

It won’t.

I know there are people out there who can control their urges. You are lucky. You are not addicted. I envy you. But are you absolutely sure? That’s the funny thing about addiction. It doesn’t tell you. It hides in the shadows, encouraging you that everything is okay. You don’t have a problem. You are not weak.

Now, having said all of this. Moments of cleansing and experimenting into things that are outside your experience are wonderful things to do. Please, go ahead and write about it. It’s a magnificent reflective learning experience. You can quit for good whenever you want. I truly hope it is true.

Remember, there is no going back. There is nothing to look forward to. There is no light at the end. Addicts are always running. Some days addiction nips at your heels, other days addiction is far behind.

But addiction never gives up, and neither can you.

Previously Published at Medium.

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For Those that are Curious

Hello all!

As you know, I recently stated that I have no more to say about Japan.  That is true in some aspects and not so much in others.  Japan is a wonderful place with so much to experience and explore.  It will take a lifetime to even begin to understand the intricacies of the culture and everyday life.

But I’ve realized a few things about myself during my time in Japan.  I want to do things that don’t quite fit into the whole Japan theme.

That thing is writing fiction. We all come to a point when we have to jump ahead no matter what.  It is frightening and downright intimidating, but I have created a new place to share my writing process.

If you’re interested in that sort of thing, join me at Cultivating Creativity. There I will share my Works in Progress and some of the anguish, blood, and other generally unpleasant yet gratifying details that linger uncomfortably throughout the process.  My first project is “Life With a View”.  Wish me luck!

This doesn’t mean NihoniGo will disappear. I have a special place in my heart for Japan and this blog. I will continue to update it (not as though I have been good at that) as I reflect on my time in Japan. I would love to hear from you and your questions about Japan. I’ll do my best to answer them. I don’t know everything, or anything at all, but I know my experience.

Thank you!

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A Marshmallow Marathon

It was a long time coming. I failed once but it wasn’t going to happen again.  The fated day finally arrived. Thankfully, it was a sunny 20 Celsius spring day. Perfect for a 5k marathon along the river.

Running is a recent addition to my life. At least that is what I thought while reflecting on my first 5k. But then I began to dive deep into my past. Deep, deeper than I ever thought before…

IMG_6528Thirty years melted away. A small red berry grabbed my attention while exploring the Lake Superior shoreline. I was six or seven, somewhere around there, and my curiosity in the world instilled absolute awe and wonder at everything. Those berries made me sick. I threw up soon after with no other ill effects. Still I wandered through the thick underbrush discovering the mysteries of the world.

Part of it was curiosity, but there was a good deal of imitation involved as well. From before I was born a family came up during summers to vacation in the pristine wilderness that was my hometown. The patriarch of the family was a tall, slender man. By trade he was a teacher. He seemed to enjoy exploring the forest and possessed a natural curiosity. He would disappear for hours at a time. Turns out that he would go for runs in the morning.

That wasn’t all there was to this man. He could also make mean S’mores. During one particularly pleasant July evening the training began.

IMG_6533Like any July day situated in or around Lake Superior, it was hot. I was a little kid creating a highway system for Tonka trucks to carry out their tasks. The End-Loader was the workhorse of the bunch, helping create the hills and valleys needed to make the roads interesting. My brother dug a huge hole in the black stamp-sand. He was a big guy and he disappeared into it. My sisters swam in Lake Superior and explored the nearby ruins of the old Champion Copper Mill.

As the setting sun fell on that perfect day we had a barbecue of steak, hot dogs, kebabs, you know, all the good stuff. For dessert, S’mores. The master was hard at work toasting the perfect marshmallow. I was enraptured by his technique. He chose the perfect stick and stripped one end to a sharp point. Then he singed the raw tip in the glowing embers of the fire.

Then came cooking.

Two marshmallows on the end, patience, and a discerning eye were required next. Marshmallows can ignite in a fraction of a second. Any moment, any lapse in concentration can spell disaster.

I absorbed every twist and wave, every breath and slight adjustment, nothing existed except his technique, those slowly browning marshmallows, and the dancing flames. I watched with attention that only a young person could.

IMG_6539Once the marshmallows begin to droop and an even toasting colors their fine exterior comes the next crucial stage. Stacking the cookie. Any master requires an apprentice to complete the project. Two graham cracker squares and one chunk of chocolate bar. You have to be quick. Place the chocolate on the bottom square and use the other square to capture the marshmallowy perfection with a smooth twist. Squish them together for the perfect S’more.

I’m hungry.

I realize everybody has their own preference for the perfect S’more but this is mine and I’m sticking to it.

Back from my reverie I realize that this man means a lot to me. I would only see him once a year while I was young but it is crystal clear. I still remember his laugh. I still remember his nasally/gravelly voice. I still remember the way he jogged along dusty tracks through the woods. But most of all I still remember his knowledge. He taught me so much when I was so young.

I guess you could say he is a mentor.

Many of the decisions I’ve made in my life have been because of him. Because of the experiences we shared all those years ago on that black stamp-sand beach on Lake Superior.

Running may seem to be a recent addition to my life, but I think it was always there, hiding behind childhood fog full of trucks and sticks and video games. There have been many obstacles but it always comes back.

So now I run and I will run.

Thinking of marshmallows the whole way…

Why do you do what you do?

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Find your passion

Looking out the window at all the concrete here I’ve begun thinking about the next step in my life. Passion came to mind. What is my passion? By nature, by definition, I should know. Right?

All the books. All the experts. They all say to find your passion.

What does passion mean?

The definition says it is a strong, powerful, compelling emotion. Desire or fondness towards someone or something. Lust.

What does that mean?

IMG_1696I mean, I understand what the words mean, how they work in context with each other, how they jump off the page and infiltrate my skull and bounce around the mysterious inner workings, looking for connections to make sense. I know what passion means.

I don’t know what passion is.

Recently, I discovered the curiously compelling world of Criminal Minds. I’ve always appreciated an interest in abnormal psychology and the show illustrates that to great effect. I found the writing quite good and the characters engaging. Traits are doled out slowly and begin to reveal motivations for doing what they do. In essence, there was something during their childhood that drove them towards their occupation as FBI profilers.

Something makes them tick. I don’t want to delve into any more details because I don’t want to ruin the show. It’s a great example of character driven crime drama.

IMG_4118Then I read a book; the main character has clear passion. Her motivation is a defined and monumental moment from childhood. Another television series comes up. Passion defined. Passion everywhere.

Passion began to look like obsession, even addiction. It sure is a fine line, to be sure. Passion has a healthy connotation full of positive encounters and productive enterprises. Obsession and addiction, on the other hand, lead down a pit full of sharp spikes.

So I started searching my childhood for that one thing, that special motivation that changed my life and pushed me toward and inevitable conclusion. Passion.

Nothing. There is no defining moment in my life. No motivation to push me towards that clear goal.

Then it made sense.

IMG_2192I’m an alcoholic. I have addiction. That’s passion. The problem is that I’ve been sober for close to nine years now. Those nine years have been spent controlling my passion, staying away from it at all costs, acting paranoid because it could creep around any corner without warning. I’ve been living in fear since that decisive, chilly day in April.

Consciously, I want to redirect that negative passion into positive, productive endeavors. But perhaps there is a part of me that fears the power of passion. Because it is powerful. Releasing myself to it could lead to another detrimental experience; a deeper, darker hole that I might not be able to crawl out of.

I must admit, sharing this is very difficult. I’m not looking for empathy, pity, or sadness. I made my decision and I’m sticking to it. I’m just exploring a concept that has become central to our modern time and how it relates to me. Finding passion is the new American Dream. It permeates every aspect of our culture from popular entertainment to education to religion. Passion is everywhere and has become a homogenous entity expected as a recognized privilege. Well, not a privilege, an entitlement. We deserve to find our passion.

Be careful what you wish for.

As I near the end of my blathering tirade, George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” came up on my random playlist. The outlook looks bleak, but it isn’t all bad.

IMG_4246The very nature of passion makes it uncontrollable, but if we can manage to redirect that thing, convince it, if you will, to find positive and productive endeavors to focus on, we will be able to walk out of that pit with our heads looking ahead and all around. To finally seize life rather than be manipulated by it.

Is it true passion?

I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s all I have.

“Follow your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell

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Breathing is a good thing

I have nothing more to say about Japan.

IMG_6289That’s a lie. I have plenty to say. I’m just more interested in pursuing new venues to express myself. NihoniGo has begun to feel limiting. It’s funny, because my initial concept was to make sure I created a tight enough focus so that it wouldn’t get away from me. Instead, I ended up getting away from it.

To put it bluntly, the last few months have been an extremely trying time in my life. Have you ever noticed that you’ve been holding your breath for a very long time? Like three months?

I did.

Somehow I managed to survive so long without oxygen without too many ill effects. There’s probably a little brain damage but I’m sure that was already there.

IMG_4606The thing is, it is very difficult to do things when you are holding your breath. It is important to stay as still as possible so as to use the least amount of oxygen. So you see I had to let life pass by. Maybe Guiness will get a hold of this and I’ll get a blurb in their interesting book.

The problem is that I’m sure that there are plenty of others out there that have held their breath for much longer.

But I don’t want to talk about other record holders.

I want to talk about me.

Now that I’m allowed to breathe again I find that life has taken on a new hue. Flowers are blooming. Colors infest the landscape. Smells infiltrate every pore in my body. Wait a second! That sounds like spring!

In a way it is.

Spring is a time of renewals, rebirth, new dawns and new ideas.

New beginnings.

During my record breaking attempt I began to notice slight changes taking place. Metamorphosis, if you will. I morphed from a pudgy caterpillar into a beau… um… pudgy caterpillar with brain damage.

IMG_6352It’s like that time I captured a large green caterpillar when I was about ten years old. I was sure the funny looking creature would turn into a spectacular Luna moth. I nudged it carefully into a large jar and let nature take its course. I fed it leaves and put a stick in there to walk on. Then one day it began to weave a silk cocoon around itself. Real nature was happening in front of my eyes! Soon after, it was fully enclosed and there was nothing new to see. My ten year old mind lost interest. Other things were more exciting.

One month. Two months.

I don’t know how long I waited but one day I began to worry. What if I captured it and it wasn’t able to perform its incredible feat? I was a killer. Guilt took control and I unscrewed the cap and set the bottle outside in a safe place to let nature take its course… naturally.

Look at that. I wanted to talk about me but instead I talked about a fat green caterpillar from twenty-five years ago. Yes. I must have brain damage.

Oxygen sure is an amazing thing. My freedom to breathe again has let the axioms and neurons and other tidbits of brain material to begin firing again.

So, that is to say, I have nothing more to say about Japan at this time. I do, however, have a lot to say.

Maybe too much.

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