Friday, July 5, 2019

Koya-san 2018: Train Schedules, Trail Maps & the Company You Keep



My second trip to Koya-san came in 2018, a mere fourteen years and a few months after my first. And this time, everything was different. I wasn’t with anyone named Amos. I had a smartphone instead of a disposable Fuji-film camera. I would not be camping, illegally or otherwise. And instead of hiking part of the way I’d be taking the train all the way to the top.

When did life become so boring?

This wasn’t a trip, exactly. It was a last-minute reconnaissance mission. And I had only so much time to get up the mountain, get acquainted with Koya-san (the part I missed my first time here), and get back down the mountain and out to Kansai International Airport south of Osaka where I’d meet up with a group of thirteen Slovenian women.

Like most sacred and serene places that have turned into tourist circuses, Koya-san has been made extremely easy to reach and then navigate. I could have skipped this recon mission and blindly led my group around Koya-san’s East Side, including the sprawling crown jewel of Oku-no-in, without looking stupid. I like to avoid looking stupid whenever I can though, so back up into the Wakayama mountains I went.


All the ins and outs of getting to Koya-san can easily be found online so I won’t bother - though I will offer a couple of tips I haven’t seen anywhere else. One, transfer to the Nankai Line at Namba Station. It may look like you can save a bit of time catching the Hashimoto-bound train with a transfer at Shin-Imamiya but ‘Shin-Imamiya’ is actually a code word in the passenger train industry. It means ‘hell’.

If none of this makes sense to you, that’s fine.

But if you ever find yourself trying to get to Koya-san you’ll need to know that Namba is good and Shin-Imamiya is bad. Try to remember.

The other secret I picked up on my time-sensitive recon mission is this: If you’re traveling with a big heavy suitcase on wheels, either store it at Namba Station’s second-floor luggage service center or ship it from Namba (or your last hotel) to wherever you’re going after Koya-san. Navigating your way to and around Koya-san isn’t too difficult. But dragging your crap up and onto the cable car that sits at a forty-five degree angle…then dragging it up the narrow steps inside the cable car as you search for an empty seat (negotiating all the other big bulky suitcases in your way)… then off the cable car and up more stairs to the top cable car station… through and around to your bus platform… and, finally, onto a bus that was designed for Japanese locals and minimalist monks, not big white people (or any other invading color) with big huge suitcases; the endeavor is, in a word, amassiveannoyanceforyouandeveryonearoundyou. Avoid it. Trust me, your trip to Koya-san will be so much nicer.

Just ask my thirteen Slovenian ladies.


One more thing…

…and then I’m done giving travel advice (because quite frankly I hate giving unsolicited travel advice). Spend a night in Koya-san. Yes, you can do a day trip from Osaka or even Nara, but it will end up feeling more like a recon mission – and probably without the part where you meet thirteen Slovenian women afterward.

Not only is there more to see in Koya-san than you can reasonably fit into one day, the best times to see the best parts are early morning and in the evening when the crowds of big Westerners with their big wheeled suitcases as well as the loud-mouth, self-absorbed Chinese tourists have made themselves blessedly scarce. This goes for just about anywhere, but considering Koya-san’s relative isolation an overnight stay is virtually imperative – unless you’re the kind who prefers recon missions. Plus staying the night offers the chance to sleep and eat in a temple, giving you a feel for the life of a monk, albeit a fleeting and superficial one.


However! (All right, I lied. One more bit of advice.) If you can – and this goes for traveling to Japan in general – come in the Spring or the Fall. The crowds are lighter (except during Golden Week) and the temps are significantly more agreeable. And while the cherry blossoms are much more spectacular down in Yoshino, the pockets of fall colors splashed around Koya-san make the unique experience of Oku-no-in even better.

Now, this last morsel of wisdom is not advice. It’s a warning. Don’t come to Koya-san to experience the temples. They’re nice, don’t get me wrong. But they alone do not justify making the trek up here. Oku-no-in is what makes this place special. That said, making a day trip out of Koya-san is certainly possible; a few hours exploring Koya-san is sufficient. You’ll just have to share it with the hordes.

So what’s so special about Oku-no-in?

Konishiki against one of his less formidable foes.
Yes, Oku-no-in is Japan’s largest cemetery, with over 200,000 grave markers and counting. (Yes, after more than a thousand years they are still adding graves.) But just because something is the biggest doesn't mean it’s the best. Consider sumo wrestler Konishiki, who never achieved the top rank of Yokozuna.

The history of this place certainly sets it apart from Japan’s eight million other cemeteries. A monk by the name of Kukai established this remote, forested mountain plateau retreat back in 816 as a place to pursue and teach the esoteric wisdom that he picked up while in China on spring break. These teachings have come to define the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s largest.

Over time Kukai’s high-altitude hideaway grew into a bustling barefoot community of monks. In 834 Kukai pulled his last trick (for the time being) and entered into eternal meditation. That’s right, though Kobo Daishi (Kukai’s posthumous name) is entombed here he is not dead yet. He’s resting. Reminds me of a monty python skit.

According to the legend, Kobo Daishi is waiting for Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the future, to arrive and wake him up. Not one to waste time, he multi-tasks in his sleepy state, offering salvation to those who seek it. For this reason, this is THE place to spend eternity. Not everyone can end up here, though, so many will visit and leave an eyebrow hair or a fingernail. Better than nothing, I guess.

Exploring Oku-no-in

The traditional entrance to Oku-no-in is the rather understated Ichinohashi Bridge. This footbridge serves as the passageway into the sacred ground of the cemetery that lines the two-kilometer path leading gently through the impressive cedar forest and past those almost quarter-million tombstones. Many of them are centuries old. Many are covered in moss. Even for Japan, it is rare to feel like you are walking through the land as it was a millennium ago. Here, you do. Unless there are big people with big suitcases around.

And like I said earlier, the atmosphere is most serene, most striking in the early morning hours or in the hours before and after nightfall. Rainy, misty conditions take away from the experience not one bit, and may even enhance the enchantment only a cemetery can offer.

If you’re pressed for time, if you aren’t quite up for the extended stroll, or if you’re just plain lazy, you can take a town bus all the way to Oku-no-in-mae bus stop and cut your walk in half. Note though that you’ll be walking through a recently-added section of the cemetery, where all the graves are nice and new and nothing special. You’d still see Oku-no-in, but you’d be missing all the other good stuff. Which would be like, I don’t know, heading straight for the centerfold.

Along the walk from Ichinobashi, among the thousands of long-forgotten departed, are countless side paths and trails. Don’t hesitate. Go check out a few of them. Your chances of getting lost are nil. (If need be, just listen for the loud-mouth tourists.) Like these short diversions, the main path is not completely flat – you can count on a few slopes and short staircases. But these minor matters are more than fully offset by the scenery.

The Main Event

Right outside the boundaries of Oku-no-in proper sits the Gokusho Offering Hall and, just to the side, a row of Jizo, which are representations of the benevolent little deities believed to look after travelers and the souls of young and unborn children. These particular Jizo are called Mizumuke Jizo, which means you get to splash them with water while you pray for your deceased loved ones. Go ahead. It’s fun. Just remember to pretend to be serious.

The Gobyobashi Bridge takes you over into the uber-sacred grounds of Kobo Daishi’s final resting place (until he wakes up and gets back to business). This means crossing over from the land where eating, drinking and taking pictures is allowed into the land where it is not. Mind your manners. To your left (unless you are walking backwards in which case it’s on your right) you’ll have the chance to test both your strength and your fate with the Miroku Stone. This revered rock sits in a cage, surrounded by a crowd of hopefuls taking turns sticking their arms through the hole in the mesh and trying to lift it with one hand – a feat which, if accomplished, gets you lots of great existential prizes.

The Toro-do is the Lantern Hall where, predictably, there are lanterns. Ten thousand of them, actually, give or take. They are said to be eternally lit. Behind the Toro-do is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, Gobyo, where the man the legend is said to be meditating until those lanterns go out.

Ten thousand lanterns. Two hundred thousand gravestones. Eternity. All impressive numbers. Sadly, I wouldn’t have time to confirm any of them.

I had a date with thirteen Slovenian women – and their luggage.

Train or Trail? Depends on Who’s Going.

For me, Koya-san isn’t just a place. This 1,200-year-old ode to Buddhism is an experience – and a truly unique one at that. But like all unique experiences, as it is for travel itself, how you get there can make a huge difference in what you take away.

If I ever go back to Koya-san, I want to hike up again.

That, of course, will probably depend on the company I am with.

Nothing against my Slovenian girlfriends, but I think I’ll give Amos a call first.


Monday, June 24, 2019

Koya-san 2004: No Crowds, No Plans & No Digital Camera



Our train rattled and shook as we wound higher through the ancient forests that blanket the mountains of Wakayama. Through my window I watched the rough and rocky Fudotani River appear and disappear again, then turned to my friend and co-worker Amos. “You know anything about this Koya-san place, by the way?”

Amos laughed. He was the kind of guy who, when he wasn't already laughing, was getting ready to. “Yeah, I hear the illegal camping is fantastic!”

Koya-san, the mountaintop temple complex we were ostensibly heading for, was still a virtual mystery to me - one because I’d never been there before, and two because I’d done zero research on the place. But this was all par for the course. I find out a place exists and I want to go, for no other reason than I’ve never been there. The research part I prefer to do on the spot. Evidently Amos was one to do the same.

So it was in the summer of 2004 when I found myself making the clackety trip up to the roof of Japan’s Kii Peninsula with my co-worker of a month and a half.
We took the train as far as Hosokawa, getting off at a tiny wooden train station that was utterly deserted save for a couple of flying insects and some half-dried bird poop. This was, according to the map we’d picked up while switching trains in Osaka, where we would find the trailhead for a ten-kilometer stretch of woods and (maybe) isolation that would take us up to the Koya-san plateau and the temple complex founded by a monk named Kukai well over a thousand years ago.

A few hours walking through unknown woods is a fine way to sate one's appetite for mild adventure, though hiking up from Hosokawa would serve a couple of additional purposes. Cutting the train ride short and skipping the cable car to Koya-san would save us a fair bit of pocket change, which would prove helpful should we happen to find a place in Koya-san that sold food.

There was also the fact that we'd just spent another week indoors teaching English. We were like a couple of dogs that had been in the car too long. We needed to let ourselves loose for a while. This was one way we knew how.

We found what we thought was the trail and started walking.


This being 2004, I was still using a film camera. Me being me, I don’t have a clear recollection of the hike outside of the few pictures I took. This only makes me want to go do the hike again. I wonder what Amos is up to this weekend.


The trail spit us out at the western edge of the serene temple sprawl of Koya-san where we were greeted by Daimon, a 25-meter-tall orange gate with the twin Buddha-guarding demons known as Nio making furious faces from inside their cages. I'd say that after a thousand years they probably feel like a couple of cooped-up dogs too, even if they are made of wood.

Though the original, and the second, and the third and maybe the fourth Daimon had burned down over the centuries, the one standing before us now had been here for over three hundred years. Someday this one too would likely burn to the ground, but what were the chances that it would happen tonight? If there were an ATM around I would have been willing to bet someone a few yen. And if it rained? Daimon's eaves reached several meters out over its concrete base, on either side. With overnight rain possible and the chances of fire infinitesimal this seemed as good a place as any to pitch our tent.

Later. After dark. Very quietly.


Amos and I stumbled around for a few hours, gawking lazily at the various reconstructions of the age-old temples that make up this western section of Koya-san. Kondo, the massive hall built by Kukai for Buddhist rituals and dance parties, was originally constructed in 819. Since then it has burned down a lucky seven times. The present building dates from 1932.


Konpon Daito is a tall, bright orange pagoda-like affair. The second level is rounded, like a huge marshmallow being gently smushed between the square first and second story roofs.


Kongobu-ji Temple serves as the administrative center of the three thousand and whatever hundred Shingon Buddhism temples that exist in Japan. Among the many rooms of Kongobu is the Yanagi-no-ma, beautifully adorned with exquisite 16th Century paintings that have overseen, among other events, Toyotomi Hidetsugu’s ritual seppuku suicide. There is also a fantastically-detailed rock garden out back - so I hear. Amos and I didn’t see that or anything else because we elected to save the five hundred yen entrance fee since we still hadn’t eaten since our rice ball breakfast.


Also residing on the West Side of Koya-san are structures called Toto, Saito, Miedo and Fudodo, which may sound like characters in a Japanese cartoon about four puppy siblings but they are actually buildings with serious purposes though I’ll be honest and say I don’t know what.

Amos and I didn't completely bail on the historical details of Koya-san. Having saved on Kongobu-ji we decided to splurge and fork over the one hundred yen fee to enter the outer edges of Tokugawa Reidai Mausoleum.

That's right, the outer edges. Sweaty, smelly English teachers (and everyone else) are apparently prohibited from checking out the interior. As consolation we got pamphlets with nice photos of all the cool things we weren't allowed to see for ourselves.


Our pamphlet tried to tell us that this was the mausoleum for three Tokugawa shoguns, including Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan in 1600 and thereby established the Tokugawa Shogunate as the ruling clan for the next two hundred and sixty-odd years. But I distinctly remembered visiting Ieyasu’s tomb up north in Nikko in 2002. Either I don’t understand what’s going on with the mausoleums around here or the Tokugawas had a thing for building lavish and wasteful duplicates of the places they’ll rot away in. Probably both.


This dual-mausoleum issue was as far as my knowledge of Japanese history went – and it didn't even get me an answer. Amos was no help either. Naturally, to a couple of guys who hadn’t done their research on the history of all the things we’d traveled all morning and hiked three hours to see, finding food was the highlight of the afternoon.

I’d been in Japan almost three years by this point. Amos was still counting his time in Japan by weeks. So I let him do all the talking with the nice old woman at the nice old place we found. This was, in part, a strategy to hide my inability to read the menu items spelled out on the walls. But it was also good fun at Amos’s expense.


As we resumed bumming around West Koya it occurred to us: there was no one else around. This was June. Where were all the summer crowds? We were either doing something very wrong or very right.

Come early evening we did something that was probably very wrong: in the woods, just out of sight from anyone who might come by to take a look at Daimon, we set up camp for the night. No campfires, no music, and barely anything to do except watch the world get dark and hope that there were no bears around. Not that we had a single scrap of food between us to attract so much as an ant.


Morning brought the kind of misty, cloud-heavy view of the surrounding mountains that evokes fanciful images of what life was like up here a thousand years ago. Up here, it is written, there was peace and prosperity. For centuries countless students of both Jodo and Shingon Buddhism came here to pursue the intangible treasures of spirituality. At one point Koya-san was home to fifteen hundred monasteries and thousands of monks.


Then in the 16th Century an asshole named Oda Nobunaga decided he should prove his political and military worth by slaughtering a whole bunch of the monks who had been doing nothing but minding their own peaceful business. A century later the Tokugawas assumed the role of assholes and destroyed much of the spiritual and material wealth that the monks and lay priests of Koya-san enjoyed because nothing says power like sending in your armed troops to butcher a community of robed and barefoot monks.


Koya-san has since regained its peaceful allure – which in turn has been destroyed by the daily onslaught of the tourist hordes. Take heart though; there are a few ways to avoid the crush. You can make the trip up here off-season, meaning not during the summer and not during Japan’s Golden Week, a ten-day string of national holidays straddling April and May. You could also stay the night in one of the temples, which not only offers a glimpse into the monastic life but allows for peaceful, almost magical early morning and late evening walks. This I know from my second trip to Koya-san, fourteen years and an exponential increase of overseas travelers to Japan since my first.

And of course, you can do what only the most adventurous and untethered do: Get off the train at Hosokawa and start walking. I’m pretty sure there’s been no increase in this brand of travel.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

You Don't Need to be Fluent to be an Interpreter

Sometimes you don't even have to talk.

A camera-shy Igarashi-san.
I paced back and forth through the clutter of my living room, calendar in one hand, cell phone in the other. On the other end of the line was Mr. Sato, a programming director for NHK, Japan’s national television broadcasting station.

“Have you ever done any interpreting?” he asked. He sounded about my age.

Ten years prior I’d gotten on as a temporary interpreter for ESPN, at the World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo. No matter that I spent most of the week taping down loose wires and restocking the fridge in the staff area. It was, at least in name, an interpreting gig.

“Sure, I’ve done a little interpreting,” I said, ending the qualification section of this phone interview for a job I knew virtually nothing about except that it would involve either interpreting or stocking a fridge.

Miura-san, my friend from the inter-cultural community resource center here in town, was the one who initially put me in touch with NHK. “They need someone to go to Hakuba for three days,” she’d said. “Starting this Thursday.”

“Sure, I can do it,” I told her, which was a lie. I had three classes to teach on Thursday. “No problem. Please give them my phone number.”

Lying is okay if you can make it true, and I moved my Thursday classes to the following Tuesday (which is easy if you are the boss of your own school). A few hours later I got the call from Sato-san.

As he let loose with a barrage of formal phrases meant to convey the idea that he was glad I had done a little interpreting and hoped that we would be able to work well together, I envisioned myself walking alongside someone famous as a camera crew followed us around the streets and slopes of Hakuba, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. I’d do a bang-up job of interpreting. I’d crack a couple of timely jokes. I’d launch a new career as an interpreter for NHK, traveling all over Japan and further abroad and plastering my facebook page with photos of me and all my celebrity friends.

“If you can get to Hakuba Station at 1pm Thursday that would be great,” he said. “All your meals and lodging will be taken care of.” Then he paused. “…Any questions?”

He knew I had a question. He was also hoping I wouldn't ask, I could hear it in the breath he was holding.

“Yes, one question,” I said, breaking the silence and dashing Sato-san’s threadbare hopes of ending our talk three seconds ago. “Miura-san said the job paid 10,000 yen per day, is that right?” That’s a hundred bucks American, give or take. The meals and lodging better be reeeeeally good, Mr. Sato.

“Yes, that’s right. Is that acceptable?”

No.

“Yes. I guess it’s acceptable (if you’re a lunatic). Though for an entire day…for ten or twelve (or like, three) hours don’t you think it’s a little low?”

He did. I could hear him sweating. “Yes, well, it’s, you know…”

Yes, I know. It’s not your decision.

“It’s not a major issue,” I said. “I’ll do it.” Heck, I’d already rescheduled my classes. “But if there’s any way…”

In Japan, this is about as tough as negotiations get when your leverage consists of “I’ve done a little interpreting”.

“Thank you, Kebin-san. Thank you!”

“No problem. I’ll see you at Hakuba Station at 1pm on Thursday.” Cheapskate.

TV Time

Lake Kizaki, where I took my sons camping once.
And taught them to always respect a place you break into.
On Wednesday I checked the train times (you know, just for kicks) and realized I had far fewer
choices than I expected. Basically exactly two. I could get to Hakuba Station either ninety minutes early or five minutes late. This sucks when you live in a place where five minutes late is as socially awkward as five hours late.

It sucks more when you realize you never asked the person you are meeting for their phone number. Then it sucks less once you realize their number is probably on your incoming calls list.

I rarely get a phone call from anyone who is not my wife, so my new boss’s number stuck out like a beacon in the dark telephonic record of my quiet married existence.

“Sato-san, it’s Kevin…”

I think he actually snickered at me for thinking five minutes would be an issue. Was he part Chinese? “No problem, Kebin-san. I’ll tell the taxi driver you will arrive at Hakuba Station at 1:05pm.”

Among other pertinent bits of information, I assumed.

In Matsumoto there was little snow on the ground and lots of perky retirees on the train, all clad in brand-name outdoor gear and toting neat, well-worn rucksacks. By the time we reached Azumi-Oiwake, ten miles to the north, the train was almost empty and the world was covered in snow. We passed Lake Kizaki, where I once took my boys for a night of camping.

Camping in a cold driving rain because someone forgot to check the weather report.

Lucky for me and my boys someone forgot to lock one of the lakeside cabins.

The train slipped further north, over flat white lands marked by faint contours where the rice fields were hibernating. We wound through forests of snow-laden branches and three-meter snow banks. The mountains of Hakuba, wrapped in their white winter blankets, scraped and brushed the glittering blue sky.

I walked to the front of the train, then to the back, snapping pictures out the windows like a tourist. Which I was. My wife never calls to say let’s go to Hakuba.

My taxi was waiting for me outside the station. “Kebin-san?” (‘Yes.’) “Kebin-san. Hai, dohzo.” And he helped me throw my backpack into the trunk.

“Where are you going?” he asked as I dumped myself into the back seat.

I had no idea. “I have no idea. What did Sato-san say?”

“…Who?”

In Japan, being on time is important. Knowing where you are going, or anything else for that matter, is optional.

Interesting place, Japan.

I called Sato-san. No answer. Cabbie-san called his dispatcher who, I think, took a wild guess and told him to take me to the Highland Hotel, up on a hill in the opposite direction from the ski village and the ski slopes and pretty much everything else.

Except for one pretty thing.

There were two people behind the front desk, a friendly-faced man with a welcoming demeanor and a quietly, fantastically attractive woman with an intelligence in her eyes. In such a situation, who would you gravitate toward? The answer can say a lot about you.

I introduced myself as James Bond before giving my real name. “I’m with Sato-san from NHK?” Not that it was a question but it came out like one.

Hypnotizing me with her dark demure eyes, this young woman (who had already made me forget where I was) told me I couldn’t check in until 3pm but she’d absolutely love to keep my backpack for me in the meantime. And I would absolutely love to stand here and talk to you forever in the meantime. Alas, our conversational rapport would end after her well-rehearsed explanation about the dining hall, the hotel onsen and the Wi-Fi password.

As if on cue Sato-san called me, allowing my dark-eyed angel to escape.

“I’ll be there in a little while,” he said. Which was fine. He probably had a lot to do.

“I’ll be here in the lobby,” I replied. As if there were anywhere else to go.
The view from the lobby of the Highland Hotel is almost enough to make you forget about the shitty Wi-Fi.

The spacious lobby was filled with rows of boxy, cloth-upholstered chairs that were somehow both uncomfortable and sleep-inducing. Over in one corner an angular wooden bench ran three quarters around the sunken fire pit – which for the moment was more a sunken dead ash pit. The far wall was comprised entirely of windows, creating a striking panorama of the mountains. I drank in the scenery and glanced at my phone, growing increasingly impatient at the Wi-Fi that wouldn't connect. How was I going to post my pictures of the train ride here on facebook before falling asleep in my chair?

I double-checked the password with the friendly-looking guy. (Love Eyes wasn't around). It still didn't work. He had no explanation. I wandered off, plying the hallways until I found the onsen (a luxury I’d indulge in later) and the dining hall (a growing necessity as the hotel had nothing to offer besides souvenir cookies from the gift shop and overpriced beer from the vending machines).

Back at reception my angel had been replaced by a friendly girl with average eyes who was no better than the guy at figuring out the Wi-Fi. I tried to explain that my friends in the U.S. (most of whom were asleep) needed to see the photos I took from the train. She smiled and nodded and uttered a few pat niceties before inviting me to go relax in the lobby or somewhere else not near her.

Back in the lobby I gazed out at the mountains. I checked the time. I cursed the Wi-Fi and dozed off and woke to a stream of high school students flowing by, dropping their bags and skis in a pile at the bottom of a cordoned-off staircase while very politely cursing the Wi-Fi. After cursing the Wi-Fi myself once again (not nearly as politely) I got back to gazing at the mountains.

At 3:15 Friendly Girl came over to tell me my room was ready. I grabbed my bag from Friendly Guy (where the hell was my angel?) and, after a brief struggle with my room key, dropped my bag on the near bed and fired up some complimentary tea.

Good thing our train had snow tires..
My room had two twin beds and a fantastic view of the mountains that I’d already counted a hundred times (always getting a different number). I took off my socks and stretched out on the bed against the wall. My interest in the view began waning. I turned the TV on, flipped through all six channels and shut the thing off. I scrolled through the pictures I took on the train. Entirely out of boredom I tried the Wi-Fi.

It shot through my Android like lightning.

I posted my favorite shots to facebook and sipped my tea.

My post got one like in thirty minutes.

At 4:00 I went back out to the lobby. Two men possibly about my age but not nearly as svelte sat drinking Asahi Super Dry out of 500mL cans.

“Haya goin’?” I said.

This, a friend once told me, was how Australian people greeted each other. More recently another friend had told me that in Hakuba there were more Australians than Japanese.

“You lost?” one of them asked. Australians are so endearing.

“Nope, just waiting for my guy.”

They said nothing. I think they thought I was gay.

The Wi-Fi had disappeared again. Outside of the hotel there really was nowhere to go. I’ll qualify that by saying there was nowhere within a few minutes’ walk. And I didn't want to wander too far and have to make a mad dash back to the hotel when Sato-san finally called. Assuming he remembered he’d asked me to be here.

He did remember. At 5:20pm. “We’re on our way,” he said, adding a polite apology for taking so long. I went outside to wait, no idea what Sato-san looked like and still no idea what was going on that necessitated an interpreter.

As I waited, a few people came and went. I glanced at each of them, with a look that I hoped could be construed as both “Hello, stranger” and “Hello Sato-san.”

Sato-san got more of a Hello Stranger look. He was a lot younger than I expected. In the next minute I went from hours of doing nothing to ten minutes of sitting in a big passenger van with six Japanese people and a load of equipment straight out of an ESPN trailer except there was no fridge. As we swerved along the pavement between the parallel snowdrifts I tried to glean from their scant conversation a clue of what was going on.

What was going on was a television show called  “Chiisana Tabi” (‘Little Trip’) that aired every Sunday morning. I had to admit to Sato-san, the director of the show, Yamada-san, the on-air hostess of the show, and all the others involved that I’d never seen it.

“But I’d like to check it out,” I added quickly. “I love visiting new places.”

Japanese people are very practiced at being polite while remaining utterly emotionless.
The sign up there basically says 'Don't Touch! This thing is frigging ancient
and will disintegrate under the slightest bit of pressure from your dirty gaijin paws."

The Gig Begins

There seemed no gadding about with celebrities in my immediate future, but hanging out with a camera crew is preferable to going home and folding the laundry so I decided to stick with them as we rolled through the narrow streets of the ski village. Our first stop: the front lobby/common area of a funky, richly-decorated Japanese-style hostel. Keeping watch over the front entrance were two samurai suits of armor. Complete with helmets and face masks, they sat upright on boxes and stared across the room with blank, hollow eyes. They seemed barely big enough for my nine-year-old son.

Behind them hung a white cloth covered with vertical lines of smeary, indecipherable Japanese writing. Above their helmets and all over the sitting room behind them the place looked like a museum for all things traditional Japan: paper lanterns, swords in glass casing, and origami in a dozen forms; statues of smiling, snarling creatures; prints of woodblock scenes of Edo Era life; silk cloth painted with wispy flowers and cranes and pine trees; more cryptic writing; and, of course, a coffee maker.

At a table a white guy in a white t-shirt sat in front of a spread of old newspapers and new white paper. In his hand was a calligraphy brush, tip dripping with black ink. He talked quietly and moved hesitantly as the Japanese woman looking over his shoulder guided his hand, coaxing out the complex Chinese character for ‘affectionate’.

He rolled his wary eyes back and forth, tossing out an occasional and quiet Japanese phrase. I assumed he was living and working in Japan as an English teacher. I thought back to when I was a newbie here, when my Japanese could hardly suck more. And I wondered why, in all the years I’d been here, I’d never learned how to write the Chinese character for affectionate.

While Sato-san and the camera crew held a whispering conversation about what the hell they were actually doing there I traded words with the white guy. Turns out he studied Japanese for a semester up north about ten years ago, and though this was his first time back since then his Japanese was easily good enough to make me useless.

I slowly sank into the background.

For half an hour he and two of his buddies, under the grandmotherly guidance of their instructor, tried their hand at writing their names in Chinese. For the next thirty or forty minutes a couple of their female friends giggled their way through a kimono-wearing session while two other guys from the group tried on the samurai armor, all the while arguing about who looked like Tom Cruise more. (It was a tie for last place.) And all the while I did nothing. For nearly two hours my only jobs were to stay out of camera shot and not fall asleep.

Okay, Sato-san did ask me to ask one girl if she had a boyfriend (strictly for programming purposes he said), and then later asked me to interview that same girl about her stay there at the Japanese hostel. Feeling like a dog finally let out of its cage I took off running with all kinds of questions, even as Sato-san slid behind the girl and began slicing his neck with his finger at me.

Sato-san wouldn’t ask me to do another interview the rest of the weekend.

But he would let me eat and sleep.

As we rolled back through the dark village Sato-san dialed up our hotel and asked for the manager. “We’re running a little late,” he said. Late for what I didn't know. Sato-boy had just told me we were done for the day. Not that I minded. Better to hang out in a hotel lobby doing nothing on my butt than hang around a hostel doing nothing on my feet.

Sato-director apologized again and said we’d be there soon. Then he told our van driver to head for the convenience store.

Is this what TV crews do when they’re running late? Stop at a convenience store? How many times did they come here in those four hours I was cursing the Wi-Fi and falling asleep in the hotel lobby?

We’d be eating dinner at the hotel, so there could only be one reason for this pit stop as far as I could imagine.

Beer!

It was all I could do to not jump out of the van ahead of everyone else and lead them like the Pie-eyed Piper to the coolers at the back. If this weren’t my first day on the job I might have. Instead I’d let Sato-san lead everyone over to the…

…cigarette case.

Sato-sober and a couple of the others stood outside, over near the recycling bins, chatting and blowing smoke like that “sorry we’re running late” phone call never even happened.

At the hotel I’d discover why Sato-smoker had made that phone call. The dining hall closed at eight, and if we missed dinner the crew might rise up against Sato-slow in a show of actual emotion. As it was, everyone maintained their flat-lining heartbeats and we filed in the half-closed door. The staff were eminently gracious as we descended like vultures on the remaining scraps scattered about the fourteen tables of entrees, rice, soups, side dishes, desserts and more entrees. Hunched over our plates at a long table in one corner of the room, we watched them as they began bringing more platters of scraps right to us. I say scraps, though this would be like saying the tails are the scraps of a tray of lobsters.

As our twenty-minute gorgefest wound down Sato-sushi-lover made an announcement.

“Meeting at 9pm in my room.”

For close to an hour I sat on one of my beds, fighting off my food coma, waiting for meeting time to roll around. At 8:55 I knocked on Sato-san’s door.

“Kebin-san! I’m sorry, you really don’t have to be here. Get a good night’s sleep and we’ll see you at breakfast. Come at 7am. Thank you for all your hard work today.”

Funny place, Japan.

With the walk to Sato-san’s room my food coma went into remission. So I was primed and ready for the second big event of the evening: bathing naked with strangers.

I generally don’t care for baths. I think they’re a waste of time. In and out of the shower leaves more time for writing inane blog posts and checking the news to see how much further our country has gone down the toilet in the last few hours. But a Japanese onsen is in no conceivable way a waste of time, and is even better than the occasional positive news story showcasing our country’s resilient buoyancy in the face of the big flush.

The main bath was deserted as a Chic-Fil-A stand at a gay pride picnic. The outdoor pool, long and stone-lined, was populated with two Japanese guys and me. I sat away from them, passively taking in their conversation and staring out at the black void beyond the miniature snowdrifts in front of me. Snow was falling in light flurries all around, passing the wisps of steam from the water as they descended. A mile away and two thousand meters up were those beautiful mountains, blanketed in snow and, now, darkness. I wanted to go to them. I wanted to walk in that black cold world, just for a while.

Sitting outside in that hot spring I felt like an animal must feel, warm despite the raw, cold wild. Even as I stood up, the 42-degree water only reaching my knees, I felt at home. I felt comfortable. No, more than that. I felt free. Strong. Like I could make more of an impact on this world than I ever before thought possible. I wanted to stay like that forever, standing naked out in the cold. Alive. Immune. Immortal.

Alas, the warmth and the strength I was feeling wouldn't last. Plus I didn't want the Japanese guys over there to think I was trying to show off.

For all I did and didn't do on this day, I slept like a wholly contented baby.
The view from my room at the Highland Hotel. On a day it isn't raining.

Day Two

Of course, even contented babies tend to wake up in the middle of the night. Especially when they’re afraid of oversleeping. It may be the fear of disappointing someone who has put their trust in me that keeps me awake on nights like this, but more likely it’s just a fear of missing the breakfast buffet.

We piled into the van at 7:30. Of course when I say ‘We’ I mean ‘I’. The others were already in their seats waiting. No one was talking much. They were all too busy looking out at the rain.

Yes, the ski capital of central Japan. Getting pounded with rain. In February.

Our first stop of the day was the same hostel I stood around in for two hours yesterday. Sato-director needed to film that all-important moment when the Australians said their good-byes to Mrs. Igarashi, the tiny, perky owner of this endearing repository of Japanese culture and hospitality.

Japanese people love long, drawn-out good-byes, at least on television. Today’s farewell would be a solid testament to that, as Sato-san had our Aussie friends perform their adieu routine twice, once with the film crew up close and once with them capturing the moment from fifteen yards away. Useless though it was for me to be anywhere near the action, I stood outside in the drizzle with the rest of my temporary colleagues. Which is a solid testament to my commitment to the Wa that holds this society together, even in the rain.

An Aussie I didn't remember seeing the previous evening came jogging around the corner and down the narrow street. “Come on, guys, the line for the bus is getting pretty long.”

Aussies gone, we went back inside. That takes care of that, I thought.

Wrong. We would spend another two hours there, Yamada-san prepping Mrs. Igarashi for an interview, then Mrs. Igarashi prepping herself for her interview, then the interview, then an inexplicable forty-five minutes of the crew filming Mrs. Igarashi as she sat at the table in the common area and read through a shoebox full of letters and notes from people who have stayed at her hostel over the years.

Forty. Five. Minutes.

I couldn't watch. So I walked off, to look around at the relics and artifacts that in sum were worthy of a modest admission fee. On the wall in the hallway, among a series of framed photos of generations past, hung a display of hair accessories that Mrs. Igarashi’s mother wore for her wedding ceremony sixty-five years prior. On the landing of the red-carpeted stairwell was a wooden chest from the end of the Edo Era (meaning before 1868). A chat with Mr. Igarashi at the office window in the lobby brought me face to face with a notebook one of the Igarashi ancestors used a full 200 years ago for a series of pilgrimages to the various mountain temples in the area. I held this notebook with nervous hands – and put it down so I wouldn't mar it with my sweaty fingerprints. This was the kind of thing Sato-san should have been focusing on, not whether or not a certain Australian girl had a boyfriend.

Despite our drawn-out stay at the Igarashi Inn, we still had a couple of hours to kill before our next scheduled stop. “Let’s go back to our rooms and relax,” Sato-slow suggested.

Even counting only my waking hours I was now spending more time in the hotel than out of it. The rain stopped and I went for a walk, down the hill to the icy river, then up the hill to a few sites of indigenous religious interest. I had another cup of green tea in my room. I sat in the lobby because sitting in a hotel room in the middle of the day feels weird to me, no matter what the weather. I took a walk up to the dining hall, just to see if anything was going on.

There wasn't. Lunch would be had at the convenience store. From there we’d head for the Hakuba Village bus terminal and visitor center. Finally? A chance to interpret for some interviews with a few visitors from abroad?

Nope. Today, half a dozen students from the local high school would be there passing out questionnaires and asking foreigners a few predetermined questions. My job would be to follow the camera crew and ask everyone (after being interviewed) if they had any objections to possibly appearing on Japanese TV.

One woman did. Good thing I was there.

200 year old notebook. Seriously.
The rain outside alternated between steady and pounding. Every twenty minutes another bus would pull up outside, first dumping off a puddle of snowboard-toting Australians who didn't seem to mind their shitty luck, then taking on a load of snowboard-toting Aussies who couldn't believe theirs.

My feet began to ache from all the standing around.

We didn't get out of there until almost 6:30. If you have any questions about the Hakuba Village bus terminal and visitor center fire away.

And that was it for the day…except for another stop at the convenience store. Were the guys out of cigarettes already? I hadn’t seen any of them smoke a single butt all day. Were we going to come to our collective senses and grab a few six-packs?

No one so much as glanced at those coolers back there, and I decided a career with NHK just wasn't for me.

On the way back to the hotel a couple of the crew felt inspired enough to have a conversation with me. Too bad for them their topic of choice was Trump. I have a hard enough time explaining the guy in English, forget about making sense of him to anyone in Japanese.

We had ample time for dinner tonight. Again I gorged myself silly. Only my third meal here and I could feel myself gaining weight. I wondered if the rest of these guys, having been filming here in Hakuba for a week already, had had to buy larger pants.

Again I was excused from Sato-san’s evening meeting. Again he thanked me for all my hard work and invited me to get some rest. I thanked him graciously, then stayed behind as everyone left so I could hit the coffee machine and the dessert rack. Then I asked one of the staff where I might be able to buy some bigger pants.

DAY THREE

Today, Sato-san had mentioned, we’d be outside a lot. So after breakfast I emptied my backpack on my bed and put on most of the clothing I brought: three layers of shirts; my rad snowboarding jacket; full-length cycling lycra leg things on underneath my thick, furry-on-the-inside snow pants; neck warmer, headband to cover the ears, and double-layer gloves. Bring on the sub-zero ski slopes of Hakuba, baby, I’m ready.

The van was a flipping oven.

We reached the slopes about 7:45. We reached one of the slopes anyway – Hakuba has seven different areas to ski. Looking around at the barren snowy landscape, it seemed we’d picked the slope people come to after the good ones get too crowded.

We walked around the parking area and hung out on the van in turns, getting cold and hot and cold and hot. At 8:15 Sato-san took a walk down to the next ski lift, a couple hundred meters away. By 8:30 we were all down there, scoping out our interview prey among the slowly increasing masses of mostly Australian folk.

I can hear the anticipation dripping from your eyeballs.

Yes! I got to do something! I got to ask people if they had a few minutes to spare for an interview. To those who said yes, I gave a briefing of the questions Yamada-san would be asking them, and then prepped them on the kinds of responses Sato-slick had already decided he wanted.

“Yeah, all right. No worries,” was the general response. Aussies are basically like that.
Stalking our interview prey.

One crucial element of the choreographed routine involved the interviewees using the term “J-pow” in their answers to Yamada-san’s questions. According to Sato-snow, J-pow was short for Japanese Powder, and was the term every Australian used to describe the wonderfully light and fluffy snow that fell on Hakuba each winter.

Most of the Australians we talked to had never heard the word.

I told them the term had more oomph if they used it while chucking handfuls of snow at each other on camera.

Sato-san loved it. I could feel my pay increasing.

After a couple hours of flying J-pow we needed to head for the slopes of Tsugaike, where one of the high school students from yesterday’s questionnaire session was working.

Tsugaike is on a completely different mountain from the Aussie-fest we’d just departed. As such, there were enough Japanese people on the slopes to make me remember we were in Japan. We rode a gondola with a few of them halfway up the mountain and did our best not to get plowed over by any wayward skiers as we trekked over to a mostly-empty cafeteria hall.

The lunch crowd hadn’t begun filtering in yet, and the few who were there were Japanese and therefore unqualified to give an interesting interview. Behind the counter was our girl from yesterday, looking pale and quite unhappy underneath a row of back-lit signs for ramen, fried chicken rice bowls and platters of curry and rice. Hopefully she’d look a bit more camera-ready when the Australian hordes descended. We were there, after all, to film her in action, to show everyone watching NHK all across Japan that it was indeed possible to interact with foreigners without turning pale and unhappy.

The manager of the place pointed us to the second floor, which was more like a loft, for Japanese people who didn't want to interact with foreigners during lunch. In one corner was a long counter (which might have reminded me of a bar if I could remember what beer was). Behind this unused counter was where we stashed all the equipment – and clothing – we didn't need for the moment. Even without any equipment, my pile was bigger than anyone else’s.

By the time the lunch crowd started showing up our feature girl had gone downstairs to a staff room, to sit on a chair and hang her head between her knees. So much for the country no longer looking pale and unhappy.

But look! Aussies! I jumped into action.

“Excuse me, guys? I’m with the camera crew, are you all okay with possibly appearing on a TV show here in Japan?”

None of them had any problem. A couple of them put on a show. Managing not to curse, I might add. Which for an Aussie is pretty impressive.
Done with the dining hall.

Back to the gondola and down the mountain, back through the ski village to a parking lot where we’d wait for our van. I wanted to ask Sato-son what was next on the agenda. But I didn't, fearing some weird lost-in-translation situation that would make me sound like I just wanted to get out of there.

Come to think of it, a little lost-in-translation would have come in handy. I actually was ready to get out of there. There would be no strolling around Hakuba with anyone famous. The work wasn't easy so much as stultifying. And while Sato-san and his crew were great (if quiet) people and being out there among the mountains of Hakuba was not the worst place I could find myself on any given day, this gig simply was not going to get any more interesting.

Plus I wasn't going to get any more free meals at the hotel.

So I was rather relieved when Sato-san, after flipping through his multi-page agenda, told me that they would be okay without my services from here on out.

“We will bring you to the hotel, you can get your bag, and the staff will call a taxi for you.”

Miss Deep Eyes would call a taxi for me, I hoped.

Before I jumped off the NHK van Sato-boss handed me a sheet of paper; a form that, when filled in, would tell someone in a dark cubicle back at NHK Headquarters how much money to transfer to my bank account. So far nothing was filled out.

“Just sign here and here. Oh and here.”

Even in Japan, these sound like ominous words.

The entire camera crew, to a man, had not shown nearly as much life these past 48 hours as they did when it was time to tell me good-bye. “Great working with you, hope we get to do it again!”

Right. They’d probably already forgotten my name.

Which was fine, I’d already forgotten theirs too.

Two weeks later I got a letter from Sato-san, asking me to write my name and address on an enclosed form and send it back to him. Ten days after that I got another letter, asking me to fill out the same form a little differently and send that back to him too. Middle of the next month I got a bank transfer notice from NHK.

Sato-sama had decided to give me a raise.

“For all your hard work,” he said in a note at the bottom.

Funny country, Japan.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Categorical Bullshit! On...Jeopardy!

Playing the Pro


And now...Back...To…Jeopardy!

Trebek: I believe it's Kevin's turn to go first?
 
Contestant: I’ll take Bullshit Writers for $200, Alex.
 
Normally we don't allow swearing on our show, but considering the category, let's sling some shit, shall we?
 
Trebek: Okay, here’s your answer. ‘It’s how 95% of today’s travel writers do their travel research.’

Contestant; What is…Google?

Trebek: Right you are, Kevin. You pick again.

Contestant: I think I’ll stick with Bullshit for $400, Alex.


Contestant: Who is Jean Folger?

Trebek: Right again! You’re on a roll.

Contestant: Gotta go with what I know. Bullshit Writers for $600 please.

Trebek: For $600 and a share of the lead. This city was recently ranked by a writer who has never been there as one of Japan’s best places to retire, despite the snot-freezing winters that last six months and the biggest attractions being skiing, getting drunk in Susukino and, in February, battling the 2 million people who descend on the annual Snow Festival.


Contestant: (chuckling) Ah yes, I know it well. What is Sapporo?

Trebek: Right you are! That takes you to $5400 and that takes us to our next break. But before that, I’d like to ask Kevin about his seeming expertise on the subject of bullshit writers. Kevin, what about that?

Contestant: Well Alex, I’m from New Jersey so I was introduced to bullshit at a pretty early age. Later on I decided to pursue a career in writing and…well, let’s just say there’s bullshit everywhere.

Trebek: And Jean Folger. What do you know about her?

You, my good man, are a warrior of truth.
Contestant: Actually nothing, Alex, except that she wrote that bullshit article on retiring in Japan.

Trebek: Yes, I’m ashamed to admit I wouldn’t have gotten that question correct. But you did it! Can you expound on the article a little bit for us?

Contestant: Sure can, Alex. It’s a classic case of search engine writing, the woman clearly has little if any experience with Japan, spouting off facts that read like a plagiarized Wikipedia extract.

Trebek: That’s quite an indictment.

Contestant: You have no idea. First off, Fukuoka? One of Newsweek’s ‘10 Most Dynamic Cities’, she says. In (ahem) 2006. Nine years ago – which, granted, when you’re 65 probably seems like the blink of an eye.

Trebek: I wouldn’t know. (Laughter from the audience.)

Contestant: Yes you would. (Surprised, high-pitched laughter from the audience.) Now sure, Monocle ranked Fukuoka 10th in the World in Livability in 2014, but they call Fukuoka, population 1.5 million, a small city. It’s safe to assume these people can’t even Google properly.

Trebek: You’ve been there I take it?

Contestant: Yes I have. It’s great when you’re energetic and virile, but multiply Miami by four, then add yellow sand dust and pollution blowing in from China. That’s Fukuoka. And here’s a look at all that ‘green space’ Jean talks about. Yes, all that wrinkly green space, for all the mountain climbing a retiree desires.

Fukuoka, tinted with the colorful air blowing in from China.
Trebek: …Interesting. What other cities does she mention?

Contestant: Kyoto’s next – on her list as well as on Wikipedia’s. Can’t disparage Kyoto although for all its cultural richness it’s still dense and urban and, as Wikipedia and Jean both fail to mention, fantastically humid in the summer. Your average wicker couch potato retiree from the States would be on a plane to Palm Springs by the 4th of July.

Trebek: No Palm Springs in Japan? (smile, no laughter)

Contestant: Not that Jean would know about. Instead she tells us to head for Hokkaido, Japan’s equivalent of Alaska.

Trebek: Some retirees would probably love Alaska.

Contestant: Name one.

Trebek:

Contestant: You plan on returning home to Ontario when you retire?

Trebek: So (clears throat), what else can you tell us, Kevin? Does Okinawa show up on the list? I was there in 2007, I really loved the people.
 
Retire to Okinawa? Nah, I really think you'd enjoy huge and crowded Tokyo...
 
Contestant: No, no Okinawa. Apparently Jean doesn’t think retirees would enjoy the tropical climate, the old Ryukyu culture and the laid-back island atmosphere. Instead she tells the discerning would-be expat retiree to consider “overwhelmingly huge and crowded” Tokyo for, among other things, the nightlife of Shinjuku and an extensive live music scene. Plus Tokyo’s central location makes the rest of Japan accessible “if Tokyo doesn’t have what you’re looking for”. If Tokyo doesn’t have…?Helloooo! Jeeeean! Wikipedia, er, I mean you, just told us Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, and that we would never run out of things to do. Look, Google-head, if Tokyo doesn’t have what you are looking for then you don’t belong in Tokyo.

Trebek: That makes a lot of sense. Okay, we’ve got just enough time for one more, Kevin.

Contestant: And I’ve got just enough gastric juices for one more, Alex. Yokohama, Jean’s final frontier of Japanese retirement, is “home to numerous museums, galleries, traditional Japanese gardens, parks and the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, which holds dozens of shops, restaurants, art galleries, and a 300-seat performance center.” I’ll tell you what, if this is what retirees want then why isn’t everyone retiring to Los Angeles?

Trebek: Maybe more people should. (confrontational stare)

Contestant: Like you?

Trebek: Well, I would, except I do have a Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society so I have a whole slew of places I’m considering retiring to.

Contestant: Any in Japan?

Trebek: No, actually. Do you have any suggestions?

Contestant: Invite me up to your ranch in Creston and I’ll tell you anything you want to know – about places I’ve actually been to, of course.
 
Yes, tell those gaijin they can go live in Tokyo.

Trebek: Deal. Okay, let’s get back to our match! Kevin, you still have control of the board.

Contestant: I’ll take Bullshit Writers for $800, Alex.

Trebek: Answer – (Star Wars Storm Trooper laser gun sound effects) – is our first Daily Double of the round! Kevin, how much would you like to wager?

Contestant: I’ll bet all of it, Alex.

Trebek: Okay, here’s the answer for a very confident Kevin. This letter-perfect lady’s 1987 autobiography already has 12 reviews on Amazon. She’s also the star of the straight-to-video ‘Goddess of Love’.

Contestant: Who is Vanna White?

Trebek: (to the audience’s thunderous applause) That is absolutely correct, you now have $10,800 and you’re still in control.

Contestant: Let’s finish it off. Bullshit Writers for $1,000.

Trebek: Okay, for one thousand and a clean sweep of Bullshit Writers, here’s your answer. This American-born expat now living in Japan believes, inexplicably, that his humor has a place in the blogosphere, compelling him to persist with his blog ‘All Over the Road’…

Note: In the course of writing this piece I learned a few things about Alex Trebek - via Wikipedia of course. And I now have even more respect for him. Even though he is Canadian.