Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Memoirs of a Kamikaze: The Story of One Who Survived

I thought I knew, in a general sense, who the Kamikaze pilots were. This tiny slice of my worldview went up in flames when I saw Memoirs of a Kamikaze on the shelf at the main library in Matsumoto, Japan.

On the cover was an image that didn’t fit at all my idea of what a kamikaze fighter would look like. He was just a kid; a child, dressed up like a World War II pilot for Halloween. He was probably too young to get a driver’s license.

This was not the face of a suicide bomber. This was a kid trying to figure out where he was and how he got there, and what the hell was going to happen to him.

His name is Kazuo Odachi. He joined the Imperial Japanese Navy at 16 as a pilot trainee. His story is worth telling.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

On Getting Off To a Good Start

It's a commonly-heard sentiment. "Let's get off to a good start." On this project. This assignment. In this game. Monday morning. Hit the ground running and all that.

The senitment grows louder, becomes more encompassing as December comes to a close and January enters with all the significance we decide to throw at it. But what does getting the New Year off to a good start mean?

Toasting the past year's successes and good times? Sure.

Reflecting on failures and disappointments? Yep.

Setting new goals? You bet.

For many of us it's all of these things. For me it's also a time to try to step away from these same things.

So I'm glad my wife grew up in the countryside.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Choosing a Japanese Name: The First Word in a Child's Life Story

A couple of years ago I mused out loud about how I thought my son's name fit him perfectly. Written 誠士 in Japanese, it means “sincere gentleman”.

Note that this does not necessarily mean “cordial”. Or “gracious”. Or “bothers to say good morning”.

My wife and I struggled for months to come up with a name for him. I was leaning toward ‘Kai’ which, written as , means ocean. I kind of liked the meaning. I thought maybe it would plant a love in him for the great outdoors. Mostly though I just liked the way it sounded.

My wife didn’t like it any of it.

We eventually settled on the phonetic version of his name. From there we had to navigate the deeply deliberative process of deciding which characters to use.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Norikura Highlands: Lava Flows, Waterfalls and Not Enough Sleep

If I’d known Norikura was a potentially active volcano I would have never taken my family camping up there.

I would have let them go by themselves.

What does “potentially active” even mean? Norikura’s highest peak, Ken-ga-mine, was formed by a volcanic eruption 9,600 years ago (as of last Tuesday). It was somewhat reformed in a second big burp 400 years later. Ebisu-dake, a bit to the north, is said to be the child of an eruption from 2,000 years ago.

Going by the math we’ve got another five millennia of dormancy to enjoy. But some wise guy loses his calculator and starts making wild claims on Wikipedia and there I am lying awake all night in the tent. 

Not that I ever get much sleep in a plastic 7’ x 7’ dome with three kids and a snoring wife.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

2020 Olympic Torch Relay: Japan Brings Multiple Torches, Forgets to Bring the Olympic Spirit


I’m the kind of dad who will take the family on a month-long road trip and then ruin it with a bunch of rules like “No screaming back there!” (because I don’t want to crash); “The driver picks the music!” (because I don’t want to go insane); and “Hey, no junk food before lunch!” (unless you give half to the driver).

But even up in Akita, in Japan’s pretty-far north, the summer days can be blistering hot by 11am. And after a couple hours cramped in the back seat with no escape from dad’s previous-century music, my kids were likely to start screaming at each other.

I pulled into a convenience store parking lot and said “Nobody wants ice-cream, right?” or something equally corny. The kids exploded out of the car and ran for the air conditioning and the ice-cream coolers. My wife almost beat them there. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her run so fast.

I stayed outside, absorbed in the poster in the window.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Yakushima Island: A Voyage of Choices & Luck

What a quirk of human nature that we dream of faraway places yet fail to go out and take in parts of the world closest to us. I'm from New Jersey. Not a big place in relative terms. Yet in the course of traveling a good bit of the world there remains plenty for me to explore in my own home state.

I'm similarly guilty regarding my eight years in Washington, DC and my subsequent five years in Colorado. Not that I didn't get out. It was just that when it came time to leave I felt like I still had unfinished business.

Things changed in 2001. I signed up for a charity bike ride in Alaska and, remembering I had no bike, bought one. At the end of the ride I shipped that bike to Fukushima, Japan. I met up with it a few weeks later in this brand new home of mine and immediately set out to see every town, mountain and river on the map of Japan hanging on the western wall of my shoebox apartment.

Fast forward to 2015: in a fortuitous turn of events I snagged a side gig as a tour guide, leading groups of Slovenians by train and bus from Nagasaki to Tokyo and a dozen cities in between. The next year, in  a sleepy bed and breakfast at the bottom of the Izu Peninsula I picked up a local magazine and muddled through an article about a guy in the area who ran a cycling tour operation. Back home I spent an hour and a half pecking out an email in Japanese, asking him if he was looking for extra hands.

He was.

Since then I've had opportunity to go on a dozen cycling tours through the beautiful, scarcely-traveled Japanese countryside and on some of the archipelago's furthest-flung islands, including the one called Yakushima.

Luck comes in the course of the choices we make.

In 2004 I was considering spending my two-week winter vacation cycling to Yakushima from my place in Osaka. The trip would have involved several ferries and, now that I think about it, considerably more than two weeks. For better or for worse, I opted instead to go back to Fukushima and ask my girlfriend's father for his permission to marry his daughter.

She would, a few years later, introduce me to a Slovenian guy who owned a tour guide company.

Guiding with that gent brought me to Yakushima in two ways. The experience I gained with him got me the cycling tour gig, through which I've been able to go to Yakushima three times on two different tours. Tasked with booking hotels for our Slovenian guests, I became friends with some hotel owners who invited me to spend this past winter break working at their recently-acquired hotel on Yakushima.

Cycling tours, I have to say, are infinitely more fun than working in a hotel.

I'm sure I'd still be dreaming of Yakushima if it weren't for the work that fell into my lap. Same with Rishiri Island way up north, part of a cycling tour of Hokkaido. Most visitors to Japan don't make it to the far ends of the country. Heck, most Japanese never see these places.

Moving to Japan back in 2001 was a conscious decision. But even that was helped along by my luck in finding, quite accidentally, an Internet ad for a job teaching English in Japan - a discovery I would not have made if the poor customer service rep on the other end of the line hadn't given into my pleadings for one more free trial month of dial-up AOL.

Not knowing what life in Japan would bring only added to the allure of the place. Not knowing how long I'd be sticking around, I hit the road as soon as I'd put my bike back together.

We make our choices. Then we do our best with what they bring.

The picture at the top of this post was taken from the lobby of the Yakushima hotel where I worked. The picture below shows the incongruous snows of sub-tropical Yakushima and 60-meter Senpiro Falls. Note that sixty meters is about two hundred feet, the approximate height of a 20-story building.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Deciphering Japan's Side Street Mysteries: Tsuki-Izumi Shrine

I'm trying to come up with a lofty philosophical phrase to encapsulate what I saw the other day. 

And I am failing miserably.

Along one of Matsumoto's million back streets is a shrine that manages to look like a dolled-up woman waiting nervously for her date to show. I've biked past this shrine at least a hundred times, in each direction, cycling to and from downtown, but until last week I never once stopped or even slowed down to check it out.

It stands in the shadows, set behind a remarkable tree whose stout, gnarled trunk makes it look like something out of a Grimm Brothers tale - or, for those living in this century, a Harry Potter movie. Out front a vermillion-painted bridge arches gracefully over a small cement pond. A smooth stone walkway leads to a stone torii gate, much more Disney than gruesome fairy tale. A short set of stairs leads to a lacquered donation box and the latticed doors of this one-room god-apartment.

Next to that ancient, lordly tree it all looks new and neat and utterly uninspiring.

Years ago, when I was much more a stranger in this strangely wonderful land, I would have stopped at this shrine the first time I noticed it. I would have gazed in stupid awe, not knowing what any of it meant but loving it all just the same. The new and the strange; the mysterious and unknown; this was what I'd come here for.

In the past two decades I've seen countless gates and vermillion bridges and sacred structures big and small, and have yet to grow tired of any of it. Yet there's no denying the dullness that familiarity breeds. Gazing in stupid awe can get old.

Thanks to a semi-career as a tour guide, I've taken to trying to figure things out.

With a bit of time and mental sweat I can usually figure out the elegant Japanese brush strokes telling the story of the shrine (or temple or stone or tree) standing timelessly before me. It turns out that this nondescript little shrine, sitting in the shade of old man tree, has been here, in one form or another, since at least the 9th Century.

It is actually not known when Tsuki-izumi Jinja was established. The earliest mention of it is in the "Sandai Jitsuroku" written in the 5th year of the Gangyo Era (881AD). Back then this shrine was apparently a much larger and more elaborate affair, used for rituals and ceremonial purposes and, possibly, as a place to meet your date. The shrine stood within a large forest, near a natural spring that has flowed continuously up from its subterranean source for over a millennium.

We are further told that for a time government roads (whatever that may mean) were built to pass by this shrine. Common folk as well came here to pray, and to avail themselves of the eternally-flowing water. The deity of the spring waters, Gyoi-no-kami (御井の神), is, predictably, one of the gods enshrined here in Tsuki-izumi Jinja.

You can find sparkling clean spring water flowing up from underground all over downtown Matsumoto. The water here, though, might have been something special as it was this part of town that was named Shimizu (清水), meaning 'pure water'.

That big, gnarled old tree, by the way, is a keyaki (欅), or Zelkova tree. It measures 20 meters tall, is a Matsumoto City Special Natural Monument, and looks like it has been around about as long as the shrine itself. Unfortunately the sign doesn't give any indication. As a sort of consolation there is the following sentiment:

「まだ知らぬ人を恋うれば信濃なる清水の里に袖ぞぬれける」which means, I think, "If you fall in love with someone you have not yet met you'll wet your sleeves (i.e. wipe your tears on your sleeves) in Shimizu."

Which is certainly not the lofty philosophical phrase I am looking for. But it does encapsulate the sense that no matter how long I live here, and how many shrines I visit, no matter how many signs I read or how much I might eventually learn, there will always be that element of mystery here, leaving me to gaze forever in stupid, wonderful awe.