Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mt. Fuji

On the last bus from Tokyo to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji, a subdued nervous excitement traveled down the aisles, through the seats. Plastic wrappers crackled in the silence as we ate 7-11 snacks, fervently, putting a little extra rice in our bellies for the dark journey ahead.
A Japanese girl sat next to me and glanced repeatedly over to her mother who stood outside waving, she waved back limply and stared down at her oversized pack. The mother waited, back stiff, the ugliness of the yellow bus terminal light shattering on her high cheekbones. The girl seemed about to cry, her breath caught in her chest while her mother nodded tenderly with pursed lips, they quelled their pained excitement with delicate hands clenched together, eyes wet and tearless.
I eyed the girl's massive backpack wedged between her wiry legs and the seat in front of her, graphite climbing poles stuck out the side, magenta and grey hiking boots hung from the top- there wasn't a speck of dirt, a frayed thread, a scratch, a smudge, to be found on any of it. I thought she must be taking a long trip, going on a less beaten path that required a lot of gear.
As the highway blurred past, I pieced together a plan with my haphazard Japanese of how to find out what trail this girl was taking, why her pack was so much larger than my flannel backpack, why her boots were so official next to my old running shoes, why her farewell was so tender, so definite compared to my send off of "see you guys later" "oh, where you going?" "Fuji" "Oh, right, have fun".
I decided the best way was- "Ichiban? (first) make a climbing motion with two fingers, Fuji?"
"Oh yes," she replied in a soft, sweet voice.
I asked if she was camping on the mountain as I unnecessarily drew a tent shape in the air and pointed to her pack.
"No, no." She stopped abruptly and gave me a drowning look, begging me to let her stop speaking English.
"Up and down, no stop?"
"Yes, I hope so," she said hesitantly. I sighed, understanding, but not.

I ascended the Yoshida trail from the 5th station a few days past the official close of climbing season, in hopes there would be less people. Setting out, I felt a twinge of frustration as a chorus of giddy college age Japanese whooped and hollered and laughed and squealed behind me, their headlamps bouncing over stones like weak disco light. Rumor says there can be as many as 10,000 people on the mountain at once, so many people that you have to wait in line on the trail while you climb up the mountain. This struck me as a travesty, as sacrilegious to wait in line on a mountain like a ride for Disneyland- clumping myself together with 10,000 people seemed like the antithesis of the vast natural space my American soul craved.
As I waited for the group to pass I gazed out above the clouds, above the towns surrounding Mt. Fuji- city lights sparkling below, the stars sparkling above. The moon pierced the sky- illuminating my way and seeping through dark shadows cast by the arch of trees. I shuffled across crumbled lava, the trees faded revealing the dark gentle figure of Fujisan, a rotund black silhouette looming against the cobalt sky.
I hiked around the first bend of the switchback carved into the side of the mountain and gazed upward to see the path unfold into a hypnotic series of countless more bends and climbs. I looked up to the barren peak, it looked so far away, a long snake of lights crawled up its side, headlamps on every point of the trail, all at different stages in their journey, beads of time, past present and future strung on the same continuum.
The college group cheered each other around corners, "OK ok OK ok OK ok OK ok," they chanted back and forth. The elevation rose rapidly and noises from them sputtered and faded until all that was left was the occasional uttering- tsukareta (tired) muzucashi (difficult) daijobu? (you okay?) daijobu, daijobu.
I felt a cool emptiness in my chest as I carried myself up, the pull of gravity seemed stronger. I walked beside an old man and when he turned to face me, light from his headlamp spilled into the deep wrinkles around his eyes and I saw the emptiness was there too.
"Where from?" the old man asked me, half giggling.
I answered him and silence dropped between us for a moment- the silence of me knowing exactly where he was from, him trying to recall more English phrases learned years ago.
"First time, Fuji?" he asked.
I smiled and nodded, saving my breath which had become sparse. He told me it was his sixth time which, according to Japanese lore, makes him insane.
Gombatte I told him, good luck, and breezed past him with long crushing strides. "See you later," he said, pulling on his walking poles, sliding his feet into the dirt an inch at a time, his forward movement barely perceptible.
Yeah right, I thought.
I weaved my way through Japanese who climbed slow and steady, every movement planned through the prodding tips of poles, careful, unchanging for a flat groomed path or the side of a boulder; so different from the foreigners who bounded up the path, arms waving, small bursts of effort over rocks, unsteady, hurling bodies over terrain without thought, without a plan.
We met again, turtles and hares, at each mountain hut, rest stops strewn along the trail thirty minutes apart, large decks out front for vampires to sit and collect. People squeezed together on benches, expensive gear, richly woven in electric blues and purples and yellows, not yet tainted by wear, a runway for a Columbia fashion show.
A woman crouched next to a mountain hut and quietly vomited while her friend patted her back. A father fixed his young son's coat, the boy wore a serious expression, the dad glanced at me with pride filled eyes. The rest stops grew quieter and quieter as we went up, only the occasional gasp of atsui from crowds entering, samui they'd mumble minutes later as sweat turned to ice.
Time got lost somewhere in this process of climbing, emptying, breathing, waiting at mountain huts until my sweat turned cold, dodging mountain sickness like so many waves ebbing toward me on the shore until I finally reached the last station. Eye level with the Big Dipper, I looked to see the peak, absorbed in the black sky, the only indication of the top the discontinuation of headlamps.
Taking a rest on a bench before my final ascent, the crazy old man I met earlier sat next to me and giggled. He offered me a piece of Ghana chocolate, I gingerly peeled away the gold foil with throbbing, inflated hands. He told me through a huge grin that it was his first time climbing Mt. Fuji during the night. "See sunrise," he said, the excitement in his voice a contagious cheer.
I sat chewing on that hard chocolate, like a generous outstretched hand pulling me into the circle of climbers that I had thought of as barriers between me and the beauty of Mt. Fuji. As I looked around at all of their quiet struggles that matched mine, and the joy it was bringing them, I felt a break in my resistance to sharing this mountain, I felt myself melting into a part of something larger, into a current of awe and respect for this mountain that multiplied with every reflected glance and shared whisper.
I thanked the old man for the chocolate and made for the top during the last hour of night, feeling the sun deep in the earth ready to push out the stars and peel off the thick blackness that wrapped us in a mystery. Halfway up, the trail thickened with people until there was an impenetrable clog of bodies. We waited in groups huddled together around each bend in the trail until it was our turn to walk to the next bend where we stopped and waited some more without pushing or grumbling, the peak in sight, but unattainable still. It didn't matter anymore, the line that I had dreaded, we were 10,000 climbers with two thoughts- the top, the sunrise. We were like fans at a concert, a church congregation, feeding quietly from one another's joy.
As I stood with toes balanced on the nubby side of a boulder, searching for a way through the people in front of me, a small gasp came from the crowds and everything suddenly stopped. I looked up the mountain and saw everyone sitting down wherever they happened to be, I turned around and saw the first muddy red grumble of the sun stretch across the horizon. I found a spot to the side of the trail next to a group who was already boiling water for coffee and noodles, taking pictures and switching layers of clothing, unraveling blankets and seating pads. I understood then why the packs were so big.
The world around transformed into something not real, wisps of pastel pinks and purples, oranges and blues, the clouds waiting on the horizon a too-perfect canvas for the strokes of swirling sunlight, below a cotton blanket of clouds nestled amidst the shady tips of purple and blue mountains, a swoosh-shaped lake glowing sleepily below as soft morning light settled over its tiny ripples. The sky grew lighter in anticipation, shooting up neon orange and outpouring tender brightness that had been forgotten through the dark hours. We held our breath until at last the crowd let out a satisfied cry as an oily pink ball sailed through the clouds. Its beauty seared through every fold in my brain until I couldn't imagine how there could be anything wrong or impure about a world whose sun rose everyday so loving and strong.
The girl on the bus had given me a glove warmer, but my hands were so cold I somehow managed to make it stick to itself instead of my gloves, turning it into a cold useless lump. I started to shake and had no choice but to keep walking- I waded through people staring at the freshly risen sun, stationary bodies like fallen soldiers on a battelfield. I made it to the top alone and kept walking, I saw the sky, how blue it was, and passed through streams of faces wide awake, wet gleaming eyes, unrestrained smiles- hearts filled with mecca. As I walked along the rim, I carried my tears, in heavy pools in my under eyelids, until from the weight of 10,000 elevated souls, they broke free.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vegetarian Robuts

A warm, drizzly night in Tokyo, specifically Roppongi, I was getting some fresh air outside the club where my friends and I were dancing to the same forty American pop songs through smoke from smoke machines and smoking cigarettes. Under the covering of an orange metal stairwell I met Raghevndra- wearing a heavy leather cowboy hat, more like something Crocodile Dundee would wear, spotted with dark stains from the rain, it was too big for his little face I thought, but it fit perfectly in Roppongi.
Our conversation ensued the way conversations and momentary friendships seem usually to begin in Roppongi- with a question of where you're from. He was from somewhere between North India and South India so it was like he was from nowhere, he said. Maybe many foreigners in Roppongi feel from nowhere, I thought. We talked for a while about his country, he told me to go there to get some appreciation and get some spiritual thing. I told him I thought I already had those things, but I could always use more.
He explained to me more about his country, but his crispy sober words started to blur together into the thumping din of the night, I said I was going to find my friends and shuffled back toward the club, but Kevin stopped me and, I don't know how, maybe because Kevin had to tell Raghevndra how much he enjoyed his cowboy hat, Raghevndra's friends and my friends became friends and since we were all friends we decided to skip the club and go find sushi.
Over plates of fish-less sushi and cups of separated green tea we discovered Raghevndra and his friends were living in Tokyo, working and studying as robotics engineers. Raghevndra told me about his baby (a robot named NAO that can dance to Michael Jackson), he told me he was making it learn. I laughed because I thought he was kidding. Why would you want a robot to learn? That could only mean destruction, right?
"Oh no," he said in his sing-song voice. "For example, we want to teach the robot to cut fruit, okay, and learn to cut differently shaped fruit without the needing to be programmed for different fruits."
He said "different" in three syllables, the way you're supposed to I guess, lilting the middle "er" that sounded more like "ehr", it's nice, people usually say "diff-rent" instead of "diff-er-ent" like how Raghvendra would say it. Even so, my eyes widened in fear at the thought of a robot that could learn. What's to stop it from learning until it learns how to be discontent and it learns its source of discontentment and learns how to annihilate the ones who brought it into this hurtful world...
"You're freaking me out man."
He looked me in the eye like I was a child, I looked back into the light brown eyes of a person who would help destroy the human race.
He spouted off a million soft "no's" and told me his robot was his baby, the smile never leaving his face, he might have grabbed for his wallet to show me a picture and I might have told him he was making it worse referring to robots like that.
He pleaded with me that robots were made in order to help people, he didn't understand my fear. I didn't understand my fear either. What has a robot ever done to hurt me? What have robots ever done except help achieve the objectives of mankind and not their own metal, cold-hearted desires? But still, a robot that is learning on its own- scary. We went back and forth about this for a while until the whole table was involved.
"They can help with an elderly family member," said Shubh.
"But that's so cold, those poor old people with no one to love them!" I said.
"But the robots will love them!"
We weren't getting anywhere.
Josh put our conflict into words better than anyone else as we glowered in our separate robot-loving and robot-fearing camps. He laughed and said, yeah it's weird, but people in Japan love robots and think of them as like friends who are there to help and Americans just think they're out to get us.
This blanket statement quenched the flames of our heated battle momentarily, but not for long, at least not for me.
From my limited perspective, Japan seems more advanced, or at least more efficient, than America in many ways. Things just seem more thought out, amazingly well-thought, and more put-together.
I once bought a to-go coffee at a coffee shop, the barista poured me a cup and instead of just putting a lid on it and handing it to me, she plugged the sip hole with this stirring spoon that created a perfect seal, and placed it in a paper bag with a solitary creamer the size of a peanut m&m, a pack of sugar, and a moist towel to clean my hands. She neatly folded the top of the bag, taped it shut, put this bag in a plastic bag to which she gave the handles a dexterous twist as one last measure of security for my coffee.
This made a deep impression on me. It was so wasteful, I was just going to drink the coffee in the food court outside. She asked if I wanted "take-out-o" and sometimes when asked if I want something I just nod because I'm afraid I won't know the best way to say "no". I would have been fine without a lid at all, but the thought and care put into making sure my coffee wouldn't spill and that I'd have everything I needed was zen-like in a way, or in the very least it was more thoughtful than anything I've seen in a middle-class American coffee shop. Since this day, my view of Japan as a highly thoughtful society has yet to be challenged.
But I wonder if the Japanese view of robots is another instance of progressive thought or if it is the exact opposite? Is this possibly a case of unimaginative thinking? Has the thought of a robot revolt crossed their mind, and have their engineers ever considered Frankenstein? Or have they already measured these things and come to the conclusion that the benefits far outweigh any possible paranoid costs? Maybe my fear of robots is indicative of superstitious out-dated thought like how people once feared falling off the edge of earth.
Perhaps I should try to love robots, even though they can't love me back, yet. But every sinew of my body screams against this notion, it's like I'm programed to fear intelligence in anything inhuman. But really, humans can be pretty inhuman too sometimes. A robot that will care for the elderly seems a lot nicer than some people, including myself.
We cooled off on the robot talk, I guess the robot-loving camp gave up on convincing the robot-fearing camp of anything for the time being. We finished our sushi and went outside. Shubh was amazed, "look," he said pointing to the sky, smiling hugely like a child, "it's morning."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I didn't really want to go to Disneyland. I didn't want to spend the money or force myself to have fun. I found myself drawn more toward stocking up at the dollar store, so I went. I rode the train alone, not feeling the least bit excited and not knowing what to expect. Two young girls with their grandma sat on the bench across from me, clothed in Minnie paraphernalia, not looking especially overwhelmed with anticipation. I took this as an ominous sign.
I stepped off the train and headed towards big friendly English signs (too big and friendly), guided along a boardwalk, passing mothers holding their little Snow White daughters' hands, in the other hand a bag full of souvenirs. I walked through the ticket gate, the guards smiling and beckoning me in like I was Walt himself, checking the contents of my backpack with one fell touch of a white-gloved hand, no sifting through personal items in the happiest place on earth. Sweet Eore autographing pages of custom made Disney autograph books for ecstatic little girls, happy little boys. I started to feel floating in my chest. I didn't try to stop it.
I met my friends Paola and Kevin and we waded through crowds, trying to get a glimpse of the Easter parade, we stood on a ledge, why wasn't everyone on this ledge? What a great view of Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum. "Ichi ni san, ichi ni san," they sang, I sang along until an employee gently guided us off the ledge, back down into the blinding masses. We wandered aimlessly, I collided into everyone, walking to a different beat, stuttering like my feet had a speech impediment. We rode Dumbo and furtively captured the airlifted moment forever. No pictures please on the Dumbo ride, said a laminated sheet handed to us by an employee, because, after all, we could drop our cameras.
In line for Splash Mountain, my second ride of the day, first if you don't count Dumbo, we heard a rumor that it was a three hour wait, but what else was there to do but wait in line for a few hours, for a few seconds of agony, a few of pleasure, this is life, this is progress.
In line: A circle of laughing young women with fuzzy leopard print Minnie ears, bleached orange hair and Harajuku-style floral pastel skirts; three preppy toddlers in navy polos embroidered with skulls, squealing with delight, playing jun-ken, rock paper scissors, with their grandma. Sugar highed kids swinging the line partition rope, whipping the back of my thighs; line weary zombie kids on a sugar crash, tugging absently on the rope, scraping the back of my thighs; screaming kids who've hit the ultimate low of fun, sun, walking, waiting, candy, decisions; kids with video games, families, friends. An American mom demanding an employee to tell her how long the line will take, she touches his arm and thanks him, he looks at me, he looks like he doesn't know what to think.
An East Indian man in front of me bathed himself in the plastic log drinking fountain, splashing excess water from his nose and mouth cleaning onto my leg. I was planning on getting splashed, but not like this. By the third hour we were friends with the Bangladeshi leg splasher and his eleven year old niece, let's call her Shoopie. I taught Shoopie a three step hand slap game, three different slaps repeated over and over, faster and faster, until hands synch into one fluid movement. Shoopie watched Paola and I catch each other's rhythms, our hands melding together into a circle. Shoopie tried, each slap seperate from the next, segmented into one- stop, two- stop, three-stop, counting aloud, stiff as a board, perplexed. Let go Shoopie, I wanted to tell her. She taught me chopsticks, a finger game of math and strategy, and beat me easily every time.
We asked her why she was at Disneyland on a school day, why there were so many kids in general there on a school day. "Today we have the day off of school because we have finished our sports competitions. For my international school they gave us a discount."
We laughed ironically. "Great," I said, "we came to Disneyland on kids-get-in-free day."
"No, no, I didn't get in free," Shoopie spoke up with her lilting speech, "it was only a discount."
We were a few people away from the entrance, Shoopie's uncle motioned to us and then at them and said, "together." I smiled. We were a group. I offered him some of Paola's Chips Ahoy. Shoopie read the label and sadly told us they couldn't eat it because they were Islamic and there was pork in it. I gave them Paola's Soyjoys instead and we officially became friends.
The five of us shared a log boat, snaking through caves of purple black-lit beehives, bees swarming around like heated molecules, maniacal foxes, barbequed rabbits, birds on crack, birds with some wisdom, zipidy-doo-dah in Japanese and finally down a waterfall shooting us back to daylight. We shuffled through the exit, wondering if it was worth it. We looked at our waterfall picture on the Splash Mountain screens. We laughed at Shoopie, so scared that she tried to hide in the bottom of the boat, the camera catching only the top of her head, shining raven feather black and blue hair.
We said goodbye, never asking names or e-mails, though we felt a closeness, we knew what it was, we shared time together and we shared a moment and no one felt like pretending it would be more than that.
More ice cream, food, parades, the lines thinned, kids-get-in-free day was nearing an end no more four hour waits. We rode Space Mountain, why is everything a mountain? I screamed myself horse, the laser lights played with my eyes, "Let's do it again!" I declared seven seconds into the ride. We skipped through the exit, chattering excitedly, high for a little bit.
We wandered around, looking for the next high. The princess' castle lit up the foggy night so other-worldly blue, but none of our cameras could catch it and we started to fade. We split up somehow and I found myself alone in line for the tea cups. Fireworks started. I ditched our place in line and soaked them in and soaked my face. I didn't realize how much I missed the mystery of fireworks, or maybe I was just getting tired.
It was time to go. We stumbled out of Disneyland, pulled into gift shops, copper disc press shops, candy shops, cookie shops, each on the verge of our own breakdown. We cleared the shops and the urge to consume. A feeling of satiated happiness infected us as we left the park, our legs tired, heads and cameras fuzzy with memories, stomachs sick from sugar and grease, faces aching from smiling. We walked to the train, filled with salary men.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Surprises in Japan

I've been living in Japan for a little over a month now, working as an English teacher in the suburbs an hour across the bay from Tokyo. Recently, I had dinner with a Japanese family from my school and the dad asked me, "What surprises, Japanese... surprises?" Translation- what surprised you when you first came to Japan? I didn't have an answer for him because I hadn't really thought about it.
Japan is the most developed country I've been to besides the U.S., and generally when living in a new country, what surprises me is the lack of development, like open sewers in Ghana or a dead person on the sidewalk in Bangkok. The most surprising thing I found in Japan was how utterly unsurprised I was being in a foreign country. All I came up with in answer to the dad's question was something about the amazing toilets with their heated seats, "they have sooo many buttons," I said, and the fact that you could get beer and hot coffee from a vending machine. But there has to be more, I thought. What surprises me about this country?
Since being asked I've realized Japan has surprised me in a lot of ways, albeit more subtle a shock than when I found out quarter size moles were considered attractive on a man's face in Cambodia, the hairier the better, and the more the merrier. I was somewhat surprised to find that in Tokyo, you can sleep almost anywhere- draped across chairs in a club, at a coffee shop with your head resting alongside your coffee and muffin, in the street, in the park, on the train, in your own vomit, in your friend's vomit, at an internet cafe, on wet pavement, on dry pavement, on a rock, in a tree, anywhere you are able to sleep, you can, without being arrested or even frowned upon. Well, maybe a little frowned upon, but it's hard to tell. You at least won't get arrested, or kicked, which is surprising.
If you get lost, and ask a Japanese person for directions, instead of pointing you in either the right direction or the wrong direction, you will most likely be escorted to your destination, for free. You can drink anywhere- in the street, on the train, at the park, in dark alleys, well-lit alleys, anywhere. Five Michael Jackson songs in a row is not unheard of at a club, maybe not uncommon, in the very least it is a viable option.
My neighbors are silent. The trains are silent. Except once, when I was in a train car with a crazy old woman, about 3 feet tall, who was talking loudly to herself. Every head was turned toward her and shamelessly gaping at her. Two thirty-something men tattled on her to a train guard and the train was silent again. Sleep might be irrelevant. I was surprised the first time I left a club and was greeted by the sun, crows gawking at staggering club goers, a DJ standing outside waiting for his shift to start, 24 hour sushi bars packed full of people with tired danced legs and lingering inebriations, enjoying bright pink salmon shots of euphoria in the blue morning light, night and day meeting in secret and running together like two drips of paint.
But I didn't know how to tell this to the dad at the time so I did what I usually do when I can't answer a question, I asked about his experience. I asked what surprised him about the U.S. when he visited. His answer- the people were very nice and friendly, and people asked him for money. What a great answer. If asked again what surprises me about Japan I'll reply with this- "The open liquor container laws are so friendly and I saw a man asleep in his vomit and it's very quiet here, it's so quiet I can barely hear anything."