I lived on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, for four years when I first moved to Japan – from the summer of 1998 to 2002. Although I left Hokkaido for Tokyo twelve years ago and don’t regret the move, Hokkaido for me then was one of those seminal times in life when you are, as they say, “in the right place at the right time.”
Recently I started to write once again about what it was like for an inner-city kid to find himself in a rural part of Japan on an island which, at the time, most people had never heard of. I’ll write more about Extreme Japan: slow travel epiphanies on Hokkaido and Iriomote…
Autumn is settling over Tokyo, but in the town of Kogamane — four and a half by bus from Tokyo — in the highlands of Nagano prefecture, it’s in full flourish. Kogamane is at1660 meters (4,980 feet) elevation, and is home base to the cable car ropeway that carries hikers up to Senjojiki Cirque and the peaks of the Chuo Central Alps. But Senjojiki is another story… coming soon! Continue reading “Japan Photo Hikes: “Koyo,” Autumn Leaves at Kogamane, Nagano”→
Just back from a three day school trip to an organic farm, KEEP, in the Kiyosato Kogen Highlands of Yamanashi prefecture – a couple hours’ drive from Tokyo.
KEEP started back in 1938, according to the literature, when the American missionary Paul Rusch (or maybe it’s “Rush:” I’ve seen it spelled both ways) gambled he could bring relatively small Jersey dairy cows to the Japanese highlands (KEEP is at about 1,400 meters, 4,200 feet, above sea level).
Got back a couple of days ago from my annual visit to my “other” home, Toronto. Yes, it was a great trip, thanks for asking.
I always have mixed feelings on leaving Toronto and returning to Tokyo. On the one hand, I really enjoy visiting family and friends and familiar haunts (such as the public reference library, and the UofT campus – I know, I know… 24-hour party people) in my old hometown. I love to walk, and Toronto’s streets and alleys make for great walking – and the weather usually co-operates by cooling down overnight and staying that way into the morning. All the hassles of daily life in T.O. (oh the TTC! ooh construction!!) don’t really get to me: I’m on holidays! nowhere to be, nothing to do. Perfect Zenlike simplicity. Streetcar delayed? Hey, isn’t that a Starbucks over there? Sweet. I could just retire into my Golden Years… Continue reading “Back in the Big Sushi”→
At first, my new neighbourhood in Nerima comes across as any other near-city suburb in western Tokyo. Acres of boxy, two-storey houses with blue or rust roofs and little or no yard radiant from the train station. Functional low-rise walkups with open hallways and stairwells. Light-industry factories and warehouses. Grim schoolhouses. And in the between-spaces, fields of cabbage and onion and corn.
So very, very different from the hip, upscale neighbourhoods in central Tokyo, aka The Big Sushi, where R., my wife, and I commute every day for work.
We moved here, bought a house and everything, after eight years in nearby, semi-rural Kodaira. And that – eight years – is the longest I’ve lived in one place. Ever. So much for my “three-year adventure in Japan! Sorry, Ma. But that’s another story…
Compared to Kodaira, Nerima at first feels claustrophobic: houses, fields, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, all share too little space. Stepping out our front gate the first night in our new home, SUVs menace on the narrow, poorly lit, sidewalkless streets. Headlights swerve to the left of us, to the right of us, straight at us… and that was just in front of our house!
As we settle in, however, and on laid-back weekends explore our new surroundings, the character of the place starts to open up. Across the street from our house a spooky parkette with the copper-green statue of a child but never any real children — or anyone else, for that matter. The Muscle Gym around the corner — that’s the name, by the way, in English and Japanese — with a jacked-up 4×4 in front, a middle-aged guy with a punch perm and sweat suit smoking by the door and joking with a knot of young men. Next door two kindly obasans, middle-aged women, make bento box lunches by hand among great dusty sacks of rice from all over Japan.
Mornings, I wake before dawn brightens the skylights. A rooster crows as I hit the shower. By the time I start my walk to the station, the farmers are already hard at work trimming cabbages with long knives and loading the heads into barrows. Back from the road carrots, cauliflower, broccoli are left for sale on tables and clear-fronted, coin-operated vegetable lockers. Only in Japan….
A forty-minute commuter express ride each way takes us to and from the sky islands and neon canyonlands of the Tokyo that you, gentle reader, likely imagine. We squeeze into trains packed tight as sushi rolls, jack into iPods same as everyone else, do our best to tune out the discomfort. Lately I’ve taken to passing the time with meditation podcasts.
After a day in the workaholic city, I return to our quiet little home and even quieter neighbours, mostly retirees – or gentlemen farmers. Sometimes I catch a sunset, all cherry-blossom pink; other times I watch the moon rise through the skylights.
R. has a different schedule from me, so weeknights I am often in bed before she gets home, dreams of cabbages dancing in my head…
Maybe this isn’t the adventure I expected when I left family and friends back in Toronto all those years ago now. But as I become mindful to the details of this residential suburban life, I find myself growing and deepening in experience. And isn’t that what adventure is all about?
At their tips, which waited patiently in the rain,
Tiny white flowers glisten and above the quiet amber puddles reflecting the sun
Red dragonflies glide.
“The Breeze Comes Filling the Valley”, Kenji Miyazawa
Probably this head’s up is too late to do you much good, but if you happen to find yourself in Tokyo today, Sunday 15 June 2014, or better yet are already in the Roppongi area and want something to do, some place to go to get out of the heat and humidity (mushiatsui!), you could do worse than to duck into the Tadao-Ando-designed 21_21 Design Site in a corner of the park behind Tokyo Midtown. It won’t take long to tour the whole exhibit; I I was outta there in about an hour, and that was with taking a whole passel full of photos – some of which you can see below…
The exhibition is, of course, surprisingly interesting – I say “of course” because, if it were otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing about it here – and the curators are photographer-friendly, so I really enjoyed some quality shooting time with my new Olympus e-p5 and venerable Panasonic Lumix 7-14 4.0.
And 21_21 Design Site is worth visiting for its own sake, if only to relax in the cool grey, icebox-like (but suprisingly warm) interior.
Fun Facts, from the exhibition book: a typical bowl of rice holds about 3,000 grain. That’s three bundles of rice talks (so comes from three seeds).
No spot in this world can be more horrible, more atrociously dismal, than the cindered tip of the Lotus as you stand upon it. – Lafcadio Hearn (1898)
File this one under “something new learned every day…”
A personal email request about whether “anyone would stop me” from climbing Mount Fuji sparked my curiosity: I climbed it in September, a few weeks after the end of the official climbing season, and wrote about the experience in Little Snail, Slowly Slowly Climb Mount Fuji. At that time, though a few of the huts were closed and the numbers of climbers were nowhere near what my climbing buddies had experienced when they climbed in-season (every year, something like 300,000 climb Mount Fuji in July and August. Can you imagine?), many of the huts were still open and professional guides were still leading groups of novices up the mountain. Heck, even the Information Center at 5th station was open and handing out maps. Business as usual, right?