An hour before the fateful pass, when I watched a man slip off a ridge and slide 20-30 feet down before righting himself, I had come across a guy under the shelter of an emergency hut while taking a breather for lunch. It was snowing a bit, which made for a gorgeous if intimidating backdrop. The man didn’t speak English, of course, but we communicated a little nonetheless, as we are wont to do. He was a local who climbed the mountain once a month, every month, in fact was already on his way down. He was curious about me, why I came out, whether I was prepared. To the last, I assured him I was. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then I trekked on. He wished me luck.
I found out later the man posted on a Japanese hiking forum shortly after our encounter. He put up a description of me – we hadn’t exchanged names – mentioned I was tackling Kumotori from the north side. The message, ostensibly, was this: “Hey, make sure this kid is okay. Keep an eye out.” I learned about this later, from another man I met at my cabin near the summit that evening. This guy actually spoke a fair bit of English, which was why we got to talking, out in the lobby as a group of us sat around the heater while drinking and killing time before lights out. He translated bits of the surrounding conversation: the man who remembered a spare iPhone battery but not one of his snow gloves, the chef who spent more than half his year living in the cabin, the friend sitting next to him – still gasping and wheezing – who couldn’t remember his last real hike.
We made plans to meet up the next morning before sunrise, the three of us. We tackled the summit together, then began our descent on the south side. There wasn’t much chatting, just a sporadic question here, a word there. Eventually, we reached our separation point. The English speaker didn’t have his business card, but I had given him mine, and he told me he would email me shortly thereafter. We’ve gotten together for dinner a couple of times since. I learned he wasn’t a regular hiker until recently, November of last year, near the same as me, in fact. Actually, we both started for the same reason – though his was a divorce, mine a mere budding romance that wasn’t to be. Anyway, I still see his hiking pictures on social media. Presumably, he sees mine.
So the two of them headed away, and I trudged eastward alone once more, rather uneasily. The path was clear at first, but it soon disappeared under the freshly packed snow. At some point, I drifted well above where the actual trail was. I only figured as much when a couple of middle-aged men passed well beneath me at that point, down where we were all supposed to be, if the snow hadn’t obscured the way. Quickly, I redoubled my steps and eventually caught up to them. Neither spoke English, of course, but they also weren’t speaking much in Japanese either. Just two friends, marching forth with purpose. I joined them, matched their pace.
They had trekking poles and snow boots, plus took surer steps, so they continued to lead the way. They knew I was there right with them though, and would pause if I was left too far behind, an unspoken agreement.* We chatted briefly during a pit stop for lunch, confirming we both had the same destination. Later, we would come to a consensus on skipping another summit on the trail, instead choosing to skirt the mountain along its side. We walked together for about five hours, eventually reaching the end of the trail. I thanked them profusely: without their maps, their footsteps, their company, it would have been dicey in the snow. There wasn’t much chit-chat after that: they went straight to an izakaya, I headed towards an onsen.
*They hadn’t seen the post on the forum: I was sure of that. I don’t think either looked at a phone the entire time.
I’ve hiked a lot this second year, and the experiences encapsulate a lot about my time, about life here. All the charms, frustrations, eccentricities and paradoxes of Japan are laid bare on the trails. Communication remains an exercise in futility, thanks largely to my inability to learn the language, but it doesn’t stop people from listening, from trying to help, whether it’s keeping an eye out or giving me a lift. Transportation appears often as an art form – trains, frequent and fast, to every part of the country – yet god help me if I’m relying on bus service in a village somewhere. Meanwhile, despite the camaraderie, loneliness persists, even in the solitude of nature: there’s something telling about the fact that all the guys I’ve described running into have been single males.
A couple of weeks ago, I was posed the question, “Do you love Tokyo?” by someone who clearly does, around a couple of friends who also very clearly do. It was a leading question. She didn’t want to elicit real discussion, but simply confirm her feelings as objective reality. People are annoying like that. I wanted to push back on her. I wanted to ask what it meant for her to love the city. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt frustrated or isolated, like an automaton in and around people with 60-hour work weeks, apartments the size of small pods, eating at bar-style, even standing-only restaurants. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt incomprehensibly lonely, and if she loved the city as much in those moments for her blanket proclamation to stand. Instead, I kept mum.
Maybe it’s different because she has a family here. Maybe it’s just different for everybody else, more black and white, in one direction or the other. So then, do I really love Tokyo? Do I love Japan? The honest answer is, yes and no. Ultimately, I suppose I do. But it’s a complicated love, and it’s certainly not an unequivocal love. Then again, maybe that’s most love.
[Previously: Japan: Year One.]