Yamabiko-no-taki, my first encounter with a higuma, a drive on a forest road, and karaoke with the Monbetsu folks.
Friday night, I rested my head in my palm, hunched at my desk with 7-11 pancakes, and browsed the Internet for three hours. The digits binary zipped by as the pages, ever filtering in and out again of my browser cache, clicked by one after the other. The sky outside gradually dimmed from the languid, discolored gray of a dot matrix printer case, through the stern gunmetal of a US Air Force jet plane, finally settling on a blackness streaked with the ambiguous forms of the heavy clouds above, reflecting the meager number of photons that our quiet countryside town could muster. The rain came in waves, precipitation measurements heaving sinusoidal, pounding on the walls and windows of my little house like the seas coming in and out with the tides. What possessed me, halfway around the world, to succumb to this sort of Internet high, disgracefully be-stupored, the world coming down around my head? What possessed me to be satisfied with the blinking screen rolling ever by, the words of others, never knowing that I'd read them — never knowing their authors? What was I accomplishing? Is this what I had come to Japan to do? Could I rationalize this away as leisure time, unwinding time, after a brutally long, dreadfully difficult four-day week? And if I could excuse it all away, would I, some years hence, regret all of the time I took to relax, instead of seeing things at that future point lost to me, maybe forever? The answers, respectfully, came through the din of the rain: I don't know, I don't know, nothing, no, no, and yes.
The following day showed no softening of the hard cloud mantle, though some hills in the distance seemed to shimmer with the fall sun filtered through the haze, and the smallest gap in the clouds displayed rich blues and yellows made all the more brilliant by the surrounding monochrome. Eager not to repeat the previous night during the (comparatively) sunny hours, Nicole and I boarded Penelope and turned her nose towards the little patch of sun in the distance, making the Yamabiko Waterfall in the hamlet of Maruseppu our destination. Thus we blew off down the road, slick and shiny with the morning's rain, the air brisk and stiff, breaking off across shear lines to tumble through the open windows. As we raced further away from the coast, the thermometer dipped maybe a degree or two and we rolled the windows up and nestled into the collars of our turtlenecks and tweed, turning up the heater and turning the car into a little haven, a mobile nest among the gradually shifting colors of the trees.
By and by we came to the waterfall. We pulled Penelope over beside a single other car in a leaf-littered parking lot, a scanty patch of asphalt wedged between the road proper and a little trailhead encouraging us to make the two hundred meter trek up to the waterfall itself. Stopping to take some pictures of leaves — it being fall and what have you — we proceeded up the trail, sucking the cool, wet air into our lungs, talking little over the blowing hiss of the little river leading down from the falls, quiet at first but gradually getting louder as we walked. Some ways up the trail, we heard the folks from the other car coming down the trail, and stood aside to let them pass, finding our footing first on the side of the trail and then looking up to say hello and generally be courteous. But it turned out that it wasn't the other party coming down the slopes at all, but instead a fair sized bear, maybe twenty-five feet up ahead of us, standing in the path and no doubt wondering, to the best of its bearish ability, what these foreigners were doing here.
It didn't occur to me to up and snap a picture first, which, looking back on it now, was a tremendously wasted opportunity. Instead, we turned around, somewhat startled, and made our way back down the maybe fifty meters, if that, to the trailhead, climbed back into Penelope (kei cars being, of course, the best protection against bears), and wondered what to do next. While we had come face to face with an animal that could have, for all intents and purposes, erased our maps in a fairly significant way, we had come to see a waterfall and by God we were going to see a waterfall. So armed with my car keys a-jangle (our improvised bear bells) we made our way back up the path.
We didn't see the bear again, but we did eventually pass the other party, deciding that it would be good to inform them that there was a bear in the area, but for some reason not actually telling them, and letting them pass the other way with naught but a cowed 'konnichiwa.' The waterfall itself was pretty impressive, roaring like some beast upon the bare rock below. Whereas Tenninkyo from last weekend was actually a series of falls all rolling off the rocks from some hundreds of feet, Yamabiko was a single eighty-foot drop, crashing into a shallow pond where I'm almost certain that Buddhist monks have come to interface with the raw presence of nature or obliterate their waking selves or something.
The sun was slowly sinking, but at this point we had maybe an hour and change until the sun set, so, spying a dirt road branching off into the woods I twisted Penelope's wheel and charged into the forest. The road appeared to have been used at some point earlier this summer but hadn't attracted many travelers since — there were grooves cut into the road where tires rolled before, but the center of the path was tangled with debris and I wasn't altogether confident that Penelope's slight clearance would carry us safely over some of the shrubberies or stones. Some kilometer and a half into the forest we rounded a corner and came upon a deer standing idly in the center of what appeared to be a junction in the road but was, in reality, an area clear of trees and not much more than that. The deer bounded into the forest and left us alone.
A kilometer or so into the forest, the trees extending as far as I can see on every side, nature churning all around me, I definitely got the sense of the fragility of myself qua meat bag. We weren't, by any stretch of the term, far into the woods, and even if we had driven another half an hour down those strange roads, it was unlikely that anything too bad would have happened to us. If worse came to worst, we'd run out of gasoline and have to walk back, maybe sleeping in the car and returning the following day; and I would have a much more interesting blog entry on my hands than this one. That being said, all around me was a biological machinery operating quietly, immutably, independent of me or humanity as a whole. Here was nature, here was physics, here was a lack of consciousness to which (to whom?) I was nothing more than the constituent biological components. The trees don't care about my soul; bears don't care that I can do mathematics and deer don't care that I understand language — if I came upon a hungry bear it would eat me the same as it would eat a fish, craving the nutrients and vitamins that I provide. And if I died, the trees would take up my nitrogen and my oxygen, and the air would be a little less carbon dioxide-ey from all of the breaths I was no longer taking. Humans keep records but in nature my consciousness is just a tool I can use to delay my eventual reunion with nature in all of it's scientistic equality. I ain't all that and a bag of potato chips; I'm just a collection of particles walking around thinking it's smart.
It's not that I think no one has ever come to this conclusion before, nor is it that I think that this mindset is the right one to adopt, because it's Ludditically defeatist; but I'm a city boy, and I have been for a long time, and that might have been the furthest I have ever been from any human presence, and this is what it made me feel.
That night we spent eight hours eating, drinking, and singing karaoke in a room bedecked with a plastic kiddie slide, a box full of foam blocks, and a rainbow streaked from one end of the table to the other. It's likely that we sang every piece in the canon of Songs that All Western People Generally Know How to Sing (classics include Blink 182's "All the Small Things" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"). We were loud and exhausted, our vocal cords raw and our bodies slowly approaching failure, demanding rest. We remained in the restaurant until 4 in the morning, at which point we cried out against the ever expanding song queue and walked out of the building and into the cold pre-dawn. The following morning, sitting in Penelope's driver's seat, I ate fried chicken with mochi (rice-ball) ice cream and lemonade for breakfast. I rolled down the windows and blasted pop-punk through Penelope's shrieking speakers. It was a beautiful day.