This past Thursday I accompanied a bevy of my students to a dairy farm. We wore tall rubber boots and working gloves and I rolled my sleeves up past my elbows and felt like some mechanic from the 1930s or something, sweating and oily but polished in his old-timey working-class way. We shook plastic bottles full of unpasteurized milk until layers separated and we had conjured butter from dairy and elbow grease; we stretched out, barely balanced, under cows to tug at strange protrusions and call forth half an ounce of milk each; we wielded unfamiliar combs and brushes and squealed with laughter and chagrin when a cow did its business.
Slowly I am coming to understand the workings of the Japanese kid — slowly I am beginning to understand their groups and cliques and junior high school culture. It’s been some time since I was their age, and with time I had almost come to forget just what junior high school is like. In the classroom it’s very easy to erase the humanity of these kids and just conceptualize them as students; it becomes significantly easier when you’re neck-deep in a youth culture you don’t understand. When you’re in the classroom, the students are arranged on the grid, sitting in desks, often boy-girl-boy-girl, alternating. There has been consideration about the structure and placement of these students. There are right answers and wrong answers. The world is systematized. But out on the dairy farm, or the following day on the school walking excursion, all of this structure falls away. Teachers corral the students, yeah, to make sure no one disappears, but when it comes down to it they’re free to talk to whomever they want, wander where they please, and say almost whatever comes to mind. And it’s in this environment that you can begin to tell that these students aren’t just students — they’re just kids — kids who have to go to school and come down to dinner and do their homework and make their beds. They’re us from a time when the length of a week was all we had to care about, when Saturday night was the be-all end-all of our lives, when Sunday night was the worst thing that could possibly occur. They’re us from a time when adults with whom we had nothing in common walked into a room to try and force down our throats knowledge of which we couldn’t understand the use.
But the weekdays came to an end, and the weekend roared up in front of us, a blank slate on which we could write our experience, a great empty page for us to scribble our lives. And foreigners from all over Hokkaido piled into cars laden with sleeping bags and tents and booze and cruised away into the countryside and towards the little town of Akan. My crew and I, a convoy of vans of various sizes, rose with the sun, coated our stomachs in coffee and energy drinks and hurled ourselves southeastward. There, we would find a mountain, a hefty cone littered with rocks of various shapes, colors, and sizes hurled out from the writhing magma below. There we would find Mount Meakan.
We started the climb a little bit before noon and made our way up into the forests of the lower mountain. As we climbed through the root structures of trees packed closely together, we realized how much this forest was holding the mountain together, the roots like fingers reaching deep into the earth and willing the soft ground to stay in one place. We moved quietly up the path, speaking less and less as our bodies began to empty themselves of air, our muscles trying to cash checks that our lungs couldn’t yield. But still we pressed onward, up and out of conifers (I think) and into the low pines, alternately climbing through wooded tunnels on our hands and feet and traversing, goat-like, enormous boulders on the mountainside. We crossed glacial rivers, barren and sandy in the early fall, we pushed forward out of the pines and onto the last jagged span between us and the mountaintop. Here we braced ourselves against the wind beating the side of the mountain, here we pulled our shirts off our heaving frames and pressed on, grinding our feet against the rocks and the dust, pushing our skin up against the sky. Here we reached the brim of the caldera, breathing superheated clouds of sulfur, relieving the pressure of the heat and molten rock below. And here was the peak, strewn with pulverized stone and patches of extremophile moss. Here we surrendered to the sun and the altitude and shook off our backpacks, sipping down the last of our water and snapping pictures, weary but smiling, of our human frames, testament to willpower and muscle, at what was to us the top of the world.
And here was the perfect place to take a step back from ourselves and realize what our bodies were capable of. Only two hours before we had stood at the bottom of a kilometer-and-a-half vertical rise, our stomachs filled with little other than coffee and almonds. Electricity and chemicals had pulled fibers hard against joints, meat pulling itself up the side of nature, raising a big middle finger to millions of years of tectonic activity. No, it wasn’t that hard. Yes, the human body is capable of a lot more than what we did. But for some of us it was the first hike we had ever accomplished, the first time we had ever gotten to that height under our own power. On the top of that mountain I pondered for a moment the fact that though we were unskilled, we had climbed nature’s hulking volcanic ladder into the sky, made of her sulfurous breath and rumbling maw a sideshow, then kicked back and had a beer sitting on top of her head.
We made the descent around the back of the mountain, throwing ourselves headlong down the sandy slope, knowing that any efforts to slow ourselves were sure to end in a tumble. We mimed snowboarding tricks on the few stones heavy enough to stay put, we hurled our bodies into the clouds blowing thick up the side of the mountain, the moisture beading on our arms and faces. We broke back down into the pines, back down into the conifers (I’m still not sure if they were conifers), giving our joints up to gravity and propelling ourselves forward as the tug of the earth pulled us back down to the base of the mountain.
As evening began to set in, we finally made the road leading back to our cars. We crossed paths with a group of deer that seemed to care altogether too little for us, wandering by as if we weren’t there, armed with clicking cameras and half-shocked utterances. Back at the trailhead we washed the day away in a 200-yen onsen, the price of which speaks more to the sketchiness of the place, I think, than anything that I could write. The floors were stained with sulfur, the water stank of rotten eggs and scalded as only water that comes out of a volcano can.
When I arrived at the Akan welcome party, the sun had already set and the party was in full swing. The noises of the night, of us foreigners, already hung in the air and dispersed into the trees. I saw foxes hanging on the edges of the forest, dancing the line between our dimly lit campground and the pitch black of the forest, before disappearing, the glint of their orange fur going out like a light. I sat around a long table, my ankles swimming in the hot water of a foot onsen, my bones proverbially weary from the strain of the day.
Why write again what I’ve written before? We partied as only a group of foreigners thousands of miles from their homes can. Untethered from anything we could recognize, we streaked brilliantly in all directions, lashing out at anything we could find. The more I live here in Japan, the more I realize that we’re not so different, Westerners and Japanese, but when a collective of foreigners groups up like that, one really can’t help but revel in the foreignness of it. In a world laden with Japanese, with unreadable characters in every direction, with a sea language and customs I come only slowly to understand, this oasis of English was a weight off of my shoulders.
And so this is what these welcome parties have become to me: an untethering, a disemburdening — a removal of the responsibility of learning, of experience, of newness. That’s not to say that I don’t want to learn, I don’t want to experience. If I was here only for the surface novelty of things I wouldn’t have accepted to come in the first place. But I think that working again on your own terms, in your own language, with people who will get your jokes and crack some brilliant ones of their own, might be just the sort of unwinding a Westerner in this country needs. I think that given the right situation, given the variables all lined up just right, loosening the ties and immersing yourself in the familiar and mundane is sometimes just the right medicine.
* * *
In the morning our eyes opened onto a gray world, everything distorted and bubbled by the water streaked across our windshields. This isn’t a metaphor — I slept in Penelope the AZ Wagon, so my first sight was overcast through glass. Slowly the world came to life again, bumbling through the light rain, mostly barefoot, trodding the humid grass, lifting up stakes, rolling half-damp tarps into tent bags and hauling the lot into the backs of decade-old cars. Time smeared together; I seemed to be walking back and forth through the campground with no proper direction. When we finally hit the road, my white car blended with the white of the fog on the mountainsides. We traveled only half conscious, stopped at a rest area (here called michi no eki or ‘road station’) to do our morning calisthenics, half-heartedly and half-ironically. We must have been quite a sight to the Japanese travelers at the rest area: a group of foreigners humming the ‘morning calisthenics song’ out of tune, bent in half, munching maybe fish or maybe tempura, I wasn’t sure.
My life that morning had no edges, no direction. We seemed to be traveling towards some fifth cardinal point, not North or East or South or West but instead Home, stopping on the way for new Vans (mine were destroyed by the climb) and McDonald’s. For the record: Big Macs taste exactly the same here as they do in America. Penelope hummed through the fog, her underpowered engine revving upwards of 5000 rpm, flying through tunnels and single lane highways and back to the warm, hearthlike familiarity of Yubetsu, back into my gravel parking lot, back into the indeterminate everything-in-its-right-place-ness of my apartment, back to the comfort of the Internet, and into the glassy-eyed gloom of Sunday night.