Charles Harries

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Week 9

A trip to Nitori, a night in Asahikawa, and a trip to Tenninkyo

Since arriving in Japan, I have developed a strange perspective of the weekends. I measure my time off not by which hours I am working and which ones I am not, nor by the numbers on the electronic clock on the dashboard of Yubetsu’s Corolla as I heave the sedan over the curb and onto the property of the day’s school, and the numbers on the electronic clock as I again heave the sedan off the curb. I measure the weekend by the moment that my knowing, being, processing self comes in contact with something that it cannot know, be, or process. Be it the moment that a mikoshi is dropped on my body or the moment my eyes fall upon a groaning, breathing pile of stone and lava and fury, my weekend starts with a bang, a visceral shock to the system, a reminder that I am not where I am used to being.

This weekend, that moment came when I found that in this country, all four wheels on a shopping cart can swivel. I was back at Nitori (remember — the IKEA-Bed-Bath-and-Beyond love-child?), pulling forth a cart from its nested row, turning the cart to access the low-thread-count bedding and futuristically stuffed comforters (HEAT-TEC-FOAM-STUFFING FOR GREAT HAPPY), when I felt an uncanny stirring of the cart beneath my fingers. Carts usually move in one dimension, two directions — forward or backward along a single line— and the swiveling front wheels change the orientation of the line that consists of this carts whole kinetic plane of existence. But this cart moved at ease in two dimensions, gliding through the store, Tokyo Drift-style antics amid the build-it-yourself furniture and tastefully woven lighting fixtures.

so tasteful
so tasteful

Looking at Penelope, all loaded up with home goods, seats folded down for dish-drying racks and picture frames, I felt considerably domesticated and somewhat be-dulled by my enthusiasm for such economical Hestian trifles, so we turned Penelope’s nose in the direction of the Taisetsu Beer House and charged onward, riding the wave of inertia and anticipation that a miniature van filled with home goods could muster. We arrived as the city grew dark, neon flickering into mains humming life, 50 Hertz falling down on us at every turn. We scoured the streets for parking, trying to find a place for Penelope overnight (the law in Japan is that even after only one beer, one has to wait something like eight hours before operating a motor vehicle — or something similarly strict). Finally we came upon a parking garage advertising a number of rates, all of which seemed to indicate the same duration. We concluded that overnight parking was somewhere between 860 or 13,000 yen, which gave us a range of about $10 to about $160, but by this point we were somewhat late already and were almost certain that the God of Unmanned Japanese Parking Garages wouldn’t do us too much wrong, so we forged ahead.

I am slowly coming to realize that almost any large feast in Japan consists of Genghis Khan, the fatty-meat-on-a-burning-dome extravaganza from the Sapporo Bier Garten and, the following weekend, the aptly named Beef Land, to which we had retired after carrying Renyu around. Thus it was at the Taisetsuzan Beer House, and thus it was that we crammed out mouths with beef and beer delectable, indulging ourselves with a lack of restraint the Japanese would (and, more likely than not, did) find appalling. It’s curious to juxtapose us foreigners with the Japanese at the same restaurant: of course you don’t stare, you don’t look over at them with any degree of intention (“Oh, I suppose my head was pointing in that direction), but there’s such a gaping cultural abyss between us and them that you can’t help but feel the slightest bit self-conscious — if only the slightest bit. I suppose it’s always good fun to upheave stereotypes, but I can’t help but revel in the absolute fulfillment of every stereotype I assume that Japanese people have attached to us Occidentals — rowdiness, general brusqueness, a lack of respect for tradition or propriety, and the like.

We moved on from the Beer House, filling the streets with our noise and our ever-so-slightly above-averaged sized bodies. I saw three familiar words plastered across the front of what appeared to be a slice of England as interpreted by Montreal — an English pub emblazoned with the words “Bank of America” over the door. The initial confusion, I think, propelled us forward, Americans with their cameras at the ready, snapping photographic evidence of the Japanese tendency to take English words from wherever they may lay their eyes and place them defiantly on buildings, advertisements, cars, and clothing, without any respect for the semantic content of the words themselves. How else would one explain Simon’s (Hokkaido’s resident cooking guru) female student coming to school with a t-shirt across which is written, in bold yellow letters, “SAUSAGE PARTY”?

Bank of America, as far as the city of Asahikawa is concerned, really is an English pub, or as close to an English pub as one can get, being some 6000 miles away from England. The ceiling was hung with soccer (football?) pennants and other assorted memorabilia, the walls were plastered with posters advertising upcoming shows and goings-on in the area, and the decorations from St. Patrick’s Day 2009 were still flying proudly, their green only slightly faded over the course of, what, three and a half years, now? We drank Coors Light and Budweiser from the bottle (a practice considered very bad form this side of the Big Pond), the labels familiar, my eyes drinking down the brilliant English of the nutrition table and entreaties to Please Think of the Environment, Recycle For the Love of All that is Good and Holy — 5 Cents Back Except in AK, HI, or CA.

The decision was made, on the way out of Bank of America, to call daiko, which is like a taxi service except they drive your car instead of their own. Nicole and I made our way to the parking garage and sucked the cold night air into our lungs, pulling the zippers of our sweaters up to our necks and fastening our collars close. When the daiko man arrived, I must admit I felt some hesitance to hand over the keys to Penelope, but in the end, her stirring under the touch of another man was a necessary concession. We flew through the streets, the driver evidently more experienced and more hurried than I have ever been with heavy machinery operating by means of hundreds of minuscule explosions, but before we knew it, we were in the neighboring city of Higashikawa. We made our way to the living room floors of our Higashikawa hosts and promptly fell asleep.

The following morning we roared our engines out of Higashikawa and into the countryside of Daisetsuzan National Park, which in Japanese means “Big Ol’ Mountains Oh and Also Watch Out for All the Snow.” On the other hand, the native people, the Ainu, call it “The Playground of the Gods.” Either way one cuts it, Daisetsuzan is the sort of place that instills in a body a knee-weakening sense of awe, every corner seemingly beholding new treasures of nature, every bend in the road another manic revelation, another step closer to a person’s eventual Thoreau-ian future. Standing at the base of a mountain like Kurodake or Asahidake — twin flagship peaks of the Daisetsuzan — one has to feel a certain sense of the insignificance of humanity, for all of our great monuments and technological masterpieces; though the Anthropocene is upon us, one can’t help but wonder if nature, in the End, is going to come out on top.

We were sidetracked by a vehicular mishap and a font of water that billboards claimed was magical, somehow. Groups of men in coveralls and rubber boots lined up at the springs to fill 5-gallon jugs with the water, no doubt to restore youth or hydrate exceptionally well. Admittedly, the water from the spring tasted finer than the Seven Eleven-brand water I had bought that morning, but reading that sentence over again, I have to concede that that’s not saying much.

Back on the road, we pulled our cars through a narrow pass and into a horseshoe gorge called Tenninkyo — Angel Gorge. We parked at the feet of cliffs that rose for hundreds of feet above our heads, sheer and dominating in their enormity, another reminder of the, I don’t know, transcendence, the permanence of stone and the comparative transience of our sojourn, both in the gorge and on the earth. Indeed the water had carved this gorge out of the stone, a sculptor at work, but this had taken thousands, tens of thousands of years, maybe more. This water had been running since before the Egyptians had invented hieroglyphs, before proto-humans decided to leave their marks at Lascaux or Altamira. These are million-ton faces of stones wearing the trees like hair, all of the beauty of the flora and fauna reduced to gilt for the mass of the earth itself. These cliffs looked down at our merry romp, at our decision to climb, at our bodies heaving with the fall air and the uneven terrain, our little forms mounting the cliff heads and looked out at the valley around us, as if to patiently condescend. We surveyed the landscape, we took pictures, pressing our bodies up against the background, pushing ourselves as the subjects but ever mindful of the real celebrity on which we stood, in which we breathed, at which we reveled and gasped. And back at the trailhead, looking up at the Daisetsuzan standing sentinel all around me, I think I brushed within a couple lightyears — a fraction of a hair’s breadth, relatively speaking — of forever.

The following morning I rode Penelope back through the countryside up to Yubetsu. The sun was shining, the air was brisk, the earth was sharp and pristine and clear. Everything seemed to line up, clearing the mess of clouds and dirt and the tangle of undergrowth, arranging itself for the winter. The moon rose into a brilliantly starry sky, the turbulence of the atmosphere, if only for a short time, settled down. At 9:30 at night, I made a brief pilgrimage to my local Seicomart for a bento. My footsteps on gravel were the only sounds in the dark.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme