Mountain Passages: Japan, the Tour

I’ve been traveling Japan with Blue Eyes for two weeks, first on an art-and-crafts tour, and now here in Kyoto with friends. The tour included 16 boomers, and two guides, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, and who also had a firm grasp of art, history, culture, and group dynamics. If you remember the kung fu movies, he is like the counselor monk in the background who advises the principal monk and who gets all the important stuff done… food, housing, laundry, transportation, sword sharpening, etc.

This is only the second time I’ve been on a tour. The first was several years ago on the White Rim Trail out of Moab, an easy, leisurely mountain bike ride through some magnificent red rock country. That tour was for four days with six riders and two guides. Eighteen people on this trip seems like a crowd, a nice crowd, but a crowd nonetheless.

The people on this tour come from essentially the same demographic and age group; both of these factors tend to lessen the potential for conflict. But we’ve been together for a long while and I’m not good at it. Add to that a tightly packed schedule, plus travel by bus, train, and taxi, plus a number of group meals, and the conversation starts to go round and round.

There isn’t a whole lot of central heating in Japan and we thought the houses we visited looked like they’d be cold in the winter.

“The human body generates 400 BTU in a day,” Thomas said.

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yes, it’s important in calculating heating for a building.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wanting to use that fact for years.”

“Thank you for sharing that information.”

Blue Eyes is my life friend and mate. There is no one else one else on the planet I’d rather spend extended periods of time with, but—and it’s a big but—being alone for a while is often a good thing. I need to walkabout solo. The aloneness gives me time to sort through all the ideas running through my small brain and toss the thoughts that are dumb, wrongheaded, or useless, and maybe write down the thoughts that may lead somewhere interesting.

Blue Eyes and friends head off for another site that will no doubt include iconic Japanese structures and, because it is late autumn, brilliant red maple trees. I turn left at the front door of the hotel and start walking north toward the Imperial Palace. I know a reservation is needed for the tour. If I had an Imperial Palace I wouldn’t let just anyone come gawk either, particularly me. While I don’t have a reservation, I think I’ll go anyhow. Who knows what I’ll discover?

Being on your own in an unknown city is pure adventure in the sense that what you see and do are absolutely driven by your curiosity and timing. At one intersection, a bike rider crossing the street passes too close in front of a car. The car nips her back tire throwing her off balance for a moment. She regains her balance and rides on, not looking back… as if that sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. In North America, that same encounter would involve some hand gestures and an exchange of opinions. And if there were any lawyers around, and they are always loitering at busy intersections (sometimes with cardboard signs), they would be falling over each other handing out their cards.

Kyoto gets in your brain the way Paris does. On this trip I’ve only seen two big cities, Osaka and Nagoya and both seemed a jumble of buildings and warehouses, many on narrow streets. The first thing that stuck me about Kyoto was the wide boulevards, just like Paris. Looking at the map it became clear Kyoto was built on a grid. The buildings are still a jumble of sizes and styles like the other two cities, but Kyoto is elegant.

I’m hungry, so I start looking for a place to eat. A number of less expensive restaurants hang a red lantern outside and either post pictures of their food or put out actual plates of food, or at least realistic models, in the windows. As a patron, you simply point at the picture of the food you want or you haul the waiter outside and point at the displayed food that you want. It’s a struggle to covey the diversity of appearances and tastes in Japanese food. Last night, we had Shabu Shabu, where you dip thinly cut meat in boiling water and watch it turn gray. Then you boil vegetables until they get soft. While the process and resulting meal sounds slightly dreadful to western tastes, the meat and veggies were superb.

But I’ve had enough Japanese food. Checking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being observed by anyone on the tour, I duck into McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin with Sausage. Wonderful, and only 450 calories and about half of my daily recommended consumption of salt.

As I walk, I note a propensity to avoid eye contact by both the bicyclists on the sidewalk and my fellow pedestrians. I don’t see any bike lanes in Kyoto even though I’d guess that Japanese have been commuting by bike for a good deal longer than North Americans. They simply weave through sidewalk pedestrians on cruiser bikes that are a tad thinner and thus more maneuverable than our cruiser bikes.

Like all cyclists everywhere, the riders watch everything happening in front of them and to their sides with a constant, sweeping eye movement. The riders see my eyes but there is no recognition in their eyes other than that I am an object to be avoided. I’m amazed that pedestrians aren’t routinely run down but it never appears to happen.

I’m not big on eye contact, or at least I don’t have that weird compulsion to look everyone in the eye. I think my feeling about eye contact is born of a sense of privacy. Eyes convey a good deal, often eyes convey what a person is thinking. I’m not sure I want anyone to know what I’m thinking. Not that what I’m thinking is particularly unique, it’s just that they are my thoughts that I don’t choose to share. That’s what writing is for.

So for a non-eye contact person like me to note a lack of eye contact in another nationality is indicative of a cultural aversion, something innate in the Japanese. It could be shyness, it could be superiority, after all I am clearly not Japanese, or maybe it’s just fear that I’m going to ask them something that they will be unable to answer because they don’t understand my mountain patois.

When you walk a major city street in North America it is absolutely clear that we, as a people, came from everywhere. In a sense we are all mongrels and that’s a very good thing, one of our many strengths as North Americans. Japan is a heterogeneous society. It’s a good bet a researcher could trace most Japanese back to five hundred families 10,000 years ago. Point is, you don’t see many other nationalities in Japan, Japan doesn’t take in refugees, emigrating to Japan is difficult, and Japan has a long history of subjugating other nationalities with great prejudice…ask the Koreans or Chinese.

Even when I tried to make eye contact with bike riders or Japanese pedestrians I just couldn’t make it happen. It could be that one of the Japanese outside rules is not to make eye contact with anyone. Later in the day I was walking through food stalls in a covered alleyway and saw a cook in a glass booth frying dumplings. He sensed I was watching him and looked up. I smiled and he smiled back. It was a nice moment across nationalities. But on the street there was a sense of being studiously avoided.

My rambling includes a bookstore. Having spent my entire career in the book business, I’m curious about the bookstores of other countries because I miss being in big North American cities and cruising bookshops. These selfsame independent bookstores have been run out of business, first by corporate, chain-store greedheads and now by internet-discounted sales from another set of megalomaniacs. But it is nice to note a resurgence of sorts in the North American bookselling business. Reading a real book is an all around better experience than reading a book on a screen of any type. Yeah, I know I just bit the hand that feeds me because you are reading this on a screen. But hey, technology is a tool, this technology has probably helped more people read, but to really enjoy the full experience of reading, you need a physical book.

The real difference between North American bookstores and Japanese bookstores is that while Japan is all about esthetics and in many ways is a design-driven country, Japanese book design is pretty rudimentary and most books have plain but readable spines. The racks in a Japanese bookstore look like journal collections in a library. I thought to buy a kid’s book because the interior art was so fine but settle on a finely bound blank notebook and one of those pens with four colors of ink. I look forward to causing trouble with both.

The walk continues to the Imperial Palace that is entirely surrounded by a high wall. I’m a backcountry person. Fences, walls, gated communities all offend me. This wall was built as a military installation, there are 180 degree fields of fire stretching three hundred yards in all directions from the walls of the Palace. I marvel at how imposing the walls must have looked to an attacking foot soldier.  Like an old rock climber looking for a route upward, I look for weaknesses in the walls, places that could be breeched or climbed. I laugh at my neurosis of always being the outsider trying to get inside. I walk all the way around the Palace and then head back in the direction I had come I except that I’m walking side streets back to the hotel instead of on a boulevard.

These streets are about a car and half wide with a white stripe along either side like a bike lane in North America, but in this case, the white line indicates a sidewalk of sorts. I imagine that if a taxi nailed you inside the white line there might be trouble. I like small streets in other countries because that’s where folks live. Amazing what you can see, hear and smell if you pay attention on these streets. I find a number of restaurants worth visiting on the next trip, small shrines, gates to beautiful courtyards, a bike shop, flower shop, soshi screen shop and end up in a covered alleyway filled with food vendors including a number of fishmongers.

Just as I am about to head back to the hotel and the shuttle to Osaka I pass a fish stand where sashimi is being sold and walked on by. I get about a100 yards away and turned around, grumpy at myself for not taking the chance to eat raw fish from a food stand in an alleyway. There are three pieces of fish on a stick with a couple squeezes of lemon that cost 200 yen or about $1.80. I buy two. They are delicious.

Blue Eyes was waiting for me in the lobby.

“Where did you go?”

“Walkabout.”

“What did you see?”

“Many wonderful and curious things.”

“Time for you to go home.”

“Yes, Grasshopper.”

Alan Stark is back from his travels in Japan with this Blue-eyed person. He’ll wrap-up this five part series with the last installment sometime soon. He is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller for the Forest Service who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge.

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