Hiking Course

My ears can’t pick out the sound right away. Too filled up with the wind playing through the leaves and bending the bamboo trees, and foreign to the soundscape of this trail. It’s been so empty of people, I’d not expected a human sound, those staccato patterns we make against the smoothness of nature. The sound sifts through, a spade shoveling beach sand. The picture plays out before the image of the unfamiliar forest, a much more known scene. The Atlantic waves rolling toward the shore, smacking the sand and spreading wide across the wet sand. Plastic bucket in hand, I am digging. The sun hot on my back.

The sun reaches down strong here, too. I wipe the sweat from behind my neck with a handkerchief and continue down the trail, softer now. Trying to blend back into the cacophony of the forest, trying to stay invisible. Around the trail the trees thin to bushes, and open onto a high embankment. Down below an old man bends over the earth, loosening the dirt of his field with some kind of large trowel. The instrument falls in a regular pattern. The clock ticking off seconds, as if he’s always been there in that position tending this empty field in the middle-of-nowhere. Back curved to bell-shape from the never-ending demand of his toil. What will he plant? The foreign root plants, I’ve seen in shopping centers, or more familiar produce. He continues like a hypnotizing metronome never seeming to tire, oblivious to his observer no more than four meters away.

I know the greeting that I could say; it would be my second human interaction of the day, perhaps his first words spoken to another today, this week even. A respite from the never ending work of the farmer preparing his land. Instead of speaking, I tiptoe back into the forest. Leaving his focus and our solitude intact. Just into the forest again I pass what must be his home. A traditional building, broken by time. The tiles slipping and held down my rocks in some places. A wooden porch decorated with other dirtied tools and a basket bicycle. Paper sliding doors to the inside of his humble life. There’s no sound from the home, no wife or children preparing him rice balls and tea to recuperate from his afternoon’s work. What a lonely life so isolated and without human contact. Much like my life back in the city. My housemate asleep still when I wake, and me in bed when she comes home; we could go days without ever seeing each other. Only movements of objects in the kitchen and dreamy sounds late at night any proof that she does actually exist.

The trail leads on into the forest, knuckled roots growing across the floor and branches hanging low, trying to retake this human made intrusion. I meet upon the occasional company of squat statues like miniature stone snowman alongside stone houses, a space carved out of the roofs for spirits or lamplights. I don’t know what they are or how old, or if Basho himself passed this way on his wanderings writing haiku to the little creatures. The silent witnesses to every traveller along this road.

Through a leaf archway the trail ends at a clearing opening onto a rebuilt traditional Japanese village. All one-story wooden and paper homes, quaint and silent. Almost too perfect, and eerie in the apparent absence of all life. Only the wind picks up and blows leaves and petals from surrounding wilderness along the road and into my face. The town seems to sleep. I walk through searching down each alley and peeking into each house, but no one is there.

I sit to rest and take refreshment on a porch. This place seems to have no purpose, no one bringing it to life. Perhaps it is not the season, or it was a plan gone wrong. Maybe people will one day come, but I find myself hoping they won’t. A rough noise breaks my thoughts–an engine. Soft first, then growing as it approaches. Nearer and nearer, it takes over the place of the wind and trees encompassing the whole area. The grinding cuts off, and seconds later is taken over by a group of Japanese voices. They appear around a corner, a fleet of retirees all necklaced by cameras in hiking uniforms of khaki pants, light cotton shirts, and brimmed hats. As they approach, my muscles wind, ready to make an escape from the crowd. But, spry for their age, the hiking retired will surround me before I can recap my water bottle and zip up my pack. Instead I hold my place, still and taking deep preparatory breaths. They’ve spotted me, the gaijin on her own, and a group of three break off toward me. Time to reenter the population, communicate with humans again.

“Kon’nichiwa, kon’nichiwa.” All smiles and greetings and dipping chins. My face remembers to return the smiles, and somehow I find my voice again, after a day spent speaking to no one. The one strongest with English, a petite woman with short hair and white bucket hat, takes the lead. We trade pleasantries, the usual questions–where are you from, what do you do, where are you staying in Japan.

“Are you here with a tour?” The woman asks.

“No, I came by myself. There’s a trail in the forest.”

“You’re alone?”

I nod.

“Ehhhhh!” It’s the typical Japanese sound of surprise, on a rising tone. She translates for her friends and they echo her shock.

“Can I take your picture?”

Probably the strangest request I’ve had, I am no celebrity, just a passer-through. Will she relate the tale to friends later on showing off the pictures? And this is a foreign girl, an English teacher from America who hiked through the forest all by herself. Her friends will all give an appreciatory “Ehhhhh”.

Not wanting to disappoint, I agree. She snaps the shot, just me alone. We trade the required Sionara and they rejoin their group.

The afternoon nears evening, the temperature is falling. I find my way to the bus stop. Back to Nagoya. Leaving a memory of myself with that woman, somewhere in Japan.

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