Saturday, March 22, 2014

Passing Through Cedar

A Shared Culture

When I'm in Japan I feel happiest and most comfortable when I'm hiking.

When I pass another hiker in rain gear on the trail, a cheery "konnichiwa" is enough said. We look at each other, knowing we are sharing the same experience.

A shared culture across different cultures lets me belong.

Pursuit of Nothing

A couple weeks ago I read Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It resonated with me, and I suspected it would similarly connect with Kathy, a fellow twitterer back in wintery Minnesota. I passed on a copy to her.

Later, Kathy tweeted this quote to me: "I run in order to acquire a void." She gets it, I get it. Murakami was writing about running, but he could have been describing my experience of good hiking.

What is a "Good" Hike?
While I was hiking this past week through Yakushima's primeval cedar forests, I realized I had been at the same point on the trail earlier. I couldn't understand this, so I pulled out my GPS and examined the crumb trail. I had doubled back on myself half a mile back, but how was this possible?

I didn't feel fazed, I got to enjoy an extra mile of passing through this ancient forest.

When I reached the point where I had unwittingly backtracked, I was curious why I had done this. Previously, at that point I had wandered off the trail, realized it, then looked for the pink tapes on trees marking the trail. Eventually, I spotted a pink tape, and started following the trail, but in the "wrong" direction.

But it was not the wrong direction. Yes, I backtracked, but my goal was to enjoy the trail, not to get between two points with the minimum effort.

But What About the Sights?
Blocking the view
People ask me: "What did you see?"

They're just being polite. I try to be polite, but I struggle to single out "the sights." How many waterfalls did I see? Which was the best? How many monkeys did I see? Truth is, that's not why I hike.

Matsuo Bashō, a much-loved long distance walker in 17th century Japan helps me here. OK he is also a great writer, a sensei, and much more.

Bashō 's The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a classic. His spare prose and haiku convey much more than any gushy writing could ever convey. The absence of words says more than the presence of words.
Fleas and lice biting; / Awake all night / A horse pissing close to my ear
His haiku would make great tweets.

There are gaps in his descriptions of the scenery. He continues to write about people and the minutiae of travel, but there are these scenery gaps.

Why is this?

One suggestion is these were areas of outstanding beauty, where he felt other writers had already provided sufficient description. He was not going to try to better them.

He saw himself as being in a continuum of writers, building on the past, gifting to the future. "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old. Seek what they sought."

Bashō absolves me of the need to describe the beauty of a particular hike. To pick out one or two items, a waterfall here, a monkey there, ignores the continuous joy of the space I am moving through and the moods it evokes. I'm learning to see life as an aggregation of little things.

A single drop of water falling from an ancient cedar root is beauty enough for me.

In case you are wondering, I saw one monkey. (I expect many saw me.) I didn't count the waterfalls or select a favorite. The most overused Bashō quote is probably "Each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home." I agree, but I can't bring myself to lead with this over-loved quote.

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