Culture Shock! Hiking the Narrow Roads of the Deep North

This past month I finally bought myself a Fukushima trail map, in preparation for the coming summer. I think I need some more maps, however. Just arriving in Japan last year, I had pretty low confidence on navigating roads, and reading posted signs about land usage etc. so I refrained from any major excursions. To be honest, after going on a minor hike through a nature park last spring, I got stopped and questioned by the police. I was terrified, and since they took so much time running my papers and were asking me all sorts of questions even though they had said something to the effect of “this is just a patrol,” I got really freaked out and worried that I did something wrong. So anyway, this Sunday was going to be my first adventure guided purely via the guidance of my shiny new map I had been staring at for a few weeks…Friday of course, I had a flashback to the first hike that I went on in Virginia. At that time, I had a map and choose a trail that a guidebook had recommended. After walking for a few miles, my friend and I found that we had inadvertently wandered quite a ways off trail. I pulled out my compass and map and set us back on route, (which meant that we would be following a stream bed for a ways until it linked us back to the trail) but in the depths of that I had to surrender my extra food and water to my companion to keep his spirits up while dealing with his questioning, “Are you sure that that is North?”

Anyways, as I searched my belongings for a compass around 8PM, I realized that my compass was probably sitting in a garage in America, so I had to go buy a new one. Consequentially I learned from my local gear supplier that I needed a refresher course on how to use a compass properly. (What , me who constantly confuses East and West, forget how to use a compass? Yes.) What with GPS, familiar geographic regions with easily memorized routes, and just plain carelessness, I had gotten rather complacent and let any trace of mountaineering skills go out the window…

Which brings me to Saturday morning: It’s hot, humid and freight trains roll by apartment one after the other. I check my phone for the time 4:30, and note a missed call and several text messages that came in while I was asleep. Vulgar words and photographs sent by a co-worker I had met once at a training conference months ago. I regretted having a smart phone instantly, and decided that rather than get pissed off that there was no option to send an electrocute offender button, I might as well just get an early start to the day, since the weather forecast was sketchy and my ambitions high.

I followed my map to the projected start point to find that the route was closed. No problem, I took a new bearing and went to a more accessible start point…and man was I tired, and just ready to have a gentle wander rather than a great adventure. So I found that I was walking along the Shin-Oku-no-Hosomichi (the new narrow roads of the deep north)a walking trail network whose segments connects all of the Tohoku region.

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I circumnavigated some lakes, and found the alternate and unlabeled access point to the trail that I had originally wanted to take…The first trail blaze was an ominous red circle spray painted above a bear scratched tree.


It was then that, I pulled out my compass to confirm and I had that dumb moment where I realized that reading very clearly labeled Japanese maps was challenging, and that though compasses will point you where you want to go, you don’t always believe the route they are telling you to take. It’s kind of a cruel joke.

Anyway, I had already decided at this point that I was going to be returning to my home before the weather changed, so I just wanted to scout the trail out for future use. I maybe went a kilometer or two, and it was obvious that if it rained, this trail would be treacherous, and it would be easy to get lost. There were a lot of small streams with the potential to get glutted in the event of rain, and the trail was narrow enough that a misstep in wet weather could send you down a steep slope. In addition to this, the trail had a number of fairly small downed trees that made continuously sight lining the route fairly challenging. This is something I would call my first clearly defined moment of Culture Shock! There are some common flora and fauna between Japan and America, but the environment is clearly different. I had a moment of rediscovering that after a year of fairly routinized adventure, and heavy language study that I had no knowledge base of the environment to back me up in the event of an emergency. It was sad to admit it, but ultimately, I’m a child here in Japan. So now have an inventory of things that I need to learn about if I want to become familiarized with the lay of the land here! It might take a lifetime…However, I felt happy that I had located this trail, and now it’s filed away for a day with better weather!

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Rainy season

A warm wet breeze in the height of the rainy season blows across my face as I walk along the center of an unilluminated back road with my arms stretched out. It’s an overarchingly rainy and gray weekend, pierced with moments of undeniable clarity in the midst of the night. The moon is smudged into the sky like a golden fingerprint carelessly left by God. The sound of thirsty grass blowing in the wind calls for more showers like a rain stick might. The buzz of power lines tickles the back of my brain. The running water in the gutters gurgles and cools my senses as if they might have overheated. The calling voices of the frogs in the rice paddies reminds me how easily I could be covered in mud.

The damn breaks open. I allow myself to speak out loud. I allow myself to become wise and knowing. I allow myself to be that person who pours a cup of tea for the nth stranger who has just burst into tears on my couch and pats their back. I allow myself to be not only the person who listens, but who offers a firm and guiding hand.






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Notes on a Winter’s evening


It’s 0 degrees and snowing in the year 2015. I crack open the cold beer that I was going to drink last night.

Because the week was long, and the snow fall heavy, I passed out before I ever got to drink. Worried about the trains, I cancelled my usual plans for the evening. Exhausted from a week’s work I feel asleep before I even finished dinner. The truth is that I had a lot that I wanted to write about.

Maybe writing makes me tired.


It’s 2008. I am in my yurt, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I have set gnocchi to boil on the single electric burner I call a stove. In the silence of the snow, the engine of his truck grinds to a halt. He walks through the door and plops down on my futon praying aloud, “Please let her finish cooking before the power goes out.” I drain the steaming water, and an instant later the telltale click occurs in tandem with my space heater and table lamp shutting off.

“Thank you,” he says.

Two feet of snow blanketed the roof that night.


In the morning, the ring of an axe and the crack of splitting wood resound through the air as I approach my friend’s house. I’m (probably) wearing my snow boots, a fleece skirt, and army fatigues over a buckskin bra. They live a short walk down the trail from me, and they have a real wood stove which they were running at full blast to melt down snow for hot tea and drinking water.

I didn’t mind the cold back then…I loved being able to stop by a friend’s unannounced.


It’s 2012. And the power is out in Olympia Washington. I sit in my friend the Coyote’s den as it fills up with smoke from the fire place. Outside someone under the guise of a wise man is cooking a hearty meal on the charcoal grill. Inside is filled with cackles of laughter as we fill a scrabble board with made up words. It seems that few here go by their legal name.


It’s 2013 and I am contemplating the pursuit of a certain peak in Utah. The last person I saw was a black bear, and the snow is up to my shins on the main trail. I sit recessed into a clearing, heating up dinner and drying out my shoes. The sun sets, and the night is growing colder. Several deer visit me, but I drive them away. Eventually I decide that my fully lofted down sleeping bag is not warm enough, and that no, I’m not really prepared to be in bear country. I roll up camp and hike down the mountain underneath the cover of starlight.



It’s 2015, January. The wind outside is wicked, and my fingers are bright red from the cold despite the fact that my heater is on. I am out of beer, and ready to fall asleep.




One of the major reasons why I do not converse much in Japanese is because, I dislike misunderstandings. If you look at the numbers, you can understand why I can’t do conversation.

In my current situation, when I am reading I understand about 3,200 words. However, that does not mean I have perfect understanding when conversing. Furthermore, daily conversation requires about 5,000 words. When I’m participating in daily conversation, I have to guess at least 15% of the material! The active vocabulary of an average college graduate is about 10,000 words (31%). This kind of margin for error is gigantic!

That said, a little bit after 8am this morning, someone with whom I had just become acquainted wanted to talk about my opinions on international politics in a room with a number of reporters. YEAH RIGHT. I’ll take a rain check on that one.





A visit to the book store

I was in the book store today, and I really started looking for a book I might be able to read…

I saw one that seemed to be labeled as a part of Japan’s zero tolerance for bullying campaign. Thinking that was relevant to my work as a teacher I picked it up…I was surprised at how well I could understand the story through the first few pages. It was about a 15 year old girl who had dreams to be a scuba diver, and have a nice family of her own. Of course aspiring to have a home and husband is either pervasive (or for some weird reason one of the few topics I can understand, hence pervasive) in literature targeted at females in Japan. It was written for young adults. Then I decide to translate the title (which I could not read before opening the book) and it was something to the effect of, “My Suicide Note.”

I instantly didn’t want that sort of book to be the first full length work that I purchased. I put it down and walked away.