Weekend in the Mountains

“The bleakness I saw the night before turned out to be beautiful ordinary life that was only hidden in plain sight.” A short narrative of one of my most memorable trips in Japan.

I exited the building where I was bombarded with foreign words, pushed into impromptu discussions regarding the meaning behind an old lady’s smile in a story I can’t even remember anymore. It was a long week, and I had enough of trying my best. The moment those elevator doors opened, I forgot about whatever we were talking about that day. Today was the day I was going to travel far, and no hardworking student was going to guilt me into spending some extra hours studying. On a Friday of all days.

I imagined one of those diligent students who occasionally attempted to befriend me. I imagined them asking me to stay longer, but it was a futile attempt. I was ready to fight anyone who stood in my way to get to that sweet hot spring I had been dreaming about for weeks. It’s moments like these which would probably change people’s mind about my calm and polite demeanor - the same facade most people would put on in this country. Moments like those made me think about how this country had changed me, or if I was like this even before coming here. I tend to believe the latter is true.

Ground floor, I briskly walked over the overpass that overlooks the Ferris wheel. I knew I had little time left, and the autumn wind made sure that I wouldn’t forget that it was going to get darker a lot earlier. I had made my plans, and they involved taking the long way to mountain country, where the earth was so unsettled, that some people decided it would be a very good idea to bathe in its anger – I concur with their decision.

I picked up my luggage from the station locker, got on the commuter train and headed to my first transfer. The trains here let you know what time of year it is, what time of day it is, and if there’s a flu around - you could do this by just looking around. Who do you see? An old lady dressed formally? It’s probably midday, she’s off to a formal affair, or more likely, off to meet an old ‘friend’ she hasn’t seen in a while. Why is she dressed so glamorous you ask? Well she has to look her best, she can’t very well let her friend think she’s not doing well - it’s a silent battle of vicious politeness. Do you see young ones in their uniforms? It’s probably six o’clock, for some reason the children in this country get out of school late. See people wearing face masks? It means you probably already have the flu incubating inside you, yet you stop by the convenience store on your way home, convinced that it will protect you from contagion. Who knows, maybe those ads really do work. Truth be told, the reason outsiders like us do it is in order to avoid stern stares when we happen to sniffle or sneeze.

While I usually love people watching on trains, today was different; it was all about me and nature. I looked outside as the blur of trees reminded me that autumn still hadn’t fully arrived for them in this city.

First transfer

I looked at my phone, confirmed the trains I was taking, and made sure I had extra time. The main reason I wanted that extra time was to spend my hard earned cash in paying for first class seats on the train. By hard earned I mean five years of graduate school and thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Nonetheless, I hit the jackpot, and my beloved university decided to pay for everything while I was abroad. It finally paid off, I often thought to myself.

I got on the green car. My roommate would find it funny that I would often spend extra money on the comforts of first class when I could as easily save it and spend that money otherwise… but no, life is more than working, studying, grades, salaries… life is more than just struggling, and Japan taught me that, an ironic statement for a country criticized for its overworked workforce.

The green car was quiet. I tapped my Suica card up top and prepared for long hours of relaxation. Something about being in a two-level train car, raised above the others gave me a sense of luxury that I thoroughly enjoyed. For years I focused solely on saving money and making ends meet, but now that I have this opportunity, I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. I was here to live it. By living it, I mean staying in this middle of nowhere hot spring hotel in Yamanashi, far from my actual destination: Mt. Fuji. I did it because of the unbeatable price, and because I wanted to see that part of the country.

Second Transfer

The fatigue started building up, and I decided to take advantage of these seats and rest for a while. I had around two hours left on my trip, and could easily doze off and put an alarm. Alas, I failed to fall fully asleep, and even though night had come, I insisted on looking out the window. I mainly saw the reflection of other passengers, and in their faces, the constellation of lights from households along the tracks and in the mountains. They slowly started becoming fainter, kind of like how the stars slowly evaporate with the morning sunlight, only that instead of sunlight, darkness and nothingness were burning them away.

Before I knew it, I was getting close to my destination. I faintly remember that it was late, around eight in the evening. The name of my destination popped up on the screen in front of the train car. Foreigners that are familiar with the language can attest to the fact that you can measure distance by how much harder it gets to read the names of places the farther you go.

The moment I stepped off that train, I was hit by a frigid wind. The children here were dressed in their winter uniforms, and rightly so. It was a lot colder than the coastal city of Yokohama. I made my way to the final transfer, a small commuter train that looked surprisingly new and modern for such a remote, middle of nowhere locale. My destination was near the end of the line. I looked at my phone again, making sure I was following the route. I was getting a little anxious that I was out and about in the middle of the night in a place I didn’t know. I suddenly forgot about the safety this country seemed to provide me on a daily basis, with the exception of potential catastrophic earthquakes and radioactive fish.

I got off, and only three or four people got off with me. Some took their bicycles, and others walked. The app said it was a good ten-minute walk, so I thought it would be silly to call a cab. Needless to say, I regretted that decision once I realized that I was lost. The roads here made less sense than they did in the metropolis that is Tokyo and Yokohama. It felt like I was back in Puerto Rico, in the middle of nowhere on the island. Streets barely lit, a distinct lack of sidewalks, run down paths and overgrown grass. This city was laid out to be traversed by cars, and I was ignorant to think I didn’t need one.

I eventually found my way into a residential area after crossing the main road dividing what seemed to be two neighborhoods. It was hard to keep track of what was what. There were houses, and apartment buildings. It was definitely populated, but the lack of light and most importantly, the lack of sound made it seem uninhabited. In a nation where the priority of social harmony and sacrificing yourself for the sake of others is pervasive, I felt as if the sounds of my luggage rolling on the street was almost an offense to this unspoken rule. I kept pushing forward, and at one point I was met with complete darkness. It was scary, and surreal. I kept walking along the road, and felt comforted when I saw a middle-aged woman ahead of me doing the same. On the rare occasion that cars passed through that path, their light momentarily revealed bleak surroundings. Though the worst was how the light left you blinded in the darkness, when your eyes had finally adjusted to it, all I saw were lights and colors floating. After a good five minutes, I literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and once I looked to my left, I saw the sign for the hotel I was staying.

I made a final sprint to get to my destination, and was greeted by, well, no one. It felt a bit like a haunted place. I took my shoes off and slipped on the sandals they provide. Like always, they were too small for me. The reception had a bell, I diffidently tapped it and someone came. It was one of those rare occasions where the employee actually engaged with me in his language and treated me no differently. Maybe it was because it would’ve been near impossible for someone not proficient in the tongue to reach this middle of nowhere hotel in Yamanashi, especially by himself. After a quick exchange and payment, I got my key and got the usual explanation of the amenities. The main reason I picked this place was because it had a hot spring. The reviews were decent, and most people talked about the baths more than anything. Nonetheless it didn’t prepare me for the utter depressive room I was staying in. To be honest, it was clean, and the bed was comfortable. The primary offense was the god awful fluorescent lighting that flickered every now and then, made more apparent by the lack of windows. I wondered again if I had made a mistake, but then I remembered my apartment in Yokohama.

A small run down place, with a bathroom so small, that when I would sit on the toilet, my knees would touch the walls. It was useful when I had migraines, though. I could get an ice pack and rest my head against the wall in front of me. Then there was the shower. It was this small cube raised from the floor with a pallet. Behind you was the washing machine, also raised up by a pallet. The water of both would go directly through the rough concrete floor into a drain in the middle of this mold fabricator. It was a distinct contrast to the overflow of technology and refinement that is abound everywhere else. Consequently, I stopped complaining about my hotel room once I remembered that.

I headed downstairs to the baths. It was full of middle aged men that seemed exhausted but content. My height and facial features usually give me away from afar, but I surprisingly felt like I was blending in. It probably helps that I walk confidently about the baths fully naked, knowing the proper etiquette empowers you with a weird sense of camaraderie with your fellow men - the repressive social customs that play such a prominent role in defining the other can be used to your advantage when you know how to act. Granted, it doesn’t always work, and some simply stand out more than others because of who they are. Whether it’s their skin, hair, height, mannerisms, voice, or more importantly in this place, to what degree can you keep to yourself. It’s almost as if trying to hide feelings was the norm… but is that really the case?

After living here for several months, I began to question what was better, and I simply couldn’t come up with an answer. To the surprise of my American friends, I found the “repression” liberating. What I found oppressive was people being too direct and blunt. In this place, it is anything but direct and straightforward. Everyone tiptoes around the most mundane social interactions, involving a constant exchange of thank yous and sorrys - all in the name of avoiding conflict. Compared to where I grew up in, this seemed like a peaceful paradise, even though my rational mind understood that underneath it all, it’s just as messed up as any other place. Yet it’s hard to negate the sense of calm and safety that you feel here, even if you have to sometimes cry in a corner like the woman standing next to the vending machines during our lunch break. You could only see her shoulders tremble every now and then. You’d think she was maybe containing her laughter of some joke if you didn’t know any better. After letting it out, you could see that her face was full of dignity, despite what the puffy eyes and napkins seemed to indicate. No shame in crying, as long as it’s not inconveniencing others.

I began the ritual of bathing. Sitting down in a plastic chair that has touched many butts, unaffected by the fact that none of these things are sanitized after use, or that you’re about to go into the non-chlorinated water and bathe naked in front of others. I would chuckle at myself, mainly because all of those thoughts would cross my head but I didn’t care. They were just the echoes of friends and family members that don’t understand the joys of a long and refined bath culture. I took my shower and headed to the spring water. I carefully put the towel above my head, went to a corner, sat down, and submerged until the water reached my shoulders.

The only sound around me was that of the hot water dripping, the occasional splash as someone would dip in the cold water bath - the water overflowing every time someone submerged and lunged out. I tried it myself, it was an amazing feeling, like a natural high. Occasionally someone would moan as probably one of their knots on their backs got undone, again, I chuckled inside. After a while, I was drunk from the hot water and lazily headed to bed.

The morning after I headed out to Mt. Fuji. I felt ridiculous of being nervous the previous night when I saw how incredibly serene and ordinary the town was. The elderly working on their fields, children heading to school on their bikes, mothers making breakfast. The bleakness I saw the night before turned out to be beautiful ordinary life that was only hidden in plain sight. I stopped for a moment, when I noticed a solitary object in the distance. At first I couldn’t make out what it was. Like when you look at a minimalistic map of the world and mistakenly think the oceans are continents and the continents are oceans. Once I made sense of it, I was in awe of how grand Mt. Fuji looked from here. That’s where I was headed, and these people had the blessing to wake up to such a sight every day. Yet even though I was in awe by the serenity, the natural beauty, the ordinary, everyone around me was unfazed and simply lived their lives in peace. I got to the train station, still in a daze from the uneventful paradise around me. A girl was racing to get to the station on her bike. She hurried, parked her bicycle, and came up to the platform. Suddenly I noticed something with each cyclist arriving: no one was locking their bikes. They simply parked them at the station and kept going. That suddenly snapped me out of my daze and I was suddenly in a state of shock. There are actually places that are safe like this? I grew up in a city where you could get your car window broken just for having an old VHS tape in the back of your vehicle, this was completely new to me. I got on the train, looking back at all the unlocked bikes, like their owners, they felt safe in their surroundings, and were just being.