It is a truism of life abroad that you come to expect the unexpected. I think this is probably true of everyone’s experience at one time or another, but for clueless me, it’s practically a way of life.
Last week, I was invited to dinner at a colleague’s house. The circumstances were celebratory, as our students had just graduated, and there were a number of other teachers and staff also in attendance.
The dinner was phenomenal (homemade fried chicken and gyoza, or potsticker-style dumplings), the company well-lubricated. After dinner, at the behest of those assembled, I was obliged to reveal a few of America’s more… shall we… colorful crudities, in exchange for some of the same in Japanese. Since you’re no doubt wondering, “trouser-snake” was the best received.
(NOTE: Later, when I said that I found it difficult to talk to Japanese girls with my fledgling Japanese, one of my more boisterous colleagues replied, “No, no, no… snaaaaake,” as he made a lassoing motion.)
As the evening went on, someone mentioned Mt. Unzen, the active volcano which is also the highest mountain on the hanto and its most popular destination for sightseers. I hadn’t climbed Unzen yet, but wanted to, and said as much.
Well, as it turns out, one of the people at the table was planning to a lead a group of the just-graduated elementary school 6th graders on a hike up Unzen the next Tuesday as a sort of send-off. And, Tuesday being a holiday, wouldn’t I like to come?
Sure, I would. Why not? I wanted to climb Unzen, and better still, this was an opportunity to get to know some of my students a little better to boot. An ideal way to spend a midweek holiday, to be sure.
Now, I was told that the hike would take all day, which I found surprising given that Unzen–as climbed from the most popular starting point at Nita Pass–is only a handful of kilometers each way, a few miles at the most. And while the elevation gain was reasonable, I was under the impression that it could be done quite leisurely in a couple of hours.
But I didn’t question the estimate. After all, things take longer than you’d imagine in Japan, what with the opening ceremonies, the closing ceremonies, and the other random niceties which must be observed. And, of course, doing anything with kids takes twice as long. Pictures will be taken, lunches will be eaten, and with all that factored in, you’ve nearly filled the day right up.
So on Tuesday morning I hauled my habeas corpus out of bed at 5:15 and arrived at the school half-an-hour later. There were already students and families assembled. I piled my backpack into a car and tried to half-listen as some speeches were given in Japanese. Then, after some clapping, the male students–and the trip-leader who had invited me–walked out of the parking lot.
I just stood there. One of the things that happens to you when you don’t understand the language is that you become rather tentative about taking any definite action. It’s easier to avoid faux pas through inaction, so unless I’m told explicitly otherwise, I find myself playing “wait and see” to determine if something is okay.
Well, after a few seconds, one of my colleagues explicitly yelled at me, “Go!!!” And with that I shuffled off after the group.
As I jogged to catch-up, I admit, I was confused. Aren’t the cars back there? I hope we aren’t going to do some warm-up or something. I didn’t wear my running shoes. Aren’t the cars back there?
It wasn’t until we passed the junior high school, and the playing field, and the edge of town, that I realized: those cars weren’t for us. We’re walking. The whole way. All day.
Now, while this came as a surprise to me and me alone, it wasn’t cause for too much concern. After all, my cohort consisted of two adult men and two dozen chicken-legged prepubescent boys. If they could do this, surely it would be no problem for bacon-eatin’, beard-growin’, horse-tamin’, tree-cuttin’ American Man.
It also didn’t seem like cause for concern because I had no idea how far it actually was, only that it was farther than I had expected.
Well, I know how far it is now, give or take. Google Maps lists the distance at around 32 kilometers, or about 20 miles, which doesn’t account for elevation-gain. (We started at sea-level, and Fugendake–the highest accessible, non-volcanic peak–is 4,459 feet.) I suspect that the distance is slightly less than that, since we were off-roading from time to time, but not considerably so.
Heisei Shinzan, the active volcano peak.
And indeed, it took all day. We left at 6:00am, we reached the summit around 3:00pm, and I got back to Kazusa (by car, this time, from Nita Pass) at just before 5:00.
There were a number of stops along the way. Although only the 6th grade boys, myself, and the two trip-leaders completed the entire trip on foot, we were joined for long portions by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, both older and younger. (The female 6th graders met up with us at the first stopping point and completed the remainder of the trip, probably the last 75 percent.) It was actually quite the community event, with support vehicles driving by periodically with candy, water, and the like. And everyone climbed the last stretch together.
Intrepid mountaineers, all (first to the top.)
In the meantime, the kids turned me into a human Yak Bak, saying Japanese words in strangely-inflected ways on command. And while this did get old (for me, not for them) after about the 60th phrase, if you can’t handle something like that for a couple of hours, this job probably isn’t for you.
I don’t have to tell you how remarkable it is that a 20-mile uphill trek is considered a popular community event for 12-year-olds and their parents. It’s true that Japanese kids looooove video games, but unlike too many American children, they also do stuff like this to balance it out. I can’t imagine something like this drawing anything but ire from the majority of American students.
They wouldn't let me take the gondola to the top.
A good look at the path of destruction wrought by the last eruptions (1991-95).
Sean, the random American tourist we ran into on the summit. My students insisted we were "friends" and demanded that I pose for a picture with him. (He was a good sport.)
Although entirely unexpected, this was a wonderful event, and I’m glad to have been a part of it. Unfortunately, if a 20-mile walk is a rather vigorous test of healthy knees, my left failed. It didn’t keep me from summiting, and didn’t even slow me down too much, but it did hurt–quite a bit by the end of the day. And if, as the doctors at Aino told me on my last visit, there was “no problem,” that shouldn’t be the case.
If you’re a doctor (or play one on TV!), and want to help me plot my next move, you know where to find me.