Something I really enjoy doing in Japan is going on random strolls. I wander about my town, diving down backstreets, searching for roads and paths I have never encountered before. I love the way you can find a beautifully maintained garden with bonsai and ornamental stone lanterns next to an unkempt yard with CDs hanging from fishing line to scare the crows, and full bottles of water lying around because of a misguided belief that, to a cat, nothing could be more terrifying. I love the smells that emanate from ramen and yakitori joints, I love the strained warbling that comes from a karaoke singer in a dingy Snack, and I love the vivid pinks and purples that appear in the trees and flowers at this time of year. I love seeing bent old ladies pushing carts along country paths, and a group of oldies playing gateball. Yesterday I saw an elderly chap, perhaps eighty years old, happily shuffling down the street lost in the business of eating an ice-cream cone and for some unknown reason it filled me with joy. Even in my town, which is so unexciting that I once appeared in the local newspaper with a headline that read something like, ‘Teacher Uses Colored Chips In Classroom!’, I am never bored. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking of expanding my walking horizons.
You see, until now most of my walking has been fairly urban. Well, as urban as you can get in a small town. Yes, I often walk through rice fields and tea fields and along country roads, but I am never far from shops and houses and I never step off to the side, off into the places where there are no paths and where all those bamboo trees are growing.
For a while now, though, I’ve been watching videos on Youtube by a fellow called Softypapa. He leaves the kinds of roads I walk on and clambers deep into the mountains, into places where he almost never meets another soul. He takes his video camera and shows us these places with the demeanor of a kindly uncle explaining nature to eager children. Along the way he points out something I would call a stone and explains it is an old road marker. He points out ancient markings upon it or shows how it has been carved. He stumbles across a pile of logs which I would think were just old and mushroomy bits of wood and tells us that what he has found is in fact a small example of shiitake farming. That old rusty metal rail cutting its way down the mountain slope is in fact an old tram-car line from days of old when farmers would use it to access hard-to-get-to and long since abandoned green tea and mikan fields. He calls insects by their names and talks of huntsman spiders and giant Asian hornets. He films them. Things that would have me running away and shrieking like a girl because they look big and stingy, Softypapa welcomes and in doing so he teaches us about them. I live near similar kinds of nature and yet, despite my best intentions, I never dig out my hiking boots and discover.
I suspect one reason for this is the nagging fear that lies at the back of my mind. It is the same fear that has most likely stopped me from ever going scuba diving and that fear is this: there are things there that might eat me. The Japanese mountains are home to bears. I know, I know, they are more scared of me than I am of them (doubtful, to be honest) and they will do all they can to avoid me but still, they are there and as long as I know that, how is it possible to relax? In the last video of Softypapa’s I watched, he discovered a frog grotto just off a mountain road. It was wonderful. He stepped into the bushes and, just a few metres in, he discovered this pond full of huge, copulating frogs. But, the thing is, the thing that made me realize I might have to remain an armchair trekker, was the manner in which Softypapa discovered this grotto. He was wandering along the road and he heard a rustling in the mountains on his left. Had that been me, I would have been taking deep breaths and thinking, ‘Don’t run, don’t run,’ while walking back down that path with the speed and clenched-buttock gait of a particularly good speed-walker. Softypapa didn’t. He shouted a few gentle ‘Hello’s and crept slowly into the area to see if he could see the animal. It remained hidden, but his reward was the enormous frogs.
I want to do those things. I want to see giant frogs and discover unknown waterfalls and be able to talk about ‘spoor’. I want to not be flummoxed by the names of any flowers that aren’t roses. I want to throw on a small backpack and head off early in the morning and come back as the sun sets. I want to sink into a bath, tired, scratched and bruised, but satisfied after a day of proper exploring. I still want to continue my safe rambling around town, but I want to go further and see the places few other people do. I want to be brave.