Cold Dry Wind

posted in: Japan, Journal, Walking | 33
Okutama Mukashimichi Mountains and Gorges
Mountains and gorges of Okutama.

The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.

Two more days and the new year begins.

Okutama Mukashimichi Rest Stop
The Okutama Mukashimichi Trail leading down toward the flatter section of the trail.

I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.

Okutama Mukashimichi Susuki Head
Autumn susuki grass seeds.

I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.

Okutama Mukashimichi Garden Bodhisatva
Bodhisatva statue in the midst of an overgrown garden filled with old figurines and flower pots.

Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.

Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.

Okutama Mukashimichi Lake Hillock
Tree-covered hillock overlooking the Okutama Lake Dam.

I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.

Okutama Mukashimichi Okutama Dam
View of Okutama Lake from Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.

Okutama Mukashimichi Wind Leaves
Leaves blowing in the wind along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail

I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.

Okutama Mukashimichi Forested Ridges
Forested ridges lit up by the last rays of the sun.
Okutama Mukashimichi Quiet Road
Quiet back country road along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Feathery Seeds
Feathery seeds ready to be blown to new seeing grounds.
Okutama Mukashimichi Old Well
Abandoned old covered well.

All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.

Okutama Mukashimichi Sunset
Sunset over the hills along the Okutama Mukashimichi.

Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.

Okutama Mukashimichi Bridge
Bridge over a ravine along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Car Tunnel
Approaching a car tunnel along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.

Okutama Mukashimichi Foundation Beech
Beech tree growing out of an abandoned house’s foundation.
Okutama Mukashimichi Stone Lantern
Abandoned stone garden lantern
Okutama Mukashimichi Shrine Chochin
Paper lanterns hanging outside a small shrine at Okutama Station.

I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.

Okutama Mukashimichi Me
Me, taking a break along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail

33 Responses

  1. Wonderful writing; stunning photos. I’ve missed this.

  2. Thanks Miguel for a very moving story, as well as wonderful photography. It is easy spend too much time planning, talking etc. about trips, it is better to just get out there and do it, no matter where you are in my view. Close to home is as good as far away. Enjoy

  3. Why do all my favourite outdoor photography blogs come from Japan?! Stunning images.

    Please don’t wait so long before sharing your world with us again.

  4. Amazing photographs and very moving writing, Miguel. I, too, have missed this. Hope this new year will be more fruitful and happy for you.

  5. Yes, stunning photographs, and great writing.

  6. Wonderful to hear from you in the New Year, and see your splendid photos!

  7. It’s been so long since I’ve written here that I forgot how different the conversations feel like compared to what goes on in Facebook and Twitter. And I’ve missed it. Thanks everyone for your words. I won’t be posting everyday the way I used to. It just takes way too much work to keep up, but I would like to do it regularly again and to concentrate more on being outdoors and photography. Hopefully it’ll get me out there much more often.

    Dave, thank goodness for RSS feeds! Most likely most of my old blog friends would be long gone by now if it weren’t for the old unlocking mechanism way down in the hold!

    Roger, welcome! I’ve been reading your blog for a while, so it is nice to share both ways our love for the outdoors. I hope we can share more stories and pictures this year. I’ve been getting a little tired of BPL these last few months… nothing but gear, gear, gear, and lately a growing focus on selling stuff, like a market. That’s certainly not why I love the outdoors. I want to get back to simply being out there. That’s why I loved Roger Caffin’s naming three national parks as his favorite gear this year!

    Joe, it is an honor having you here! Your writing and photography are powerful and spellbinding. You don’t know it, but reading your blog is part of what got me pining for the old blogging days again. And reading a lot of the outdoor bloggers recently, including yours, Roger, has gotten the old hiking bug ticking again.

    Maria! It’s been a long time among the blogs, hasn’t it? So wonderful to see you in this capacity again. I didn’t recognize your blog when I just clicked on it. I guess we’re all a’changin’ aren’t we.

    Pascale, funny how our friendship lives in this flat-screened, but far-reaching world. Blogging has connected me to more people than I ever thought possible, something that doesn’t work quite the same way on Facebook or Twitter, where I spend much more time these days, but feel oddly odd about. There it is mostly just banter and once-overs, here we actually have time to get to know each other and develop new friendships. It’s probably the single biggest thing I miss about blogging. Oh, and people’s great writing, photography, and artwork. Good to see you again.

  8. Wonderful, Miguel, very strong words, beautiful photos. Surprised to see no snow, though.

    Re: BPL, I agree with you, and had the same thought about Roger Caffin’s picks – they’re excellent. But then there’s the occasional good post, like Eugene’s trip report to the Desert Wasteland.

    Looking forward to read more from you in the future.

  9. Miguel I can’t tell you how pleased and delighted I am to have found the fresh work of yours today. Good for you!
    I also was going to go to Pategonia next month in celebration of my 50th. It fell through; I’ll try to write you separately in more detail about this. However, I hope you get to go this year as then I could go vicariously!
    Happy Belated birthday old Young friend!

  10. Miguel — great piece, beautiful photos. And yes, it’s totally different from Facebook and Twitter. I’ve missed seeing you like others have…

  11. Hello! I’m late to this party having followed the page from Chamber Moon.
    You have such a special way of writing with a sensory richness. Incredible sensitivity to the world around you, and deep awareness of self. I wish we were able to meet up to walk some time; it would be a wonderful experience!
    I am very much looking forward to knowing you through your blog, in addition to passing comments on Twitter and Facebook. My life is very much richer for counting you as a friend!

  12. Hendrick, for someone who puts as much effort into his own blog and does such a good job with it, it’s nice to hear that my own words make an impression. Thanks!

    Sally, it really has been much too long. I miss you my friend! Hopefully I’ll keep this going more regularly. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to make it to Patagonia this year. I’d have to go in the end of February or in March, but funds and school nonsense might make it impossible. We’ll see. I really want to do something for myself this year. Something unforgettable.

    Pica, as one of my oldest and most beloved blog friends I’m really sorry for my long silence and lack of activity. I’ve known you now for what, almost EIGHT YEARS though our blogs… what we’ve developed together is important, even outside the blogs.

    Helen, I’ve only recently gotten to know you, but it’s a joy talking with you and sharing our love of the outdoors, hiking, and laughter. I surely hope that we can get to know one another better in both our blogs as time goes on.

  13. To be honest I haven’t read a thing you wrote. I have just been staring at your pictures.

    Now that I have finished doing that I will read your blog. I hope it is half as good as your pictures!

  14. Wow. Beautiful words, arresting images. To be able to create either is a gift; both, a blessing.

  15. Greenie, I had to laugh when I read your words. I love the defiance at not taking my words seriously. I guess more bloggers need that… some kind of check to remind you that there is always something better. I’ve had a look at your blog. I want to go back and savor it more slowly. I love a lot of the blogs that have been coming out with outdoor themes.

    Glen, I’m so glad you stopped by! And honored that you enjoyed the post. I hope to be focusing mostly on getting outdoors, both walking and bicycling, and less on all the personal stuff I used to spend way too much time on. This year I want to make into a year filled with time under the sky.

  16. A “year filled with time under the sky” — what a wonderful New Year’s resolution! Not much more special than that, I guess, unless it’s you taking more pictures and writing for us to share. My suggestion for something special to do for yourself this year? Put together and self-publish or make an e-book of just such writings as this post, especially featuring Japan. I’d love to buy it!

    The pictures here are just as if you were inside my head, pulling out memories of walks and sights that used to be everyday ones for me, but are now completely out of reach, except through your wonderful photographs. A spectacular return to blogging and a fine gift to readers and ex-pats — from Japan.

    The Happiest New Year to you, Miguel!

  17. Wow, Miguel. Such moving words and images. I really hope that you do get “much time under the sky” this year. You voice has been very much missed.

  18. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? I guess I don’t need to add anything, just reiterate — wonderful writing and gorgeous photos.

    Fingers crossed for your plans ;^)

  19. Vegetablej, I’m glad that the pictures invoke those feelings and the sense of being there. That’s what I hope to do more than anything, since it’s places that I want to write about and bring alive.

    I’m still putting together this website. I now regularly post to the photoblog… it’s much easier than trying to get essays or articles written… and I’m still in the process of designing the drawing blog and story blog. I think by dividing the different media up I can blog more regularly and give myself a change of pace. The regular, journal blog often takes a lot out of me, so something without words, and with the drawing blog, humor, will be a great change of pace.

    Dondo, a lot of trying to figure out what I want to and can focus on in writing the blog came from your blog. I like your focus and the dedication to writing about your walks. My blog has evolved a lot since I started in 2003, when mostly it was as a protest against the Afghan and Iraq wars. Now I want to write most about what I love and what will bring me most satisfaction when I go back to read what I’ve written over the years.

  20. Butuki: many thanks for conjuring up, in this perfectly balanced composition of text and image, the serenity of a winter afternoon in Okutama. How “natsukashii”! Your post reminds me what a definite character this valley has – not as in-your-face as the Northern Alps or the Kurobe, but just as memorable – indeed, the river that runs through it is a mini-Kurobe all on its own, as your header picture shows. And, yes, the country roads bend to the landscape as if in homage. I particularly like the photo of the derelict hut – the wabi and sabi run to about 50-proof…..

  21. Miguel,its really great to see new places through your eyes and experience them a little through your writing. Sending very warm wishes and a belated birthday hug!

  22. Hyakumeizan, thanks. I really like your writing, too, and you have similar experiences and feelings about the mountains in Japan as I do, so it’s great coming from you.

    Lisa, so good to hear from you again. I’ve missed you, a lot. If I want to be regularly in touch with one of my favorite people in the whole world I’m going to have to write more often here ;^) Just to let you know, I recently got my photoblog up and running and I post there quite a lot more often than here. It’s just easier to post a photo or two than to sit down and write a whole essay on a more frequent basis. I definitely want to keep the blog moving, but for more frequent updates take a look at the photoblog.

  23. Miguel:

    Just watching the pictures now on television and the Internet of the terrible devastation there and hoping you are okay. My thoughts are with you and all in the grip of “the big one”. If there’s anything at all I can do, let me know.

    Take care!

  24. VegetableJ, We’re okay. It was terrifying and the entire apartment is trashed, but no physical harm. We also didn’t get the brunt of the quake, so it is not nearly as bad as up north. But that is by far the scariest experience I’ve ever had. Nine hours later the ground is still shaking and I am so tense that I doubt I’ll get any sleep. Just have to take it one moment at a time. Thanks for checking in.

  25. Stay safe!

  26. Glad to hear you are safe! CBC and CNN are running continuous coverage of the situation there and the rescue efforts. Google has deployed a crisis page and “person finder” at http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html.

  27. Dearest Miguel,
    I am so glad to hear you are safe. I have been thinking about you all weekend and sending all strength and good wishes. I am so sad for all the terrible destruction, sometimes I feel like I am blocking fully feeling it as I feel a bit helpless across the ocean here but my heart and prayers go out to you and all of Japan right now with many thoughts of healing. Be safe and well.
    love and big hugs to you!
    Lisa and Josh

  28. Lisa and Josh, I’ve been swamped with so many things that I just haven’t had time to write back. Please give me a few days until I can get things balanced and I’ll write back to you. Let’s just say for now, it’s insane here. Surreal. Tonight was the first time since last Friday that I haven’t felt an aftershock for several hours. Still very much on edge, though, especially because now we are having pretty bad food shortages and everyone is panicking. No idea how this is going to pan out. Will just have to take one day at a time. I hope you are both well.

    love, Miguel

  29. VegetableJ… I SO didn’t mean to leave you out! Sorry! I’ll get back to you, too, of course!

  30. “I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves.”

    This is what enriches my time outdoors – time spent in places where others don’t wish to tread and where I find my own solace and peaceful satisfaction. Each of us finds our own beauty in what we see and feel so if others find places I go “empty” then fine by me! They’ll be quieter that way and those that appreciate those places are the sort of people I want to spend time with.

    Wonderful images and evocative writing.

  31. Lush description and photographs! I enjoyed traveling along the Okutama Mukashi Michi with you for a while, sharing your thoughts and sights. I’ve added a link on my blog http://bigsushilittlefishes.wordpress.com/ to your post, and your blog, as part of my – much dryer – post on walking the Okutama Mukashi Michi this autumn.

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