Once in a Lifetime Business Trip
One-hundred meters above Kirikubo, a small village in the Shikagari Kogen area of northern Nagano, I am contemplating setting up camp in a small park with a "mallet golf" (similar to miniature golf, but with a hammer instead of a putter) course where a hand-written sign proclaims that non-village residents must pay an extra 200 yen for use of the facilities.
The silence, of which I am accutely aware, is interrupted only by a child's scream of delight somewhere to my left, followed by a less-delighted baby's cry, escaping from an open window further down the valley. A truck signals it's attempt to summit the hill leading to a farmer's field on my right with a groan and wrenching of gears. A cool breeze breathes into the valley, causing me, reflexively, to close my eyes and savor the mountain air. Even the faint scent of alcohol vapor wafting from my handmade beer-can stove - the only sensory cue that seemed out-of-place - fills me with both guilt and awe. Awe at where I am, and guilt that I alone should be so fortunate to experience this.
Finishing my dinner, I am conscious of the clang and klat of my spoon as I scrape leftover potatoes (mashed, instant) and soba noodles from the sides of my six inch camp-pan. A conspicuous lull in activity in the valley causes me to freeze me in mid-scrape until a mother calling her child to dinner tells me that village life has resumed - I am, for the time being, undetected.
To pitch a tent so high above the village, I decide, would only draw unwanted attention and the possibility of being asked, however politely, to leave. The next town is a 20 minute bike ride on a dark, winding road. I am tired after a day of biking, and numerous locals have warned me of bears, citing an incident just two days earlier in Otari (where I was hiking two days earlier) in which a boy was killed on his way to school. I opt for a quiet, inconspicuous night under the stars, which have eluded me for the past four nights. If I am lucky, there will be no rain tonight. The mosquitoes remind me to wear long pants and hiking boots, forgoing the comfort of shorts and sandals. As the temperature drops, however, I will be thankful.
Unrolling my sleeping-bag onto a long bench - just wide enough that I could roll half a body-width in either direction without falling over the edge - I prepare myself for a hours of contemplation. I am far from sleepy, yet afraid that should I even attempt to read, my headlamp would reveal my presence to curious eyes in the curious homes below.
Attempting to be silent, I find, only amplifies every sneeze from the village below, every sliding door, every mother's plea for her child to take a bath, and every subsequent child's cry. It also draws my attention to the animals in the forest - the forest that, with the setting sun, now seems to have swallowed me. A squirrel angrily admonishes me for my intrusion, an opportunistic male mosquito drones incessantly near my face - the only part of me exposed - waiting for any prospective mates to arrive, attracted by this unexpected, large, smelly, and awkwardly slow moving feast of blood.
I hear a horrific scream, from the distance at first. Gradually it grows closer until it is - I am certain - at the treeline ten meters from my feet. It is a scream I have heard on previous trips, on nights like these, camped in a cemetery or dark playground. No locals I have talked to have ever believed me, let alone be able to identify its origin. In the hopes that it is "simply" a wild monkey, I tie my belongings to my bike and remove any valuables from the bag I use as a pillow. Although I have no sweets to offer, I assume they would gladly steal my bags as their consolation prize.
As the lights in the village below disappear, and the canned TV laughter bellowing from gaping living-room windows dies, so too do my fear of monkeys and bears and curious neighbors.
I awake several times during the night - once frozen as the motion-sensing light on the porch of the nearest house is triggered by a raccoon or... As I lay awake, struggling to stay quiet, resisting the urge to loudly (for any sound here is loud) scratch the newly acquired mosquito bites on my forehead and left cheek, I rehearse my pitch for the meetings I will have in the morning, in which I will be attempting to convince locals in next village to open their homes to guests as a part of my big dream.
My concentration is broken, however, when I begin to cry - reflecting on just what it means to be truly living my one life, and how lucky I am that my life and my work has brought me here, and how there is no place else I would rather be at that moment...
I am awaken by the sound of bear-bells jingling and mingling with giggles - village children passing me on their way to school.
Unfortunatly, before this happened, I had ran out of film on the two five-year-old disposable cameras Tomoe had laying in the drawer. The photos above are from earlier that week when Tomoe Joined me for a couple days hiking in the Northern Alp. So far I have only develoed the negatives, and have the contact sheet with tiny one-inch prints. I plan to scan the negs later this week or next, but for now you can live with these macro photos I took with the digital camera of the one-inch contact sheet images.