Three times a year, Japan unveils the Seishun Kippu 18, a specialty ticket that lets you use all the local trains in the whole country for five non-consecutive days. As someone who gets giddy, eight-year old style, every time they hop on the train, this sounded like a dream come true. And for three days, I’d get to use it to my heart’s content.
I saw that train ticket as freedom. In seventy-two hours I could go anywhere on this island of mine—if I hadn’t been limited by the lack of night trains, I probably would’ve entertained fantasies of getting all the way up to Hokkaido and back down again. On that first day, the journey was the adventure: Ise the final stopping point, sure, but it was really more a distant goal, a point on the map, than the point.
So I jumped trains, zigzagging through the Kansai heartland anywhere that seemed cool. One time I got stranded in a sizeable town I’d never heard of for an hour because I’d miscalculated the schedule. Now, there’s literally nothing to say about this town (it honestly excels in being average), and yet it was exciting to know that I would never have seen this place without Seishun, and would likely never see it again. Prefecture after prefecture, trains pulling into narrow stations by the side of wheatfields, tiny tramlines heaving their way up through mountain ridges, the clouds clearing as the sky opens up and nears towards the sea. I’m reaching Ise.
Ise is the holiest site in Japan. Its inner shrine has been designated as the resting place of Amaterasu, Japanese sun goddess, for at least the past 1500 years, long before the country was in any way influenced by China, including Buddhism and its writing system. It is depicted throughout Tale of Genji (Japan’s, and many say the world’s, oldest novel), and has played a central part in Japan’s national and spiritual identity. So when you go there, you feel the power to it, something that can’t be depicted in pictures. For the inner shrine, you cross a wooden bridge as the Japanese flag waves in the wind, wander through a large path cut between old growth cedars hundreds of years old, as it leads towards Amaterasu’s resting place.
And here’s the thing that makes Shintoism so crucially different from Christianity (Buddhism too): you get to the central shrine, and you barely see anything. The main shrine isn’t any larger than a regular Shinto shrine and is currently only five years old, since Shinto philosophy dictates that the shrine needs to be rebuilt every twenty years. You walk up the steps and can only pray at the outermost gates: a white cloth separates you from the inside, and pictures are severely taboo.
But there’s something there, a power radiating from it. Stand at the partition, and sometimes the wind will blow, revealing Japanese statesmen in immaculate suits, led by priests in their billowing white robes and straw hats (looking right out of Genji), bowing for minutes at a time. More than any other major site in Japan, I was just about the only visible foreigner. People come to Ise with their families, without the selfie sticks or water bottles of sake.
I’m sure much of the power comes from that: after 1500 years of respect poured into this site, it’s impossible not to feel the reverence reflected and echoing through the trees. There’s a spot at the edge of the shrine where you can go down to the river’s edge and cleanse your hands, feet and mouth. Whole troupes of suits were down there, ankles in, sometimes singing indescribable songs; and as I sat there, wading my hands through the icy waters watching the ancient trees curl round the riverbend, I heard, something.
And maybe for a second I understood. But it flickered and vanished with the setting sun—I was never supposed to understand this, the most Japanese of spaces. It left me feeling drained and lonely, out on this edge of coast I didn’t know and didn’t really feel: all the Japanese families, going into stores along the connecting pilgrimage road buying cute omiyage. Little children on their parent’s shoulders. A great-grandfather pushed forward in a hulking wheelchair, surrounded by his whole family. Priests marching down the crowded merchant street. And then me.
The bus was late, and by the time I’d made it to Ise station, the sun had almost set; \ it was by no means practical to go out searching for something called the “Wedded Rocks” that looked cool from a picture I’d seen on the internet—I mean, I hadn’t eaten, hadn’t secured a place to stay in Nagoya, and was teetering on a fever from sleep deprivation. But I got to the station, felt that Seishun Kippu in my hand and I damn well hopped on the train going the opposite direction of Nagoya, coastline bound.
I land at the station and sprint for the coast, lugging my great backpack through deserted streets as the sun measures down over the western hills. I hop up against a stone dyke, and the wind almost knocks me from my feet. It’s the sea, roaring to meet me on a bright red and unbroken horizon. I run along battered by the air, laughing at something or everything and feeling so full. I realize getting there that these Wedded Rocks, two boulders tethered together with a Shinto shrine on top, has been a tradition for over a thousand years, and that the symbolism of it is employed in Genji during a chapter I’d read on the train just that day. And I was an inch away from turning this down.
I collapse into the sand as the sun’s finishing up for the day. Lantern-lined beach avenue, first of the spring winds scattering down the bay and pressing back against the trees gnarled and blown-through. Lights flicker on, it’s the opening of the Ryokans and the shutting of the shops. Couples running by and pushing, laughing—out on the pier, the four of them, doing fake-model close-ups on the girls making duck faces, then the sudden explosions of laughter when they recognize how ridiculous they are. I almost talk to them, but then the wind’s warm and that Joanna Newsom song isn’t finished—I smile and let them pass by.
This place was so strange an hour ago, now in the dusk, with the warm flapping of the wind: could be my cabin on the Ontario lake, when the moon’s rising and the loons are singing, Mom sitting by the reading lamp and its yellow glow. Or the wind—and especially the warmth in it—could be Wreck Beach as we stumble down those stairs and emerge on stars that practically tumble down over us. So then is it really all that different? The plane going northeastward like a star burning out—money’s on it going to Vancouver. Maybe I could’ve talked to the four of them, after all.
I trudge back to the train station, peering into the old Ryokans that line the way back, these quiet, velvet places with windows looking out on the sea and dogs sleeping on the carpet. I pass out on the train running direct to Nagoya,
and waking up in Japan’s slick, sleek industrial firehorse with hundreds rushing past you as the dings and announcements hang over like a buzzing cloud: it’s like culture shock within the same country. That unmistakably Japanese duality.
So now, I’m getting pretty weak, still haven’t eaten and exhaustion’s making black clouds around the edges. And that’s why, I’m sure, it took me a good hour to notice it wasn’t with me anymore. My Seishun Kippu.
Up in the Mountains
What followed was a terrible three hours wandering, ghostlike, around the station, looking for the ticket in trash boxes or by machines, asking every ticket gate if they’d seen it, standing in line at the lost and found for ages. The whole reason for the trip was gone, and now I was stuck in the middle of Japan, no way home and no way forward.
That optimism-bordering-on-mania from Saturday had evaporated by Sunday morning. Of course, losing a 100 dollar ticket is always bound to ruin your day, but it was more than that: losing that ticket, it was like I was losing my freedom. The day before it felt like the adventure could be endless, now there was Tuesday coming, work and Tottori and everything that had become normal life again.
I had to keep going. If there was one thing that still made sense in all of this it was that. I’d made a plan for a long trail up towards Matsuyama for the day, and though I had no idea if I’d still be able to make it today (it would cost me, now paying the fair), I knew I needed to start. I made it to the small railway outpost of Nakatsugawa, a red-stone town with shuttered up storefronts, where my only company was an endless loop of Lawrence Whelk-style crooners on repeat as I waited for the next bus into the mountain.
After twenty minutes of riding, it dropped us 600 meters up at Magome, the first of the post towns. I’d made it to Kiso Valley, one of the few surviving portions of the Nakasendo Route, which had been the central thoroughfare between Kyoto and Edo (pre-modern Tokyo) for almost five hundred years. Between them many little posttowns grew up, with inns stores and (you guessed it) postal services. Flash forward two hundred years, and the trail between post towns Magome and Tsumago is just about the only portion that hasn’t been paved over with a superhighway or seen its mountains blown through.
So I was getting ready for something really special: ooh boy, untouchd Japan! I should’ve probably noticed, from the bus packed with foreigners, that this wouldn’t be the case. And the moment I got off I was already being pushed past by the flock of photo-jostlers—crowds ambling up these wooden steps, flooding into the shops, selfie-sticks floating above like black beaks of hawks. And as stunning as the mountain backdrop was, there was a similar feeling to it all; the well kept-cedar one-stories, the stores selling fans or renting kimonos, all gave a deja-vu, to Kyoto and every other town trying to be like Kyoto.
It wasn’t till I left the town and started the trail did things start feeling different. A tiny stone path moved through pine, cedar, and bamboo growths, occasionally broken by shrines, waterwheels still in use, or bells to scare off the bears. There were still a decent number of people along these paths, though now there was a hiker’s camaraderie with the people I passed that changed the dynamic completely, along the way walking with a French family, German engineer stationed in Nagoya, a Korean man studying primates, and (classic) a Vancouver teacher. Travelers, not tourists.
At many times it could’ve been a trail in British Columbia, and the way the sun splashed through the pines and met the ferns underneath, the singing of the birds or smell of the cedar, did bring me home in moments.
Most of the time, though, there was a weight here like there’d been a weight to Ise. People coming along these paths for hundreds of years, lugging great carts of goods clicking sandalwood heels; monks in strawhats, noblewomen hovering above in silken carriages. Halfway through there’s a teahouse that’s been in use for two-hundred and fifty years where you can still go inside, have some tea, look at the instruments.
Sometimes I’d come around a bend that opened out on a vista of mountain after mountain and I could swear—though it was totally just my imagination—that this was a view depicted in one of Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Sations of Tokaido Ukiyo-e.
The farther I travelled along (or into, as it seemed), the more the outside world faded away. Things moved to their own time in here. By the time I’d reached Tsumago, it was like time had halted completely. And this was what I’d been looking for; maybe it’s what I’d been looking for this entire time.
The houses were curled around a key bend in the mountain pass, a valley on one edge and the river below on the other. Although there were still souvenir stores, most were front rooms of people’s houses, selling objects (wooden spoons and chairs, tapestries) so intricate that not a single one looked alike.
Some of these three hundred year old homes had their shutters opened—not because they were museums, just for letting some sun in. Tea sets and gurgling garden fountains; gold clocks still ticking, fading paintings on the wall. Travelling these eight months, and suddenly, a village the size of a city block so saturated I could’ve spent my eight months right here, still dazzled.
And as the sun was caught between two ridges and blanketed the rice field in a ruby sheen, I left the village in a daze—starved and wiry, head in the clouds like the day before. Hopping over bends, diving through the forest, I was starting to wonder how much I’d found myself in one of the RPG’s I’d played so much of as a kid. And I held my backpack with both fists on the straps like a ten year old, taking a deturn to castle ruins, knocking against the bamboo to hear its echo. Laughing didn’t feel strange.
And then I reached a house just off the trail. Probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if there hadn’t been a cat to call out to waiting by the door. I went up beside the window, and noticed the whole width of the inner room was covered in statues. Most of them clay, some unfinished hollow bodies of fat men or pregnant women, others entire beings in Greek poses. Immediately behind that, fauvist paintings of children with great white eyes, smiling in a way so that they didn’t seem to be smiling at all. There was something incredibly sad about it; a feeling these things were meant to be in great glass museums made out of rail museums where the hundreds push through, not collecting dust on the least populated part of the Kiso trail. Trapped in a time vortex, in the space between the window and the dining room.
It took me a couple minutes to realize a lady’d been watching me this whole time. Peering from the doorway, smile plastered. She sat in an electronic wheelchair that held her legs in metal casts, and wore a floral apron down to her ankles. Must’ve been around 90. She asked me where I cam from, and upon realizing I could speak Japanese, started in on a floral of anecdotes that hit me like an avalanche.
And so she told me about her family.
(I had to pull bits of information out of the tangle of Japanese words and phrases I swam through, and so what I’m gonna write here does have to be taken with a little grain of salt.)
Her grandfather, getting the chance to go to France shortly after the Meiji revolution opened Japan up to the world, was either inspired by or worked under Rodin. He came home and created these half-finished sculptures that line the front of her house, sculptures that clearly made enough of an impact on her father to pursue his studies in Paris in the 1920’s. Sorbonne College life, then as pretty much always with French schools, was a pretty rad place to be, and he emerged from his degree as a Communist. He moved to Russia, and around 1930 he did something to piss Stalin off, which got him locked up in a Siberian prison for the next five years.
With trembling hands she showed me pictures of her father’s time there, the white walls of the prison, the jagged cliffs around its northern Russian town. Apparently, he was the first Japanese person to ever have gone to post-revolution Russia, and when he got out, wrote a book on his experiences.
Later on her sister, nephew, and three adorable grand nephews came running through the house. She excitedly introduced me to them, and the nephew, around 40, gave me a knowing look that said something along the lines of oh great, here’s another she managed to pull in. Clearly I wasn’t the only one they’d shown their collection to, though I had a feeling I was a little different. The way her eyes lit up when I told her I’d also been a student in Paris: up on a Japanese mountain, that’s not the kind of connection you’d make every day. She ended up giving me a copy of his book. I promised her I’d get better at my Japanese, read it, and come back to visit. She nodded solemnly, then pulled out two massive apples to sustain me on the road.
And eating them on the rest of the trail as evening fell—I swear they’re the best damn apples I’ve ever eaten.
Well, what is it?
So I wonder. What kind of freedom was I looking for this weekend? Do you measure it by the number of hours or metres away from daily life? Does freedom come when you forget—like I did on the beach—that I ever have to go back to Tottori (to classes, to student’s snide jokes they don’t think you can understand), that this weekend could stretch on and on with each train station? Or was I trying to escape from myself?
The bitter under-comments, the over-thinking, the pinching along the skin. Not getting into the program I’d wanted to, feeling the ground slide out from under me and suddenly near-freefall—the what am I actually doing here coming with every second breath. These kind of jumping jacks had become routine, greeting me in the morning, gnawing me to sleep. In three days I was trying to run from it.
At times I got away. Up against the sand, wind scattering water against my face; up in the mountains, light-headed as her story sunk through me. Other times it all rushed back again. Losing the Seishun Kippu, my gut instinct was to blame myself: look what you’ve done you fucking asshat, how’d you manage to lose the one thing that mattered here? The self-hatred would curl to the point of a single question: what if I wanted to lose that damn ticket, what if I couldn’t bear the thought of being as happy as I’d been that first day, and so tried to lose it?
Because as wonderful as that second day also was, there was always gonna be the Monday: rapidly booking last minute busses you’d sit on for the majority of that day, having to sprint across Osaka between connections because bus numba 1 got stuck in some highway traffic and set you back an hour. Yeah, that felt distinctly real allright; giving me lots of time to run through everything I’d done wrong that led me here, cramped in some pink highway bus and not off on adventure numba 3.
In that mindset, freedom just becomes a synonym for escape. And those feelings would always go away by that first, grueling morning back in the office. But was I able to take anything more from it? More than some beautiful pictures, a book, and one of my best stories. Am I asking for too much? Or am I just looking in the wrong way?
I can’t answer that. Something has changed since that weekend though. The way I look at people, cities, and more than anything at Japan. The moon’s still in the same cycle as it was then, and sometimes when I’m biking home in the dusk, seeing that waning silver sliver makes me think of it hanging full over her house, her and her sister waving as I backed away from them, two fat apples in my hands. And I feel happy, happier than I’ve ever been maybe. And I’m reminded what I’m doing here; reminded of why this is my favorite place in the world.