Morning, the Seventh

Nearly a week passed since Huck’s return from vacation. Work shoes had to be taken down off the rack again, but he still found time Monday morning to take a walk on the Inariyama ridge that leads up to the picnic area atop Mt. Takao. Takao is a modest mountain at 599 meters but it still offers a decent dose of nature. It may be, in a way, the best park in Tokyo. It only takes about an hour to walk the Inariyama trail, but along the way he saw plenty of natural beauty. Being early, around 7:30 in the morning, he only spotted one or two other hikers.

“Morning!” an old lady said, bracing herself on the mountaineering poles as she turned to greet Huck who was approaching.

“Morning!” he responded.

“Sure is nice like this, so quiet and all,” she said with a smile.

“So it is.” Huck smiled back and continued on ahead of her.

After nine in the morning Takao becomes crowded with families, school field trips, and hobby hikers but at this hour its emptiness can be enjoyed. The trees formed tunnels along the way, and occasionally steps would arise at steep inclines. Those ascending the steep stairways could barely get out a wheezy “good morning” as they replenished their lungs.

He drank some green iced tea and ate undecorated rye bread as a snack atop Mt. Takao around 8:30. Misty clouds covered the great Kanto plains, and rain clouds drew near from the mountains to the west. Some elderly people had just peaked up, and started making all sorts of exuberant exclamations about how the picnic area had changed since they were young. A lone girl stared at Tokyo spreading out to the east. A middle aged couple ate their breakfast before, judging by their gear, a long day of hiking beyond Takao. Huck descended.

The next day the weather turned up into gusty winds and patchwork skies. Everyone was straining to round the corners against forceful blasts and occasional debris. Off to class, off to work, off to a business lunch; everyone approached the brink of total imbalance yet oddly had a laughing smile on their face. They looked like those birds above, taking flight from behind a building only to be overwhelmed. It’s as confusing to birds as it is to humans for the wind to interrupt such a thoughtless task as flight or putting one foot in front of the other. Huck himself was sailing to a nearby onsen. After Golden Week’s travels he still hadn’t properly given his body a chance to relax and this would be his last chance before getting busy with work for the week.

Entering the sliding doors at the entrance way he shoed off, bid farewell to a few yennies, and entered the bath area. Humidity and the smell of sulfur immediately grasped his attention. As is required, he washed off and rinsed himself with spa water near the baths. While the indoor baths were usually where he started, today he needed to be all outside. He passed through the chamber connecting the indoor and outdoor baths. Given the shape of the building guests were protected from the blasts of wind and they were allowed to watch the weather animate the cast of trees and flowers just beyond the edge of the outdoor baths, bordered by a range of boulders. Water, rock, green earth, and sky lined up in orderly layers for visual pleasure.

Huck sat in the bath, legs crossed beneath him for balance. Any time his stability wavered, he found support in the water which held him upright. If one ever meditates in firm seiza or experiences the stability of lotus postures, at those moments something clicks in the brain when it finally feels the body in effortlessly still balance. No pain, no tension, no struggle. Most people know the pleasure of floating in water, lying back to look at the stars with minimal work necessary. For the first time Huckleberry got the pleasure of both sensations. To enter this well rooted posture submerged up to the shoulders in a sulfurous hot bath water brought him to feel the closest thing he’d ever felt to anti-gravity.

It’s a hell of a lot easier to think clearly when your body just drops off. There’s this saying, “You have my undivided attention,” which is an outright lie; but at times like these Huck felt a state more deserving of the words “undivided attention.”

In that undivided attention realized he had some long overdue work sitting on the backburner. He saw old resentments and grudges come to mind like those big rocks at the back, half immersed in the bath. They seemed unnecessarily weighty. Sometimes forgiving people is easy. But sometimes after we forgive someone we fail to forgive anyone else involved who, while not the initial source of hurt, certainly got mixed up in the mess. Sometimes the grudges are shallow and petty. Sometimes the resentment is caused by serious injury. Whatever be the case, Huck found himself sitting around in the company of various resentments and grudges that hadn’t received enough attention. What more convenient place to change that than by meditation at the onsen?

Finding himself already in a stable posture, he began a Metta meditation. It’s a simple method of meditating that produces startling results.

By time he finished working through everything, he noticed something peculiar. Of course the physical pleasures of sitting in an outdoor onsen were working their magic, and the pleasures that circulate through the body as a consequence of meditation were working their wonders as well. But he also found that the rocks out there in front of him received a peculiar weightlessness. There, the realities reflecting up from the other side seemed so much more present that the two different takes approaching from opposite sides locked together to form an image of such bold unison that they seemed to hang effortlessly out before him. They were weightless. There was no struggle in their stillness.

He hit the showers, cleaned up and headed home.

A few days later he went back out of the city. Waking up at 5:30, he took the first train headed out towards Okutama. The rail train from Nakano would be stopping at every station along the Chuo Ome line and the total trip to the mountain village would take about 2 hours. Two hours in a shinkansen brings you beyond Nagano, or beyond Nagoya. Two hours on an express train takes you to Nikko. But two hours on the Chuo line due west from Shinjuku in Tokyo and you barely reach the western edge of Tokyo. It takes about an hour and a half before the suburbs disappear, and about an hour before the train asks you to open the door yourself if you want to get off. That’s when the boonies start to show up.

The train rolled into the low mountains tiny country towns and Huck saw old men cleaning gardens, kids bicycling to school, and white collars all suited up on their way to the train station. He hopped off at Mitake station where he first took a bus, and then a cable car up to the village near the top of Mt. Mitake. Since coming last year, not much was different. Same old, same old village. However, one of the buildings appeared to suffer severe roof damage over the past year. Orange, white, and purple flowers lined the way through the town until the path appeared amidst cedars and forest brush.

The popular path to take from Mount Mitake to Mount Otake goes through a lengthy rock garden which follows the river flowing down the mountain. For about 15 minutes one weaves back and over the river while stepping from one mossy boulder to the next. As sun filters into the valley it builds up in the pools of water caught between large rocks and joints in the river. All along the trail one hears the gentle presence of water until the end of the rock garden where there’s a Shinto shrine and a waterfall.

From those falls, Huck started the slippery and steep walk up the mountain side until he reached another Shinto shrine after which he began the rocky hike towards the peak. Snaking around the edges of the rocks he saw sharp silhouettes of the neighboring mountains sneak in and out of view.

The trail up to the top of Mt. Otake never becomes a full on rock climb, but the hike did involve climbing up several steep rocky paths. Thankfully, whether by rope, chain or the easily graspable nature of the rocks themselves anyone of any age can make it to the top safely to enjoy a picnic. Other hikers brought cooking equipment to make brunch and coffee. They took to picnic tables or large flat boulders and set up shop. It was Friday morning and surely anyone there had nowhere to be for the rest of the day, so why not milk it? Huck had some granola bars and iced tea. He would be heading down much sooner than they.

He took the other loop down from Mt. Otake on the ridge that ran through Okunoin and then back down to Mt. Mitake. Whereas the first half of the diamond like loop from Mt. Mitake down into the rock garden and then up to Mt. Otkake was a study in rock, the softer path through Okunoin was a study in giant cedars. When not waltzing through these giant cedars, steep inclines were carved out by the thick roots of gnarly trees holding steady through the forest. The possibility of snagging ones feet on the roots however made it just as dangerous as the sharp rocks bending around thin ledges up the other side. On one hand it’s a relatively easy hike, but it could turn sour or curdle quickly on those lacking focus.

All in all, the hike was a round trip of about five hours long. Fresh smelling breezes passed through the flowers in full bloom and some trees had just scattered their white petals all over the trail heading down from Okunoin. Now that Tokyo’s spring flowers finally ran their course, it was rejuvenating to trade in the Tokyo grey for color, the Tokyo sewers for waterfalls.

He boarded the Chuo line headed for Shinjuku and took a seat. Closing his eyes he began to dream up ideas of what to fill his empty stomach with.  Gyoza? Curry? Ramen? Ramen. Definitely ramen. Miso ramen. Miso soup and freshly made noodles. Perfectly textured noodles bathing in miso broth beneath a mountain of okra, satsumaimo, edamame, kabocha, renkon, moyashi, nasu, and other vegetables. A softboiled egg on top of ramen, all covered in veggies. This was the bowl accumulating in his dreams. Garbanzos, kidney beans fell into the mix. He tossed in a bit of cabbage for good measure. What’s a meal in Japan without cabbage?

“Nakano. The next stop is Nakano. The doors on the right side will open. Be careful not to forget anything on the train. In a moment we will be arriving at Nakano.”

The JR railway shaman woke him from the depths. He could smell it. Like a zombie or a pilgrim, he mindlessly followed his gut towards the shop specializing in Miso Ramen. He ducked down the alley and floated down the stairway like an angel tossed from the sober wastelands of heaven into the comforts of hell.

They were waiting for him at the gates. “IIIIIRASHHHHAIMASSSEEEEEE!” trumpeted the staff members. They knew what he came for, and soon enough there it was in front of him. The bowl of his dreams. Like the tea ceremony he grabbed the bowl graciously with both hands, supporting with the left and guiding with the right. Bringing it to his lips he downed the bowl of ramen in three gulps. Toppings first. Noodles next. Then soup.

It was everything he’d dreamed it would be and more. Cherry tomatoes, carrot slices, broccoli, and baby corn were excellent touches. Once he finished the traditional ramen ceremony he decided it was time to get to work; so he decided to head home to practice shakuhachi and then to plan out the next two months during which he would be hosting a total of six different guests from abroad. But first, maybe he’d have a little coffee to help digest that monstrous bowl of veggies and ramen.

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