Saturday, October 1, 2011

Getting Away

One spring several years ago at a time when work was at a frenzy and the pace of life in Tokyo growing feverish, Kaori convinced me that it was time for a few days in the country. Her promises of mountain air blowing across banks of wildflower, of cold clear water tumbling over rocks and old cedar-built shrines speckled with moss and sunlight were temptation enough. Work was put on hold and with little planning we boarded a train for the Yamanashi countryside, a mountainous area two hours west of Tokyo.

Minutes after the train pulled out of Shinjuku Station I drifted off, concerns of work slipping away with the receding churn of Tokyo and its fast paced millions. Not my first trip to Yamanashi, the getting there part of it held little excitement and I was content to close my eyes against the familiar charms flashing past the window. On the way to visit old friends, traveling with another old friend, tired and wanting nothing more than to doze underneath the hum of nearby conversation, it was the start of a perfect getaway. Kaori read a book, sipped a cup of tea and handed over tickets to be clipped when the conductor came along.

I was awakened by the sound of boisterous talk and laughter from four college girls seated diagonally across the aisle, their volume enough to stir me from sleep. Rather than sitting up with open eyes, I stayed slumped in my seat watching them with half-closed eyes, a longtime habit practiced often on city trains, sometimes benign and other times critical. These girls were laughing about someone named Tanabe-kun, something he had done at a meeting of their tennis circle. The laughter was not mean and sounded only of happy recollection. The girl in the outside seat who sat facing my direction was a beautiful girl of striking features somewhat unbalanced by an unfortunate shade of hair coloring. She was distracted by her cell phone and gave as much attention to its small keyboard as she did her companions. I wondered if the elaborate manicure that resembled gold cake icing with nuts hindered her ability to text. Kaori nudged my foot with a whispered, “Stop staring.”

We arrived at our destination, a small town called Hakushu Machi in the heart of Japan’s wine producing region. Friends met us at the station and we wound our way down a twisting mountain road and on to the old house nestled among fields of rice. After stowing the two small bags we sat around the table with coffee and some of the cake and cream puffs brought from Tokyo. Naoto talked of his mother’s advancing battle with Alzheimer, her trouble recognizing him and increasing inability to come home on weekends from the nursing home. I had known her for many years but had in the past year become an unremembered face.

Kaori and I walked through the back yard and up a slope leading to a small family shrine standing amidst an opening in the trees. It was a series of unpainted torii gates set before a stone gate and three wooden tablets with writing old and difficult to read. The beauty of the shrine lay in the primitive construction and unfinished logs, brown, gray and tinged with scabs of deep green moss. From the shrine we wandered farther up the slope to a cleared field planted with cabbages and cucumbers. An old grandmother bent at the waist stirred around in the cabbages, pulling out weeds and yellowed leaves, her pink cheeks visible under the shadow of a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Early the next morning we decided to walk to the larger shrine at the base of the mountain, cross the narrow wood-planked suspension bridge and wade in the river which tumbled over rocks forming pools just right for knee-deep wading, with several good ‘table’ rocks convenient for picnic spreads. It was a long walk, seemingly level but gradually rising up to the mountain’s foot. The narrow paved road was used by few cars and it wasn’t unusual to walk the full distance without encountering a single one. Half the distance was bordered by rice fields, but those gave way eventually to uninterrupted forest on both sides.

I kept it to myself, but after forty-five minutes of walking the clear mountain air was not doing what it should and my breath was coming harder. Everything around was a tumble of natural beauty, with wildflowers edging the road, a chorus of bird calls, the new green of spring growth sprouting from every branch, and me struggling to disguise the rasp of labored breathing. We made it to the shrine, my discomfort under wraps, camouflaged by bluff. For an hour Kaori and I wandered the shrine precincts, tottered over the suspension bridge and climbing down, lounged about on the rock strewn river. A family nearby in the middle of a picnic and spying the two of us empty-handed offered drumsticks and bottled tea.

After a time of wading in the icy cold river we climbed back up the riverbank, crossed the bridge and made for home, but it wasn’t more than ten minutes before my asthma woes returned. Try as I might, it soon was clear to Kaori that something was not right.

Daijôbu desu ka? Are you okay? Your face is red and your nose is running.”

“Think I’m having a touch of asthma. Can we sit down for a few minutes?”

“Where’s your spray medicine?”

“Forgot it at the house,” I coughed out, wiping my nose with an already wet handkerchief.

We sat in a small empty parking lot a hundred yards from the shrine, or I sat coughing while Kaori paced looking for an approaching car that didn’t come. I began to worry because stopping and resting had always been enough to overcome an asthma attack but this time it was only getting worse and I was a couple of miles away from the severe case medicine stashed in my bag. I could tell that Kaori was close to panic and still no car came, no car to race me back to the house and my medicine.

Not too much later a white Nissan Maxima turned into the parking lot but crunched to a halt at the sight of a woman running for the car with arms raised, shouting for help, “Onegaishimasu!” I sat panting on a log while Kaori explained the problem, asking if they could help. They were newlyweds on their honeymoon, and getting past the initial shock were suddenly concerned and quick to help. I wasn’t in such a helpless condition, but the young man got out of the car to assist Kaori in leading me into the backseat.

On the way back to the house and my medicine—a quick ten minutes—Kaori chatted with the couple while I sat wheezing and wiping my nose.


  1. A beautiful story up to your breathing problem. Having been where you were I could easily remember the beauty of the area even though it has been many years.

  2. Beautiful descriptions of the trip itself and of the environs. And the photos add so much to the narrative. But not sure I ever knew you suffered from asthma. Or the mentioned of it has faded from memory (as so many important details sometimes do). Dee and I did a road trip today with my 97 year old Mom to see where my daughter and her family will put down more roots: 50 acres in the heart of the Hungarian settlement around Albany, Louisiana. Beautiful day and the quiet of the country a restorative one.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America