Sometimes journeys take you somewhere you never planned to go.
I was aboard a bullet train to Kyoto when he lurched down the aisle and temporarily into my life. ‘The Eye’ was the first thing I noticed about him. His left one was rolled back in his head to the extent that only a fraction of the iris was visible. He took his seat next to me and inquired about my nationality and purpose in Japan. I explained I was an American tourist fulfilling a lifetime ambition to see the country.
“I see, I see,” he replied.
He sat to my right, meaning ‘The Eye’ was the one closest to me. To take my mind off of it I asked him where he learned English.
“Ah, yes. I lived in Los Angeles for five years. I worked for a software company.”
“Oh, OK, interesting,” I replied, though the only thing I found truly interesting was the improbability of ending up on a Shinkansen with a deformed Japanese man who happened to speak near-perfect English.
I retraced my journey from Fukuoka to Tswano, then on to Hiroshima and presently proceeding to Kyoto.
“I see, I see.”
“And where are you from?” I asked.
“Kofu,” he said. “It is the capital city of Yagoshima Prefecture.”
He showed me in my guide book’s map.
“Are you close to Mt. Fuji?” I asked.
I had aspirations to visit the picture-perfect mountain and was hoping he could give me some advice. Instead he proposed something even more helpful.
“You can come visit me in my hometown,” he said. “I will take you to Mt. Fuji.”
Hoping to extract more local knowledge from him I asked if he knew how one might go about catching an NFL game on Japanese television. My beloved New England Patriots were in a playoff game the coming weekend. Through a further statistical miracle he just so happened to be a Patriots fan as well.
“Ah, yes,” he explained. “They were champions while I lived in California. They are a very good team. Tom Brady is very handsome. I will record the game and we can watch it at my home.”
I ignored the latent homosexual comment and rejoiced at my dually good fortune, promising to meet him at the train station in Kofu later that week.
Five days later I was on a train heading into the heart of Yagoshima. It is a sparsely populated, mountainous province, and the ride promised to be very scenic. From Kyoto I took a bullet-train to Osaka, then changed to a much smaller, slower-moving train. As it wound through the countryside I reflected upon my situation. There I was, far from home, embarking on a mission to meet a man I barely knew. The situation was like spontaneous verse. Everything I experienced wrote itself into a poem reflecting the pure essence of being.
The train stopped to pick up passengers at a small station. As it lurched back into motion I watched a railway worker fade from view. He was not a man but a written line.
I phoned A.G. from the station and met him in the parking lot.
“As I told you, Kofu is famous for having many hot springs. In Japanese we say ‘onsen’. I would like to take you to one now.” he said.
Sure, I was hungry and wanted to get settled a bit, but who was I to dictate our course? I wanted to give myself up to chance; be the tip of a poet’s pen madly writing the next stanza.
“Yes man!” I exclaimed. “Wherever you want! Anywhere!”
“So, hot springs are acceptable?”
“More than acceptable, A.G. Now that you mention it, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
A Japanese onsen has specific rules and A.G. carefully guided me through the procedure. After paying for a ticket to use the baths we put our shoes in a locker outside of the men’s quarters. Inside, we placed the rest of our possessions inside a larger locker.
“Are you shy about nudity?” he asked.
“No, no,” I assured him.
Although I didn’t mention it to him, modesty has never been one of my defining characteristics. Then especially, I found nudity to be a great equalizer. Side by side with my Japanese friend I hit the showers, the final requisite before entering the baths.
At last we were ready to get in the water. There were several baths of varying temperatures. We opted for a collection on an outdoor patio. The view overlooked the city of Kofu and beyond it snowcapped mountains. Mt. Fuji lied somewhere in the distance.
“This is my favorite hot spring in Kofu,” said A.G.
It was obvious why. The sun had just set and yellow and pink tones highlighted the western sky, accented by ivory peaks. I sank down into the hot water. The steam rose into the cooling air, suspending us in mist. It was, a cold beer aside, perfection. I knew that, in the distant shadow of Mt. Fuji, naked with a stranger in warm spring water and dusk phosphorescence, this moment was beautiful. I felt the way I’d felt earlier on the train. Somehow, the fact that all of this was totally unplanned is what made it beautiful.
When we finished at the onsen A.G. drove me to a youth hostel outside of town and helped me check in. In the morning I was downstairs for my complimentary breakfast by seven-thirty. It was a delightful spread of sausage, eggs, fresh bread and fruit. The owner spoke a few words of English and we tried our best to learn something of the other. In practice it was a failure but as a gesture of human good will it was a grand success. The sun rising over the mountains needed only be translated by a flourish of the arms and a grin. His son, perhaps seven years old, entered the room with the disappointed face universal to schoolchildren. I pressed a dollar bill into his hand, knowing that I was buying a lifetime memory for both of us.
A.G. arrived promptly by eight. He spoke briefly to the hostel owner while I snapped some photos outside. The rising sun colored in the mountains as it moved towards its apex. Far in the distance I could make out what I thought might be Mt. Fuji. It was bathed in light for a moment before disappearing behind heavy clouds.
We drove forty minutes back to A.G.’s place. Once there we walked to a Seven Eleven to stock up on rations. I bought a six pack of beer, chips and dip, and a large bag of beef jerky. A.G. carefully observed my selections then made his own. His choice of flavored water and rice crisps showed he hadn’t really been paying attention.
“No man,” I said. “You need beer and chips and meat. This is football.”
“I see, I see,” he said. “But I shall be the designated driver so no alcohol for me.”
“Alright then, at least buy something unhealthy,” I said.
As the cashier rung up his gummy bears and Seven-Up I realized some things just don’t translate.
I didn’t bother to briefly steep him in the common behavior of an American male watching football. I figured that if he lived in the States for five years he was used to the unique brand of atavism. In fact, I found it uninhibiting.
“Goddamn it!” I screamed and slammed the table as the Patriots committed a turnover.
A.G. looked slightly frightened as he glanced at me out of the corner of his good eye.
“Are you displeased with the outcome?” he asked.
“Of course I’m displeased!” I shouted. “My mother could have made a better throw.”
“I see, I see. She is a skilled football player then?”
“No man! It’s just an expression!”
“I see, I see.”
I considered curbing my outbursts in the interest of cultural unity but after my third beer it became nearly impossible.
“You douche bag!”
“Douche bag. I am not familiar with this term.”
“It’s meant to insult somebody.”
“I see, I see. Is it customary in America to yell ‘Douche bag’ at people on the television?”
“It is, especially when they make a bad play like Brady just did.”
“Tom Brady is very handsome.”
“Yes he is, but right now he’s a douche bag.”
“I see, I see.”
The Patriots failed to convert a third and short.
“Douche bag!” A.G. yelled and slammed his fist down on the table. However, he used the hand on his bad side and missed the target, sending his printer and a bunch of books and magazines crashing to the floor.
Fortunately my team won and A.G. was spared the ritual destruction by an American male in defeat. It was approaching noon and I was a six-pack deep. We stopped at a liquor store and I bought more beer. Getting so drunk this early left only one logical course of action: more drinking. I knew that if I stopped then I would plunge into despair. But it was in search of beauty that I turned myself into a beast. I wanted the journey to Fuji to be unforgettable. The ugliest thing in the world is commonness. In seeking beauty one is really seeking to become beautiful.
Sitting passenger in A.G.’s car, each successive uphill and twist in the road contained the infinitely unknown and within the possibilities I remade myself as I wished to be. I entered a realm of pure imagination. To my right was a storybook freak-somewhere ahead a mountain too perfect to be real. They combined to weave a tale not of this world.
We rounded a corner and there it was. Mt. Fuji. It was not a mountain. It was a ghost. A.G. stopped the car. I got out and stared at the giant phantom. It was too delicate to be a mountain. It was made of air; the stuff of dreams. It was beautiful.
We pulled over at a lookout point where a busload of tourists snapped photos, eager to add to the mythology of their lives. I took some as well. It was an admission of commonness.
As we kept going I became desperate to take the perfect photo. I ordered A.G. to stop over and over. I demanded that he turn around. I missed my shot. It was back there.
What had happened was Fuji became a mountain again. I was just a man taking a picture of a mountain. I was just a man being driven around by a stranger taking a picture of a mountain. Fuji was no longer a ghost. It was just a man, like me, which is to say, nothing special. The fleeting beauty of the moment had been replaced by ugliness.
Wending back down the mountain toward town I was met by the world of man. I missed the majesty of the mountain. After it every shop and restaurant I saw looked sad, like things that wanted to be beautiful but weren’t.
Nature is the standard of beauty because it finds its form without seeking it. A mountain is the spontaneous verse of the universe. It is a poem that writes itself. I looked back through the photos of Mt. Fuji and tears ran down my cheek.