Last Sunday I went for a hike, I think. I mean, you’re never entirely sure what just happened in this strange country, but after a while you get used to it. That’s Japan in a nutshell.
It all started when Ruriko called at six A.M. I fell out of my futon, which albeit is about an inch high, turned off two alarm clocks and unplugged the lamp before realizing it was the phone. Really gotta remember to turn off that ringer.
“Ken!” she said brightly, “feel like going for a hike?” Ruriko made it sound like it was noon.
“Do I ever,” I replied.
“Great,” she chirped, “Pick you up in half an hour,” and hung up.
I wasn’t actually done, as I’d meant to say, “Do I ever do anything Sundays other than sleep off hangovers?” but she cut me off. Well, whatever. I dug through my closet uttering profanities, grabbing hiking boots, water bottles, a parka, rain poncho, hat, flashlight, chopsticks. There was a half-eaten bag of rice snacks in the fridge, so I stuffed them into a rucksack along with some frozen edamame, a can of tuna, and a 2-for-1 coupon for a Starbucks latte. You just never know when you’ll stop at Starbucks.
We did not Stop at Starbucks
We made it to the meeting point in front of some suburban town hall and were greeted by twelve of the scariest-looking Japanese dudes I’d ever seen.
I turned to Ruriko. “Let me guess—-dock workers? Meat packers? Convicts?”
“Gardeners,” she replied. “They’re into hiking.”
“What’s it, like a yakuza landscaping company?”
“No,” she said. “Okay, maybe fifty percent.” She’s very particular about accuracy, Ruriko.
Then we all stood around looking mad. A guy with an Indiana Jones hat was talking angrily on the phone. I tried to look mad too, you know, just to fit in. This went on for what seemed like a long time. Then a Chinese girl in a blue Toyota pulled up and Indiana Jones said Let’s go, and we climbed into this old gray bus.
We drove for an hour, then stopped at a market and everybody rushed inside to buy bentos. I bought three rice balls, one large can of hot coffee, and two small tubes of mayonnaise. Figured I’d make some tuna salad. That’s always good on a hike.
Japanese Hiking Equipment
Back on the bus, I realized the only ones with anything resembling hiking gear were Ruriko, me, and the Chinese girl. Everybody else was dressed in khakis, work coats, and those ninja shoes that gardeners wear. They’d brought a giant blue cooler and piles of randomly scattered plastic bags, and that was about it. A loud discussion ensued over where we should hike—-around some dam or up a mountain somewhere. One side of the bus was yelling, “Yeah, but what if it rains?” with the other side yelling back, “It’s not going to fucking rain!” No one asked my opinion, nor did I venture it, although it seemed kind of drizzly.
We decided on a short hike up the mountain, then everybody pulled out cans of malt liquor and started slamming them down. I sipped my can of coffee and realized I had not packed adequate hiking provisions.
Preparing for a Japanese Hike
At the trail head, we all piled off the bus. Now, if you’ve ever been hiking in Japan, you know what a big deal stretching is. Everyone forms a large circle and goes through this systematic series of warm-up motions. Bend forward, rotate your knees, stretch backward. Yeah, we didn’t do any of that. Instead there was a mad rush to down the remainder of the malt liquor. The first to finish was a stocky guy dressed like a football coach in an Oakland Raiders sweatshirt. He tossed his empty into the bus and went charging up the hill. One by one everybody followed suit.
It was actually a pretty good hike. There was this one wrinkled geezer about a hundred years old serving as a guide. He was like, “See this stick? You can eat it. Yeah, try it. See this tree? Here, have some leaves. Have a whole mouthful. How do they taste?”
The half-yakuza gardeners leaned in and stared.
“Leafy,” I mumbled, chewing furiously.
“Sure they do. Now, see this other tree? Looks the same, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much all trees.”
“Only if you eat this one you’ll die!” and all the guys roared with laughter.
“Interesting,” I said. Then when no one was looking looking I spit out a hearty mouthful of sticks and leaves.
Taking in the View
We got to the top of the hill or mountain or whatever it was, which took about forty-five minutes. There was heavy fog, and we couldn’t see a thing. Basically, we were in a cloud. But anyway we took a few pictures and argued about whether it was raining or just misting a lot. A couple of guys were passing around a flask, and several others were peeing in the bushes. Then a tall dude in a red bandana said, “Is everybody here?” And we all turned around and looked at fog.
“Maybe,” said a voice.
“I think so,” said another.
“How many people did we start out with?” I asked. “We should count.”
“Is everybody here?” said another voice through the cloud.
“Let’s go,” said Indiana Jones, and we started down the hill.
We came to a long, steep, rocky section. Being sober, the sight of those cold, slick rocks looked incredibly dangerous. I really wished I was drunk. The hundred year-old guide stopped us.
“This part’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. “So be careful.”
“Yeah, we should all be very careful,” said a voice.
I looked around at the ghostly shapes of a dozen half-drunk half-yakuza gardeners ready to fall like dominoes. “We could,” I suggested, “wait ten seconds before following the guy in front. That way if someone slips…”
“We should all be careful,” said someone else.
“Yeah, let’s be very careful,” said another.
And so we descended in a pack over the wet rocks, being very careful.
Japanese Picnic Lunch
When we got to the bottom it was sunny again, so we went to this little overlook with some tables and had our respective bentos and I made an exceptionally good tuna salad. By this time someone had broken out a box of shochu, plus more malt liquor, some chu-hi’s, and a glass bottle filled with some sort of homemade moonshine.
I was sitting between two scrawny guys and across from a big dude glaring at me over a pair of aviator sunglasses and under a hat that said “Junk Runners.”
“I wonder if he drinks beer,” he said, eyeing me.
“They don’t like Japanese beer,” answered one scrawny guy.
“Yeah, they do,” countered the other.
“Does he speak Japanese?”
“I’ll bet he does. You should ask him.”
The big dude scowled at me. His neck was huge. He leaned in and said in English, “Speak Japanese?”
“Have some tuna salad?” I answered in Japanese. “It’s exceptionally good.” And suddenly everybody burst out laughing, gave me a beer, and then some moonshine.
It tasted like paint thinner, with a just hint of vinegar.
“How do you like it?” they all asked. “Is it good?”
“It’s, uh, kinda strong,” I sputtered, “but the vinegar’s a nice touch.”
“It’s terrible!” they howled. “Saito-san made it!”
I never found that out. After lunch, Indiana Jones stood up and said, “Is everybody here?” and we all looked around. I tried to count again, but between guys tramping through the shrubs or passed out in the bus, I couldn’t come up with an accurate number.
“I think so,” said the guide.
“Let’s go,” said Indiana Jones.
We drove to some dam, parked at one end, and everybody went to lean over the railing and look at the water. It was a really long way down. We kept trying to take selfies in the middle of the dam, which was also the middle of the road, while cars came weaving down the mountain and swerving through our bunch of drunks.
Finally the guide yelled, “Let’s go! Everyone here?”
“You know,” I said, “if we took a count…”
People piled willy-nilly onto the bus. “Anybody missing?” he asked.
“See, by counting how many…”
“Let’s go,” he said. And so we went.
Lost in the Mountains of Japan
For some reason, we seemed to be heading north for a long time. Then south. Guys were passing beers over the seats, and the Coach of the Oakland Raiders was mixing plastic cups of moonshine and water. The Chinese girl kept showing me music videos on her phone. We stopped at a convenience store, because everybody needed to pee like mad, and plus we were running low on beer.
We formed a long line at the register, holding armloads of cans, fried ramen snacks, and something resembling Japanese Slim Jim’s. One guy had a bottle of whiskey and two quarts of milk. Good to see at least someone was concerned about their calcium intake. The cashier politely asked each person, “Do you have a frequent customer card? Would you like a bag?”
Of course, when I got to the register, without even glancing up she decided to say a whole lot of nothing. I get this “special” treatment, oh, only about one hundred percent of the time. So I handed her my frequent customer card. She silently put my cans of beer in a plastic bag. Since I didn’t really feel like killing a sea turtle just for two cans of beer, I said in Japanese, “I don’t need a bag.” Then she froze, like a dog had started speaking, and mechanically lifted the cans out of the bag. “I’d like the receipt too,” I said. She scanned the air, looking for a Japanese face, then handed me the receipt, and everybody started laughing. “Speaks Japanese!” said the guy with the huge neck, in English.
Back on the Bus
After one more round of “Is everybody here?” we started cruising out of the parking lot. Ruriko gazed out the window and nudged me. There was a guy sprinting from the restroom.
“Is he part of our group?” I asked.
The guide turned and looked. “Oh yeah,” he said, and we stopped and let him on.
We drove up hills and down hills, with the Raiders’ Coach stumbling back and forth pouring cups of shochu, beer, and moonshine. I soon had a cup of moonshine in my left hand and a beer in my right, until a box of Dunkin’ Donuts came round and I had to hold the beer between my knees. The sun was on our right, then on our left, and I got the distinct feeling we were lost in the mountains. Then a fight broke out.
Now, you might’ve heard that there are no swear words in Japanese. And like pretty much everything else people say about fabulous Japan, that would be, uh, wrong. It started with two guys in the back punching each other out, and soon erupted into an actual brawl, with an impressive stream of shouting and swearing and one guy on the floor of the bus. I’m pleased to say that my vocabulary grew quite nicely.
The driver, to his credit, didn’t seem too fussed about the whole situation. The guide turned to me and said flatly, “This happens sometimes.”
Japanese New Year’s Resolution
Things settled down after a bit and we made it safely back to the town hall parking lot. Then we all stood in a circle, thanked the guide, bowed a bunch, and promised to do it again soon.
Indiana Jones came up and shook my hand. “Can you drive home okay, Seeroi-sensei?” I was glad he’d learned my name.
“I’ll leave that to Ruriko. How ‘bout you guys? You probably shouldn’t…”
“We’re going drinking!” he said loudly.
But before I could say, “Sounds like an activity Ken Seeroi might be interested in pursuing,” Ruriko yanked me by the arm and pulled me into the car. She’s really no fun at all.
“We’ll stop at a convenience store on the way home and get you a malt liquor,” she said firmly.
“But I wanted to go drinking with the half-Yakuza gardeners!”
“You want to get into a fight? Because that’s what they’ll do.”
“Hell yeah,” I said. “I know karate.”
“You want to go to jail? Is that what you want?”
“Bring it on! I’ll get a prison tattoo and make moonshine with Saito-san!”
“I don’t know,” I confessed.
“Come on, we’ll get you home and you can take a nice bath. You like baths, right?”
I do, actually. So I drank my malt liquor, fell asleep in the front seat, and when I got home, took a nice bath. And floating in the warm water, drifting in and out of sleep, I thought about how Ruriko’s always telling me I should have a goal in life. So I made it my 2018 new year’s resolution that next hike I’d find a way to end up in Japanese jail. Goals. Heh, I’ll show her who’s got goals.