Nature is one of the great wonders of Japan. In that you wonder what happened to it all.
But look around. The hillsides of Kyushu terraced with rice paddies, fields of Hokkaido lavender as far as the eye can see, and deserted white sand beaches on remote Okinawan islands. There’s definitely some nature in Japan, still.
Japanese School Daze
So I was working at a Japanese middle school recently, dozing off in the teachers’ lounge, when a cockroach the size of a cat skittered across the floor. Michiko-sensei screamed. That’ll wake you up in a hurry. Then the Vice Principle screamed. He used to be a wrestling coach, so that was a little alarming. Then the old lady who makes tea screamed, and nothing scares her. Then I looked down and screamed too. I mean, have you seen a Japanese cockroach? Terrifying, really. And in a flash, Saito-sensei turns to me and says, “Oh Ken, you’re such a city boy.”
And I was like, “Whaa? Why me? Is this a white thing? And it’s ‘Seeroi,’ by the way. I was just screaming to be a team player.”
But I can understand why you might mistake me for an urbanite. I mean, with stylishly slim trousers, a manly man bag and two meticulously trimmed eyebrows, Ken Seeroi is the very picture of hunky metrosexual perfection.You’d never guess he was, at heart, a mountain man. But you, my friend, would be wrong.
Ken’s Life of Adventure
If you took all the nights I’ve spent in sleeping bags—not trying to brag, if only because homelessness is a tough thing to pride oneself on—and added them all up—in the snow, rain, forests, deserts, under pickup trucks and in ship bunks, in tents, lean-to’s, and under the stars—it’d probably come to a couple of years. In that time, I’ve woken up face to face with skunks, been prodded awake by deer, had bears, porcupines, and raccoons stroll into my camps, and spent nights tormented by coyotes, mountain goats, flying squirrels, scorpions, and gila monsters. Oh, people love to romanticize “the great outdoors.” Mostly people indoors. But it’s pretty clear why humankind started building houses—i.e., to keep random bugs and animals from murdering us in our sleep.
The Japanese Version of Nature
So I know a bit about nature. Now, here’s nature in Japan.
It’s last autumn, and Yoko and I are in a restaurant. It’s a beautiful, sunny, Friday afternoon. In California, we’d be sitting out at a table under a red umbrella, sipping wine and watching the waves roll in. Instead, despite being within viewing-distance of both sea and mountains, somehow this restaurant has no windows. But that’s almost every restaurant in Japan, so I try not to get too excited. Japan’s all about shutting yourself up indoors and not getting too excited.
But Yoko is, if not excited, then mildly pleased by a full-color glossy flyer she hands me, advertising “Fall Leaf Viewing.” Three days later, we’re on a bus with forty Japanese people, heading into the countryside.
So here’s the deal. Every spring, the sakura trees bloom. And in cities that don’t get a lot of tourists, armies of old men with ladders and saws head out and cut all the limbs off the trees, which saves them from having to sweep up the fallen petals. Then every fall, different trees, but same thing. They saw off entire limbs to keep from having to rake the leaves, resulting in long rows of sad, amputated trees.
If you’re thinking that’s a senseless and cruel thing to do to a lovely tree, never fear. The Japanese have engineered a fine solution.
Remember the sakura trees? Well, they take the remaining stumps of tree limbs and zip-tie plastic branches with plastic sakura flowers to them, so from a distance they once again resemble beautiful cherry blossoms. Maybe even better, like fake tits for trees. Then when the season is over, they cut off the zip ties and stuff the plastic flowers in a bag for next year, like so many tinfoil Christmas trees.
Autumn in Japan
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
– Joni Mitchell
The autumn trees, however, don’t get the same prosthetics. That’s where the “Fall Leaf Viewing” comes in. Since Stumpy the Tree hadn’t any brightly colored leaves left for us to see, Yoko and I joined swarms of other Japanese and rode the subway. Which took us to the bus. Where we lined up for an hour, then rode for another hour into the countryside.
There, the local folks were holding a festival! I love festivals. A dozen food stalls were set up, selling fried noodles, octopus balls, and beer. It’s a bit hard not to see the whole thing as a scam by poor farmers to raise cash by bringing rich city folk to see their leaves but hey, did I mention they had beer? So once we’d eaten some food on sticks and powered down a couple frosty beverages, we were free to meander beside the rice paddies until Pow!—there they were: actual trees. With leaves. Hundreds of Japanese people jockeyed their iPhones for the best picture angle, that being the one featuring the fewest number of other Japanese people.
Then after a few minutes of capturing nature’s glory, we lined up for another hour to get back on the bus, rode back into the city, took the subway, then marveled at how clean our neighborhood sidewalks were. Not a leaf in sight.
Oh sure, there’s some nature left in Japan, but mostly it seems accidental, like the wrecking crew of Japanese civil engineers and Yakuza dropouts just hasn’t gotten around to improving it yet. So here’s an easy question: How do you improve upon a green hillside full of hardwood trees? Seriously, come on, you know. At least every Japanese resident knows. You hack down all the trees, then pour concrete over the entire hillside. That’s the Japanese way.
Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not hating on Japan, or saying other countries don’t do the same or worse. Donald Trump. It’s just that I can’t shake this image—I don’t know where I got it—of Japan as a place in harmony with nature, where people love the outdoors. In my mind, it’s a land of tea farms and bamboo forests. I blame David Carradine. But in real life, it’s miles of pavement and webs of black power lines. City parks with one rusty swing set set atop a dirt lot. Now sure, I haven’t been to every prefecture, only half. Maybe all the nature’s hiding in the remaining fifty percent. I’m sure they’ve got glorious parks and a booming cafe culture in, uh, Ehime. Probably a regular Paris over there.
The Great Outdoors
Now, I’m not saying Japanese folks hate nature, because that’d be unfair and judgmental. So maybe I’ll just think it.
Like think of the rivers dammed, dug up with backhoes, then paved in concrete so the water could flow, I dunno, better. Think of hiking to the top of a remote mountain, on trails helpfully fitted with miles of stairs and ropes, to reach a stunning vista, and gazing at the distant mountains with feminine curves, adorned with a jewelry of cell towers and windmills. Think of the pristine sea shore piled high with massive concrete tetrapods to block the waves. Amidst them you can feel free to chuck your unwanted stereos and television sets into the ocean. Hey, nobody wants to pay three bucks for a recycling sticker. We Japanese value our money, not like you foreigners.
Nature in Japan
So after the cockroach incident and teaching two more English classes, I headed out on the bike. I finish up school early a lot, which presents something of a problem. If it were San Diego or Seattle, I’d find a cozy outdoor table, order a beer, and study some Japanese. But in Japan, you’ve mostly gotta wait till six, then sit at some smoky counter with a glorious view of the grill. But not today. Ken Seeroi was determined to make a change.
There was a little wooded hillside I’d passed before, with overgrown stairs leading into some undeveloped land. It looked promising, so I swung by the 7-Eleven, picked up a couple of tall malt liquors and these rice cracker peanuty snacks, and headed up into the woods. After about a hundred meters, it leveled out, and there was an old wooden bench. Perfect. I couldn’t believe my luck. Of course, it felt a little weird. Somehow I’d gone from dining out at upscale eateries to sitting alone in the woods with cans of malt liquor. Well, whatever, at least it was trees and nature. And that’s when they emerged from forest. I lasted exactly two swigs of booze before thousands of horrible flying things, subtly, almost imperceptibly, and then suddenly in great numbers, covered every inch of my skin.
They bit into my neck, legs, arms, and kept coming. I swatted like mad, but the air buzzed like it was filled with a thousand mosquitoes. Probably because it was, in fact, filled with a thousand mosquitoes. They’d been waiting weeks for some delicious white guy to stumble into their trap. I grabbed a malt liquor in each hand, jumped up, and took off running. Smack into a tree. Where the hell was the trail? My eyes were swelling shut. I ran back to the bench. Agh, more mosquitoes. I inhaled a mouthful. Anaphylactic shock setting in. I stumbled through the brush leaving a trail of rice cracker peanuty snacks. I knew if I tripped, I’d be devoured alive. Gotta lift your knees, that’s the key.
The Great Indoors
By some miracle, I made it to the bike, then rode like Stevie Wonder back to 7-Eleven and checked the damage in the bathroom. The face in the mirror was that of a 16 year-old boy with horrible acne wearing festive red sleeves and tights on his arms and legs. Thank God I had on a watch. Not because it protected my wrist, but because I could see it was finally six p.m. I rode straight to the first izakaya I could find, sat down in the wonderful air-conditioning and ordered a shochu, water on the side, which I believe is standard treatment for malaria. The barman handed me a white hand towel and a small bowl of spinach with fish flakes on top. I wiped my face with the cool, wet towel and was never so glad to be back in civilization. So much for nature in Japan.