The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Busy Couple of Weeks (Plus I Almost Died)

So I've been pretty busy lately; sorry I haven't updated recently. Here are the highlights:

School finished, and we were rushing around preparing the final exam, marking it, tabulating all the marks, and then sending these to the academic office. At the same time, we had to do all of our end-of-term paperwork for the company, as well as clean up our apartments and start packing.

Of course, nothing takes your mind off the stresses of work like a breath of fresh air, right? Katie decided that she wanted to climb Mt. Tsurumidake, the mountain that overlooks Beppu and is prominently visible from our back doors. We had finished our work for the day at around 1:30pm, and were basically free to go; the weather was really nice that day, so just as a kind of spur-of-the-moment thing, we decided to climb the mountain. Tsurumidake also has a cable-car to the summit, but we decided that we had to do it on foot "because it's there."

Karen had climbed it in September; Katie claimed that Karen said it took about an hour to get to the top. So, we set out from school around 2pm. We had a few errands to do, so we went home, got changed into our "climbing clothes", dropped off a couple videos, stopped in at the 100-yen shop to see if they had a hat in case it was cold at the top, went to the convenience store for some drinks and snacks ... By the time we got to the parking lot at the base of the mountain, it was getting on 4 o'clock. But we had 2 solid hours of daylight. An hour up, 10 minutes at the top, an hour down - we figured we'd be okay.

"Who needs a damn cable car?"

We set out. The first 10 minutes or so were a relaxing stroll through a bamboo grove. I joked that "I never thought mountain climbing was going to be so easy!" Ha ha ha. It was just like those horror movies where the doomed campers make jokes that will seem all the more ironic when they finally die.

The thing about Mt. Tsurumidake is that it gets steeper the higher up you go. And it's pretty steep. The course is 3.5 km long, and in that distance, it rises about 1 km vertically. I quickly realized that it was actually going to be damn hard work, and I was sweating a lot within the first 20 minutes. Pretty soon, despite the cold in the air, my head was soaked, and I had sweat running out of my jacket.

"Let's climb a mountain! It'll be fun!"

I really want to drag this story out, and tell you in agonizing detail how long it took us, and how tough it was. But let me just say that it was tough, that the recent warm weather had cause the snow to melt and the ground was very, very muddy and slippery, and that it took us 2 hours to get to the top.

"No one told me it would be this rocky. Or this steep."

So there we were, triumphant at the summit. The sun was just disappearing behind some hills; we were being treated to a beautiful sunset. I took a few snapshots.

"Ahhh... let's just hang out here and enjoy the view. After all, we're in no hurry..."

We were, however, completely exhausted. There was no way we could possibly go back down on foot. "Oh well," we laughed merrily; "I guess we'll just take the cable-car down to the bottom! Besides, the sun is setting, and trying to get down the mountain in the dark of night would be suicide! Ha ha!" (Remember those doomed campers?)

"We'll just take the cable car down! Ha ha!"

Okay, okay, you know what's coming. We strolled leisurely over to the cable-car building, which was completely closed and bereft of human life. We started to panic. The enormous 20-foot tall thermometer was reading zero degrees, and a light snow was falling, as if to mock us. There was nowhere that we could possibly spend the night at the top without freezing to death, so we had to act fast, and get down the mountain as quickly as we could while there was still a bit of twilight.

"We are so screwed."

The top of the mountain had been the steepiest, the rockiest, and the most slippery. It was hard enough coming up; at some points we had been crawling on our hands and knees. But going down was ... well, absolutely horrifying. We were trying to go as quickly as we possibly could without hurting ourselves, and it was kind of like one long semi-controlled fall over rocks, boulders, and trees.

Katie (whose idea this whole thing had been) went first, and thank God for that, because she would slip and fall, or trip over a rock, or tree root, and I would hear her curse, and that would warn me that I was about to trip over the same rock in about 5 seconds. There was really no avoiding it. Within 20 minutes, the sun was down and the moon was coming up. This was a mixed blessing because while the moon provided us with some light, it cast all kinds of crazy shadows that made it nearly impossible to distinguish a rock from a hole in the ground from a tree stump.

I think you can imagine what it's like to stumble and trip, or stub your toe and almost fall head over heels. Now imagine doing that for 2 hours straight, in the dark, on a rocky 45 degree incline, beside a 100 metre dropoff. It was pretty scary. Imagine "The Blair Witch Project", only steeper.

The climb up had exhausted me completely, or so I thought. I was kind of amazed that my legs were able to support me on the way down. I guess part of it was adrenaline, to be honest, with some endorphins for good measure.

About halfway down, there was a shrine. I stopped to say a little prayer.

"If you have to take one of us, God, please take Katie. It was all her idea."

At one point, where the path was particularly dangerous (we had noticed this section on the way up: the path narrows to about a foot wide, and it's pretty slippery, and there's nothing but a 30 metre drop on one side) Katie pulled out her cell-phone, and literally used the backlight to illuminate our footing a little bit. But her batteries didn't last long, and it was soon pitch-black again.

Anyway, somehow, we managed to get to the bottom. We gave a weak cheer, and said a little prayer. Personally, I promised God that I would never go hiking again. We piled into the car, went home, and got drunk to celebrate having survived our brush with a death that would have earned us a place in the Darwin Awards for being stupid enough to remove ourselves from the gene pool. I could barely walk for two days.

"We didn't die! I can't believe it!"

And that was my Monday. Sunday, I packed up and came to Tokyo. I am now living in the most far-flung corner of Tokyo. Five minutes from here, there is a river which forms the border with Saitama. Even so, I'm only 15 minutes by train from the center of town.

The trains I take every morning and night are quite crowded, but they are nothing compared to the train I took the other night to get to iaido practice. I think you can judge extreme train crowding quantitatively by what I call the BSACI or "Bodily Surface-Area Contact Index". This is a number, from 0 to 100, which represents what percentage of your whole body's surface area is in contact with another person on the train. Now, in Canada, I would guess that the most crowded it ever gets is about 5. This is the case where people are standing close to you on all sides, and maybe somebody's elbow is poking into your back, and somebody else is standing on your toe. The other night, I think I was at a solid 60 to 70 BSACI. It was like everybody was playing a standing version of "pile on" because not only were people glommed onto each other, but they were actually pressing; squeezing even. It was crazy. The other thing you don't really realize is that the vast majority of people on these trains have no strap to hang onto, which means that the contents of the train (i.e., the people) just kind of slosh around. But you don't fall over because - well, you can't fall over! There's no room to fall over. It was fun, but I can't imagine ever getting used to it. And plus, it was way too hot. I was dripping with sweat after a few minutes. (Didn't I use that line already in this post?)

"This sucks. I wish I was freezing to death on top of a mountain right now."

My job is pretty boring. On the good side, the people in the office are really great, and it seems more relaxed than most Japanese offices. No one seems to mind if you're a few minutes late, or if you take a break from doing your actual work and jump over to YouTube for a few minutes. Which is essential, because "officially" my job is to sit and stare at a computer for 8 hours a day. I never have to talk to anybody, or get up and go to the copier, or answer the phone or anything... just stare at the computer. The absolutely astonishing thing is that, whenever I get bored and start looking around (every 2 minutes or so) the Japanese workers are diligently doing what they're supposed to be doing. I can't believe it. Are we really so different from them? How do they stay focused for 2 hours at a time? It's crazy. I think they actually appreciate us foreigners because we are lazy and we lighten the mood a little bit.

My job is to edit and revise the lesson plans that hundreds of teachers in our program will be using next year. When I was teaching the same course I always used to look at those same plans and think, "My God ... who writes this crap? These lessons are terrible!" Well, now I know the answer to that question. How very, very ironic. And the worst part is that I can't figure out how to make them any more interesting. I'm sitting there racking my brains trying to think of a fun activity, and I keep falling back on the same tired old games. "Warm up: Play charades for the fifth time this week. This is called 'reinforcement' and is a valuable pedagogical tool." Hah!

Anyway, it seems like I will have plenty of things to keep me busy. There is an iaido or jodo practice every night of the week, if I'm up for it; I might enroll in Japanese classes somewhere; and my co-workers always seem to be going drinking after work. So, in short, it should be a fun couple months - the key will have to be to try and stay well-rounded. (Speaking of which, I haven't been running since my near-death experience on the mountain, so I'm starting to gain weight again, I think ... I would go for a jog tonight but I'm afraid I hear the sound of rain outside my window ... hahahahaha!)

Hope all's well and I'll try to update a bit more often.