During the Obon festival we had three days off. For the holiday everyone travels back home to be with family and to remember and honor their ancestors. It is a big deal, kind of like Christmas in the States.
Rachel and I, along with two other WWOOFers (Margot from Austria and Chloe from Australia), decided it would be best to give the family some space and let them celebrate without us pesky foreigners hanging around. Thus we went camping. Kanda-san dropped us off at a trailhead to climb Mt. Kushigatayama. Walking back to his car he said, “watch out for big back flies!” in the car he said, “Oh! And watch out for bears!” We looked up the trail to see a few hundred stone stairs that climbed steadily upward to a Shinto Shrine, which are easily recognized by their Torii Gates of Vermillion Red, and a 1200 year old O-Sugi Cedar tree. The trail continued from there and was steep but shady and the coolness of the higher elevation was truly refreshing. We stopped for a short break and then moved onward, eventually making it to a road crossing. We stashed our packs on the side of the road (gotta love that about Japan! Nobody will bother your stuff) and headed to a waterfall that Kanda had told us about. We found a small lookout for it weren’t that impressed because we were so far away. Therefore we traversed back to the river and followed it all the way down to the edge of the waterfall. We stayed at the spot where the waterfall dropped into a valley for some time. This must be where zen happens. We pulled ourselves away and made it back to the packs so that we could reach the hut. Chloe and Margot slept in the hut and Rachel and I opted for our tent because it was cooler and we were tired of the heat from the farm. We had a light meal and went to bed early to arise at 4am for the sunrise hike. We managed with two headlamps and made it to the summit just as the sun was breaking over the valley. We even caught our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji, just a faint outline in the far distance. We ate a breakfast of oats (very different than oatmeal in the states we learned) and returned to camp and packed and headed back down. No black flies and no bears.
We easily reached the start of the trail and traipsed in to the neighboring town to try and hitchhike back to the farm which was 20 minutes down the mountain. Along the way an old man polishing tomatoes flagged us down. We went over to him and he started talking to us. Luckily for us, Chloe knows quite a bit of Japanese and could translate for the rest of us. He gave us all tomatoes and then spoke of being alone on Obon and how he was too old to grow many crops any more. Due to the drought he had a small yield of tomatoes this year. This made us feel bad for eating them even though he offered them to us, but glad we could offer some company at the same time. He then gave us a bag of tomatoes to go! We said our goodbyes and wondered what other people we would meet along the way.
Further down the road we saw a sign for a gallery. Kanda said his friend ran the place and that we should stop in on the way back, so we veered off yet again in search of the place. We found some men out working and asked them for directions. They yelled over to a woman across the way hanging up her laundry to dry on the road guards. She apparently ran the place and replied the gallery was closed. We turned around but before we made it 5 steps, she invited us in for coffee. We entered her house, removed our shoes and sat on tatami mats around a table. At the table already sat an older man in a chair eating lunch. Chloe spoke with him while his wife served us a decadent cup of coffee and local sweets adorned by flowers from her garden. Through Chloe I asked the man what the book was on the table because there were many copies of it. He explained to us it was about the Korean War. His parents were brought from Korea to Japan as slaves and forced to work. Once the war was over they were set free, but could not return to their home. They had to live in Japan and were despised by the locals. He and his wife grew up in Japan and the kids threw rocks at them and taunted them. Now, since many years have passed, Koreans are not treated like that and many have married in to and integrated in to the Japanese way of life. While he shared his story I became incredibly touched and emotional. I felt bad for him and his family and the hardships they endured. In this man I saw the Korean counterpart of my own grandpa who fought in the Korean War. I had Chloe try and convey my sentiments and hopefully some of it got through. Who knew I would have had such an experience just by chance, it is miraculous to see in someone from another culture, someone so familiar to me and know that both stood on opposite sides of a war in two totally different cultures. He then spoke of peace and moving forward. Much more was conveyed even though I could not understand the words he spoke. While all this happened an alarm sounded throughout the entire town, possibly Japan, to commemorate the people who died during WWII. I never imagined such a day when I woke up that morning on the mountain. Then as if they hadn’t done enough, they asked us if we liked waterfalls because there was one nearby. We said we did and asked what direction to walk. They said it was too hot for us to walk and she said would drive us there herself since she hadn’t been to it in a while. Chloe tried to politely say no, but it is very difficult to say no to a Japanese offer, at least without severely offending them. We piled in to her little car and sped around the curved roads as she told us about the mountains. Next we followed her up, down and around metal staircases suspended above a river below to reach the waterfall. We drank straight from the pool below and cooled off as wind, created by the falling water, rushed around us. It was such a powerful place. We thanked her very much for showing us around on the drive back and then she insisted we try some local cuisine. Again there was no saying no, Chloe tried. We slurped Soba noodles and drank Sapporo beer. We then went to pay and the waitress refused our money and told us the woman with us put it on her tab. They gave so much to complete strangers and asked for nothing in return. As she drove away we bowed until the car was out sight, we were still in disbelief. I felt part guilt, part amazement that she would drop everything for strangers. This is Japan.
Back on the street, feeling full and happy we began walking towards the farm with our thumbs stretched out to cars passing by. I stuck my thumb out when I heard a car behind me and realized to the delight of my traveling companions that it is better to look at who you are waving down. I had flagged an ambulance! The driver had the biggest grin on his face as he passed. Along the way Margot began to feel ill and her face went pale. She said her chest was heavy and tight. We managed to flag down a car, probably the smallest one around, and we all hopped in. The lady was driving to work, but was running late. She offered to drive us to the hospital by her work. Margot was still not well so we decided that would be best. Luckily by the time we arrived there she was filling better and just wanted to go home and rest. We think she was dehydrated and exhausted from the hike. Having miles of trail and pavement under our feet we struck out towards Kanda’s which was all the way across town. We eventually made it home and that night we relived our glorious day while slurping the rest our camp food under the stars. These are the days that make traveling a love of mine, a reminder that we are on a journey that gives us precious memories to savor and one that has many bountiful experiences in store.