This is a story about a rainy day in the woods. It reminds me of another rainy day in Mount Daisen a year ago. (You can read the story here.) Situated in two different places, the magic the rain conjures is like no other.
Saturday morning. I knew it was going to rain. I checked the weather forecast, deliberated before deciding to head out anyway. It's July, we are in the midst of the rainy season in Japan. The rainfall these days is much more frequent now given that it is tsuyu, rainy season, that lasts through June and July.
This season is also marked by the initial hydrangea blooms I have chanced upon in the neighborhood. Rainy seasons are synonymous with hydrangea blooms, just like how Spring reminds one of sakuras and canola flowers.
I hopped on the Kobe dentetsu toward Kita-Suzurandai station, about 40 minutes away. People occupied the cabins and sat down with their standing umbrellas by their side. I looked down at my Crocs, my trusty rain shoes. I am prepared for the rain, I thought. At the same time, my mind explored a multitude of options. Where can I go to wait out the rain? I can find a place to read. I can find a place to have lunch at while waiting for the rain to subside.
Kita-Suzurandai. The weather turned awry. I didn't expect the wind to come whipping in my face like this while struggling with my umbrella, recalcitrant with its flimsy flaps. On most rainy days, I would have curled up indoors.
This is what happens when you have weather forecast information at your fingertips. You either make an informed decision by staying at home, or make a reckless decision by heading out, armed with all the rainy day essentials and a resilient heart to brave through the rain. And the wind.
I have found it. I joined the queue at the bus stop, where I waited for the shuttle bus service to the arboretum. I was surprised at the turnout even in this weather. People were decked in hiking attire, backpack, boots - the entire package. At that sight, my heart leapt knowing that I had company.
A staff member of the arboretum, an elderly man held his umbrella up while informing us that the bus was scheduled to arrive soon. Then there was a gentle reminder to help ourselves to the hand sanitiser on the right side upon boarding. The rain seemed to let up a little and the wind had retreated. Pockets of sunlight gleamed from behind the dark, passing clouds.
Enveloped with the dampness from the downpour earlier, my shoes squeaked in discomfort as though reminding me of another heavy bout of rain. We were wrapped with a shroud of mist as we began our stroll through the hydrangea garden. The wind came in episodes, trees swayed and leaves rustled in sync. And when the wind came, the droplets came alongside them.
It was uncomfortable at first, but it felt unexpectedly refreshing after a while. The way the droplets land on your face, in tiny splashes, adding onto the overall dampness on your clothes. They stick to your skin, an increasing discomfort takes over, but the thrill of walking in the rain leads you into enjoying the moment instead.
A drizzle ensued shortly after. There was a child walking around with his rain boots. There was a lady with an orange raincoat, taking pictures. There was a photographer capturing moments, whose sole protective rain gear he had was for his camera. Maybe he had a rain jacket on. I vaguely remember, but seeing how he held his camera so close to his chest, tucked beneath his jacket under a plastic shield of sorts, I could relate to that kind of protection. As photographers, our cameras are more important than us getting wet.
The rain grew in intensity and had no intention of subsiding until an hour or so later. My forecast told me so. I knew I needed to find a place to settle down for lunch, seek shelter and wait for the rain to stop before heading out again. I found that refuge in a cafe that functioned more like a mountain hut where people could have their onigiris and bentos coupled with tumblers containing beverage, usually tea. The Japanese love their ocha, but I still prefer my coffee.
But my favourite part of that respite was the warmth and coziness of that space, where I looked out of the windows to watch the rain fall, droplets sliding down the window panes. I looked out to see these towering pine trees, like guardians of the forests.
After lunch, I returned to the pages of the book I was reading, The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way written by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. I wondered if my encounter with this book was purely by chance, or if it was trying to tell me something more about my current state of mind and situation. Or if it was trying to talk to me, like a tiny voice, like an ah-ha, this is what I have been meaning to tell you moment.
It might be because I am leaving Japan soon and every single day leading towards my departure is every day to be cherished and treasured, knowing that my time here is shortened with every passing second. It might be because I felt a wave of momentary thrill sweep past me as I was walking through the woods with the drizzle that made me more alive and rejuvenated. It might be because of many other reasons that I may not know of, or understand at this juncture. But all I know is that I don't need to find answers to everything.
Every moment is an ichigo ichie 一期一会 moment, if you know where to look.
Ichigo ichie moments sound like this: Treating experiences and encounters with people as though they are our first and last time. Being focused on the present and not let the fear of the future and the nightmares of the past distract you. I know it's easier said than done. I took a long time before finally adjusting to this frame of mind, this perspective that I never thought would be such a valuable guiding philosophy in life.
Truth be told, I believe a lot in fate, in destiny, in chance encounters and serendipitous moments. I let things happen because I know that there are reasons why, even if I don't know why right now. I am fearful of many things, but I have come to realise that fear is part of human nature and the only way to overcome it is to accept it and go ahead with it like a bulldozer.
What I mean is, just do it. Don't worry about what would happen. Things are going to happen anyway and we wouldn't know how they are going to unfold.
Bad things have happened to me. Good things too. But I have also seen the potential of growth from experiencing the bad ones. We don't know how much we are capable of growth until we have gone through awful moments and have emerged from them, more resilient, confident and have our own stories to tell.
I don't consider myself a pluviophile, a lover of rain, or someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days. But when it comes to hydrangeas season, the rain brings out their beauty more than anything else. It washes the soul and mind in ways I never thought possible. The same also applies to people who have surmounted their challenges.
Perhaps it was the sound of rain cascading in the forest, coming down through the canopy layers, and then subsequently reaching the ground. How the sounds reverberate in the woods; from the pitter-patter on the leaves forming the tiny pools of water to their eventual descent to the leaf litter.
The forest is a playground for the rain.
What would my journey be like if I were a tiny raindrop traversing through the forest layers and sliding off leaves, branches and trunks?
I can only imagine.
All I know is this, every forest is different. Every moment is different. It might feel similar, but the place and time have changed. I have changed. I have grown older. Nothing is ever going to be the same. With this in mind, how I am going to live my life makes a whole world of difference.
I worry if the bus scheduled to come will arrive. I check the timetable and the specific clauses indicated with black triangles, one pointing upwards and the other pointing downwards, read them again and again to make sure that I have gotten the information right.
The bus runs specifically to Kwansei Gakuen University, right in front of the senior high school, Shounkan, where I am teaching at. It is complicated during this time because most students are instructed not to come to school unless necessary, and the university has also delayed their opening date. Crowds of students would have streamed in on normal days, under usual circumstances, on their bicycles, on the buses to school.
The bus is here. I hop on it, sees that there is no one else on board, proceeds to open my Libby app to get started on Loss Adjustment, written by Linda Collins. Morning bus rides give me the headspace and time to read. I appreciate these journeys, albeit for a short twenty minutes.
Several bus stops later, I have reached the main terminal – in Kwansei Gakuen. Still, I am the only one on board with the bus driver. He is wearing a mask. I nod, thank him. He nods. I tap my ICOCA card on the scanner and alight.
The campus is unusually quiet. I see only the gardeners tending to the grass patches, mowing the standing herbage. I look up at the clear blue sky. I see the sakura trees taking centre stage in the school compound. I look around. Still, there is no one else.
I walk past the two weeping sakura trees on the way to Shounkan, stop to stare, to admire, to appreciate, to revel in their ephemeral beauty while they last. Will they last through another weekend? Will they still be there when I return to check on them?
These scenes and thoughts bring comfort to me while I navigate through my current emotional states of being. All these states are temporal. They are fleeting moments in time, in our lives. Knowing that makes me come to terms with this: All that is happening, in this very moment; this, too, will pass.
(Now, do you understand why I spend so much time walking under these sakura trees? Will you, at the very least, try to understand?)
Last December, we embarked on a long day trip to Shimonoseki, a port town in Yamaguchi Prefecture famous for its puffer fish (a.k.a blowfish) haul. It is said that more than 80 percent of the country’s puffer fish supply is sourced from here.
We missed out on the auction because it was way too early in the morning, so we could only snake through the stalls dishing out elaborate platters of puffer fish sashimi (fugu, ふぐ) and all its associated body parts wrapped neatly on styrofoam trays.
While walking through the market and observing the surroundings, I felt like I was observing pieces of art assembled together by master artisans, but in this case, they were the products of chefs skilled and licensed in the cutting and preparation of puffer fish.
I see lorries loaded with polystyrene boxes of puffer fish that had been auctioned off in the morning and several vendors preparing order lists for those who have arrived to make their orders in preparation for the New Year's period. Pufferfish is a popular delicacy in winter when it is savored in hotpot dishes at family get-togethers.
I also chanced upon a vendor selling whale meat, but because I wanted to make sure that it was so, I asked her again to confirm my doubts.
(Is this whale meat?)
(Yes, that's right.)
It was bloody, tough, and didn't look appetising. I suppose she saw it in my eyes, and didn't pursue if I was going to make a purchase.
I walked past the vendors specialising in fugu and asked if I could take photographs of the sashimi platters (even if I was not going to buy them, they clearly knew I was just passing through).
(Is it okay if I take a picture?)
(Go ahead. Fugu sashimi is delicious, you know. Especially in hotpot dishes.)
I snapped some photographs and continued my way through the vendors who were caught up with their order and delivery forms. There is undoubtedly a demand for pufferfish in this part of Japan where bulk of the haul occurs here in Shimonoseki. Besides, this dish is particularly popular as the puffer fish are at the peak of their growth in the cold winter months from December to February.
My trip to Shimonoseki was primarily to see puffer fish swimming in tanks, but I left without seeing them. Maybe it was because I didn't try hard enough. I don't even know if I can endure the sight of them turning into sashimi, while they are still alive, struggling and trying to gasp for a bit more air till their final breath.
I recently came to know about this Japanese method of killing fish that is called 'ikejime' (いけじめ / 活〆) and is claimed to be more humane than other methods and likely to result in tastier fish.
This method extends the length of time for which the flesh remains its freshness after it is fished out of the water. This means that chefs can experiment with a greater range of textures by means of varying the development of umami (a characteristic taste present in broths and cooked meat) as the fish ages. The fish also ends its life in the least stressful way when ikejime is applied.
No matter what the method is, there must still be a degree of pain felt - whether it is the initial gasping for air, or the tolerating of pain that domestic animals have to go through knowing that their lives are going to end sooner or later.
In all honesty, if I were to ever witness a live killing of an animal, I would probably stay away from meat consumption completely. This is because I would have seen how horrifying it would be for the animals to go through the stages of being slaughtered. (I have been avoiding documentaries and videos after chancing upon some on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA.)
We might or might not have firsthand experiences to be aware of the processes that are behind the scenes of the food prepared and laid on our dinner tables. This is perhaps why there is not enough instrinsic motivation that urges us to take immediate action on our own dietary preferences and lifestyles.
Truth be told, it's a tall order for me to abstain from meat completely. I have tried going without it for a month, but realised that it took me a lot of self-restraint and perseverance to avoid consuming meat. Vegetarian options are rare in Japan and they aren't cheaper or worth the amount you are paying for. For some unfathomable reason, vegetables and fruits are more expensive than meat and seafood.
Meat and seafood dishes are aplenty and in demand, coupled with the chef's recommendations on restaurant menu boards. You are lured in by these headings, #1 シェフのおすすめ (#1 Chef's recommendations) or 本日のおすすめ (The day's recommendations). The dishes sound tempting, tasty and you can almost feel your mouth watering.
How is one able to resist such food temptations? Don't we live to eat and savor good food? Don't we wish to eat well and nutritiously especially when we have the money to spend?
It always feels like a mental tug-o-war when it comes to food choices especially when we eat out, attempting to keep in mind our dietary preferences. Our choices are restricted to what is on the menu, often featuring a dazzling array of the dishes available. And exactly because of that, we can only choose based on what we can or cannot eat. Or we are likely to pass on the ingredients to someone else who can eat them for us.
I am not trying to say that home-cooked food is the best way to go, but for me, it is the most convenient and practical way of trying to go green, be more conscious about the ingredients I am using and do my part for the environment at the same time. Not to mention, it is a pocket-friendly tip too.
With the advent of another season, here is a poem (separated into parts according to the photographs) I have written exclusively on winter. I hope you enjoy them!
In the bleakness of winter
The bare branches stood still
As though calling out to me
To seek its company
Feelings of solitude trickled
Like a river that is soon going dry
Into my heart, they went
Biting, tugging, lingering
For they also found comfort within
When I chanced upon you
I knew, I knew right away
You are the antidote to my solitude
To be embraced, to be appreciated
For withstanding the cold
To emerge, to bloom, to be present
For the solitude's heart to heal
Look there, over there
The grass on Mount Wakakusa
Dried and forlorn
Neglected and deeply longing for
A fire that would set their hearts ablaze
A fire that would rekindle their spirits
To come full circle
To celebrate life again
I strolled around the palace ruins
In search for something
But uncertain what that was
Trying to untangle threads
Threads of history pulled together
Let's rewind back to many millenniums ago
To the Nara period, from 710 to 794
When Nara served as the capital of Japan
Heijo Palace was a place
Where the Emperor resided in
With all its associated government offices
I conjured up familiar scenes
From all the period dramas I have watched
And tried to time-travel back
Like an intruder, an invader into the past
Maybe that was what I was occupied with
Watching people passing by
Cycling, flying kites
Setting up their cameras
Connecting with fragments of history
I have just learnt about earlier
I let my thoughts wander
And wander they did
To a distant period in time
While living in the present
And wondering what the future will bring
Our lives in this world are unpredictable
Thus every moment is precious
Precious enough to cherish it
Till we breathe our last breath
After a nauseating three-hour ferry ride from Anmok in Gangwon, we finally arrived at Jeodong port in Ulleungdo.
“I don’t think I can stomach another ferry ride on the same day.” I told my sister, so we made an impromptu decision to stay overnight in Ulleungdo upon arrival despite lacking the necessities since we initially planned for a day trip.
Here was what actually happened: I didn’t do ample research on this trip to Ulleungdo. It was pure oversight on my part because I had been so used to spontaneous travelling in Japan and even in Southeast Asia that it didn’t occur to me to plan for my travels in advance. In retrospect, I should have done more extensive planning especially when we were embarking on a trip to a distant island, miles away from the mainland of South Korea. Getting to Ulleungdo required us to bring our passports for identification as well.
“The ferry ride lasts for about three hours assuming that weather conditions are favorable. However, if the weather goes awry on that day, the rides would be cancelled.”
I only found out about this the night before our planned trip to Ulleungdo. How could I have missed out on such an important detail?
A couple of phone calls later and thankful smiles exchanged with the lady at the tourist information centre who helped us out, we found our way to the guesthouse and then circled the port market to see rows of squids hung out to dry in the sun. The market was devoid of activity in the noon because most of the proceedings and exchanges had already taken place in the morning during the auctions.
The smell of dried squid lingered in the air, and it somehow reminded me of my mother’s homemade lotus root soup with dried strips of cuttlefish added into it. Being a squid fishing base, Jeodong port is lined with many fishing boats docked, kitted out with large light bulbs and fishing machinery.
Shortly after, we headed towards the coastal walk near Dodong port, where we began the day’s hike. It was at the peak of the August summer and the scorching heat was unbearable, but respite came in the form of the frequent breezes whistling into our ears and the rhythmic sounds of the waves.
In the midst of our hike, we landed at a family hut and sat down for some cold barley tea, where we met an ahjusshi, a middle-aged man with a dog chatting with the owner.
When we were about to leave, he signaled to us with both palms faced out, a gesture that indicated to us to wait for him. Although little Korean was spoken between us, he seemed to know that the next stop we were headed towards was exactly where he was returning to – the lighthouse.
Within minutes, the owner came out of the kitchen with two big bags of homemade banchan (a variety of Korean side dishes, kimchi being the most common one) for the ahjusshi to take home with him.
And so, we trailed along into the woods, he walked barefooted with his dog following close behind. The dog often stopped to look behind – as though to check on us if we were also following suit. He was like our guide dog during our very brief encounter.
When we parted ways at the lighthouse, the ahjusshi offered us two slices of apple and the dog came by to bid farewell too. I can still remember this because it was such a heartwarming memory – to receive such a kind gesture from a stranger and the fact that the dog went crazy pouncing on a dead bird.
It was also in the vicinity of the lighthouse, where we met a tour guide and a group of Korean ahjummas from Daegu who donned hiking attire. He mentioned that he was a volunteer guide, bringing them on this hike since he was familiar with the route down to the port. He reached out to us and said that if we did not mind, we could wait for the ahjummas to return and join them.
During the wait, we talked about my time in Japan, the existing tension between South Korea and Japan (due to an ongoing trade war), about Singapore, about our late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and that he respected him.
The ahjummas returned soon after and we began our descent not knowing how perilous the terrain was. Simply put, we were unprepared for the hike through the forested area with steep turns. It would have been more manageable if we made the ascent via that route instead, but descending was a whole new level of struggle. We made it down in the end after an almost endless descent.
If not for the ahjummas who took turns to hold onto our arms so that we could steady ourselves every time, I swore I would have slid down on my butt with my palms caked in mud.
We returned to our guesthouse hoping to have dinner in the family restaurants nearby, but because most of them specialised in seafood dishes and they weren’t to our appetites, we ended up slurping down Nongshim’s Shin ramyun (spicy instant noodles) and had banana milk at the convenience store. It was also because we were too late for dinner because most restaurants had already taken their last orders and were closed for the day.
The sun had gone down by then and it was much cooler to stroll around Jeodong port. Amidst the darkness, we saw the pair of lighthouses guarding the port, like traffic wardens guiding the ships and ferries coming and going. We caught sight of the squid fishing boats out at sea, their boat lights twinkling in the inky darkness.
I was reminded of this word. Hiroko-san mentioned it when we talked about the lights from the fishing boats that dotted along the Shimane Peninsula in Japan.
She wrote it down so that I could remember:
漁り火 / いさりび (pronounced as isaribi, a method of using fire that emits light to lure fish in order to catch them at night.)
As we watched the boat lights glittering like stars, I felt incredibly grateful after experiencing all the adventures we have been through. We were blessed to have met the ahjusshi staying near the lighthouse and his dog, the tour guide and the group of ahjummas on Ulleungdo. Beyond blessed.