Thanks everyone for all your Christmas cards, birthday messages and emails, and everything. I've been very lighthearted and not the least bit lonely during the holidays! My card wall is now full of personal messages, even though they came late!!!
This is a story about my little hero, Haru-chan.
We gathered, as we always do, at the small, local shrine that rests unobtrusively near the top of a steep hill. This tradition is called, "Hatsumode," the first visit to the shrine of the year. Yossi and I have a ritual. We pray at the shrine together, and then we walk once clockwise around it while holding hands. Then we're served half a sip of sake from the shrine priestesses. Every hour on the hour, a man sitting by the fire lights a cracker that soars up in to the sky and thunders across the valley, making me jump out of my skin. Even if I know it's coming, it still makes me jump.
This all takes about 10 minutes. After that, we jump in our cars, turn on the heaters, and go off for lunch. Once in a while, we'll run in to someone that causes a bit of a chat for a while, but that didn't happen this year.
This year my 5-year-old niece, Haru-chan, had a camera with her. I asked what we should take pictures of. She took me off to the side near a stone stairway and we took pictures of the Shishi stone guardians of the gates. I looked over my shoulder. What is this stairway going down?
So we asked the man lighting the crackers. He said it's the old trail down the hill, but no one uses it anymore, and it's probably impassable at this point.
I was thinking about Tsuneyama in my town. All my city-bred friends say it's dangerous, it's scary, it's not well used enough to count as a hiking trail. I was thinking, this little hill with a shrine that they call a mountain - how bad could an "impassable" trail possibly be? Certainly I've seen worse! Right?
So I announced to everyone that I'm walking down, and I'll meet them at the bottom.
And then everyone decided to come with me.
Katsu and Oto-san were the first to turn around. After the stone steps ended, the trail has grass growing through it. The men were completely through. The rest of us went on a little way. The grass turned in to long weeds and little trees, but it was just scrubby and you could still tell it's a trail. Yossi said, "Hey this isn't bad. . . for you. See you at the bottom!" He turned around.
"Could you get my phone for me?" I asked.
"What would you even need it for?" He bounded up the stairs. "We'll wait for you at the bottom of the hill."
There was a turn in the trail and the weeds grew thick. Nat-chan stopped. She was using her brain. It's a good habit of hers. "I want to go back."
"Hurry up and follow Yossi."
"Come with me!" she pleaded.
I looked at Haru-chan. Did she want to go with her sister back to the car? No. She insisted on hiking down the hill through the weeds.
"If you don't hurry, he'll leave in the car without you," I told Nat-chan. She ran off.
Now it was me, Haru-chan, and my mommy in-law.
I had a feeling Mommy in-law (or I'll call her Oka-san) was just being protective of us. She probably didn't trust us together in the woods. She didn't have a phone on her either.
At first we walked side by side, but Haru is only five years old and she just walks under the brush that's trying to tangle up my face and arms. I have to stretch my legs over a fallen log that she just goes under without thinking about it. I forced her to hold my hand so she wouldn't get too far ahead, and she was just booking it down that trail. I was dodging spiderwebs and hanging vines from the trees, and she was oblivious to my troubles. Oka-san was getting farther behind.
I decided to try to find things to distract Haru with so we could all keep up with each other. Look there, a chestnut! Hey, why do you think this tree fell down? Let's take a picture of something!
Finally I saw a light shining through the woods. I thought maybe it was the white of someone's rooftop. We were already at the bottom! I quickened my steps. "Look, do you see where the trees are parting? Is that someone's house? Your mom must be close!"
And then we got to the part where the trees parted and found ourselves on the wrong side of a pond. Oka-san and I took a quick look around and realized we'd somehow lost the trail. Or the trail hadn't even been there. Or the thing we'd been following hadn't actually been the trail. Haru-chan looked up and me and asked three poignant questions.
"Where's my Mom?"
She's waiting for us at the bottom of the hill.
"What if she isn't waiting anymore?"
But that's impossible, because she IS there.
"What if we can't find her?"
Oh but we WILL find her!
Cut scene to the other group.
So Yossi drives Oto-san and Yuka, the mommy, drove everyone else down to where the bottom of the trail ought to be. The three men got out of the cars to go poking around, wondering where we'll come out of the woods. The road sorta forks, and while both forks end up in the same place, there's better parking for the cars at one end rather than the other. So the guys decided to wait for us outside.
Suddenly Kastu found something in the brush. It's a game trap! A kind of cage where the unsuspecting animal walks in smelling bait and the door closes after it. There are two other kinds of traps that Japanese people commonly use. One is a noose that gets around the animal's head and ties them to the trunk of a tree. The other is a noose that gets around their foot and lifts them up the tree to hang there. The first two kinds of traps are probably not dangerous to humans. The third kind could leave you hanging by your ankles in a forest without anyone to hear your cries.
So the three guys started wondering if maybe we'd all get trapped like wild boars and they'll have to pull us down from trees. With this horror in mind, all three of them, even Oto-san with his bad leg, started up the trail looking for us, the women in their lives. It's wide enough for a car to pass on, but it's overgrown with weeds and baby trees so you have to watch your step quite a bit. There are also gates to keep wildlife from coming out of the forest and getting in to people's gardens.
Cut back to us.
I was ready at this point to just go back.
At the shrine certainly someone would lend us a phone so we could get picked up.
But Oka-san insisted that, despite the lack of a path, if we just got to the other side of the pond, we'd be able to find our way to the village.
I didn't buy that. We have a five year old with us, woman! Let's turn around! But she was already off looking for a way to cross. I followed after her, half sliding down a steep hill. Haru-chan was no longer out to be the first in line, and was sorta lingering back. She had this determined look on her face, but she didn't cry or complain. She just followed us to the best of her ability. What a spirit!
So Oka-san led us down to where the lake turned into a stream that winds through the hills. But I have a pretty damn good sense of direction, and I knew we were on the wrong side of this thing. I told her we'd have to get to the other side. Oka-san was really hesitant about crossing running water with her tiny granddaughter. So I just decided to hop over by myself and I used a stick to battle the weeds on the other side and make a clearing for Haru-chan and Oka-san to come over. We struggled up the bank on the other side an lo! We found ourselves on a flattish piece of ground where the trees were not growing so thick and it was easier to walk.
"Haru-chan, if you ever get lost in the woods, do you know how to find the right way?"
"How?" she asked.
"Follow the water downstream," I told her. "So let's go! Mommy will be waiting at the bottom of this hill!"
The more we walked, the more the ground leveled out, and I started to realize that this must have once been a road for vehicles to go up and down. The more path-like it became, the less trees there were and the thicker and more unforgiving the underbrush. At one point there was a fallen tree completely across the path that Haru-chan couldn't get over. I lifted her up in my arms when suddenly I saw someone coming up the path. It was Katsu!
"Hey look, Daddy's come to greet you!" Katsu hurried up to us and I handed off his daughter. She didn't show any sign of relief or tell him anything negatively about our adventure. She just smiled lightly and let herself be carried. She's my hero!!
Yossi came up the trail next. "Where's Oka-san??" he asked, still worried about the game traps. I realized we'd gotten pretty far ahead of her. I looked back and pointed to her making her way through the weeds.
"I think I threw out my back!" she complained as she caught up to us. Mommy in-law, I'm SO sorry.... You shouldn't have had to come with us...
Finally, Oto-san came clambering up the hill with his bad step. I apologized for running off in the forest with his wife.
Then we all went back home and ate giant helpings of kimuchi fried rice and pudding. Happy New Year!