FEATURE — Merīkurisumasu from Japan. It is the Christmas season after all. Even, apparently, in Buddhist Japan. Although, truth be told, it seems like all the signs I’ve seen around here wish you a “Magic Christmas,” not a “merry” one.
Speaking of magic, yesterday began mountainside at a traditional Japanese style inn in the small ski town of Nowazaonsen and then finished in a high-rise overlooking Tokyo’s 13 million people.
The intervening hours were filled with several trains of varying speeds, and buses of only slow ones. And one, unexpected and monstrous hike in the forest.
Yes, there are forests in Japan.
And no, hiking almost three miles straight up one of them was not in the original itinerary.
Somewhere along the way from the mountains to the city, I decided it would be a good idea for my family to stop and see the snow monkeys of Jigojudani. I mean, the map said it was only a two-hour detour and these monkeys are something special. Even National Geographic says so.
You see, these monkeys are hot tubbing monkeys. They like to bathe and socialize in natural hot springs, called onsens, during the freezing winter months. Kind of like their human Japanese counterparts.
So to witness the snow monkeys in their outdoor onsens is both a zoological AND a cultural experience. And something I felt suddenly compelled to witness.
It wasn’t until we reached the end of the tracks in the tiny town of Yudanaka (via a MUCH slower than expected train) when I realized three important facts:
1) The snow monkey park would be closing in just over an hour.
2) The regular bus schedule from the train station to the park wouldn’t start for two days, and…
3) The cute Australian family we had befriended on the train over our mutual desire to see the snow monkeys took the very last taxi while my youngest was in the bathroom. Even though there was room in the cab for my family, too.
Our only chance to salvage the outing and see those amazing monkeys? To walk the “2.5 kilometers” there. Which really turned out to be 4.7 kilometers.
But we still trekked it. Unprepared and in the cold. Through the small town, along the river, up a steep and windy road, to a ramshackle forest foot path and, eventually, to the entrance of the monkey park. Pink-faced, sweaty and spent.
And six minutes past closing.
I’m not going to lie. I had a few choice words on the tip of my tongue for the Australians. And I had a few more in the first kilometer or two of the hike. I mean, what jerks! How inconsiderate!
Ok, ok, it was more than a few words. Maybe it was a whole narrative. But they deserved it.
And I felt justified. And, of course, disappointed. About the monkeys. Even if I really did end up really enjoying that mountain hike in spite of myself.
Fast forward to today. While waiting for my oldest to compete at his gymnastics meet (the whole reason we are in Japan in the first place), my husband passes me the book he’s been reading about the human ego by best-selling author Eckhart Tolle — With a big chunk underlined in black pen.
The highlighted excerpt goes something like this: A lion tries to attack a duck but the duck escapes. As the duck walks away from his near ending, he stops, does a quick shudder, and then keeps walking. He doesn’t look back. He goes on his way. The end.
But then the author role plays what the scenario would look like if the duck had a human brain. He says, “This would probably be the duck’s story: ‘I don’t believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space… I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget.’”
I immediately thought of the Australians. And me. About the narrative I’d invented about them along the first kilometer of the hike.
And about how, later, when they were denied entry to the café where me and my family were drowning our disappointment in apple pie, I felt ever so slightly vindicated.
Tolle goes on to say, “and on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about [the narrative we created] for days, months, or even years later… You can see how problematic the duck’s life would be if he had a human brain. But this is how most of us humans live all the time. No situation or event is ever finished.”
But, instead, the duck goes on his way. And leaves that all behind. How liberating. How wonderful.
I suppose, that’s true for monkeys, too. Especially endearing snow monkey who like to migrate down to natural hot springs called onsens in the winter.
And so, I suppose, should I. It is the Christmas season after all. Even in Buddhist Japan.
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