The 30-Kilometer Walk
That I planned to off myself did not mean an end to details. I discovered this during the bureaucratic hoopla that ensued when I took a teaching job at a high school in Japan. Immigration and tax authorities suddenly took an intimate interest in my existence. I did my best to fish for amusement from the numberless boxes, lines, and blanks, which for a time constituted the whole of my grip on the slippery eel of life.
All lands seem perfect from a plane’s porthole, but Japan managed to be slightly more so: wreathed in ragged patches of mist, creased with a harmony of uneven hillocks. The first Japanese I saw was enthusiastically pounding on a new section of concrete runway, sporting billowing purple pantaloons, camel-toed boots, and a canary-yellow hard hat. The head English teacher from the high school, a Mr. Takiyashi, took me to a hotel as the cityglow overtook twilight. Pulsating Tokyo was a spiked steel-and-concrete supernova, a web of warrens knotted as a labyrinth. I spent a singular night in a closet-sized fifty-first story room, sleeplessly surveying the nictating horizon.
In the morning, we left Tokyo by bullet train, our knees jarring together at each jolt of the tracks. My host’s English made it hard to believe he held a Master’s Degree in English Rhetoric, with his talk of how there are not many equipments in your apartment, and I will take you to that one, your apartment place. I was greedy for the gulps of novelty blurring past the window, but Mr. Takiyashi was so nervously intent on chat that politeness dictated smalltalk. We debarked at an orderly train station, loudspeakers emitting high-pitched voices—warning, cajoling, offering, begging—impossible to say. We went through a city, dwarfish and drab after all-encompassing Tokyo, bundles of wires blotting out whole sections of sky above impeccably dressed pedestrians striding self-importantly, onto an elevated expressway that followed the course of a cemented river, up into the filmy countryside.
The 30-Kilometer walk is beginning to the new year for in-entering students, Mr. Takiyashi said. They go walking from high school through all villages everywhere asleep. At night because the day is hot. Now is the time of summer in Japan. Even we walk to the shop we will sweat. Will you join us?
Of course, I said. When?
Tonight, he said. At 10 pm.
We pulled up at a gray apartment block. As we hauled my luggage five stories up, Mr. Takiyashi said, Any students sick in any ways must come to opening ceremony. But they do not go walking, because they maybe don’t finish. This is dangerous. Are you okay to take part in the walking?
I am, I said. Absolutely.
After depositing my bags on the hard floor, he stood solemnly at the threshold and said, Here is my card. I will return at 8:30. Exactly 8:30. So would you please be ready. Just now I am afraid I am very busy. I hope you are comfortable.
He bowed and I attempted to return the gesture, feeling like a wrestler onstage with a ballerina. Then I was alone in the empty sweltering apartment, view from the verandah of a countryside that unfurled not in vast vistas, but spongy curves. A low bank of mountains paraded out to invisibility in the hazy distance, the land before it splotched with rolling-rowed tea paddocks and rounded rice paddies, lustrous green in the midmorning sun. A line of women slowly hunched by below, wrapped in faded colors and bonnets, shouldering baskets and blunt-headed shovels. Small farming huts of corrugated aluminum dotted the landscape, as did brown and gray houses with small-peaked second stories. Smoke plumes wafted up industriously. Sweat slipped down the bridge of my nose. What did it matter my only furnishings were two folding chairs and a well-trodden bathroom rug? I sprawled out half naked on the woven-mat floor, staring at the strange ceiling, not sleeping.
Mr. Takiyashi arrived precisely ten minutes early. I was lethargic but determined not to let it show.
He said, You are the first foreigner teacher to come here. Of course the first to take part in the walk.
I’m very happy to do it, I said.
The drive to campus took us at fearsome velocity down sneaking roadways barely wider than footpaths, destroying my attempts at navigation. The campus gates appeared. Students were milling around and sipping at paper cups under arc-lights, boys in blue gym uniforms, girls in red. Addressed by no one and beheld by everyone, nervousness thrust its clammy digits deep into my cheeks, pulling them into a ghoulish smile. A riptide of bird-nattering undertones and pointing roiled the crowd, although no one approached me, not even other teachers, everyone looking away swiftly with small smirks.
Mr. Takiyashi nodded briefly in various directions and led me to a shiny-headed man of at least 80, sporting a gray sweatsuit and new sneakers, towel tied bandana-style round his head and another draped over his shoulder, tailed by a covey of servile head-bobbers.
This is the principal, Mr. Takiyashi said.
The principal grinned enormously, handing off a lit cigarette to a subordinate without looking, vigorously pressing his raspy palm into mine as Mr. Takiyashi bowed at 90 degrees. He said something so guttural I flinched. Mr. Takiyashi translated: What country was I coming from? Am I to be the new English teacher? What did I so far think of Japan? Did I like Japanese food?
I answered with all the fawning I guessed was expected. The principal chortled and nodded beatifically. Then he and his close-watching cronies bowed in perfect unison, which gesture I returned in kind, my effort drawing girlish giggles from watching students.
As we were walking away, Mr. Takiyashi said, I can not go to walking with you. I must perform other duties.
I asked what these were.
Oh, I am very much busy, he said. The important thing for you is keep walking.
He disappeared into the staring crowd. I stood alone a few minutes. Then a boy with frizzled red-dyed hair shyly edged up to me, clutching a fine-toothed comb.
Hellohowareyou, he said.
Fine, I said. And you?
He nodded sagely to his confederates, three mouse-faced boys busy avoiding my glance. I stuck out my hand. Whoops swelled through the crowd as we shook. Instantly an orderly line formed in front of me, a hundred outstretched hands of girls cooing and boys striking poses. Each flung out a Hellohowareyou and pulled their hand from mine before I could respond. I shook nearly every hand in school before a whistle sounded. The students left me and gathered round a makeshift platform near the gates. A young teacher, nattily kitted out in sheeny track suit and running shoes, began rattling away into a megaphone.
I wandered over to the beverage table, beneath a long tent bearing a marching column of black-brushed characters. I was handed a paper cup of cold barley tea by a trembling middle-aged woman whose gaze did not rise further than my navel. The tea tasted of rich loam, and I wondered how long it took to develop a taste for it. At 9:59, the young teacher set down the megaphone and was handed a walking stick. He wrapped a towel around his head and headed out the gates. Everyone followed and so did I, going as the crowd willed, students clamoring for second and third handshakes.
The road wriggled sharply as we passed through town. Owing to the press of students, I didn’t see much of it. As we went out into the country the students became quieter, making a pincushion of the dark with their flashlights. Soon their talk was all soft tones, to the accompaniment of wapping athletic shoes, twittering crickets and cicadas, blustering frogs. The students got over me quickly enough. They had their own affairs: furtively holding hands, casting significant looks, dispatching messengers.
Every few kilometers was a way station offering barley tea and crispy wafers. The students wolfed them down, neatly depositing plastic wrappers in the bins provided. I found the sour taste repulsive, and tried to throw one away without being noticed by the efficient ladies manning the stations. They greeted me more or less warmly, but I was offered no special assistance. I posed under frequent flashbulbs, white-reeling splotches coiling across my vision. By Kilometer 9, I abandoned hopes of putting in a mere appearance. No sign of Mr. Takiyashi, or any familiar face at all. No, not for many thousands of miles.
A heady prospect for one as far gone as me, it was. My long teetering walk along the rim of the abyss had rattled out my personality, emptying me of desires and antipathies both, making me an empty vessel waiting to be shattered. Before me lay the serried hills of the countryside, quilted in cottony black and a million still shadows dappled in moonlight. Backs bent to their task, the students were criminally indifferent to the scene. Their presence grated. I maneuvered into as large a gap between student groups as I could get to. When I saw a small dark road leading off from the main highway, I took it. I was on a steep ridge; the students ahead didn’t look back and those behind were too far off to see me hurrying alone into the night. Surely Mr. Takiyashi would be horrified. But I had not come here to be polite.
The road wound through thick-leaved bamboo groves, slanting stalks forming what looked like an impassable thicket. Yet beyond lay houses, windows blinking through the stalks as I passed by. The road, barely wide enough for one car, sloped upwards. The bamboo turned to stands of pine, fallen needles bunched thick on the shoulders. Atop another ridge, I looked down on the rounded squares of rice paddies, patches of pacific black bordered by narrow berms, terraces following the terrain’s pitches and slopes across a valley. On I went.
The narrow-steeped valley was wedged between a throng of blunted peaks hovering at its vaporous fringes, unreal as a painted spaghetti western backdrop. The heaving land seemed to begrudge any leveling, and its residents had matched their improvements to the sync of the terrain. I passed by houses perched on stone embankments built into mountainsides, surrounded by running walls of shrubbery and flanked by statues. These materialized into the feminine likenesses of eastern saints, with long rods and wide hats and outturned palms, sporting the faintly arrogant smirk of enlightenment. I listened for the familiar sound of whispering needles in the pines, but there was no breeze. In the light-dusted night the trees seemed all the same size, blanketing the hillsides like a lawn. The vale steadily narrowed down to another pass as the road kept climbing.
There was no traffic, though I stayed well to the side of the road, not wanting anyone else to bear responsibility for what I meant to do. Over the pass the road opened out to another valley on an upward slope. It was well past midnight and I wondered how many kilometers I’d come, fine-grained jetlag gritty in the cracks of my awareness, bobbing along with that false buoyancy common to novices everywhere, before familiarity has stewed the pleasing lumps of novelty into a gelatin of smug certitude.
Around a bend came a vending machine, tucked into a cove of trees, a little miracle of humming light and canned beverages. The machine lacked a protective mesh and its facade seemed to be moving. Leaning in, I saw a swarm of primeval insects, stick-looking, thick-winged, fluttering and crawling. I was thirsty; I had to hope none were dangerous. I examined some coins I’d acquired in Tokyo, then delicately put several in the slot, flicking aside a hairy creature big as my palm, which stickily righted itself on a gleaming child’s face, nudging aside a flapping moth to select a beverage made mysterious by my illiteracy. I reached for the drink, watching that my arm hairs not get entangled with a creepy-crawly. It tasted like cough medicine. But with only a few more coins in my pocket, I drained the can.
The valley here was wide enough for the gossamer mountains to fade out into the dark. Ahead came the ashen glow of street lamps. A village, silent houses and shop fronts pressed to the fringe of a road barely wide enough for the minitrucks parked everywhere. Nothing moved behind the opaque windows. The homes were bordered by intricately sculpted bushes, delicate stone-and-pebble walkways, walls of shiny stone engraved with slashing characters. None had locks I could see. The shop front signs were gatherings of maniacally cute cartoons and children peddling obscure products. Vending machines appeared every few feet. Besides drinks and cigarettes, on offer were pony kegs of beer, heated cans of soup, comic books. I walked swiftly and encountered no one. I couldn’t imagine what I would say if I did. Soon I reached a bridge with no lights on the far side.
The river below echoed over the rocks of the riverbed. The heavy sink of humid air was gone on the crossing. The chillier air ran over my wet-trickled back, and I looked down into the torrent. But then I kept walking, crossing back into the leaden air, laced with essence of forest and riceland. The road wound about the base of a sugarloaf before reaching a T-junction with a murky π of a shrine gate straight ahead. Beyond it stretched rows of immense trees, their canopy making an inky pool of the pebbled path leading to the shrine, grounds ringed by a fence of waist-high stone pillars emblazoned with more slashings. Strung between the poles of the gate was a thick-twisted rope decked out with white zigzags. The grounds echoed with frog calls.
I went in and the amphibian chorus grew so loud I looked around to see if anyone had awoken. I paused by the squat shrine, slotted box in front of it, small bell attached to a rope hanging above it. Nearby an empty gazebo sat on a peninsula that jutted gently into a pond coated in lotus pads. I went in and sat. How many centuries had this pond seen lovers and the lonely, blood spilled, vows offered and broken, fates sealed, gods appeased and angered—what were my personal quandaries to these? I thought on how easily I might never have seen this place, and how all my intentions were laid on the opposite side of the world. The frogs sounded on. A thousand phantoms, entranced in their own affairs, paid me no mind. I got back on the road and took a left.
The moon was well into its downward arc as I continued upward, tendrils of mist trickling out from the forest. Two small deer with stunted antlers and minuscule hooves appeared in the road, staring at me brashly with enormous glossy eyes. We regarded each other in the silent roadway before they crashed away into the trees. At the next pass were the twin portals of a temple, statuaries crouching inside enormous rectangular boxes, wielding clubs and bearing fangs. I headed on, ever upwards, shirt flapping wetly against the small of my back, moonlight shimmering silky over the land. I felt pulled along on a stream in which I was no longer an island, road swooping in wide curves as I went on into the glazy night, my feet dragging loud on the asphalt, spending the last of my change on a fizzy lemon drink that coated my mouth in a sticky film.
I entered another silent village to the dawn, hilltops topped with wispy chokers of mist motionless in the rose glow. It felt like I was walking through congealed pudding and could go no further. I stopped at a moss-coated stone footbridge that spanned a stone aquaduct, water clear, silken fins of small fish undulating against the current, stone flags of a garden walkway coiling among potted bonsai trees up to a house, sand raked, rows of heavy-petaled flowers against the house wall, beads of dew dotting the gray roof tiles. Across the street were temple precincts, from which emanated faint drumbeats and chanting, chubby Buddha beaming by the stairs, unadorned stone lantern-holders near the trellised doors. I sat on the bridge and hoped the residents would remember the Buddha’s injunction to charity when they found me. I waited for the sun to top the peaks and felt I could see many more such mornings. The sun appeared, coating the valley in streaky red.
Shuffling with a steady gait down the garden path came an old woman, back bent and face deep-furrowed. She came nearly to the edge of the footbridge before she saw me. She knitted her brows and didn’t say anything before turning away. I was too tired to move and anyway, where would I go? I stayed there and braced for what was coming: watchdogs, police, helmeted superwarriors. The old woman reappeared. She crossed the bridge and handed me a small steaming cup of green tea. It was bitter but I drank it, grit gathering at the bottom of the cup. Then she said something, folded lips curved into a saintly smile. I said thank you.
She took the cup and brought another. Then she bowed. I got to my feet and did the same. She patted my hand and went back into the garden, puttering among the plants. I watched her move with actions that spoke of habitual decades. Occasionally she looked slyly over at me and I thought how she was probably once the catch of the village. About half an hour later, Mr. Takiyashi showed up.
After he bowed about 600 times to the old woman and I was safely in his car, he said, Everywhere we have looking for you.
I’m sorry, I said. I got lost. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone or where to go.
He was silent for the rest of the drive back to campus. At the school, the closing ceremony was finishing. I apologized again and we got out of the car as the tired students scattered into the courtyard. They were too far gone to even giggle much at me. Mr. Takiyashi went off somewhere. I hoped I hadn’t offended him too badly, but was beyond really caring. I stood there at another loss, but didn’t much care about that, either.
From out of the crowd appeared a plump woman with a gap-toothed grin, face a mask of caked and cracked powder, eyes leveled on mine. She handed me a sandwich wrapped in crinkled cling wrap, egg salad and tuna, crusts neatly lopped off. I wasn’t hungry, but happy to be in the unexpected presence of the familiar, I took a bite. The familiar sandwich squish flowered into a putrid version of mayonnaise, thick as jelly among the soft shards of tuna. All my reserves of good breeding were required to not grimace. When I was done, the woman bowed, a gesture which I tried once more, causing a ripple of weary giggles nearby. She took the cling wrap and was gone. Mr. Takiyashi was suddenly at my elbow again.
Yes, he said. We were very worried.
You don’t have to be, I said. Not anymore.