My First Japanese Moment

My first real Japanese moment, as I like to call it, snuck up on me right out of the gray as it were. Looking back on it, it was staged from the beginning. Jetlag, Tokyo nights and ski touring had taken their toll, leaving me numb to the cultural contradictions flying by me at a great rate of knots.

Fusion is I think the politically correct term for the contradictions of Japanese culture. The fusion of the old and the new, the quiet whilst simultaneously chaotic are well-worn descriptions of Japan, but apt nonetheless. From the tranquility and solitude of Meiji Jingu Shrine in Yoyogi Garden in the heart of Tokyo, to the flamboyance and high pace of the Harujuku district, demarcated only by one noisy street and hectic subway, the point of solubility is always there, only starker and more vividly drawn. The ultra hip, avant guarde Shibuja girls with their big hair and bigger platforms are in opposition to the traditional ladies adorned in fine kimonos. The respect for ancient traditions only highlighted by eight storey electronics stores. They all reside at opposing ends of the spectrum, but they do still exist together and I guess that is fusion.

Despite Tokyo’s attempts to really rock me, my first real Japanese moment took place in the backcountry outside of a small resort named Moiwa-Niseko. I was perhaps a 30-minute hike beyond where you could slide to from the lift. Which is to say we were most certainly in the backcountry, but by no means remote. I had just put my camera away when I shouldn’t have taken it out in the first place. Stevie had quickly hiked above to try and catch the patchy light, but as was usually the case, the clouds blew over just as he was ready to drop.

Since we had arrived in Hokkaido, it hadn’t stopped snowing, piling up 60cms the first night, another 30 the next and taken little respite since. For all it’s foreboding and grim countenance, the weather had this incredible ability to clear in an instant. The dark, low-slung clouds blowing towards the east seemed to spin on another axis within themselves and without warning could spontaneously split open, allowing the sun to almost literally pour through the cracks like hot water in the onsen bath below. On such occasions the flowing ridges and accompanying faces would be bathed in brilliant, velvety light. These rifts in the clouds were few and far between, and never lasted more than 10 minutes.

Standing there on a skin track that bisected a creamy, low angle slope, I had a few minutes to wait for Stevie to skin back up and to where I was. Hoisting my pack onto my slumped shoulders, I stood there dumbly killing time, watching the colors the sun was casting on a ridge further down the valley, still ruing being skunked on my particular shot.

It began to snow lightly and I readjusted the hood of my jacket to keep the first inquisitive flakes out of my world. And that’s when my Japanese moment really began. Standing there in the snow, I could hear faint, 80’s piano music wafting through the air like a neighbor’s television on a warm Sunday afternoon or the aroma of freshly cooked sticky rice. Not traditional Japanese kabuki music, but a dulled down piano version of Rick Springfield’s, “Jesse’s Girl”.

The moment was both silent and corrupt. It was in one way tranquil—the notes of the piano trickling towards me through the ether—but at the same time confronting to hear any kind of music at all, let alone a re-mastered hit from the 80’s. The falling snow seemed to buffer the ambient noise of the mountains allowing this ridiculous melody to snuff me out like leaking water finds a crack in a roof.

Shaking off the confusion and hypnotic character of the music, the vista of satin draped ridges that had previously been laid out before me, had been replaced by mute, flat light, broken only by the chaotic angles of the denuded aspen trees that flecked the slope immediately in front of me. The falling snow gave the sense that things were moving in slow motion.

Within the chorus of “Jesse’s Girl” the weather and my state of equilibrium had shifted from being clear and coruscating, to confronted and unaware of which way was up. I couldn’t tell you which note the shift hinged on.

Maybe there wasn’t a shift at all, just a fusion of contradictions.