Her name is Keiko, his is Shin. He is the more sociable of the two. His profession is sumi-e, traditional ink brush painting, and in the sitting room of the Blue Berry, beside an underpowered fireplace, he shows you his portfolio. Mostly he paints rocks – impossibly jagged rocks, ornamental rocks, cliffs bristling with pine trees. It is hard to get a sense of their scale.
Is it a brave pine
on a cliff edge or a rock
sprouting a bonsai
You like best the lone sketch of a daikon radish, perhaps because it is not a rock.
Now he is hooking his camera up to the television, he is showing you holiday photos, videos. There are snapshots of food, of temples in Kyoto, of friends snowshoeing and skiing and falling down and getting up with big smiles. You have known this man less than an hour.
Not quite dinnertime –
let’s have a bowl of green tea
and look at photos
At last you come to pictures of Shin and extended family posing at the top of a mountain. Where is this? Asamayama, he says, two years old.
Now you are excited. How did get there, you want to ask. Where is the trail to the summit? Is it still open? Is it dangerous? Your Japanese limits you to two-word sentences – Asamayama, where? Trail is? A map is consulted, and the question put to Satoshi, the hostel owner. He smiles, laughs, and shakes his head, all at the same time. Desu zono, he says, crossing his hands in an X. Death zone.
This is not what you hoped to hear, and you appeal to Shin, who has dared the death zone and come back alive. Closed is? He also smiles. There are many shades of smiling in Japanese. Actually there are probably just as many shades of smiling in English, and you have trouble even with those. Self-responsibility, he says.