Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet


You are volcano man? Satoshi asks. Yes, no. Poetry man. You are like haiku? Yes, very much. I think, Tomoko says very seriously, I think haiku have full of Japanese mind.

And so, with the help of your hosts and a pocket phrasebook, you spend the rest of the evening trying to compose a haiku in Japanese. You have had something in mind, actually, since your first night at the hostel. Basho would sometimes leave poems for his hosts, and you feel it would be a fine tradition to honor.

There is no native Japanese word for blueberry; the hostel’s name is just the English word for the fruit written phonetically, buruuberii. You are thinking of the tiny glass of blueberry juice you were served with dinner last night, how clean and piercing the sweetness, how pleasant it was to have warm dry feet. You are thinking of grapes left to freeze on the vine before pressing into Eiswein. You want to say something with blueberries, how they are all the sweeter because of the cold.

Snow makes the blueberry more sweet? Sugar, says Tomoko. You mean sugar makes blueberry sweeter? No, snow, or cold, what is cold. How to say frost? Shimo. But this is too short for the line.

Hatsushimo, Satoshi suggests, first frost. Japanese, we like first things.






      Hatsushimo de

            buruuberii ga



or, literally:


      With the first frost

            the blueberry

                  becomes sweet


It is the wrong kigo or season word, since blueberries ripen in August long before any frost, but you are not thinking horticulturally. You want to express how welcome you have felt here, how grateful to have a place to get out of the cold and the wind, a place of patience and kindness, a place not to be lost.

It’s a metaphor, you say, and they are baffled but too kind to say so. Maybe the blueberry – like you, a foreign import – doesn’t rate in the poetic company of plums and cherry blossoms. Or maybe what you wanted to be true about Asian poetry, its subtlety and suggestiveness and indirection, was wrong-headed, or simply beyond your power to capture.

You ask Tomoko to inscribe the poem in their guest book, since you can’t make the characters properly. It is thrilling to watch someone write in Japanese, the quick dart and dabble of the pen-point, the series of tiny paintings flowing out. They both seem pleased, and that is something.


In kanji, the system of Chinese characters borrowed by the Japanese for their own use, the word for volcano is written


which pairs the character for fire, hi with the character for mountain, yama.

A literal-minded Westerner might imagine, then, that the word for volcano was pronounced hiyama. But it is actually kazan. Hi and yama are only the names of the characters; they are not what the characters mean. For volcano, what they mean are ka, the aboriginal Japanese word for fire, and zan, mountain, surviving in the names like Fuji-san, which is not honorable Fuji, as some would have it, but just Mount Fuji.

This is perhaps not unusual. In English we do not generally go about thinking of words as separate letters; we do not see fire and think eff-eye-are-eee. But kanji are not letters, exactly, but ideograms, representing whole words or ideas or concepts. They may be pronounced different ways in different words. Or, really, they may be different words in different words, as in our compound words with water we understand the Latin aqua and the Greek hydro to mean the same thing.

But Japanese do not see 火山 and think fire mountain. They see volcano. The ideas have dissolved into the words they construct, the fires and mountains that were already old, long before anyone thought of writing them down.

All language is fossil poetry, says Emerson.

The name of a word is not the same as the word itself.

You are absorbing this all over the dining room table at the Blue Berry, chatting with Tomoko and Satoshi, the hostel cook, who is also his wife. As ever there is some sort of electronic classical music playing, a soundtrack you are already humming as you walk, with overdubbed birdsong that keeps making you look around to see what sort of bird might be making it.

Tell me something, you ask. On two separate scraps of paper you write the characters hi and yama, and place them on the table a few feet apart. Your thought is to move them closer together, gradually, to see at what point precisely two characters make a new word between them. What does this say? you ask Tomoko. Fire. And this other one? Mountain. Or, volcano.

So much for that experiment. It does not matter, though. The meal of raw and grilled fish, pickled and salted seaweed and winter greens, has done something to lift your spirits. Or perhaps it is the conversation, even conducted as it is, in a vast no-man’s-land between two languages. Or perhaps it is just the chance to learn something.


Somewhere between Onioshidashi-en and the hostel, you take a wrong turn, or several. It would not be hard to do – few of the road names are posted, and the arrows on the signs point in directions that make no sense to you, even if you could read them. You recognize the kanji for north, 北 kita, but it is hard to navigate from only one point of the compass. You stumble on for an hour for two, for four.

Now dark is falling, and you are nowhere near anything you recognize. At times you catch glimpses of Asama-yama through the trees, each time in an unexpected direction. You grow frustrated, you curse the hand-drawn map you made this morning. Anger drops you into sadness, and sadness into that slow sinking that you have never learned to pull yourself out of.


      The smell of woodsmoke –

            black dirt freshly turned over

                  in a cabbage field


You have just turned down the road you are sure the hostel should be on – the fourth time you have been so certain – when who should pass but Satoshi driving the hostel van, with Keiko and Shin in the back? They laugh with real delight to see you, without a hint of malice. First we run into you wandering around there, now we run into you wandering around here! What a riot this is! Shin and Keiko are actually heading to the station, to catch the bullet train home to Tokyo, but they offer to drop you by the hostel first. It turns out to be on the next block – you have walked around it several times already, probably even passed it.

You say your goodbyes, and Keiko presents you with the most enormous apple. It is not a kind you especially like, but you take it with thanks, thinking that you might save it until you are hungry enough to really appreciate it.



The next day, by way of consolation, you walk yourself over to Onioshidashi-en, Demon Push-Out Park. In the Shinto pantheon, oni are the red- or blue-skinned demons or devils or ogres who live in hell and carry out all manner of mischief. Oshidashi means to push out – it is also the name of the most common move in sumo wrestling, where one combatant grapples the other and simply pushes him backward out of the ring.

What the demons pushed out at Onioshidashi Park is a lot of lava. When Asama erupted in 1783, it blew out an avalanche of massive red-hot stone blocks, some as large as thirty-five meters across, destroying the village of Kambara on the north slope. Few of these blocks reached the village, but the dirt that they plowed up and knocked forward with their momentum was enough to bury it five meters deep. This explosion appears to have cleared an obstruction – essentially, popping the volcano’s cork – because Asama then proceeded to spew forth a flow of lava, lava which hardened into a five-kilometer tongue of black froth. This was Onioshidashi.

The oni who welcome you through the park gate seem incapable of any such violence. Dressed in caveman tiger-skins, with their cute little horns and fangs, and their wee clubs, they look more like Flintstones than fierce denizens of the underworld. In the middle of the park there is now a shrine with red pillars and a gracefully curved roof, and an immensely tall bell, rung with a kind of battering ram. The bell hits all of those atonal harmonies that Westerners attach to the mystic Orient, and its deepest undertone hangs in the hearing for minutes after the chime seems to have passed. There is a smaller shrine to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, presented in her fire aspect, a sort of Our Lady of the Volcanoes. Here and there along the path are eruption shelters, little concrete bus stops, in case Asama should decide to pitch a few more hot rocks into the middle of your family vacation.

And there is the lava. You have seen many lava-flows along this pilgrimage of yours, but never such a fantastically twisted and tortured landscape, pines growing through rocks, roots splitting them open. Shin’s brush paintings are remarkably faithful to the shape or inscape of the place, a few scratchy ink-strokes picking out the bristle of pine, the rough jag of the rock.


      While the shine-bell rings

            it’s quiet for a minute –

                  the sound of the wind


The sound of wind in the grass is not the same as the sound of wind tearing through pine needles. It is not the same as wind hissing across the lava-clinker, or strumming a telephone wire, or fluttering the knots of the paper prayers tied around the bars of the votive rack, or blowing across the opening of your ear. In each of these there is an exquisitely different note of desolation.


      The world is empty –

            see how easily the wind

                  can blow clear through it


Somewhere, a loudspeaker plays a carillon version of “My Darling Clementine,” and it is perhaps the best indicator of your current mood that you cannot marshal the curiosity to wonder why.


These days you are low on self-responsibility. Only last month Asamayama erupted, throwing lava bombs a kilometer from the crater. A four-kilometer exclusion zone has been declared around the volcano, a perimeter that barely excludes the highway and the shrine of Onioshidashi-en to the north. Climbing it now would be, as with so many of your plans, a bad idea. This does not make it seem any less attractive. Whatever holds you back, it is not self-responsibility.

There is a game you would play in drama class called Circle Fall. The cast or company forms a ring, with one of their number in the middle, close enough so that they may reach out and grasp him by the shoulders or under the arms. He stands with feet together, stiff and straight, closes his eyes. Then he gradually lets himself topple, forward or backward or to one side, like a tree the lumberjack has just given a final stroke of the axe.

Now he is in the hands of the others. As he falls, they must catch him, taking the weight of his body gently and gradually, raise him upright again. Then they give him another push, maybe in this direction, maybe in that. He falls, and is caught; he is stood back up, and toppled over again. One might think there would be the one joker in the pack who would let their fellow fall, but no one ever does. It would be more than a betrayal.

At first the temptation is strong to catch your balance, to put one foot out to stop yourself, not yet quite believing that you will be caught. But you learn no longer to think of catching yourself, to lose yourself in a dark loop of falling and falling, feeling at every turn a pair of hands to pick you up and put you into the hands of someone else. And your memories of this game, from your mistrustful teens, are of great comfort. Now, many years later, it occurs to you that you like being talked out of these volcano-climbing adventures, a reassurance that someone is looking out for you, has your welfare in mind, if not at heart.

There is also the matter of the snow. Climbing a mountain in the face of sudden fiery death has a certain romantic pathos to it, but slipping on ice and ending up in pieces at the bottom would just be embarrassing.


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.


Life in Japan requires much attending to the disposition of one’s feet.

When you enter the door of a private home or hostel, you will be faced with a boundary – marked perhaps by single step up, a wooden bench, or the edge of carpet or tatami. This is the impermeable membrane between outside and in. At no point should your shoes pass or even rest on this boundary. At no point should your stocking feet touch the outside floor. Rather they should be inserted directly into a pair of indoor slippers, a row of which you will find waiting for you, plastic or felt, depending on the taste of your host.

There is always a brief awkward moment when the foot is between worlds, neither outside nor in. You may sit inside with your feet outside, as you undo your laces, or you may need to practice the art of balancing on one leg to do so. It is sometimes acceptable to walk around inside in socks, if they are not dirty – soaked and muddy from having recently slogged down an icy gully, for example – and if they have no holes, such as those that might be made by the tip of a big toe.

The shoe-swap does not stop there. In the bathroom you will find yet another pair of slippers or sandals. These are your toilet slippers, to be worn only while performing your excretions. Once again, indoor slippers do not enter the bathroom, toilet slippers do not leave it. It is like being in a system of airlocks. It does keep the floors remarkably clean.

Given how Japan loves its devices, its gadgets, its single-function doodads and doohickeys, you are surprised that no one has come up with a creative solution to this problem. You imagine a kind of layered footwear system, with the three requisite pairs of shoes nestled each inside the next, like booster rockets, or a set of Russian dolls. Rubber galoshes could be optional for bad weather. But it would certainly make walking a chore, especially in crowded subways, requiring extra care not to step on each other’s immense, hot, sweaty, clown-sized feet.


You have hiked uphill for three hours when you begin to come across patches of snow. The first is easily skirted, the next one less so, and so on, until you are no longer walking over ground with snow-patches, but snow with patches of bare ground, until at last the trail disappears beneath it.


            Why did he stop here –

                        whoever left those footprints

                                    for me to follow


The going is not pleasant, steep and slippery. By the time the trail rejoins the highway at Shiraito Falls, you could care less about waterfalls, their cold green veils tumbling picturesquely into mossy mirror-like basins. No, you are more exquisitely attuned to the unique sensation of dragging your ankles through snow that has fallen and melted and frozen again.


            It is hard to feel

                        moved by natural beauty

                                    when your socks are wet


There is a souvenir stand (closed) and a cramped convenience store (open), where, after attempting to knock over several shelves of assorted candy with your backpack, you purchase a bar of emergency chocolate and an immense dumpling from a warming case labeled DEER.

And you would probably stand there for hours, cold and uncertain, except for the sudden apparition of two angels. The angels have round faces and square glasses, and they speak one of the strange dialects of heaven – Hosteru? Brew Betty? They have come to see the waterfall, and they have seen you, a foreigner with mountainous backpack and climbing poles, knocking over everything in sight, and they have divined that you, too, are staying at the Blueberry Hostel in the backwoods of Karuizawa, and they are offering to take you back with them.

And then you are speeding up the mountain in the backseat of a car, with a piece of paper under each foot to keep the floor clean. It is at least ten more miles to the hostel, all uphill. There are perhaps thirty minutes of daylight left. Once again, you have been rescued.


            The sweetest five words

                        to a hiker with sore feet –

                                    Do you want a ride


From the town of Karuizawa, with its restaurants and gift shops named for Alpine ski resorts, you strike off on foot up the valley toward Asama-yama, Mount Asama. The afternoon is clear and chilly, and you consider taking a bus, but the prospect of walking focuses your restlessness, gives it a pace and a direction.

Above the town you turn off the road onto an old nature trail, signposts with peeling pictures of wildlife, and follow its erratic switchback up and down the sides of ridge and gulley. You meet no other hikers. It is still winter here, leafless and budless – the trees are some type of larch that loses its foliage in winter, and the only green thing is a globe of mistletoe in the high boughs of a tree. A few wax-pale berries have fallen on the path, and when you pick one up it pops between your fingers, releasing a sticky pearl of jelly.


            The mistletoe bush

                        scatters its berries – hoping

                                    for a lower branch


Every now and then you pass a gap in the bare branches and catch a glimpse of Asama-yama, still snow-topped and glittering.

New signs begin to appear. You cannot read the Japanese, but what they picture looks very much like a bear. It is neither cute nor cuddly – the first animal you have seen in Japan that is not a cartoon. At length you come across a caption in unequivocal English: Bear Activity Reported. If You Encounter a Bear, Do Not Run, Back Away Slowly. The staples holding the sign onto its post are clean and bright.

Still, you have come so far, there is nothing to do but keep walking. If you are set upon by a bear, you suppose you could try to spear it with one of your climbing poles, though this might serve only to annoy it further. The forest is suddenly luminous with peril. Perhaps because you are more sharply attentive to any sight or sound of bear activity, it becomes clear how very quiet it is.


            Can’t hear the highway –

                        the air softly carpeted

                                    with last year’s needles


Tokyo is awash in cartoons. Most common are the line-drawn caricatures in the style called kawaii, loveable or cute – big heads, open and appealing faces. Metro Panda warns you not to get your fingers pinched in the subway doors. Buildings with broad faces weep enormous tears to have graffiti drawn upon them. Animate cigarette butts leap smilingly into ashtrays. Even the police have a mascot, Pipo-Kun, a sort of flying squirrel sprouting a Jetson-like antenna out of his head. On every public surface, street sign and subway, they exhort, model, nudge, so sweetly, so gently.

Something about these childlike figures appeals deeply. They conjure up a world where the worst is a scraped knee or a mild scolding, where Nurse Kitty and Officer Dog are always close at hand, ready to set you straight. There is a real pathos in what they do not show. Could any country be as tenderhearted as the cartoons suggest?


            The end of childhood

                        a bunny with a bandage

                                    weeping coin-sized tears 


You are seeing so many cartoon animals that you are starting to imagine them everywhere. The lead car of a shinkansen train, for example, looks less like a bullet, and more like the snout of a cartoon duck or crocodile. As the suburbs of Tokyo slide by, it occurs to you that this is the fastest you have ever traveled in something touching the ground. Last night and this morning you spent on the phone with R, your talk made difficult and strange by the circumstance of talking across a fifteen-hour time difference. You are Saturday while she is Friday, and the two of you keep returning to a conversation that only one of you has had a chance to sleep on.

You’re only going to sit around and brood, she says. You’re in Japan, you should enjoy it, you should get out and have an adventure.

Outside the window Tokyo keeps going and going.