My junior year of high school, I lucked out and scored a trip that entailed doing mostly nothing for three days. The trip was one of a dozen or so annual cultural outings required by the international school I attended, and what appealed to most of us was that the itinerary was appropriately stark. Our cultural exposure would be mostly limited to praying under a waterfall, a Japanese method of ascetic purification. The other two days, we would be sitting on a bus or occasionally looking at things. Considering the potential for rooftop smoking and hanging out, though, the waterfall thing didn’t sound so bad at all.
I only remember two things from that trip: the first was that the guys kept calling our room until we unhooked the phone around 3 a.m., and the other was that the water was so frigid that I couldn’t feel my feet as I waited for my turn to scream a prayer under a man-made waterfall in a white kimono-like shift that, when wet, made wet t-shirt contests seem like clothed events. I didn’t particularly feel any more pure after the fact, but perhaps I was more tarnished to begin with. Or, I suppose there is always the possibility that purity for the Japanese ascetic can only come in the form of mini-waterboarding.
Yet the experience remains one of my more culturally engrossing moments, despite my teenage oblivion to most life events back then. A particularly Japanese moment, I like to tell myself. Perhaps because it is one of the few instances in which some other culture didn’t mix and mingle with the Japanese one, an event which is difficult to describe to my American friends without insisting that no, I’m really not making this up.
The purity of that experience makes it more difficult to explain, but paradoxically easier to comprehend. Because it is when cultures are melded together when understanding them requires an adjusted sense of what is normal. The differences are minute, but also that much more glaring. And it was this necessary recomposition of the habitual on the bike that kept me from putting together my IF for over a week after I landed in Tokyo. That and the knowledge of anticipated conflict: the bike would inevitably feel so right underneath me, but with nowhere to go, it would only deepen my sense of loss.
But sometimes even I can get [extremely] lucky, and a recent reader will offer to take me up a mountain, even if he stripped out the threads on his road cleats the night before. Which is why last Sunday, I got up at 5 a.m., earlier than I used to get up for my usual RSC rides, and headed out to meet Deej for a casual ride out to the Otarumi pass at Mt. Takao.
A flat ride until we hit the base of the mountain, our early start helped, but in two hours, the sun started to pound down, the heat inching towards 100F with the humidity. Riding along the Tama River, we slipped and weaved around runners and early morning cyclists, and dove into a Seven Eleven – like many others – to refill our bottles. Different from the coffee shops of Boston or the delis of NYC, but air conditioned bliss nonetheless.
A few hours later, we were at Mt. Takao, climbing. steadily Deej kept it slow [he usually TTs up the climb with a bunch of other insanely strong people], spinning in front of me while I tried not to die. My skin was acting like a towel getting actively wrung out and the only thing I can remember thinking about was the heat. And just as I was wondering whether the liquid running down my chin was drool or sweat, Deej stood up and swam up the rest of the climb.
I suppose I expected it, but my jaw dropped [this time in amazement, not exhaustion]. I dragged myself up a few long minutes later, drenched. A bit farther up, and we were at a ramen shop [complete with bike racks] where we bought a couple bottlefuls of natural spring water. Apparently the same water that was used to make the best cup of brewed coffee in Japan. And as we looked out towards the mountains beyond, Deej told me about his usual rides: up and over three mountain passes and back. A colossal 9800 feet of climbing in less than 40 miles. All on mountains low enough that you can ride them all year around.
“We’re going to turn you into a mountain goat,” Deej said, before we made the slow trek home. A few hours later, an email offered a ride next Monday – up an additional pass or two – and there was no hestitation in the answer that I replied with. Because while the elevation will mostly likely kill me [or at least compromise my self-made promise to never put a foot down on a climb], there’s one thing I do know to be true. That no matter the outcome, there is a unique audacity in diving into the unknown. A charismatic pull in plunging head first into the darkness that opens up. To conquer or stumble. To proceed or regress. To do anything but stagnate.
My version, perhaps, of [ascetic] purity.
[Thanks again, Deej!]