By Peter Underwood
This isn’t an experience I had while on JET (thankfully), but one I had while travelling after studying abroad – one that, especially in Japan, I was not expecting. If it had happened to me back home in West London, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but happening where, when and with whom it did, it’s stuck with me.
I took some time after my year abroad to travel, both to new places and old favourites, and ended up going back to Takayama (高山 Tall Mountain) in Gifu prefecture. It’s a beautiful town, with some incredible festivals, scenery and museums – and, unsurprisingly, a short hiking trail up to the very peak of the Tall Mountain, where some castle ruins are. This hiking trail zigzags up the side of the peak, with a thin path of uneven earth steps cut into the mountain itself, shored up with logs. The higher up you get, the more you are hidden from the main road by the trees that cover the mountainside – but from the trail, you can still see out really clearly across the town itself, the main road, and the visitor center/playground at the base of the steps.
I went up to the top on a weekday – it was deserted. There were people around at the base, some small children playing on the playground, but on the hike and the peak itself I was alone. The ruins and the little info plaques were super interesting, and the views were stunning. I took some pictures, and started to go back down the trail. Anyone who has been on trails with those narrow log-and-earth steps will tell you that coming down is generally more difficult than going up – the uneven ground and steep slope means that you need to concentrate on each step down to make sure that you don’t slip and just roll the rest of the way down the mountain. It was that concentration that meant I didn’t see them until I was almost on top of them.
As I rounded one of the corners in the zigzag trail, I looked up to see, about 6 feet away, two upper-middle aged Japanese people, one man and one woman, maybe around 50-60 years old. The woman was wearing a blue business suit and was standing face first against a thick tree. Her hands were above her, palms down on the tree trunk, and her legs were slightly spread. The man was standing behind her, one hand on her hips, one hand on the tree trunk, leaning over her a little. He was whispering something I couldn’t catch. At first I wondered if I’d come across some kind of mugging or assault, but the coat, and handbag neatly hung on a branch nearby made it clear. These two people were preparing to get busy on this hiking trail.
The next few seconds went in a sort of slow motion. Just as I wondered if I could quietly walk back up the trail and find another way down, the whispering stopped. Then slowly, in an almost horror-movie-esque fashion, both of their heads slowly rotated round to look over their shoulders at me. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t move their bodies at all – their heads simply swivelled round and locked eyes with me.
What on earth is the etiquette in that situation? What little Japanese skills I had at the time just vanished, and I kinda just stood there, staring back for what seemed like forever. Eventually I snapped out of it enough to say “err…sumimasen”, nod and tried to keep walking down the trail. However, this presented its own set of problems – namely that this couple were covering almost all of the narrow stairs, and asking them to move just seemed unnecessarily rude at this point. So I had to turn sideways and just edge behind them, coming in disconcerting proximity to groin-to-this-dude’s-butt contact. But, like James Bond getting through a laser grid, I made my way past, and continued down the trail, keeping my eyes firmly down at my feet and concentrating real hard on the steps I was taking.
I did stop briefly though, two or three zigzags down, and glanced up at where I’d been. At this point, they were almost fully hidden by the trees, but I could still see, in a small tree-gap about 60 foot up, both of their faces staring down at me, bodies still locked in the same position. I didn’t look up from my feet again until I was back in my hotel.
I would like to take a moment at the end here to apologise to those people, whoever they were, for interrupting. I only hope, that given the exhibitionist tendencies you were showing, that the sudden appearance of an out-of-breath foreigner added an extra something something to the proceedings, and didn’t ruin the evening entirely. Gomen!