Late morning we take a train from Tokyo to Kamakura an hour away on the coast.
J’s aunt meets us at the station. We go for a traditional lunch. The restaurant is a clean and blinding white. The patrons are at least 70 years old. We’re in Boca Raton, Japan.
After lunch she takes us around Kamakura. We visit the small farmer’s market. She tells the vendors we are from New York. They like this.
We stop at a small bread shop. It’s the place of an artist. We order coffee. Behind the counter the man makes stovetop espresso, filling up the metal coffeemaker from an aging water cooler. Around us is thick and fluffy Japanese white bread, loaves of focaccia. Bread sketched with seascapes of white flour hang on the walls.
We walk 15 minutes to the coast. Japanese men and women in wetsuits ride their bikes holding surfboards. Small shops sell flip-flops and bathing suits.
The oceanfront is far from beautiful. There’s not much development, but what there is feels haphazard. In the water dozens of surfers await the waves. Above us giant birds coast and soar. Aunt warns they will dive down and take a sandwich out of your hand. I track their prehistoric outlines from the corner of my eye.
It’s mid-afternoon. We meet our friend C. He’s a writer and photographer who recently moved to Kamakura. We made plans to hike together.
We start on the backstreets, peaceful and cozy. Children head home from school. A caterpillar crawls across the road and creates a traffic jam. We’re wrapped in conversation and just miss stepping on it.
We walk up a steep road and through a tunnel into the mountain. On the other side is a little square with a money washing shrine. We bend into the shallow cavern, put 1000 yen into a woven basket, and pour a metal spoonful of water over it. The water helps the money multiply. Others wait their turn.
Outside we walk up three stairs to give a prayer at a shrine. C teaches us. Pull the rope twice. Ring the bell twice. Bow twice. Clap twice. Say your prayer. Bow again and walk away.
I pray for good health and a good walk.
We’re climbing a mountain trail. We are alone.
The path is beautiful. The woods are thick. My whole life dreaming of walking through Asian jungles. This is a jungle, I think. My first. I soak it in.
In a womb-like canopy a moth flies around me. I stop and bow to it. It lands eye level on a leaf a few meters away. I bow again. It continues to sit. I bow once more and move on. I turn back. It’s still there.
There are spiders everywhere. The biggest, legs included, are the size of the palm of my hand. Above the path is a massive, intricate web with several large spiders. I am moved by the size and coordination of the construction.
I bow twice to the spiders and do a soft clap. “Thank you for allowing me to pass through your forest,” I say. “I pay respects to your strength.” As I keep walking I stop at each web and make this prayer. I do this three or four times.
I’ve spent so much time honoring the forest that I can no longer hear C and J’s voices. Have they disappeared into the forest? I will follow them and disappear too.
I hear my wife’s voice.
“Hai!” I call back.
We are in a small clearing. The left goes back into town. The right goes up some steep steps to another village and, eventually, an onsen — hot and cold baths. We go right.
At the top is another small clearing with a better view. There are two tables. We stop to catch our breath. We drink water and eat almonds.
J suddenly exclaims and points up.
We look up to see a rocket — yes a rocket, it is unmistakeable — streaking across the sky. Just that morning North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan. Is this another one?
The rocket and its smoke trail burn above us. It is terrifying. A summer disaster movie come to life. We watch it disappear over the horizon. No mushroom cloud. All is quiet. Phew?
Five minutes later two US military helicopters fly very low from that direction. They go directly over us. I can feel deep thumping pockets of air. Looking up the rotors move at slightly different speeds. It’s hypnotic.
“This is what happens when you lose a war,” C says.
After a long time walking we are standing on the beach. The sand is black and cool. A father and son are coming back in from surfing. The last to leave. It’s dark.
I sit in the sand. I listen to the waves and watch them burst into static. Down the coast there’s an island with a tall lighthouse turning around and around.
Facing the ocean is the onsen. We buy tickets and towels from a vending machine. We separate into the men’s and women’s baths. We undress and sit on small plastic stools and use a hand shower to wash and rinse. A dozen men are here.
The onsen has just opened after a renovation. In the sauna C discusses it in Japanese with two older men. Everyone agrees the old version was much better.
“We’ll just have to forget our feelings for the old one,” C says.
We finish with a dip in the cold tub. Sounds come out of my mouth that start in parts of my chest that haven’t felt air in a long time. I feel myself beaming.
What a day. Let’s eat. C suggests a place and calls ahead, dropping the name of the owner. A cab is on its way.
We eat a big meal. Fried potatoes, a celery dish, a beet salad, and three pizzas — tuna, margarita, and marinara. J and I have wine, C has non-alcoholic beer.
Outside the air has chilled. A harvest festival parade of lanterns, traditional garments, and a giant idol dance down the street. Fifty people jostling together. Many smiles.
C takes us to the station. Two bows, two claps, and a prayer. It’s time to return to Tokyo.