“Since before I can remember I have landed myself in strange corners of the world with bizarre and beautiful things crossing my path. I spent my third birthday in a pub in Hungary with a cake and 6 Hungarian men singing to me. Family holidays consisted of month longroad trips to holy festivals in Morocco and canyons encircled by vultures in Peru and so far my own travels have led me around some spine tingling parts of Asia (India, Nepal, Indonesia, Japan). Travel has proved to me that any person, place or experience can spark something in your imagination, and inevitably lead you on to the next stepping stone of this long and beautiful journey.”
Every corner was a wink at a gathering of graves around a shrine camouflaged by moss and age. Old rotten bridges stood next to bright orange Tokyo style structures to cross rivers and every tunnel was a portal winding closer to the tracks of the horses hooves that had carried my parents up this mountain twenty three years ago. On track to Mt. Ontake with four black and white photos and a message written in Japanese that said ‘do you know this man?’, my first mission – find Fushimi San, the man who helped cure my father’s horse more than two decades ago.
The sat nav blinked off and told me that I’d arrived at my destination. And it was spectacular. I was standing at the edge of the ascent up to Mt. Ontake next to an abandoned ski resort. The only sound was the wind and the announcements to visitors that still spilled out of the speakers. It was eerie and epic, and obviously not where Fushimi San lived but I couldn't resist having a wander around the rusting old space ship structures that used to transport people up to the clouds.
Nerves and the mountain air made me slightly giddy as I knocked on the first door and waved various photos and scraps of paper around hoping for some leads. I was met (in true Japanese style) with unbelievable warmth and kindness - maps and countless helpful tips and ideas of where to go next, so I felt hopeful for a while. But as I moved through the village I realised that the area I had to cover was about a hundred square kilometres. I hung my head over a bowl of noodles having spent four hours knocking on doors laden with pieces of paper and being given no particular answers. I was overlooking the forest that hummed with the spirits that lingered around the hundreds of shrines that lined my path around the twisting mountain roads and wondered if they would lead me to where I needed to be.
It was at that point that Chieko the lovely owner of the restaurant clocked the photos and asked me what I was doing in Otaki village. I told her the story and two minutes later we were at the Town Office pouring over google maps in search of the city that was in the background of one of the pictures. Finally the tall and wise looking man confirmed that it was Takayama, a city on the other side of the mountain, I had a car so I could leave early in the morning and follow the same drill in another city.
That night I got comfortable at Seoto (which means river sound) guest house. It smelt of cosy apres ski and I was the only person in the whole place, but as always in Japan you are never left lonely because there is always someone great to talk to. The owners of the place, Yukari and Atsushi, invited me to dinner with them, we feasted on chabu chabu as I told them what I was doing here and the links I’d found so far. Atsushi’s father is a local so he told me he’d call him in the morning to see if he recognised the face or the name. And as if by magic, overnight, he found him, now aged sixty, he had retired seven days ago and left the region for the northern part of the country. I couldn’t believe it, twenty-three years had passed…and I was seven days too late.
We had his office address, so Yukari and I spent the evening writing letters and copying photos to send to him by snail mail. Two days later I got an add on Facebook from a man in a chlrophyll green fireman jacket and a pink top hat along with a message; ‘I remember your father and mother, I can’t believe you found me’…. I couldn’t believe it either. Incredible that he was alive and kicking, I was completely in disbelief that the family connection had been restored. But I couldn’t help feel a little disappointed that I’d only met a 2D version of him through a digital handshake, it felt like a cheat.
A month later I was back in Tokyo and had arranged to have lunch with Mieko; Fushimi’s daughter. The man himself lived eight hours north so I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get the chance to meet him. I turned up at Ikebukuro station to meet Mieko, who remembered meeting my parents when she was three years old. She led me to a Chinese restaurant where she introduced me to her husband and the three of us sat down at a table laid for four, drinks were slow and I wondered what we were waiting for as Mieko kept checking her phone…after forty-five minutes of stringing together our languages she looked up from the screen and said ‘he’s here’. Wow, the magic of this planet just didn’t let me down, two minutes later I was sitting next to Fushimi San eating Gyoza and clinking beers together over a big ‘CAMPAI’.
He lived up to every expectation, sixty years old and recently retired he rocked up wearing fresh adidas trainers and about four different t shirts layered on top of each other with skulls and stripes. Style. He came with bags of gifts, key rings (to match the one on his chain), fans, mochi, and cedar wood rulers which he had designed (the smell of cedar woodin heavenly, you shut your eyes and you’re in an ancient forest, its’ better than any perfume I’ve come across.)
In spite of the lack of language we managed to have some real conversations. He’s an active member of the restoration project in Iwate prefecture where the Tsunami hit in 2011 and is helping farmers to restore land. His views and understanding of the devastating effects of nuclear are pretty clear and I’d just come from Hiroshima so it was amazing to get a first hand perspective of a nuclear related disaster that happened within my lifetime. He says he’s retired but it looks like he won’t stop doing his thing until he really has to, and it seems like he’s held these beliefs since long before the recent events. I wondered if my parents had similar conversations with him back in the 80s and how that had affected their lives and was now affecting mine.
The mission to find the man in the photos drove me through one of the most surreal and one of the best weeks I’ve spent on the road. I was forced out of my comfort zone and through that I found more freedom than I’ve ever felt. No day was predictable and I was more immersed in Japanese life than ever before (Yukari and Atsushi from Seoto are now my adopted parents here and we’re going to Disneyland Tokyo next month after I’ve visited the northern part of Japan to stay with Fushimi San. As always the trail stretches further ahead than I can begin to wrap my imagination around and this planet just continues to stir up magic potions for each and every day.
- Isla Greenwood