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Walking in the Age of Corona

Ridgeline Transmission 063


It’s like Showa, someone said to me. The kids — them being out and about and free. Out in the streets and parks, out of school, weekdays and weekends alike. Showa, the era that ran from 1926 to 1989 and is usually what you think of if you think of retro and Japan. The post-war years when the population and economy was on the up-and-up and kids were plentiful, readily made, and after-school programs were limited and, hell — it was the 60s, the 70s, the 80s — they just let those little buggers do whatever they wanted.

The schools in Japan have been closed for weeks. The kids are out. Homeschooling is happening in fits and starts, but it seems most kids don’t have much to do. There’s a park near my home and it’s full of yelps all day long. I go for runs and walk along the beach and the beach, too, seems filled with kids. They are free. Normally they seem so small, so contained, but now they are open, bursting, laughing, larger than themselves, running all over.

The weather does not know our woes, it is perfection — warm in the sun, dry, cool in the shade. A sweater and light jacket is enough. On the uphill you’ll take the jacket off. The days are stretching. Good light until 6pm. The sky still winter-clear, Mt. Fuji huge by degrees and smaller by other degrees in the distance — the optics of that mountain will forever confound me. Have the ground rise or fall just a few meters and the whole vision transforms, shrinks or balloons.

All travel plans canceled. At home for the foreseeable future. Trying to focus and failing, like many of you, I’m sure. Leaning on the forcing function of daily walks. Watching the black kites rise in the distance beyond my writing desk. And then watching them again, closer up.

Have set a rule: Every day a new street, a new path, a new alley. Just one, in the ’hood. Get out, do the walk, do the run, add 1% of change to the routine and see what you find.

Today the walk lasted four hours. Small mountain paths behind my home leading to more mountain paths, old paths, wondering if the paths were private or public property. A picnic lunch up on a mountain on a concrete bench. The black kites overhead, looking for an in to eat my sandwich. Swooping very low; beautiful and severe. They are so large, these kites. What do they know? They know how to spot a doughnut from a hundred meters up in the sky. A doughnut, a sandwich, a hot dog. They must know some pattern has changed, the small humans seemingly everywhere now, all day long. The beach, usually so empty this time of the year, now teeming with a strange new life. What has happened, they may think, or may not think at all. They may only intuit: Ah, more food.

They know play, the kites, like the kids. The kites play — I watch them every day in the sky above my desk, swooping with uncanny synchronicity. What the hell, their patterns so tight and accurate.

But on the top of the mountain the sandwich is gone before they can nab it. If I had been thinking more clearly I would have bought two sandwiches, and offered up one with a raised hand. The thump of a bird of prey taking something from your mitt shocks, as you’d expect. I’ve only accidentally offered food to them, never intentionally. Maybe I’ll try that tomorrow. I should probably wear a glove.

Off the bench, down the valley, one of many around my home. Valleys like fingers, very humid fingers come July and August. The worst possible time to host a sporting event in Japan, in Tokyo, is in August. Absolute horror. Stay away. This is what I tell every single person who asks me about visiting in August. Just keep flying, fly past Japan, keep flying until the end of October, then land, then enjoy. The ’64 Olympics were in October, as they should be. Perhaps the new Olympics, too, will be in October. But today is not July, the air is crisp and life affirming.

I love the houses of these valleys. Each unique, somehow representing enough. Here is enough, they all seem to say. And that enough seems accessible to many. Six+ feet away from everyone I say hello. Old folks work their intricate little gardens.

In a sub-valley there is a coffee shop — “we are not a coffee shop” says their sign. They are a beans shop. But if you order enough beans, you get free coffee. They are open. A risk is taken. I enter. Hands are spritz’d with alcohol. Am I being amoral? Perhaps. But I do need more beans. Also: I am fully asymptomatic, spend my days in solitude, though I know this means nothing, or seems to mean nothing. I breathe shallow breaths though the space is not enclosed. This is my first time interacting with a shop in five days. Nobody bats an eyes. Beans are ordered. A complementary cup of so-called “Geisha” is proffered. The husband goes to work on the beans while the wife lectures me on why they are the best coffee shop in town, perhaps the world. Six foot distance. How they grind, sift, roast the grit. The husband walks outside beside us on the terrace with a pan of ground beans and fans them, like embers. It’s slightly maniacal. The wife turns back to me. Everyone else sucks, she says. No good. I mention famous coffee roasters of Tokyo and she shoots them all down, one by one. Daibo? Ugh, a friend drank his coffee and got sick. She is in her 70s, she is indomitable, a mother fucker of coffee queens. She asks me how I like my coffee and approves. Lord forbid you tell her you like darkly roasted beans. Murdered on the spot. The husband emerges once again carrying freshly filtered coffee and against all expectations, against all bets, it is superb. Just — damn. All that shit talking and they delivered. Really finely made coffee. I am in awe. While sitting there others come and buy beans. People are walking around outside. Children are playing, running up and down the street. I am reminded of Fukushima, the explosions, the cloud of radiation, when foreign media seemed to have very different data than local media. I find these days to be days of mental gymnastics, of reconciling what is seen or heard with that projected. Of what is happening or has happened and what isn’t happening in front of us. Will it happen?

What do the kites know? The financial markets, like time machines, now reverting to years past. The children, bringing us back to Showa. There is a buoyancy outside. It is odd, feels borne of denial. But denial of what? The light from above is so sharp and bright, and the sky so blue, and those kites feel more and more outside of time, playing and hunting for doughnuts, looking and not judging and not knowing everything but probably knowing enough. Even when the doughnuts are all gone, they’ll be fine. They’ve certainly seen plenty.

Until next week,

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Fellow Walkers

“As a child I walked up and down the fells of northern England and I’m not sure whether I cared for it or not. Now I occasionally run up and down them, instead.”

“I walked looking for holes in the ground to play in under the rolling fields behind my childhood home. But looked forward to the hills of Yorkshire each summer with my grandparents, Pendle Hill, the three peaks, tales of witches and wartime hijinks. The Scouts taught me how to walk on my own, and cities wear my feet today. My shell moves with me, it’s pretty lightweight. “

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)