at my feet
sunset’s rays, autumn
Kobayashi Issa, 1805
There is a path up a mountain in Sapporo that is not clearly marked.
If you can read Japanese or are familiar with the city, finding the entrance is clear. But I knew neither the language nor the geography so, in a manner that had become signature during my time in Japan, I shrugged and started up a random path. After almost an hour, I hit a dead end next to a white church. I tilted my head back and squinted into the bright grey sky and weighed whether to continue without a clear path forward.
A white pickup truck that had been sitting next to the church suddenly yielded three men waving their arms. One cocked his head before pointing hurriedly the other way.
“How did you get here?” he asked, his face bemused but lined with confusion.
“I walked,” I said, performing a caricature of walking. This ongoing game of charades had become reflexive to supplement my dismal Japanese.
“I thought…” (point to head) “I was going…” (point in different directions) “up the mountain…” (climbing gestures, point to the direction of the summit).
One of the men stepped forward and shook his head, chuckling, and pointed back down the way I’d come. “No, sorry, this is not the way.”
Sapporo is the major city on the southwestern part of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It is surrounded by mountains, including the westerly Mount Teine, Maruyama to the south, and the city’s most central peak, Mount Moiwa.
I had travelled north from Tokyo in an attempt to see as many parts of the country as I could before leaving again. I wanted to see Sapporo from above. During my time living and working in Japan, I was obsessed with changing elevation. I never wanted to drive or take a cable car or the train when the ground changed; I always wanted to walk, to feel its slope as I stepped. Gasping for air on the side of a hilly road on tiny Okinawan Island, running down a mountain in the rain in the forests of Gunma, later I ventured as far down into Tokyo Station as I could possibly go until I found a remote ramen restaurant in a subterranean food court. I never wanted to do things on the most-worn path or the easiest way—I needed to witness the change.
It was 2017, and I was living in Tokyo for a year, teaching in a small English school. It was my first time in the country, though my mother’s family is from Japan. In 1924, my great-grandmother, Kofuji, arrived in Vancouver, Canada on a ship bound from Kobe. She was three years younger than I was climbing up that mountain.
She settled in a small town called Fanny Bay on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island and married my great-grandfather, Masazo. Fanny Bay is a tiny, forested town that was known for its logging. Kofuji and Masazo eventually had seven children, including my grandmother.
Looking at Sapporo’s mountains on a map, I used my fingers to measure Mount Moiwa to scale. It was in a city and was half the elevation of Mount Teine, so how bad could it be? To illustrate my general lack of knowledge and inexperience, I set out in Doc Martens, a plaid beret, and a shiny waffle knit dress-coat down to my knees. My friends would call this “on-brand.” I would call it embarrassing.
After being told my trajectory was all off, I recalibrated. I asked a man on the street for directions as I descended, and he pointed further away, around the base of the mountain. I looked at my map and figure this was worth a try. However, as I started climbing again, I realized it was a highway. Walking along the side of the road, necks craned from car windows to gawk at the gaijin moving up the mountain in her shiny coat. Later, I learned that the proper paths should take between 30 minutes and two hours to climb, depending on which you choose, and that the trailhead was located in the other direction from where I was walking.
In 1945, the day after Pearl Harbour, Kofuji was separated from her husband and was taken to animal stalls in the Hastings Park Fairground in Vancouver. From there, my great-grandmother and her children (including my five-year-old grandmother) were transported to an internment camp for people of Japanese descent in the interior of the province.
At the end of war, after years in the camps, they were given the choice: return to British Columbia, where their property had been seized and sold, and anti-Japanese racism was at an all-time high; return to Japan; or travel east to Toronto. They chose to move east and build a new life. My grandmother, Betty, met my grandfather, George, who was descended from Japanese immigrants from Fukushima, in 1959 at a dance. They married and raised three daughters. My mother and her sisters do not speak Japanese and have never been to the country. Aside from food and the occasional Buddhist ceremony, the Japanese side of my heritage was quieter, both literally and figuratively, than my father’s Italian culture.
In “A Yonsei Woman Becomes Japanese,” Charles Fruehling Springwood writes about Carol Inone, member of the Japanese diaspora: “As she strode onto the plane, by herself, she neither spoke nor even understood the native language of her grandparents.” My situation was similar. However, I never stopped asking questions or continuing to see things I needed to witness. I was paralyzed by the cliché of even wanting to know where I came from, and ashamed of all I didn’t know, but I pushed forward nonetheless. It felt like such a tired and entitled narrative of movement, someone whose family sought out a better life and had found it. Looking backwards had the potential to be either self-indulgent or futile, depending on the day.
Halfway up the mountain, with no cell service or plan forward, I decided that embarrassment might not be appropriate for the quest to uncover your heritage, but it was the appropriate feeling for trying to climb a mountain wearing a beret.
It was the end of October and the leaves were ablaze with autumn. I walked quietly on the side of the highway to the sounds of my Doc Martens crunching along. I came across a small house with a shop in front and I remembered feeling the gnawing of hunger. Covering my eyes, I squinted through the glass door. I heard footsteps on gravel behind me and an older man came around from the garage. He had a beard and smiled easily. He opened the door for me and silently began to make tea and pour matcha cookies out of a carefully folded bag.
He put on records—jazz. I tried my hand at Japanese, but he didn’t understand. I tried English to no avail.
He picked up a magazine and showed me a contemporary art installation. He pointed to his chest. “I build.”
Looking around the room, I realized this was a workshop. There were textiles perched on wooden boxes. The forms stacked around the room made towers of woven boxes, white and grass-green and brown.
We used Google Translate to talk about art and why I was on Mount Moiwa. I complimented the tea and he gave me two beautiful sculptures, figures carved out of wood. I was moved by his kindness and held them close to my chest. “Arigato gozaimasu,” thank you, with a bow.
Still under the impression this was a café, I bring out my yen.
He shook his head. “Daijobu, it’s okay,” and another smile.
Every kind person I met in Japan was a welcoming back and a kind of permission to be at home.
I expressed that I was lost (though obvious), and he pointed me in the right direction, up a path to more trees. I smiled and left, wooden figures in-pocket, waving back. We’re Facebook friends now and I like his selfies from airports across Japan where he flies to set up installations for contemporary artists.
With the energy from the matcha cookies, I continued into the fire of the autumn leaves. The tall birch trees curved over the path like the vaulted roof of a cathedral, shielding the sun and making everything glow orange. I stopped along the path, looking up at the light and breathing deeply. There will not be another moment like this, I think. Whether you find your way off this mountain or not, you are here. Whether or not I found what I was looking for on that mountain, or in Japan, was out of my control—but my presence on that bed of autumn leaves was undeniable.
An abandoned bus loomed through the trees with overgrown plants spilling out of its windows. It was too far for me to reach, but it looked like it had been left there in the 70s with its faded paint and aluminum paneling.
In Yokohama weeks later, I sat across from my grandma’s brother, my great-uncle Tim, in a restaurant at the top of a hotel. I quietly watched while he ate lunch.
“Do you think about Canada? Do you remember?”
“Those weren’t happy memories, there.”
His son, Michio, nods slowly. I nod. We sit.
During Pearl Harbour, Uncle Tim had been in Japan, visiting and for school. The subsequent internment orders for all Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent, regardless of citizenship, had been issued while he was away. The government of Canada had put his siblings and mother in a prison camp and sent his father to a work camp, and he had no way of reaching them. He spent the rest of his life in Japan.
We ate kaiseki together, a traditional many-course meal customized to the seasons, and a Japanese delicacy. It is designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, and I looked down at tiny dishes arranged with oak and gingko leaves with sadness as I remembered Uncle Tim was only fourteen years old when he was stranded across the ocean, separated from his family.
As I turned the corner, I realized I was officially on the path up the mountain. I saw the mountain’s curves and turns spread out before me, and I realized how far in distance and elevation I still had to go. I silently thanked my new friend for the matcha cookies and thought about how far in over my head I was as the sun moved west.
The two hikers I passed wore bear bells. I nervously started to hum and clap. I stumbled upon jizo, the tiny stone statues that represent child spirits, which are marked with a number indicating how far you still have to go—far.
Huddled between trees and sheltered by branches, I sat and questioned why I’d begun this climb in the first place.
I thought about Uncle Tim. Though I didn’t understand what they were saying, the silences between his grandchildren and their parents were so much like my family in Toronto. I made some kind of an attempt at a nature-nurture calculation in my head as I remembered how his laugh reminded me of my grandmother’s. I thought of her wondering where her brother was and never living in the same country as him again after the first five years of her life. They talked on the phone often, coordinating time zones. I remembered creeping down the stairs at my grandparents’ to hear her speaking softly in Japanese on the phone late at night.
Willing myself to stand up, I brushed the dead leaves and dirt off my coat while I checked the sun’s position again. The uphill and downhill stretches of the mountain seemed more unforgiving as time went on. I wondered if I’d make it to the top and if I was even going the right way. I was unsure if I’d make it to the summit before they shut down the cable car that I was counting on taking me down again.
Uncle Tim passed a little over a year after I returned from Japan. His son, Michio, sends me a message: 心残りの無い様に、自分の体に気をつけて十分看病してあげてください. It translates to “Please care for your loved ones well, while also taking care of yourself, so that you have no regrets.” I stare at the chat numbly.
There is a word in Japanese (komorebi, 木漏れ日) for the way the sunlight filters through the leaves. Everything glows, warm, as the light streams down on me from above. This light casts itself over my face as I move, slowly, step by step.
I reach the top of Mount Moiwa while the sun is still up, almost seven hours after I’d started my climb. I stumble, sweating, into the overpriced overlook restaurant and request a table for one. I sit in front of the window and eat a zangi curry stew as the sun begins to set over northern Japan’s most populous city. My cell phone reception returns. Google Maps tells me I had hiked around almost half of the base of the mountain and then up and over a distance far greater than I needed to traverse.
I moved to Japan to feel some change in myself and, instead, became obsessed with change around me—elevations, landscapes, and the story I had in my head. I didn’t leave with a tidy narrative of what the year meant to me, but I hold onto moments like those on the mountain with tenderness. There was something to be witnessed in the light through the trees and in my miscalculations. There was so much to be held dear sitting across from my great-uncle and watching him smile at his grandsons over lunch.
On Tripadvisor in October 2018 619jeffry writes, “The only practical way to get there is by the ropeway.” This is true. There is no other practical way to reach the summit of Mount Moiwa.