Up the Mountain
By Amanda Johnson -
When I was eight, my whole life changed. That was the year my parents divorced. It was also the year my father went "up the mountain."
He didn't actually leave us and his modest song-writing career to venture up one particular mountain, but that tended to be how we described it (assuming we described it all, the whole thing being so embarrassing and awkward). For some reason, the wild spaces called to him. The metal forest of Tokyo sang for him no longer.
Up to this point he had retained partial custody. "Jun," he asked me," Do you want to come into the mountains with me?"
I was a kid, and it was a holiday, so I said, "Sure." I'd been camping before, and it was fun. We packed up some gear, took the train out of the city, and followed my father's pre-planned course into the hills. We were gone for three days. For the next five or so years, I considered them the three most boring days of my life. All my father did was drag me higher and further into the hills, walking too fast for me to comfortably follow, then stopping in seemingly random spots to sit and listen. I didn't know what he was listening for. I never heard anything, that's for sure. There was the sound of leaves and wind and birds, but none of that was what he was searching for. If he had heard it, I wonder if I could've too (aren't kids supposed to be the most attuned to that sort of thing?). I wonder if I would've understood then. What would have been different?
Anyway, I was a kid. I complained the whole way home and my father tried to buy my silence (or at least shut me up) with candy and a new toy, but it wasn't good enough a bribe to gag me for more than a few days. Mom was badmouthing my father a lot those days, even if it was only in the privacy of our home. It was too easy to want to join in. I wasn't on his side; I wanted to be definitively on hers.
When she heard about the listening trip, that was it. My father had flipped his lid. She gained full custody (apparently, he didn't leave the mountains to try and fight it) and for the rest of my childhood, I never went with my father into the mountains again.
I guess it was because I didn't; he hired another kid to go with him. That sounds creepy, but even if it was illegal, there really wasn't anything creepy about it. The kid was already a runaway and a tenth grade drop out by the time my father met him when he accidentally got off at a tiny station between Kyoto and Osaka. Almost as tall, and soon taller than, my father, Shiroyama-san.
According to my father, it was too late to get back on the train by the time he realized he had accidentally gotten off early at a tiny station. So, he bought a bento box and a can of Boss coffee and sat down to wait for the next train. Shiroyama was hanging around the station, planning on catching a train headed the opposite way, but when he saw my father and the weird gear sticking out of his backpack, he came over to see what it was. When my father told him about his calling to go into the mountains and seek the things that dwelt there, he was so impressed he volunteered to come along right away.
According to Shiroyama, he was bored, hanging around the station, thinking about dropping by the house of an older ex-girlfriend when he caught sight of an absolutely bizarre man eating a bento box surrounded by what looked like a mixture of fishing and bug-catching gear.
Naturally, he had to see what it was. My father looked too well-groomed to be homeless, so, maybe, he was just crazy (Shiroyama explained it to me thusly: "A guy that good-looking couldn't be homeless, but he could be crazy.").
He said something like, "Hey, old man! You get lost on your second-grade field trip?" and my father didn't take the least bit of offense. He just started spilling out his loony story about how the mountains were calling him. Shiroyama listened to the whole thing and was pretty much bowled over by how weird it was. His train came and he was going to go his own way, but my father offered him 2,000 yen to help carry his stuff and get him where he wanted to go. And once he got my father off at his stop, he offered him more money to come along further...and then further after that...over and over for weeks until Shiroyama actually liked my father so much that he just stayed on his own. Although Shiroyama's still holding him to some promise about the money- he has an IOU note from my father promising something like 300,000 yen more than he's already given him.
Whatever the real story is here (Though everyone who knows my father knows that Shiroyama's story is the one that would hold up under interrogation), the facts of their association are roughly the same. My father and Shiroyama, with sixteen years of life dividing them, spent nearly ten years together tromping around the country in and out of the mountains. I suppose in some way I should be grateful to Shiroyama-san for that. If my father had been alone all that time, he might have really gone crazy.
My father's departure was the first big change in my life. His coming back into my world was probably the second. He didn't carry with him any videos or photographs or other kinds of proof that people usually want to prove that something exists but then usually fight about the authenticity of for the rest of time, but he didn't come back empty handed either. The things he brought me- a scrap of a heavenly maiden's feathered robe, a tanuki's sake cup, a bottle of a strange mercury-like gold-colored substance- they're unearthly. All you have to do is see or feel them and you can tell. Deep in the mountains, the old things still lurk. They may retreat further and further every year, but they have their own traditions to uphold, and their culture is not diminished by its overlap with ours. I believe now, in things I cannot see. My mother feels the same.
Now, my father hasn't converted me to go spending the rest of my life gallivanting through the mountains and forests by any means, but I don't laugh at his passion anymore. I even went down into Shimane Prefecture with him and Shiroyama for a couple of days last week and had a pretty good time, although I didn't see or hear anything unusual. They teased me that I was scaring off the spirits and I threatened not to come along again, but I didn't mean it.
I don't think I'll ever encounter any of the things they ran into, but that doesn't really bother me. I wouldn't know what to do or say. I'm no student of legends like my father. Honestly, I prefer hearing the stories to living the reality. Does that make me a wimp? Or a loser? Either way, I don't care. I have a life in Tokyo. I'd rather hear about the supernatural secondhand than live with it. I think most people would feel the same.
But most people don't have the chance to even hear about the things that Shiroyama and my father have done and seen, so that's where I come in. Every month, my father makes some time to get in touch with me. Even if he doesn't come home, at least he calls. Or Shiroyama calls on his behalf. And bit by bit I ask them things and analyze the mysterious items and read and read their letters.
Although I can't make sense of all these things, I try to fill in the gaps the best I can with educated guesses (my father was kind of offended by how mundane my imagination appeared in comparison to his reality when I tried to plug what I perceived as a hole in a tale with some fancies of my own). I tell the stories (I write them). And I do it the way I know my father would want me to- presenting them as truth. Because he really did dine with foxes and see kappa in a lake and spy on ahyakki yako parade, and maybe, if I'd been born with a different temperament, I could've too.
Amanda Johnson has a BA in Comparative Religions (CSUF '09), worked several years freelance as a TV/film extra, studied Japanese for five years, and spends much of her free time drawing.