Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Natural Human Race

For a shiny brief fortunate period during my twenties I lived in Tokyo. I worked on the outskirts of the compact city in what was once a Mitsubishi Zero factory – the infamous airplane that wrecked havoc over the South Pacific during WWII. Of the hundred or so men in the office only two didn’t smoke: my supervisor, whose throat cancer was in remission, and me. One very macho guy chain-smoked Virginia Slims, and how everyday I had to grapple back the urge to say, “you’ve come a long way baby.” My co-workers were certain that all American men smoke cigarettes and ride horses across the open range – usually at the same time - so my being a mere secondhand smoker stirred up some real curiosity. Inclusion is very important in Japanese society, which put my work mates into quite a stir as nobody seemed to know what box would best fit this odd American. It took a few weeks, but finally the rumor got round that I jogged every morning, and when that knowledge went public the questioning glances ceased – I was a “sportsman.” Suddenly invitations for hiking trips, SCUBA diving weekends and other sporting endeavors flowed my way.
On one memorable occasion Keiko Furusawa, one of the office girls – their words not mine – asked me to join some of her friends on a 10k “fun run.” I was in the “table for one” crowd and consequently never passed up a social opportunity; I immediately accepted the invitation. We arranged to meet that coming Saturday in front of the train station in the mountain town of Mushasi-Itchichiichi.
Walk into any sushi bar in urban America, turn towards the nearest wall and you’ll see what I saw as I stepped from the train the morning of the race. Mushasi-Itchichiichi is proof that the idyllic countryside behind those woodblock prints still exists. Gossamer clouds percolated between the hillside conifers and the steady rumble of a confident river formed an acoustic foundation. After enduring weeks of living shoulder to shoulder in Tokyo this meditative countryside was like manna to a starving man, and by sheer chance I had arrived fifteen minutes early. Two firm yet gentle lessons had taught me that in Japan punctuality reflects respect. Keiko, flanked by her two friends, arrived fifteen minutes later, neither a minute early nor a minute late.
Keiko Furusawa possessed the poise and height of a runway model., and though it was only eight o-clock on a wet Saturday morning she had obviously spent hours in front of a mirror. I on the other hand I hadn’t even given my teeth a good cleaning.
Feeling the familiar twinge of shabbiness and inadequacy I followed Keiko and her two friends downhill, through narrow streets and finally to the river whose melody I had heard from the train station. Near the edge of town we were joined by a voluble American sailor named Duane. “Is this your first Sizenjen race?” he asked from behind the upturned collar of his standard issue pea coat.
“Yeah I guess.”
“This is my third. I’ve never seen another American here.”
Duane went on talking about rivers, rock climbing and hypothermia, but I’d only come to shuffle along in a “fun run” and consequently didn’t pay much attention. Keiko led the four of us to a cluster of tents that had been set up near the riverbank. I began to notice that everyone who appeared to be a contestant in this so-called “fun run” was either wearing or carrying a lime green hockey helmet. I’ve traveled enough to know that if you don’t speak the language you’d better expect some surprises, and about now I was beginning to realize that the words “fun run” hadn’t translated particularly well.
Keiko’s friends had mysteriously disappeared by time she ushered Duane and I into a large tent where a race official was smiling behind a card table. “Kieko-san, where are your friends?” I asked.
“Fun run, fun run.”
“Mike-san fun run too.” I said emphatically.
“No no no.”
“Yes yes yes.”
“No. Mike-san for natural human race.” This time she made a quick waving motion in front of her face. I recognized this hand maneuver and knew that the discussion was over.
Keiko filled out forms while I was fitted with a crash helmet and a pair of rubber coated gloves. With the exception of the helmet the scene appeared to be more odd than dangerous, but when I was asked to place a fingerprint on the application form I got nervous.
Back outside Keiko seemed very pleased with the situation, and when Kenny Loggins’ Dangerzone erupted from half a dozen loudspeakers she prodded me towards the starting line. I cautiously stepped into the rear of the pack. Next to me stood a supremely fit-looking teenager who alternated between pulls from a can of Sapporo beer and drags from a cigarette. He flashed me a big grin, hugged himself miming the international symbol for cold, finished off the beer and then promptly dropped the empty can at his feet. I suddenly realized that it was cold – damn cold. My breath steamed as though I had taken a pull on his fag; the air temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing. My limbs immediately went into convulsions. “Let’s get on with it” I mumbled out load as three race officials circulated through the crowd counting participants – I assume that they did this in order to verify that everyone who goes out comes back.
We stood around long enough for me to be surprised by the crack of the starting pistol, but I didn’t linger as the pack quickly pushed me into full stride up the riverbank. We were running over what appeared to be a pile of gray softballs, and after about a hundred yards the lead runners suddenly veered right and began high stepping across the knee deep river. By the time I hit the opposite shore my feet were numb and I was beginning to question the sensibility of this race, but curiosity and the shouts of “go, fight, win” from the gathered crowd prodded me on.
The next two kilometers followed a fairly sedate trail through the woods, but then we hit the river again, this time we had to cross thirty feet of chest-deep runoff. I clambered up the opposite riverbank out of breath and thankful for the sticky gloves. How could I get myself into so much trouble so quickly? At the third crossing I lost my footing and was swept into a pool, my feet didn’t touch bottom so I angled myself upstream and stroked for shore. I crawled out of the water in the middle of the pack, and with a surprising determination took off through the woods. Two more river crossings and some off-trail scrambling led to the turn around station.
Feeling strong at the midpoint, I picked up the pace on the return trip. I found that a squatting sumo-like stance helped at the river crossings and I even managed to gain a few seconds by staying in the river and swimming between fordings. I crossed the finish line in the middle of the pack, but I felt like a winner when Keiko and her friends rushed over with blankets, towels and a thermos of hot tea. When I regained my senses I noticed a number of my fellow racers climbing into a giant cauldron which – and I swear this is true – was suspended over a wood fire. The scene reminded me of the time Bugs Bunny was being cooked by the witchdoctor. “For too cold people,” Keiko’s friend said pointing to the steaming tub.
Keiko and her two friends escorted me back to the train station where they bought me heated cans of sugary coffee from a vending machine, and though they had driven, the trio graciously waited nearly thirty minutes for the next train. I arrived back at my room in downtown Tokyo as the neon billboards of East Shinjuku flickered to life, I poured a cold beer, dropped into a hot bath and reminisced on just how much I enjoyed being a stranger in this strange land.

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