Of Butterflies and Trail Running

There are any number of folk beliefs, developed through Chinese history and culture. Some of these superstitions have manifested in different ways, tapered off, interlaced with the rituals of other communities, or born anew as would happen when our brand, Chinese-Malaysian, branched off from the motherland. I will try to wear new clothes on the first day of Chinese New Year. I will remind a friend, sarcastically, to not eat seafood if they’re recovering from surgery. And I will not point my feet towards an open door, because it makes me feel uncomfortable. But aside from those that inconvenience me the least, I don’t profess to follow many, or any else.

Members of my family hold a different view, and being both young and indifferent often meant passively participating in the superstition. One memory stands out, when I was back in Malaysia, on holidays from boarding school in Sydney. A now nameless and faceless lady, a professed expert on “numbers”, specifically the relationship between birthdates, the universe and destiny, did her magic and read out her inference based on the conditions I had been born into. I do not remember the method or the numerical result. I remember the solemn, matter-of-factness to her tone, the way she described my numbers as ‘butterfly numbers’ because of the way they would inverse in the middle. Butterfly numbers, she had said, meant my life would be led in extremities. I would either be really successful, or a failure. And the nature of my life would either be really easy, or really hard.

Thus far, I have not noticed my pendulum swinging a firm left or a firm right. But it was her, who burned the image of a fork in the road, which represented my decision-making process. And through this, how I noticed that each time faced with that fork, I seemed to continuously pick the route, which would lead me into the dark woods. I have no clear explanation for it, but statistically speaking, I seemed to enjoy doing things the hard way.

Trail-running was something David brought up early on in our conversations. I’d heard about it and seen videos on YouTube, people at the peak of humanity’s fitness, running and tumbling through nature like children on a playground. It had all looked so fiendishly difficult. Never mind that anything running related usually sets me off, well, in the other direction. But hearing him speak to his love for it was like hearing an alter echo, of me in discourse about everything I have ever been passionate about. I like chasing rich experiences. Often it does not matter if the activity is handkerchief embroidery or quad biking, point me towards your high and I will go. As my trip to Tokyo drew closer, it seemed like the decision had made itself up, without any input from him or I, that I would at some point in time, find myself up on a mountain.

One weekend, we set off nice and early, meeting at Shimo-kitazawa, somewhere I have frequented in the past, but this would be the first time that I would not leave the station. The crack of dawn commute was amusing, if nothing else. A Saturday morning’s conclusion is singular, Tokyo is not a morning person. The ruins of Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku take the form of office workers in yesterday’s suits dressed with a cologne of Asahi drunk not hours ago.

I was nervous. I am nervous. Okura was to be our final destination and a bus, our final mode of transport. The closer we got to the entrance of the national park, the more I wondered if the driver would continue on endlessly, and keep us in this state flux, always moving, but never arriving. Part of my worries stemmed from me wanting to give this sport and the Tanzawa range we would traipse on, the respect they both deserved. The second part, pride intertwined with self-sufficiency. Not wanting to be a burden to David, best case, as a poor runner and worst case, through creating a trying situation so far away from help.

What you fear is not the action itself, it is the lead up to it. Exam related stress typically vanishes as soon as you are allowed to open the question booklet and pick up your pen. The reality was, I could not stay nervous about doing something, while I was already doing it. I was a million kilometres away in my head when David indicated for me to jog. There is no actual starting line but you pick a point and stare it down as all that anxiety turns into potential energy. And then you just, start.

We had three rules for our adventure. Ascend at a good pace, jog on flat ground and when it is downhill, run. It did not take long for these modes to ingrain themselves into me, like shifting gears in a car based purely on a mechanical need. But if I was a car, I was a second-hand stick shift, still getting to know my parts while trying to stall as little as possible. I am not a runner, this shows in my gait, my lung capacity and my endurance. But for what it is worth, for what I am worth, my redeeming quality has always been my resilience. When adversity and I make eye contact, I am not the first one to blink.

David said that I would never say more “Konnichiwa”s in my life than when trail running through mountains in Japan, and he was right. We saw many hikers. The average age on the mountain had to be close to the average retiring age. Around us were groups of older Japanese people, shuffling along in hiking boots, walking sticks and bags heavy with supplies. The Japanese have always portrayed a sense of bashfulness, a desire to not cause the overextension of hospitality from any being, and it was apparent that mountains and trees were included.

The terrain itself varies, both through nature and man’s influence. Some sections showed trees higher than your imagination, raised by trunks of wood, deeper and richer than any king. Parts of the trail dug lower, and were made up purely by the well-trodden paths of our predecessors. The air of the forest wafted no particular scent, what you smelled was the absence of the city and civilisation. Noticing these characteristics of the forest helped to pass the time and stave away any feeling of fatigue. The pain in one’s calves for example, starts off like red embers and eventually builds up into a formidable flame. This is never more apparent than when you are climbing a steep incline of stairs. These were in abundance on the trail but they could either be high, made with logs and fit for a giant or shallow, like never-ending steps up to an attic. My first victory was not at any peak, but at the pre-summit point of Mt. Tounodake. We celebrated with a Soyjoy, the first of many snacks I would consume that day to ensure a steady flow of energy. Looking forward at that point, there was so, so much more to go. But equally, so much I had already done.

Running through the mountains, you leave pebble-sized amounts of yourself, small bets against nature. Each peak conquered, Tounodake (1,491 metres), Tanzawa (1,561 metres) and the final Hirugatake (1,673 metres), is the wager won and you collect it all back and then some. There is no other way to describe the elation, the euphoria and the sudden surge of energy you feel, during the last few moments that you take, as you reach for the top. For us, victory food were kinako cookies and, oddly enough, stroopwafels. The taste of sugar has never been more satisfying or more complex than after five hours of going up.

We spent the night at a sansou, along with twenty others, occupying space in the hut of the man who lived at the top of Hirugatake. There we shared trail mix in exchange for slices of dried octopus as snacks and had a dinner of Japanese staples; rice, pickled fish and vegetables. We made our beds out of futons and thick blankets, cocooning ourselves until the morning came.

The journey does not feel real until Mt. Fuji peaks through from his vantage point, it is only then that you know this is an all out fantasy. The tip was shrouded in thin clouds on the first day but he stood in all his glory on the second. We rose at 4.30 am, cleaned as best we could with no running water and set off again after breakfast. Part of the journey was going back the way we came, running on flat ground with huge drops on either side. It is here that we saw the sun to our left, the moon above us and Mt. Fuji hovering to our right. There, with his back turned, David looked the spitting image of Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. On one hand, the rationality of man is an anomaly in a setting that is so wild. On the other, when one spends so much time outdoors, he becomes wild himself, the adopted son of the ground beneath our feet and the scentless air. “For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise”.

The descent was easier for many reasons, one of which was food related. Arriving back at Tounodake, we detour to Nabewariyama, where steaming claypots of udon, broth and vegetables awaited us. Again, I was taken aback by the beautiful simplicity of the tempura, mushrooms and kamaboko, the springy texture of the noodles, and the sweet aftertaste from the dashi soup.

The second reason that day two went more smoothly was the more obvious downhills that would be involved with going down a mountain. If you were to close your eyes and judge your surroundings purely by sense and feel, David would disappear. And in his place, your mind would touch the mind of a mountain goat or some other very sure-footed animal. This was never more apparent than the steep declines we faced with nothing but sticks and rocks to break your fall. It is an incredibly mixed feeling of trepidation and joy, of remembering all the times your mother forbade you from running down the ramp at a parking lot because it is dangerous and doing it anyway because it is fun. But where I was attempting to swim, he was flying, like the eagle we had just saw soaring above an expanse that we could not dream of reaching. In the same way surfers have more balance riding a wave than they do on land, David glided down these muddy slopes with the same demonstrated control, grace and beauty. Every inch of him gave off an aura of being both powerful and fulfilled, and in those moments of watching him, you could see that he was free.

After two days of climbing, crawling, walking, jogging and running, we were back where we had started. In the grand scheme of hard things you can physically put your body through, I would rank this adventure at the very top of my list. I anticipated the physical strain, what I did not foresee was of having my senses heightened in almost every capacity. The strength I was able to draw even when I felt truly spent, the depth of flavour I tasted in mountain curry seasoned with our efforts and the exhilaration of running down coexisting with the strenuity of going up, as the perfect yin and yang.

I chase rich experiences. Returning to the nameless and faceless lady, it was perhaps short-sighted of her to only see living as a coin-flip for easy or hard, when a better metaphor for life is four-dimensional chess. Just like the Tanzawa range itself, we all face different peaks and troughs. Some higher, some lower. Sometimes the context of our situation means we have to take the harder path. While other times, we draft an unbreakable maxim, where we are duty bound to make the difficult choice. Ultimately it does not matter which side of the butterfly it is that you seek. Because it is only when it flaps its wings, do both sides become true. And that is when you create the hurricane.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have ‘Hurry up, Mountain Fish’ thrust upon them. The deepest of thank yous to David, my mentor, drill sergeant and keeper of the stroopwafels for showing me the way up, the way down and the way beyond.

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    1. Thanks as always, for reading!

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