The Japanese role playing video games I have played, only ever allow three members to your party. But while we are located in Japan, we are four and far from your typical band of adventurers. A chef, a swimmer, a portraitist and I walk into a bar. Except this isn’t a bar, it’s the mouth of an entrance, or an exit, to Taimeike-Sanno station. The meeting point, to be gathered (some of us begrudgingly), before the sight of the sun and onward to the challenge that Chef has determined for us.
I had summited Takaosan less than a month ago, for my birthday with Meg, choosing a path more travelled. Chef has different plans this time, Trail 6, and a much further distance to include Kobotoke-Shiroyama and a descent down past Lake Sagami and into Sagamiko-machi.
As the most conditioned, and the most familiar with the route and the Japanese landscape in general, Chef leads. There is a similarity in the way he commandeers in the kitchens and in the chefs’ office, to the way he does amongst the grass and the trees. We’ve participated in countless of meetings together, discussed desserts, cuisine and bantered over the lives we’ve led in our respective parts of Asia. Yet it is here, out in rice country that he seems most like his true self. His is a sure-footed disposition, interchanging with the glide of a manta ray in the deep blue when needed.
Conversation is flux and the antithesis of superfluous. With Swimmer, we discuss everything from marketing strategies to the value of our mortality. That as we age, we hold the things – the people, we love a little tighter each day. It’s funny that my mother recently sent me a very similar message on WhatsApp, the crux being that youth is simply an invincibility cloak. But, it isn’t real, it simply masks what is already there, and death comes for us all regardless of age. One of my favourite words that I learnt on a previous trip to Japan is 感動する, to be deeply moved. The use I was taught is that it is sometimes said to describe the breathtaking beauty of nature. But in-spite of natures most luxurious offerings that day, nothing was more 感動する than the cursory love-filled glance I saw from one to another that morning.
Interspersed amongst words is silence, but nature continues to speak. You need only look up to be found in a landscape that was not there previously. The ascent gives the illusion of tall trunks seeming bent. From gravel to sand and dust, to mud that sticks to the bottom of your shoe. It is a world of juxtapositions, of the grittiness beneath the earth to the melody of green that coats the tips of trees. I tripped but stopped myself from tumbling, pressing against a forest blend of crumbled dry leaves, that meet the smoothness of my gloved palm and the knees of my black-turned-grey Lululemon tights.
Your RPG party should be a well-balanced. A mix of offense, defense and a certain je ne sais quoi, although this depends on the player’s style. The third can be a healer, it can be a black mage, someone of a magical persuasion whose abilities are passive but stand to alter the fabric of the game itself. On this quest, that person is undoubtedly Portraitist. He will race ahead as much as he will saunter behind. He will join the party as much as he will stand alone. There he waits and then he captures. It is through elegant photography, that he has immortalised moments of our journey, transient scenes on the mountains that will never, ever be repeated again. And as we sit and look back today, it is his imagery that teleports us back to that moment in time. Quite simply, magic.
Ahead of me, Chef is blasting music from his Sony Walkman, with genres covering Betty Davis Eyes to Best Song Ever by One Direction. The diversity is a metaphor for our dynamic and our party. Chef and Portraitist are both Spanish. Chef, Swimmer and I work for the same organisation. Swimmer and Portraitist are married. Portraitist and I both take photos. We are each part of a Venn diagram with a sliver of a centre that exists between us. Perhaps the only common denominator between the four of us are that we are all foreigners in Japan. The second one, that we have all lived in multiple countries.
From between trees, you spy the glistening crystals on the surface of Lake Sagami, a destination. Like glimpses of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu, this make us giddy and drunk on nature’s milk, with the close promises of paradise. It isn’t long before we find ourselves across the bridge, the 吊り橋, with the warmth of the sun on our backpacks, the riches in our midst and only.
As the other three speak Spanish, goading a soaring eagle into eating a duck in the lake, I am reminded of the people who have turned back, and those who have gone much further than us. That adventure isn’t simply a process and it certainly isn’t a destination. It’s a feeling, or a state of mind, one that allows us to coat these experiences so that in our minds, they are evergreen.
Ten months ago, the invitation to trail running and the gates to Japan’s natural landscape opened up to me for the first time. For a while, I thought the keys were lost to me but on this day and amongst the most peculiar of companions, I found them lying in my hands, as they were this whole time. Playing RPG games, working in a collaborative corporate environment and pursuing a combat sport, these cause you to constantly wonder what kind of role you play in each scenario, your value add. I think about all of my abilities and characteristics and maybe for me, it’s having an indomitable spirit that has taken me from Malaysia to Australia, to Sweden and now to Japan. After each battle in the game is won, the iconic victory fanfare will play. Until the next one.