It was hot and humid. Beads of sweat were rapidly racing down my back and face. The sound of semi (cicada) bugs filled the air like tiny violins playing the same note. It was around four o’clock and I had been wheeling around all day. Where were these Ukai Cormorant Fishermen that I was looking for? My body urged me to take cover from the sun’s intense summer rays. I decided to take refuge at a small food stand stationed on the banks of the Oi River in the Arashiyama District of Kyoto.
An unhinged plank of wood lay in the entrance acting as a ramp. A young man about my age sat at a table talking to the waitress and another couple in the corner quietly held a private discussion. I popped my front caster wheels onto the plank with an unintentionally loud thud. Everyone looked up and the young man and waitress came rushing to my aid. I knew I could manage getting inside but had become accustom to accepting help from locals. After I was led to a table the waitress handed me a menu. “No thank you,” I said in Japanese. I was not hungry but thirsty. I looked at the waitress with my hands up and asked “English?” She shrugged her head and apologized that I then countered with “Dijobu,” which means no worries or everything is all good in Japanese.
I had my eye on an Asahi Beer advertisement displayed on the wall. I pointed to it and indicated with my hands that I wanted a large one. The ice cold beer rushed down my parched throat soothing every hot cell of my body and everything slowed down. I continued to sip my cold beverage while I stared out onto the river. A light wind scattered the banks of the river and caressed my face. I felt like I was dreaming. I was experiencing a moment that I knew would not last but would always remember. My adventure in Japan was more than halfway over. Tears began to fill up my eyes as I replayed my journey.
Like many aspects of life, my first trip to Japan did not go exactly according to plan. It started off at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo which I assumed would be the best hotel but ended up tying another for last place followed by my able-bodied friend and tour guide abandoning me after day four of the trip due to an emergency back home. So there I was a half a world away from anyone that knew my name. I had the choice of jumping ship and also returning home but something in me pushed me to go on. Japan had been on my top five places to travel to and I didn’t want to give up so soon. ‘I’ll experience what I am meant to experience,’ I told myself with no specific sightseeing agenda. Before my friend’s departure he schooled me in the ways of the Japanese train systems. This was critical in my travels. Fortunately for me and any other wheelchair traveler for that matter, the Japanese train system is highly efficient and wheelchair friendly; one of the best, if not the best in the world.
For the most part, wheeling the city in my manual wheelchair was also very manageable. It’s not to say that the cities I visited in Japan were completely level but many areas were or nearly level, like around train stations and attraction sites. On occasion it can be a bit of a journey from the train station to a particular attraction and may require going up and down hills, which is why buses travel between stations and attractions. Whether it’s saving your strength or avoiding the elements, buses come in handy for the wheelchair traveler. I preferred wheeling. I really wanted to get a feel for the country and what it was like to get around in a manual wheelchair. I wanted to get lost in what I saw, smelled, and heard; to have to ask locals for directions and interact with them. This, I felt, could not be accomplished thru a glass window. I needed to be on the streets.
I gained muscle and lost a noticeable amount of weight with this strategy. When I came across a large hill I would take it slow, I was in no rush. A number of times while climbing such a hill, I was asked if I needed help and most of the time I accepted. One time it was a seventy-year-old lady waiting at a bus stop, who literally answered my prayers. Another time a well-dressed businessman saw me looking at a map and helped me to find the attraction I was looking for that required going up an unfathomably steep hill for about 600 feet. The incline was so steep that if it wasn’t for him I would have just said ‘forget it’ and turned around. Whether it was a push up a hill or just directions, I always graciously thanked anyone that helped me accompanied by a deep bow and smile.
Throughout my solo wheelchair journey in the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, the sincere kindness of the Japanese people warmed me to my very core. I was never worried. As the Buddhists do, I accepted that universe would provide me with what I needed. Once at peace with this, life is full of surprises. One particular day in Nara Park exemplifies this beautifully. I left the temple where the famous Big Buddha statue is on display and headed to a shrine which was the second of three major ancient attractions in Nara Park. The pathway started as concrete but soon broke up into pebbles which I had become accustomed to seeing in parks and areas surrounding ancient historical sites. It was hot but luckily the trees’ canopy gave me some relief as I pushed thru the pebbles. Some parts were thicker than others, almost like quicksand but quickly realized that force wasn’t best.
The harder I pushed the deeper I sunk. Instead, I slowed my rhythm until I was basically hydroplaning on the pebbles and coasted on. At the rate I was going the trail seemed to go on forever. I was tired but had gone all this way so I was determined to reach the shrine. Roughly about five hundred feet away I made eye contact with a Japanese family headed in the same direction. The father said hello in English and pushed his hands forward to inquire if I wanted some help. “Yes! Yes!” I replied in Japanese. The father pushed most of the way and then traded off with his son. When we reached the base of the shrine it was obvious that this attraction was not accessible. Hundreds of stairs lay before me. I warmly thanked the family for their kindness and explained that I would take a few photos from where I was and then be on my way. The father just stood there looking back and forth between me and the stairs trying to come up with an alternative.
“Can I help?” a voice called from halfway up the stairs. A strapping young man from Texas made his way down to the bottom and greeted us. He knew a little more Japanese than I did but still not much. With a few words and lots of hand gesturing it was agreed that I would be carried up the stairs by these two gentlemen in my wheelchair. I emphasized that under these hot and humid conditions and with the amount of stairs that this was not my decision. “It’s your call,” I said but their minds were already made up. Hoisted up into the air like Cleopatra these guys carried me all around the temple. I could roll myself in a few selected areas but would soon be met with a step. “Don’t leave me here now,” I joked. It had been since my friend left that I was able to have a conversation in English. My new friend from Texas told me about his early morning adventure in the mountains surrounding Nara where him and his friend heard a group of monks greeting the day by clicking two sticks together in sync with each other to create a song. The way he described it made me feel like I was there, majestic. After I was brought back down the stairs I thanked the gentlemen again and insisted that I buy them ice cream or a beer but they politely refused. My new friend from Texas departed shortly after needing to keep to his travel itinerary.
I kept moving in the same direction as the Japanese family. The father asked if I had a plan and I said no. He then explained that the family had a car and could take me wherever I wanted to go in Nara. “Really?! Well, I wanted to see the oldest wooden temple in Japan.” As a child, my mother told me never to take rides from strangers but that caution was thrown to the wind. At times life presents a choice, a fork in the road. One of my favorite modern philosophers, Robert Frost, said “two roads diverged in the woods and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.” Not many people are in wheelchairs but this is the path I am on and has changed the way I see the world. I am not naive but have no fear. In grade school we are taught how the world works but as we age we realize that a lot of what was claimed to be true is false or personal perception. We must trust our own intuitions, our own truths if we are to experience life the way intended: the bold, beautiful, good, bad and ugly. And with my journey’s motto of ‘I’ll experience what I am meant to experience’ buzzing inside, I gladly got in the car without hesitation.
The pure goodness of the human spirit was oozing out of this family. They wanted to experience a little more with me. To me, this was all an unforeseen adventure. I was immediately impressed by the father who after showing him only once was able to assemble my manual wheelchair. We got directions from a Nara Park parking attendant who told us it would take thirty minutes to reach the designated temple. It was three o’clock and my stomach cried out in rage. The mother must have heard because she sweetly asked if I had eaten any lunch. None of us had so we made a pit-stop at a 7-Eleven on the way and picked up giant pieces of sushi that you eat like a sandwich along with cold water. We munched on our lunches on the road while making conversation the best we could despite the obvious language barrier. The son who was around thirteen with ambitions of becoming an English major turned to me and confidently asked, “What music do you listen to?” I rattled off a few names but quickly ran out of ones he recognized. “Macarena?” the boy asked holding up a CD. I laughed inside and out. “Yes, I know this!” I encouraged. The Macarena was set on repeat for the rest of the trip and everyone laughed with joy when I showed them the dance. I even caught the dad a few times drumming his hands on the steering wheel to the music. I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything, not my lunch, my ticket into the temple or the Popsicle and tea we got for the returning trip. The kindness and generosity these complete strangers had for me was overwhelming. After being dropped off at the train station, I waved good-bye to my Japanese family and wondered if I’ll ever see them again.
My time with the Japanese family was an experience I’ll never forget. I love being surprised by people when it reveals the pure love of humanity. Sometimes a person can come into your life for just an instance and touch you in such a way that makes a lasting impact. In the Bamboo Groves of Kyoto I briefly met such a fella. He was an old man in his seventies with a long peppered beard. The kind an old Japanese martial arts master or fisherman would have. He stood on the edge of the trail with a board displaying a dozen postcards. I watched the few groups of people ahead of me stroll right by glancing over at the man and his board for just a second. As I rolled up to him the bright colors of the artwork exploded in my eyes. The postcards were painted Japanese landscapes. I asked the man if he was the artist. Grinning from ear to ear he replied, “Well, yes!” in perfect English. I complimented him and he asked where I was from. “I have been looking for you!” I confessed. I had in fact been searching for a local painter. We sat under the canopy of the bamboo trees for a few minutes chatting then he started to say something in English but ended in Spanish. “Wait, what?” I giggled. He froze for a moment with a puzzled look on his face and then broke out in childlike laughter. It was infectious and the whole world seemed to be on pause for this moment. I bought three of his postcards for $1 apiece, treasures that are now hanging in my room. Out of all the Japanese people I met this scraggly old man had the best English and a smile that melt my heart. His eyes sparkled with the true essence of just being. I wished I would have asked him exactly how many languages he knew but the answer will remain a mystery a part of my Japanese dream.
Being open and aware to what’s around you is one of the most important aspects of traveling. You never know who you may meet or what you will see along the way. Often times people get fixated on the final destination they have their mind set on but it is the journey to get there that is the real adventure. Or better yet, it is the surprises along the journey that make the adventure. When there are no surprises, when everything is planned then it’s like people on the people mover at Disneyland: just along for the ride and not a part of it. I welcome obstacles because I am usually directed in a way that I had not intended. It’s like opening a present; I don’t know what it is but regardless I know I’ll like it because it’s new and thus exciting. For instance when I was in the Bamboo Gove, I was headed to the top of the hill where a few temples were located but the pathway got to be too steep and didn’t feel like coercing strangers into pushing me because it was strenuous even for those who could walk, so I turned around and ended up wandering around the neighborhoods. I still saw a few temples and shrines but I was the only tourist in sight. I imagined that these were likely not as elaborate as the ones on top of the hill but this didn’t matter to me, they were beautiful in their own right. The isolation from the crowds of tourists made them feel that more sacred. Wandering thru the neighborhoods was perhaps more enjoyable because it brought me into the everyday life of the Japanese people. I felt like a fly on the wall. Well, a very large, brightly colored fly due to the fact that a wheelchair user doesn’t blend into most scenes. Nonetheless, the locals did not give my presence a second thought as they went about their business giving me the freedom to just be.
In Tokyo I was journeying to a temple when I was faced with a major obstacle. The bridge that I needed to cross was blocked off to all pedestrians due to construction. A traffic attendant made sure no one passed and directed everyone to the right into a park. I had wheeled a good forty-five minutes to reach this point but with no remorse followed the path that lay before me. My first thought was that I could find a way thru the park to reach the temple on the other side of the river. As looked around for a possible route I soon came across something very familiar, a chain linked fence of a baseball field and on the dirt were a few adolescent Japanese teen boys throwing a ball around. “Oh!!!” I quietly whispered to myself with great enthusiasm. Nippon Professional Baseball or Puro Yakyū is probably the most popular sport in Japan. My friend (who I had come to Japan with but left) and I had discussed on the plane ride over about possibly catching a baseball game. It was something that we both wanted to do but as I said before, things did not work out as planned and I had completely forgotten about baseball until this moment. My attention was pulled to left where another baseball field was located and realized I was in a sports park. This particular one I could see had a game going. “Yay!” I was just so delighted with my find. Here I was on my way to see yet another temple when life directed me down a different path to experience something that I had desired in the first place but temporarily forgotten. In an elementary way, it was a greater reminder that life won’t allow you to forget what you need to know. Be patient, don’t worry. I made my way to the stands where the fans were gathered and cheering. Immediately noticed that a few were American and as I scanned the field I saw an American team. I shook off the vision as if I was somehow transported back home. It sunk in that I was witnessing an international little league tournament, Japan VS. the United States. “What absolute luck!” I thought “…Or was it?” I don’t believe in luck that some people in life are luckier than others. I believe people create their own luck by who they are and how they view the world. I watched the game for two innings as an impartial observer wanting to see both teams’ offense and defense. Both teams were real good and I didn’t care to ask the score, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood softball days before I was paralyzed. My father, who has past, was always the coach and so my thoughts went to him. I commonly have fleeting thoughts of him that come and go like a breath of air but some stick like gum under a baseball bleacher on a hot day. This was one of those times. I felt my dad’s presence while I watched the coach interact with the players, wondering which one was his son. My emotions rolled over in my stomach. This was a special surprise, one impossible to plan for. I got to spend a moment in Japan with my father.
Before I left for Japan, my grandmother (my father’s mother) asked me if I was going to see the tallest building the world that she had read about called the Skytree. If I had read something about this while researching my trip it didn’t stand out, but if my dear grandma is bringing it to my attention then that’s all the sign I need to give it some thought. I liked the name too so as one of our final activities before my friend left we took a trip to the Skytree. Wheelchair access was virtually flawless the minute we reached the Skytree. I was pumped. It was certainly the eye of a tourist trap tornado but accepted it. I was familiar with other tall buildings in the U.S. that create a tourist destination out of an observation deck, so why not shovel out the cash for the tallest of them all? I felt like I was on a crazy Willy Wonka ride as the elevator ascended higher and higher into the sky. Low clouds created a hazy affect over the sky and city making a clear photograph impossible. The sun began setting west adding hot pink and orange brushstrokes to the grey canvas of clouds. The tune “I’m on the top of the world looking down on creation…” (Carpenters) popped in my head. A part of my brain is its own MP3 player selecting parts of songs to play that match what I am experiencing. I never know what will trigger it but I’m always amused when it happens. On top of the world I couldn’t help but think of all the people in it and the events surroundings their lives: all the love, fear, dramas, wars, revelations and miracles and how this has shaped the world. Have we evolved since the Egyptians for example? Our physical world eludes this, in which efficiency our king. Life today is faster: faster cars, faster ways of communicating, making dinner, growing an orange, etc. But does faster mean evolved? Does the tomato taste sweeter from the shelf or the off the vine? Are we any wiser any less cruel or judgmental to people or ideas that are different than our own? Do we see the divine beauty in the small things?
As I stared down at my empty beer glass philosophizing about life I reminded myself not to be concerned with the internal evolution of others. One cannot control the thoughts and feelings of others. And so I returned focus to my senses and the present moment. I paid for my beer and got vague directions to where the Ukai Cormorant Fishermen were supposed to perform. Apparently, a part of this communication was lost in translation cause I didn’t get to the right spot right. I watched the fishermen row right past me and my heart sank. There was nothing I could do. A full moon had risen over the mountains turning the river and sky into a soft pink blanket. It was so peaceful. I made my way back to the small train station that had a little open-air beer garden. A song by Radiohead, one of my all-time favorite bands, was playing on the overhead speakers and knew it was the cherry on top of a perfect day. I was swallowed up in the majestic beauty of that river. Life is like the river, “eventually all things merge into one… ” (Robert Redford, A River Runs Thru It). That day in the Arashiyama District none of my plans fell thru but my heart was not sour. Be careful when dwelling on what is not because you may be blinded to the gift in front of you. On the train ride back to my hotel my thoughts were still on the river. I had watched two well-dressed young Japanese men skip rocks on it. Overtime the waters of life polishes us, smoothing our rough edges creating the perfect conditions for us to fly.