“Traditional”

It’s almost October.

You know what that means. It means damp, russet leaves underfoot and a chill in the air like a whisper telling you to make vegetable soup. It means zipping up jackets and debating whether or not you need to wear a beanie. It means gratefully pulling on your Uggs on the way out the door because they have once again become borderline acceptable, like they do every year around the time Starbucks brings out the pumpkin spice latte. It means cold fingers and early dusk and thick, knitted jumpers that feel like inanimate hugs.

I like Autumn, and I particularly like October. There is something magical about Halloween; I love that the tradition has lasted to the present day. I love the pumpkin-carving and the skeletons and the ghosts and the fireworks. I love the idea of a holiday that involves death in such a harmless way, a traditional, cultural celebration that’s a little macabre but ultimately unthreatening.

A couple of years ago, I visited family in Spain and brought with me some cartoon Halloween stickers for the kids. They were packs with the usual cast of characters – an arched cat, a laughing witch, a cheery pumpkin – and I gave them out to the younger children because it was about this same time of year, and in my experience all little kids love stickers.

Quick as a flash their dad was right there, taking them back from the children and shuffling them into a neat pile as if he were taking cards from gambling addicts about to play a game of poker. I stared at him, wondering if he intended to save them for later. Maybe he was afraid they would stick them on the dashboard of his car?

Instead, he turned, held them out to me, and stiffly said, “Thank you, but we don’t celebrate pagan holidays.”

I took them from him wordlessly and stared in disbelief as he got into the car and they drove away, a huddle of forlorn faces looking longingly out the back window at the contraband stickers in my hand.

I think about that quite a bit around this time of year, especially as the houses in my area start to get creative with their front garden decor. Some put motion-activated sensors at their gates so that anyone passing through hears rattling chains and ghoulish moans. Plastic ravens are twist-tied to trees, and small stuffed ghosties made from ping-pong balls and tissue paper dangle from invisible string. There are candles and cobwebs and paper decorations in the windows. It’s like a creepy Christmas. I LOVE it, and so do the kids. I would hate to see the tradition of trick-or-treating die away.

Last year in Spain there was a lot of controversy, because some of the traditional Three Wise Men parades that happen every January were… modified. They were adapted; secularised slightly in an professed attempt to make it more inclusive. The staunch Catholics were, of course, up in arms about it. They complained about there being a lack of respect for tradition and how it shouldn’t matter that it’s a Catholic tradition, because it’s part of the culture, and it’s for the children after all, and why can’t people just enjoy it?

Personally, I agree that traditions are important. They’re cultural touchstones. Even if the root of the tradition is something to give pause (I’m not sure American Thanksgiving is as wholesome as the name suggests, and Valentine’s Day celebrates the execution of a saint), the traditions themselves bring people together. I remember the magic of the Three Wise Men when I was a child. I remember them throwing fistfuls of sweets into the crowds, I remember the jeweled robes and the pageboys and the music and the sparkling lights. I LOVED it. I certainly didn’t stop to think about the religious undertones, in much the same way as I was largely oblivious to the pagan history of Samhain when I dressed up for Halloween.

As I listened to the Catholics on the television banging on about how people needed to think of the children and respect the beauty of tradition, I thought about the Halloween stickers. I thought about how intolerant that man had been with what amounted to a silly symbol of a strange and wonderful tradition. I wondered why people feel so threatened by beliefs other than their own, and why sometimes we can’t just allow ourselves to enjoy things that aren’t hurting anyone.

It would be nice for people to respect the beauty of tradition, but I would happily settle for people just learning to respect each other.

A Bad Time

When we’re young, we’re thrown together with other children and told to go and play in an effort to gift our long-suffering parents with a blessed hour of peace and quiet. Before we begin to play, we have simple, rudimentary ways of assessing each other:

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“Blue.”

“Me too! Will you be my friend?”

Then we each grab a stick with twigs sticking out the bottom and start studiously brushing the dirt in an attempt to clean our “house,” which is really just the space under a bush where the frost killed off the lower branches, but thankfully we have the imagination required to bridge that minor gap in realities. It doesn’t present too much of a challenge to our world view.

That same imagination is, I think, what helps us form these fast friendships. We make huge leaps of logic from stepping stone to stepping stone of assumption. We decide that since we like blue and are okay, if they like blue they must also be okay. That’s enough. It’s enough to have a shared interest in the colour blue, or in ponies, or in holographic stickers, or pogs (are they still a thing?), or whatever we have our open little hearts set on at that particular moment.

As children, once we’ve established that one binding fact that cements our friendship, we don’t act passive-aggressively forever more if one person claims that Skipper is better than Barbie. We don’t thump each other until we need medical assistance over a difference of opinion on whether Micro Machines are better than Hot Wheels. We don’t refuse to speak to each other ever again because we don’t both want to watch Aladdin. We accept these things as valid and skip over these differences because the important things are still true; we both like the colour blue, and we like each other.

As time wears on, our lives grow more complicated. Our requirements for friendship grow more complex. We start to write people off for small, niggling reasons. That one person who breathes through their mouth. That other person who won’t watch movies with subtitles. Chasms open up where opinions on religion and politics diverge. Instead of the simple acceptance we had as children, we now debate and argue – viciously, ferociously – in an attempt to change other people’s points of view. Race, class, beliefs and values all get dragged into discussions.

Nobody cares about your favourite colour anymore.

It seems like the world is fracturing at the moment. Cracks have appeared as if from nowhere and I can’t tell how deep the damage goes. It seems like the planet is tearing itself apart at the seams, with untidy, fraying stitches just barely holding everything together. What used often to be educated discussion is now aggressive shouting. Disagreements are now total incompatabilities. Apparently there’s a worldwide chronic deficiency of imagination at the moment and people are either unable or unwilling to understand opposing points of view.

Facts have been sacrificed on the altar of audience engagement and squeaky wheels everywhere are getting the grease of media attention, no matter how insufferable the squeak.

The cracks might not worsen. They might stay as they are, never worsening but never healing completely. Or they might at any moment become a break. A split. An insurmountable challenge.

An impassable chasm.

The worst part is that I think a few more seams are going to rip open before this is over. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I don’t know what to do in the meantime. I definitely don’t have a manual for this. What I do have is a history book, and it’s not exactly reassuring me if I’m honest. If anything it’s making me think we’re about to be in for A Bad Time. A Bad Time with a lot of shouting.

And I hate shouting.

So if anybody wants to hide out and be friends, I’ll be hiding out in my blanket fort with a few micro machines and (since we’re grown ups) some bottles of vodka and gin.

Only people with the password* allowed!

*The password is your favourite colour.

One Stranger, Two Viewpoints, Three Drinks

 

One STRANGERTwo viewpointsthree drinks

I had a pretty interesting but slightly infuriating conversation over the weekend.

It wasn’t really that infuriating at the time, because I had already had two vodka & cranberries and at that stage I’m content to slip easily into the role of Devil’s Advocate on any given subject. I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy drinker. After a drink, I just want to do two things: talk and dance. I don’t much mind where you want to take the conversation, I’m happy for you to take the lead as long as I have a white russian in hand.

Unfortunately at the weekend I didn’t have a white russian. Instead, I had just started on my third vodka and cranberry when this man engaged me in conversation. He began by asking me where I was from (of course), and then launched into a lyrical ode to his home county, which I won’t name here. He asked me what I knew of it, to which I replied, honestly, that absolutely nothing was coming to mind. No landmarks, no tourist hotspots, no holiday destinations. My mind was a total, freewheeling blank. He puffed out his chest and told me that actually, it was one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I lifted a skeptical eyebrow and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Slowly and deliberately, I typed “Things To Do In _________” into my search bar, partly because I was curious as to what would come up, but mostly just to rile him. Which it did! Only not in the way I was expecting.

“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD!” He yelled over the music.

“Google?” I asked, confused.

“NO, EVERYTHING. GOOGLE. PHONES! I TELL YOU THAT _______ IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND THE FIRST THING YOU DO IS PULL OUT YOUR PHONE INSTEAD OF JUST BELIEVING ME!”

I bit back a laugh, because yes, I do tend to believe aggregated opinions of many different people over the sole (biased) opinion of one person. Is that bad? I opened my mouth to interject but he was off again.

“WE WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT IT! DO YOU WATCH TV?”

“TV? Yeah, sometimes…” I mumbled, thrown off balance by the abrupt change in topic. I thought we were talking about phones?

“I BET YOU WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

Okay. Look. As it happens, I have never actually watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but millions of people have. MILLIONS. I’m tired of this implication that people who watch the show are a zombified army of braindead shopaholics who speak solely in emojis and don’t understand basic grammar or syntax, particularly since it’s a disdainful accusation thrown almost exclusively at women. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch it regularly. There’s no reason to use this as an insult.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this said to me with a curled lip of disgust, as if what I watch on television somehow lowers my IQ. Not only does what I watch have no bearing on my intelligence, but it’s almost* enough to make me want to watch the show, just to spite them.

I chased ice cubes around my glass with my plastic straw and tilted my head.

“No…?”

“WELL ANYWAY,” he continued, “I KNEW A MAN WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND HE WAS HAPPIER THAN ANY OF US PROBABLY.”

I breathed deeply and looked around me, considering my options. The dance floor was bathed in deep pink and purple lights. To my right, a blonde in a short skirt ran her hand down the arm of a laughing man with dreadlocks. I stabbed at the ice cubes, then took a drink.

“He lived without electricity? Is that what you said?”

I mean, I was in it now. Might as well let myself be pulled by the conversational current.

“YES! LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY. HAPPIEST MAN I KNEW. JUST HAD A RADIO THAT HE RAN WITH BATTERIES AND A PHONE.”

I eyed the ceiling and debated whether or not to point out that a man who has a radio and a phone is not entirely without the benefits of the modern age. I decided, with drunken magnanimity, to let it go.

“What did he do at night?” I asked, instead.

“LIT A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW!”

I laughed.

“You can’t read by candlelight! Have you tried it? You’d ruin your eyes!”

“HE DIDN’T READ HE WOULD JUST SIT ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS!”

I side-eyed him.

“That’s fine in the summer when it gets dark at a reasonable time, but what happens in the winter when it gets dark at 5pm?”

“HE LIKED IT THAT WAY, HE WAS A VERY HAPPY MAN! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING ALONE WITH OUR THOUGHTS? I THINK MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THAT INSTEAD OF SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TV WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

There he goes again, I thought, with the Kardashians. What is the deal?

“That’s well and good if your thoughts are kind ones,” I pointed out. “But what if they’re not? Thirteen hours is a long time to be left alone with unkind thoughts-“

I barely had a chance to finish the sentence.

He leaned in, cutting across me to shout, “I BET YOU NEVER KNEW ANYBODY WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY!”

My eyes narrowed. The vodka and cranberries I’d consumed were busy sketching out a pale pink outline of the sort of person this man thought I was, and it wasn’t particularly flattering. If I squinted the right way, I could see the exact stereotype this guy had pinned on me.

I took another sip of my drink and thought for a moment.

“I did actually.”

“WHO?”

I was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. Where was this conversation leading exactly? How far down where we going to go? I told myself to relax and let myself flow into the empty spaces left by the holes in his argument.

“The people in my grandparents’ village in Spain lived without electricity.”

I paused, thinking about the pueblo. It’s a dying village. Even when I went regularly, the inhabitants all seemed as ancient and weathered as the sun-split rocks down the hill. I thought about the women I had known with deeply lined faces and no dental care, sitting outside their houses in black shapeless tunics, leaning on canes and fanning themselves.

I thought of my great aunt pressing 100 pesetas into my hand with her bony fingers and shuffling next to me as we made our way to the bakery across the square, which doubled as the only place in the pueblo you could buy anything.

I thought of my great aunt’s house, where the ceiling sagged in the middle, looking like it might cave in at any moment. I thought of the way doors were always left open to cope with the heat, with a beaded curtain strung over the doorway, keeping out the burning sun but nothing else. Walking into the house was an assault on the senses. My nostrils would sting from the smell of cat urine, and I would blink furiously, my eyes taking a minute or two to adjust to the darkness. The reason for the smell was quickly apparent; stray cats would shoot out from under every piece of furniture the moment I took a step in any direction.

Yes, their lives were simple, but their lives were hard. They faced tragedies and difficulties I can barely imagine. My grandfather would tell me stories that would break your heart. They lived lives of quiet isolation and tight community not because they chose to eschew electricity and modern conveniences, but because they had no choice.

The man at the gig, meanwhile, had been surprised into a momentary silence at my assertion that I had, in fact, known someone who lived without electricity. I took the opportunity to squeeze in another sentence.

“They didn’t choose not to have electricity, though. They were very poor. They didn’t have the option.”

His eyes skated around the room as he considered what I had just said.

“BUT THEY WERE PROBABLY HAPPIER LIKE THAT!” He roared in my ear after a moment.

I felt an unfamiliar tingle of annoyance. Unlike me. I thought. It’s a Saturday night. Don’t let him harsh your mellow.

For some reason though, my thoughts flew to the woman who had lived opposite my grandparents. Alone and elderly, she had lived all her life in a tiny cottage draped in grapevines. I thought about how, after she had died, I would look through her window and see her kitchen table, still draped in an impeccably crocheted tablecloth. A small plate sat on the table that had once held a long-since disintegrated piece of toast, and a carefully balanced knife rested on the edge of the plate.

Untouched since her last meal, the room was a silent testimony of her existence. Every year I would crouch to look in through the window, and only two things ever changed; the number of stray cats using the furniture, and the thickness of the layer of dust. Over time, the colours slowly muted and the room took on a ghostly, grey air. When sunlight streamed in the dust particles glistened, making it look even more ethereal.

Had she been happy while she was alive?

As a child, I hadn’t liked her, and that’s putting it mildly. She seemed positively antediluvian, shrunken by age and circumstance. She had once engaged my parents in conversation about the stray cats that my grandmother often fed, and recounted how she had killed a great number of them by swinging them by their back legs and smashing their heads against a rock. Hearing her tell this story had the same effect on me as if she had admitted to being an axe-wielding maniac with a penchant for scalping children; after that I avoided her like the very plague.

Now, with time, I am more understanding. She was completely uneducated and lived in that same small pueblo her entire life. She had no family. The war she waged on the stray cats was ended by her death and, in a twist that shows life has a sense of humour, in her absence they took over her house and made it their own.

I thought of this wizened woman, and how different her life might have been in other circumstances. I thought of my great aunt. The more sober section of my mind struggled to steer my train of thought onto a straighter path. After all, this was a Saturday night chat at top volume with a stranger during a gig, not a cosy in-depth debate in a dark corner at a party. Not exactly the best time to argue the merits of education and how electricity contributes to a greater quality of life.

I leaned towards him so he could hear me clearly.

“I don’t think they would have chosen that life if they had had an alternative,” I said, watching his face.

“BUT YOUR GRANDPARENTS LEFT, RIGHT? BECAUSE MAYBE THEY WEREN’T HAPPY LIVING LIKE THAT. BUT THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T LEAVE! BECAUSE IT’S A SIMPLER, HAPPIER LIFE!”

My grandparents left because they could, because my grandfather dragged them out of there through a combination of dogged hard work and compromise and connections.

My great aunt, who had been in a relationship with my grandmother’s brother, found out she was pregnant while he was away at war. Unfortunately he was killed in action, and so she had her son out of wedlock at a time when this was enough for society to shun you. The son was born with an intellectual disability. Thankfully my grandmother’s family treated them kindly and supported them despite the circumstances, but still, her life was difficult. It was complicated. She was poor and uneducated and had nobody by her side to make her life easier or more bearable. She went to mass every day and pulled wooden rosary beads between her skeletal fingers, her gaunt face a mask of peace as she prayed.

Do I think these difficult times in her life would have been greatly improved by having a light switch and a functioning fridge? Not necessarily. Some hardships can’t be softened with electric lighting and chilled goods. I do think, however, that electricity often reaches places at much the same time as other things like literacy, and education, and modern plumbing, and state aid. I think those would have made her life easier.

The pueblo had a school, and running water, and electricity in my childhood. The neihbour died. My great aunt died. My grandparents also died. The population continues to decline. In 2015 it had a population of 280 inhabitants.

Back at the gig, I threw my head back to dislodge these thoughts and tried to untangle myself from a conversation that was going nowhere fast.

“I agree that our addiction to our phones is bad but dude, I don’t agree we would be happier without electricity.” I waved an arm around me. “We wouldn’t be enjoying this without electricity!”

He nodded his head from side to side as if conceding the point, and then we were loudly (and thankfully) interrupted by a friend wandering over to say hello.

 

Chasing UFOs at Chichibu National Park, Japan

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I had been in Japan only a few days when my brother suggested visiting Chichibu.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You’ll love it!”

I was happy to go along with his suggestion, seeing as he 1.) is my brother and b.) was living in Japan at the time, so I cheerfully agreed, and the following morning I found myself on a little bus destined for Chichibu National Park.

This post isn’t really about the national park, however.

As we wandered up the hill from the entrance, I munched on my matcha-flavoured pocky sticks and looked around me. It was a sunny day and my brother was right, the park was beautiful. Granite rocks and large volcanic stone slabs reached into the sky and spindly trees dotted the landscape like escapees from a Bob Ross painting. Every so often I would find a sign in Japanese with a picture of a bear and the phrase “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO BEARS!” neatly printed underneath in English. I think they were going for ‘Please be careful of bears’ but I have to admit their translation was much better. Not only was it unintentionally hilarious, but I feel like it had the potential to dramatically slash visitor numbers.

Not that the place was packed, exactly. We passed about five other visitors on our way in, and as we walked, we talked. Over the past few days I had visited shrines and cherry blossoms, and I had started to get a feel for the place. I hadn’t yet visited Tokyo, so the more extreme aspects of culture clash were yet to come, but I was enjoying myself immensely pointing out the cultural idiosyncrasies that my brother had assimilated after three years of living in the country.

I was also taking a great deal of interest in my surroundings. Small, chubby stone statues peeked at us from hiding places in the landscape. I pointed out every statue I saw until my brother finally rolled his eyes to the sky and slowly let out a long breath.

“If you do that for every single one of them we’ll be here until next month.”

I side-eyed him and snapped a quick photo. We continued on until we reached a shrine.

The thing you must understand about shrines in Japan is that they are everywhere. Before you visit Japan, you see a photo of them online or in a travel guide and you think, ‘That’s amazing!‘ What you don’t realise is that there are Buddhist shrines, and Shinto shrines, and although they are amazing, they are also innumerable and omnipresent. I really cannot stress this enough. There are shrines around every corner, in every city, up every hill.

We had already visited about five shrines in the past two days when I spotted this shiny red shrine in Chichibu. I pointed up at it eagerly. My brother sighed.

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“Really? Another one?”

I nodded. The novelty hadn’t yet worn off for me. I snapped a quick photo and bounded off towards the steps with my brother trailing behind me in a decidedly less enthusiastic fashion. At the entryway to the shrine, I circled an arm around a red pillar and admired the carvings as I waited for the sound of my brother’s reluctant footsteps to reach my side.

Suddenly a short, thin, bald Japanese man wearing what looked like white house slippers appeared out of nowhere. He said something in rapid-fire Japanese and I cocked my head like a confused spaniel. I felt my eyes widen in panic and I turned to look for my brother, whose foot had only just reached the last step.

“He minds the shrine” my brother muttered to me, joining me in the doorway.

The man turned his attention to him, and asked him a question. My brother explained in simple Japanese that we were Irish, and the man’s face wrinkled into an enormous smile.

“Air-ris-shu!” He exclaimed, beaming. “You come visit?”

“Yes!” I said, glad to be able to communicate.

“First Air-ris-shu here! Why?”

I pointed at my brother and said, “This is my brother. He lives here. I came to visit him.”

“Ahhh,” the man sighed. He muttered something in Japanese then to my brother, and I caught the word “sakura.” Having already had this conversation a few times since arriving in Japan, I nodded my head pre-emptively as my brother translated.

“He says you’re just in time for the cherry-blossoms.”

“I gathered,” I said dryly.

Each and every Japanese person I had spoken to since I had arrived in the country had made some mention of how fortunate I was to have arrived in time to see the cherry blossom trees. I was starting to think it was a bit of an unhealthy obsession. I mean, who gets that excited about a tree?*

I was still rolling my eyes internally at this national obsession with a flower when the man said something that snapped my attention back to him with laser precision.

“Are you here for UFOs?”

I felt my eyes slide to my brother’s face, trying to follow his lead. Was it another lost-in-translation moment? Did UFOs mean something different here?

My brother was staring blankly at the man. He blinked twice.

“UFOs?” I prompted.

“Yes!” The man bobbed his head up and down so vigorously I started to worry it might fall off. “Many people come for UFOs.”

I flicked a glance at my brother again just to double check that he was as blindsided by this conversation topic as I was. His face hadn’t moved a single muscle, but his eyes had the pained expression of someone struggling with the decision of whether or not to laugh.

“Do you mean… flying saucers?” I asked, haltingly.

“Yes, YES!” The head bobbing increased in speed. “Flying saucer!”

I briefly considered trying to catch my brother’s eye but then decided that it would be a monstrous lack of decorum to laugh in this eager man’s face, so I bit the inside of my cheek instead.

“There are UFOs here? In the park?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.” The man shuffled closer and pointed up at the sky. “They come. They come often. Here.”

“Oh.” I said.

We stood there for a moment in silence, the three of us looking up at a brilliantly blue, cloudless patch of sky. The man, reverently looking up at where he obviously thought a UFO might appear at any moment, and my brother and I following his gaze, rendered completely speechless. In the quiet the moment seemed to stretch, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

And then the silence was broken.

“I have photo!”

I turned to face him. “Sorry?”

“I have photo! One moment please.” The man shuffled into the temple and out of sight.

My brother and I stood motionless. Then the side of my brother’s mouth moved.

“He’s serious. He’s actually serious.”

Laughter bubbled up my throat and I coughed in an attempt to disguise it.

“You didn’t mention Yamanashi was a UFO hotspot,” I said in a casual tone of voice.

My brother snorted.

The man reappeared with a point-and-shoot camera that was at least a decade old. He positioned himself between us and turned the camera over to show us the small screen on the back. He flicked through various photos until he found the one he was looking for and held it up.

“See?”

I peered at the screen. It showed the patch of sky we had just been closely examining, only in this photo there was a small blob in the upper right corner. He jabbed the blob with his finger. “There!” He said, triumphantly.

It looked like a bird to me. Possibly an eagle.

“Mmmm” I murmured, noncommittal.

He flicked ahead to another photo of the same scene. This one had a couple of orbs, the kind you get from using the flash when dust particles get in the way.

“See!” He pointed, excited.

“Yes,” I said. “I see.”

He flicked through, showing us more photos with orbs hanging in the middle distance, and a couple more photos of blurry blotches in the sky.

“People come from all over,” he said. “They come for UFOs.”

“Tourists?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. French. Many French. Some American.”

“French and American people come here to watch for UFOs?”

“Yes, yes. UFOs here many times. French, American… They know. Many times here.”

“Like… Every month, or….?”

“No, no. Sometimes three times one day. Sometimes two times one week. Many times here. Some days better. Afternoon best time.”

“Afternoon? Not… at night?”

“No, no. 4pm. 4pm best time here.” He pointed at the patch of sky again. “Here,” he reminded us solemnly.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Area of activity,” he said, nodding sagely. “Governments come to study.”

“Governments? Really?”

“Yes, yes. American. Japanese. Governments come.” He looked out at the horizon, then stared into my eyes. “Area of activity,” he repeated.

“Ahh, of course.”

My brother clapped his hands together, his patience spent. “Well!” He bowed his head to our new friend. “Thank you, we will be sure to keep an eye on the sky for these UFOs.”

The man put his hands together and bowed his bald head low.

I put my hands together and bowed my head in return. Then I smiled at him, a genuine, happy smile. He legitimately believed in UFOs and I admired that faith and interest and passion, even if I couldn’t understand it. I had enjoyed seeing his world through his eyes for a moment, even if I had to squint a little to see eagles as flying saucers, and dust particles as spaceships.

As we made our way down the steps, my brother’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. By the time we reached the main path, tears were streaming down his face. After a quick look over my shoulder to make sure our friend wasn’t watching us, I joined him. I laughed because that was the last possible conversation I had expected to have at a Japanese shrine (or anywhere really). I laughed because it was sunny, and I was happy, and it seemed absurd to climb the steps to an ancient shrine only to wind up talking about flying saucers. Then I saw another sign for “PLEASE BE CAREFUL TO THE BEARS!” and started laughing again.

We finally wiped our eyes and refilled our water bottles for the hike ahead before setting off for Nanatsugama-godan Falls, and as we trudged up the next hill, I looked back at the blue, cloudless, birdless patch of sky.

Just in case.

*As I said, I hadn’t been to Tokyo yet at this point in the trip, and so I had no idea what was in store.