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.

 

 

 

 

 

Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

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I walked into the Katakurakan onsen with trepidation clawing up my throat.

A smiling lady handed me a small towel and a small key at the window of reception, then gestured gracefully towards a door on the left. This was something I’d noticed a lot since arriving in Japan; every Japanese person I encountered seemed to have been born with the kind of grace that eludes me on a daily basis. Clutching the towel to my chest, I pushed open the door to the women’s changing room and walked in.

In no way was I excited about getting naked with strangers.

I was dragging my feet with dread. My skin had started to itch with a strange, cold, prickling sensation that wasn’t in the least bit pleasant. It hadn’t been my idea to visit the onsen, but the lovely Japanese man showing me around Lake Suwa had seemed personally affronted when I said I would rather not. His smiling, insistent head-bowing had worn me down until, resigned, I had nodded and followed him into the brick building.

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According to Wikipedia “an onsen is a Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities and inns frequently situated around them. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsens were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in Japanese domestic tourism.”

I knew very little about onsen before visiting, other than the fact that you have to be naked and tattoos are strictly verboten. Now here I was, standing in a changing room, clutching a towel, wishing the tiled floor would open up and swallow me whole.

Once I’d accepted that this was, in fact, happening, I looked around for any hint as to what was expected of me. I knew that I would have to strip down, but where? Here? Signs in unintelligibly bubbly kanji laughed at me from the walls. Trying to act nonchalant, I sat down and started to untie my shoelaces ever so slowly as panic bubbled up in my chest. Nobody there spoke any English, and I sincerely doubted my rudimentary phrases of Japanese (O-genki desu ka? Sumimasen! Kore kudasai) would get me very far in learning the intricacies of onsen ettiquette.

Just then, the door swung open and, as if sent to deliver me to salvation, a middle-aged lady walked in. She might as well have arrived in a beam of light, I was so glad to see her. I watched her out of my peripheral vision as I pretended to be absorbed by the process of peeling off my socks. I could undress myself – that part didn’t present a problem; after all I’ve been doing it every day of my life – but I needed to know what came after. I didn’t want to have to stand there naked like a total gom while I fumbled to understand what to do next.

The woman, unaware that she was the hero of the moment, kicked off her running shoes and started to briskly remove her clothing. I kept my eyes on the bench as she dropped her blouse, her bra, and her bobby pins into a tidy pile on the pale ash slats. I picked up the pace with my own clothes, pulling off my loose knit jumper and tank top in a single movement. Now that I had found this unwitting guide, it was important I keep up with her. I couldn’t let her disappear from view.

When she was quite nude, she put her belongings in a locker.

I also put my belongings in a locker.

She used her key to lock it, then slid the elastic keyring onto her wrist.

I did the same.

Picking up her towel, still ignorant of my careful observation of her every move, she walked through the changing room and passed under an arch into the room with the main bath. I followed, now so intent on following this poor woman like a creepy stalker that I barely registered how weird it felt to be totally naked around perfect strangers.

I said barely.

It was weird. It was very weird. I have a somewhat strange notion about my body in that I’m okay with showing it off to an extent – I feel comfortable in a bikini, and don’t mind changing in front of people if the situation demands it – but I don’t like getting completely naked in front of anyone who isn’t my partner. It’s a personal thing. I’d just rather not share the sight of my entirely unclothed body with anyone else. Make of that what you will. It’s not a matter of prudishness or shame or discomfort with my body… It’s just a personal preference.

I never said it made sense.

So here I was, standing in a room in Japan decorated to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse, stark naked, holding only a small towel and trying not to stare at anybody.

…Which, I mean, if I’m going to be naked around strangers anywhere, Japan is probably far enough away for it to almost not have happened at all.

My mentor turned to an area on the right, and sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen. The stool was positioned in front of a little washing station, with toiletries on a similarly tiny counter. I followed her lead and sat two tiny stools down, with my knees up around my chest. I watched her surreptitiously as she used the shower head provided to wash herself, and copied her movements while wondering why the uncomfortably tiny stool was necessary. What was wrong with a shower cubicle?

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When she stood and made her way to the bath, I followed a couple of minutes behind. I walked to the far end of the bath and stepped into the warm water trying to look as unperturbed as possible. When my whole body was submerged in the warm water, I folded my towel and placed it on a ledge just like my onsen angel had done, and then I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried to stop thinking.

It’s almost impossible to stop thinking. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s like trying to herd cats. Emptying your mind of all thoughts is a lovely notion, but if you actually sit down and try to do it you can find yourself thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking, and then thinking about thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that my mindful meditation didn’t last very long.

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I opened my eyes to see my onsen guide walking along the bottom of the bath. I stretched my leg out and felt around with my toes. I was surprised to find that there were thousands of small pebbles lining the floor of the bath. I slid down a step so that my chin was barely above water, and pressed the soles of my feet into the pebbles. It felt good. I could see why people loved the onsen. The water was exactly the right temperature; not too hot to step into without wincing, and not too cold to lie there for an extended period of time. It was quiet. The few women in the room were absorbed in their own rituals, washing and relaxing and combing out their hair. I’d never been in an all-female space like this before, and it felt very safe.

Strange, but safe.

I soaked there until my fingertips wrinkled.

Afterwards I stepped out to find my onsen lady getting dressed. Apparently it’s good to keep the minerals from the onsen spring water on your skin, so it’s normal not to shower after your soak in the bath. I pulled my clothes back on with no small sense of relief, and emerged into the cool air with a pink, flushed face and a new appreciation for onsen culture.

I feel like maybe after a couple of visits I might have managed to feel comfortable with the whole thing (although my brother told me he had to go to one with his coworkers and even just typing that sentence out now makes me incredibly uneasy, so who knows?). I’m glad I did it at least once, anyhow.

Have you ever been to an onsen? If not, would you try it?

And the real question… WOULD YOU TRY IT WITH YOUR COWORKERS?