A Japanese story swallowed by the forest

I utterly adored Kung Fu Panda 3. I won’t begin listing all the things I liked and just leave it to say it touched my interest at almost every level. The movie was chock full of Eastern iconography, which brought me back to Japan, and resurrected some special memories.

One such instance from the movie was the event of Master Oogway seated below a great cherry tree in full bloom. Cherry trees with falling petals are one of those eastern symbols which not even stereotype can adequately convey the significance and depth of meaning. I didn’t understand much while I lived in Japan, though I did grasp the importance of cherry trees. And today I can’t help but be moved every time I see one in bloom.

One day five or so years back I was exploring an abandoned trail in the deep mountains near the Japan Southern Alps. It was the height of summer and the danger of giant hornets was very real, as was the threat of moon-bear and wild boars. But my most immediate threat were the dinner plate sized spiders which sat like knowing mountain gods upon broad leaves which bent deep with their weight. The spiders were everywhere, and the fact that few ever came this way meant the trail was lost at times, covered in a thick jungle of spider-infested foliage.

Another threat was a fall. I was moving along a rugged canyon where at times there was nothing between me and the rocks below but the spider-filled green. And while it felt like I was safe, I knew that a fall to the right would quickly pass through the spiders and into open air, and the end.

I was just about to give up and go back when I came to an open area of forest where the trail was more distinct, and where I spotted a great rock at the top of a waterfall. The rock was the size of a garage and though it was covered with slippery moss there was little ground cover due to the fact of an enormous wild cherry tree growing from the crown. The tree was utterly immense, and couldn’t have been better placed by the mind of a novelist or the direction of a theater stage artist. There were boulders leading to the top of the stone, and what appeared to be the faintest trace of an old path up the side.

As I started up I came to a tricky spot where I needed to stop and secure a better hand-hold. While repositioning my gear and grabbing the rocks I noticed two yellow eyes looking at me from less than a foot directly in front of my face. It was an enormous mountain toad. An utterly massive specimen of a species of toad which inhabits even the highest peaks of those mountains, and which Japanese mythology associates with spirits. The toad was swollen and snug within a niche of the rocks, and we stared for a moment before I continued to the top.

When I reached the top my head spun from a quick look over the far edge. A sheer drop of 20 meters to the river below, and the great canopy of the tree above, was more perspective than I could take. There wasn’t any very good place to sit, though I made myself as comfortable as I could and decided to just wait and let the experience come to me. This was one of those adventures where emotions can take one quickly in and out without ever really touching the moment as it occurs. Recognizing this as one such case I forced my body and mind to halt. I just let the mountain be, and while the giant toad guarded my retreat I looked up at the great overarching branches of a tree which more properly belonged in a classic Japanese novel than along a nearly forgotten trail so deep in the mountains of Japan than few or none may ever visit it again.

After I’d had my fill, or perhaps the tree had enough of me, I put my pack back on and turned to go down. That’s when I spotted something strange sticking out of the side of the tree. I knew what it was, though I couldn’t believe it was there. What I saw was the corner of an old granite stone, a hand-carved monument covered in Japanese writing I could not read. The tree had long ago enveloped most of the stone, so now all that remained was the near corner. The stone was weathered and covered in a thin layer of decomposing lichen. Despite this fact, the Chinese characters where clear, at least the few I could see. All at once a story came together in my mind.

I suspect that long ago, when the trail I was exploring was in regular use, others had noted the giant rock, and the tree, or had maybe even planted the tree. Someone also decided to mark the spot, or perhaps to tell a story about the trail, the canyon, or the tree. And this was the writing I had seen.

The stone was mostly gone, as was the trail. The story or whatever message once accompanied that tree and spot are also nearly gone. I expect that by the time I’m dead the stone will have vanished entirely into that great cherry tree in the mountains. Which is hardly a shame, as the place itself is already largely forgotten, though it holds a dear and noble archetype of beauty and meaning to almost every Asian mind.

While in Japan I met so many who will soon be gone and saw so much that is nearly vanished. Unrecorded lives soon to go unremembered. Undocumented places being consumed by nature. And an old way of life the Japanese will likely never know again.

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