Fear and Loathing in Translation
The four of us piled into Ben’s 1991 Suzuki Alto, the sister vehicle to my own toy car. It’s about 4 feet wide, the wheels all look like donuts, and the rear visibility is almost completely compromised by the fact that the school’s logo, SES (Shunan English School) and its phone number are written in opaque white lettering across the entire damn rear windshield. We were following directions written by a girl named Mika in broken English on a piece of paper where she scrawled a fairly detailed, but ultimately incorrect map of how to get from where we were to the rave an hour and a half away.
The first turn Ben took to get to a town called Hofu, was a wrong turn, three seconds into the drive we needed to make a u-turn already. Ben and I had resolved the day before that if we left on the trip we had to consider secondary options in the likely event that we got so lost that it was easier to just go to some random city and find something to do. I bought a six pack of 24 ounce Asahi’s (bieru) for myself, but I’d be damned if I was going to drink a ton of beer on a car ride that had the potential to take four hours, my bladder is about the size of a walnut. Cathy doesn’t drink at all, she is in fact healthy enough to make the average person look like a walking corpse, and Rieko is a typically shy, reserved Japanese girl, who pledged to get drunk so she could open up a bit.
We drove without too much fanfare for about an hour, but there was confusion regardless of how dead straight the road was, and we skipped a few parts of the directions because the route we were on seemed more convenient. We stopped at a few convenience stores to load up on non-alcoholic supplies. An hour and a half or so into the drive (which was the ETA for the whole drive) we came to a town called Ogori, and we find Route 9, the road we need to take, we have no idea which direction to go in, so we picked one and went. For about 10 minutes down this road, we did not see a single functioning car, we didn’t see any animals, we saw maybe a half dozen broken down cars on the sides of the road, and then eventually we saw an umbrella, casually drifting between lanes in the middle of the road. It’s a pretty freaky little piece of driving in our packed up little Alto, and then Cathy pulls out this gem:
Cathy: Do you know, umm what is the word, the wolves under the full moon
Ben: You mean werewolves?
Cathy: Yeah, those are scary
Eh, maybe it was just the timing that made it funny, and the French accent, but I nearly wet myself. That seemed like as good a time as any to turn around, so we turned around and went back down Route 9 the other way. For some reason it immediately felt like the right call, not that there were any cars on the road. It’s almost surreal how Japan, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, can feel like a post apocalyptic world, everyone safe in their bunkers waiting for the fallout to recede. At night the whole prefecture is almost deserted even in the built up areas, most of the streets aren’t lit, and the silence in a lot of places can be desolate; no crickets, or birds, or scurrying animals anywhere. When we stopped for a while to relieve ourselves, we were greeted by the small swathe of sky not blotted out completely by the smokestacks and ambient light of a nearby city, and an occasional breeze rustling the soon to be naked Cherry Blossoms.
Eventually we crept back into civilization, and thinking about the sky I related an article I had just read about two black holes in a distant galaxy NASA has just discovered on a collision course to become one supermassive black hole, with enough power to swallow 100,000 Suns. When Cathy asked if a black hole destroyed everything that was sucked into it I explained that practically it did, but that wasn’t entirely correct, “In fact if a black hole swallowed a 2006 Chevy Suburban, it would come out looking much like a 1991 Suzuki Alto.”
We had now been driving for about 2 hours in our hour and a half trip, without seeing any of the landmarks drawn by Mika’s less that artistic hand on the Japanglish (broken English mixed with Japanese) map. Then we saw the car dealership we were supposed to see, and then a sign, and then “Fuck, Ben what the hell was that?” My face still smashed into the seat in front of me, Ben said “Akeyoshi-Di, the sign right up there said it.” So he took the corner at high speed and we were maybe off on the direction of the party. About 10 minutes later, there hadn’t been another sign, we hadn’t driven through the tunnel we were supposed to drive through, or seen this thing called the Lotteria. We hung another U-turn and went back to the main road. We drove down route 9 some more when Ben thought he saw the tunnel, and Cathy thought she saw a tunnel, and I thought I saw a dark tree against a slightly less dark hill. Everyone whooped and hollered for about a minute and a half before we realized it was in fact a dark tree, in front of a slightly less dark hill. We hung another U-turn and decided to go back the empty road that at least had a sign for where we were going, we hadn’t seen a tunnel, or a lotteria, the only two landmarks on the map that signaled the end of the drive.
Then the road began to climb, and we all perked up a bit. Then we went through a tunnel, and we all perked up a little more, and then we went through three more tunnels and cursed Mika’s god damn map. At any rate we kept climbing up through the 2 AM darkness of blotted hill after blotted hill, the landscape was like a leaking inkwell, everything was simply different shades of darkness, a geographical Rorschach. The signs finally led us to believe we were 6 kilometers away from our destination Akeyoshi-Di. What we didn’t know at the time, was that arriving at Akeyoshi-Di is a lot like arriving at Yellowstone National Park, when you enter you can still be 30 miles from Old Faithful, but Old Faithful wasn’t spinning trance music and dispensing beer and other illicit substances to a boatload of Japanese girls.
We climbed up these mountains for what seems like an hour, there were parking lots, empty parking lots, everywhere. We had decided if we saw even a group of 3 or 4 cars parked together it meant, get out, and find the damn party. We had been warned by one British guy that the “rave” might only be 20 people, but we were ok with that. Then as we reached the very top of the mountain, it happened. We started going back down again, no party, no music, no girls, nothing, we just kept sinking back into darker and darker turns in the road. Eventually we stopped at the next pull-over, having almost given up completely, we’d been driving near 3 hours, we were in the middle of nowhere, we hadn’t seen a car in at least 20 minutes and we finished the last of the snacks we brought. We called Mika the map-maker but since it was almost three in the morning she didn’t pick up her phone. My vote was to keep going the way we were going for a while, Ben completely disagreed, and the girls were ambivalent. Bear in mind each one of us had made one wrong decision about which way to go already. The decision was ultimately solved for us; a car came, the first car in what seemed like months. We jumped in our car and sped down the road to follow it, and not three fucking minutes down the road, was a massive parking lot, PACKED with cars. There must have been at least two hundred cars in the lot, we got out, we could hear the music, and everything that happened during the drive instantly faded from mind.
I grabbed my bag and a beer, Cathy took a group photo, and we headed toward the thumping bass ahead. Since the party started 4 hours ago nobody bothered to charge us, and we walked to the “rave.” When I hear the word rave, it instantly conjures up images of seedy abandoned warehouses in broken industrial and meatpacking districts across every city in the country, where underage girls and men of all ages inhale ecstasy and grope around in the darkness for 8 hours or until the cops swarm in and break up the party. Raves have that illicit sub-cultural quality and the allure of danger, but due partially to the location and partially that the police in Japan are reserved only for directing traffic, raves in Japan do not have that quality.
This was an actual amphitheatre, the dj’s or mc’s or whatever they happened to be called spun from a little booth under this angled wooden building, the dance floor sprawled out for 50 feet in every direction in front of them, and ten huge rows of wooden stadium rows rose up the hill around the dance floor. There were no authorities there, no police, no security, no event staff, just a horde of Japanese ravers and some gaijin out in the open air dancing to trance music, with no judgements or sidelong glares. There were no defensive cliques of girls dancing together, or guys standing around the bars waiting for the girls to get too drunk to care that they’re only there to pick up girls. The vibe, as we young kids say, was incredibly positive, everyone came to have a good time and lose themselves in the overwhelming immensity of the music and the surroundings.
I immediately began snapping some pictures, the moon lolled between two sets of mountains directly behind the dj booth, and a hundred Japanese men and women, girls and boys, most undoubtedly on “E” gathered and un-gathered on the dance floor and lost themselves. Ben is a huge fan of electronica music, and he knew this sub-culture existed here, so for him, this was his nirvana. He and Cathy cruised down to the dance floor, while I wandered around a bit, trying to drink away the cold, and drink up the buzz for a little while. Rieko being the reserved girl she was, sat on the bench and cracked open a drink for a little while.
Behind the stadium seating on the hill, dozens of tents, and campfires, and drum circles, and people covered the grass. One group had brought those sticks that are about three feet long that you twirl around. I know that is a fairly ambiguous description, but you hold two of these wooden or rubber sticks in your hand, and the third stick has two bulbous soft ends, and you twirl the third stick, or spin it around, or throw it in the air and catch it with a single stick. I’m sure whatever they were on at the time made it incredibly fun, I had a good time watching them for a little while, and all I had was a couple of beers.
Eventually after I had wandered my fill, and drank a half dozen beers, I took my bag back to the car, just as I was heading back to the rave I remembered I had my spelunking light with me. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a small flashlight attached to a headband, and mine happened to have a red-light option on it. You can ask why I would need a red light on my flashlight, I certainly have in the past, but right then I finally realized what it was for. It was for raves in the mountains of Japan in pitch darkness, so I grabbed it and headed back to the dance floor. I turned on the light, moved the bulb down so it shone directly on my face, and then proceeded to do everything which a human being could not truthfully define as dancing, but it didn’t matter, because I looked like a total badass doing it. Ben was a big fan, Cathy thought it was hysterical, and my new Japanese lady friend was a big fan as well. After a solid hour and a half or so of dancing, I walked off the dance floor to talk to a girl I had seen dancing who at least spoke broken English. After some aimless chit-chat we’d both decided it was getting colder, and we’d be much warmer in the car. So we left the party for a spell to “warm-up.”
Afterwards, dawn was finally breaking. The music never stopped, but all of a sudden the whole black rave became a vibrant playground of colors. There were about 50 massive, sprawling Cherry Blossoms right behind the stage, that were a bright pink and white, and we didn’t even notice a single one of them on the way to the party hours before. The campfires behind us were becoming ash, the sun rose with the beat to peak over the mountains, and we all stood together in silence for a while, as all people who know they’re witnessing a moment which will shape their lives in unforeseen ways do.
The rave was coming to a close, and we’d all started wandering away from the dance floor for different reasons, Cathy met a Japanese couple and engaged them in conversation. When I came over for a good vantage point for a picture, she handed me the flyer they’d given her. There was another similar party, during our week off. A two day rave was happening during our week off…in a volcano. In a fucking volcano. Done, I was sold, I don’t get paid before this vacation, and I’d wanted to do something in Japan, now I’ve found it.
Ben was talking to three very hot Japanese girls he was dancing with for a while, Cathy came over and took pictures of them, and he got some e-mail addresses from them I think. Knowing how this type of sub-culture tends to be I’m sure we’ll see them again at the volcano. The last half hour consisted of a lot of snap shots and we got in the car and began the trek home. It was about 7:30 or so in the morning.
On the road back, this entire sprawl of ink spots, and dark, unintelligible masses became a national park. Winding back through the small curved roads, every valley filled with a morning mist, as thick as clouds, the sun sprayed small rainbows through the moisture and the air was as fresh as any I’ve ever smelled, at the first turnoff we stopped to take some pictures. After such an amazing night, the morning proved that Japan wasn’t done with us for this trip yet. For the first time since I’ve landed, standing next to an idle car soon after dawn in the mountains, I admitted this was in fact the land of the rising sun. Nothing I have ever seen is comparable, and I know for a fact none of the four mega pixel images will do it anything resembling justice. We stood there reveling for what seemed like a long time, talking about the distant night and the new morning with the sound of motorcycle drivers tearing down the mountain paths in the background. Cathy lived in Nagoya, a much larger city than Tokuyama for three years; she said this was the best experience she’s ever had in Japan. My initial thoughts about the country receded with the dark air of that night in the mountains, I’m beginning to warm up to the place, and I knew as we got back into the car, that a year from now, I would definitely miss it.
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