Today I turned 30 years old. From the time I was born until now, the Earth has gone through approximately 11,957 rotations. That’s 263,000 hours, or 15,800,000 minutes, or about 1.2 Million beats of my own heart to bring me to this exact point in time. Pretty remarkable when you think about it.
Sadly, I wasn’t permitted to sleep in on this momentous occasion as I had a 7am flight out of Haneda airport (the closer airport thankfully) in order to head over to Hachijojima.
Where the hell is Hachijojima? To the Wikipedia!
Not many people know about it, as it’s a sleepy semi-tropical island 200 or so odd miles south of Tokyo. Technically, it *is* part of Tokyo. Technically. I actually orginally wanted to spend my birthday on an even smaller, even more remote island called Aogashima, but the helicopter tickets sold out, so Hachijojima it is.
It actually feels a lot like Hawaii. Palm trees, a humid tropical breeze, and today I’m lucky that it’s a sunny and pleasant day and not the sea squalls the get every other day of the year. The airport is tiny, and has only 3 flights a day. I get an english language map from the nice info desk lady and set off on my birthday adventure!
I spend the morning just doing a lot of exploring on my own, walking around the airport into the “city center” as it were. Not much happening at 9am here, but that’s ok. I’m here for a nice downtempo vacation from my vacation.
I pick up a boxed lunch of sushi from a little supermarket I pass and head to the central park of the city, which looks like just green grass on google maps, but is in fact a fairly densely wooded, jungle type place. The soil here is dark and volcanic, as you’d expect from a Pacific island. After a bit of searching and some difficult hiking with all of my belongings strapped to my back, I find a city overlook and enjoy a nice quiet meal and write a bit in my journal.
I head back down to the visitor’s center to get my bearings and figure out what to do next. As I’m looking over my map, a Japanese man walks over and ushers me into another room along with a few other visitors. It’s like a lecture hall with a big projector, and, apparently, it’s movie time. We all watch a Hachijojima tourism video from about 25 years ago (with english subtitles) talking about how special it is. Volcanic island, unique flora and fauna, high annual rainfall. No pics here but it was cool I guess.
I notice there’s one other white guy here, a middle aged man with presumably his japanese wife. I strike up a conversation with them to find they live in Michigan and the woman (Nozomi?) is an interpreter for Delta airlines. Very helpful people. I tell them I want to climb the mountain and they help translate between me and the info booth guy, managing to call a cab for me to bring me up to the hiking point. I wish I snapped a picture with them but I forgot. Maybe I’ll see them at the airport later.
Hachijo-Fuji is the tallest point on the island, and in the whole island chain, about 850 meters above sea level. The path leading up to the rim of the caldera is 1200 steps. I’m still carrying all of my stuff. As we climb into the mountains we get into the cloud layer and the sunny day is replaced with a wet and windy fog. The taxi driver seems to question my judgement. “It’s dangerous. Very windy. Be careful” he says. “I think I’ll be ok” I say. He agrees to return to pick me up in 3 hours, and then departs down the road, leaving me alone at the entrance to the slope.
A ramshackle and weathered gateway separates me from the troubles ahead. Fog blankets the stairway, hiding everything beyond a short distance in an eerie mist. There is no sound here other than the wind and the chirping of some mountain birds. The gateway must be crossed, the boundaries passed, the call to adventure is here. To live a heroic life, I cannot turn my back on these things. It’s something I understand more and more as time marches on. I work the flimsy latch on the gate, step through, and begin my ascent.
The steps are steep and there are a LOT of them. I fall into a slow pattern of counting steps and alternating primary legs to not wear myself out, pausing every 50 to 100 steps to catch my breath. As I get closer to the top, a Japanese man passes me the other way and says “Be careful. It’s really windy! Be strong! Fight!”
So I must, and so I will.
It takes me an hour to climb the steps and reach the perimeter path stretching around the top of the technically active Class-C volcano. There is no grand vista looking down on the island below, only a hammering wind that sweeps snowdrifts of mist and fog up over the edge, around me, and back down the outside slope. A very narrow, rocky and treacherous path leads off to the summit.
My heavy backpack catches the wind, weathervaning and twisting my body with each strong gust. The rocky trail is slippery and cold, the grass prickly and dense. If I fell off the trail I probably wouldn’t die, but it wouldn’t be easy to get back up if I twisted an ankle or injured myself. There are occasional areas on the “trail” where I have to leap over small chasms or climb up a steep rock face, but I’m surprisingly sure footed and determined to reach the end.
30 minutes of rugged mountaineering later, I spot a marker through the fog. The summit!
I feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment as I scramble up to the granite post, wet and tired, but ultimately victorious. “If you’re going to do it, go all the way.” Maybe that’s why I came to this place. To prove to myself how far I could travel, how high I could climb, and how brave I could become if I trusted myself to take each next step.
Surrounding the base of the marker, other visitors like me have left offerings of coins or other tokens to mark their own presence. I think about what to leave behind, as I have been carrying my own talismans around with me this whole journey. The first one is truly special to me, and too valuable to sacrifice.
My brother, my sister, and myself all own silver dollars that were minted during our birth years. They’re talismans for each of us to carry forward on our travels and to experience our memories alongside us. Some people might view it as a trivial superstition. “Oooh a lucky silver dollar, cool story bro.” But to me it’s more than that. It’s a connection to my siblings, a reminder of the values I cherish, and a companion above all else. A companion, that at the end of my life, will have shared in all of my experiences because I carry it with me every day. Perhaps one day it will become my child’s or my grandchild’s companion, passed down through generations to discover new adventures even after my time in this world has come and gone.
No, I cannot leave this silver dollar behind, but I do have another marker.
This is a keychain I had made for me while I was in Kyoto. It’s my name, “Geoffrey” spelled out in Kanji “Je-o-fu-ri”. The symbols selected (according to the vendor) mean “Love gains ongoing excellence”. It’s laser cut into Japanese Boxwood and the back side features a design of a Phoenix, the symbol of rebirth and eternal life.
I was planning on keeping it as a key chain, but now that I’m here, it feels a lot more appropriate to leave it behind, as a marker of who I am and why I was here. I use my cold and wet fingers to gingerly nestle it into place at the base of the summit marker, where it stands aside other items from people who have come and gone. It is a symbol not of who I was, or who I want to become, but of the man that is standing on the top of the mountain now, at this point in time. So many different events and forces conspired to lead me here. I cannot leave again without giving back something that represents who I am.
When I was in New Zealand, I left behind a marker on another gray and wet segment of coastline, on a forgotten stretch of highway traveled only by a few. Here, again separated from my homeland by distance and time, I leave a new one. I don’t feel sad about it; just contented. Life brought me to this place, and it will take me away again, but I leave behind a fragment of this triumph as a happy memory.
I work my way back towards the crater at the center of the mountain, and follow a different path down into the bowl at the center. The fog hangs even thicker here, but the wind grows silent, leaving in its place a quiet stillness with only the sound of my footfalls to mark the distance traveled.
At the center of the volcano, at one of the most remote and alien places I have ever visited, I find the most remarkable thing: A quiet shrine, hidden in the jungle for a select few travelers to discover on their own.
I’m overcome with emotion as I pass through the gate, and gaze upon the colored stones of other travelers. How many different lives felt somehow compelled to come to this place? What answers were they seeking? What lives did they lead? As improbable as it is, I find myself standing here in this place, listening to the echoes of other lives, and wondering how remarkable it is to simply be alive.
So many things could have gone differently in my life. Different successes, different failures, different lovers and different goals. And yet, here I am. I don’t consider myself a religious person in the traditional sense, but I can’t help but feel like in this moment, nothing stands between me and my connection to God and the incredible world I’ve been given.
I write my name on an unturned stone and place it among the other relics of other lives. A second marker, this one carrying my prayers for the future. Alone among the mists and the languid air, I pray for the courage, compassion, and the good fortune to live my life as it is meant to be lived.
I feel that my future, like this mountain, is shrouded in mist; unknowable except for the very next step up the hill, which in turn leads to the next step. I have no idea where these paths are leading me, but I have to believe it will be a journey worth discovering.
I descend back down to the bottom of the mountain to discover daylight once more. While no one knows what the next days, months, or years will bring, but I am certain of one thing: I am so happy to be alive. Having the chance to explore this world and see it with my own eyes is a blessing, and I’m thankful beyond words for even those fleeting moments of glory I am allowed to discover along the way.
The taxi driver returns exactly on time to pick me up and return me to the city below. In my broken Japanese I try to explain the wind and the rain and what it was like, but of course, the words fall short. The true memories of this day I will have to carry alone.
After checking in at the hotel, I walk into town in search of food, and end up at literally a mom and pop restaurant serving dinner to a few other scattered locals, it’s run by a husband and wife, and wha appears to be their high-school age daughter, Sakura-chan.
The menu is entirely in Japanese, and I struggle to read it. After a few moments, I ask Sakura-chan what her favorite food is, and she deliberates for a minute before finally picking an item on the menu. “I’ll have that, please” I say in my badly accented japanese, and minutes later I get Sakura’s favorite food… potato wedges with cream cheese and a sweet chili sauce.
It’s not a traditional birthday meal, but you know what, this will do just fine. In fact the wedges are quite good! Besides, it’s my birthday. I’m allowed to eat junk food and call it a meal!
Sakura-chan doesn’t speak any English, and I have only a very limited command of Japanese, so I’m not able to sustain much of a conversation with her, but the food is good and I feel relaxed.
I came to Hachijojima to begin my 4th decade on earth on my terms. I didn’t want to do something “normal”. I wanted an adventure. I wanted the chance to challenge myself. I wanted to confront who I am today, and understand who that man is, because tomorrow new experiences will change him again, and no other day in my life will be exactly like this day.
In all these ways, I feel I’ve succeeded, and I’m happy to push my tired feet just another kilometer more to make it back to my hotel. I get on my tablet to work on a blog post, only to be contacted by one of the best friends in my life, Eric Connors. He’s in Europe right now, and even on opposite ends of the globe we have almost a 2 hour conversation by voice over facebook, catching up on each other’s lives. It’s so wonderful to speak with friends, and it’s truly amazing how meaningless distance is with the technology we have now. In fact, he’ll be arriving in Japan not long after I leave for his own adventure! It’s a shame out paths won’t cross here in this place, but I know that there is another destination not far in the future where we will see one another again in person.
As far as birthdays go, this has been one of the great ones. I wasn’t sure what would happen when I flew out here, but in the end it ended up becoming exactly what it was meant to be, and perhaps, just a little bit more.
There are only a few days left in my trip before I return to the states, but I’ve been enjoying every moment. I really appreciate all of you reading along.
No matter where your own adventures may lead you, never stop dreaming.