Sunday, October 24, 2010
The Mountained Sphere, part 1: The hills of Japan
The hills here do not roll. Japanese hills leap.
One will be on a plain, the moist flatland of central Californian dreams, and there, not a hundred yards away, a hill rockets up in indescribable greenery.
This is not big-sky country.
You can get a crick in your neck without realizing it, you have to look up every time you want to see the weather. It can mess with your perception of the horizon. You will find yourself looking up at a 45 degree angle, and, suddenly, you realize, you aren't looking at a flat horizon. You try to look straight, and you realize that you can't from the very top edge of your eyeline, see the sky. You can't even see halfway up the hill, or thirty yards away.
I have never seen hills so vertical.
And it's not just in the country - the cities change elevation like they were built out of lego-blocks. Taking a train through the city, you look out the windows, and there's one row of houses, fifty feet below another, and nearly straight down, so fast you wouldn't want to roll down the side. You could throw a large sibling out the back door of a hilltop house, and he'd land on the front porch of the house below.
Incidentally, this corrects a misperception I had about fiction set in Japan. Watching the Last Samurai, I thought the village was set in some unreal city, the valley walls were just too perfect of razors, inspiration for swords. I thought surely this was the work of some high-paid location scout, probably found the spot somewhere in central Asia, and a team of Hollywood stagehands spent weeks stripping, shaping, and reassembling the hills. But no, all the hills are like that, sharp, but still wooded. I thought the hill behind the house in My Neighbor Totoro was an exaggeration - the animated movie form coming through to portray a child's-eye view of both wonder and unreality. But again, no, The hills really do require serious panning-up to get to the tops, and they are so covered with trees, you can't tell where the hill ends and trees begin.
The whole thing reminds me of Chesterton's comment that sometimes we forget culture can be older than nature - I wonder are these sharp hills cultural or natural. Are they the creation of some strange rocks and geophysical forces mashing things straight, or are they the creation of generation after generation of rock farmer, slowly chipping away at hillsides, desperate for just one more yard of workable earth, slowly wearing the hills into sharp peaks. Ultimately, I don't know - it's probably some combination of both, but a wonder, of nature or culture, is a wonder to behold.
Incidentally, the picture is right behind where we work every day. I certainly didn't have that view at my old desk.