GCD: Wilderness Engagement (Grade 11 Field Studies Nakasendo)

Every year, our schools’ field studies provide us with experiences that are different in their own ways, and I was always excited and eager about the day of field studies. When I think about wilderness engagement, the Nakasendo trip in my junior year comes to my mind. The junior field studies, despite it being our last field studies before the final exams, the learning trip had taught me a student life beyond academics, extracurricular activities, and friendship, but our appreciation of the natural surroundings and the world as it is.

The trip this year was on an off schedule. A few weeks before the Nakasendo trip, my calendar, filled with deadlines, had kept myself in school mode. On the back of my mind, I was thinking about when and where I had to buy equipment lists for the trip. It was evident that I was struggling to set my mind off anything besides trying to accomplish each deadline, and I could not be as excited about field studies as I was in my previous years.

The first day of field studies had arrived. With my 60-liter camping backpack, foot tightly fitted in my new hiking shoes, we began to walk. First, on a smooth flat surface, but the road was not as simple. The more we walked, the more the trail became steeper, and I had begun to feel the heat under the layers of clothes I had worn. I was used to steep hills, but I realized that my pace was slower than usual because of my backpack, and one by one, my group members were passing by me.

I began to breathe heavily, but the air was clean and fresh, and there was a hint of a cold breeze in the bright and sunny weather. The heat did not bother me anymore, and I had felt the vast and spacious sky turning clearer and bluer as I had walked along the Nakasendo. My worries and distress about school were hiding somewhere behind the clouds, and I indulged in the tranquility that nature had prepared. Things like this, not even our advanced and developing, the fast-paced world could offer. It is no doubt that our world has become more convenient, but it could not be replaced by the artificiality.

We arrived in a small, old postal town of Magome, our first stay along the Nakasendo road that connected Kyoto and Edo, where we had stayed in a traditional Japanese Inn. We were required to follow a “no cell phone use rule” in order to interact and socialize with one another. I was not keen on this idea at first, but I realized that I was in a social environment away from school settings, and I had the chance to become closer with people I see every day in the halls, classrooms, canteens, and anywhere in the school campus.   

The next day, we left Magome and continued to walk up the hill along the old highway. A few walks past, we were welcomed by an endless path of trees and had walked along the unevenly shaped rocks, where in ancient times, horses used to step foot on.  Different color shade greens had surrounded us, but on other days of the trip, we were walking on top of pure, white, ice. The snow had piled up deep that it was tough to walk through. One of the tour guides had shown me a photo of a different day, during the winter, when the snow was just above her stomach, and it could not be compared to the one I was struggling to get through. I noticed that I was not used to the snow, and the obstacles. This was not just because it had barely snowed in Yokohama, but I was also too used to living in an urbanized lifestyle and forget to take time to engage with the natural environment. From afar, we saw Mount Ontake that had erupted four years ago, that had exerted great force and power. It had reminded me of how people, under great pressure, undergo mental breakdowns and release all the negativity out, and the outcome may be messy and unpleasant at first, but gradually, it can bring a positive result. This made me think about how nature was a different organism in comparison to people, but you could find similarities when you open your eyes and observe carefully and expand your wonders and imagination.  

Getting ready for the “no cell phone use rule”
Golden hour in Magome Chaya

The trip had turned out to be a perfect getaway from the busy schedule. The school’s competitive academic environment may have shaped my ability to persevere in the challenging uphills, but perhaps my journey with nature had brought me a positive mindset; a refreshing experience that would prepare me for the next challenges in my life that I had to overcome. Even unpleasant moments, like walking in the mountains on a rainy day, or walking on deep snow, we are unable to control the weather, and the wonders that nature offers, just as we have no control over everything in our life. Yet, you had to keep moving forward and meet your goal, despite the negativity in life and grow as a person. This experience had reminded me of a time in my childhood when I was first introduced to the benefits of nature. Back then, the Motomachi-Chukagai Station that connected Motomachi street and Yamate was not yet built, and my mother, sister and I, had to walk to preschool by the stairs next to the cemetery. Whenever it was pouring heavy rain, I would put my raincoat and boots on, and walk up the slippery stairs, cautious of every step I took. This was not easy for my four-year-old self, but I had gradually become stronger and ready to face any challenge. The extreme weather strengthened my mental health. This year’s field studies had motivated me to take the time to explore and carefully observe the natural surroundings despite our daily distractions.     

Although we had finished our journey through the Nakasendo, with our final stop at Narai, another beautiful small town located in Kiso Valley, traditional style wooden buildings stretched across the narrow road. I began to see that my trip had offered me both the importance of preserving nature and the Japanese culture. Being in my mid-teens, I felt the responsibility of carrying down old traditions in our modernized world and conserving the environment in innovative ways.