Connections

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Japan
By Ed Abell

Nathan poked his head over the edge of the top bunk, his bleach blond curls, forehead and sparkling blue eyes looking down at me with his eyebrows arched with a question, “gee dad, is there anything that you still want to do that you haven’t done yet?” Asked with the innocence of an 8-year-old who probably thought that dads have already done everything, it certainly fit the spirit of the conversations we had during this time period when I would tuck him in for the night. As I look back, it’s quite clear to me the lessens learned by both of us were dreams can come true and that life can be full of surprises, turns, amazement and adventure, if you allow yourself to be susceptible.

Now, I could have chosen a myriad of different things because, as you well know, dads haven’t done everything but what I picked, initiated a series of serendipitous connections and events beyond anticipation that continue to astonished me to this day. Our dialog went like this;
“Sure, there are lots of things I haven’t done.”
“Like what?”
“Well, I’d like to climb Mt. Fuji in Japan some day.”
“When you do, do that, can I come with you?”
“Of course you can, buddy…good night”

No more than three weeks later, gathered together with the family at dinner, Nathan spouts, “So dad, when are we going to climb Mt. Fuji?”

Because I’d spent three outstanding months in Japan while in college and my wife Kristin had been a foreign exchange student in exotic Morocco, we understood the value of immersion in different cultures; being the foreigner and learning to be accepting of new people and situations. It was an experience we intended to give to our children, so Nathan’s question wasn’t a shock; it opened the door for a plan of action.

Nathan, Takko, Chris and Kristin at a rest stop on Mt. Fuji
Nathan, Takko, Chris and Kristin at a rest stop on Mt. Fuji
I mussed for a second or two and searchingly thought out loud, “If we are going to do this, you and your brother (Christopher was 5) need to be able to handle a 14-hour plane ride and be old enough to appreciate the experience.” It was 1995. I reckoned Chris needed to be 11 or 12. A brief tally of significant birthdays and events easily produced the solution. “2001 is the year I turn 50. We will go to Japan and climb Mt. Fuji in that summer.” It was as simple as that.

Life traveled along on its merry way with our goal on the long range radar. We did the “normal” vacations like; Disney, Seattle and visiting Aunt Elsie in Sedona. Doesn’t everyone have an Aunt Elsie? 1999, however, offered something a little outside the dots, we took the kids to Clown Camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The camp was attended by representatives from 33 states and 6 foreign countries.

One morning we sat just in front of two Japanese ladies, I turned and said good morning to them with my Sheboygan/Japanese accent. (Ohayo gozaimasu) My greeting promoted a 15 minute conversation, a dialogue that established the fact that we were planning a trip to Japan as a family in 2001. We learned the ladies were Takko and Suzan. Takko was a professional clown in Japan and had been to Clown Camp several times. Suzan lived in Tokyo and, like us, clowned as a hobby. Takko asked me what we were going to do in Japan. I shared we wanted the boys to see her beautiful country, experience the culture with our sons and climb Mt. Fuji. She says, “I live near Mt. Fuji, I’ll climb with you.” “Wow…uh…ok” stumbled from me as I processed her frankness and sincerity. I found it utterly refreshing if not a little intimidating. We exchanged email addresses and I committed to stay in touch. We never crossed paths with our new friends again at camp. We completed our classes, happy to have spent the time in such an enabling environment. Returning home satisfied and confident we could perform and look professional. In addition, we had the surprise of two new friends and potential aid in our quest to climb Mt. Fuji.

Over the next two years I dutifully stayed in contact with Takko and Suzan while I researched and planned our adventure.

About nine months prier to departing, all my plans were reserved and confirmed using the internet. I sent Takko the itinerary including the days open to climb Mt. Fuji. She replied it is best to climb to a hut and spend the night, then summit and go down the next day. I was not to worry; she would take care of everything. Oh brother! I enjoy researching my trips but I must admit I didn’t know what “everything” was. Internet information about the huts on Fujisan, if found, were in Japanese. I did not know what to expect. We weren’t going to haul sleeping bags for three weeks only to use them one night. I’d read some cold and miserable over night climbing stories along with warm fuzzy ones. I’d known Takko for 15 whole minutes and a handful of emails, now, I trusted her with my family. As you will read, I worried needlessly. In our last communication, she emailed, “I will have directions for you to meet me at Mishima Train Station waiting for you at the Inn. Don’t worry, I take care of everything.” Shit.

We had given ourselves 5 days in the middle part of our 3 week trek to acclimate in the misty pine filled mountains of the Hakone region. As with every place we stayed, I walk in and the gal behind the desk says, “Ah, Mr. Abell, we’ve been expecting you.” She adds, “I have a fax for you.” It is the promised directions from Takko complete with every detail. She told us she’d be wearing a yellow jacket and black pants for identification. After all, we hadn’t seen her in 2 years. She wrote, “We take bus to the 5th station (the start of the Fujinomiya Trail) and I have reservations at 9th station (hut) then added, “don’t worry, I take care of everything”. Damn.

We left the inn in pre-dawn. The directions were perfect and our rail passes enabled us to get on any train we wished. As the train hit its marks in the station, we could see the yellow jacket and black pants. We approach Takko and she says, “Must hurry, bus on other side of station.” Greetings and reestablishing our friendship would have to wait for the bus ride as we romped, laughing, through the train station carrying our gear at full gallop.

I’d seen Fujisan in 1974. It took 27 years to return to climb her. We could see the huge mountain from the bus and my first thought was, “what have I done to my family?” We sat around Takko and created instant rapport, by evening she would be an adopted family member, forever.

Mt. Fuji has 4 trails; Kawaguchi-ko-guchi (the most popular), Subashiri-guchi, Fujinomiya-guchi and Gotemba-guchi (basically for descent only). Weather conditions only allow an 8 week climbing season. It can get very crowded the last 5 weeks. My plan was to climb early, use the least traveled trail, hike mid-week and climb during the day. As luck would have it, Takko lived near the lesser used south trail, Fujinomiya-guchi, and had organized a day climb with an overnight stay just below the summit. With only a slightly greater risk of rain during that time period, we climbed in sunshine and had the mountain almost to ourselves.

We all found a pace except for my youngest son Christopher. He took off like a rabbit. An hour into our journey there he sat, defeated and completely unimpressed with Dad’s dream. Pace and hydration are of paramount importance but my son was eleven and not keen to apply technique. There was no option to turn back. Takko arrives on the scene and removes her pack. She produces an aerosol can containing oxygen. Chris covered his face with the mask-like device and inhaled deeply. The O2 transformed him from road kill into mountaineer right before our eyes. In that instant, I knew we were going to make it, all of us, and continued my climb with great confidence. Taking time to relax, observe my family and friend all sharing this lifetime experience with me, unforgettable.

All the trails are segmented by rest stations (huts). As we approached a log cabin-looking structure Takko says, “this our hut”. We’d been hiking for 6 hours and ready to rest and have a meal. I entered the building and was immediately impressed with the surroundings. It was, indeed, a log design with a great room featuring a kerosene heater at its center. There were 8 to 10 tables arranged around the room, windows which enabled us to watch clouds drift by below your line of sight, a counter for ordering food and other items, plus a tatami area for traditional Japanese seating. On either side of a long hallway at one end of the great room were rows of cubes stacked one over the other that held 6 to 8 people each. Mats and blankets were furnished. That little tidbit of information would have put my mind at ease but our language limitations just hadn’t allowed it. The hut will hold 300 trekkers and there were only 12. Our friend Takko had chosen wisely, we had seen 5 or 6 huts on the way up and this was the nicest of the lot.

We sat down to a meal consisting of; curry rice, some sort of vegetable and green tea. I’m all jacked up, knowing we would succeed and in wonderment, perched on the flanks beneath the summit of Mt. Fuji and probably a little spaced by the altitude. I turned to our friend Takko and thanked her for helping my family and enabling me to accomplishment a dream of 27 years. She’d done all this after a 15 minute conversation two years before in Wisconsin. Sincere and heart-felt feelings communicated through her workably passable English and my infantile Japanese. Do you understand? (Wakaremaska?) Yes, I understand (Hai, wakaremas).

As dinner continued, I casually ask, “What kind of dreams do you have?” She turns to me and responds without hesitation, “I like to be in the famous Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee someday.”

I couldn’t believe it, I sat completely flummoxed.

Takko enjoying the moment in the Great Circus Parade. Photo by Allen Buchholz
Takko enjoying the moment in the Great Circus Parade. Photo by Allen Buchholz.
Language barrier aside, she knew I was being conversational, I didn’t ask with the intention to automatically assist in her quest. She didn’t know what I did for a living or who my associations were. In two years we’d only had contact with each other for a little over 8 hours, most of it today and a handful of emails. Why did she pick that? What were the probabilities of her dream being something I could actually help her with? How could she possibly know the chairman of the event was on my companies’ board? We were on top of Mt. Fuji in Japan for Christ’s sake!

I went numb closely followed by goose bumps fueled by adrenaline. How often in life do you get to hold the key to a door that could lead to an adventure like this and return true friendship with such an immediate gift?

All those thoughts echoed in my mind as I regained whatever composure I could muster at 11,700 ft. As I passed from shock to epiphany I said, “I’ve never been in that parade but if you’re serious about this, the chairman of the event is on my companies’ Board of Directors, I can make this happen.”

Sleep never arrived that evening as I reveled in amazement at the synergy and rightness to the events that led to our place here on this mountain. I would have been content with the journey and summit alone but now we had a new potential chapter.

After a sleepy breakfast of fish, seaweed and rice we trudged the remaining hour, bundled against the barbarous wind and cold, to the highest point in Japan. Waves of emotion poured over and through me as I reached the summit. My sons hugged me, understanding how much this meant to me. We stood around for only 30 minutes owning to the wind and cold enunciated by the lack of oxygen. Plus, we had the return bus to catch.

Descending from a summit offers exceptional feelings of accomplishment and peace. Mentally, it is more taxing than ascent because you have to consider where to put your feet on the damp terrain and balance in a gusty wind. You see yourself in the tortured faces of the people going up. Glad that, on this day, gravity is your ally. Clothing layers came off as we re-entered Japan’s July heat. In 5 hours we were back at the 5th station, celebrating our successful adventure.

My family knew they had accomplished something very special and I was proud of them. I was tired, had sore legs but carried the dignity and self-respect only a summit can favor. I felt wonderful and had been bitten, as it turned out, by the climbing bug. In time, Nathan and I would see a much higher summit.

At Mishima Station we said a tearful goodbye to our friend Takko. Her contribution to our endeavor is difficult to measure. The quality of our experience was only enhanced by her sincere efforts. My sons learned that trust and friendship can be immediate even without language and across divergent cultures when dealing with people that possess character. The last thing I said to Takko was, “So, you really want to be in The Great Circus Parade?” She replied, “Yes, Edosan.” I said, “Don’t worry; I take care of every thing.”

The Great Circus Parade

(As of this writing, the Great Circus Parade had moved to Baraboo, WI. where Kristin and I participated in 2005. The lack of singular vision and sponsorship however, may ultimately scuttle the parade.)

Many considered The Great Circus Parade a national treasure, an annual July event spanning a week of circus activity culminating in the parade through the streets of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin in front of 250,000 energetic viewers.

World renowned, the old circus train, complete with steam engine, wanders through rural Wisconsin from Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum, to Milwaukee, as thousands line the railway to catch a glimpse of history and reminisce. Crowds gather to watch the antique circus wagons being unloaded by teams of horses and the raising of the big top on the lake front. Circuses and special events run all week. As a parade clown, it is the cream of your resume and, I have to say, I had considered it slightly out of reach for my family of hobbyists.

The company where I am SVP Creative Operations is called Frank Mayer and Associates. I knew Bill Fox was on the FMA Board of Directors and that he had something to do with the parade. Upon my return from Japan, I called him, straight away, to discover that he was, indeed, the parade co-chair. I spun my tale and he understood immediately. Bill put me in contact with Tickles, the GCP clown coordinator. She became the mother hen to our process, interestingly enough, having already met my Japanese friends at one of the many Clown Camps they had attended.

We still had to go through the formality of the approval process. After many international emails and pictures, we received our acceptance to the parade, as expected.

Our three Japanese friends (Takko brought her husband Kota) finally arrived in Milwaukee to a tearful but happy reunion. We were their hosts for eight days. The first three were spent showing them the surrounding area like walking along Lake Michigan and picking strawberries at a local farm near our home.

Our clowning agenda would include; riding on the Circus Train as it pulled the wagons to the circus grounds, the Wings Program, which was the circus day for special needs kids and the Great Circus Parade, all over a 5 day period. We took every opportunity to be part of this honored tradition.

The Parade July 14th 2002

Parade day finally arrived. Once again my home filled with the smell of baby powder, used to set the makeup. We arrived at the parade grounds at 10 a.m. and we hung out at the special “clowns only” tent and had a light breakfast and plenty of liquids. Just imagine for a moment being in a tent with 80 clowns. The sun illuminates the red and white striped roof which renders all of us inside in a warm saffron glow. Everyone is wandering around in big shoes clad a rainbow of colors. When there is time to look, all the costumes have interesting detains like buttons that say, “IYQ” and “PLEASE SKEAK YLWOLS”. The tent was like being inside of a kaleidoscope.

We were marshaled to a holding area at the start with 30 minutes to go. I kept a special eye on my friend Takko who was going to be living a dream come true in just a few minutes.

Each time I do a parade I get nervous when I see the crowd and wonder how I’m going to make all those people smile. The answer is always the same; you start with one person at a time and move to the next. Sometimes we do a gag and carry signs. In this parade we could not have signs or have any physical crowd contact. Plus we had to stay in place between the wagons and make sure not to excite the horses.

The technique we used was simply visual contact. If I saw someone with a red nose on and there were quite a few that had spent the $2 to get in the spirit, I would point at mine and give a thumbs-up. If I saw a unique wave I would parrot the person to get their attention. With older ladies I would blow a kiss. I dodged the piles of poop from the horses to great effect except for one and it was a beauty. The crowd, however, saw me land in it and I had great fun playing the situation as I reacted and hopped till most of it came off and kept going.

Ed & Chris in front, Back row; Suzan, Takko, Kota, Kristin & Nathan just prier to the start of the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee 2002
Ed & Chris in front, Back row; Suzan, Takko, Kota, Kristin & Nathan just prier to the start of the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee 2002
I did find time to watch our friends and my family on occasion. When the parade stopped, my sons entertained the crowd by getting them to do a wave and did tricks with a hat. Takko had a Japanese flag and was glowing as she moved down the route.

Our friends were very happy and honored to be part of Wisconsin history. My family now has one of the biggest parades in the world on our resume. It was also very rewarding to return the friendship, help and hospitality given us the year before by our friends in Japan. When I returned home from delivering our friends to the airport there was a message on the answering machine; “Thank you…we love you Edosan!”

So ended an amazing string of events and moments that enabled two people from different cultures to meet and help one another realize dreams in each others country. A seven year journey that started with a question; manifested at a clown camp, found its way to a mountain summit and concluded on city streets, half way across the world, surrounded by 250,000 people.

That night, as I drifted into a peaceful sleep, I knew I had “taken care of everything.”





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