On the dash of the nameless Japanese woman’s car sat a box of tissues with a picture of a cat printed on the front. Two packs of nicotine gum were in a small compartment underneath the radio unit. On the floor-a forgotten carton of Lark cigarettes, the contents spilling out with each bump in the road.
Panting nervously in the passenger seat was a rodent looking dog with beady black eyes and fur that probably hadn’t been washed in ages. Michael and I were packed in the backseat, our knees nearly hitting our chest with each sharp turn.
We were on our way back from a hike up the Japanese Alps in the Azumino valley, a farming town 300 kilometers north of Tokyo, in Nagano prefecture.
It was a two-hour hike up the deep green peak, and it was 11 o’clock in the morning when we began our descent. Sometime close to 11:15am, a dusty blue sedan pulled up to us, and a chestnut haired woman of fifty or so poked her head out.
After some hand charades and unintelligible grunts on both sides, we concluded that she was offering us a ride down.
There was one catch, however. What had she been doing on the mountain to begin with? She and her dog had come to the mountain seeking chestnuts. In exchange for a ride down, we would be her harvest partners.
After a two-minute ride in her car, which smelled like cigarettes and wet dog, she pulled up to a small clearing off the main road and signaled for us to unload.
Her dog Haku (meaning “white”), looked on through the open passenger side window as the three of us soundlessly collected chestnuts. Midway through our mission, she showed us how to peel a chestnut, and attempted to explain a chestnut recipe that involved rice and salt. A few confused minutes later, we dumped what we had in a small pink grocery bag that she held out, and packed back into the car.
The remaining five minutes of the ride were bumpy and silent, our language barrier preventing us from any small talk. She would ask us a question here and there in Japanese, and we would respond with a quizzical look and a nervous giggle.
Her mud caked fingernails, cat-print tissue box and malnourished dog might have screamed “ax murderer” elsewhere, but here in the Japanese countryside, where strangers bow to each other with respect, she was an anonymous old lady looking for chestnuts.