THE BLOG
04/29/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

Life Is What Happens When You're Killing Time... Even With A Dead Camera, 120 Yen And A Lot Of Sleet

Joanna Zelman

The teacher duo from Australia and the tech trio from Poland packed up their bags and hopped a train back to Tokyo when we awoke Sunday morning in the Nikko, Japan hostel to pounding, snowy rain. My new phone charger had confused its sole life purpose and sapped my phone's power. With just 120 yen (about $1.20) and an ATM card in a region with no ATMs, I was inclined to follow my hostel buddies.
 
Without the camera on my phone, what was the point of sightseeing? If a location is witnessed but not shared in a painfully long slideshow during family Thanksgiving, did it even really happen? Why go anywhere if pictures (photoshopped with other tourists cropped out a little, lines defined a bit more, sun brightened a smidge, double chins smudge-tooled a tad) aren't posted on iMacs and iPhones and iPads to receive thumbs ups and hearts and RTs?
 
But with a pre-purchased evening train ticket, I had six hours to kill.
 
Leaving my bag at the hostel, I freed myself from the dead phone, computer and empty wallet. I began to hike up the road in my t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, black fleece, second black fleece, sweatshirt and poncho, with 120 yen, my U.S. driver's license and a map offering helpful directions to anyone who can read Japanese (I cannot) in my pocket.
 
I was aiming to find Kirifuri Falls, a waterfall that the hostel owner suggested was a few miles up the road. As I started the trek up the deserted hills, I started noticing details around me that with a camera, I rarely saw. When armed with a digital memory machine, my brain gets lazy and tells the camera, "Soooo looks like you've got this, I'm just going to take a nap while you remember it for me."
 
A forest to the right was jammed with trees that stood tall and confident. I removed my hood to look up, and the pitter-patter of rain against my head and surrounding leaves rose louder and crisper. These trees had no branches, as if Mother Nature had taken a chainsaw to all their limbs, until the very tops, where triangles of green sat. Their Peter Pan hats cried for attention atop their boring, indistinguishable, naked structures. They reminded me of some past acquaintances. And then there, up ahead, I recognized more trees.
 
There were the reckless ones, tipped past a 45-degree angle, haphazardly jutting into the road, yet somehow still remaining grounded, their roots gripping in a seemingly impossible feat of bizarre determination. Train-wrecks teetering on the edge, the ones that will crash to the ground at some point, but entertaining to watch from a safe distance.
 
Lastly, the tree that started off independent and confident, until a seductive, spirally root targeted it, clung desperately, then slowly coiled around and around, luring the tree's trunk into a chokehold, creating such an entanglement that by the end it was impossible to distinguish between the tree and the attacking root, the two now married into one -- seemed aggressive and sad, but perhaps it was comfortable to be inseparable.
 
Hot amid this downpour, I tied the sweatshirt around my waist. Then I removed my second fleece and tied it above the sweathshirt, higher up around my stomach. I was still sweating so, with a sigh of final resignation and appreciation that there would be no photo evidence, tied my first fleece around the other two.
 
Now waddling up the hill with the massive jacket bulge, I strained to match the bus sign characters with my map -- did the bus sign's double squiggly line at the bottom of the circly squiggly line match up with any double squiggly line with circly squiggly lines on my map? I had yet to make a match, and I'd been hiking for over an hour, occasionally trekking up a side road, then quickly turning back again when it became a driveway to a home.
 
The road split up ahead. "Two roads diverged... and I took neither because I can't read Japanese signs." 
 
I started back down the hill, but then wheeled around and veered to the left road.

Finally, a clearing emerged with a café and a small path curving into a thicker forest. The path was loud, yet devoid of humans. What began as just a hopeful splashing in the distance grew into a waterfall's roar. It was disconcerting to have nature as the noisy one.
 
The dirt path turned to rounded stone steps, slick from the snow. I slipped -- fortunately, only trees witnessed my frantic arm pinwheels, a crawl stroke through the air, as a caught myself before falling.
 
I traversed a wooden plank rising up above the mud, extending my arms out for balance. I climbed wooden stairs up a hill, then slabs of thick stone steps back down the hill, finally arriving at a lookout point, the waterfall crashing even louder now.
 
At last, I looked out at the scene in front of me.

Whiteness. Just whiteness. The fog was so thick that the crashing sounds only teased me. Dammit. I kicked the ground and slipped again, then cursed myself for kicking something slippery, then cursed the invisible waterfall, then cursed the slushy rain/snow for blinding me and for being so stupid it couldn't even decide whether to be rain or snow.
 
I then spotted an even smaller trail snaking onward, and embarked on this path to nowhere. A few minutes and nine curse words later, I reached another lookout, and gasped.
 
I'm not a big gasper. The last time I gasped was in 1997 during "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," when the girls are digging under a door and suddenly a dinosaur appears. I gasped so loudly in the movie theater that the other viewers started laughing.
 
Now, over a decade later, emerging from the white vastness were two twin waterfalls shooting a sparkly arc from the sky. The water then vanished back into emptiness. Further down, the waterfalls reemerged, again bursting from the sky, and again vanishing. My eyes teared up, overcome by this unfamiliar sight, a waterfall pasted into the heavens.
 
As my eyes adjusted and the clouds parted, smaller features took shape: The top falls fed trickles of water that stitched the mountain, flowing over the rocks and then under the ground, then back over the rocks again.
 
Each trickle ultimately burst into smoke. No, not smoke -- the trickles dove so powerfully into pools of water that the churning simply seemed to ignite.
 
"Oo!" A couple appeared, exclaiming at the view. Their cackling voices muted the once deafening waterfall. They quickly whipped out their cameras, snapped photos and left 20 seconds later.
 
I don't remember the Eiffel Tower. I have photos that tell me I went. I know I wore a black jacket, which I later lost. My photos also tell me I have seen Ghana's slave castles, San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge and Spain's Gaudí museum, but I don't remember much of those either.
  
I plan to buy a phone charger that doesn't hate me, and I will take photos on future trips. But I hope I can remember and experience these travels as clearly as this waterfall. Sometimes, life is what happens when you're killing time. Even if you don't have a camera.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.