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  • Cory McGowan

Valleys of Possibility

In Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite kanji, or character. Kanji are an interesting mix of being a word with a meaning, but also a sort of pictogram or symbolic representation of meaning. When put together with another kanji, they form new words and meanings, and are also pronounced completely differently, making Japanese notoriously difficult to read (and write!).


I had never thought about a kanji that I like until recently, as part of a TV show I will be on, I was asked to select my favorite. I really had no idea what to choose, and the director told me just to make something up. I thought about our local famous mountain, Tanigawadake 谷川岳, and the first character of that, which is tani 谷, and means valley. I mentioned this to the director, and he said that Japanese people generally have a negative impression of that kanji because valleys are low, dark places. But it was easy to write (which I would also have to do for the show, and I was dreading!), so why not?



Tani in calligraphy - even harder to read!

As I have had more time to think about this, I realized that this was more than just a random thought that came to mind (is anything that comes to us in these moments actually random?), and that there was a lot that I appreciate about valleys.

Tanigawadake, the mountain mentioned above, is the mountain that has claimed the most lives in the world. The mountain is a series of steep ridges and valleys, and the danger comes in the weather systems that come up those valleys, quickly surprising alpinists in fatal ways. The terrain also creates ripe conditions for rock slides and avalanches. What has occurred to me lately is that in addition to being a dangerous place, it is a sacred place whose valleys hold the bones of many who shared my adventurous spirit and who passed while living their greatest passion.

My house is also located on the edge of a river valley of the second longest river in Japan, the Tonegawa. The steep sides of the valley are rich with vegetation and rock formations, and the bed of the river is made of colorful rock, one huge area in particular that looks like turquoise. I never tire of looking at the passing of the river and the variety that the valley walls provide. It is a testament to the slow power of water that has cut its path over the millennia.

What has really got me thinking though is the powerful symbolism of valleys. The alternative perspectives to what the Japanese director told me - many Japanese see the kanji for valley as negative (true, or just his own bias?!).

When we are in valleys in our lives, there is no place to go but up. Although if we don’t rush we can enjoy the coolness of the shade and the protected surroundings.

Valleys are the place where very rich silt is deposited, and where plants and trees must grow very tall to get the light they require - so much potential in that!

If we are in a valley, it is most likely because we came down from a higher place, so there is great reason to have faith that we will move to a higher place again, but why not pause to reflect on what brought us to this valley in the first place and what it may have to offer?

In the world of adventure, a common trope is the man who has conquered the mighty mountain and is posed on top in victory. We rarely see images of adventurers in the valleys, cold, alone, and questioning the very purpose of what they are doing.


I’m seeking fellow adventurers who understand the power and potential of being in their own 谷, and who would like a partner in exploring what it is like to be there and what possibility could be waiting in the heights above.

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