Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fuji Part 3

Through the night we laid there. Make-believing at sleep in hopes of making it true. The room was a large group effort to slumber, but no one was cooperating. Each had their own sound, a breath, snore, whisper, shuffle, hopping off a bunk. In a room of thirty I am not sure who found sleep, not our group of four. Jackson started to stir and rotate, and did so all night. Kat talked to Mark, trying to help him relax and breathe. He took a giant involuntary breath once or twice a minute, his body gasping for oxygen at high altitude. He had a couple shots of canned oxygen, but saved most for the summit.

At 1:15 we sat up and slowly got our items, still wet, in order. I at best had a half hour of sleep, and that may have been the best of us. We ate our cheap, but somehow 1,000 yen breakfast in the front entry, and then headed out. The late night/early morning was quite windy and had the occasional star. We were rained on from time to time, even a bit of snow, but all that eventually quit.

Unlike the day before, we were among many others on the trail. The early morning summit is a popular hike. Within the first hour we came upon a line that continued its way to the top. A single file line that moved a quarter of our desired pace. Before long Jackson and I opted to exploit the width of the trail. 95% of the hikers kept to their spot in line, probably a fine example of the national groupthink. Sometimes the trail would narrow and we would fall in suit, but mostly we could bypass the crowd, sometimes taking the slightly tougher route. We were not budging, but just making more efficient use of the trail before us.

An hour prior to summit, streaks of light steadily formed on the horizon. The sunrise was beginning before we arrived. Fortunate to us, the sun first graced our face of the mountain. We could still see it. It was about 5am that I reached the summit. Jackson, and his long stride, beat me by five minutes. The summit was sprawled with people. Hiking through rain on a Tuesday morning, I expected nowhere near the present crowd, but evidently the popularity of Japan’s great mountain does not flux with the weather.

The sky cleared for us, leaving plenty of clouds to catch highlights of color and produce contrast. A perfect end to the ascent. Halfway down the mountain, began a rumpled cloud blanket cast as far as could be. Well above my head was another such layer. And here me, in between, my own partition of the sky. Well, mine and the rest of the life on the summit. We all earned it. The sun stirred from the covers, and its audience went wild, thrusting arms upward, hooting, and yelling “Banzai!” we were all glad for the unexpected cameo. The hour spent on summit, I danced around behind a camera lens, while the others took residence by a small fire in the lodge. I really wanted to make the loop around the crater, but could not inspire such of the group.

"Three cheers for the sun!"

The descent was sunny and beautiful. The trail was a different one, less a decline, but longer as a trade off. I found it most suitable to do a jog/slide combo, as walking was painstakingly slow. By 9am we were at the fifth station where we caught a bus direct to the train station. The general consensus is that you must do Fuji, and once is plenty enough. For me, the next climbing season (July-August) is too far off.

Kat and Mark headed down (the surface of Mars).

The fun way down (mildly narcissistic).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fuji Part 2

Just after 8am the hostel shuttled us back to the train station, good service. By 9am we were moving along the tracks. A short ride brought us to a town right at the mountain’s base. We followed a map to find our point of entry. Usually the location of a mountain is rather apparent, but it was foggy, we needed our map. One, two three stoplights, buy umbrellas, four stoplights, take a right into a shrine. We walked under the great structure and entered an old growth boulevard of statues and enormous trees.

The shrine could have been a destination all its own, but as we had an agenda, we found our trail. And finding only required asking a few locals. We were starting at the bottom, very few people do this, and so the trail was less apparent. Somewhere in our planning it was read that although nearly everyone busses up to station five and then hikes, starting at the bottom is regarded as the “purist” approach. The words sank in.

At 10am the mountain was underfoot. The introductory slope was gradual, mostly drawn out investigations of how beautiful a forest can be. Quite. Within a couple hours uneven pacing separated Jackson and myself from Kat and Mark. Choosing the proper hiking buddy turns out to be an important step.

Fuji can be attacked from multiple sides depending upon environmental preferences and geographical conveniences. There are different trails, but along each is a series of stations for resting and refreshing. Ten stations to each route. One being toward the bottom, ten on the top. We packed water accordingly. At 2pm Jackson and I reached station five, and awaited the other two. All stations leading to this point were either crumbled shacks or non-existent. We had been ill informed. Fortunately station five was overseen by a friendly fellow who let us dry our soaked garments over his wood stove. A newer station five that draws all the bus traffic, was located just off to a side trail, and so we were the first hikers he had seen all day. We all bought a warm lunch to avoid paying the 1,200 yen resting fee.

Moving on at 3pm, we emerged from the woods. Trees became rocks, and we traded our umbrellas for climbing gloves. After the sixth station the crowds appeared. Were it a sunny day, we would have seen them hours earlier. We passed many people that were either too tired or too polite to pass themselves. The mountain, as it had been all day, was still held by the clouds. We could see the mountain beneath our feet, sometimes the face before us, ridges left and right, but for everything else, was whiteness.

We had reservations for a lodge just after station seven, and yet at 6pm we found ourselves at station eight. Fortunately they had space available, we were in no mood to backtrack. So at 3,100 meters above sea level, we settled in, and looked for a place for our perpetually wet clothes to dry. The place was not there, and/or was spoken for. The lodge fed us a simple meal of rice and curry, and at 7:30 we went to bed. Kat set her alarm for 1am.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fuji Part 1

On Sunday I woke up at 7am. Shortly after that I received a text message on my phone inquiring as to the weather forecast. It was raining out. Our plan was to hike Mt. Fuji. A flurry of messages (this is how we communicate) passed in the next 30 minutes between myself and four others. All our preparation and reservations were beginning to look a wash, but upon our indecisiveness, we decided to meet at the JR Station as per the plan.

At the train station I was quite pleased to encounter enthusiasm other than my own. Personally, I was ready to hike a mountain in the rain, but that was not a proper sales pitch. With plenty of talking and a little motivational speech, we hopped aboard our train, though minus one group member.

The train ride was six hours long and consisted of five transfers. We were headed for the far side of Mt. Fuji, and a bullet train would have cost four times as much. I lost a game of hearts during the longest segment of travel. Our hostel hosts picked us up at the station, sparing us a minimum 40 minute walk. There would be enough of that in the days to come. Finest hostel I have been to. The four of us had our own room furnished in traditional Japanese d├ęcor.

With a map and some advice, we ventured into the city. It was a comfortable enough size to have only a night, walk around, and have dinner. We had Indian food. Japan has its own rendition of curry that I can take or leave, but this place was authentic. The owner was not much for smiling, though it did not detract from his service any. The food was fantastic and the portions more than enough. For the most part, portions have been quantitatively lacking in these parts. What can I say, I have an American appetite.

To close our wander, we went to an onsen located right behind the hostel. Onsens are Japanese hot baths, and people have not stopped talking about them since we arrived. A cheaper one, at 800 Yen for two hours, but no shortage of beauty to the joint. A beautiful building, the girl in our group went one way, and us three guys went the other. We went into a changing room, locked up or clothes, showered off, and went outside into a small courtyard with open sky and three tubs. The baths were made of stone and had a natural appeal. The sulfurous hot spring water came down a small waterfall into the first tub. This one had a thermometer declaring 47 degrees. It was not used much. The water spilled over the far edge into the next tub, a mid temp pool where we spent most of the time. Then that one poured over into the final outdoor and most mild tub.

Having went right for the tubs outside, I could not imagine spending our full two hours just boiling away. I explored the indoor options, a room between the lockers and the outside pools. There, among the showers was also a sauna, another really hot pool, and a small cold pool. I loved that cold pool. It was such a shock, but once my body became accustomed to the cold water, I was ready for any of the other pools, even the super hot ones. I would love to have taken pictures of the setup, but neither the locals, nor my friends would likely care for me to have photographs of their naked butts. And this is not that kind of website anyway.

To be continued…

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

August (no) rush

Everyone goes back to school on September 1st. Until then, I and the rest of the assistant language teachers have little to do. I can only imagine that it is because the city does not want us wandering around aimlessly, that they require us to be in the office everyday this month. So for my 35 contracted hours each week, I show up to the Board of Education office in a government building that is 25 minutes train ride from my apartment.

Orientation has been a small portion of this time. So mostly right now I am studying my Japanese with Rosetta Stone software (thank you friends), learning the Hiragana alphabet, playing cards, and passing the time.

Most of the ALTs are using vacation time now, as it will be difficult to use during the school year. Fortunately I have five days of summer vacation that must be used this month. Plans are coming together for a Mount Fuji trip.

Not much more to say than I spend my days in a room. They shift us around. Sometimes we get windows, sometimes not. Some rooms are larger than others. All of the rooms have squeaky tables that slide when you try to put your feet up, but you still try.

I feel unprepared for the classroom, but quite ready to get out of this current storage locker situation. I am happy, but it does not matter which country I am in… four walls look the same everywhere.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mobility Matters!

Before making the journey, I was in communication with an exiting ALT (assistant language teacher). We arranged that I would purchase some of the items he acquired in two years here. One oh so important item that he did not transfer to me, is a bicycle. The public transit seems to be fairly solid here, but my daily usage really adds up. Even if the train were free, I would still want a bike, it is just one of those necessary things.

Last week I arranged to go bike shopping with Jess, a veteran ALT that knows the shops and speaks some Japanese. I was shooting for a simple device that would move me around, and be an alright ride. I soon discovered the used bike market to be a sad one. Here, good bikes are kept, and bad ones are ridden into the ground. I would have to go new. I shopped the bike shops, I shopped the department stores. On the streets of Shizuoka, and probably most of Japan, you will find two primary types of bike. Type 1 is an old style cruiser: heavy, short pedals, and a mandatory grocery basket. This model makes up about 80-90% of the bikes around here. Type 2 is a smaller model that often has the ability to fold up, though I doubt anyone uses the feature. They make up about 10% of the bike population. Both of these styles accomplish A to B travel, but do not look like much fun or comfort along the way.

I was faced with a decision. I could spend a minimal amount of money and get a working bicycle that I could leave behind when I move on. Or, I could spend some more money, and get a bike that I would definitely bring back to the States with me.

Tossing my original budget out with the rubbish, I went for option two. I will say right now that I have a bike back home that I love very much. I would never replace my Bianchi road bike, not even for a newer, faster model. I made a point to get a bike very much different from the one I already have, and love.

In shopping the stores I saw the brands available. I then went online to find the best model. I read reviews. I looked at pictures. Sometimes I would just stare at the pictures, as if they might materialize. I tried showing the pictures and the specs to my new friends here. They did not really get into it. Once my mind was made, I went to the one shop in town that carries the brand, and placed my order. I was going to play hardball, and work my way into some free accessories, but once I pointed out my future ride in the catalog, the twinkle in my eye outshined my poker face.

The mighty stead arrived today. Outfitted with headlights, fenders, and a complimentary bell, I picked it up coming home from work. The bicycle is a Trek Soho S model. Quite different from my 27 speed road bike in that this one has only one speed, an increasingly common commuting outfit. On days that I am feeling especially frisky, I can flip around the rear wheel and the single speed becomes a fixed gear. For those unfamiliar, a fixed gear bike is essentially locked between the pedals and the rear wheel. If the pedals are moving, then the bike is moving. If the bike is moving, then the pedals are moving. No coasting. A serious fixed gear bike has no brakes, and the user just locks their legs to skid to an eventual halt. I am not so brave, and so I have breaks.

I do not yet own a wrench, and so I can not perform the gear switching operation just yet. Hopefully this weekend I will get to try the fixed gear feature.

The biking/driving/walking in this town is a whole other matter. That may be subject for a later day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Things Explode.

Last night we hopped on a train for what I believe was Aino, Japan. The ride was a crowded hour on the JR Line. A rig with more of a feel for commuting than for travel. The train’s occupants were a mix of folks in your everyday clothing as well as traditional garb. Most popular were these classic outfits, among teenage girls. With hair done up, wooden sandals, and a big bow holding it all together in back, these young ladies were ready to see some fireworks. It appears that for many community events it is typical practice to dust off tradition and dawn such attire. A couple of ALTs that have been here a few years, had their own such outfits and joined in.

Arriving at the station, men in uniform were everywhere, some armed with megaphones. All with the goal to corral us from train to outside, where we were on our own to find the best vantage point. The first staging outside was a carnival-like series of food tents. Everyone had hotdogs. The Japanese love hotdogs. You could get a basic dog on a stick, a coiled dog on a stick, a dog wrapped in dough, a corndog, and probably more variation. You would not, however, have found a dog in a bun. That just does not happen here.

We got off the train at 6:00, which seemed early for seeing fireworks, but apparently the show was to begin pre-sundown. We found a nice plot of grass (a rarity in these parts) on the lawn of some big business building. We had plenty of space leading me to believe our squat was less than legal. No complaints surfaced, so we enjoyed the show.

The show burst to life just as the sun was considering its last act of the day. It was then I saw justification for the early start time. I have worked up a little mathematical equation that does well to explain the setting:

Sunset = Pretty
Fireworks = Awesome

Sunset + Fireworks = Pretty Awesome

It has been a while since I have taken such a class, but I feel my tabulations to be quite sound.

The show went on for two hours. Every now and then there was a pause so that the viewers could consult their guide and know who was responsible for sponsoring each section. Personally, I would had liked to have seen the two hours of ammunition shot up in one hour’s time. But it was still great. They had some stuff that I definitely have not seen in the United States. Apparently we are not the best at blowing things up. As I am still in the honeymoon stage with my digital camera, I spent near the whole duration bouncing around trying to snatch the right shot. Why did I not bring a tripod?

A shot of some traditional garb on one of the ALTs

Some footage from the beginning, with random commentary

Friday, August 8, 2008

Look what my toilet can do!

While back in the states, a few folks had expressed concern for my upcoming Japanese bathroom situation. They were of course, reasonable concerns. In China I had encountered “non-western” toilets before. These are pretty much holes in the floor, no seat. I have never been fond of the hover squat technique. Especially not with one leg immobilized in a brace. However, that is an experience I can leave behind me.

Japan has not only adopted the western toilet, they have embraced it. At the hotel in Tokyo, my toilet had digital adjustments for a bidet and other features that I could not identify. Had I been there longer, I may have experimented a bit. But in my few day stay I did not venture to let loose a super soaker upon my rectum. Perhaps some night I will awake with great pangs of regret. For now I feel fine.

That was the big city, I am in Shizuoka now. So my toilet should be normal right? I think it might have been day two in Shizuoka that I first utilized the sitting function of my apartment’s toilet. Man, it was hot out. My head was hot. My arms were hot. My legs were hot. My butt was… hot? Something was off here. I stood up, sat back down, touched it with my hand. Yes, my seat was heated. I have a heated toilet seat. It is a humid 90 degrees everyday, and if I am not yet doing so, my toilet sees fit to make me sweat. I tried to make sense of this. Was there greater relaxing purpose that would somehow encourage my digestive system? I do not think so. There is an adjustment dial on the side, but I can make no sense of it as it is in kanji. After a week of bathroom sweats, I took charge and unplugged the toilet from the wall. Somehow that option had eluded me.

Another detail I noticed first day/first flush, was a faucet and basin parked right on top of my toilet. The moment I hit the flush lever, water flowing out the top caught my attention. As seemed natural I placed my hands under the spout and cleaned them. I then thought better of my action, and wondered whether this was some unique draining system. I gave my hands a second wash in the outer bathroom sink (My bathroom is actually three rooms: toilet, sink, shower) just to be sure. Every time I flush the toilet, the faucet automatically kicks in. It is probably just fine, but I have since not been able to comfortably make use of a toilet-top sink.

I have only used a small portion of bathrooms so far, and thus I cannot gauge what makes up a typical Japanese toilet. I will however, do my best to get to the bottom of this.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

...and here I am.

For the last month it seems that I have been in a fog of sorts. I have had a swell time of seeing friends and family prior to departure, but my knack for last minute preparation left me in a jumbled state. Where I would have loved to walk slow and take in every last bit of home, I instead found myself rushing to satisfy the needs of scrap paper lists.

To the thousand questions of “was I excited?”

I said, “Yes.”

I said this, knowing it to be the answer wanted of such a rhetorical question. In all actuality I was at a distance of any great emotion. Pulled too far in any direction to feel anything of merit. I say all of this, not to paint me a cold person, but to lay the scene of confusion that has escorted me here.

…and here I am. Three nights in Tokyo. From the Tokyo Tower, the city reaches the horizon in every direction. I have never seen a spread as that one. A week now in Shizuoka. My eyes are beginning to focus. Shizuoka is a squat city of ¾ million people. Buildings give up at about twenty stories, but the pavement reaches for the hills, and then some. As I hear it, Shizuoka is Japan’s second largest city in occupation of space.

It took about 1.5 hours upon the medium paced bullet train to arrive from Tokyo, keeping the metropolis within reach of weekend excursions. On the north end of my prefecture resides the local giant, Mount Fuji. As the air cools, I can expect to trade glances with the slope on a daily basis. For now, I can just trust Google Earth that it is in fact there. The city is coastal, but I will have to trek to find sand. Easier it will be to find ships and docks that make up the respectably sized port.

In the process of application, I gave no request for city, region, or even an urban/rural preference. I arrived having packed no expectations, and I could not imagine a better placement.

Please check back here, to see what I am up to…