Homeless at 3700 meters altitude

Tokyo subway/metro maze.

Tokyo subway/metro maze.

The flight from Macau landed in Tokyo late in the evening, and we got the subway in to town around 11pm just at the same time as the hard-working Japanese office workers were making their way home.. We checked in to a tiny room in the northern end of town with two mattresses on the floor and a shared bathroom for 50 euro/night – cheap for Tokyo. The hostel was a friendly enough place, and a nice introduction to some of the Japanese peculiarities such as the love for coin-operated things. The shower had a coin-slot, 100 yen for 5 minutes, as did the cooker, the washing machine and actually even the breakfast restaurant where you needed to first change your bills into 100-yen metal tokens (which weren’t coins but had the same size and value) in a machine and then pay with the tokens. We ended up in another coin operated restaurant in the city center an evening or two later – you’d order by a touch screen, put in the money and get a paper receipt to hand to the waitress who is standing waiting right next to the machine…

Tokyo night sky.

Tokyo night sky.

The first day we hopped around in town to see as much as possible in a day, a temple in Asakusa with Buddha’s five meter sandals, the Edo museum with lots of samurai-time history, the Imperial Gardens and in the evening the 46-floor metropolitan building for some night-time views over the city. The subway network is very fast and efficient, but the map looks a bit like a rainbow put through a blender. It’s actually not too difficult to figure out how to get from A to B, but buying the right ticket can be as there’s different companies operating different lines and getting from one place to another might cost different depending on how you happened to transfer along on the way.. Even when we (..thought we) picked the easy option and got a day-pass it only had a random selection of the lines included. Luckily the Japanese are incredibly helpful though, possibly more so than anywhere else we’ve been. You only need to stand around for a moment somewhere looking like you don’t know your soba from your udon and someone will come up and offer their help. Once in the evening when we got out the wrong exit at a subway station a woman walked us for ten minutes just to make sure she sent us on the right way. People also do an incredible amount of greeting, thanking and bowing whenever you interact with them, and things like queuing function in a very polite and orderly fashion. We found ourselves wondering a bit what it must be like for Japanese people to travel when they’re used to this, to, say, picking a place at random….India? How do they avoid feeling like they want to kill themselves? Actually, come to think of it some of the Japanese backpackers we met in Varanasi had been out swimming in the Ganges which considering the polluted state of the river might amount to a suicide attempt… Apparently several Japanese tourists have to be hospitalized every year after visiting Paris and having their romantic mental image of the city shattered by rude waiters…there’s even a special Japanese word for “Paris syndrome”! Anyhow, while the Japanese might be the most polite and helpful people on the planet there is one exception – Mount Fuji – I’ll get to this in a little bit…

Octopus at the Tsukiji market.

Octopus at the Tsukiji market.

The second morning in Tokyo we started at 5am to visit the Tsukiji early morning Fish Market, the world biggest – it’s an amazing place to wander around and look at all the weird butchered sea monsters and big tentacles – I kept imagining that there must be something really strange I’d never seen before waiting just around the next corner – a Kraken or Loch Ness monster in pieces. I didn’t see anything I could immediately recognize as endangered at least – no shark fin (unlike in Hong Kong and Macau) and the big frozen tuna carcasses being worked on with band saw or special samurai-like swords seemed to be mostly yellow-fin and not the critically endangered blue-fin species the European fisheries seem determined to make extinct (the blue-fin belly fat is supposedly the best sashimi in the world and a single fish is worth tens of thousands of dollar – they’re using spotter planes to find and catch the very last few ones spawning in the Mediterranean at the moment). And thankfully no meat in sight from whales, dolphins or other animals with a brain bigger than a human’s.

Bulldog-ofant-osaurus.

Bulldog-ofant-osaurus?

After the fish market we caught a train to Nikko – a cute little town north of Tokyo surrounded by temples. Some of the statues and carvings of elephants in the temples are quite interesting – they’re famously made by someone who had never been anywhere close to one. Japanese temples are very atmospheric, with cute little mossy stone lanterns littered in between the trees around all the temple buildings. And very nice gardens – while European gardens can look a bit like military service for plants with everything in perfect straight lines the Japanese ones feel more natural, even though they’re every bit as manicured. Back in Tokyo in the evening we went to Shibuja, a busy area of the city which is full of neon and look like the hyper-modern Tokyo you expect before arriving. It’s where Tokyo people go to be trendy, and it’s full of young people with dyed hair and way too much makeup who are at least as brand-obsessed as the worst European teenagers.

Climbing Mount Fuji.

Climbing Mount Fuji.

The third morning in Tokyo we headed for Kawaguchiko to climb Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak at 3770 meters, since we happened to be here during the July-August climbing season before it gets too cold. We started climbing from the 5th station at 2300 meters around 5pm, and planned to spend the night at the 8th station at 3300 meters to catch the sunrise from the top the next morning. Watching the sunrise from Mount Fuji even have a special word for it – “Goraiko” (the Japanese love to have a special word for things..there’s also special words for “looking at cherry-blossom trees” and “looking at cherry-blossom trees at night”..). We had emailed a few of the mountain huts at the 8th station in advance to try and book one of the 70 euro per person hard-mattress-on-the-floor they offer, but none of them had emailed back so we decided to chance it – surely in Japan of all places it wouldn’t be so disorganized that they allow more people to climb than there is space for and people end up sleeping outside… From the start at the 5th station you’re quickly above the tree line and the mountain is barren with ash and scree along the path – not much to see but the sunset on the way was very nice and the view afterward just the same – looking down on the city lights in the valleys below, even some fireworks far away and distant lightning! Climbing got very crowded as the path was narrowing higher up, and once it got dark it turned more into queuing than climbing – we were moving slow enough to get cold on the way wearing the one long-sleeve layer each we’d brought. Once we reached the 8th station around 9pm we discovered that not only was there no space to sleep in any of the huts, but also was this the one place in Japan where you can find rude people. The LP guidebook had said the huts usually let you sit around inside for a few hours at least as long as you order something, but that wasn’t the case – none of them would even let us in the door! One place with a restaurant even refused to sell us food unless we eat it outside in the cold sitting on the ground (..we decided to live off the dozen snickers bars we’d packed instead). Edel needed to take her lenses out from all the ash blowing in the wind, and while one place did let her inside for a minute it was only just inside the door and for as little time as possible. We ended up sitting outside one of the huts talking to a group of nice Filipino guys who were in the same situation – there was a small fire in a metal can that helped keeping us warm (it was used by someone in the hut who branded people’s walking sticks for three euro each). After an hour someone came out from the hut to push us away, but by now the fire had died anyway. One of the Filipino guys had the genius idea to ask the person inside the hut to brand all their walking sticks just as the fire was going out, to give us another hour of heat, but he refused. We did consider just going down instead of course, but didn’t want to climb down in the dark plus the down-route was elsewhere and there were still people coming uphill on the narrow up-route (some people climb all night timed for sunrise at the peak, presumably to avoid dealing with the hut-people..). And if we did climb down we’d just end up just as homeless but at 2300 meters instead. I wonder if there is a word for “Fuji-syndrome”?

Goraiko is pronounced brrrrrr...

Goraiko is pronounced brrrrrr...

We decided to climb the rest of the way to the top together with the Filipino guys, trying to make the climb last the whole night by going only a short stretch at the time to build up some warmth, then huddling from the wind wherever we found shelter for a few minutes before climbing another bit again. Reached the top at 1am – still many hours left until sunrise… There were a few building at the top, though none of them were open to take shelter in. Many other people were in the same situation up there, but me and Edel were probably among the least well dressed – no jackets and regrettably I had suggested to Edel before the climb to leave out her second long-sleeve as her bag was too full (..every single other climb we’ve ever done we brought too much clothes, though of course we never had to sleep outside on any of them..). We huddled between a couple of the buildings on the top in the howling winds for a couple hours together with our new friends, trying to sleep but not getting a minute in while the temperature touched 3 degrees C. Sometime in the night we decided to walk around a bit, and came across another big group of people standing around waiting outside one of the buildings – it eventually opened at 3am and we could get in and buy a bowl of noodles and wait inside at least for the next two hours. At 5am we had a quick look at the sunrise – cloudy – and headed down as quickly as we could. It was extremely busy with people on the way down, but we thawed as we walked lower and the sun rose higher. A while later I came across a Japanese saying “If you never climb Mount Fuji you are a fool – but if you climb it twice you are twice the fool!“.

Edel and Avril in Kyoto.

Edel and Avril in Kyoto.

Back in “normal Japan” once more people were at once friendly and helpful again – someone at the train-station wrote down all the places we needed to change trains to get from the mountain to Osaka, and someone else onboard the first train helped us once it suddenly changed direction two stations from where we needed to go and I stood staring at the map with a puzzled (…and probably at this stage pretty tired) look. We arrived in Osaka in the evening after covering most of the distance on one of the hyper-modern 300 km/h Shinkhansen trains, and met up with Avril (Edel’s friend from school who teaches English in Osaka) who luckily recognized us despite us still being covered in ash from the mountain…and checked in to her apartment for the next five nights. Pure luxury (..particularly after the previous night) with proper Irish tea and everything! 😀 Nice to see a face from home after five months on the road. We went for okonomi-yaki in the evening, like a very thick pancake with squid, octopus and kimchi inside that you cook at the table – very nice and one of the places it would be very difficult to order without a Japanese-speaking Avril with you! The day after we spent around Osaka, visiting another temple and enjoying some sushi, then visiting a Japanese-style onsen bath-house in the evening. The onsen was a massive spa-complex, we spent some time first in the mixed clothed swimming area at the top floor with jacuzzi’s overlooking the neon city (and of course went in all the slides), then split up to go to the separate nude hotsprings. The hotspring baths were themed with all the great pre-medeival cultures; Rome of 2000 years ago, ancient Greece, Finland of today… 😛 With all the signs in Japanese I wasn’t 100% sure at first where to be naked and where not to, but once I figured it out my Swedish side was comfortable enough strolling around in the nip. Sat in a salt sauna until I had almost melted, then when I walked out and hopped into the nearest pool which I thought would be freezing it turned out to be 42 degrees.. Very relaxing once I found my way around the place in the end, and I went to all the features except the Finnish…

The Kiyomizu-Dera temple in Kyoto.

The Kiyomizu-Dera temple in Kyoto.

 

Kyoto the day after – went temple-spotting first and saw a handful out of the several thousand temples and shrines the town sports – the golden temple sitting by a lake fringed by bonsai-trees looks typical fantasy-image Japan. In the evening we went to the traditional wooden Gion district and tried sea-urchin and other oddities in a restaurant – and spotted a couple white-face-makeup geisha’s outside on the street!

Paper cranes at the Childrens Peace Memorial.

Paper cranes at the Childrens Peace Memorial.

 

 

 

Next day to Hiroshima to learn about some of the maddest days of mankind. There’s one ruined building still standing from the day the city was flattened – now called the A-bomb dome – which remained standing by being almost exactly below the center of the blast. Next-door is the Peace Memorial Museum which is very good and refreshingly honest (doesn’t shy away from mentioning also Japan’s war crimes, and doesn’t seem to overly victimize) – some parts are wreckingly emotional though, particularly stories of children dying of leukemia for years and years after. There’s one special memorial outside the museum with tens of thousands of paper cranes for one particular girl – I remember being read her story back in primary school actually by our teacher who was very Japan-obsessed (..we were making origami all day long when we probably should have been learning math). Very moving anyhow, while the museum was crowded everyone walked around in nearly dead silence. We felt pretty drained when we finally walked out.

Edel and Avril in Himeji.

Edel and Avril in Himeji.

Himeji-jo castle.

Himeji-jo castle.

More uplifting daytrips the next two days – first Himeji which has a very impressive castle high up on a hill and a nice Japanese garden called Koko-en. Then Nara – another town near Osaka with a collection of World Heritage buildings one of which – the Todai-ji temple – is the worlds biggest wooden building and houses a giant gold/bronze Buddha called Daibutsu. A little further out from town in the forest sits the Kasuga-Taisha temple, probably the most atmospheric temple we’ve been to in Japan. The forest and all the paths around are filled with mossy stone lantern shrines hidden below the trees – all of them are lit in the evening of one particular night every year which must be amazing. Back in Osaka for our last evening we went out for a drink and a walk around Osaka’s futuristic neon-landscape center full of big animatronic crabs climbing up the buildings (not joking!). Rounded off the evening with some tako-yaki octopus-balls which are a popular fast-food. Next morning we waved good-bye to our fabulous hostess who had made Japan a fantastic min-holiday from our rough backpacking days. 😀

Forest lantern shrines by the Kasuga-Taisha temple.

Forest lantern shrines by the Kasuga-Taisha temple.

For the second fit of poor planning on our part that I’d like to blame someone else for, the superb Japanese public transport system had spoiled us to the extent during the last two weeks that we figured 3 hours should be enough for the five hundred kilometer trip from Osaka to Tokyo airport… First it turned out we had to wait 40 minutes for the next 300 km/h train to Tokyo which we hadn’t quite calculated on, then 25 min wait for the next one-hour airport train…arrived at the gigantic Narita airport 55 minutes before takeoff but thanks to some swift running with the big backpacks on and more helpful Japanese people we arrived at the checkin counter with a full 8 min to spare before they closed..weren’t even the last people on the plane in the end. After the flight back from Tokyo to Macau we made our way to Vanuatu in the South Pacific via Hong-Kong and Sydney..four border crossings in five days but luckily Vanuatu is a good place to relax (the name of the capital, Port Vila, even means “rest” in Swedish).

Leave a Reply