It has been a long time since I posted anything about a trip here, but now it's time I do so. Last weekend, the 22nd and 23rd of August, I along with six friends climbed Mt. Fuji.
We set off on Saturday, leaving Tokyo at 12:40 by bus from Shinjuku, and we arrived at the fifth station of the Kawaguchiko trail (at an altitude of 2305 meters) around 17:00. After spending some time getting used to the thinner air, we started climbing around 18:00. Our schedule had us on the summit some time around 2:00 in the morning, but that was hopelessly optimistic. The climb was very exhausting, and I'm not exactly in the best shape, so it took us somewhat longer. The large number of people caused the occasional "traffic jam" which also caused a lot of delay. It's really unbelievable how crowded that mountain is. It's worse than Shinjuku station.
Our goal was of course to reach the summit before sunrise at 5:00 in the morning, but unfortunately we fell short of that goal by about 300 meters (distance, not altitude). Probably a good thing, in retrospect, since it appeared to be much more cloudy on the actual summit so we probably got a better view from where we were. After sunrise, we continued to the summit. Unfortunately, because many people had paused to watch the sunrise, an enormous queue had formed leading up, so eventually we were at the summit around 6:30. Once there, we took some rest, ate some food (despite the high prices I did buy some noodles, just to have something hot to eat, as it was very cold on the summit). Although thoroughly exhausted, we were all glad we made it.
Here's where things started to go wrong, though. For one thing, we hadn't all made it to the summit at the same time, so we were already separated. I was with only two others when we started our descent, and unfortunately we took the wrong trail back down (the trail down was not supposed to be the same one we took up, but we still took the wrong one). Despite the fact that there's signs every twenty meters or so, none of us noticed it was the wrong trail until we were all the way at the bottom. While we did arrive at a fifth station, it was the wrong fifth station. Of course, the others who went down separately did take the right trail so we couldn't meet with them. And because everybody managed to have dead cell phone batteries at the same time, we couldn't even contact each other to try and sort things out. So we could only go back to Tokyo on our own and hope the others did the same (which of course they did). It all worked out in the end, but it was a pretty stupid feeling when we realised we were at the wrong location after climbing all that way down.
But no matter how grueling the journey (especially the wind and the dust on the way down were very bad), and no matter the mistake with the descent, I'm still glad we did it, and I'm very happy I made it, of course. In fact, I still have trouble believing it. It's the longest single climb I've ever done, and the highest I've ever been (3776 meters at the summit, prior to this the highest I'd been was 3400m in the Sierra Nevada in Spain). The beautiful sunrise (the pictures don't do it justice, really), and the sheer satisfaction of reaching the goal, make it worth it.
Enjoy the pictures!
First of all, happy new year to those of you that still read my increasingly infrequently updated blog! Let's hope 2009 will be a good year.
I certainly got it off to an interesting start, as I took a trip with some friends from the Soshigaya International House. Over four days, we visited several nice places in Tohoku, the north of Honshu, the main island of Japan. We left by night bus, not my favourite method of transportation but it is cheaper than the alternatives (such as Shinkansen) and arrived at Morioka in the morning of the 29th. From there we took a regular bus to Matsukawa Onsen, a small hot spring resort in the mountains. Here we enjoyed the beautiful snowy surroundings and the various hot springs. Taking a bath in an open air hot spring surrounded by snow is certainly a unique experience!
The next day we travelled to Tazawa-ko by train, a town between Morioka and where we would spend new year, to see the lake there, the deepest in Japan or so I've been told. It was funny seeing the beach all covered with snow. The lake itself never freezes, probably due to its depth, although according to legend it's because Princess Tatsuko fell in love with a dragon god and that it's their passionate love making that keeps the lake from freezing over.
On the 31st we took the Shinkansen to Akita, and from there a local train (which was delayed a lot) to Tsuruoka and finally a bus to the top of Mt. Haguro. There we would stay at the temple itself, and attend the fire festival during the night. The festival was very interesting. It involved a competition between two local villages. First some young men from each village would have a debate, which involved enormous amounts of sake, to decide who would run the race later. The winners of the debate (incredibly drunk of course) of each village would race against each other pulling a giant burning rope. There was also a ceremony inside involving monks trying to fly as a bird, and some monk wearing a rabbit mask. Near new year, the temple bell would ring 108 times to get rid of the troubles of the previous year. Finally, another fire was lit at new year itself.
It was an amazing experience and very different from how I usually celebrate new year. I'm glad I could witness it.
So what will 2009 hold? I don't know of course. I do know that the first part will involve lots of bureaucracy as my first two years in Japan come to an end. This means I have to renew my visa (made more complicated by the fact that my passport will also expire this year), and move out of the international house. I've already started looking (online only at the moment) at apartments in the area. I plan to visit a housing agent (which a lot of the international students use because of their low fee and English speaking abilities) next week. Then I'll have to notify everybody like the insurance to the city hall of my address change. So I've certainly got my work cut out for me. Besides my actual research work, that is. :)
At last, the final set of photo's from my trip to Okinawa. :)
March 9th we planned to go to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the world's largest tropical aquarium. Because we've been told regular bus fares to the aquarium are expensive, we took an organised tour which also included several other attractions, lunch, and was still cheaper than a normal bus ticket. The tour first took us to Cape Manza, a very nice cliff. After this we had lunch at a hotel (very fancy lunch, very nice) and then went to the aquarium. The aquarium was very impressive indeed, especially the main tank. They had very large manta rays, more than 2 metres across! They are beautiful animals, and they look almost like birds with the swimming motion they make. This can be seen in the video attached to this post.
After the aquarium we went to some castle ruins nearby, not incredibly impressive, and finally to a pineapple park. I think this was mainly a commercial agreement between the bus company and the park. Anyway, they had pineapple ice cream (very nice, although the nicest ice cream flavour we discovered during this vacation: that title goes to sugar cane ice cream, and sweet potato ice cream is also high on the list), and you could taste (and buy, of course) pineapple wine (also very nice) and eat as much pineapple as you liked.
On March 10th, we went whale watching in the morning. Although we did see plenty of whales (or two of them, very often), they didn't jump out of the water, so it was only backs and tails unfortunately. After this we went to the Sefa Utaki, a holy grove, one of the most sacred places in Okinawa apparently. Unfortunately it started raining pretty hard. The end of the day was spent on Kokusai-dori (international street), a big shopping street where we'd been before but hadn't looked around properly yet. This also gave me the chance to buy some sweets (Okinawan brown sugar of coure, what else) which I could take to the lab (it's a custom in most Japanese work places to bring souvenirs (usually food) if you've been on a trip). I think you could survive in Okinawa purely on the free samples they have on this street. :)
The final day, March 11th, is poorly represented in the photographs because my camera's battery died. We visited the peace park and the associated museum. The museum provided great insight into the Japanese involvement in World War 2, and of course the Battle of Okinawa in particular. Most impressively, the museum was very objective, painting neither side of the conflict as good or bad guys. One of the better war museums I've ever visited, on par with the one in London. It's truely amazing the horrors the Okinawan population went through (at the hands of both American and Japanese soldiers) during that battle, where the Japanese attempted to draw out the battle as long as possible to give the mainland forces more time, and were told to fight to the last man rather than surrender. Some 120,000 Okinawans died during the battle.
After the peace park we visited a nearby memorial dedicated to a group of more than 200 middle school girls who were forced to become nurses for the army. The memorial museum paints a horrible picture of how the lives of these ordinary girls were destroyed by the war. They were forced to nurse the wounded soldiers in horrible conditions until they were suddenly discharged near the end of the battle and sent outside into the crossfire. Many were killed, and many simply pressed a grenade to their chest and blew themselves up. Only a handful survived. Reading their stories and seeing the pictures was a very emotionally powerful experience for me, and it was quite obvious the same was true for most visitors.
Finally, we went to the airport to take our flight home. Because we hadn't realised just how late this flight would arrive in Tokyo we were a bit concerned we might not catch the last train, but everything went very smooth, we got our luggage back in no time and had more than half an hour to spare in the end.
And thus ended a fantastic vacation, my longest tourist trip so far in Japan. I've got a feeling this won't have been the last time I've gone to Okinawa (if not during the rest of my stay in Japan, I will certainly return at some later point in my life).
March 7th was our first real day in Naha. We met with Yuichiro, a friend of someone from our dorm in Tokyo. Together with him we first visited Shuri castle, the palace of the Ryukyu kingdom back when Okinawa was still independent. Like many things in Okinawa, it was almost completely destroyed during the battle of Okinawa in 1945 but was restored. After this we visited the Tama-udun, the royal mausoleum of the Ryukyu dynasty. Next we visited the Shikinaen royal garden, and lastly another garden, Fukushu-en.
On March 8th we first visited an underground naval base, which was one of the last holding points of the Japanese army during the battle of Okinawa. This underground system of tunnels had been carved out of the rock entirely by hand (pick-axes and stuff, no machinery), a sign of how little resources the Japanese army had left by this point.
Afterwards we went to the Gyokusendou cave, the largest limestone cave in Japan. The Japanese have taken the opportunity to build an incredibly touristy theme park called Okinawa World around this cave, which was mostly pointless and consisted mainly of souvenir shops (and of course, in true Japanese style, it was set up so that you had to pass through the shops to get from one part of the park to another). They had some performances (see the second video attached to this post) which, while sort of nice, were presented like they were for a children's TV show. And the girl who was presenting it seemed to be trying to break the world record for how often you can cram the particle "ne" (which loosely translates as "isn't it?") into a sentence. :)
Also at Okinawa World was the Habu Park. Habu are poisonous snakes that live in Okinawa. They had several variety of Habu, a snake show (which we didn't see), and of course a distillery for the famous Habu Sake, which is basically sake with snakes in it. They literally sell bottles of sake with Habu in it, you see them all over the place in Naha. Whether this does anything to the taste or if it's just for aesthetic purposes I don't know.
On March 5th we first went to pay for the ferry we would take the next day. Then we took the ferry to Hateruma, the southernmost island of Japan, where we rented bicycles and cycled around the island. This is as far south as you can get while staying inside Japan. We also visited a beautiful white-sand beach, called "Emerald Beach". A perfect tropical beach, although we didn't do any swimming.
On Match 6th, we got up very early (5 in the morning) to catch the ferry to Okinawa Honto, the main island of Okinawa, which would leave at 6:20h. On this large cruise ferry we even had a cabin (although shared with several other people so we managed to get a little more sleep on board. The trip took 14 hours in total, arriving around 8 at night. We just spent the time reading and hanging around doing nothing. :) I managed to get a nasty sunburn while I was watching the loading and unloading at the one stop in between. I spent only 30 minutes or so on deck but it was enough apparently.
After we arrived in Naha, we took a taxi to the hostel, "Okinawa Guesthouse", with the world's most incompetent taxi driver. Not only did he not know where the guesthouse was, but he was also incapable of taking directions; despite several phonecalls with the hostel he still couldn't find it. Eventually someone from the hostel had to come and pick us up. :S