Thursday, May 28, 2009

postcard from japan

In Tokyo we have the advantage that we have solely missed throughout our trip so far: local knowledge. A friend of mine - Hannah - has been living in Japan for seven months now, and she has generously volunteered to ease us gently into the Tokyo experience, as well as act as our base camp for the center-piece of our Japan trip: climbing the 3770m Japanese icon: Mount Fuji.

Tokyo is certainly a headrush experience, although too expensive for us to fully enjoy - three days was too much time here. Still, there were definite highlights.

(Direct Youtube link)

One such highlight was playing with all the latest top-of-the-range gadgets at Sony's Tokyo HQ made for a fun evening, though it will come back to haunt me (and my bank account) one day as it made me fall in love with the idea of owning a digital SLR camera.
Climbing the aforementioned Fuji-san is easily the hardest physical activity I've ever undertaken. It was a heavily presumptuous - perhaps bloody foolish - plan to begin with, the whole day was totally dependant on us successfully hitchhiking up as far as the road goes (2400m) and back down again afterwards. Given that we saw roughly 15 people on the mountain all that day, we would have to be very fortunate indeed.
And it was this that summed up the Japanese personality perfectly. By nature very shy and conformist, whenever we asked for help people would go out of their way, offering more help than we had wished for. So on our way up the mountain we managed to flag down a woman driving home, who - despite not speaking any English - insisted on driving us all the way up to the 2400m starting point.
You should watch the video for a decent indication of the experience, but really, we were putting on brave faces for the camera. It was just a seemingly neverending trial of ever-increasingly steep, and unstable rocks and snow to traverse. It was seldom (though occasionally) dangerous, but it was always grindingly difficult. As we were climbing out of season, the trial was covered by snow, meaning we had to invent our own route up the mountain.
Luckily it was worth it for the view of the snowy crater at the summit, and for the slide back down afterwards. My trousers were torn to shreds, and my backside still aches a week later, but after a six hour hike to the summit, we get down - mainly sliding on the snow - in under two.
We needed to as well, as sunset was approaching and with it any chance of there being anybody left at base camp - let alone anyone willing to transport us back to the nearest town. Indeed we get back to our 2400m starting point and there are just three cars left.
We start walking the 28km down the winding Mount Fuji road. Sleep deprivation is setting in, and Simon is falling asleep whilst walking. Worst case scenario: we have to walk all night to reach the town, meanwhile Hannah is worried about where we are, and has maybe even called Mountain Rescue out for us.
Half an hour later however, and the 2nd of the three cars stops for us, and - again giving us more than we asked for - drops us right outside the train station of his town, from which it is an easy 20m ride back to Hannah's house. By combination of grit determination, energy, generosity and luck, we had tamed Mount Fuji.
In Japan, there is only one way to celebrate: Karaoke. Typically this involves hiring out private rooms for your group for an hour at a time, for about ₤7. The clincher though, is that it includes all-you-can-drink alcohol. Hannah takes us to her local establishment, and it's a great evening as social inhibitions get thrown to the wall with each successive drink and each more ambitious song choice. Gorillaz is followed by Oasis, then by an acutely optimistic rendition of Scissor Sisters - I Don't Feel Like Dancing.
The personal highlight is remarkable: Hannah had remembered from my days running a music pub quiz in Nottingham that I had a soft spot for a song by Belinda Carlisle called Runaway Horses (she had been the only person in the bar of 50 people to guess the intro correctly), and though I had no memory of this myself, when the song suddenly popped up as the next track it, and the ensuing hairbrush diva scenes that followed, were a genuine classic holiday moment . The night rounds off with a mass-singalong of Take That - Back For Good, and I personally am left feeling as though I have finally discovered entertainment utopia.

Other Japan highlights?
  • Visiting the peace museums, memorials and relics of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima
  • Wondering around Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo at 5:30am
  • Kyoto's incredible collection of beautiful Temples and shrines
  • The deservedly renowned public transport system - bullet trains and all
  • Beating Simon at a long-hyped game of air hockey
  • Spotting Geisha in Kyoto and cosplay girls in Tokyo.

So Japan? Amazing country. And it's possible to do it on an affordable budget if you're a committed shoestringer. For us though, it's another flight, this time to Malaysian Borneo, another change of scenery, and one final culture shock...

Wish you were here,

Photos: (no login required)
Japan rating
: 8.3/10
Friendliest person met: Both saintly car owners who picked up us hitchhikers
Scariest moment: The fear-wracked decent from Mt. Fuji.
Most beautiful sight: Summit of Mount Fuji.
The Soundtrack: Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
Still to come: Malaysia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

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