Monday, July 28, 2008

7/30/08 Mt. Fuji: Despair, Then Success

"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great." - Jimmy Dugan

We have come to the part of the Mt. Fuji hike that was a bit unpleasant. There aren't too many pictures at this stage for a couple of reasons. First of all we were walking in the dead of night, making most shots useless. No one among us had the interest or energy to whip out their camera anyway. Surely the look on my face at this point wouldn't be one that should be remembered. I'm not going to elaborate too much on the difficulty of the hike, mostly because I don't want to risk sounding like a big whiner. Hehe.

A new little wrinkle was beginning to show itself. I began to feel the effects of the altitude. At first I noticed that I needed to take deeper breaths more frequently, but by the time we reached the top (Fuji is 3,776 meters tall) I needed to take breaks as if I was running up the mountain. At the little rest stations I noticed more and more people taking whiffs of their little oxygen cans. Luckily the air never made me that uncomfortable, just out of breath. I hear that altitude sickness can be quite painful.

We arrived at the top around 2:00 in the morning. The wind and the cold were still quite a problem. We huddled together on the side of a building and waited for day break. Maybe an hour and a half later a little cafe sort of thing opened up. Of course every single person on the mountain wanted to be in that tiny warm space at the same time. We managed to squeeze in but had no place to sit down. I finished a nice hot miso soup while I watched the sky lighten. Rarely do I ever watch the sun at work, but today I was witnessing a sky being painted. Sunrise was at 4:20 that day.

Striking a pose. The little shape down there is Lake Yamanaka I believe.

My mountain climbing comrades enjoying the sun.

A tori gate on Fuji. I hear it is pretty famous.

A mass of people on the top. I think that this is the most colorful that I have ever seen people in this country dress.

Here is a shot of the crater of the volcano. You can just make out the meteorological station on the other side. That's actually the highest point on the mountain, but it didn't much look like it was worth a visit.

After the excitement had ebbed and the sun was fully up, an inconvenient truth remained. We were on the top of a mountain. Now we had to get down.

I was very tempted to think that the journey downwards would be easy. Heck, I'd been fighting with gravity so long, I figured it might be nice to have it on my side for a change. Well, it wasn't exactly that simple. For one thing, the downward track is completely separate from the way up. This new path down was a very long and boring one. The trail zigged and zagged in a series of switchbacks that went as far as I could see. The rock was a loose, red gravel. Trudging at a downward angle for so long had my feet hurting a lot. My toes slammed into the front of my tennis shoes with every step.

The Mars landscape of Mt. Fuji. If you give this picture a click, you can see the brightly colored people still trying to get to the top. There are so many of them that they are pretty much standing in line on the side of a mountain. You see, many people rented a little space to sleep on at the various rest stations we passed. Then they woke up and all tried to get to the top at the same time. I didn't feel much pity for them... they tried to go the easy way and got burned.

An interesting sign. Mt. Fuji sits on the boundary between Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures. It was pretty important for us to make the right choice here, or we would have had a much longer day.

A nice view part of the way back down.

Once on the ground, our journey back to Ashikaga probably would have been amusing to behold. Four awful looking souls trudging through busy Tokyo train stations. I was dirty, sore, and smelled awful. By the time I got back to my apartment I had been awake for way more than 24 hours. People knew what was up though. They knew that we weren't just a group of foreign homeless people. We all had our walking sticks, mine with the bell still ringing with every step. One random person in a station even asked me about it. I got a "wow" after I confirmed her suspicions about where I had just been. It felt pretty cool.

My walking stick, featuring all the little wood burnings I acquired. It has a million nicks and scratches on it, and the bottom is worn round. Best souvenir I can remember having.

Friday, July 25, 2008

7/25/08 Mt. Fuji: Getting to the Hard Part

We hopped on our first bus of the day across from Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku and napped until we reached Kawaguchiko. I didn't stray too far from the visitor center's bus stop, so I can't comment much about the area. I already felt like the air was cleaner, but it very well could have been my imagination. I sat and wrote a few postcards while I waited for the next bus to come.

The map in the visitor area. I was amused at the little dot indicating where we were, versus the giant black hole at the bottom of the map, indicating where Fuji was waiting.

The many moods of Fuji painted on the side of a train. Please be the happy face, please be the happy face.

The next bus ride up to the mountain was a nice little time to think. Most people sat in silence, no doubt considering the journey to come. I thought over what I had packed in my bag, having already realized earlier that I had forgotten my rain gear. Bummer. I would estimate that the bus's population was 90% percent non-Japanese. Wikipedia states that a full third of the people that climb Fuji are foreign(though it doesn't seem to have a source for that figure). Hurray outsiders! One notable sight was a “Our Lady of Mt. Fuji” sign on the side of the road. That Mary really gets around it seems. Each time we passed a checkpoint, the bus played a little explanation in about 4 languages. Altitude among other unimportant facts “I'm thinkin' over here! Zip it!” As the bus sawed back and forth up the mountain my ears started to pop. I got the same feeling I have on the upside of a roller coaster-a tense calm before the storm. Almost to our destination, we passed an ambulance coming down, sirens blaring. Pretty amusing icing on the black omen cake.

We left the bus at gogomei, or the fifth station. There are a few different paths up the mountain, each with their own little stops marked on the way up. This is the most popular starting point because it has a large parking lot and there is a decent amount of facilities for travelers. Plenty of restaurants and gift shops. The bathrooms, though, are quite sparse despite the development, and the cheapest one that we could find cost about 50 cents to use. Rip off!

One of the most unique offerings were these cans of oxygen, apparently useful for fighting the effects of altitude sickness. I saw them in use on several occasions during the climb. Luckily I never felt bad enough to need one myself. Here they cost a little under 10.50USD, but the price rose as we did.

I was having a bit of Europe deja vu in this area. The buildings had a bit of a German mountain lodge style to them, and the air was clear. It felt quite a bit cooler than before, despite the same bright sun. Rain gear was available in the shops, but it was so unfortunately priced that I felt prepared to do without it completely. Could have been a decisive mistake, that.

Just a moment before we started our hike.

After some time in Europe and a quick bathroom break, we were off. We actually started off in a downward direction, and after a time we started to worry that we had taken the wrong path. We asked a ragged looking man walking the opposite direction, and he confirmed that we were on the right path. The path to Fuji's summit. We started referring to it as Mt. Doom and making Lord of the Rings references. We are nerds.

Earlier in the gift shops, Mike and I were discussing whether or not we should buy the expensive rain gear. Mike's logic, which sounded good at the time, was that we were going to be above the clouds, which made rain impossible. Not long after we started walking, though, we saw clouds begin to roll up the side of the mountain. This is us inside one of them. Rain suddenly became a threat once again.

An amusing warning sign. "We are not responsible for your life and what you do"

We took a little break for a nice photo shoot.

The first part of the trip was quite pleasant. Hiking with my friends, fair weather. As the sun started to sink the stars began sneaking out. Once a respectable darkness had fallen the view really started to get good. More stars than I have probably ever seen in Japan competed with the lights from a patchwork of cities. The lights on the ground were more plentiful, but those above were awe inspiring anyway. I started to get the sense that we were quite high up. The view from a glass plane.

Soon enough, we hit the next “station”. Stations are like little rest points, but they varied widely. Some were simply a sad little hut or two, some were light drenched clusters of several buildings. Whether they were big or small, lively or practically deserted, one thing was sure: I was unwelcome.

The people working in those huts on Mt. Fuji are most definitely the rudest people that I have yet encountered in this country. The first little hut that I came upon had no one outside, or anyone at the little snack bar window. So, I walked in the sliding door and to inquire about services with the few gentleman sitting inside. I hadn't even opened my mouth when they began shouting “outside! outside!” in their crap English, crossing their arms at me in a big “X”. Wow, ok. Not long afterwards a nice little Japanese lady went in and asked them the same damn question I wanted to, with a much nicer response.

My soul purchase at the 5th station was a long walking stick with a bell tied to it with a ribbon. Every station offers to burn a little stamp into the wood as you pass. For about 2 dollars, they make a nice little mark, some with pictures, some say how high you are. A nice little souvenir in addition to being useful for keeping my balance.

So when jerko was done helping the Japanese people I popped my head in again to hand them my stick without any additional incident.

One of the non-grumpy guys doing the wood burning.

I'm not usually a big geology enthusiast, but I developed a pretty close relationship with the rocks on that mountain, and I was surprised at how many times everything seemed to change. The rock type, size, and color would be constant for a time, and then change completely. I assume that has to do with several different eruptions from the same volcano, but I can't be sure.

This must have been the first rocky bit we came upon. The next hundred or so weren't as exciting.

The climb got progressively colder as we rose, but not extremely so. I simply slipped on one of the few thicker clothing items I had packed and continued on. Somewhere along the way, the wind started. This was when things started to turn from pleasant to a test of endurance. Everything became steeper and rockier, and it became necessary to use my hands to climb. The wind cut right though my multiple layers of clothing and chilled me, and it added a bit of an additional trickiness to keeping my balance on the rocks.

During a very cold rest, I pulled my hat over my face to keep the heat in.

Will John and his merry band make it to the top of Fuji in time for sunrise? Or will they be frozen, trampled by tour groups and eaten by Fuji tigers, with only their bones rolling back to the base of the mountain? Stay tuned for more of John Milito's Amazing Adventures.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

7/18/08 Last Day Before Summer Break

Today is the last day of school before summer vacation begins. I have been considering my time here, now that my experience has come full circle. Soon a few of the other ALTs will be leaving, and a new group will take their place. I wonder how much I have gained or grown during this time. Its always hard to tell... I can't remember the person I was when I arrived. I think that I will understand more when I go back to Illinois this summer. I expect a lot of things will be just the same way they were when I left. Then I can decide if I am the same way too.


I read something interesting on Freakonomics, a blog on The New York Times website(found here). Its written by the same guys that wrote the New York Times Bestseller by the same name. Anyway, the article mentioned the "Wilhelm Scream", a stock sound effect that has appeared in over 100 movies, and a fat stack of TV shows and video games as well. Give the video a look... its one popular scream.

A bit of history and a huge list of appearances can be found on wikipedia here.

More Mt. Fuji coverage coming up soon!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

7/17/08 Climbing Mt. Fuji: The Beginning

I spent Saturday and Sunday with the crew climbing up and down Mt. Fuji, the highest point in Japan. A day hiking up a mountain is a pretty long day, so I will put my recollections into a few smaller entries rather than one behemoth that would take forever to complete(and read).

Mt. Fuji has been on all of our To-Do lists for as long as I can remember. The guys have been on a few smaller hiking trips to prepare for the bigger hike that lay ahead. A call to my phone on a Sunday morning is rarely received, and running around in the steamy wilderness rarely seemed like a better idea than sleeping late anyway. I did join one of the hikes, though, which was a really good time.

So Tung(who will officially become a no-good quitter in early August) and I sat down last week and looked at our schedules. As weekend by weekend was destroyed by farewell parties and other nonsense, we realized that there was only one time that would work, and that that time would arrive in 6 days. Not a lot of time to prepare, but tourism isn't for the weak of spirit.

I wasn't worried about the travel arrangements, as those always seem to work out one way or another due to Japan's stellar public transport system. I was a bit concerned about my physical preparedness, though. I knew next to nothing about Mt. Fuji, so I had no idea what to expect. The next day after school I ran up and down an outside staircase until my side hurt, much to the amusement of the students who happened to witness it. Any time I told someone Japanese what we were planning to do they looked at me as if I was a crazy person who was about to die, which didn't really help morale.

The plan evolved into seeing the sunrise on Fuji, which involves climbing through the night to beat daybreak. What a great idea....

A poster advertising the hike.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

7/15/08 Japanese Soccer!

Last weekend Tung and went to a professional soccer game with a Japanese friend of ours. The game was held in the Urawa area, and featured the Urawa Red Diamonds versus Tokyo F.C.. The Reds are one of the best teams in the the J-League, and there was a great fan turnout. The venue was the seemingly new Saitama Stadium, which actually hosted some matches in the 2002 Fifa World Cup.

Me and my souvenir.

My soccer match experience is limited to Japan, so I don't have anything to compare the game or the atmosphere with. Entry was much like it is to any stadium. We waited in line a bit to get tickets pretty close to kick-off, and were punished for our lateness: our seats were exactly one row from the top. The stadium was pretty normal but concessions were a bit weak. I couldn't find anything warm for sale, just chips and things.

The thing that was the most impressive would be the crowd I think. The section of seating directing behind one goal was completed packed with red shirts. They cheered long and hard. But the organization of it all was the neat part. In the center of the masses seemed to be the ring leaders of it all. They chose what cheers to do and when, and directed everyone to do their bidding with drums and maybe some other instruments. The crowd was largely quiet while they waited for instructions. Pretty cool. We were laughing because we couldn't understand what the chants were saying. For instance, in Japanese English, "Reds" has two syllables, RE and sort of a DZUU sound.

Some Cheering.

Another amusing thing was the flags that people were waving around to cheer with. They seemed to have brought any fabric with Red, Black, and/or White on it. I spotted at least two US Confederate flags, one or two Che Guevaras, a couple of Iranian flags, and a Japanese battle flag colored black and red. Quite the alliance.

Tokyo F.C. had its own fan section, understandably smaller but well led by blue wearing cheer masters of their own. It was located on the opposite end of the stadium. There were a few empty rows of seats separating them from everyone else, apparently to keep the red shirts from killing them. Plastic fence and security guards enforced the peace. I was surprised that they would take such precautions in Japan.

The Reds won the day, with a 2-0 score at the end of the game. Hurray! I found a little sports news blurb here.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

7/7/08 Colombian Gold Discovery

I was recently rushing around in the Tokyo subway system when I saw this poster. It is advertising an exhibition of Colombian golden artifacts at the National Museum of Nature and Science. I had the pleasure of touring the Museo del Oro last year during my brief stay in Bogotá. What an unexpected place to remind me of my South American travels, underground Japan.

A bit of Spanish at the bottom of the poster reads: Colombia Japón 100 años de amistad (100 years of friendship). Here is the website for the exhibit. Its in Japanese, but there are lots of pretty pictures too. Hehe