Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Oops… I’m really slacking aren’t I! Here I am sitting in Melbourne and starting to write up the events of a couple of weeks ago. The problem has been that I’ve just been a bit tourist-ed out in the last few days and felt like a break. I’ve also been travelling so much that I haven’t had time to write. Anyway, back to Tokyo!

Well, I did have to wonder if climbing Mt Fuji the day before I’d arranged to meet the local X1/9 owners’ club was a bad idea. My body really didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, and I was already late when I went to the bathroom and locked myself out! The owner lives a long way from Marui House, so I had no choice but to head off without my camera or guidebook and meet them.

My arms and neck were glowing red from sunburn from climbing down the mountain, and I was hoping that I wouldn’t see a repeat of my previous experience in China. Broken arms or legs I could have forseen, but not sunburn!

The train-trip to Yokohama was surprisingly easy, and now I think I’ve used ever kind of train in Japan except for the steam engines. For the first time I noticed the LCD screens hidden away in the corners of the carriage which were displaying share prices, ads, and weather forecast. Mount Fuji was predicted to be wet that day…

I arrived rather early and wandered around, picking up an ice-cream for breakfast. I’ve been eating a lot of them recently for reasons that I don’t entirely understand. I sort of started when I was in Taiwan, and have continued through Japan. Now I just get the ice-cream urge every now and again…

Finding the club members was easy. Only one person could possibly be driving past the station in a red X1/9! We met another member who has one of the cars with a large wing on the back, then drove off towards the meeting. Until then I’d forgotten just how much fun those cars were. I’m pretty much certain now that another X1/9 will be high on my list of things to buy when I’m settled again.

On the way we spotted another X1/9 stopped at the side of the road and pulled over to take a look. The engine had cut out with some kind of electrical problem, which was something I could empathise with – the only times my car broke down on me were when some wire fell off or electrical component wore out. We continued on to the “Seaman’s Club” where the meeting would be held.

As we parked, more and more cars turned up, most with some kind of cosmetic modifications, and as most were the low-powered US version they had also been fitted with more powerful engines. The director of the Seaman’s Club came from Belgium and was amazed to see eight or ten X1/9s parked outside. He hadn’t seen any since he came to Japan.

One of the club members is a mechanic, and zoomed back to sort out the broken-down car. He also has a very unusual X1/9 which he uses for racing, cut down to the absolute minimum with a huge air-scoop in the front for extra downforce on sharp corners. When I first saw the photo of the car on the Web site I was very puzzled, so it was nice to see some more that showed what it really was.

The rest of the afternoon was spent discussing LHD-vs-RHD, X1/9s from around the world, travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway, the perils of living with only an X1/9 and Porsche 911, Lancia Stratos Replicas, the relative driving ability of most X1/9 and MR2 drivers (not including those who drive both), and whether X1/9s were more exclusive than Ferraris in Japan. I’d seen a couple of the latter and many Porsches while I was travelling around, but no X1/9s. All in all, it was a fun day out. I was glad to see that the cars are as admired in Japan as in the rest of the world.

Back at Marui House I had an attack of computer-itis and decided to try to get a Web server running on my laptop. I’d carried the Apache source all over the world so I thought I should make some use of it. With the extra RAM it compiled quickly and I was even able to run Mosaic on X-Windows. With a few modifications to configuration files I was soon reading my web pages, and Mosaic flew along. Unfortunately being an old version there was no support for tables, backgrounds, etc, so the pages didn’t look that good.

I planned to visit a shrine the next day, but heavy rain began in the morning and continued most of the day. I took a trip to the Net Cafe to check out the situation in Australia and download a copy of Netscape for Linux, then sat around most of the evening listening to the rain and rewriting CGI scripts. Netscape the memory-hog crawled along, but at least the pages looked the way they should. I tried to use up the remaining couple of dollars on my phonecard by calling my parents, but the phone refused to dial so I ended up going via AT+T instead. I was glad to discover that my car is probably now sold. Yay!

Anyway, the phone card is quite cute. Japan seems to be Phonecard Central, pretty much every museum or other tourist attraction sells a selection of phonecards with pictures of their exhibits, and there are vending machines on some streets selling cards with a wide variety of pictures. I wonder how many people buy them for the pictures and don’t ever use them?

More packing to do! I’m coming to the conclusion that I like travel, but I’m not so sure about the actual travelling. Stuffing everything that I have into my bags and lumbering off to the bus, train or plane every day or two does get tiring after a while. I’ll be glad to get to the Cook Islands so I can stay in one place for a week. I also discovered that I’d lost my Maglite somewhere on Fujisan, which was a little annoying after it had travelled with me for the last five years.

I grabbed a sushi breakfast from the store down the street, then walked to the Post Office to mail a card to my parents, on the way looking for somewhere I could buy a yukata. No luck. I said goodbye and set out for Australia. People gave me some strange looks on the way to the airport with all my luggage and my big walking stick. Outside the train the scenery seemed far more rural than anything I’d seen on my way across the country, and the outer parts of Tokyo seemed to have a lot of grass and trees between the buildings. I was pretty tired and wasn’t looking forward to such a long flight and a change of plane at Christchurch.

I had a few hours to kill before I could check in, so I wandered around the airport looking for a power socket conveniently placed near to a chair. The only one I found was already occupied so I sat down by the window and ran down the laptop’s battery hacking the scripts for web Page. I was surprised that the check-in staff didn’t complain about the stick, and one of them hand-carried it away.

Inside the departure lounge I was more fortunate and after my last noodles meal I plugged the computer into a convenient socket to charge up. More web-hacking ensued while people around me slept or watched TV. After a brief trip on a monorail occupied by a group of Americans who appeared to have studied at the Beavis and Butthead Charm School I was soon snarfing some more Watts from a power socket at the gate. I was continually expecting that someone would come over and ask what me to stop, but aside from passengers’ bemused stares noone seemed to care.

Before this flight I’d seen power outlets in various airports but never thought to plug the computer into them. I was glad that I’d decided to try it this time and that it seemed to work. When I’m writing programs or stories I find that hours just vanish, so my seven hour stopover in Christchurch Airport would be much easier to deal with.

The flight was late and Japan covered in clouds so I saw little as we took off. After a couple of whiskies and a dinner I was soon back to hacking Web pages and listening to loud rock music while the plane jumped around in the very turbulent sky. What planes really need is a 50W 12-20V output in the arms of the chairs – however you look at it a two-hour battery life doesn’t fit very well into a twelve-hour flight.

Luckily I had three seats to myself, so when the battery ran out I stretched out across them and got a few hours sleep. Just north of Auckland we flew into a very pretty sunrise, with light blue and red bands lit up against a dark sky. The South Island of New Zealand is full of mountains with clouds huddled up in the gaps between them. I guess those are the Southern Alps.

Around 8am I crawled off the plane in Christchurch with an outside temperature of 1°C. This wasn’t too promising as all my baggage was checked through to Sydney, so I had no clothes but the T-shirt and trousers I was wearing and I’d just been told that I had to actually go through the NZ Immigration and Customs to check in for the next flight. Bizarre.

At the immigration desk I tried to explain that I only wanted to enter the country in order to go to the check-in desk and leave again, and would much prefer not to have to go through it at all. This did not seem to work, and the immigration lady scrawled a large red mark on my customs form. Oh well… I had plenty of time to spare.

The customs guy took me to one side and searched my bags while grilling me on my trip. Not that he had much to search since everything but my cameras and computer were heading for the plane to Sydney. Satisfied that I wouldn’t be getting up to no good in the next six hours he let me through.

Ooops. The international departures section of the airport was not in the same building as the arrivals. I walked across the airport in my T-shirt amongst the crowds arriving in thick quilted jackets. With great relief I arrived in the tiny departures area, only to find that all the desks were closed until noon. I wandered into the domestic departures area and considered buying breakfast before I realised that I had no New Zealand money and changing anything would be a waste.

From the technomadic point of view that part of the airport was pretty well equipped. In the smoking area power sockets were fitted next to several chairs so I was soon finishing off my Web site redesign. At noon I checked in, only to discover that I was supposed to have brought my bags through customs myself, for reasons that seemed totally stupid. Luckily they said they would collect them for me, but I would not be surprised if I didn’t arrive at the same airport as my baggage.

On the flight to Sydney more people stared at me as I worked, and the girl on the other side of the aisle and a row back pointed me out to the guy alongside as I started up Netscape. He strained to read the text on the screen as I typed away. I guess that even today few people take laptops with them, or perhaps that most of them are in the business section.

Sunrise On Mt Fuji

I think part of me will be glad to leave Asia. Because I don’t speak much Japanese or Chinese the amount of time I’ve wasted along the way just organising things is horrendous. Today was a good example – I was told that if I wanted to stay in a hut on Mt Fuji I should book a place beforehand. After two hours I finally tracked down the telephone number to call for reservations, and after half an hour it was finally free. The guy at the other end then said ‘No English’ and hung up. Well, with most of the museums and other tourist sights here closing around 4pm that pretty much wasted one day.

So anyway, I’m now doing exactly what the guidebook said and heading up the mountain at night. I’ll be getting there at 10pm and hoping to reach the summit around 4:30am for sunrise at about 5:00am. I would still much rather have paid the extra money to climb up during the day when I could at least see where I was going, then stay overnight. But I guess I’ve saved $70 this way. Hmm, this is the first time that I’m regretting saving money.

Another reason for wanting to get to some Western country or other is that I’m starting to get a craving for hot fudge sundaes, and margaritas at a price I can afford; I sure hope I can get them in Australia! I am intending to take a crash-course in Chinese and Japanese and come back out here whenever I can get the time to do so.

One Of The Huts, Probably Around The Eighth Station

After booking the tickets I was looking through my guidebook when I spotted another place that I’d marked when I first visited Tokyo. There’s a bar called One Lucky just down the road from me in Ikebukoro, hidden away in what looks like a residential street. Without the neon sign outside you’d think it was just another house.

The interior is similar to a number of places I’ve visited in Florida, with lots of souvenirs provided by visiting gaijin (banknotes, posters, etc, etc). The food is very good and cheap (set meals at ¥700 for dinner), and the owner is very friendly. Only four people were in that night so we chatted for a bit and he gave me a newspaper to catch up on the olympic results. I wasn’t surprised to see Britain ranked below Ethiopia, but was upset to discover that the DC-XA rocket crashed and burned in the latest set of tests. Oh well…

I finally got to try some sake there, having found it at a reasonable price. It’s served hot in a small jug with a very small cup to drink from. That’s probably good as it seemed rather stronger than I remembered, particularly on an empty stomach. I do like it though.

There’s one very unusual thing about this bar. The owner has been running it for eighteen years, and takes a photograph of every customer. He has a large part of one wall covered with shelves holding photo albums for the last ten years, so I was able to see who’d been visiting nine years to the day before I did. Next time I’m in Japan I’ll go back to see how my picture turned out!

The drinking continued on my return to Marui House, where I spent most of the night chatting with a Scottish guy and his Turkish friend, who’d been travelling across Asia to Japan. Starting in Bangladesh he’d certainly seen some sights on his trip and it must have been a big contrast to Scotland. He also talked about sleeping rough and felt that the best place was on top of a tall building. That might have been useful the next day as the two of them were using another guy’s room while he was away and the owner threw them out…

Taking A Break (On The Way Down)

Another couple of Australians had arrived, a girl who had a job as a hostess and a guy who was working for another bar recruiting girls for the job. She returned not too sober as she gets paid a fee for every drink that the customer buys her. Hostessing seems to be quite a risky job, as the next night she came back covered in bruises after falling over a few times from drinking far too many cocktails…

The morning before the trip I did yet more organising and packing. John very kindly lent me his rucksack and wet weather gear (which he’d bought on the mountain when he climbed it, paying lots of money), and I stocked up on food, batteries, drinks, and anything else I could think of. In the afternoon I went along to the National Museum near Ueno.

Ueno station is quite strange, with a fishtank perched on one of the ticket machines and seemingly dozens of stalls selling Japanese comics. In the Park I discovered the homeless people who I’d earlier missed in Tokyo. A number were sleeping on benches under the trees to keep out of the sun. Others were living in a village of squatters’ huts built from cardboard, trolleys, multicolored plastic sheets and anything else they could find. A lot of them had washing hung out to dry and some were sitting on collapsible chairs watching the world go by.

The museum is nice but I’d had too little sleep and had too little time to really appreciate it. There’s also another Japanese innovation just outside the doors – locking umbrella stands. I zoomed through the main gallery and then went back home. A quick shower and change of clothes and I was ready to head off for the mountain.

Red Skies

According to my guidebook, Shinjuku station is generally regarded as the most confusing in the world, and I could agree with that! Another group of people have made it their home with cardboard shacks inside the main entrance. Being Japan, they’re all spotless, of course. This seems strange to me but really there’s no reason why they shouldn’t live there if they’re not causing any grief.

I found the bus station and took the same queue that another foreign guy was in. He was taken to one side and left while I worked my way to the front. I’d written down the details of the reservation on a piece of paper and handed that over, which seemed to work. The ticket appeared and I just had an hour to kill before the bus arrived. I said hello to the other guy, whose name was Mike. He came from North Carolina and was working as a teacher in Japan for a year. He was also planning to be climbing Fuji tonight but wasn’t having as much luck – the reservation seemed to have been lost. I wasn’t too surprised as mine was booked under a name that wasn’t exactly close to mine. Goant seems to be the closest anyone’s come when I’ve made reservations by telephone.

Luckily that was soon sorted out and we stocked up on more munchies and noodles before we left. Mike had done a lot of hiking in America and walked part of the Appalachian Trail over a number of mountains, so Fuji would be quite a small one for him. It would certainly be a big one for me – the highest I’d been before was 10,600 feet in New Mexico, where I ran up a flight of stairs and rapidly regretted it due to the lack of air. Fuji is about 2000 feet taller.

Eventually we found the bus stop, or rather a bus stop with lots of people waiting with rucksacks. Our fellow climbers seemed to range in age from two to ninety, and I was a little relieved by this. If these were the people I’d be climbing with I’d probably be able to get to the top without too much trouble. They didn’t look like professional mountaineers.

Buses began to queue up at the stop and I found mine. Ten would be leaving that night, most of them close to full. An average of about 3000 people climb the mountain every night through July and August, and about 500 would be leaving from Shinjuku that night. Getting everyone to and from the mountain must be a big operation.

The bus was like an airliner inside, except that the ‘fasten seatbelts’ signs (but not the belts) were missing and the colouring looked like something out of Doom. As it pulled away I was glad that I’d decided to do this, but wasn’t sure if I’d feel the same way the next day. Tokyo really did look a lot like America as we rolled along the Expressway.

Sunrise

We passed several people sleeping in cars at the side of the road and picked up a few stragglers from the stops along the route. After an hour and a half on the road we passed an illuminated Ferris Wheel and roller-coaster, then stopped briefly at the last stop before the mountain. A stall was selling walking sticks with bells and Japanese flags attached, along with water and other supplies.

Back in the old days, when this was more of a pilgrimage than a tourist attraction, climbers would start at the base of the mountain and stop at some shrines on the way up. Today we don’t have the time or energy, so we start at the ‘Fifth Station’ about 2300 meters up. The mountain is divided into ten ‘stations’, most of which have some huts to stay in or to sell you food and drinks. If you have a walking stick they will also burn a stamp onto it to show that you reached that station. Of course, you have to pay ¥200 for the priviledge, or ¥300 at the summit!

The mountain road was surprisingly good, but started suddenly. One moment I was dozing in my seat, the next the bus was on a steep incline and the curtain was bashing me in the face. I could see little outside except the occasional crash barrier lit by the orange and white lights on the bus, and from the look of the corners I was quite glad. The 2300 meter climb would take us another hour, during which I wondered if I was really planning to climb this mountain that night…

At the fifth station I’d expected to find a few wooden huts. In fact there were several large shops, a whole bunch of restaurants, burger joints, bars, and even a fire station. The place was chaotic as buses pulled in from all around the area and dropped off their passengers. As I climbed down from the bus I realised that for the first time in Japan I was cold…

A Peoplejam

The mountain was just visible as a black triangle against the dark blue sky, and looked tiny. If that was all I had to climb I’d easily be up there before dawn. Reassured, I went on a hunt for a walking stick, and as the only choice of flags was Japanese or American I went for Japanese. I thought it would make a cute souvenir of Japan, but wondered how soon I’d become tired of the bells and take them off.

I looked for Mike as the people around me changed from their street clothes into serious cold-weather outfits and climbing boots. Camera flashes illuminated the area and I wished I had a head-mounted light like many of the others, rather than just my little Maglite. As I wandered around the site I was surprised to find that the prices were only about 50% more than Tokyo, even with the captive market. A large palette of supplies stood outside one shop, and I presumed it wasn’t one person’s baggage. Alongside it two guys were doing warmup exercises. I wondered if I should join them, and hoped that I had enough warm clothes with me. All I had were my trenchcoat and three T-shirts, and it wasn’t yet cold enough to even wear the coat.

Mike’s bus arrived, and we joined the perpetual flow of people passing by the red flashing lights of the car which marked the beginning of the trail. I would have been a little happier if it didn’t start going down within a few yards. The moon was full, and we walked through the forest along the side of the mountain just above the clouds. The sight reminded me of Glastonbury Tor in England, which is often surrounded by clouds like this.

A Weird Cloud

The sixth station (2390m) soon appeared, and we were handed a safety leaflet as we arrived. We then made good time as we followed the winding track up to the seventh station (2700m), which was closer to my expectations. Despite the telephone booth and restaurant, it was at least built from wooden huts perched on a ledge!

The temperature was now low enough that I decided to put on my trenchcoat. I was very glad that all we had was cold weather and no rain. Mike mentioned that the Japanese TV weather shows include a forecast for Fuji at this time of year and the daytime temperature at the summit had been 10°C. Tonight would be 4°C or less, with a strong cold wind. Yeek.

Continuing upwards we began to slow down. The thin air was beginning to affect me and we had gone from a path to clambering over lava flows. Above us the illuminated huts marked out a cross on the mountain. The clouds were moving upwards as the night drew on, and we could now see a few town lights through the layer below us. Looking more carefully we could make out a snake of people above and below, marked by the glow of their torches.

By the hut at 2900m we were just about on time, but looked to get further and further behind. Lots of people were sitting here to recover their breath, and as we waited and drank water a rather fat and middle-aged Japanese guy wearing a bandana gasped into view. We both hoped he’d make the summit. Personally I hoped that I would too, I was starting to have some doubts.

We continued on just ahead of an American family. The young daughter was very unhappy and wanted to go back down, the father was convinced that they were going to the top and would have no argument. I was starting to stop for regular breaks, and suggested that Mike go on ahead as he was used to altitude and could travel faster. After that I made the last 180m to the eighth station (3100m) in only thirty minutes, twice as fast as the leaflet estimated. Now I was starting to feel like I’d get to the top after all. At least I’d stopped sweating, though I’d already drunk a liter of water and the back of my T-shirt was soaked from carrying the rucksack. Any time I took off the coat to cool down my back froze.

I had my stick stamped, and then continued on. I passed many resting people, then got stuck behind a very slow bunch. I thought I must have been becoming accustomed now, because many other people were moving slower than me. The wind was getting stronger and at the next hut I finally removed the bells and flag to prevent them being blown away. I also changed the Maglite batteries, and was surprised by the difference. No wonder I’d had so much trouble seeing at times 8-)! I was higher now than ever before, and wondered if this was the world’s only bar at 11,000 feet. Now ready to finish the trip to the ninth station…

The Last Few Steps

The path was easy, reverting to a gravel track from lava flows, but following it was hard. I was now between two thick cloud layers with a strong wind, and glad of the second T-shirt. Signs along the way warned people not to fall off the mountain, but I’d already worked that one out for myself. I had to stop every thirty meters or so to recover my breath, and was exhausted but very happy. According to my calculations if I could maintain this speed I would be at the summit by dawn to see the sunrise.

At the next hut I bought a $6 Cup Noodle to warm myself up, and that was the first time I ever remember being glad to eat one. I was feeling a little light-headed but was OK when stationary, or even when walking along a flat surface. Only climbing was the problem, and climbing steps the worst of all. You have little choice there about how slowly you can move, as you have to go up in large jumps. That may sound surprising, but my target speed by this point was only three meters vertically per minute, and I was having trouble maintaining that. I was glad for all the Tai Chi breathing exercises I’d done last summer so that I was breathing better now.

The wind blew straight through my coat and clothes and chilled me to the bone as I continued onwards to the summit. I concentrated on keeping one foot moving in front of the other and slowing down to a speed which I could sustain for long periods, shuffling along with the stick for support. I reached the summit, only to discover that it was actually the ninth station and the real summit had been hidden behind it. Disaster! – I was 300m lower than expected, and would almost certainly not get to the top on time.

The Shops At The Summit

I put on the third shirt and the gloves that Stef bought for me in Singapore when we went ice-skating, which seemed like years ago rather than weeks. Beside me a guy started up a paraffin stove to cook breakfast. Wish I’d brought one along with me. I wondered if I should buy one of the oxygen canisters that were for sale at the hut. I’d seen a few people puffing on them on the way here.

Above the ninth station I slowed even further. The path zigzagged up to the summit, marked by the torch lights of those in front, and each time I began walking I’d be frozen by the wind. Soon I was stopping more because of the cold than lack of air, and was reluctant to step out again into the wind. Many people were sleeping along the side of the track, some under space blankets. I thought about wrapping mine around myself under the coat, but could find nowhere sheltered enough to do so without losing it. What exactly was I doing up at the top of a mountain at 4:30am? Somehow the reason escaped me now…

The sky was turning red in the distance, and I stopped at 3550m to watch the sunrise, only 200m below the summit. The view was very pretty, with the sun appearing between two layers of clouds, illuminating them with a beautiful orange glow for a few moments. Along with the others who’d stopped nearby I took some photos, and a couple of American guys videotaped themselves admiring the sunrise. I wished I had my video camera with me, but carrying it up would have been a lot of hassle. I would have regretted bringing it if the rain had appeared.

Sure Is Crowded Up Above The Clouds!

The wind dropped rapidly after dawn, and I shuffled slowly on towards the top. I was probably down to not much over 1m per minute now, but at least I could see a Japanese flag which presumably marked the summit. Unfortunately I could also see the long line of people leading up to it. Those in the distance were tiny, and I considered giving up and heading back down. Even though I only had about 150m to go, it would be a real effort.

Somehow I kept going, even when stuck in a peoplejam as all those who’d stopped below the summit to watch the sunrise began moving again. Climbing over more lava flows we slowed even more. I was really glad I had my stick to lean on or I probably would have given up at this point. I would also have been too embarassed to go back down without the summit stamp.

I zigzagged onwards, trying not to look up because the number of zigs still to zag would only depress me. One time I did look up I spotted a cloud shaped like a traditional UFO poking out past the mountain, which was cute. I snapped a photo and continued trudging.

Finally I turned the last corner and passed the 3700m sign. Ahead were just a few steps and a torii. The last set of steps up from the torii to the shops on the summit was the worst part of the trip. The air was thinner than ever before, I was exhausted, and my body was just about ready to collapse. Somehow I climbed them and sat down at the top. I breathed deeply for a while, then took a look around.

I Did It!

The sun was shining brightly now, strong enough that I wished I’d brought my sunglasses; I’d expected rain. I stopped at one of the souvenir shops to get my stick stamped, and was extremely happy to have made it all the way up. The American guys followed, adding a 1996 stamp to those from their previous trip in 1994. Geez, some people really are dedicated.

I sat down for a rest near the real summit, about fifty meters higher. It’s just a mound topped with another torii. I was amazed when I realised that Mike was sitting across from me. He’d failed to reach the summit for sunrise as well, watching it from about 100m higher than me. Alongside me a Japanese girl was applying sunscreen, and I wished I had some. That was the one thing which noone had suggested I bring!

We climbed all the way up to the summit to take some photos, and I collected a few stones as souvenirs. At 3776m this was the highest I’d ever been while still connected to the ground. Mt Fuji is a volcano, so on top is a large crater, and a strange building which looks to be either a radar station, tracking center or listening post. I have no idea of which it might be.

Prices were still surprisingly reasonable, at ¥500 for a cold can from the vending machine. Not that I think ¥500 is reasonable, but there’s no other way you’ll get something to drink that high up the mountain. I wondered how they got all these things up there, but then a helicopter flew over and I guessed that explained it. The buildings looked like the sort I’d expect to find at an Arctic research station, presumably because they’re closed up and snow-covered for much of the year.

The Crater

After a brief look around the crater it was time to head down. This follows a seperate route with crushed lava tracks zigzagging right down the side of the mountain. Luckily even at 3700m descending is easy and I was able to make good time. I left the summit at 8am and was at the sixth station by 10:30.

Being somewhat scared of heights I was now glad that I hadn’t been able to see much other than the path on the way up. The steep drop down the mountain was very scenic, but a little scary. I stayed away from it on the other side of the path. From the top the green forest we’d started from looked very far away (OK, it was at least a km below), and didn’t seem to get much closer.

Trudging Back Down

I soon removed the trenchcoat and shirts, and at the emergency hut between the seventh and eighth stations I had to stop to cool down. Until then I’d been travelling fairly slowly on the slippery path, but was so tired and desperate to get home that I decided to rush the rest of it. Soon I was overtaking everyone else who was heading down.

As I reached the edge of the forest I passed a number of horses who were giving rides, and passed more on the way to the sixth station. After a brief chat with an American woman on her way up who had as little idea of what lay ahead as I had the previous day, I was off to back to the start. More horses walked through the woods and someone was selling cart-rides, presumably to the other weary climbers.

I picked up the ticket I’d reserved and sat on the steps near the bus stop, hallucinating from exhaustion. I would have slept, but didn’t want to miss the bus. I did sleep on most of the trip back, and was very glad to get home to bed. Sadly I only had time for a couple of hours sleep before I had to be off for laundry-duty and to collect some money as I was by now almost out. I finished the day off with a celebratory visit to the noodle shop nearby, where I tried to follow the plot of the Japanese action show on the TV.

Phew. The most common question I’ve been asked since I did this is ‘Was it fun?’. I’m really not sure how to answer that. It was a lot of fun until the ninth station, after which continuing to the top was a real effort. I was also ecstatic when I got up there. Coming back down was just a pain in comparison. Surprisingly I didn’t have much trouble walking the next day, which I’d expected.

I’m certainly glad that I did it when I had the chance and would recommend it to other visitors, but if you do decide to try it I think I’ll stay at the bottom and wave you off. I think I now understand the somewhat ambivalent comments that I received from some of the other people who’d climbed the mountain before me. It really has to be experienced, it cannot be adequately described.

Other Fuji Links

A number of other people on the Net have climbed Mt Fuji and written about their experiences. There are also some information sites on the Web, one of which even allows you to view the mountain in realtime.

Ah, back to Tokyo. I expected to be away more than a week, but in those temperatures I really didn’t feel like it. If I’d known I would have bought a rail pass outside the country and saved some money. Not a big deal, and I’ll know in the future!

Changing money in Japan takes an age. You have to fill in a form which then seems to be analysed by at least three people before the money is handed over. The banks are also strange compared to Britain in that they just have people at counters, with no armored glass to hide behind. I guess there are no armed robberies in Japan?

I missed most of the scenery on the way back. Part of that was because I spent a lot of the time asleep, and part because of low clouds and rain on the Eastern part of the route. At least I could tell that I was going fast from the way the raindrops went upwards as they were blown back along the windows. However being unable to see Mt Fuji because of the bad weather was somewhat disconcerting.

I was intending to return to Marui House, where I’d stayed in Tokyo before, but that was full. Instead I spent the first couple of days in ‘Villa Yamanote’ (named after the Yamanote railway line which passes close to it), another gaijin house owned by the same woman. When someone left I was able to move back into my old room and meet up with some of the people who’d been staying there before.

Villa Yamanote was fine except that it was in a fairly sleepy part of town (near Shin-okubo station) and inhabited by a mad Frenchman. I think he was just lonely, but that wasn’t surprising as I never heard him talk about anything except how bad France was, and was dragged into the loud discussions on a couple of occasions. Perhaps I’m just too nice, but I really did feel like telling him that I couldn’t care less about Europe, which was why I was in Japan…

Another guy was visiting from Israel and making a living as a juggler. I met him outside on the street as he practiced with his new batons, the old ones having disappeared in the mail from Hong Kong. He hadn’t yet tried lighting them as the balance was different. Another couple were Australians who had been studying Aikido and Japanese and were taking a tour of the country before returning to Australia.

The first night back I hurried off to the Internet Cafe I’d visited before, only to find the door locked and the signs missing. I guess it closed down in the time I was away! Seems like half the Net Cafes around the world close down when I’m around, in future I shall try to find a worldwide dialup PPP service and use that, or perhaps just wait for cheap sattelite phones.

Instead I visited the Warung I Balinese restaurant on the grounds that I’d never eaten Balinese food before. The food was great, but beer was expensive and service took forever. If I’m ever in Tokyo on an expense account I’ll give it another try.

Shibuya is a pretty busy part of town at night, and full of touts of one sort or another. One guy was trying very hard to persuade me to sign up to some kind of cheap international phone service even though he hardly spoke English and I’m only in Japan for a few more days. One very odd guy came up to me as I was watching the big TV screen on the side of one of the buildings, and asked if he could pray for me. I have no idea what sort of cult he belonged to, but wished I had my ULC ordination card with me. Hopefully being an ordained minister would have got rid of him.

Otherwise I’ve been trying to plan a trip to Mt Fuji and fit in all the places I’d marked in my guidebook to visit. I’ve been told that I should reserve a place in a hut on the mountain rather than just turn up, so that means I’ll be going on Friday instead of tomorrow. John, one of the Americans who’s staying at Marui House, has offered to lend me his wet-weather gear, which will come in handy. He’s another person who’s done this before and had to buy his while half-way up the mountain! After all this I’d better go and climb it now.

I managed to find another Internet Cafe in Harajuku, which was more expensive but pleasant. Persuading them to let me use the floppy drive took a long time though. Harajuku is actually quite a cool place, with lots of weird people wandering around and ‘Condomania’, a store selling any kind of condom that you might desire. Even in mid-week there were a few freaky people hanging around Yoyogi Park when I went back for a longer look. It’s not the most impressive Park in Tokyo but not bad for an afternoon walk – and free.

Oh, another neat little thing about Japan – on some of the pedestrian crossings, as well as the red and green lights they also have a set of red bars alongside which count down to the time when the lights change, so you know how long you’ll have to wait! One strange thing though. The kanji for Tokyo station is two space invaders, and many of the trains have Schwa alien symbols on the windows, but at forty-five degrees. Does this mean that the Tokyo railway system has been taken over by aliens?

Today I moved house and stopped off at the Nezu Fine Art Museum, which was nice but a bit disappointing. They have a large collection there, but the galleries are so small that perhaps only 2-3% of it is on show at any one time. However, the gardens were nice and also free. I did find a nice postcard of a painting of a cat to send to my mother…

I also marked the rest of the route on the world map that I’m carrying. The dotted lines are slowly turning solid as I travel, and my large wad of plane tickets is diminishing. Whew, I’ve been travelling for nearly seven weeks now, and have plenty more to go before I get back to Europe. I feel as though years have passed since I was in Bangkok.

Well, there ends another very short update. My brain is so fried by the heat that I’m not writing much, which is probably a good thing. Tonight I shared a rice dinner that John cooked, and we chatted with a couple of middle-aged women who’d just arrived from England via Rome. They have a slight problem in that they were intending to pay for part of the trip on one’s credit card but her son accidentally cut it up the day before she flew out, thinking it was the old one which had just expired. Ooops… As we talked a couple of people rang offering jobs as buskers or jazz dance teachers, but they didn’t feel like trying either of them to supplement the money they had.

The Traditional Sunset Shot

Ooh, there’s a TV program on about the Florida Keys, I kept meaning to go there, but never got around to it. Kind of ties in with a dream I had last night about going to see a space shuttle launch but missing it (I have lots of dreams like that, for obvious reasons). The dream came true to some extent, I was about two hours late waking up.

The world is starting to seem rather like London did until recently. I lived near there for several years and when my friends had fewer babies and mortgages to deal with I visited the city a lot. Most of the time I used the underground (subway) and so it felt like a lot of little islands of streets that I knew seperated by vast expanses of the unknown. Only when my friend Pey-Wen came to visit and took me walking around the city did I discover how they all fit together. Now I know my way around parts of Bangkok, Taipei, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc, but in between is just airports and trains. I hope that eventually I’ll be able to fill in a lot more of the gaps, but that could take a few decades… my world map is slowly filling up with the lines showing the route I’ve taken, and just for fun I thought I’d start occasionally including a table showing the limits of my travels.

The Inland Sea

Still, I now know that Hiroshima is on what the Japanese refer to as the ‘Inland Sea’. It’s not truly landlocked like the Caspian Sea, but more like the Aegean, a body of water surrounded by large islands. In the middle are many smaller islands and lots of boats. From Hiroshima the island of Miya-jima is only a half-hour tram ride and five-minute ferry ride away.

The Floating Torii (At Low Tide)

The island is most famous for the Itsukushima-jinja shrine, which appears on many tourist posters and in many Japanese guidebooks. For many centuries no commoners were allowed to set foot on the island, so to visit the shrine they had to come by boat and pass through the ‘floating torii’ (the large wooden square archway on the approach to a Japanese shrine) out at sea. There are also a number of very large parks, and Mt Misen in the middle. I stocked up with a large bottle of drink and some munchies, then headed out.

The first thing I noticed after getting off the ferry were the deer wandering around and dozing in the shade of the trees in front of the souvenir shops. They seem perfectly tame and were quite happy to be petted by the kids. They did, however, take a very strong liking to any bags which smelt even remotely of food.

Deer

Down on the beach people were hunting for things amongst the gungy seaweed which covered the lower half, and more deer were fighting over the remains of a large cardboard box. The tide was low, so I walked out towards the torii for a closer look. The red paint was faded, and the lower four feet or so covered with barnacles. Just above them many people had inscribed graffiti. The seaweed appeared to be alive with crabs, and more rushed away into deep holes whenever I put a foot down on the wet sand.

Having satisfied my curiosity, soaked my trainers and socks, and worked out that I wasn’t going to see the famous sight until high tide, I decided to head for the top of Mt Misen. The weather was too damn hot so I invested $15 in a cable-car trip. Even that required a long walk through the park to find the bottom of the cable. That would have been very nice on a cool day. As I walked through a single-file group of deer adopted a collison course, but must have decided at the last minute that I had no food, and turned away.

Buddha Bear?

The cable-car trip was quite fun and gave some good views of the city from above the trees. I was sure glad that I’d decided to take it and not try to walk – the mountain top was much further away than it appeared from the description in the guide book. At the top visitors were requested to leave bags in lockers because it was also a monkey sanctuary. I’d already finished my 1.5 liter bottle of apple-juice drink so I dumped it and grabbed a can, which only lasted a few seconds.

Outside the terminus were some funny warning signs, including one drawing of a monkey sinking his fangs into the arm of a tourist who’d tried to stare him out. Above was a viewing area and some seats, from where you could see most of the other islands in the Inland Sea. I considered calling that the peak and going back, but hell, I was almost there… or so I thought.

Funny Signs

I walked past the crowds of monkeys and along the path, which rather worryingly began to descend. It slowly began climbing again then weaved around the mountain past various shrines, one containing a pot over a fire which has supposedly been burning since around 800CE. Some were closed as this was now quite late in the day.

Mt Misen is claimed to be 526m tall, but seems closer to infinite. As in Zeno’s Paradox, just when you think you’ve reached the top you find another set of steps about half as long as the previous set. I was soon glad that there was a promised rest house at the summit. The steps began to pass through rocky areas, then came to a stop at a small shrine. Oops… no rest house. Luckily I spotted a gap between two large rocks, and it was hidden behind.

Recovering At The Summit

Prices were high, but the view from the roof was great, with Hiroshima, the surrounding towns and the islands spread out in front of me. I was then really glad that I’d gone to the trouble of going up there. However, I didn’t have much time to look around as I needed to be back for the last cable-car, so soon I was on my way back down.

By the time I returned to the shore the shrine was closed but the torii was surrounded by water. I snapped off a few pictures and took the ferry back to Hiroshima, then changed my clothes and finished off the day at a Japanese curry shop. Their idea of curry is certainly different to the English variety, but still very nice. Sort of rice and bread-crumb coated chicken with curry sauce. Cheap too…

Where I’ve been

  • Furthest North: John O’Groats
  • Furthest South: Singapore
  • Furthest East: Tokyo
  • Furthest West: San Francisco

Travel Tips

  • Don’t forget nail clippers!
  • Don’t buy 1/2 liter bottles of sunscreen, shampoo, etc – each weighs about half a kilo and you can buy it as you travel.

The A-Bomb Dome

Well, on to Hiroshima, a place-name that I’m sure most people will immediately recognize… Living here must be strange, with tens of thousands of foreigners visiting the city solely because they or their ancestors once destroyed it.

Japanese laundrettes are good, they even provide a stock of comics to read while you wait. I couldn’t understand much of the story, but I think that those in the Hiroshima laundrette must have been issues of ‘Big-Breasted Babes Weekly’. From the look of things a common Japanese sexual fantasy must be to be beaten up by high school girls in short skirts and stockings… Still, some of the mainstream American and British comics I’ve read weren’t much more restrained, and I guess there are worse things to do with your time.

Hiroshima River

It also had a vending machine for ‘Pocari Sweat’, so I finally got to try some. It does, indeed, taste a lot like Pocari Sweat (whatever a Pocari might be). To quote the can, “Pocari Sweat is a health-oriented drink which supplies water and electrolytes lost through perspiration. Pocari Sweat is highly recommended for such activities as sports, physical labor and even as an eye-opener in the morning.” It would have opened my eyes in the morning, that’s for sure…

Enough of that traditional “ain’t this place strange?” business. I’m really not like some of the people I’ve met here, moaning about how these foreigners do everything wrong and nothing would meet US safety standards. I didn’t come here to live with Westerners in expensive Western hotels and only venture out in air-conditioned coaches with Western guides. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the things you might find weird if you ever get to visit these places, or the neat little things that people in other countries do.

Cute Lamp In Peace Park

Incidentally, if you do find yourself having an urge to sell everything and run off around the world I’d recommend it. If you’re a native English speaker you should be able to get jobs teaching English (there were many job ads in Taipei), and if you’re female some of the Western women I’ve met regard hostessing here (basically chatting with Japanese businessmen and pouring their drinks) as well-paid, safe and not-very-illegal work. Hong Kong would probably be a different story… Either way, as long as you keep enough money for a plane ticket home you’re unlikely to get into too much trouble.

Hiroshima is a strange place for the obvious reasons. The famous A-bomb dome is located close to the point where the bomb exploded, and in the photos I’ve seen it always appeared to be in a large park. This is not entirely true. I took the tram from the station to the hotel, and was looking out of the windows as we approached the river. The route passes along a street packed with department stores, hotels, restaurants and McDonalds outlets, then suddenly there it is, the broken, skeletal remains of the old Industrial Promotion Hall, just as it was at 8:16am on August 6th 1945. The contrast is dramatic, and somehow makes the memorial far more poignant. Rather than being hidden away in parkland, you can clearly see that it was once just another workaday building in the city.

Hiroshima Tram

Across the river is the Peace Memorial Park, which at 8:14am that day was a bustling residential and commercial center and two minutes later was just rubble. Considering its background the Park is a very pleasant place and contains a number of memorials to the people who were killed. Aside from the Cenotaph which is dedicated to all the victims, possibly the most famous is the Children’s Peace Memorial. This was dedicated to a young girl who developed leukemia a few years after the bomb was dropped, and was convinced that if she could fold a thousand origami cranes the disease would be cured. When she died she was buried in a coffin full of cranes, and literally millions more are piled up at the various memorials around the Park, sent in by Japanese schoolchildren or left by visitors. Hidden away just across a bridge on the West side is a small memorial to the Koreans who died, many of whom were brought to Japan for forced labor in the factories, and accounted for more than 10% of the dead.

The A-Bomb Dome From The River

There are many other plaques around the city detailing the effects of the bomb. While looking for somewhere to eat the first night here I walked directly under the point where the bomb exploded and passed the old Bank of Japan building, one of the closest buildings to the explosion which is still in use after repairs. The two points are about a five minute walk apart. Many of the other concrete buildings in the city were only damaged by the bomb rather than destroyed, and several are still in use today. This is in part because much of the damage occured in the firestorm which followed the explosion, and concrete survived where wood was completely burnt away.

Returning from ‘Spaghetteria San Mario’ (a cheap and interesting pasta restaurant where I can recommend the Japanese seafood spaghetti and Darjeeling ice-cream) the A-bomb dome was a spooky sight lit from the inside against the night sky.

The locals, however, seem to treat the whole area as just another park. As I stood gazing at the ruins a group were holding an impromptu ballroom-dancing lesson nearby and some teenagers on the other side of the river were letting off fireworks (another favorite Japanese pastime).

The Peace Park Memorial

The phone booth on the way back to the hotel is plastered with cards showing partially-naked girls and telephone numbers, so perhaps I’m in a somewhat dubious part of town again. They clearly do good business, as I’ve seen people in there most times that I’ve passed. The hotel, incidentally, is only about 1/4 of a mile from where the bomb dropped.

I wonder if when my parents read about that they ever imagined that one day one of their sons would spend a large part of an afternoon lounging on a park bench only a hundred yards from where it blew up. Hiroshima turned out to be not much colder than Kyoto.

Children's Peace Memorial

The A-bomb museum is quite fair in most respects and hard on both sides where appropriate. The exhibits are horrifying enough without needing much propaganda to go with them. Perhaps the only exceptions were that nuclear winter has been pretty much debunked and they made a fair amount out of the lack of warning before the bomb was dropped. As far as I remember (I don’t have any history books with me) that was just standard military incompetence – the planned leaflet drop was cancelled because of bad weather, but the attack still went ahead. They also made no mention of the Japanese nuclear weapons program.

Peace Park Paper Cranes

Anyway, I’m not going into the politics too much – I’ve read enough history to understand why the bombs were dropped, and aside from the radiation almost as many people were killed by the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. To me the real issue is not atomic bombs but the idea that indiscrimate slaughter of civilians is a worthy military tactic – I find that idea difficult to agree with. Once that was accepted the atomic bombings were inevitable. Many of the survivors on the videos seemed to agree with this, wanting to end wars as much as abolish nuclear weapons.

Otherwise Hiroshima is quite a nice city and worth visiting as a base for trips into the surrounding area. I was planning to visit the castle today but ran out of time. I wasn’t that upset because like many Japanese castles it was partially dismantled last century and the bomb flattened the rest. The current castle is a concrete replica, which looks rather pretty from a distance. Tomorrow I’m planning to visit one of the islands near here where there is a famous shrine.

Model Of Hiroshima After The Explosion

I have been eating well here. Aside from the sushi and spaghetti, today I finally stopped off for tempura, the Japanese equivalent of fish and chips. I can recommend it, it’s yummy. I’m glad I had a tolerant waiter, as he had to show me how to eat it with hand-gestures and demonstrations since he didn’t speak English. I am, though, starting to pick up a few words of Japanese (and Kanji characters) to go with the Chinese. I can see now what people mean about languages being easy to learn when you’re living in a foreign country.

Hmm, my bottle of ‘Afternoon Tea’ is almost finished, and I’ve been watching ‘Predator II’ in Japanese and a Japanese pop show while writing this. I don’t know what the current program is about except that a lot of Japanese girls are asking questions of a Japanese woman and the male host keeps getting in the way and making jokes.

A-Bomb Dome Closeup

On that subject I think that if there was one thing I could change about Japan it would be the way they treat women here. The younger generation seem a lot more relaxed, but there’s still an idea that they should have to marry young and stay home to look after the house. Also, many of the Western women I’ve met here have tales of being molested in crowded trains and all of them who’ve been here more than a few weeks have tales of seeing Japanese girls and women molested in similar circumstances. In most cases it’s just ignored.

Time for bed – more from Tokyo!

Catching Up On Email

I really do love Japan. From some of the stories I’ve heard about Japanese working hours and school discipline I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I lived here, but aside from the cost it’s a great place to be as a Western visitor. Fairly easy to get around and very friendly people who all seem to want you to like their culture.

Anyway, here I am in Hiroshima lounging around in my Yukata in a fairly traditional room in a cheap hotel. Should you ever come here then I’d recommend it, the place is called ‘Minshuku Ikedaya’ and it’s great for under $40 per night. It’s a little strange though, there’s a mix of about 50:50 Japanese and gaijin (foreigners) here, and the Japanese people mostly wander around in their normal clothes while us gaijin are taking the chance to pose in the traditional Japanese robes which come with the room.

In my opinion this place has the best combination where bathrooms are concerned, Japanese baths and Western toilets. The bath is communal and a lot like the hot-tubs I’ve visited in California. Wash and rinse before you get in, then soak for as long as you can last in the very hot water. Unlike the hot-tubs they aren’t usually intentionally mixed, though Margaux and Cathy (the two Australian girls I mentioned) did say that they had some problems with directions the first time they used one and ended up joining the men… I think I hit rush-hour, as this place only has fifteen rooms and we had about eight guys in the bathroom at once. Anyway, a soak at 40-50°C certainly does wake you up in the morning!

Oh, and air conditioning! Hallelujah to whoever invented air conditioning, because after three or four weeks without it I can see why we need it…

Back to the plot. I didn’t do much more in the way of sightseeing before I left Tokyo. By the time I’d chatted a lot more with the others in Marui House to find out more about transport and suchlike, booked my train ticket, done some laundry, etc, etc, there wasn’t much time left over. I have some ideas of the places I still want to see and should have a week when I get back.

War Dead Shrine

I was able to visit the Imperial Palace Gardens one day, but the sky was cloudy and light rain was falling so I didn’t stay long. I went on to the shrine to the Japanese war dead and the shrine museum. I’d seen that on TV a few months ago in a documentary about the Japanese Kamikaze pilots and there were many displays there about the numerous different suicide attacks. I’d heard about the planes before I came here, but didn’t realise that they also had manned torpedos, suicide motorboats with large explosive charges attached and even men in diving suits carrying bombs on long poles which would detonate if pushed against the underside of a ship. Like most people I’m still astonished by the whole idea. I can understand the reasons, but I’m still amazed that they actually did it.

Most of the museum was in Japanese rather than English, but I was
given a leaflet which explained some of it. One unexpected display was dedicated to the female nurses who had been killed during the war, one of whom had accumulated an impressive collection of pressed flowers, and another included a wooden plaque on which was mounted a bent piece of metal. This was part of a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine and years later presented to the surviving crew members by the survivors of the USS North Carolina, “with apologies for the damage we did when we hit it”.

I was slightly concerned when I was visiting the shrine that I might offend someone whose relatives had been killed in the war, but aside from one strange look no-one seemed to care. About half the people in the museum were Westerners, including Mark from Marui House who also ended up there. I’ve felt the same way in Hiroshima, and a couple of older people seem to have freaked out when they saw me walking along the street.

Ota (Cherry Blossom) Suicide Bomb

One major crisis occured when Margaux and Cathy had their money and passports stolen, a real surprise in such a relatively safe society as Japan. They had moved out and were looking for an apartment, but because of the theft I last saw them sleeping on the floor outside the door of my room. They were able to borrow some money so hopefully they’ll be sorted out by the time I get back. Luckily both of them had travelled a lot before so they could deal with having that happen on their second or third day in the country.

I took a look around some of the big shopping areas in Tokyo while searching for Net Cafes. I did find one in the Sony building where the company show off all their new toys, and they even had some computers on display with Net connections but no keyboards so I got to check out some Web sites. The Net Cafe was a lot like the one in Thailand, very flash and no way to use the floppy drives. I’m coming to the opinion that they’re really split into two categories. The cheap ones seem to be run by people who know about computers and realise what I can do with just a mouse and modem, while the expensive ones are run by people who know about Cafes and are very paranoid about the computers – you can’t use a floppy drive in case it has a virus, but you can reformat the hard disk or delete all the files by hand. Luckily I also found one of the former in Shibuya (‘Dream Train Internet Cybercafe’), and it’s damn cheap at only ¥500 (<$5) per hour. They even provide free iced tea.

Japan is very much a cash economy. Few places take credit cards and even when buying a $200 train ticket you usually have to pay in cash. This can make life tricky as banks are only open until 3pm during the week and some to noon on Saturdays, and are about the only place to change money. Very few ATMs will take foreign credit cards and almost none will take foreign ATM cards (the wondrous exception being the 24-hour Citibank machine in Shibuya – Hallelujah). Worse still, many ATMs are in the banks themselves (in Japan just about anything is available from vending machines, including bottles of whiskey, but they won't risk leaving ATMs out on the street) and unavailable outside bank hours.

Consequently you need to sure to always carry enough cash to last a day and preferably enough to last a weekend. I'm not used to carrying $300 around with me in cash, in most countries so far I've been able to take money from my bank account from ATMs whenever I needed it and in China I only spent about $120 total in ten days and rarely had more than $20 cash with me. Should you ever be stuck for cash in Tokyo, the aforementioned Citibank machine is opposite the second '109 Building' after you leave Shibuya Station, and should take most foreign ATM cards. Should you need Internet access, the Net Cafe is opposite the first '109 Building'.

As expected, I gave up and took the 'shink' to Osaka. The trains are very efficient and airline-like, to the extent that your ticket tells you which seat you will be sitting in and there are marks on the platform to show you where the door will be when the train stops, exactly on time. With comfy seats and travelling at well over 100 mph they're pretty good for the price. I even got a window seat so I was able to see a lot of the scenery. Much of the trip was through urban areas, but I saw quite a lot of rice growing and forested mountains. Another TV crew was filming at Tokyo station, but this time I think they missed me.

The Shink

The ryokan (inn) I stayed at in Osaka was nothing special but OK for a couple of days. I was slightly worried when I arrived because the ground floor was in pieces while workmen renovated it, but at least they didn't make much noise. As there were only two floors this did mean that only about four people were staying there and the bath was out of action. Outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, where most of the gaijin houses are located, the ryokans and minshuku seem to be the best places to stay. Prices vary from about $35 per night to $500+ per night depending on location, opulence and services, but those at the low end are OK.

Getting there took a long subway-ride then walk through a large shopping center, and that made me wish that I could have reduced my baggage-load even more. I'm still tempted to wrap my video-camera up in my sleeping bag and mail both back to my parents. In Tokyo I was using my space blanket (aluminized plastic sheet) for bedding and aside from crinkling a bit at night it seemed to work as well as the sleeping bag but folds up to about half the size of a Coke can. If any of you ever want to make this kind of trip, or if I do it again, I'd recommend just taking one of those (about $10 from camping stores) and leaving the sleeping bag at home.

There have also been odd times during the trip when I've woken up in the morning and wondered what the hell I was doing and if I should just buy a plane ticket back home, and I had some trouble getting out of bed to the airport in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The problem isn't anything like homesickness (I suspect that if I have a home these days then it's the Internet), I think the primary reason is just all the hassle of having to pack and take a bus to the airport, check in, etc, etc. Hopefully that won't be so much of a problem in the future as I'll only be flying every two or three weeks.

This whole trip seems to be split into two chunks, the bits where I have people to visit and the bits where I'm by myself. So far I've been tending to do more when I'm visiting people and I also get a much better idea of what life is really like in the places that I'm travelling to. When I'm by myself I'm often quite lazy and I've probably missed several places that I really should have visited. However, after years of working in an office that's made a nice break.

I do think sometimes that really the people are turning out to be more important to me than the places, because as much as I like history, I'm more interested in seeing how people live in different countries than just seeing old buildings and parks. What I really like is having people around to say 'hey look, this is how we do things in my country – isn't it neat?' I've certainly enjoyed the times when I've been visiting people far more.

In Kyoto I was able to do both. Months ago Shozo, a guy from Osaka, posted to soc.penpals about the club he was running at the university, dedicated to encouraging interaction between Japanese and English-speaking people in the area. He was looking for English-speakers to come along and give talks, but I mailed him and suggested that I dropped by while I was in the area. We arranged to meet up while I was here and he'd show me some of the sights. Osaka was holding a big festival that day but as that meant it would be very crowded we decided to meet up in Kyoto instead. The city is one of the big historical sites in Japan. He seemed pleased because he'd replied to many similar messages from people around the world and now finally one of them had turned up and called him!

To get there I had my first taste of the normal Japanese trains, the express only took about twice as long as the shinkansen and was much cheaper. I'm sure that a similar distance in England would cost a lot more. Kyoto station was just as confusing as Ikebukuro and I was worried that we'd miss each other again, but luckily we didn't. Kyoto itself was very, very hot and at 36°C I suspect it was the hottest place I've ever been.

We visited the movie studios as Kyoto is apparently also the center of the Japanese movie industry and I took a film foundation course just before this trip. The places we were able to visit were quite interesting as examples of old Japanese sets, and we watched as some scenes were filmed for a Japanese Samurai TV show. As we did so I spoke for a while with a Japanese businessman who seemed for some reason to be convinced that coming from England I must be a Knight. I don't think I managed to explain to him that I wasn't!

The souvenir shops were very unusual, selling everything from T-shirts (I was going to buy one but those that I liked were too small) to nunchaku and brass knuckles. I looked around for something I could buy for my parents but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Shozo bought himself a very nice towel, and afterwards I wished I had too so I could have sent mine back – it's very thick which is nice, but heavy…

We also took a look at one of the shrines near the river. One thing I'd noticed in Osaka was that a lot of people seemed to be sleeping rough – seven or eight spent the night on cardboard on the forecourt of the gas station near the ryokan. More seemed to be living under the bridge in Kyoto. I'd seen none in Tokyo and was surprised to see them out here. I can only assume that either I was living in too touristy a part of Tokyo, or Kansai (that whole area) is just poorer than Tokyo.

There were also a few cormorants out in the water. Cormorant fishing is traditional in this part of Japan. The fishermen tie string to the birds and let them catch fish, then pull them in. The string around the neck prevents them from swallowing, so the fishermen can then recover the fish. Opinions vary on whether they make more money from selling the fish or running tours nowadays.

Fishing does seem to be pretty big in Japan though, most of the times when I've turned on the TV there's been a fishing show on at least one channel. Japanese fishing rods seem to be very high-tech, some even include an LCD readout of the amount of line you've reeled out… The Japanese game shows I've seen seem pretty bizarre, but the ads are the best. I can understand what two or three of them are for, but that's about it.

Back in Kyoto, the Yasaka-jinja shrine was very pleasant, much more colorful than the one in Tokyo, and Shozo and his friend (a girl who stayed with the same family when he was an exchange student in Durham) showed me the correct etiquette at a Shinto shrine. We also stopped for a little while to scratch the temple cat who was dozing in the shade. Perhaps I should have joined him. The grounds were very pretty with large ponds containing fish and turtles.

In the evening we visited a Japanese restaurant where I was able to try various dishes that I'd never had before. The octopus was a bit strange, but I liked the rest. He reminded me that I was eating beef, as I'd forgotten about all the hysteria about British Beef since I'd left the country. I hadn't been eating much over there but was now just treating it as another dish on the menu. Anyway, we were given raw beef tongue and a hotplate to cook it on, and it tasted nice.

I did want to stay in Osaka another day, but failed to communicate this with the staff at the ryokan, or perhaps they had no rooms, so I set off for Hiroshima instead. Turning up at the station there were no seats available for a couple of hours on the normal shinkansen, so there I was supposedly on a budget but zipping along on the 'Nozomi Super-Express' shinkansen, the fastest train in Japan at nearly a hundred and eighty mph. Hell, the difference in price was only about five dollars and at the rate I was going I'd have got through more than that in cold drinks before the two hours were up. I was so hot that I'd drunk six cans in the two hours between leaving the ryokan and getting on the train!

Oh, on that subject I can recommend the 'Royal Milk Tea' and 'Kirin Afternoon Tea' (at least the one in white cans). Both are very yummy, hot or cold. Cold is preferable as drinking hot tea out of a metal can presents obvious problems.

Nozomi Super-Express

The super-express was impressive. The normal shinkansen engines have a sort of friendly face look at the front. The Nozomi trains look far more businesslike and even threatening, and seem like something out of a Gerry Anderson SF show. Just looking at the first few feet of the train you can tell that they're fast. I really should have taken a few photos but my brain was too fried to even think about it.

The trip was pleasant, but I didn't see much scenery. Part of that was because of all the tunnels along the way and part of it was because I spent most of it talking. Sitting alongside me was Hiroshi Maeyama, a businessman running the sales department of a company making parts for compressors. Bizarrely enough the company he worked for has a British branch in Milton Keynes, only a few miles from where I was working there, so he knew the area. He lived in Chiba. I did mention Gibson's novels, but I don't think he'd ever heard of the guy.

Along the way I mentioned that I'd never had a proper sushi dinner, just on airplanes, and as neither of us had eaten he invited me to join him for lunch after we arrived at Hiroshima. We went to a sushi restaurant in the station and had a very nice lunch there. This time the octopus tasted much nicer, and the meal included other seafood that I'd never tried before such as sea urchin. Although I was expecting to split the bill he even treated me. That was very kind, and I guess I now have my own story of wonderful Japanese hospitality to add to the many I have heard in the past.

Ah well, the beer's run out and the time is nearly 1am. I'll leave this for now and write more about Hiroshima in a day or two! Kampai!

The Meiji-jingu Shrine

Luckily Japan isn’t quite as expensive as I’d heard. Or at least Tokyo isn’t. You can survive quite comfortably in the city for about $40 per day, but if you want to do more than that your cost of living increases rapidly. Staying in a gaijin house (basically a Japanese-style house full of foreigners, most of them working in the country) will cost $25-30 per day and another $10-15 per day will buy you two large bowls of noodles and some munchies.

Travel is another problem. I’m supposed to meet some people in Osaka on the 25th, and then want to travel on to Hiroshima and possibly visit Kyoto on the way back. The train fares would be a minimum of about $240, and taking the shinkansen (which we know as ‘bullet trains’) would be more like $400. I want to save the money, but they’re so much more convenient that I may just load up my Visa card. The big problem is that they go direct, but on the normal trains you have to change five times to go from Tokyo to Osaka. I really don’t fancy that with all my gear. Ah well, my worst-case budget allowed $100 per day in Japan, so I’ll still come in under that. I hope…

Well, here I am in Tokyo, and I’ve done pretty well for the first two-and-a-half days. In fact I think I’m still around my $50 per day budget so far. This is, of course, because I haven’t done too much. The day I arrived I didn’t get to the house until 8pm (more on that later), then stayed up ’til 4am talking to people. Heavy rain came down overnight and poured until late the next day, and I was up chatting until the early hours again. I’m told that there’s a typhoon near here and the rain we’re seeing is the extreme edge of it.

I’d planned to be climbing Mt Fuji tonight, but after checking the weather forecast and talking to a couple of guys who’ve already done it (they agreed with the Japanese saying `a man is wise to climb Mt Fuji, but a fool to do it twice’) I’m going to leave that until I get back from Hiroshima, climb up during the day and stay overnight at the summit to see the sunrise. That’s another trip which will be fairly expensive (the huts at the summit charge about $40 for a mattress for the night) but it’s one of the things I really wanted to do when I came here. As I may never return to Japan I’d better at least try to do it this time.

Instead, therefore, I’ve been chatting to one of the American guys who’s staying here and catching up on this writing business. I couldn’t understand why I seemed to have spent so much time in front of this computer until I did a word-count. So far I’ve written about 35,000 words in my journal and 20,000 words in these update messages. Phew, at that rate by the time I get home I could have written a couple of novels. This is also why I haven’t written too much personal email, I’ve been so busy with the rest of it!

BTW, in case you’re wondering why some of these messages are in straight chronological order and go into tremendous detail whereas others are chatty and jump around a lot, that all depends on how much time I have and how far behind I am in the journal. If I’m in a hurry and I’ve already written the journal entries then I just censor^H^H^H^H^H^Hedit them down and mail them out, otherwise I write this from scratch and then edit it and expand it for the journal. I’m hoping that the messages I’m sending aren’t too long for people as I’m sure I’m often going into far more detail than I should. Let me know if I’m boring anyone. Sorry too for the garbage which appears in some of the emailed messages, but that’s so that people reading the Web version have some explanatory links to follow, or special formatting – if you’re using Netscape mail then you should also see them.

One of the really nice things about this country is that ordering food is a breeze. In Hong Kong or Taiwan, for example, the menu was usually in Chinese and the staff often didn’t speak English. Here the staff usually don’t speak English but even the cheap noodle shops usually have menus with pictures and most places have plastic replicas of the food they sell on show in the windows. In the worst case you can pick something you like the look of and copy down the kanji to show to the staff. Japan is also full of vending machines (from ‘Pocari Sweat’ to rumored machines dispensing used high-school girls’ panties) and one restaurant had the bright idea of setting up a vending machine with pictures of all the dishes on the buttons. Put your money in, pick the dish and hand over the ticket when you sit down. Neat. Of course the result of this is that I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t recognize, but that’s half the fun.

I’m thinking of starting a guide to 7-11 stores around the world. Unlike some American chains they have a very different selection of goods on offer in different countries (as do the other store chains like Circle-K). In Hong Kong there were a lot of munchies like potato chip plus many kinds of preserved fruit and other fairly Chinese food. In Taiwan they added very nice hot dumplings and tea eggs. Here in Japan they have shelf after shelf of those things that I can’t recognize, with labels that I can’t decipher. I guess I’ll try some before I go and see if I can work out what they are.

I’m staying in ‘Marui House’ in Ikebukuro, which isn’t a bad place for a short stay. The long-term residents have a lot of complaints, but so far it’s been fine. I have a small Japanese-style room with a futon and fan, with a shared kitchen and bathroom down below. As far as I’ve seen there are no cockroaches and according to one of the residents the only rat they ever saw turned its nose up and scampered away after a brief look. It’s far better than the place I had in Hong Kong, and only costs a little more ($26 per night).

The main business in the surrounding area seems to be strip shows, the sidewalks are full of advertising boards showing cute Japanese girls wearing part of a school uniform or bikini. With a $50-150 cover charge I’m sure they’d better be good…

The flight to Japan was, well, different. I had a couple of scares before I took off. Firstly I checked the exchange rates between NT$ and ¥ and mistakenly worked out that there were ¥60 to $1 rather than ¥110, and then when I went to check-in China Airlines wouldn’t give me a seat because I hadn’t reconfirmed it. This is bizarre, as only one airline has ever wanted me to reconfirm any flight, and none has ever expected me to reconfirm the first flight on a ticket. Luckily, after a long wait while yet more school kids interviewed me, I got the last seat on the plane (literally, right at the back) and just had time to change my remaining money and get to the gate before it took off. There was no safety demo (not that I really bother watching any more, but that’s still unusual) and several ‘Remove Before Flight’ tags were still in place. I considered liberating one as a souvenir but thought better of it. The plane was full of yet more astoundingly cute Taiwanese girls, both as passengers and crew. Sigh

On the plane I was faced with only the second sushi meal in my lifetime and I still couldn’t remember whether I was supposed to eat the black bits surrounding the rice or not. The rest of the trip the Taiwanese kid in the seat next to me was staring at everything I was doing on the computer and was particularly impressed with Doom. I noticed that most of the people returning from the toilets behind me also slowed down for a surreptitious look at what this strange gaijin was up to. I was starting to feel even more like a cyberpunk and scanning through the guidebook I wondered if I should make a stop in Chiba, where several of Gibson’s characters hung out. Unfortunately I doubt that the genetic engineering shops have been built yet.

Immigration took over an hour, and then when I walked through customs with a rucksack and a passport with recent stamps from Thailand they were not impressed. They questioned me for ten minutes, then checked all my bags and even my shoes. This was completely bizarre as they failed to look in most of the places where I would have put things if I had wanted to smuggle something in. Perhaps they were just bored. Anyway, I chatted about Sumo for a few minutes with one of the customs guys and then they gave up and let me go. Just over two hours after the plane landed I was finally in the arrivals hall.

The monorail and train ride to Ikebukuro added another hour or so and then I spent another half-hour just looking for the right exit from the station. It’s so large and the signs are so confusing that finding my way around was pretty tricky. Eventually I escaped and arrived at Marui House soaked with sweat and ready for a shower and change of clothes. Again I’d read that Japan should be cool, but it wasn’t. Not as bad as Taipei though.

Sunday after the rain stopped I headed for Yoyogi Park where the Tokyo freaks hang out. I was planning to visit the Net Cafe near there if I could find it, but had arranged to meet a net.friend at 7pm so had little time. I was sidetracked on the way by the Meiji-jingu Shrine, one of the best Shinto shrines in Japan. It was very different to the shrines I’d seen in China and the rest of Asia, but quite pretty. The cloudy sky rather let it down in that respect.

One interesting thing about the shrine were all the prayers which had been left there. People write them on wooden blocks which they then tie onto frames under trees. There were hundreds there wishing for everything from money and good jobs to boyfriends.

Yoyogi Park Rockers

The Park was entertaining but quite empty. Outside the gates some Japanese rockers with a boombox were giving a very impressive dance display, and inside the rollerbladers were showing off. The real weirdoes were hanging out on a bridge over the railway line. One girl was putting on a very strange dancing display and another kept stripping down to her underwear so that people could be photographed with her. The punks seemed quite normal in comparison.

I returned to Ikebukuro station to meet my friend, but didn’t find him. As I said it’s a really confusing place and I suspect that we ended up at different exits. I told him to meet me at one particular exit, then later discovered that there are two exits which are both signposted with the same name. Aaaarghhh… He’s off to China now so I guess that’s the last chance.

Instead I ate then returned to the house. Another American guy had just moved in and two of the Australian girls (are all Australians that tall, or just the ones who travel?) returned to tell us all about their experiences in Yokohama the night before. They’d met a couple of Japanese guys who’d taken them to a car show. The cars and vans all pulled into a car park and then showed off their stereos. They played loud music while the passers-by danced to it. Another car was fitted with a remote-control suspension so that the owner could stand back and make it ‘dance’ along. Must be something about Yokohama and cars as I’m supposed to go to an X1/9 owners’ club meeting there the Saturday after next. That will be nice, as I’ve only seen one X1/9 in the whole of Asia, a red one parked near my friend’s house in Taipei. That will probably make me nostalgic for mine though, sniff.

My Red X1/9. I had a black one too.

(For those who don’t know what an X1/9 is, it’s a tiny little two-seater Italian sports car. In many respects it’s half a Ferrari, basically the same design with the engine behind the seats and a lift-off roof, but two-thirds the size, with half the engine and half the performance. Very cute and a lot of fun to drive because it’s like an adult’s go-kart, just think about moving the steering wheel and the car turns. Or if you’re brave like me, you can steer with the gas pedal instead. Fun!)

Their friends turned up to take them out again and we were invited to see their ¥8,000,000 ($80,000) Chevy Astro Van. This was like no Astro Van I’ve seen before. Aside from the three cellular phones and GPS sattelite navigation system the entire trunk area was full of speakers and amplifiers. I couldn’t work it out exactly, but from the brochure they showed us the system appeared to be at least a thousand watts and required its own power supply seperate to the van’s battery. The large one-farad capacitors hidden away in one corner were also a little disconcerting. We all admired it from a distance just in case they turned it on by accident.

All in all, Japan’s a very interesting place so far and I have an itinerary that I think I can afford. Fingers crossed…

P.S. At 2am the rain is pouring down outside so heavily that I can’t hear myself type over the noise it’s making. I’m sure glad I’m not half-way up the mountain tonight…