Sunday, August 9, 2009

From the Sky of Nippon

I have a hard time keeping track of days unless I wake up in my own bed. Since I haven't done that in about ten and a half months, my sense of time is completely off-kilter. Then there's my sleep (ha) schedule. It feels like it wasn't that long ago since I last posted, but I've got three complete entries running around my head with a lot of extra material to make a fourth or fifth. Plus there's some great material for a tips post I've been getting help with. But since it's a post that will only help half of you, It'll have to wait just a bit longer. I'll try to splice down excerpts to make one complete post.

First, this view. This gorgeous sunrise view from several hundred meters above the clouds. It was enough to make crowds around me give three cheers of “Banzai!” when the sun was already up. I was too exhausted to join in. I'd been up all night climbing this stupid mountain, and without any canned oxygen. Blame my testosterone for that decision. Like just about everyone who climbs to this place, I started halfway up already. Unlike most of them, I was at the top in four hours, for no good reason.

There's a saying that a wise man climbs Mt Fuji, but a fool would do it twice. I'm no fool. I caught the very last bus from Tokyo so that I could start around 10pm, making the top in time for the 4:45am sunrise. I started from the fifth station with a jacket, hat, and a borrowed headlamp. By the sixth station, I'd taken them all off again. I was too warm, and the nearly full moon was plenty to see by, as long as I hadn't been blinded by any other tourist's flashlights along the way. The climb had all the visual appeal of climbing up a gravel construction site at a 45-degree angle for hours. At first it was easy, I was just walking up switchbacks past lines of hundreds of tourists staying resolutely in a snail-paced single file following a leader with two blinking red light sticks. There were supposed to be ten stations altogether, but they stretched into lines of huts selling water and instant soup and letting people stay the night sleeping on a packed floor for $80 a night. There seemed to be more station than trail at some points.

Then came the parts where I started using my hands. It wasn't until then that I turned around and realized that I was actually above the clouds. Then the altitude kicked in. I was back to walking without my hands, but after a while, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I could hear my pulse throbbing at the base of my skull. Breaks weren't voluntary any more. I had my jacket and hat back on, plus my cheap fleece sweater from Argentina. I could the the lights from the ant-lines of tourists crawling up to meet us from below, and that kept me moving all the way to the top.

I was there two hours early. I'd been told about the vending machines, so I wasn't surprised to find them there. I want to know the story of how they got them up there, I bet it's good. I wrapped myself up with everything I had, even my rain poncho, and curled up to sleep on a wooden bench next to the thirty or so climbers that had reached the top ahead of me (one of whom, in true Japanese style, was busy playing his Nintendo DS). I don't know if I actually slept or not. I just know that I took out my earplugs and looked up at one point, and saw colors in the sky (plus several hundred more people all around looking at the trinket stands and vending machines).

The result, you can see glimpse of in the photo above, but if there are two things you can never do justice to in a photo with a point-and-shoot camera, they're sunsets and sunrises. Mt Fuji stands as the only mountain around for miles. Sunrise there is unforgettable. It's all in the clouds. The sun rising above the sea foam of clouds floating above the green forests, blue lakes and city lights far in the distance. If you cross to the west side of the caldera, you can see deep blue silhouettes of other peaks far away and below you sticking out from that sea of clouds. You can almost see the curvature of the earth from the horizon. Then again, maybe that was my vision after the altitude and lack of sleep.

It was the last adventure for my old backpack. The poor thing was falling apart slowly after ten months of heavy non-stop use. I finally had arranged to pick up a replacement from the company offices in Japan, but I brought the thing with half a load up to the top of Mt Fuji. I had to give it to the store in Nagoya before I could walk away with my new bag. It was a real wrench letting the old thing go. It had been with me through five continents, twenty something countries, up the top of mountains to the bottom of the earth. But after a stolen top compartment, a missing chest strap, one broken clip, a mysterious chemical burn hole in the front pocket, and finally a busted left shoulder strap, it was time to retire the poor thing. It felt like putting an old, beloved pet to sleep. My new bag is the same model (deeply discounted, thanks to some emails with the company), but slightly altered color scheme. I have to admit, having everything working again is pretty nice.

I was running out of time with my Japanese rail pass. My last day I wanted to get to Shimonoseki in time for a ferry to Korea. I was a little annoyed with myself for getting a late start. One thing you learn about travel is that when you have multiple connections, delays are magnified. For example, taking the wrong subway cost me five minutes. When I got to the station I learned those five minutes meant I'd missed a train to Shimonoseki, the next one leaving two hours later, indirectly. The two hour delay meant that I probably wouldn't get to the Ferry terminal in time to buy a ticket for the ferry, the next one leaving the next evening. So a five-minute delay actually resulted in a full day's delay.

So I was sitting on my shinkansen bullet train west towards Shimonoseki, drifting off to sleep, still catching up from my adventure up Japan's tallest mountain. At one point I woke up, and noticed we were going past some very pretty scenery. Bamboo forests and hills. They gave way to a village made entirely of rice paddies and traditional Japanese houses, like something out of a childrens' picture book. We went from there into a tunnel, and back into the hills. Then came a second traditional Japanese farming village. Then the third, after another tunnel. I got out my camera as we went into the second tunnel and got it ready to get some shots of what I expected to be the fourth village on the other side of the latest tunnel. That's when a tone sounded and an announcement came through the speakers for the next stop: "Tsugi ekewa Hiroshima. Hiroshima desu..."

I lowered my camera. There would be no ancient farming village on the other side of this tunnel. Anything made before 1945 would be gone.

We pulled into the Hiroshima station and I looked outside at the rain. Do I get off? I might still make it onto tonight's ship if I happened to get a fast local train connection to town and then begged. Even if I didn't, I wasn't sure I wanted to see this place in the rain. What would there be left to see?

I was pretty much convinced not to go. I thought of something my father told me a long time ago: that in life, he'd always regretted the things he hadn't done far more than the things he'd done. I picked up my new bag, squeezed past the people boarding, and stepped out of the train.

It was hot. The bad kind too, not scorching, just muggy enough to make you feel sticky. I wandered downstairs into the station and picked up a free tourist map, wandering vaguely towards something described as the "Peace Park." I read about an event or two planned on the back where families of the victims of the atomic bomb would gather at 6:00pm and launch paper lanterns with messages for peace down the river in honor of the 64th anniversary of the bomb. August 6th. I looked at my cell phone to check the time. Thursday, August 6th, 6:15pm.

I've seen demonstrations for peace before, but usually they're either political or filled only with the kind of guy who, when I asked for tips on traveling through Laos, turned his blond dreadlocked head to me and said "Love. Just... open yourself to Love... all around you." This was different. I saw families walking down the street with their kids, who were drawing on piece of paper, getting ready to send them out to the water. Pieces with Japanese flags, American flags, and simple words. They wrote their message, attached them to a floating bottom with a candle, and sent them down the river under the shadow the "atomic" dome- the skeletal beams of only structure to survive the nuclear explosion. I wondered if that was really what it took to bring people together with an answer, a quiet demonstration that they saw death and destruction a long time ago, they know an alternative, and they want to honor it.

I saw a group of people around my age holding signs that said "Free Hugs." I walked up to one of them and asked him why the signs were only in English, and not in Japanese. He told me in broken English that it was an international symbol that the Japanese people knew too.

My grandfather and great-uncle both served in the US military during WWII. We've always been proud of that. Still, my great-uncle has a few things to say about the Japanese that I don't care to repeat in public. Many of these guys probably had grandparents in the Japanese military. Who knows what some of them say about people like me and my family. All I know is their grandchildren were there to honor peace, and they wanted to give hugs, and their signs were written in my language.

I caught the ferry to Korea the next day. I don't mind the delay anymore.
Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. I wish we could just transcribe your thoughts so that we'd get all 3 or 4 posts. But this is quite delightful as it is. The Hiroshima story is touching, as I'm sure you're aware - good timing seems to be an innate part of your travels.

    I was wondering if you've climbed any mountains (Rainier? Lassen?) in the US, and if so, how Fuji might compare.

  2. My father was posted to Japan in about 1950. He went to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and took lots of slides, so if you ever want to see what those cities looked like then....