Hello! Seeing as this is my first post, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Rachael, and I am a first-year ALT living in Nakanojo, a small town with mountains on all sides. My hobbies are reading, writing, drawing, and eating; things that can all be conducted at my favorite sort of place in the world: a cafe. I love the productive atmosphere and the versatility of being alone or in a group. Furthermore, sitting down for a drink and a snack at a cafe provides a respite from either committing to a restaurant or aimlessly wandering around an area. Since arriving in Gunma, I’ve tried to seek out as many of these places as possible.
Last year, an ALT named Tamara started a series recommending cafes as well, although it capped at two posts. I hope to continue the series, posting one or two cafe spotlights per month, so please look forward to them!
One more thing: I have a car, which makes my access to places different from someone who would take public transit. I will try to include places that are both reasonably reachable by car and/or public transit/walking.
The first cafe I’d like to spotlight is a little place called Piece Cafe. About a 15 minute walk from the station, Piece Cafe sits on a street corner and beneath a restaurant. Occasionally you’ll see the staff of the upstairs restaurant make appearances in the cafe, which is something really neat about this part of downtown Takasaki! You’ll notice the counter space near the register is filled with business cards and colorful flyers advertising other cafes, bookstores, and music shops in the immediate area.
The entrance is heralded by the cafe’s logo, a puzzle piece in humble brown and blue pastels, as well as a sign advertising the cafe’s specialty: soft-serve ice cream. At the time of writing this, Gunma is ridiculously cold. However, I am of the opinion that ice cream is acceptable to eat no matter the season, especially if it’s good! Plus, the cafe is well-heated and guest blankets are available to use as well.
The atmosphere of Piece Cafe is quiet and calm. About five tables run along the north wall, so it is fairly small, although I have never had trouble finding a seat. For computer or device users, there is an outlet next to the table furthest away from the door.
Like most cafes in Japan, Piece Cafe has really delicious food! They usually have a sandwich-of-the-day deal going on, and I am a big fan of their shrimp and avocado grilled sandwich.
If you want dessert, they have a 焼きシフォンケーキ, which I think sounds a little more refined in Japanese than ‘fried chiffon cake.’ Especially considering its lovely presentation:
If you are a cake person, then you need to try this! Its flavor is gentle, not too sweet, accompanied with the topping of your choice and a little dish of the ice cream that the cafe boasts on its doors.
As for drinks, they offer a house-made ginger ale that is unlike any I have ever had. Due to all the pulp and strong flavor, it’s probably closer to ginger beer than ginger ale. If you are a coffee drinker, I recommend their cappuccino.
I hope you get the chance to visit Piece Cafe soon!
It’s 1.4 km from Shim-Maebashi station, so you might want to take a cab. If not, there’s an underground walkway, but it’s kinda hard to get to from the station. Go straight out the main exit, turn right at the main street there (just past the restaurants and all that) and walk for quite a ways. When you get to where the karaoke place is just across the street from you, you can turn right and head into the underground area. This leads almost straight to the place, but I wouldn’t experiment with the route if you’re in a hurry. Honestly, from the outside, it doesn’t look like it’s going to take you anywhere other than an old warehouse in which to be murdered.
Once you make it there, you can talk to the receptionist. She doesn’t speak English, but she’ll call over a guy who will muddle through it with you. If you both do Japanglish, you can get the job done. He’s a jolly little guy with glasses.
Here’s the thing: the guy who does the fingerprints is very skilled with his machine. He will make some odd, “I don’t know about this” grunts as he does the job, but if you’re only after a Japanese background check, you’re gonna be fine. They have a form that has English on it, as well as a sample, pre-filled one for you to crib off of. It takes about ten minutes all told, you pay them, and then you’re done for the day. You will have to come back a week or so later to pick up your results (they can’t mail it, he says), but that’ll be that.
If you need an FBI background check, however… Well. That’s more interesting. I brought the FBI’s fingerprinting card that I printed out from their site.
No, they don’t have copies of this card on site. Yes, you should bring your own. Yes, printing on regular old combini printer paper is just fine. No, it doesn’t need to be on cardstock. My suggestion: fill out the information at the top BEFORE you make copies of the form. (I checked with the pertinent authorities and the writing on the form doesn’t need to be fresh, just the prints.) The fingerprinting guy made a couple copies of my form for my own personal use after I got there because, well, I think he knew how it was going to go. (Hint: not well.)
If you’re in this predicament and not well-versed in fingerprinting, go on YouTube and learn how to take fingerprints. No, I am not joking. No, I am not exaggerating. Luckily, I’ve been fingerprinted rather often for my previous employers, so I knew what I was doing. The “fingerprint technician” did not. At all. After we collaborated in ruining two of my FBI printouts, I delegated to him the job of holding the paper still. I did the rest—rolling the ink, taking the impressions, and checking my work. Some key notes for you:
1) Get your whole finger print inked—go high enough up (practically to the top of your finger), and roll your finger left or right until you basically hit your nail on both sides. Get full coverage here.
2) If you were a little messy inking yourself, make sure you wipe off your finger below the first knuckle crease. I ruined one page because I was sloppy in the inking process.
3) Have him hold the paper so that the box you intend to fill is at the edge of the table. If it is, your other fingers will be out of the way (i.e., off the table) and it will be easier to roll them.
4) Test the mechanics of your hand before you put your finger down. Then, press your finger down and roll the way that your hand wants to roll. The left hand is generally easier to roll from left to right, the right hand is the opposite for me. Your hands may be different, though.
5) Use your opposite hand to apply pressure to the finger that you’re rolling. Generally, this means using your thumb and forefinger on the helper hand applied, essentially, to the nailbed area.
6) Don’t press too hard or you’ll just make a black smudge instead of a print.
7) Check the FBI guidelines on the printout—they tell you what’s good enough, so make sure you’re not making any obvious mistakes. If you did, start over.
8) Wipe off after each roll. The last thing you want is a stray print muddying up a good impression.
When you’re finished, they’ll want to make a copy for their own records. I’m not sure why, but it’s a thing they do. Lastly, there’s a spot on the paper for them to sign, but “Japanese police don’t sign things,” so they won’t be doing that, either. Honestly, if you’re after the FBI background check, you’re going to this place to make use of their stamp pad and that’s about it. Your experience may be different, but for me, it was a complete farce.
After you’re done with all of that, you’ll need to pay them. That means going to a driving school that’s outside, across the little river there, and giving them 400 yen for a stamp. Bring the stamp back, and they’ll finalize your Japanese background check. From here, you’ll wait a week or so for your Japanese results. Meanwhile, you’ll need to go and mail off your fingerprints to the FBI. I’m not including the address here in case something changes in the near (or far) future. You can easily find it on the internet.
Good luck, and my your fingers be flexible enough to face the twists and turns of a struggling middle-aged Japanese man.
Quick note about the FBI: they take forever. You can go through an FBI channeler, a service that will greatly expedite the process, but you should know that they don’t accept documents that aren’t signed by the place that did your prints, and they’re going to want to send your results to an address within the United States. (This was my experience, anyway—maybe you’ll find someone more lenient who’s willing to deal with the cultural differences. Truthfully, the FBI doesn’t care if that spot is signed or not, according to the research I did online, but the channelers have their own rules.) This is a problem, obviously, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to check if someone named Tanaka works at the Maebashi police station, if you catch my drift.
(Disclaimer: What you do with that line on the form is entirely your choice, please don’t consider this to be bulletproof or consequence free advice from a wizened older JET. You do you, and please don’t implicate me, GAJET or the JET Program if you get in trouble for what you do when you do you.)
Final Note: There are places in Tokyo that will do your FBI fingerprints and sign the document. They will charge you 20,000 yen for their services, though, so honestly, I didn’t even entertain the thought.
If you’re new to Japan and have been asking around about how to get a Japanese driver’s license, you’ve probably heard some tales. There are some determined ALTs out there. Shrugging off the expenses and stress, they take the driving skills test over and over again until they finally pass.
If you’re looking for another way, a 50cc scooter license might be right up your alley. Getting one is actually very simple. No need to take a driving skills test. No struggling through a Japanese paper test.Here you’ll find information on obtaining a scooter license the simple and easy way.
Translate your home country’s license to Japanese at JAF (the Japan Automobile Federation)
First, check that you meet the following requirements: (1) you must have lived in Japan for at least three months. (2) your foreign license is not expired.
(3) a. Your original driver’s license + a copy of both the front and back
(3) b. The Japanese translation of your license from JAF外国運転免許証翻訳文4
(3) c. Your passport + copies of most of its pages
(3) d. Your resident card and certificate of residence住民票5 + a copy of each
The Certificate of Residence is different from the document you initially received in City Hall. Take the attached original document with the Japanese to City Hall to make it very clear which document you’re requesting.
(3) e. Written application (the clerk will produce and may fill out on your behalf) + your 3 x 2.4 cm photograph.
Photo booths are often located outside large chain stores or train stations. The Traffic Center also has a photo booth handy. No, these are not the fun purikura kind where you can add a mustache and place a ghost in the background!
(3)f. Bring your international driver’s license (if you have one) just in case.
If you are from a non-Western country, you may need more documentation (when I was waiting, I heard the Japanese clerk tell a Sri Lankan man that he needed additional papers)
To prepare for the 10 question English driving test, get to know Japanese road signs and regulations. Learn the 3-point turn that is specific to driving a 50cc scooter. Also, drive with friends and chat about driving with coworkers or other ALTs who have been driving in Japan for a while.
Getting your Japanese Driver’s License at the Prefectural Traffic Center
Check thelocation and hours of Gunma Prefecture’s Traffic Center 総合交通センター6. It’s a ten minute walk from Shin-Maebashi Station. Bring more than enough cash to cover the fees (these total around 1 man yen 一万円).
Go to the Traffic Center right when they open because it will already be busy. In 2012, the hours were 1:00-4:30pm Monday to Friday. Expect to be at the Traffic Center until after 4:00pm. Expect to wait between the various steps and bring something to fill your time.
Follow the yellow line to thesecond floor. Stand in line for Foreign License Conversion (this was on the far right). Wait until it is your turn and, in Japanese, tell them you want a 50cc scooter license and that you aren’t going to take the driving skill test運転技術試験7 .
Provide your documents. They will check them, ask you clarifying questions, and maybe request more copies. If they need a copy of something, they will send you to the copier down the hall. (Interesting note, they asked me about the age restriction printed on my Wisconsin driver’s license. I told them it was to make it clear to clerks that I couldn’t buy alcohol and that it had nothing to do with driving.)
Take the vision test. When they’re ready, the clerk will direct you to the back of the reception area to complete an eyesight test視力検査8. You will be asked to look at circles and tell the vision specialist which direction the gap in each circle is facing. Make sure you know the Japanese for “up” “down” “right” and “left.” Then, you will need to identify colors. Be ready with your Japanese color words! Then, the vision specialist will sign your papers, and you will take them back to the reception counter at the front of the room. There you will pay for the vision test. Wait as they complete your paperwork and process the other foreigners in line.
Take the 50cc scooter 10 question paper testin English or Portuguese/Spanish. When called, follow the clerk to a nearby room. Each question of the test is accompanied by a descriptive picture, likely because the English is wordy. At the end of the test, the clerk collects your test and grades it. You’ll know right then and there if you passed.
Pay for the test at another counter. You will then be asked to enter two four digit numbers into a machine, which will print a paper you will need for the next step. Again, there may be a long wait at this time. Take out something to do, but pay attention to what’s going on.
Get your driving license photo taken. Finally, go with the other people who have passed the test to have your photo taken. After your license is printed, your name will be called, the clerk will ask you to check the spelling of your name and your address, and then you’re free to go– Japanese 50 cc scooter license in hand!
Buying Your Scooter & Gear
Mandatory vehicle liability insurance自賠責保険9
If you want to buy a used scooter and an ALT near you isn’t selling one, find a used motorbike shop (usually you can find these near a university). I bought my scooter from Tsukagoshi Motors塚越モーター near 高崎市経済大学校Takasaki Keizai Daigakko at 744-1 Kaminamiemachi, Takasaki 370-0801. Used scooters sell for between 50,000 -80,000 yen.
Shiny new scooters sell at any motorbike store. These are usually located on main roads and easy to identify because bikes and scooters are displayed in the windows. These run 170,000-200,000 yen.
For accessories and gear, go to a specialty shop. Takasaki’s Ricolandライコランド高崎店
stocks helmets, gloves, and jackets. I recommend getting a helmet that shields your face. Bugs are real. Rain will also happen.
You’ll need insurance before you start driving. I asked the owner of the shop where I bought my scooter for a recommendation. He suggested an insurance company in downtown Takasaki called Zenrosai共済ショップ高崎店.
Insurance can run near 30,000 yen annually and may involve authorizing an auto-withdrawal from your bank account.
Remember to keep in the left lane and do 3-point turns at intersections which are wider than 2 lanes (one way). Keep track of your mileage and when you’ll need an oil change. Know your route before departing, be aware of traffic, and try to keep at a reasonable speed.
Don’t hold a phone and don’t drive in the rain. Be safe. If you think you’ve missed your turn or it starts raining, just pull over, shut off your bike, check Google maps or wait out the downpour, and return to the road when conditions are right.
This guide was compiled by a former JET who completed this process in 2013. If you notice any errors or feel you have any important information to add, please contact the GAJET Editor, [email protected]
1. 外国運転免許証翻訳文発行申請書（がいこくうんてんめんきょしょうほんやくぶんはっこうしんせいしょ）foreign driver’s license translation application form
Terry Dassow is a former Assistant Language Teacher with the JET Program who lived in Takasaki from 2011-2014. Upon returning to the USA, she taught writing at a Hmong high school before entering the editing field. She is currently an Editor and Communications Specialist for an engineering consulting and design-build firm based in Milwaukee, WI.
GAJET organizes a group trip each year, but if you’re interested in climbing Mt. Fuji alone or you’re busy that particular day, this guide is for you! I’ve written as much as I know about the mountain and provided links for leftover questions. Afterwards, there’s a little photo-journal and story about my own hike to get you inspired!
When to climb:
Mount Fuji is open to climbers in July and August. Technically, you can climb the mountain any time, as there’s no patrol to stop you, but climbing outside of these two summer months is incredibly dangerous. Even in 2016 climbers have died on the mountain out of season. In June and September, weather-wise it’s probably OK, but you should know that services on the mountain are severely limited (including buses and lodging) outside of July and August. And in winter the trails are flat-out closed for obvious reasons. While Mount Fuji is dangerous enough that climbers have died on it, it’s not a technically difficult climb and climbing in July and August means there shouldn’t be ice or snow, the number one cause of accidents. So please don’t be nervous! You can do it!
Mount Fuji is an active volcano:
Yes, Mount Fuji is an active volcano which last erupted in 1707. Recent measurements suggest that pressure inside the mountain is higher today than when it last erupted, implying an eruption is imminent, but these measurements are not as accurate as scientists would like and have been debated in the scientific community. An eruption is still really unlikely but you need to know that it is possible. Over the last few years, climbers have been urged to wear helmets and local authorities have intensified evacuation procedures. There’s more information here:
If you climb the mountain from the bottom, you need to be aware of the (unlikely) scenario of meeting a bear. Japanese climbers are very diligent about wearing bells to ward off bears. Most people I’ve talked to are skeptical about bears being in the area, but there are signs warning about them and it’s better to be prepared than not. Attaching bells to your backpack are the most ideal way to scare them off. More information on how to deal with bears while hiking can be read here:
The most common malaise you’ll face aren’t bears and lava, but the very natural occurrence of altitude sickness. Mount Fuji is 12,388 feet. Think of it this way: at the top, you’ll be a third of the distance an airplane reaches at cruising altitude! Like the other things, this isn’t a major problem if you take care. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches/lightheadedness, loss of appetite, seeing “stars,” shortness of breath…The best remedies for altitude sickness are to hydrate and take your time. Drink as much water as you can during your hike. Also, your body needs time to adjust to the altitude. A good rule of thumb is to rest 30-45 minutes at each station you reach (which is five if you start from the fifth station) to let your body adjust. You will see some people sucking on canisters of oxygen. These aren’t really necessary but if you’re really worried about it, you can buy these oxygen canisters at sports stores. I’ve never used it, but if you check out the reviews on Amazon, the opinions are almost perfectly split between great, so-so, and horrible:
Climbing Mt. Fuji is more about endurance than anything. Less of a climb and more like a long, slow hike, it’s not technically challenging. I have only done one of the four routes, so it’s possible some are harder than the one I did, but from what I’ve read online, most people describe the mountain in general as hiking up steep stairs, totally possible for people new to hiking and climbing. If you’re really worried about the physical aspect, obviously exercising a month or two beforehand is recommended. Walk up and down the stairs at school. Start riding a bike if you don’t. Start jogging if you already do. Join your school’s sports clubs! And of course try your hand at some of our beautiful local mountains.
What to take:
First of all, you’re climbing the biggest and most important mountain in Japan; invest in hiking boots to make the experience enjoyable and safe. I also recommend a high quality backpack. Hiking Mt. Fuji requires a lot of stuff. You want to be comfortable and safe. I recommend a backpack that allows you to easily carry several big bottles of water, since you want to hydrate constantly. If you climb from the bottom, one of the bizarre things about the hike is that you have to prepare for both summer and winter weather. It’s warm and humid at the bottom but freezing cold at the top. You’ll sweat through your clothes at the bottom and need to strip those off for dry clothes when it starts to get cold and windy. I recommend an extra undershirt. At the top, it’s simply bitterly cold. Anything less than what you would wear in January or February is dangerous. Take gloves, a face warmer, a hat, a scarf, everything to protect yourself.
Extra batteries (remember the cold can sap batteries quickly)
A back-up hand flashlight
Plastic baggy to stick money/phone in if it rains
A hat to protect face from sun
Face mask to protect from ash
Toilet paper, hand towel, hand sanitizer
100 yen coins for the toilets
Water and/or Pocari Sweat (at least 2 liters is a good idea)
Small snacks like packaged peanuts, banana chips, and energy bars (bring more than you think you’ll eat)
Light but hardy food like conbini sandwiches
I also recommend printing maps and transit information in case your phone dies, which is likely since you’ll be away from a charger for so long.
How to get there:
There are multiple ways to get to Fuji, depending on where you’re coming from and what trail you plan to take. There are many buses from Shinjuku to the 5th station. I bought my ticket the day of at the Shinjuku bus terminal, and had no problems with buses being sold out. If you want to hike from the bottom like I did, scroll down to the story below to find out how I got there. Otherwise, I recommend looking at these websites to help you figure out where you’re going and how to get there:
5th station or from the bottom?
The first decision you need to make is whether to climb from the bottom, as the pilgrims used to do, or start halfway up at the 5th station (taking a bus up a service road to get there), as the vast majority of modern hikers do. I did it from the bottom, my logic being that it would probably be the biggest climb of my life, so I wanted to do it the “right” way. And it was really rewarding. However, it came with extra challenges. Hiking from the bottom obviously increases your total time on the mountain significantly. Maybe five to six hours or more. You need to carry more food and water and schedule yourself accordingly. The bottom part is a forest, unlike the upper half. This is significant because you need to keep bears in mind when starting at the bottom. Also, there are no facilities at the first four stations. They are abandoned. There are no toilets. You will meet very, very few hikers. I only encountered two people over the course of four to five hours. There will be no help if you need it. No food or water to buy from vendors. The trails are still marked, but less so; it’s easier to get lost. So why do it this way? Exactly what I said before; for most people, this is the biggest hike of their lives. Mt. Fuji is a sacred symbol of Japan, and climbing it is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in this country. So why not climb the whole mountain? But that’s just my opinion, and 99.9% of hikers take the bus. The forest part is really beautiful and serene. You’ll probably see wild deer. The abandoned stations are really cool and creepy. They’re ancient wooden buildings, collapsed in on themselves. So if you do it this way, it will be rewarding but plan accordingly!
The second decision is about lodging, which seems to be the biggest question mark for most potential hikers. Staying in a lodge is certainly the healthiest choice. Taking a rest and getting some shut eye is the best way to ward off altitude sickness and not over-do it, especially if you’re not a regular hiker. Also, camping is strictly prohibited on Fuji, so no tents or sleeping bags! I didn’t stay in a lodge. I basically cat-napped behind rocks and rested where I could. I’m physically healthy and felt confident in myself, but I did have some problems with altitude sickness, and the effects were certainly intensified by my decision to not sleep. One last note; I did find the lodges to be really noisy places. It’s a natural point of rest for hikers, with benches and facilities, so keep that in mind.
How to book a lodge:
Here is a list of lodges with telephone numbers, other information:
A reservation is required via telephone. There is a link at the bottom for a company that will book on your behalf. As far as I know, it is not possible to book online, but things are always changing! If you know one, please note in the comments! An overnight stay typically costs around 5000 yen per person without meals and around 7000 yen per person with two meals. Expect the huts to be extremely crowded during the peak.
When to start my climb?
Many hikers climb the mountain to see the sunrise. If this is your goal, timing it up correctly can be tricky; on my hike, I actually arrived at the summit too early, and had to suffer the cold for longer. I guess I was worried about crowds, but that turned out to be silly; while there are a lot of people, the summit is absolutely massive (and the horizon is even bigger J).
From Japan-Guide: “Most people try to time their ascent in order to witness the sunrise from the summit. Also, the chances of the mountain being free of clouds are highest during the early morning hours. The recommended way of doing this, is to climb to a mountain hut around the 7th or 8th station on the first day and spend some hours sleeping there before continuing to the summit early on the second day. Note that the sunrise takes place as early as 4:30am to 5:00am in summer.”
So there you have it. If you’re hiking from the bottom, timing gets even more tricky. I can only tell you what I did. I started at around 4PM at the Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) and arrived at the summit around 2AM, taking many long breaks. So I arrived too early, and I spent a lot longer on the mountain than most people. But I didn’t want to be in the forest when darkness fell, so I didn’t want to start later (I still was stuck in the forest when night fell though!). If you did the same as what I did, but stayed in a lodge instead of all-nighting it like I did, I think you might have a nice solution to that problem.
Which trail to choose?
There are four trails to choose from. When choosing a trail, also keep in mind how you’ll get back down and what transportation you need to get to. I took the Yoshida Trail. Since trails offer different advantages/disadvantages, I’m not going to say too much about it. Instead, I’ll leave these links here and encourage you to suss it out depending on what works for you.
Fee – there isn’t an official fee, but climbers are asked to donate 1,000 yen to help support the mountain’s facilities, environmental efforts, ect.
The hiking sticks – everyone wants to know about the cool hiking sticks. I didn’t get one, but I saw it for sale in the temple where I started my hike. Hiking sticks cost about 1500-2000 yen and are sold at all the 5th stations except Gotemba. You can get it stamped at each station (starting at the 5th; the first 4 are abandoned), even in the middle of the night. There are dudes huddled around steaming pots even at one in the morning, ready to stamp it for you. I think each stamp costs about 300 yen.
Mistakes I made:
I forgot my bear bell and was still in the forest when night fell. If I stood still and turned off my headlamp, it was the most still, dark, and profound quiet I’ve ever experienced in my life. You don’t want to meet a bear in that.
I forgot chapstick! My lips were miserable coming down the mountain. There’s nothing to protect you from the wind.
My phone died very quickly. When you get to the summit, it will be cold enough to sap your battery a little something extra. When not taking pictures, be sure to turn your phone off to conserve energy. You definitely want to be able to take pictures when the sun rises!
My last mistake was really stupid, but I’m happy to admit it if it helps someone else…For some reason (I think I was delirious from being tired), I just kind of winged the way back down, and took a different trail down than I went up. I didn’t plan so much for the way back and just figured there would be one. And naturally as a result, it was a little bit of a problem. I ended up at a bus stop, but there was no bus for hours. I got lucky and found a few hikers to share a cab to the nearest train station. Do yourself a favor and plan everything out!
I began my hike at Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) around 4PM. It’s in Yamanashi Prefecture, and in Japanese the shrine is北口本宮冨士浅間神社 随神門. I took the bus in from Shinjuku bus terminal to Fujisan and walked 30 minutes to the shrine. You can see from the snapshot I took on Google Maps that this is quite far from the mountain. So this route includes a lengthy walk in the woods and through the city before the actual hike starts.
This is the Yoshida Trail (吉田). The actual trailhead is a bit hard to find. From what I remember, it’s to the right of the temple in the picture down below, down a sidewalk and a road that really, really doesn’t look like the entrance to Mt. Fuji. I remember thinking it was a bit anti-climatic; I was ready to embark on this epic adventure and I couldn’t even find the trail entrance. I thought there would be a massive torii gate, monumental statues, monks wishing me well…Instead there were cars driving around, an old guy walking his dog, and power transformers. I remember doubting if I was even going the right direction. But eventually…
The main shrine building; you can buy a hiking stick here to have it stamped at each station.
Eventually I found the Yoshida trail marking, with map. Notice it ain’t in English. But it’s not rocket science either. Once I found this sign, I felt confident I was in the right place. Take note of bear warning at the bottom.
For the first few hours, this is pretty much what it looks like! Just a walk in the woods. Doesn’t look like Fuji does it? After an hour to two of quaint trails, you’ll notice the slope increasing more and more. It starts to feel like exercise.
If you hear some crunching in the woods, don’t worry! Maybe it’s just some of these guys.
A long way to go!
Starting to get dark. This is where it helps to not have a colorful imagination…I hadn’t seen a soul in three hours. Soon you’ll experience complete darkness only found in deep nature. Switch off your lights and see how long you can stand in the pitch black and profound silence before freaking out. Don’t walk off a cliff though.
Something weird started to happen…fog rolled in. Massive, thick, heavy fog that added to my blindness. The picture above was only the beginning; it got so thick I could only see two feet in front of me with the headlamp on. It was like walking on the bottom of the ocean. I had to go very, very slowly not to lose the path. But eventually it let up.
You’ll pass the old abandoned stations about once an hour if you’re hiking at a decent pace. It can be kind of freaky. At least the money means humans have been here recently.
Eventually you’ll break free of the woods at the 5th station. The site is breathtaking and these pictures don’t do it justice. For me, the moon was hanging at the summit, giving me natural light to walk by. You can see the lights from the lodgings leading up the trail. There’s also a slight snake of lights from the other climbers. After several hours alone in the pitch black woods, it was a reassuring sight. Suddenly there are plenty of other people and vendors if you need supplies. At this point I recall having to change my shirt because the wind intensifies since there aren’t trees anymore. I had worked up a sweat from before and didn’t want to freeze.
From here, there’s not much to take pictures of. Follow the signs and it’s hard to get lost. There will also be plenty of other climbers (though not nearly as crowded as I expected). The terrain is something akin to walking on the surface of the moon. It’s mostly rock and ash, which is why great hiking boots are highly recommended. There aren’t many technical parts (or any, that I remember; Mount Myogi in Gunma is far more challenging in that regard). From here on, it’s an endurance test. The most important thing for you to remember is to take your time in order to acclimate to the altitude and hydrate often. A recommended tip is to stop and rest for 30-45 minutes at each station. If you start to feel light-headed or see stars, stop climbing immediately and take a lengthy rest. Drink some water and eat some peanuts. I thought I was doing really well acclimating myself, taking appropriate breaks and forcing myself to rest more than I wanted to, but then around the 9th station, it hit me like a knockout punch. I started seeing little bursts of light and felt like I’d just donated half my blood. I felt horrible. Part of it was that I had been climbing a lot longer than everyone else and also that I didn’t stay in a hut. So I took a long break and waited for my legs to get back under me, which they eventually did and I climbed the rest of the mountain just fine.
One of the stations: A trail sign marking arrival at the 9th Station
At the summit. There are facilities at the summit; food, bathrooms, temples, ect. The summit reminded me a bit of a field hospital from World War One. It’s a strange place. There are people everywhere, but most people are either silent or groaning, nursing tired limbs. At 2AM, not many people are in a festive mood but that’ll change by morning. I used my phone to figure out what direction I needed to face for the sunrise and camped out beside a big rock. Waiting for the sun to rise was one of the hardest parts of the climb. I had reached the top too early and it was bitterly cold. Find a large rock to huddle up against and protect yourself from the wind on at least one side. It’s a harsh place but incredibly beautiful. It’s probably the closest thing normal people can experience to being on the moon. The night I climbed, the cloud cover was very thick, but since Fuji is so tall, you climb through the clouds. This thickness suppressed the city lights and intensified the canvas of stars. It was the most vivid night sky I’ve ever seen. I still remember the shooting stars streaking in all directions. I actually fell asleep at one point in a pile of volcanic ash, huddled next to a rock, 13,000 feet in the sky. It’s a harsh and cold, but lovely experience.
Waiting for the sun to come.
No description needed.
The true summit. That building (which I think is an old weather station) marks the true highest place in Japan. There’s a marker to take your picture with if you can fight through the crowds. If you have some gas left, it only takes about 20 minutes to get up there. To navigate the entire crater, about an hour is needed?) of your life.
You’ll see some of the most amazing landscapes (skyscape?).
It’s like sitting on the wing of an airplane.
The shadow of Fuji from the top of Fuji.
The long, strange hike down…
People warn about the hike down. It’s supposedly faster, and that seemed to hold true for me, but the danger of slipping is higher. I fell a few times. Rolled down the mountain a little. I don’t recommend it. It’s tempting to dash down the soft ashy parts, but that’s also dangerous. My knees started to feel the exertion of the past 14 hours. Descending can be pretty rough on you, especially the knees. When I went to the Great Wall of China, they actually had slides where people could slide down the mountain like a Burger King play pen. I don’t envision that for Fuji any time soon.
One last wistful look upwards! You can see a building here. There will be places to grab an (overpriced) snack and drink if you need it. This is the part where you have to be careful not to get sunburned. Cover up. Put on sunscreen. And don’t forget chapstick! I remember being miserable because I forgot mine.
This is what you can look forward to for the next four or five hours.
Things start to get a little surreal. There were some plants I’d never seen before, like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, though I may have been hallucinating. And crazy packs of clouds start rolling in. The boredom and exhaustion starts to do weird things to your brain. I swear at some point I saw the Great Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke.
At the end…
Like I mentioned above, I took a different trail down than I did up. I can’t remember why. There’s something buzzing around in my memory that suggests I had heard one of the trails down was faster, and I suspected I could get down to public transportation easier. So I winged it, and I was wrong. I knew I was on a trail, and I knew I was going down, so I wasn’t too worried. But I didn’t really know where I was. I ended up at the “end”, or what I thought was the end because it was a parking lot. There was a bus stop. I checked the times and yea, you guessed it; no bus for hours. I was stuck. There were some facilities. I wandered around and eventually met some other Westerners, a Polish man and a Spaniard. We were all in the same sad, misinformed, Westerner boat. But actually we really lucked out that there were three of us stranded. We quickly figured out that we could share a cab and make it to a nearby train station for a decent price. There was a weird, random tourist stand thing and they were nice enough to call a taxi for us. He took us to some train station (I can’t remember the name). I charged my phone in a noodle place and used Hyperdia to figure out how to get back to Tokyo. So I winged it and didn’t die, but I don’t recommend it!
Back in Gunma, I slept for 14 hours straight.
My last recommendation: take the next day off to do the same.
The inevitable is coming. Every year we complain and try to prepare, and yet every year we get knocked down a notch and are reminded we will never win winter. Winter in Gunma is just as dreaded as every sempai will tell you- the houses are ill-equipped at keeping in heat, the AC heaters work overtime to keep the drafty winds out, and the chill-to-the-bone winds that sweep through Gunma will make you feel like Frosty. Winter is not easy but we are all here to conquer it as best we can together. If you are worried about what will happen in the next couple of months, read up on these great ways to stay warm and survive the dreaded winter.
How to Stay Warm
I highly recommend wearing thermal underwear (such as “HEATTECH” from Uniqlo) as your undermost layer on top and bottom. (Special note about heat tech- If you have a history of dry skin, as I do, you may want to be cautious when purchasing HEATTECH. Synthetic fabrics can aggravate dry skin, and HEATTECH’s deliberate design may make it more drying than the synthetics you’re used to. The label does prominently advertise that HEATTECH uses the skin’s moisture to produce its warmth).
This special material keeps your body heat in so you feel warmer from the get-go. On top of that layer, I usually wear a sweater, a puffy down-jacket, and pants as my base.
Layers are important because though you may feel just warm enough when you’re outside, as soon as you walk into a super-heated office, you may start sweating, which could cause you to catch a cold. Layers allow you to match your surroundings.
Note: School hallways will most likely be the same temperature as outdoors, but many schools ban wearing hats, scarves, gloves, and down-jackets inside, so layer accordingly.
Invest in warm winter clothes.
The difference between my first and second winter on JET comes down to one thing: my jacket. My first year I mostly wore peacoats, which were cute, but did not keep me warm in the least. My second year I invested in a puffy down jacket, which looked a bit silly, but was so well insulated, I didn’t mind. Gunma is famous for its soul-crushingly dry and cold wind, so choose clothes that are wind resistant (shiny jackets tend to be a good indicator).
Cover as much of your body as possible
A hat, gloves/mittens, and a scarf are vital for keeping body heat in. Every bit of exposed skin is an opening for body heat to escape. Some Japanese people also use a haramaki (a wrap that goes around the lower abdomen) to keep the stomach and lower back warm. I personally like wearing a haramaki, so you may want to give it a try!
For those who will cycle a lot this winter, fuzzy neck warmers that cover your neck and part of your face can help keep you warm, but beware: they can also trap your sweat, which again can become the source of a cold. Ear muffs are great normally, but should be avoided on snowy days when wet hair could lead to a cold.
Take a bath at night
This may just be personal preference, but I find that on the nights when I only take a shower, I am not nearly as warm as the nights when I take a shower and then a bath. If I clean off the day’s dirt and sweat and then heat my body for the night, I always feel healthier in the morning. On a side note, my pipes froze over twice my first year, so my coworkers suggested running hot water just before I went to bed to prevent this phenomenon, which became a good excuse to take a bath every night.
Keep your room heated and humidified
Most people use their air conditioners as heaters during the winter, which is great for keeping warm but tends to dry out the surrounding air, causing many a sore throat. I recommend using a humidifier, which replenishes the moisture in the air and can help prevent scratchy, sore throats. At work, you may see tea pots on stove heaters, or even your coworkers spraying water bottles into the air, for this same reason (to humidify the atmosphere).
Eat warm foods
Nabe literally means “pot”, but during winter it describes the unbeatable “hot pot.” If you like the prepared soup bases available at grocery stores, you can make nabe very simply by adding the soup base to a ceramic nabe pot, adding any assortment of vegetables (Chinese cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, etc.) and proteins, and heating the pot. This dish is best enjoyed cooked over a portable stove under the comfort of a kotatsu, a square heated table covered with a blanket. If you want even more warmth, I recommend a heated carpet and/or heated blanket, both can be purchased from Cainz Home, Nitori or similar stores.
Sold at every grocery or home store, these inexpensive and convenient chemical heat-packs are perfect for slipping in your shoes or pocket for those long and chilly walks through the school hallways. Hokkairos come in all shapes and sizes, and stay warm for several hours. Simply open a pack, give it a shake, and stick it on your body or in your pocket for an instant blast of much-needed heat.
Hot Water Bottles (Yutampo)
A water bottle is absolutely essential for a warm nights sleep, and here in Japan, the yutampo (湯担保) is a popular winter accessory. The Japanese style water bottle is made of a hard plastic rather than the rubbery style we may be used to, but works just the same and is as simple as can be. Fill a yutampo with hot water and throw it in bed to warm your chilly toes all night long!
Go to Onsen
Find a local onsen or bath and visit it regularly. Not only will you feel amazing, but you will avoid waking up to frozen pipes in your shower! Some public baths have membership cards with discounts for repeated visits.
Soak up the sun
The next two points are more for mental health. On clear winter days, it is incredibly uplifting to feel the sun on your face. Typically it’s dark when you leave for work and it’s dark when you get home from work, so some people don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Accordingly, if you can, give yourself some time during the day to go outside and absorb the sun’s restoring rays. Even if it’s cold, if you walk around for a bit in the sun you’ll feel warmer, and the exposure to the sun will provide you with some much needed revitalization
Don’t lock yourself inside all winter
It’s very tempting to spend the entire winter season watching movies while eating nabe under yourkotatsu. While this can be an enjoyable way to spend some evenings on your own or with others, I highly recommend leaving your apartment to explore Gunma during the winter. Gunma is famous for winter sports such as snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing and more, so this could be a great chance to try a new activity! Gatjet will also be hosting different events throughout the winter to get us all out of our slump and into fresh air.
For non-sports fans, I recommend trying a winter onsen day trip. Kusatsu is extremely hot, but in the heart of winter the water’s heating powers can keep your body warm all day while you explore the town’s lovely cafés, restaurants and shops. Don’t forget about all the illuminations Gunma has to offer throughout the winter break!
Meet your friends
Meet your friends, your neighbors, your anybody! Warm your bodies and your spirits by meeting with your close ones to chat, play games, have a laugh – anything to keep your hearts warm. They say winter is the season of loneliness, but go prove the universe wrong!
How to winter-proof your house
Suffering separation anxiety when parted from your kotatsu? Sub-zero apartments and icy bike rides to school mean Gunma’s cold is already biting. Without wanting to sound like a doom-monger, the worst of the winter is yet to come! Meet the cold head-on and make your pad a hot-haven…
Bubble wrap your windows
Bubble wrapping your windows will give you instant double glazing. Bubble-up to keep the cold out and your precious warmth in. Wrap with smaller bubbles will be more effective as the bubbles are packed together more tightly than those on a larger grade wrap. Fitting it is simple; clean your windows, cut your wrap to size, and use masking tape to attach it to the frame. Some websites recommend just spraying water onto the bubble wrap and sticking it directly on to the glass. Here’s a step-by-step for the DIY-phobic.
You can pick up sheets of bubble wrap at the 100円 store. For larger lengths visit Cainz Homes. Try and resist the urge to pop all those lovely bubbles before Spring!’
Don’t let a draft blow that warm fuzzy feeling out of your kotatsu. Wobbly doors and flimsy windows seem to be the norm in Japanese apartments. A sukima teepu (すきまテープ) is a quick fix to keep the cold winds out. These tapes have a peel-off sticky back and are available in foam and brush varieties. Cut lengths to size and stick them around the edges of your doors and windows. These are also great for keeping out noise, dust and summer insects. Pick some up at a hardware store or online.
Curtains for the cold
Tackle the shivers by investing in some drapery. Flimsy curtains will let the heat escape and the cold penetrate. I did away with my apartment’s flimsy, too short, lurid green curtains and replaced them with some heavy heat keepers – the improvement was instant. Heavy curtains will serve you well throughout the year by keeping the sunlight out and you cool during the summer. A makeover at your mado won’t cost the earth either… I picked up my miracle ‘heat-in, sun-out’ curtains at Sanki for a bargain 1,000円. I did a smaller window for 500円. Hang some new threads at your genkan for an extra defence against the winter.
Fit a stop panel
Another solution for window warmth warfare is a ストップパネル (stop panel). These plastic or foam sheets have a reflective silver side and can be cut to size. Fit them to windows and glass doors to tackle heat loss and drafts. These panels are only high enough to cover the bottom section of your windows and doors, so are maybe worth considering if bubble wrap alone isn’t keeping you toasty. You can find stop panels on Rakuten.
Apply some heat
It seems there isn’t anything that can’t be heated by a kairo. The word kairo comes from the kanji 懐 (futokoro) meaning pocket, which can also be read as kai, and 炉 (ro) which is translated as oven. Eco-kairo are environmentally friendly microwavable gel pockets offered in an endless array of designs. Pick up your ‘pocket oven’ at a hundred yen store or go high-tech with a USB version.
When your futon feels like a block of ice, slip in a kairo bed pad and pillow for a cosy night’s rest. Try a kairo band-aid which can be strapped to your favourite cold spot for a guaranteed 40 degree glow on the skin.
But the heat doesn’t stop there… A set of USB kairo glove warmers could come in handy when you’re bashing out February lesson plans on the keyboard. And for ladies who are very brave, and presumably very cold, there are even kairo panty liners. Good luck girls!
Remember to stay cool, but not cold. Keep warm, Gunma.
Working on JET or as an ALT can provide a pretty comfortable lifestyle for those of us in Gunma. We are afforded a decent salary along with many of the comforts of large cities (Takasaki, Maebashi) without paying Tokyo prices. Yet, I am sure all JETs would never turn down an opportunity to save a little more cash and enhance their savings for any future plans post-JET.
It’s December! The first snow has fallen in the mountains, the last of the summer mosquitos are dying (thank god) and everyone in Gunma is setting up their kotatsu, refilling their kerosene and buying this season’s most fashionable puffy down jackets. It’s time to brace yourself for the long dark winter ahead.