If you’re like me, the first time you saw the plastic trays of strawberries at the supermarket in Japan, you jumped for joy. Back home, strawberries were not a seasonal treat, but a year-round expectation. You could even get a large carton of them for about five dollars, depending on the season. So, you can imagine my dismay when a whopping nine strawberries cost nearly 700 yen!
I was in shock. The juicy, ruby red fruits I had taken for granted in America were now snubbing their noses at me, as if to say “now you know our real worth.” Begrudgingly, I would wait until payday to buy my nine strawberries and eat them with relish, savoring the taste until I could afford my next fix. Before I knew it, they’d disappear and make way for new seasonal fruits, not to be spotted again until next winter.
But there is a trick to truly enjoying strawberries in Japan – visit a you-pick farm.
LET’S GO TO THE FARM
You-pick farms in Japan aren’t the same as back home. Rather than heading out to a dusty farm and crouching down in the dirt paths to hunt for crimson jewels between their waxy leaves, Japanese farms grow the strawberry beds on tables, their treasures shining in the sunlight pouring in from the greenhouse windows.
While the ease of picking has been vastly improved upon, you’re in for a shock if you think you are just going to pick your berries, weigh them, and take home a box full of fruity treasures. Strawberry farms in Japan have an “all you can eat” mentality – a healthier (and less expensive) version of a nomihoudai. When you arrive at the farm, you will make your way to the cashier and pay for a time slot. Strawberry farms usually offer 30- or 60-minute slots for your gastronomic pleasure and cost between 1,000 and 2,000 yen depending on peak times.
Once you’ve paid, you will be given a trash cup or tray and escorted to a hothouse to begin your adventure.
When you enter the hothouse, a chest-high carpet of green stretches out before you. Picking strawberries is as easy as meandering down a row of plants and casually plucking any one that strikes your fancy.
Depending on the farm, the hothouse may only hold one variety of strawberry or many. The one we went to had three varieties in each house, the rows clearly marked by signs on the endcaps. Choose an empty row and make your way down, stopping at any strawberry that you deem worthy of eating and toss the stems into your trash cup. Once you’ve filled your cup with stems, find the trash cans, empty the dead soldiers into the proper bin, and start all over.
The best advice I can give is to take your time. Even 30 minutes is a long time to consistently shovel strawberries into your piehole. Peruse the plants for the brightest, most succulent berries. If you find a good plant, enjoy all the berries it has to offer. Try different varieties, then choose your favorite one and indulge your inner glutton. Take pictures with your friends and revel in the joy that is Japanese strawberry season.
Most fruit farms are not near a station, so you’ll need to find a friend who drives or brave the local bus routes. If you are determined to pick strawberries but can’t find a ride, I’d recommend Tatara Fresh Farm which is about a 20 minute walk from Tatara Station.
Strawberry picking is a Japanese experience you don’t want to miss. So get out there and stuff yourself silly with fresh fruit from the farm!
Nikkita Kent is a misplaced thalassophile who was transplanted from the beaches of Florida to the mountains of Gunma in 2017. Unable to sit still for too long, she delights in teaching senior high school in Ota City, exploring the local restaurants, and travelling at every available opportunity. Check her out on Instagram @daw2dus.
Gunma’s windy winter got you feeling down? Feeling in a rut because your winter days consist of going to work and then immediately retreating home to your kotatsu? Its time for you to leave the winter slump!
Here are five tips to get yourself up and moving!
1: Improve yourself
It’s not uncommon for JETs to spend the warmer (read: better) seasons travelling around or beyond Japan. A lot of people tire of travelling during the winter months because its simply too cold. Use this travel-downtime to explore new hobbies and interest. Take an online course you’ve always been interested in. Join that gym down the street from your apartment. There are tons of things you can do in the warm confines of your home as well: learn an instrument, write short stories, cook new dishes. Personally, I like to spend my time playing video games, but some people might not consider that self-improvement…
Use this time to explore new passions… and save some much needed yen for the spring time when most of us will probably find new places to travel to.
2: Hang out
If you’re feeling the winter woes, chances are that your fellow JETs are also experiencing something similar. If possible try to get out once a week or maybe even schedule a get-together. Don’t feel like braving the cold winter? Get together for a warm nabe party. Who wouldn’t want to eat hot pot on a cold, cold night? The point is, its always good to see a friendly face every once in a while.
3: Travel… to warm places
I don’t mean getting on the next flight to Okinawa. But its extremely important to get out of your house every so often (and going to work doesn’t count). If you’re as allergic to the cold as I am, you would be wise to flock to warmer indoor places. Use these months to check out that local cafe you were always interested in (but never had the time to go to), or try going to a museum. If all else fails, a little retail therapy inside the (warm) shopping mall might do the trick.
This wouldn’t be a Gunma website if I didn’t suggest visiting an onsen. You don’t necessarily need to travel up snowy mountains to get to famous hot springs (of course, that’s cool too). Most areas will have local onsens which can get the job done as well. Enjoy the soak, fellas.
4: Think about your post-JET life
This point is especially important for those who have already declared their intention to leave this summer. Just from speaking with friends who are about to leave the JET, it’s clear that a good amount of leaving JETs are uncertain about their future. Use this time to research possible careers, revise your resume, and even talk with others about their career plans. And of course, the After JET Conference will be held on February 28 this year.
It’s best to get the worrying out of the way. With the spring approaching in another month or so, you’ll want to cherish your last months on JET.
5: Come out to GAJET’s Skibo 2019 event
Gunma is incredibly famous for its ski resorts. If you’ve always wanted to ski (or snowboard), feel free to come along with GAJET as we tackle the slopes at Kusatsu! Sign up now, because the event is coming soon (Feb 22)! More information can be found here.
Head to the seventh floor food court at Takasaki’s OPA mall on any given Wednesday evening, and you will likely see groups of young people seated at tables and cheerfully chatting. It may seem innocuous at first glance, but upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that they are not regular mall-goers.
Take a closer look and you’ll further notice that each group is comprised of two foreigners and two Japanese locals. Placed on each table, an orange piece of laminated paper with a picture of Gunma’s beloved mascot, Gunma-Chan.
Written above the picture: GJEE.
To get a clear picture, we need to rewind the calendar six months.
The story begins on a chilly February evening. A small group of Gunma JETs are gathered in a living room. Seated by a kotatsu, the group begins to discuss their plans for organizing Gunma’s newest language exchange; something which would eventually become a grassroots movement.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of ALTs in Gunma and many have a genuine desire to learn Japanese,” says Andrew Qiu, a first year JET living in Takasaki. “However, the problem is that ALTs don’t have anyone to practice with.”
Simply put, GJEE (abbreviated from Gunma Japanese English Exchange, but often pronounced as G.G.) is a weekly event where Japanese locals and expats come together with a common goal of learning a new language.
Participants sign up online in order to RSVP for the next event. Events are held every Wednesday and language learners arrive at the food court by 7 PM. Turnout usually ranges from 16 to 20 participants.
Paying attention to the English and Japanese abilities of each member, everyone is carefully placed into prearranged groups; the idea is to get a good balance as to avoid stagnant conversation.
The magic begins when everyone is seated.
The process is simple for the hour-long event: the first half hour is dedicated to English conversation, and the latter half is carried out in Japanese.
Of course, creating a language exchange from scratch is no easy task. But the process has been extremely rewarding for the GJEE team.
In the earlier days, Andrew would find himself personally reaching out to friends – both English speakers and Japanese locals – in order to garner enough participants. At one point, Andrew and GJEE co-founder Jeef Chandra (first year JET, Takasaki), pitched the language exchange to local university students during a lecture. Now, with more than 70 members, the signup spots practically fill themselves up.
Initially reserved, many newcomers may be scared to speak in a language besides their native tongue. However, there is always something about GJEE events which captivate even the most withdrawn participants.
For the novice language learners, making mistakes could be a terrifying experience. However, that fear is easily remedied with a warm smile; that’s all it takes to break through any language barrier.
A culture of friendship is perpetuated at GJEE. Don’t be afraid to stumble across unfamiliar vocabulary, mispronounce words, or even use incorrect grammar. No one will judge you, and everyone will be thrilled to see you make an honest attempt.
Aside from language learning, GJEE serves another important function. As a group consisting of both locals and expats, GJEE is in a unique position to create lifelong friendships which traverse cultural gaps.
“I would argue the cultural exchange which happens during GJEE meetups is equally, if not more, important than the actual learning of languages,” says Jeef. “Sure, GJEE participants are learning a new language, but it goes a lot further than that.”
For many participants, GJEE is more than a place to learn languages. It’s an opportunity for members to exchange ideas and learn more about the world.
JETs are in a unique opportunity to affect globalization. It’s more than simply working in Japan. It’s about showing the goodness in people, and it’s about being an ambassador for a global community.
This may seem like an immense task, but in reality, it’s as simple as starting a friendly conversation.
Both Andrew and Jeef will be leaving Gunma and the JET Programme come August. However, GJEE will continue its goal towards bridging people and communities. For more information, and to get involved with GJEE, please email [email protected]
Before I got here, I sent a lot of emails and Facebook messages about ultimate frisbee. I asked in Gunma ALTs and I bothered the people in Tokyo. I was informed that there was no such thing as ultimate frisbee in Gunma. A lot of people said they had tried, but they ended up shrugging their shoulders and saying, “shoganai, ne?”
“Shoganai” is not a word that I take kindly to.
At Gunma Games, I brought out a disc and found that a few others had, too. Tossing around, we talked about getting a game together. There were athletes there, but more than that, there were people who wanted to have a good time.
I created the Gunma Ultimate page on Facebook and invited everyone I knew to join. Since that first year, I’ve sent hundreds of personal messages, bringing out our fearless leaders and our most introverted nerds to play my favorite sport down by the river in Takasaki. It has been my singular mission to make ulti happen.
My crew has played a dozen or so times. It’s not much, especially compared to my thrice weekly games in California, but every time has been a blast. I teach everyone what they need to know—the basics of the game, how to throw—and then I make sure that everyone is included. If it’s your first time with us, you have to score a point. Don’t worry, the pros will do all the work to make sure it happens, but I want you to understand my love of this sport. I want you to feel it. With a rotating group of regulars and newbies alike, we play until we’re nearly exhausted, then we go get ramen. Sometimes, we even do karaoke after that. I run myself into the ground to make sure everyone has a good time, and it is totally worth it.
If you don’t personally know me, you’re probably thinking, “this must be one of those organizer types—the guys who shake a lot of hands and make an uncomfortable amount of eye contact. He’s probably a jock, too.”
Absolutely not. I’m averse to eye contact and I hate shaking hands. Frisbee is literally the only sport I enjoy, and I only enjoy it in one way: when people are playing to have fun. This is it for me. This is what I do.
For context, ten years ago, I started playing ultimate because of my friends. We played on patchy dirt, with Home Depot buckets for cones. None of us owned cleats, and we were all completely f***ing terrible at the sport. As a result, half of our rules were completely made up to support our game and keep it fun for everyone. One or two people knew how to throw, and the rest of us made do, wobbling discs at each other until we eventually scored. It was a mess, but it was beautiful.
Now, after a typical school day, I go out to a park near my house and throw for an hour. I’m always alone, so if a kid is watching, I bring them over and show them the ropes. Sometimes their moms and dads play, too. Of course, I throw with my middle school students during lunch whenever they have a break, too. Even kids who hate me in class, who fall asleep or shout the answers during my group games, respect me and want to learn when there’s a disc in my hand. When my BOE insists that I visit preschools several times each year, I bring a stack of discs. I teach three, four, and five year-olds how to throw a backhand, and they have an absolute blast.
On the JET Program, we all fantasize about leaving our mark on this place, about changing the culture and convincing people that some small facet of our worldly understanding is worth adopting. The only thing I want to give Japan is a love for the silly side of this sport. I want them to see the side where men and women can play together without frustrating each other (mostly because the men finally throw to the women), and where losing can be just as fun as winning.
To that end, I threw a tournament in April 2018. It was a funny hat tournament; as in, you have to wear a silly hat or you’re not allowed to play. It enforced that sense of humor, that feeling of people barefoot in the park tossing the disc. Even though one of the coaches for Japan’s national team came to the tourney, he was including first timers in his plays. There were even a few little kids—like under ten—who showed up with their parents. It truly embodied the spirit of the game, and it was the most fulfilling thing I’ve done while living here.
I proudly wear my tournament’s t-shirt around town, and when someone asks about it, I tell them about it. I show them videos and teach them about the sport, often answering far more questions than I had intended. Yes, it happened here in this town, right over there. Yes, a lot of people came. Yes, it’s fun. Sometimes they tell me that they saw me in the newspaper or on TV.
I don’t push ultimate on anyone, but I do invite everyone. There’s a difference, and it’s important. I lead by example and collaborate with people who have similar goals. Whatever you’re into, chances are you can do it, too. Talk to people. Show them how much you love whatever it is that you do. Invite them.
I don’t do shoganai, but I do enjoy a good ganbare.
Epilogue: Since my tourney, I’ve solicited the help of Tokyo’s Ultimate crews to donate Frisbees and jerseys to my school. They gave us enough for a full class set, and next week, we’re going to teach the sport—for real, during class time. Wish me luck!
Charlie Hayes is a third year JET in Tatebayashi. Although he’s leaving the country, he is looking for a worthy successor to take over the Gaijin Gunma Ultimate scene. You can reach him at [email protected] if you’re interested!
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.
New Year’s resolution is to get a new hobby? If you’ve set your heart on learning a musical instrument, but don’t know where to get one, this guide is for you! I used to trek all the way to Tokyo, thinking the big city would have the best deals, but I learned that Gunma has hidden gems of its own. There are plenty of music stores in Gunma that didn’t make this list. If you had a great experience somewhere, please share in the comments!
For beginners and bargain-hunters
Hard-Off recycle shops (many locations in Gunma)
Gunma locations and hours (Japanese): http://www.hardoff.co.jp/shop/kanto/gunma/
Hard-Offs have all kinds of gadgets, and the inventories vary from location to location. For example, there are two in Kiryu, but I’ve found the western one is always better than the eastern in terms of musical instruments. If you’re looking for a good, cheap acoustic guitar, Hard-Off is the place to go. Unfortunately the staff may or may not know anything about musical instruments (may explain the cheap prices…). More specifically, I find they don’t bother keeping the instruments in tune, sometimes to the point where the strings are almost falling off and you can’t even try the instrument. BUT you can ask them to tune it and they usually have a little practice amp/space for you to use. Don’t be shy! Hard-Off is also especially good for effects pedals. I bought a Vox Pathfinder 10 practice amp here, an affordable choice if you’re looking for a small amp to practice on without terrifying your neighbors. You can also find appropriate amps if you want to terrify your neighbors.
Transit: Takasaki, Maebashi, and Shin-Isesaki stations, walking distance from each
With locations in Takasaki, Maebashi, and Isesaki (Shin-Isesaki Station), Dust Bowl is one of the better “chains” in Gunma. I put chain in quotations because this shop has a more down to earth, less commercial feel than the type you’ll find in AEON or SMARK. The location in Takasaki has great deals. I’ve seen a 100 dollar Orange Crush 12w for 5,000 yen in here. The Takasaki location especially has a large inventory of guitars, including used and vintage guitars. They also offer lessons (Japanese only). The Takasaki and Isesaki locations even have live venues.
A hidden gem in Midori: Slow Hand (Omama, Midori City)
Transit: walking distance from Akagi Station
Address: 〒376-0101 群馬県みどり市大間々町大間々2418 スナガビルA 1F Phone: 0277-73-2373 Hours*: Mon thru Sat :１５：００～２３：００ Sun and holidays日曜・祝日 １３：００～２３：００
*I would call ahead; I’ve seen his shop closed multiple times during his open hours.
Nestled away in the quiet town of Omama, Koshiba-san at Slow Hand sells some of the best guitars I’ve seen in Japan, including Tokyo. His shop is quite small and the inventory is always rotating, so you never know what he’ll have. He’s always good for at least one drool-inducing Fender; lately a golden, vintage Musicmaster has been hanging in his shop. I bought a custom reissue Japanese Fender Mustang from him and couldn’t be happier. The price was unbelievable. He does my repairs, and even took me out to dinner once. He has a nice balance of insane vintage guitars and affordable used ones. He plays in a local jazz band and offers lessons if that’s what you’re after (probably Japanese only). Practice space is also available (covered in Beatles LP covers and tabs for blues songs named stuff like “Give Me Back my Wig”). His hours are kinda weird, so I recommend calling ahead. My personal opinion; buy a guitar from a cool local guy like this, not a chain. It makes a better memory anyways.
Amazon, something for everyone: amazon.co.jp
Amazon is a great resource for musical instruments. Especially the smaller stuff like pedals and cables. It’s also great if you’ve got questions but can’t get past the language barrier, as it is offered in English. Payment options are also easy; you can either buy a gift card at the conbini or more recently you’re able to simply add your foreign credit card and pay with that (international bank fees vary on your bank, of course) with their currency translation (Bank of America charged me about 1.35 USD for a 40 USD transaction).
I bashed Tokyo a little in the intro, but of course the mega-city is a great source for musical instruments. The point of this guide was simply to show that you don’t have to haul down to Tokyo just for instruments, but of course tossing a little gear-hunting into your weekend trip to Tokyo can be a lot of fun.
So where to go? Most people start in Ochanomizu, walking distance from Akihabara (don’t forget the Hard-Off in Akihabara either; they have a nice pedal selection and usually several sub-50,000 yen reissue Fender Strats, Teles, Mustangs, ect.). Ochanomizu is a big clump of music stores (several stores are owned by the same people). I made the mistake of letting my first impression of these stores turn me off; I didn’t like the chain-feel and was disappointed I wasn’t finding the kind of boutique shops like back in the States. But I found out that while the feel of the shops is rather commercial, the inventory can be quite good. There are some super vintage guitars nestled in those bright lights and uniformed goons. If you want a sneak peek at the inventory of the largest store, Shimokura, take a look here: http://www.shimokura-secondhands.com/used_guitar_list.html
Shimokitazaka –Tokyo’s favorite hipster neighborhood, Shimokitazawa is an important place for Tokyo’s music scene. This includes guitar shops. (Bonus tip: head over to Bear Pond Espresso for some good coffee!). This is one cool shop:
The Guitar Lounge
Transit: 池ノ上駅 Ikeno-ue Station
It’s possible your school will have musical instruments you can use, especially piano and drums. If you teach at a high school, it’s almost guaranteed that your school will have both. My school has four pianos in four different locations and one drum set, and I’m always welcome to use them when the music club isn’t busy. Ask your music teacher for permission first, especially when it’s OK to play a noisy instrument liked drums! In my experiences, music teachers are among the friendliest teachers and will be glad to have you on board. But music clubs are also very busy, so be sure to only go when you know you’re not interrupting something! Sometimes the students use the pianos during lunch, so make sure you’re not stealing the piano when they want to use it. And be sure to check surrounding rooms for classes before you blast the drum solo from “In the Air Tonight.”
Know of anything other great music shops in Gunma? Post them in the comments!
World Cup rugby is just around the corner and warm-up games are already being played. As this year’s World Cup is being held in my home country (England) I thought it was high time that my friends in Gunma get a lesson on rugby.