Hanami, flowering viewing, is a popular event each year during spring time to witness the beautiful, pink return of spring to Gunma’s mountains and valleys. However, the Kanra Castle Town Obata Sakura Festival is not your ordinary hanami experience. An annual event, this festival exists to celebrate the beloved sakura blossoms, while simultaneously paying tribute to the era in which Obata was created. Hanami featuring a Musha Gyoretsu—a warrior parade.
Every year, the Kanra Board of Education invites Gunma ALTs to participate in this remarkable parade. I had jumped at the chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A few days before the event, I received some paperwork for the event.
Among the package was a letter written entirely in Japanese, addressed to, “Maja Thoenes, foreign warrior.”
On March 31st, all 11 “foreign warriors” rolled into the freezing, drizzling Kanra Junior High School Gym parking lot. Filing inside one by one, the gym seemed to give off a warm, orange glow. Every inch of the floor was covered with weapons and neatly folded piles of clothing: bright red and pink yukata with spears, embroidered green and gold kimono, and full suits of obsidian samurai armor that stood like little mountains amongst the fabric plains. Although only eight in the morning, the gym was already brimming with people, and they collectively turned around to watch the stunned foreign warriors walk inside.
We found our piles of clothing and weaponry, and after a while, the rental gear workers were ready to help us dress. We started in our long underwear and put on two-toed tabi socks and sandals. Over that, a simple white robe, with a plain but mighty obi around our waist restricting blood-flow to our brains. Next, the top—it was heavy and shiny, with wide sleeves that hid our hands. We stepped into the pants made of the same fabric, creating the classic image of the warrior pant-suit of the samurai. These were tied around us at waist again, and we were wrapped a second time with another thick obi. Our weapons were next: a long katana with a leather belt around our hips, and a knife in a sheath that was forced in between the folds of the two obi. For the finishing touches, we tied the tassels on the neck of our robes, and we donned a stiff, black mesh hat. Some of us awkwardly tried to unsheathe our katana, while others snapped quick selfies and practiced their finest blue steel faces. We could hardly move or breathe in all the gear, but no doubt we looked as glorious and badass as we felt in our hearts.
Once everyone was dressed, we walked from the gym to the nearby Rakusan-en, a lovely Japanese-style garden built by the son of Oda Nobunaga. Nearly a hundred other procession participants were already there, taking photos in front of the koi fish pond and hiding from the sprinkling rain under the thatched roofs of the tea houses. After a short word from the mayor and an introduction of two visiting comedians, all the participants lined up into formation for the procession.
Cannon fire from the top of the hill announced the festival’s start. Just as we took our first steps, the sun came out.
Observers stood along the sides of the street with their cameras ready as we paraded through in groups, sporting dozens of different types of historical Japanese clothing. Heavily armored palace guards with towering kanji helmets and tiger fur coats, long red-robed philosophers with skyscraper hats, elementary school-aged peasant guards wearing bamboo sandals, historical royalty wearing colorful veils, and even horses bridled with teal masks, yellow tassels dancing on their noses. In the middle of all of this, the foreign warriors, marching and smiling amongst the waving flags and river of robes. We greeted the students, teachers and strangers that surrounded us on every side. The procession was occasionally paused so that we cheer together: Ei, ei, oh! Ei, ei, oh! Although the sakura overhead had barely begun to bloom, the warmth in the wind was undeniable—spring was here, and it almost felt like we were leading her in.
We marched from Rakusan-en to Kanra Obatahachiman, a humble shrine resting between tall, noble pine trees. We took a break in the sun for some green tea, apple juice, and pictures before getting into formation once more for the trek back to the gardens. The festival had been waiting for our arrival, a taiko drum team welcoming us to our positions in front of a large stage, set up before an ocean of observers. The mayor gave a small speech to announce the official start of the Sakura Festival, and we gave our “Ei, ei, oh” war cry for a final time.
Although the procession’s journey had only been a little over two kilometers, we were exhausted. Back in the gym, we stripped off our samurai gear in only a fraction of the time it had taken to put it on, covering the floor in fabric once more. We inhaled our bento while chatting about the parade—we had heard lots of compliments in English, such as “beautiful” and “handsome,” but we agreed that “Can you teach me English?” in Japanese had been our favorite. We had laughed and said that we could.
Although I doubt the historical accuracy of including a bunch of overseas English teachers in cultural celebration such as this, there was no doubt that the Kanra community was delighted by our involvement, and we were so honored to be a part of it all. The residents of Kanra are so friendly and outgoing—we were asked to take a staggering number of photos, and so many people went out of their way to ask us about ourselves and complement our awesome get-up.
It turned out that the Kanra Board of Education had sponsored our participation costs, including our lunch, so the entire experience was free of cost. The Kanra ALT supervisor even went so far as to follow us around during the procession, carrying our wallets and keys and making sure we all got back safely. We are so thankful for the kindness and generosity shown by the Kanra Board of Education to the participating ALTs each year, and we look forward to many more festivals in the future.
We left the gym and returned to the festival grounds to pay a little visit the food stalls that were serving yakisoba, karaage, yakimajuu and other enticing treats. We sat at the very back of the crowd for a while, our hands full of food, watching a live samurai drama. The actors fought their opponents, doing summer saults and backflips, their katana and robes thrashing in the wind. It was like a window into the past, the illusion spoiled only by the corny but endearing sound effects blasted over the speakers.
By the time the drama ended and applause filled the air, the grass where we once sat was empty. No one noticed, but we foreign warriors had quietly slipped away, the sakura budding above us.
Maja Thoenes is a second year JET from Alabama. She is a published author, and enjoys hiking and binging Netflix. You can find her work on Amazon.
This year’s After JET Conference was held on February 28 at the Tokyo Bay Makuhari Hall in Chiba. Hosted by CLAIR, the conference provides information and support for leaving JETs. The AJC was followed by the JET Programme Career Fair which hosted upward of 100 companies who aimed to speak with leaving JETs about a possibility of further employment in Japan.
Here are my thoughts after the two-day event.
1. Be a Dragon
The AJC was kicked off with an amazing keynote speech by former Hida Takayama JET, Ryan Paugh. In his memorable speech, he made a distinction between two kinds of job-seekers: the butterfly and the dragon. Butterflies commonly send out a few job applications, but their search – for the most part – is passive. Dragons, on the other hand, take a forward approach to job hunting; utilizing their networks and actively making sure that others know they are on the hunt for a job.
2. Build a strong LinkedIn Profile
With the ever-increasing importance of social networking, its safe to assume that possible-employers will be Googling your name when your application lands on their desk. Take advantage of this by creating a strong LinkedIn profile. According to Paugh, who previously worked at the social networking company, more than 50 per cent of employers judge a profile based on (1) your photo and (2) your headline. Make your display picture clean and professional, and your headline attention-grabbing.
And of course, make sure you delete that drunk selfie you posted online last weekend.
3. Tell your JET experience (on your resume)
Your working experience as an ALT might not seem to relate with your desired career in marketing, accounting, or even chemistry; but rest assured the year(s) spent in Japan have equipped you with tangible skills for your next career move.
Even the action of stepping foot and working in Japan proves you are resilient, adaptable, and a great team player. Teaching English in front of hundreds of kids – great for public speaking. Making a lesson plan or year-long curriculum – a great example of organization and leadership qualities.
Don’t sell yourself short. The JET Programme provides us with so many soft skills, applicable to any workplace.
4. The world is full of JETs
Continuing with LinkedIn, make sure to connect with JET Alumni groups worldwide and back home as there are tons of experts who could be working in a field you are interested in. Send them a quick message asking for a bit of their time. Schedule a meeting and pick the minds of our global senpai community. I don’t need to convince you that the JET community is always willing to help a fellow member out.
5. Jobs in Japan for foreigners are plenty, but…
…make sure you know your limitations. This was made very clear on the second day Career Fair, as many companies required business level Japanese abilities. In fact, the three morning lectures on the day of the career Fair were entirely in Japanese. To our fellow JETs sporting N1 or N2, the world (or Japan) is your oyster. Companies like Nintendo and even the famous (among JETs) Keio Plaza Hotel will gladly open their arms for you.
Not to say that anyone with N3 or below should despair. There will always be work available for you. Your time on the JET Programme proves you are capable workers. However, keep in mind the restrictions of language; be realistic about your career goals in Japan. Most people who aren’t strong in Japanese will most likely find their next job in Japan in English teaching or recruiting. Of course, larger cosmopolitan cities like Tokyo will have more (English speaking) opportunities.
These were some of my takeaways from the two conferences this year. Let me know what you think, and feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below!
Originally from Canada, Gavin Au-Yeung is a second-year SHS JET in Isesaki. He is currently preparing for his departure from the JET Programme, but is trying his best to enjoy the remaining months.
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.
It starts snowing and my brain goes into survival mode. My t-shirt reads “I survived Snowmageddon”, but snow is as alien to me as a South African in an izakaya. We don’t get snow in South Africa—at least that’s what I tell people—but speaking for myself, it’s more that we don’t “get” snow. (more…)
As I sit in the staffroom sipping my lukewarm, bitter, flavorless school drip coffee (because I’ve run out of the next best thing, Blendy sticks) I cast my mind back to my weekend in Tokyo… visiting amazing cafés, stylishly drinking macchiatos as if I was Kim Kardashian buying shoes at Louis Vuitton. If you’re feeling like me and (constantly) craving a decent coffee then here is my top five cafés to visit in Tokyo for a bloody decent coffee. (more…)