Thursday, July 21, 2011

What goes up must come down

What would you do with your post-midterm vacation?

Somin, Gabe, Eunbi, and I (unfortunately Rewon couldn't make it because he had to go to Disney Land with his host family) decided to do was climb Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan at 3,776 meters (a little less than 2.5 miles). That number already sounds intimidating--but as a disclaimer, the 5th station at Kawaguchiko 河口湖, where most people start, begins at about 2,300 or so meters, so our trip was already about 2/3 done :P.

[Check out Gabe's video version of this journey! :]

For those of you who've read my Seoul blog, you'll know that I climbed Halla-san twice (though for two different reasons did not make it to the top). In comparison to it, I'd have to say Fuji-san is not as strenuous on your legs, because of the fact that the trip up Halla-san is staircase after staircase after staircase. Fuji, on the other hand, progresses in a gradual slope, making it not so much leg work. The issue, though, is how well your body can adapt to high altitudes.

For anyone hoping to tackle Fuji-san, my tips are:
1) Don't underestimate the altitude--if you're starting to feel sick but still want to make it to the top, go as fast as possible and get down as fast as possible. You can use aspirin, oxygen bottles, etc., but these are only quick fixes. Going down is the only surefire remedy.

2) Equip yourself well. You'll want to wear high sneakers or boots, preferably ones that you don't care about because they will get ruined by the dust. It also gets pretty cold up there, so bring layers of clothing that you can put on as you go up the mountain. Chances are there will be a lot of people so you might find yourself not moving much in certain spots, in which case you will get cold quickly because it's very windy up there. It's super foggy at the top too so bring raingear because you will get wet.

3) If you're bringing a nice camera, bring something to protect the lens, because the fog at the top will get into the lens. You'll also want it to protect from the dust.

4) Something we should have done, but we were skimping on money--reserve a room at one of the mountain huts, preferably one that's higher--at the 8th station, so that you can wake up around 2 or 3AM to climb to the top from there. It's good to be refreshed before seeing the sunrise so you're not hating the mountain so much when you go down.

5) Bring lots of water--it's heavy at first but your pack will become lighter as you head up and you'll need lots of water to prevent from dehydration and headaches. Bring food too because the food up there is expensive.

6) Last, but not least, of the important preparations anyway, buy a walking stick! It's 1000 yen and not only will you be able to get stamps at each station (if you want) and also at the summit for bragging rights, but you will thank yourself. There's a lot of slippery gravel on the mountain and the stick grips really well to the ground, such that you won't have to worry about falling to your doom!

Okay, so our journey!
The four of us took a bus from Shinjuku to the base of the mountain, where we had to transfer to another bus to get to the Yoshida 吉田 Trail, the most popular one. Another popular trail is Subashiri 巣走り, which is faster and less crowded, but also steeper, so go with whichever one suits your taste. I wouldn't recommend the Gotenba 御殿場 Trail because it starts from 1400m and you will be sick of the mountain much sooner. Although Fuji-san is pretty from the base and the view from the top is amazing, the mountain itself is very desolate and there isn't much to see, so do yourself a favor and take the shortest trail to the top!
Once we got off the bus at the 5th station 五合目, our first reaction was "AHHH," in a good way. Having gone through several days of 90+ degree weather while adhering to the 節電 setsuden (electric-saving) policy, i.e. limited use of air conditioners, getting off the bus and feeling a blast of cool air (涼しい!) was a relief. The area felt like an air-conditioned room, leaving us ready to tackle the mountain!
So we first decided to have our dinner, a bowl of udon that we surprisingly found out contained horse meat. Strangely enough, the restaurant only allowed us to have one cup of water (no refills, keep in mind these cups were literally the size of sippy cups for babies and we were about to climb a mountain). We realized early on that Fuji would spare no expense to rob us of our money.
After eating, we bought our walking sticks and some bread and Chinese buns for snacks and went to the Shinto shrine to pray for our safe trip, only for it to close when we got there. Oh well, so we set off at around 7:30PM without the blessing of the Fuji shrine! Uh oh!
Sunset begins.

The first part was a comfortable level walk, where we were able to get a nice view of Tokyo. Funnily enough, for a city undergoing setsuden, Tokyo was incredibly bright. I can't imagine how bright it must have looked before setsuden.
Soon enough, though, I realized that as much as my host mom had overpacked me (even almost all the clothes I had borrowed from my host brother, clearly not having thought about mountain climbing in Japan when I was in the States), there was one important component that was off--the shoes I borrowed from my host brother were a good 2 or 3 sizes smaller than my feet. At first when I wore them, they felt tight but I thought they'd be manageable. Lesson learned? Err on the safe side and wear your own shoes--my big toes were cramped and already in pain before even beginning the climb. Of course, the only thing I could do was tough it out. Since it was starting to get dark, we put on our first layers of clothing and got out a flashlight, also joking because it was rather empty that it was as if we were on the set of a horror movie as four happy college kids on a trip who would be gruesomely murdered, perfectly fitting with our excitement for the mountain and the ominous falling of dusk. Pleasant thoughts eh?
The distance between the 5th and 6th stations was pretty small--just a few sets of stone steps and some slightly sloped ground. Being Eunbi's first mountain climb ever, it was pretty tiring for her to even get this far, but we urged her on! When we reached the 6th station, night had settled and the moon was beginning to rise, glowing bloody red and large as if it were giving us an omen. After taking some pictures and admiring actually being able to see stars, including the Big Dipper, we set off toward the 7th station.

The path up to 7 was a set of long zigzags. We looked out over the city and noticed blankets of fog and clouds over some parts, which emitted a pretty mystical atmosphere and reminded us of Princess Mononoke, which we had been watching in anime class, which then triggered the theme song in our heads, such that we couldn't help but hum the tune as we traversed the mountain. After several zigzags and a few sets of stairs, we reached station 7, where we foolishly thought our journey was already halfway done, considering some people slept at the 7th station. We ate some of our bread, rested a bit outside the huts (it cost 1000 yen, that is, about $12 or $13, to relax inside the hut for up to an hour, seriously?), and set off up to Station 8.
Painfully eating our bread.

Between 7 and 8 is a long path, but there are huts every now and then, so there's ample time to recuperate and replenish supplies if needed. The paths got steeper at this point and there were more stairs, so we ended up resting a bit more. As we looked up, the Big Dipper was getting larger and larger. Pretty neat sight!
After a long walk, we reached Station 8 around midnight if I remember correctly. Originally, having been told that the trail would take 5.5 hours, we had expected to get to the summit around 1 to 2AM and planned to walk around the crater at the top before the sunrise. At this point though, we realized we had a ways to go, so we rested less and began to head up toward the 9th Station. People were beginning to wake up to make the trip to the top, so the area was much more crowded and our pace was somewhat slowed. The weather was getting colder and windier and Tokyo was looking further and further away. Eventually, a cloud of fog swallowed up Tokyo, making it disappear right beneath our eyes.
Foolish us, we thought that the "Original 8th Station" was the 9th Station, so we rejoiced when we reached it, deciding to reward ourselves with a bowl of ramen. Unfortunately, the ramen was rather subpar and expensive, and we were kicked out due to the crowds. We saw one 10-year old or so looking kid passed out on the floor. His father put his hand over his son's mouth as if to check if he was breathing. Poor kid!

After replenishing our energy, we continued up, ready to see the peak of the mountain soon. Every time we saw a peak that looked so close, we would turn a corner and see yet another peak! Not only that, but the fog was thickening, so each time we would think we were near the top, more fog would clear and more people's lights would show up, making the trip seem endless.

We walked for a while until we reached...the 8.5 station??? We were convinced the creators of the stations made these names to alleviate climbers' worries that they weren't near the top. In other words, we were much lower than we thought we were. More trekking through chilly winds and crowds of people got us to the 9th station. Almost there!

Once again, we were fooled. Perhaps it was the cold or the crowds that made for slow movement, but the trip between 9th station and the summit felt like an eternity. Every turn revealed another leg of mountain to traverse, and the top of each set of stairs revealed more stairs to climb. While heading up, we even saw the kid from the hut where we ate ramen, bawling his eyes out and not wanting to move while repeating 無理無理無理 (impossible impossible impossible), while his dad kept urging him on and pushing him forward. At a certain point, the only way down is up. Finally, when we thought our trip would never end, Somin and I turned the corner, with Eunbi and Fernandez-san close behind, and saw a pillar that said 頂上, mountain peak, around 4AM.
The pillar!
Not believing we had made it to the top, we had a joyful embrace--wet and cold from the weather--we scrambled to buy charms and stamp our walking sticks. Soon enough, the sky became purple and then a vivid pink and before long, orange, with the sun finally peeking out behind the fog around 4:30AM!
Gabe and I had begun to get headaches around the 8th station from the altitude, so we were ready to get down as fast as possible after paying a whopping 300 yen to use the bathroom (imagine spending $4.00 to use a bathroom)--the ones at 5th station were 50 yen while those between there and the summit were 200 yen. I guess there's a price to pay for using the tallest bathroom in Japan.
So although the trip up wasn't horrible (albeit, it did feel like forever), the trip down was absolutely miserable. Not only did Gabe and I have splitting headaches from the altitude, but about 2/3 of the trip down involved slipping and sliding down gravel, kicking up dust in our faces and soiling everything we had on us. The area near the summit was a lot of red rubble and really did look like a desolate wasteland (which it basically was--there wasn't a sign of any life at all, and this was summer time). With the downward slope, every step I took down was pain because of the pressure on my toes, so eventually I switched to going down backwards, using my walking stick to keep my grip on the ground--I felt very much like I was belaying myself down a cliff (albeit without a rope). The upside though was that the view from there of the surrounding area was absolutely spectacular. My camera doesn't do it justice unfortunately, and I was so miserable that I didn't remotely have the energy to try to take better pictures unfortunately!
The worst part was between Station 8 and 6 (Station 7 was on the parallel side--this was a path designed for going down). It was literally zigzag after zigzag after zigzag. According to the map, I believe it was 55 zigzags in a row--the first half being large ones while the second half was small ones. Seeing zigzag after zigzag of nothing but red dirt and hordes of people walking down and kicking up dust can send anybody crazy. Every time we looked down, the bottom just seemed so far off...after what felt like an eternity (but was apparently maybe just two hours?), we reached more level ground and approached Station 6, at which point we knew we were really close. We took a moment to take off the layers back into our T-shirts and shorts, since it was getting hotter. As we finally neared Station 5, Eunbi released all her energy and walked quickly ahead of everyone, seeing that civilization was just ahead! We made it!

Dirty and exhausted, we rewarded ourselves with ice cream and bought our tickets back to Shinjuku. As soon as we got on the bus, we all passed our and woke up shortly before arriving at Shinjuku, feeling as if everything was a dream. I woke up thinking to myself, where am I??? The whole trip felt really surreal by then, as many mountain trips do (I felt the same after getting down from Halla-san in the snowstorm). We all tiredly took the JR back home, not even having enough energy to look for lunch. Every single piece of my clothing had turned blackish from the dust and the black shoes I had turned completely brown from the dust. I was even sweating black! Needless to say, the shower and nap afterwards were completely refreshing.

At least we can say now, we climbed the tallest mountain in Japan!

Til next time!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cute, sort of?

I feel that Japan is heralded as one of the countries with the most interesting and at the same time strangest cultures. A word that I feel a lot of people use to describe Japan, Japanese people, or the Japanese language is "cute."

So many famous cute icons are from Japan-Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Domo-kun, etc. One thing I noticed was that some missing facial feature seems to be the key to cuteness...except for the eyes, because, well, a creature without eyes is probably a demon...

Notice Hello Kitty, who lacks a mouth:
Doraemon, who lacks ears.
And Domo-kun, who lacks a nose:
There's something a little off about removing a facial feature to make something "cute" though, as is easily shown by the rather disturbing site, .

Part of what inspired me to write about this pervasive culture of cuteness is my host mother's household (as I have mentioned ad nauseum, is completely pink, down to even the toilet paper!) and the strange juxtaposition with her (Teenage Mutant Ninja!) turtles, who could hardly be considered "cute." Leo-chan (aka. Leonardo aka. the largest of the turtles) has earned the fear of Eunbi, Rewon, and Colby, who visited on Saturday. The following is a series of pictures of Colby's attempt to feed Leo-chan and a close call with his almost escaping!
Colby, Rewon, and Eunbi with my host mom.

In relation to the cuteness again, we have my host mother's chopstick holders, which are Pooh Bears with differing expressions.
On Tuesday, Somin and I hit up Ginza, which is virtually the 5th Avenue of Tokyo, albeit much emptier. A great find was what I think was a necklace that cost more than four years of tuition + board at Yale. Talk about a purchase!
Read the following price and weep:
22,155,000 yen = $280,327 dollars T_T

And back to the thread of cuteness--we also visited a Teddy Bear museum/shop, where a lot of the teddy bears were adorable...
But there were a few that were quite bizarre...
Why would you have a bear holding a bear's head???
Putting your baby's face on a teddy bear...?
I could see this being vaguely cute...

Just before we left for home, we noticed an interesting looking shop that sold ice cream. We could tell there was something special about it from the way it was being advertised, but we didn't know what お酢 was. Seeing the alcohol radical, we assumed that maybe it was alcoholic ice cream, especially since the place served beer too. After some pondering, Somin looked it up and we found out it was vinegar. Why would anyone want vinegar in ice cream or drinks??? We then thought to ourselves, well, it can't be in Ginza of all places and have customers inside if it's not good. So we tried it out. What we were trying was probably the new fro-yo direction. It basically tasted like a variant of fro-yo and was rather good! Interesting concept. Where else would you find such strange niche interests but in a big city like Tokyo?!
Somin's black currant vinegar ice cream on the left and my "roseheap" (?) vinegar drink with soymilk. They both packed quite the tang!
The shop's impressive collection of vinegar--which we thought was wine from the outside.
And the handles over the counter totally looked like beer handles in a bar!

On a side note--I also met up with Miyuki, another student who I studied with at Sogang! We had delicious tantanmen 坦々面 and proceeded to catch up in a cafe. She described the feeling of meeting in another country and speaking in another as iwakan 違和感, a feeling of being out of place. I think that about captured the feeling of talking to someone completely in a language that you've never used with them before! I wonder if this is how kids who are unable to speak one or both of their parents' languages feel when they end up switching later on.
Midterm tomorrow, until next time!

Cultural Experiences

WARNING: The following post includes pictures of my feet being devoured by fish!

So it's been forever since I've updated! I've got two weeks worth to catch you guys up on, so I'll split it into two posts--one for each week. I've been doing a Korean translation job recently, so that ate up all my time the past few weeks, but now I'm done with it and just in the editing process so yay for more time!

Highlights of the week? A failed trip to Yokohama, a Sado tea ceremony experience (I don't even know the word for this kind of thing in English, it's 체험 in Korean or 体験 in Nihongo), a Light dinner with Alan, and a relaxing trip to an Odaiba onsen with my host parents (related to I have your attention eh? :D).

So...botched trip to Yokohama 横浜! Two Fridays ago, one of the buddies, Manabu (whose name means to learn 「学」interesting choice of name eh?), planned a boat trip in Yokohama. Unfortunately, he bailed last minute, but apart from that, virtually everyone underestimated how long it takes to get to Yokohama. Now keep in mind our goal was to get there by 6:20, on a trip that takes a little longer than an hour.

I was planning to meet Eunbi at 5:20 in Komagome 駒込, her transfer spot to the Yamanote Line 山手線, our main commuter rail to school, but I wasn't able to reach her by phone. So I set off for Nippori Station by myself and just as I reached it, got a call from her telling me she had just woken up, but that we could meet in Komagome in about half an hour. Luckily, I had brought some work just in case so it wasn't too bad waiting! By the time we met up and got on the train, it was already 6:00PM. We gave a call to Somin, who was on the commuter rail to Yokohama at the time and she told us that if we ended up not catching the boat, we could just hang out in the area. We gave Colby a call too, and he happened to just be at home!

We then gave a call to Josh, who apparently was already there with Ruth and some of the buddies. Josh told us that the boat was actually leaving at 7:00 so luckily we had extra time! We got to Shibuya 渋谷 at around 6:30 optimistic that we'd get there on time (Josh told us it would take us about half an hour from there) and then got on the express line. We then found out that it was about 12 the time 7:00 hit, we were only maybe about halfway there, so we resigned ourselves to hang out with Somin, who was unable to find where the meeting spot even was, in Yokohama. Funny enough, it wasn't until 7:20 that we got to Yokohama. A bit late eh?

Funny thing was, Randy had also missed the boat and was there too! So the four of us walked around Yokohama, which was actually pretty nice. It reminds me a lot of Ilsan 일산, one of the suburbs of Seoul. Everything was nicely spaced out, but there were still rather tall buildings, so it vaguely felt like Wall Street (though wider). Following are some pretty night pictures I got of the area, including a ferris wheel that is apparently rather famous.
Anyway, after some picture-taking, we decided to go check out the Chinatown in Yokohama. After about half an hour, we ended up meeting Raymond at one of the nearby train stations, who had just got there as well! Drisana then called me and lo and behold, she didn't think she would make it so she decided not to come either. Sadly, the only people who made it to the boat were actually Josh and Ruth and a few of the buddies. Unable to find the Chinatown, we ended up eating in a Yoshinoya 吉野家, a cheap Japanese restaurant chain that's cheap in New York too! After Yoshinoya, we ended up taking a train back to Shibuya, but not before seeing the Chinatown entrance arch on the way back!

Now the sad thing is that the trip to Yokohama was rather expensive--about 460 yen (~$5~6) one way. Basically, we spent over $10 to head down to take some pictures and eat a meal that was cheaper than a one way trip. Sad times indeed. Oh well, a bonding experience right??

The next morning, we took a trip to Shirogane-Takanawa 白金高輪, a ridiculously long name for a subway stop (at least to English speaking ears ;]) to have a Sado 茶道 Tea Ceremony experience. The meeting time was 9:50, the time at which Rewon, Eunbi, and I reached the station. Funny enough, one of the teachers was actually upset at us for being on time! She made us apologize and then said we're supposed to be five minutes early! Chances are, a good part of it was her irritation at the fact that we were the first ones there, meaning that everyone else would be late. The latest people came upwards of half an hour to forty minutes late, so the sensei was pretty angry, at one point yelling "SHITSUREI 失礼" (Rude!) which sounds quite funny when translated to English haha. Seeing her yell it was very much like seeing a dragon breathe fire. We all got lectured afterwards about the importance of being on time. I think the biggest problem was probably the fact that everyone (like the night before with Yokohama) underestimated the time to get there. Lesson from now on? Try to get somewhere twenty minutes before you think you will actually get there. There's my cultural faux pas! :P It's interesting how fast people can adapt though, as a lot of the Japanese students at Sogang were okay when people were 5-10 minutes late.

Learning how to make the tea was pretty neat in itself. Stirring the powder by twisting the wrist rapidly was tiring, but it was very cool to see the foamy result! Strong, but good green tea.
A yummy treat we got that goes along with the tea.
One of the high school students carrying out the Sado.
The process...
And the result!
The necessary group picture.

That night, we met up with Alan, who was doing a Light visit to Tokyo with his wife. We ate at a department store tempura restaurant, where we were probably seen as the loud and obnoxious foreigners who just chattered away and were the last ones to leave. Since we couldn't all fit at a table (it's hard enough finding enough seats to fit even four or five people in most restaurants...) It was a lot of fun talking to Alan and his wife though and having an overall fun dinner, which consisted of ridiculous conversation (as any good conversation does), complaints about the program and/or host families, and the Tokyo experience. Not to mention, the food was great!
Small, but delicious!
Yet another necessary group picture! This time all of us are showing off the sitting on your knees skills that we learned in Sado (even a few seconds put us in pain though!).

The jam-packed weekend finally ended with a trip with my host parents to the Oedo Onsen in Odaiba (check out that alliteration!). For those who don't know what an onsen 温泉 is, it's basically like hot springs, or a sauna. The trip was super relaxing and I got to try quite the experience.
The inside of the onsen looked like something out of Spirited Away! Very festive atmosphere and really comfortable to just wander around in a yukata and bare feet.
My host parents!

Now at the onsen was also a "therapy" called Dr. Fish, in which the dead skin on your feet is eaten by fish to cleanse them, something that anyone who comes to Japan (or Korea, or any other country with this phenomenon--apparently, they started in Turkish baths: and apparently it's banned in the States!) has to try. Without further ado, pictures of my feet being devoured!
When you first put your feet in, these fish basically DIVE at you and start to nibble at your skin. The feeling is very bizarre at first and really ticklish, but once you get used to it, it's just amusing. Afterwards too, your feet feel great because all your dead skin has been eaten by these tiny fish! What an experience right?

Random Pics!
There was one night my host mother bought me a bento box because she was working late. It was pretty shocking when I opened the box and just saw a huge fish head right there! It was delicious though :D! Also, so sweet of her, the two sushi on the side is uni (sea urchin), which I had mentioned that I liked a few days earlier!
For those of you who've read Rewon's blog, this is our group that Rewon so affectionately dubs "The Korean Trifecta (+1)." Well here, it's -1, because Somin was sadly unable to make it.

All right, now on to the next post! :D