Monday, August 30, 2010

Nick's Tokyo

My old friend Nick, a fellow ex-GEOS teacher, visited back in early August. While he had lived near me in Ishikawa Prefecture for a year, he had never managed to visit Tokyo. So when he visited, a couple of days in the capital were our first stop.

And the first stop in the capital is always The Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. The building itself is plenty impressive, and the views of the sprawling megalopolis below are always staggering. We were lucky to have a nice clear day, and could see all the way to Yokohama. The boxy building in the center of the above photo is the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan, and currently the third tallest structure.

Sadly, the area around Mt. Fuji was wreathed in clouds, and not visible. That darn mountain has hidden its face from me each time I've been in one of the many observation lounges that dot Tokyo. One of these day's I'll get it on 'film'. It owes me after the typhoon business.

Dinner that night was shabu shabu, one of my favorites and a dish Nick hadn't tried yet. The basics are similar to fondue or a Chinese hot pot. This strips of meat, chunks of tofu, veggies, and noodles are cooked in a pot of boiling water. They are then dipped in one of two sauces, the tart soy and vinegar based ponzu sauce or the creamy sesame based goma sauce. With the pot of boiling water in the center of the table, shabu shabu is more suited to a cold winters day, but washed down with plenty of iced beer we survived.

All that was left to do in Shinjuku was explore the bustling area under the bright city lights that make Tokyo nights almost brighter than Tokyo days.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Poo what a stink!

     At the base of Mt. Shirane is the resort town of Kusatsu. Kusatsu is one of the most famous hot springs towns in Japan, and is one of Gunma Prefecture's primary tourist draws, with highway buses direct from Tokyo. I've been accused of being an "Onsen Otaku" before, and for the most part it is true. I love going to the hot springs baths. It really is just about the most relaxing thing I can think of, even better than going to the beach, and closer too.

     The main spring bubbles up right in the center of town, in an area called the Yubatake. The mineral rich water steams as it flows along wooden channels and into a pool, making the whole town center stink of sulfur. There is even a notice that the Yubatake is one of "100 Scenic Spots of Peculiar Smell" in Japan. I do wonder where the other 99 are, and what they all stink of.

     The town is jammed to the rafters with onsen, some free, some paid, some indoors, some outdoors. This one here is said to be the oldest in town, and is hands down the hottest bath I've ever almost taken. I say almost taken because I couldn't submerge my legs for more than a few seconds, and sticking my whole body in the water was out of the question. Luckily, there are plenty of other, cooler baths available. One pay complex on the edge of town has an indoor bath, outdoor bath and sauna, and has to be one of the best hot springs I've ever visited, despite the smell.

Friday, August 20, 2010


The wind howled through the misty, rain swept blackness. Below, a trail of lights faded into the distance. Above, the same trail seemed to climb forever. The universe was a cold conglomeration of black rock, black night, screaming winds and and frigid horizontal rain. I had to ask myself, just what the heck was I doing here?

     Much earlier that day, our group of climbers assembled at the 5th Station, at about 7,000 feet above sea level, roughly half way up the sloping cone of Mt. Fuji. One of the group, Peter, had decided that he wanted to truly climb the entire mountain and had spent the day hiking from the 1st station.  Saner climbers tend to skip that step, making straight for the 5th station, and its collection of restaurants, bus stops, souvenir shops and vending machines. 
     As we trickled into the meeting area the early clouds burned and blew away in the wind, leaving a crystal clear blue sky. A typhoon was forecast, but there was no evidence in the glorious, near perfect weather to start a late afternoon climb.The vast cone of Fuji-san thrust above, naked and dark with its winter coating of snow long since melted. The black ash and lava flows made for an uninviting peak, and the speed at which the clouds passed over the summit were an unheeded warning that the climb would be less pleasant than hoped.

     For most climbers, the plan is to start late in the day, climb through the evening and then sleep in a  mountain hut. After a scant few hours of rest you finish the climb and enjoy the glory of a high mountain sunrise. Those of us who can't really afford the rather steep prices of the huts, about $70 for the cheaper ones, choose instead to climb through the night, forgoing sleep and warmth to be the first to the top, and the dawn.

     The gentle opening phase was an absolute joy. Despite the recent rains, and the occasional cloud misting its way past us, the weather was perfect for hiking. Not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet. The trail was well built and maintained, ready for the thousands of people that hike Fuji every year. Our group joked, bantered, took photos, and just enjoyed each others company and this wonderful climb.

   The day waned, and the sun began to sink along the other side of the peak, casting a great shadow across the clouds. The trail climbed ever higher, the omnipresent overcast of Japan becoming a far away carpet of cotton balls below.

     Full night eventually settled, and the stars, so shy in this overly illuminated nation, came out in all their glory. Climbers who thought to turn off their head lamp for a moment were treated with views of Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, even the Milky Way. In the distance the vast urban megalopolis of Tokyo could be seen, brilliant lights shining all the way from Yokohama on the coast to Omiya near the mountains. As the night drug on and the altitude increased, the wind picked up, and the cold began to settle.

    Layers came out, first an extra t-shirt, then a fleece, then a shell, then a hat, finally gloves. We had all walked from sticky summer to frigid winter in just a few miles. The summit and sunrise were driven out of mind, they were many hours off in a remote and unseen future. What mattered was the smaller indications of progress. The next station, the next hut, the next switchback. There was an udon restaurant at the top of the 8th station that became more sought after than heaven itself. We knew it was there, we knew it would be glorious.
     Naturally reality was less inviting than the fantasy, but two hours of cat naps and hot food prepped the group for the next challenge, or so we had thought.

   It seemed that no sooner had the 8th station faded behind than small flecks of rain appeared in the glow of the headlamps. Faint at first, hardly worthy of notice, yet certainly a harbinger of difficulties to come. Soon, the lights of the cities and the huts below vanished in the enveloping clouds. We went from the top of the world to our own world, cut off from everything and everybody. The end game had arrived, the summit was close. Every step became harder, every foot of elevation gain more precious as we all climbed further into the teeth of the typhoon. The climb grew ever more difficult, fog, rain and exertion rendered glasses useless, and any exposed article of clothing became sopping wet.
     At last, the summit of Mt. Fuji, 12,388 ft above sea level. The winds and rain whipped by stronger than ever, speaking was impossible, and waiting for sunrise near suicidal folly. One imperative, one simple goal remained. Descent. 
     Having stowed my glasses in my pack, I carefully picked my way through the darkness and the jagged black volcanic rocks. They winds gusted at over 70 mph, enough to shift a climber even if he wasn't moving, and more than enough to send you tumbling to the ground if you weren't ready for it.
    Slowly, gently definition returned to the world. The black sky became imperceptibly lighter, and then lighter again. The winds and rain remained, but the dawn had finally arrived.

     The sun illuminated the trail, and gave visual representation to the speed of the winds, as the clouds sped past us. The sunrise was visible only in spurts, hidden then revealed again by the scudding of the clouds. The pestering rains and winds never stopped, never showed mercy.

   Any decent is a labor, with energy, water, and food running low, but after a rain soaked, wind whipped, typhoon torn climb through the night, the hike down was undoubtedly the most difficult of my life. The winter hat would unravel into my face, blocking my vision. Clenching my fists in my gloves was like wringing out a wash cloth in the shower, except that they never got dry. Heavy, clammy jeans clung to my legs reminding me that I knew better than to wear jeans in the mountains. The humid mid August heat of Japan seemed a far off memory, something that had never been, could never have been real.

   Every time there was a lull in the wind, when the thought that "perhaps it will be easier now" would cross your mind, a cannonade of air would shoot across your back, and remind you that it wouldn't end until you reached the car.
  By this point our group of five had splintered into three components. At the top of the 7th station Nick and I encountered a group of rangers who were putting together a 'safety road'. Rather than descend the occasionally rocky ascent trail we had been using, they shunted a large group onto the bulldozer path that provides supply to the mountain huts. The going was much easier on the sandy path, and the line made good time down to the bottom of the 7th station. The end was in sight, but the wind and rain seemed stronger than ever. The urge to be done of this peak, to be home, to be warm, to be fed, to be rested was overwhelming.
     Then, a glimpse through the clouds, the fifth station was near. Close, closer, and finally, hands clasped in a ragged cheer we were there. Down. Done.

   Well, done except for the three hour drive home anyway...

Friday, August 06, 2010

Where the road sings

Most of the volcanoes in Gunma are extinct, or at least long dormant. They may erupt again, some day, but all signs point to a nice peaceful slumber for the present. However, in the far northern part of Gunma, near Nagano, there are a few mountains that are a little more awake. One of these is Mt. Shirane, an 7,123 foot volcano that last erupted in 1983.

Like Mt. Aso in Kyushu, the summit crater contains a milky blue acidic lake that reeks of sulfur. In fact, the entire mountain has a faint sulfur smell. The road to the top passes through an area of vents and springs that spew sulfur into the air. Foolishly I rolled down my window during that portion of the drive, and the smell stayed in the car for quite some time!

The locals put all that hot sulfur water to good use, the large and famous spa town of Kusatsu is nestled at the base of the  mountain. The highway to Kusatsu is called the Japan Romantic Road, and on a segment right before the town there is a melody road. You know the grooves that are sometimes cut in the side of the road to wake you up if you go to far over? A melody road is like that, but the grooves cross the whole road, and the tones you hear make up a song.

I had known there was a melody road somewhere in Gunma, but never quite where it was, so I was pretty surprised when these weird noises enveloped the car! 

The top of Shirane was a delight, far cooler and less muggy than the flats down below. The day before I had been in Tokyo, and difference in climate was very noticeable, and very welcome.There were a variety of hiking trails along the top, but Travis's leg was in a fair amount of pain from an old soccer injury, and he wasn't up to do much walking.

As we had been driving up, I was surprised to see highway buses negotiating the road to the top, direct from Shinjuku in Tokyo. The area is known to local tourists, but I don't think Shirane is very high on the list for people visiting Japan, which is a shame. There aren't many easily accesible active volcanoes in the world, and while Shirane may not have the cache and lava explosions of Kilauea it is still a great place to visit.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The smell of charcoal

Living anywhere requires certain sacrifices, often of a culinary nature. Back in America it is hard to find such things as Japanese style curry, okonomiyaki, or yakitori. Here in Japan, it is Mexican food, and think juicy burgers that have gone missing.

In a quest to honor summer with an old and sacred tradition, yesterday Scott and I decided to try our hands at grilling burgers. We had a very interesting time of it. I like to think of myself as a pretty hot hand behind a grill, but I was humbled by the experience, even though the end result came out pretty well.

Grilling is actually quite popular in Japan, but with some significant differences to the art as practiced in the States. Here they tend to prefer more of a yaki-niku style with grilling small bits of marinated meat, or shish-kebob style with skewers of meat and veggies. Burgers, hot dogs and steaks aren't really on the menu, and that complicates things. Japanese charcoal grills are designed differently, with a small mesh covering suitable for smaller chunks of meat. This makes flipping burgers a bit more of a challenge, especially when the meat is a mix of pork and beef instead of the all ground beef I am used to.

The real challenge however was starting the fire in the first place. I'm a Boy Scout, I know how to light things on fire, especially if these things are stacked in a grill. However, the local hardware store didn't sell lighter fluid, rather they sold lighter gel, a thick, pink concoction that merely sat on the charcoal and smoldered weakly. We eventually figured out that rather than soak into the charcoal, the gel was more of a kindling source, something to place beneath the pile. This lesson cost us at least thirty minutes and about half of the five dollar bottle of fluid.

Our next attempt at a roaring fire was more successful, though it was a bit too successful. Scott returned from the store with a new kindling source AND a small, mini blowtorch especially for fire starting. These two efforts combined finally set the charcoal alight, but the blowtorch had a tendency to stir up storms of sparks. These sparks then landed on our feet, legs, arms and burgers, burning small holes everywhere. The burgers didn't really mind, but I did. Those sparks hurt! We were lucky that we weren't in Colorado, as we probably would have lit half the state on fire with that thing.

Despite our troubles, the finished product actually tasted pretty good. It had been a long time since I had tasted a home grilled blue cheese burger, and I was delighted to finally get the chance.

The good news is we still have the grill, blowtorch and a wee bit of blue cheese left, ready for next time.