RISING SUN

FUJIYOSHIDA | JAPAN

TOKYO | JAPAN

AUGUST 2014

“A WISE MAN CLIMBS FUJI” SO THE PROVERB GOES, “THE WISEST MAN DOES SO ONLY ONCE”. NO ONE TELLS ME I’M……..NOT WISE.

The first thing that struck me about Mount Fuji is how big it was. It’s a mountain obviously, but due to Fujiyoshida’s location right at it’s base it just seemed to loom menacingly over the town consuming my field of vision.

I’d arrived a day late on the night bus from Kyoto and I had a big decision to make. August is prime season for climbing Fuji as the top is momentarily free of snow, however the climb is recommended for two days. Day one – climb from the bus stop at the fifth station and camp over night at the eight station. Then, in the early hours of the next morning, make your assault on the summit for sunrise. Due to my lateness that wasn’t gonna happen. Either I’d have to do it all in one day, or be content with looking at the mountain from the ground as it gave me the proverbial finger. I’d decide later.

One place I was interested in exploring while I was here was Japan’s infamous “suicide forest” Aokigahara. This cursed forest at the base of Mount Fuji has long had a sinister reputation seemingly drawing people from across Japan to end their lives in the “Black Sea of Trees”. The problem has gained such notoriety that there are signs placed at the entrance pleading with people to “think of their families”. And it’s not just a recent phenomenon. The woods have long been associated with the supernatural. It is believed the curse originated when a band of samurai committed seppuku here en-masse. Since then the angry spirits, known as yurei, poison the mind of all who enter. Whenever I’m depressed, instead of my family I usually think of Holly Willoughby. Things soon start looking up after that.

First I had to get there though. I didn’t help myself by taking the train in the opposite direction. When I asked the station assistant how to get to Aokigahara she looked at me puzzled. Why did I want to go there? Besides I’d gone the wrong way. Go back. Hmmm…. was the curse of the yurei already fogging my mind? Or was I just a stupid backpacker with a terrible sense of direction? Both equally valid questions.

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The hulking presence of Fuji looms over Aokigahara.

Eventually I’d arrived at the proper station and hopped on the small shuttle buses. From here at Kawaguchiko there are tourist buses that ply different routes around the Fuji Five Lakes region. You buy your hop on / hop off ticket for whichever route you want (they are colour coordinated) and then just take your seat on the bus when it pulls in. In no time at all I was at one of the entrances to the Sea of Trees. Looks like this particular journey was about to come to a horrific end.

Once the sound of the traffic on the road had faded into the distance the forest was eerily quiet. I had gotten used to the constant hum of cicadas and other insects here in Japan, but here in Aokigahara it was unsettlingly quiet. The forest floor was dark and hardened by crags of volcanic rock, and the trail was thin and narrow. No one else seemed to be around either. Added to that every single sign and trail marker I came across was broken, or damaged in some way. No wonder people get lost here if the signposts are all pointing in the wrong directions. I can’t say I felt the strange sense of unease that many report, but it did feel a little different. 

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Aokigahara : bad maintenance or supernatural sabotage?

Later that night at the bar I think the barman was having a bit of a mental breakdown. He was an American that had been living in Japan for a long time now and was married to a Japanese woman. Things were fine with her but the in-laws were a different story. It seems that no matter where you go in the world people’s problems are the same. Talking to an incredibly sun-burnt Australian couple I was assured that climbing up and down Fuji in one day was “fine”. They had just come back from doing it themselves, the only recommendation they had was to use plenty of sun block. “We didn’t” they added, as they continued to sizzle at the bar(bie).

That was that. My mind was made up. My gear was packed and I was resolved to conquer Fuji the next day come hell or high water. Hopefully neither, but either way I was gonna do it.

I’m an idiot, and I can safely say that everyone who climbed Fuji with me that day were also idiots.

I didn’t have a good feeling as I walked to the bus stop that morning. It was damp, dark and grey as we pulled into Fuji fifth station. I stocked up on some last minute supplies, including a badass walking stick, and as I started up the trail I was confident that the weather would improve. It didn’t. In fact it got progressively worse. The dampness turned into full blown rain and the trail disintegrated in parts into a dark red mess. I had a feeling that my waterproof jacket was no longer that water proof, a feeling that was quickly confirmed. Still, I continued to climb and Fuji continued to rail against me. The wind picked up and chilled me to the bone. By rights this mountain should have been closed today I thought. Those thoughts turned from elation at the opportunity to climb, to resilience, to anger, to stubbornness. This was personal now. Me versus the mountain.

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Almost there. Feet don’t fail me now! (again)

Each station provided a small amount of shelter and a chance to snack down. I’d stocked up on something I’d found in the shops – a yogurt / jelly drink. The idea sounded disgusting, but man, they tasted so good. They were designed, apparently, with just this sort of thing in mind, fortified as they were with vitamins, carbs and proteins. I hoped Japanese nutritionists knew what they’re doing. With a determined grimace I faced the biting rain again and started back on the trail.

I climbed ever upwards. Some parts were almost vertical requiring you to grab onto a guide rope and place your feet carefully to haul yourself up to the ledge above you. I hated these parts. They felt very exposed and the constant rain had made them dangerously slippy. You weren’t in any danger of a fatal fall, but you could easily break a leg or twist an ankle. And in these conditions it wasn’t a pleasant thought.

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Climbers with their trusty canned oxygen. Wusses.

Waves of joy crashed over me each time I saw the little markers announcing the distance and time to the summit. I never seemed to have made as much progress as I’d hoped but at least it was something. The small wooden signs encouraged me, and in my mind I was already thinking of ways I would treat myself if I made it back down in one piece. The biggest, fattest, cholesterol loaded burger I could find. Washed down with the coldest, frothiest beer imaginable. My body was craving the reward and it spurned me onwards to the peak.

Fuji welcomed me with hail stones when tired, but not defeated, I slumped into the shack at it’s summit. “Nice one man” it said “have some frozen ice in your face”. It was impossible to see anything. the ground was black and everything above it was white. I’d seen the pictures online a million times. The beautiful sunrises, the wisps of cloud parting to unveil the amazing view over the island of Honshu. Right now all I could see was a soggy sandwich held in a trembling wind bitten hand. Screw this. I’d done it. Here I was at the top. Fuji was complete. Done. Let’s get this burger.

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Ta da! Wow what a view!

I don’t remember much about the way down. What I do comes back to me in nightmarish flashbacks. Howling wind, freezing hail, people gasping through oxygen masks, endless switchbacks and knee high mud.

“The wisest man only climbs it once” Amen brother.

Before I could afford to pay for my Dirty Burger and Frothy Beer (a famous Irish crime fighting duo) I spent the evening drying out my Japanese banknotes using the hostel hairdryer. My wallet had gotten soaked during the climb and now I found myself engaged in a traditional yakuza past-time. Money laundering.

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Fuji as seen through the Arakura torii gate.

 

I intended to give Fuji the silent treatment the next day in protest. Especially when I looked out the hostel window to be greeted by sunshine and those thin, wispy clouds I’d heard so much about. You bastard, I thought, I can’t stay mad at you. An opportunity is an opportunity though, so I rode the train looking for a place to take some nice pictures now that you could actually see the mountain. I was searching for the Chureito Pagoda, famous for one million stereotypical photos of Japan with Fuji in the background. It was easy enough to find. At the train station I asked the ticket lady and she gave me a photocopied hand drawn map. Straight forward enough. In about 15 minutes I was entering the Arakura Sengen shrine and climbing up the hill towards the pagoda. As I sat there staring at the clouds rolling across the base of Fuji I thought about how lucky the climbers that day were. I hoped they brought sun block. And choked on it.

It’s only about two hours from Fujiyoshida to Tokyo. I hopped off the bus there that night. The horror stories about navigating the confusing labyrinth of Tokyo’s metro system were still fresh in my mind. Initially the station seemed enormous, full of malls and shops, but eventually I got to the actual platforms to read the maps. Yup, there were a lot of different lines, not only that but there seemed to be two separate metro services. Having studied the map and decided on a plan of attack I plumped for a 24 hour pass that covered both companies. This seemed to be the best plan for my few nights in Tokyo and it worked out well each day.

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I hope I don’t get lost in here

That night I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay in a capsule hotel. These were originally planned with businessmen in mind, men who were only stopping off in town for a night or two and literally just needed somewhere to sleep. It’s also my approach to accommodation. Couple that with the fact that it’s also the cheapest accommodation here and you have a match made in heaven. I’m not claustrophobic, and to me the capsules were surprisingly spacious. You had a little shelf for your belongings, a hangar for your jacket, even sockets to charge your electrical gizmos, while underneath was a storage locker for your luggage. Outside the room was a communal bathroom and shower block, and typically Japanese, everything was spotlessly clean. It didn’t feel that much different from a dorm room in a hostel. Actually if anything this place seemed more spacious and private than many dorms I’d slept in previously.

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Old shrine at Sengakuji.

Morning arrived and I crawled out of my tupperware container into a new day. With my metro card in hand I payed my respects at the grave of  the 47 ronin. Located at the Sengakuji shrine it contains the remains of the Akoroshi, the masterless samurai. It’s one of Japan’s favourite folk tales, a story about injustice, revenge and bloody severed heads. Fittingly it takes place around christmas. After their master was unfairly killed, the samurai – lead by Keanu Reeves – plot their revenge before storming the villains mansion and carrying off his head. Here at Sengakuji honour required them to commit ritual suicide for their awesome hollywood inspiring crimes. Today it’s a small shrine with an old dude selling incense. Japanese graves look a little strange compared to graves back home. They kinda look like giant ice cream sticks stuck into the ground. Today didn’t seem like a very busy day and only a handful of people were milling around, lighting incense and bowing. That night I’d head to Tokyo’s famous Akihabara district for something completely different.

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Graves of the 47 Ronin. Tokyo.

Akihabara is the neon, anime, videogame crazy part of Tokyo which a lot of people instantly associate with the city. And it’s proper crazy. Huge glowing edifices scream SEGA! at you, there are girls dressed as maids on every street corner, and there is softcore cartoon pornography beamed from the side of skyscrapers. With such an assault on the senses it’s hard to know where to start. I made my way around the countless videogame shops, arcades and pachinko parlours, surrounded on all sides by a barrage of beeps, buzzes and boooooooooops! Through the maelstrom I stopped at what looked like a Bond villains lair. It was called the Mandrake building and the only way up and down was through a fire escape like stairwell around the outside. The first few levels was predictable enough – toys, action figures and classic videogame consoles. Nintendo! Sega! Atari! Ok, maybe not Atari. It was magnificent, giving me an instant nerd-on. The upper levels though descended into madness. The crazy part wasn’t the row after row of cartoon porn, or why the Japanese felt the need to introduce tentacles into the respected genre, it was the blasé attitude of the people there. Maybe I’m just used to the Irish attitude towards porn, the filthy, disgusting, hide-it-under-your-bed-and-lets-all-pretend-we-didn’t-do-it-and-even-if-we-had-some-we-were-just-keeping-it-for-a-friend-but-you-wouldn’t-know-them way of looking at it. Here the people were browsing the stuff like they were shopping for a tin of beans at the supermarket. After five hours inside I stormed out in disgust.

I didn’t go into the maid cafes either, or the robot cafes or….I swear everyday must feel like halloween here. Subservient robot porno halloween.

Awesome tagline for the Japanese tourist industry there. The first one is free guys.

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A crossing in Akihabara. At least 25% of these people are perverts walking to the Mandrake building

Tokyo surprised me in so much as it wasn’t as expensive as I’d been lead to believe. It was the most expensive place I’d visited in Asia sure, but after living with Irish prices for so long it seemed quite cheap actually. The capsule hotels are good value, mine was about €15 a night, while during the day I always made sure to have a huge steaming bowl of curry at the Coco Curry House chain of restaurants. The large portion sizes cost about €5. Another high point of Coco Curry is it’s shop front display. Like most Japanese eateries it displays plastic representations of the dishes, the only problem here is that each dish is exactly the same. All that changes is the meat, or the spiciness of the sauce. As a result it looks like they’re having a bulk sale on brown rice. It’s not fancy, but it’s satisfying and tasty.

After two nights of mental exhaustion I rested my eyes back at the hotel like an action figure ensconced inside my plastic man-box. It was my last night in Asia and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I enjoyed my time here among the exotic cultures, amazing landscapes, spicy food and friendly people. On the other I felt like if I seen one more Buddha I was gonna smash it with my head. Not only that but my flight the next day was taking me down to Australia. It was a totally different part of the world and I was looking forward to something radically different. I was booked on the Tokyo Narita to Cairns flight and as I closed my eyes I dreamed of sparkling reefs, tropical rainforests and getting kicked in the nuts by a kangaroo.

Next time : Sparkling reefs, tropical rainforests and getting kicked in the nuts by a kangaroo. Two of these things happened.

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