Fuji x Flowers

Is there such a thing as too much love for Mt Fuji? Never, I say! Just look at her, standing out there all on her own, covered in pure white snow. She’s bold, beautiful and the pride of the country. And she’s notoriously shy, so catching a glimpse of her peeking out from behind the clouds is always a ‘wow’ moment.

On a very clear spring day, I travelled from Tokyo to the base of the mountain to a park called Hana no Miyako Koen. It was a mission and a half to get there – involving 3 trains, 1 bus and a whole lot of confusion – but once there, Fuji-san didn’t disappoint. The last time I was in this area it was so cloudy that we couldn’t see even one inch of the mountain. This time, though, every bump and crevice was visible. The zigzag trails stood out, and my mind immediately flashbacked to the summer of ’14 when some friends and I trekked up to the summit and back on those very trails.

The park was full of tulips in every colour under the rainbow. The pops of orange and purple and red were gorgeous. But with the tulips coming to the end of their season, it was the little nemophila that stole the show. You might remember my visit to the Hitachi Seaside Park where an entire hill is blanketed with blue nemophila. I didn’t realise there was a purple spotted variety, too. I loved how the spots created tiny love heart shapes on the petals. So sweet!

Hana no Miyako Koen is one of many parks around Mt Fuji. I think it’s awesome that there are people who have gone to so much effort to grow the flowers and create these ‘moments’ for the rest of us. How lucky are we!

Top 10 Trips around Japan in 2014

I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.

2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!

I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).

Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)

Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.

Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)

I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.

Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)

After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!

Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)

A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.

Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)

I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!

Climbing Mt Fuji (August)

By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Matsumoto Castle (September)

One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!

Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)

One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!

Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)

After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!

Autumn colours in Toyama (November)

The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.

As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!

As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!

Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!

Hokusai

As much as I love my small, rural hometown in Australia, nothing can compare to some of the incredible opportunities living in the city gives you. Last month, I got to see some impressionist masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the National Art Center here in Tokyo. It was surreal to stand in front of paintings like The Fifer by Manet, Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet, and Ballet Rehearsal on the Set by Degas – inspecting the detail, being surprised by the real-life size (whether smaller or larger than expected), and wanting desperately to touch them but not being allowed!

This month, it’s been all about Hokusai!

Since September 13th (and until November 9th), there’s been a special exhibition on at the Ueno Royal Museum, featuring 142 Hokusai “ukiyo-e” woodblock prints. These prints are kept at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where they’ve been for the past 120 years! Despite how well-known some of Hokusai’s images are, like the “Great Wave” and “Red Fuji”, both from the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series, this is the first time they’ve been on display in Japan. So as you can imagine, it’s been an extremely popular exhibition.

I tried to go last week but actually gave up because there were just too many people – a 40 minute line to buy tickets at 5:30pm! I knew it would have been even more packed inside. So I waited until I had a day off from work, and went again this week. Thankfully there was no waiting time outside, but inside was another story. The middle of the day on a weekday, and it was still so crowded that I could hardly see the paintings! Where do all these people come from?! But, putting up with the crowds was all worth it to see these paintings!

Hokusai
「富嶽三十六景 凱風快晴」”Red Fuji” (1831)
Hokusai
「富嶽三十六景 神奈川沖浪裏」”The Great Wave” (1831)
Hokusai
「諸国名橋奇覧 かめいど天神たいこばし」”Drum Bridge at Kameido Tenjin Shrine” (1833-34)

These are picture cards of three of my favourite prints. The first image depicts sunrise at Mt Fuji, when the day’s first beams of light tinge the mountain red. I can definitely vouch for this, having seen Mt Fuji transform into ‘Mars’ when I climbed it in July! The second image is by far Hokusai’s most famous print. The wave is thought to be a tsunami, about to engulf some boats and a tiny Mt Fuji. The last image is a depiction of the drum gate at Kameido Tenjin Shrine. The header image on my blog just so happens to be this exact bridge! I visited the shrine last year to see the annual Wisteria Festival there. It is a beautiful garden and shrine.

So, aside from visiting the museum (twice), I also had the lucky chance to see another ‘Hokusai’-related event. This time, it was in the form of a movie. Right now, the Tokyo International Film Festival is on, and one of the special presentations was a talk and screening about an upcoming movie called Miss Hokusai. It’s an animation movie, directed by Keiichi Hara, to be released next year. It’s based on a historical manga by Hinako Sugiura which tells the story of Hokusai’s daughter, who actually helped her father to complete some of his famous pieces of art! At the presentation, the producers told us the project’s background and where they were at with production right now. We also got to see snippets of the film that have been finished – one scene is of the iconic Great Wave! Although I’m sure it’s all for promotion, in their modest way they announced that with all of the detail they’re putting into the movie, this could be the one film that could land them an Oscars nomination. Keep your eyes peeled next year for Miss Hokusai!

Conquering Japan’s Highest Mountain

Can’t believe it’s been over a week since I was clambering up the rocky face of Japan’s highest mountain. Already it feels like a distant memory. My body has fully recovered; all hiking gear has been washed and put away. If it wasn’t for my “Mt Fuji stick” standing in the corner of my apartment, and the 250 odd photos on my camera, I could almost believe it never actually happened! It was a tough hike, I won’t lie. But it was worth it, just to see this:

Mt Fuji
Land of the rising sun

***

Our group of 18 (friends, and friends of friends) took the 2:40pm bus from Shinjuku Station, arriving at the 5th station of Mt Fuji 2.5 hours later. There are actually 4 different 5th stations, each connecting to different trails on Mt Fuji. We decided on Fuji-Subaru 5th Station which is the entrance to the Yoshida Trail, the most popular route.

Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji from the bus

Mt Fuji

A few things surprised me when we got to the 5th station. Firstly, it wasn’t that busy. There were actually two big events on in Tokyo the same night, which may have drawn a lot of people away: the Edogawa Fireworks and the Itabashi Fireworks, which combined is attended by about 1.5 million people! Whatever the reason, it was all good news for us. Mt Fuji is notorious for its super crowded, narrow trails where you have no choice but to follow long lines of slow tour groups.

Secondly, the 5th station is basically a commercialized base camp. There’s a bunch of souvenir shops and everything’s expensive. It’s here that you can pick up the well-known ‘Mt Fuji walking stick’. I ended up getting a medium-sized one for 1,200 yen. The idea is that at every mountain hut on the trail, you get the stick branded (and pay 300-400 yen each time, mind you!). It’s like an achievement memorabilia. It’s also pretty useful too, though there were times when I really needed both hands to climb up the steep rocks.

And thirdly, I guess this one is also due to luck, the weather was amazing! It was about 20°C and not humid. I know we were 2300m above sea level, but it was such a change from Tokyo! We could see the top of the mountain very clearly, although clouds were sweeping by pretty quickly. Down below, all we could see were white puffs. We were literally up in the clouds. Then as the sun set, the sky quickly changed to dark blue with streaks of pink and orange. It was very pretty. How lucky that we would be able to see both the sunset and sunrise from Mt Fuji!

Mt Fuji
5th station, looking up
Mt Fuji
5th station, looking down
Mt Fuji
Sunset from 5th station

So, the idea was to hang around the 5th station for 2 hours, get used to the altitude, relax, and eat dinner. With our headlamps on, backpacks fastened, we started climbing just after 7pm. The first leg, to the 6th station (2390m), took about 25 minutes. It started off with a gradual slope, and then there were a bunch of big stairs before it turned into a steep climb. I was stuffed before we even reached the first hut! Little did I know it would just be a warm up for what was to come. The group didn’t even make it 100 metres before all separating! I’m actually pretty sure we were never together again as a group. That’s the thing with big groups; everyone has their own pace. Catching our breaths at the 6th station, we had a 5-minute break before continuing on. On the way, we were super lucky to see about 3 different fireworks shows going on in the towns below!! The tiny explosions of colour were so cool. We stopped a couple of times just to watch them (it was also a good excuse to have a few sneaky breaks to catch our breath).

About one hour later, we reached the 7th station (2700m)…. or so I thought. I excitedly got the first stamp on my stick, and then we were on our way again. But after just 10 minutes, we were already at the next hut! I realized there was more than one ‘7th station’. The first one was ‘Hana-goya’, and the one we were at was ‘Hinode-kan’. There were another 5 until the 8th station! I’m still not even sure which is the proper 7th station, if there is one!

Between the 6th station and the top (10th station), there are 14 mountain huts. Some are really small, others big. Some cater for people who want to sleep, some are just quick toilet stops. It gets a little confusing figuring out if you’re at the new 7th station or the original 7th station or the 7.5th station or just one of the in-between huts!

Mt Fuji
View of towns below
Mt Fuji
Branding at Hinode-kan 7th station
Mt Fuji
Narrow path past Hinode-kan

The next 1 hour 15 minutes were actually not too bad. The initial shock of how tiring it was had settled, and we were able to get into a steady rhythm. We chatted with each other along the way. It was so nice to hear people call out 頑張って!(You can do it, keep going!). Although everyone was in their own group, all the groups were ‘together’. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie, for sure.

We got to ‘Taishi-kan’, the first of the 8th stations (3100m) at 10:15pm. It was starting to get really cold, especially whenever we stopped for a break. It was time to put on warmer gear: windbreaker, beanie, scarf, and gloves. We stayed for about 10 minutes, enjoying awesome, much-needed cups of coffee and cocoa. I would have liked to sit down for longer, but we just had to keep pushing onwards and upwards!

Mt Fuji
Branding at Taishi-kan 8th station
Mt Fuji
Fire pit
Mt Fuji
Trail of lights in the darkness

 

The next few hours were just a slow, slow, shuffle. Lots of hikers had decided to bunk down on the side of the mountain, using special sheets to cover themselves and protect them from the bitter cold wind. It looked a bit depressing actually, like a mass of dead bodies. It didn’t make me feel any better, passing them, nor did it make me want to join them. We just kept going, only thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. It was pitch black, and we relied heavily on our headlamps to make sure we didn’t trip over any rocks or bump into any guide poles – although I did slam my head into a metal pole at one point which hurt really bad.

It started to get especially tough after midnight. The going was painfully slow, the air was thin, and my body was telling me to stop every five steps. Sometime around 1:00am, I felt like I just couldn’t keep going. Two friends and I slumped down on the side of the path. As we sat there, all we could hear were the heavy footsteps and the deep breathing from the hikers going past. Occasionally, we’d hear the click of a portable oxygen can in use. It made me feel a little better knowing that almost everyone else was struggling, too.

After eating some food and resting our legs, it was time for the final push to the top. We ran into some of our group members who had also been taking a break just up ahead. Our little reunion gave me a boost of energy and before I knew it we were at the next landmark: the 9th station (3600m), a torii gate with two stone lions either side. It was 2:00am. We had more or less reached the top! We were ecstatic!

Mt Fuji
Half of the group! (photo courtesy of a friend)

We reached the summit a short while later. The adrenaline wore off quickly. It very, very freezing cold! The temperature was around 4°C but the wind chill made it feel below 0. Plenty of people warned me about the temperature at the top, but I just never imagined it being that bad. My toes were numb and my neck was cold despite having so many layers wrapped around it. Thankfully, this is Japan, and you can find heated-drink vending machines even at 3776m (or there abouts). I grabbed a can of hot cocoa, which warmed my hands for about two minutes before turning into an ice cold drink!

There were a couple dozen people already at the summit, and more arriving by the minute. We found a place away from the crowd below a small barricade of rocks, and huddled together, using blankets, raincoats, sheets, whatever we could to wrap ourselves up and protect us from the biting winds. We had two hours to try get some rest, but I was shivering so much I couldn’t sleep at all. I told myself, I will never complain of the summer heat ever again!

Daybreak came at 4:00am. Dark clouds covered above us, and beautifully framed a clear horizon. A perfect gradation of blue, orange and red appeared, and we knew the sun was not far away. We moved further around the mountain and found a great place with hardly any people.

Mt Fuji
Dawn

The view down below and off into the distance was sublime! The mountains below were submerged in wisps of clouds. Everything was so still and peaceful. We could see the ocean out to the far right, and three or four lakes below. The clouds above were tinged with pink from the sun just beyond the horizon. I was absolutely filled with awe. A friend gave me the idea to share this wonderful experience with our friends and family via Skype. Technology is pretty awesome! My hands were shaking from being so cold, but I managed to send a few video messages to the family.

Mt Fuji
Dream land
Mt Fuji
Branded, for life

And then, it was sunrise at 4:45am. The moment we’d been waiting for. The reason people climb through the night. The sneaky thing seemed to pop up out of nowhere! But within minutes, the entire sky was lit on fire. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen! The reflection on the mountain face was almost as impressive as the sky. It was such an intense red. A friend commented that it looked like we were on Mars!

Mt Fuji sunrise

 

Mt Fuji
Welcome to Mars!

After basking in the glorious sun, we decided to leave for two reasons. One, it was so cold. And two, we really needed to go to the toilet. Like, really, really badly. There were two toilets at the summit, but the line looked about two hours long. I’m not exaggerating at all. So after a quick look at the big, scary, icy crater, we started back down at 5:15am. We finally were able to release our poor bladders at the 8.5th station!

Mt Fuji
Crater… Diameter is about 490m.
Mt Fuji
A very short rainbow right over a torii shrine!
Mt Fuji
Hikers adding a bit of colour to the scenery
Mt Fuji
One of the many torii gates on Mt Fuji

The journey back to the 6th station consisted of a steep, zigzag, gravel trail. You could take breaks at the corners of the zigzags, but there were no flat areas at all. It started off great! We were flying down, passing all the slow groups. I would even say it was pretty fun. But unfortunately for me, the fun didn’t last long. My toes we being pushed into the front of my shoes, and it felt like my toenails were being pushed back into my feet. With every step it was getting more and more painful. I was forced to put on the brakes and go extremely slow. I ended up walking almost sideways to relieve the pressure on my big toes. This went on for about two hours. Horrible.

Mt Fuji
Overtaking on the outside edge!
Mt Fuji
Steep descent
Mt Fuji
Taking a break to admire the view

By the time I reached the 6th station (at 7:45am), I was in too much pain and had to change my hiking boots to my sandals. Luckily the worst of the hike was over, and the remaining track was fairly flat and easy. My feet definitely appreciated the open air!

At long last, we returned to our starting point at just after 9:00am, 14 hours after having set off. We collapsed on the ground, in a zombie-like state. Everyone was wrecked. As different members of our group arrived back, we were all saying the same thing: ‘never again, never again’.

***

If I had to give advice to someone looking to climb Mt Fuji, I’d say prepare for mid-winter weather at the top (heat packs are a life saver); go at your own pace (it’s important not to race up, otherwise you could get altitude sickness); go to the toilet whenever you can, even if you don’t think you need to go; and remember to eat energy food and drink water, as it’s easy to forget when you’re concentrating on climbing. I only drank about 1 litre of water the whole time, although the recommended amount is 1.5-2 litres.

We actually had a lot of really awesome things go our way which I’m grateful for: the weather was perfect – no rain, a clear sky for sunrise, and no harsh sun on the way down; it wasn’t very crowded; and most importantly, everyone returned safely. But even thinking back to it now, I still don’t think I’ll climb Mt Fuji again! I’m happy with my one-and-only experience.