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Friday, January 11, 2013

Eat Up, Chow Down, Dig In. A Culinary Journey Across Japan

When a Japanese person asks about your vacation, the question “Where did you go?” is inevitably followed up by, “What did you eat?” It is even more likely that upon learning the destination, the next question will be “Did you try [_____]?” as the Japanese seem to acquire early in childhood the knowledge of the specific specialties of each region in their country.
In Japan, food is an important calculation to consider in the equation of whether you had a good time on vacation or not. But how many different kinds of Japanese food are there, really? Actually quite a lot. After visiting many places and trying the local dishes, I have come to place more value on eating while traveling… or even traveling to eat.
From west to east, here is a tour of some popular destinations and the must-eat cuisine offered there:

Hiroshima- Okonomiyaki

Head to Hiroshima to partake of a dish you’ve surely never seen the likes of before. First described to me as “Japanese pizza”, and later – though not more accurately- as “kind of an omelet,” okonomiyaki is a unique, eclectic mixture of most of the food groups, fried on a hot iron surface. Ingredients usually include a flour-based batter, shredded cabbage, pork, egg, and either soba or udon noodles. These are piled high in layers and get packed down as they are grilled. When it’s ready to be served, chop it into wedges with the accompanying spatulas and slather it with tangy Worchestershire-like sauce. (Then avoid using the spatula to shovel it voraciously into your mouth.)

Osaka- Takoyaki

Octopus balls. Sound appetizing? Bits of soft, boiled tentacles, green onions and pickled ginger are dunked into batter and fried. The balls are quickly and expertly turned in the specialized takoyaki pan to administer an even, golden-brown glow. They are then topped with special sauce, mayonnaise and dried fish flakes. The ingredients blend together nicely – the piquancy of the ginger and sauce, offset by the milder components, provides a pleasant flavor. Still not convinced? Since takoyaki is inexpensive, you can afford to be a bit adventurous and try this tasty treat.

Kyoto- Matcha

The region around Kyoto is famous for growing tea – it has been cultivated there for over a thousand years. Gastronomes will be glad to know that Kyoto also dishes up its matcha (powdered green tea) into desserts. Many shops sell green tea ice cream; it’s a great reward for all the walking you’ve surely been doing around the temples. And because matcha has a distinctive, somewhat bitter flavor, it’s good to try it at least twice to fully appreciate the taste. For your second dose, get to a bakery and grab a matcha cream puff. The sweet, flaky pastry complements a creamy matcha filling, all for the sake of your epicurean enjoyment!

Nagoya- Tebasaki

Nagoya is a common stopover en route to other destinations, but why not enjoy it as an eatoveras well. Try tebasaki: fried chicken wings flavored in a variety of different ways, from mild to spicy to salty. These wings may not be as massive and meaty as you might be accustomed to in your country of origin, but the quality of the chicken, coupled with the savory seasonings, is quite palatable. The price is right as well. Head to Yamachan or Furaibo, the two establishments serving up the dish, and for only a small fee, sink your teeth into some of these delicious wings.

Takayama- Hida Beef

Is this beef really more special than other kinds of beef? Yes, it is. Hida beef is so tender it actually melts in your mouth. The genetics of the cows and the conditions they are raised in are apparently the perfect formula for only the choicest meat. Each cut is either Grade A or B quality beef and contains a glorious mess of marbling. Grab a cheap skewer in the old town to get a taste, or even better, fork out some more cash and sample any of the creative plates that have been concocted by the various restaurants in Takayama. It is next to impossible not to enjoy this delicacy.

Tokyo- Sushi

Of course, I can’t leave out sushi. For the freshest of the fresh, head to Tsukiji market early in the morning, when the day’s catch is first brought in. Because it wouldn’t be civilized to just help yourself to the sea creatures you see lying before you en masse, sit down instead at one of the eateries offering set menus. For a full-on experience, order the morning special – everything from sea urchin to salmon roe, yellowtail to grilled eel. I opted for a sampling of 5 different kinds of tuna. The selection turned out to be superb, and strangely satisfying as a breakfast!
A great way to transport yourself to and from these culinary destinations is to fly All Nippon Airways (ANA), which is currently offering domestic flights for only 10,500 yen to tourists. See their website for more detailshttps://www.ana-cooljapan.com/

Onsen for Dummies

In the spirit of “When in Rome,” a visit to Japan should definitely include one of the Japanese people’s greatest pastimes: a trip to onsen. The tradition of bathing in hot springs is more than a thousand years old and is deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche. Melting into a mineral bath is seen as a relaxing, restorative experience, and I would have to strongly agree that it is.

The idea of stripping down with your friends/co-workers/relatives doesn’t seem to bother anyone here- and yes, you will be naked (most onsen have separate areas for men and women). For foreigners, such an excursion may seem daunting, especially if you don’t have an onsen veteran to guide you. But not to worry- having myself progressed from onsen amateur to enthusiast in just a short time, I am happy to walk you through the procedure so that you may enjoy your first onsen experience in comfort.

Before You Go

If you have tattoos, make sure you check beforehand to see whether you will be allowed to bathe. In Japan, tattoos are often associated with the yakuza (mafia/gangs), so flat-out bans are common for some onsen, even for foreigners. That being said, I haven’t personally come across one yet that denied me access when I asked if tattoos were ok.

When You Arrive

There is usually a ticket machine where you purchase your bath ticket, as well as any towels you may need (you are welcome to bring your own). You will need at least one small- to medium-sized towel to dry and cover some of yourself with. Enter the bath area according to your gender. Then find a bin or locker to put your things in. If it’s a locker, you will get to keep the key on your wrist; it’s fine to take it in the water with you.
At this point, you’ll go ahead and remove your clothes, remembering to take your small towel with you. It’s good to make a show of trying to preserve your modesty by covering up at least a bit with the towel, although ultimately there is no point. The experience of disregarding your own and everyone else’s nudity is actually quite freeing – it’s a chance to unburden yourself not only of clothes, but also of body image issues and uptight cultural values.

Before You Dip

Get in line to give yourself a THOROUGH scrub-down. That is not an exaggeration. Most people spend lots of time making sure they are spotless before entering the bath, which must be shared with so many other people. When it’s your turn, sit down on the stool and give yourself a good dousing with the shower. Shampoo and body soap are generally provided, but if you have some special regimen feel free to bring your own products. When you’re sure that you’re cleaner than you have ever been before, grab your towel and head to the bath.

Sublime Soaking

Cover up a bit with the towel until you get in the water. Make sure to tie your hair back if it’s long. Enter slowly in order to adjust to the temperature, as well as not to splash anyone. Fold the towel up and plop it on your head. The only thing left to do: relax!

Wrapping Up

When you’re ready to get out (hopefully after sitting a good while and thinking about absolutely nothing), take the towel off your head and again perform the illusion of modesty, being careful not to slip as you get out. Before you wander back into the changing area, you must make sure you are completely dry – apparently even one tiny drop of water could cause a catastrophe. Then grab your clothes out of your locker, put them on, and wait in line if you would like to use the hair-dryer or mirror. If you rented a towel, be sure to deposit it before you leave.
From here you could head out of the onsen directly, but why not partake of even more relaxation by sitting at the little floor tables in the hall and enjoying some refreshments. Tea, water and vending machine delicacies are likely to be on hand. Once you feel fully revitalized you can go back into the wider chaotic world, but remember to carry with you a piece of your newfound peace!

Recommended “Hotspots”

It is incredibly difficult to find a consensus as to the best onsen in Japan. There are simply hundreds to choose from. Many well-known onsen are only a short distance from some of the major destinations in Japan. From Tokyo, try Hakone – an old classic in a beautiful natural setting. From Nagoya, the quaint river town of Gero is reachable. From Osaka, don’t miss Shirahama – complete with white-sand beaches. And from Kyoto, go to Kinosaki, along the gorgeous Sea of Japan coast.
Currently, All Nippon Airways (ANA) is offering flights to tourists for only ¥10,500 to all domestic destinations. Take advantage to reach the onsen of your dreams. Visit their website https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/#/japanfare for more details. Enjoy your bath.

Walk and Talk: Osaka

As published September 5, 2012 in Living In Japan: Travel for Gaijinpot.com

Has anyone ever sung you the praises of a destination by insisting on all the great conversations you would have there? The fast-paced life of Osaka doesn’t mean that locals don’t have time to stop and chat. Osakans are renowned among the Japanese for being very friendly and outgoing, as well as for possessing a good sense of humor. Walking through a subway station here may feel like you’ve entered a human asteroid belt, with beings flying at you from all angles, but slow down for a moment and invariably you will make some kind of connection.

Stand looking lost at the entrance to the subway and in half a second or less someone will offer to help you. Ask your waiter if he can point you in the direction you’re trying to go, and he’ll come out of the back with a Google map printed out for you. Have a heart-to-heart with your masseuse about everything from what your plans are while you’re in Japan to your greatest aspirations in life. Then ask for her recommendation about what’s worth checking out in the area.

There is a myriad of things to do and see in Osaka, and walking is a great way to take it all in. Head to Shinsaibashi Station to begin a jaunt that will not fail to provide plenty of amusement. As an avid watcher of people, I was thrilled to witness the crowd’s characteristics changing every few blocks. Walking south on the main stretch, you’ll observe impeccably dressed men and women on their way to high-end stores such as Chanel and Prada. Turn right at the Mac store and walk straight into Amerika Mura, a shopping area catering to diverse fashion senses. It’s full of used clothing stores, hippy world-import boutiques, punk/goth shops with plenty of skull-themed wearables, and the area’s namesake: retailers of American hip-hop fashion from the early 90’s.

Next, carry on to Dōtonbori. Approaching the bridge, its flashiness is sure to catch your eye. Many in this area are tourists, snapping photos on the fly, trying to capture the circus of visual stimuli: everything from arcades enticing you with their bright lights to larger-than-life animal replicas advertising the kinds of edible critters you can feast upon at different restaurants (namely crab, octopus, and blowfish). You can spend lots of time here gawking.

When you want to relax (or you’ve exhausted your ability for clear eyesight) head south to Ebisuchō. This is the Shinsekai area, presided over by the aging, neon Tsūtenkaku Tower. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but this district has loads of cheap and fun bars and restaurants, not the least of which is a very unique setup called Nocosarejima. The owner, Noco, and her partner, Gandhi, are well worth meeting. It’s a pleasure to sit down with them and hear about this uncommon establishment.

The bar/restaurant is named after the first episode of a 1970’s TV anime series called “Future Boy Conan,” one of the least well-known works of very well-known director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). “Nocosarejima” means “Remnant Island,” a key feature of the show’s plot about the adventures of a boy and his grandfather surviving on an isolated island after World War III. The restaurant itself seems like an oasis, providing a relaxed, fun atmosphere in the midst of the city’s hustle and bustle. The décor is a mash-up of cultural trinkets from all of the countries that Noco has been to throughout her travels in Asia. The selection is purposeful; Noco intended it to foster a chill vibe similar to the tropical Japanese island of Okinawa, a place very close to her heart.

As for the menu, dishes from all over Asia are featured, as Noco also learned how to cook local specialties during her travels. Seasonal items are on offer as well- this summer, two specials are umibudo, a kind of soft seaweed from Okinawa that has been dubbed “sea grapes,” along with awamori, a rice liquor also from Okinawa (I recommend the Thai green curry too). Noco’s attachment to Okinawa has also led her to use the bar as a means of educating customers on the importance of preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the island.

At Noco’s, a spontaneous musical performance is quite likely to develop, as Gandhi keeps several guitars in house and is keen to play for, or with, customers. His friend may even stop by to join in with a traditional Okinawan sanshin. Overall, Nocosarejima is a great way to finish a long day of walking and talking in vibrant, never disappointing, Osaka.

*Right now, All Nippon Airways (ANA) is offering tourists the opportunity to fly domestic to any destination in the country, including Osaka, for only ¥10,500. Check out the website for more details http://www.ana.co.jp/wws/us/e/wws_common/promotion/experience_jp/

Seishun 18: Your Own Japan Rail Odyssey

As published September 26, 2012 in Living in Japan: Travel for Gaijinpot.com 

Seishun 18: Your Own Japan Rail Odyssey

There’s still time left to grab one of the best transportation deals in Japan! Imagine yourself whirring along on a train through the countryside, contemplating the following images: beautiful white cranes landing in dazzling green rice fields, forested mountains that reveal more and more of themselves as the morning mist rises, rocky formations breaking through crashing blue waves along the craggy sea coast. Train journeys in Japan are simply incredible- guaranteed.

And at the moment, they’re even more affordable! Seishun 18 is a ticket offered by JR that allows you to ride as much as you can in a day, on five separate occasions. It costs ¥11,500- well worth it, as you would most likely quickly spend that amount on just a few trips on the rail network.

For example, I recently came back to Nagoya from Osaka and decided to stop off at Nara to see the many World Heritage Sites it has to offer. This detour easily exceeded the ¥2,300 per day value of the ticket. On my recent voyage across western Japan, I went to 9 different cities in a week using Seishun 18- I definitely saved tens of thousands of yen!

You can ride as far as you want in a day, as well as go in and out of the system as many times necessary. You can also use the ticket with other people, as long as you’re traveling together. Say you want to go on a day trip with two friends- this requires three stamps on one ticket, and you will still have two stamps left over to use later. Simply bring your ticket to the counter at the gate, receive your stamp, and you’re off on an adventure! All subsequent exits and entries require only a simple showing of that day’s stamp to the ticket taker.

There are some restrictions. You can’t ride private rail networks so make sure your destination is accessible by local JR lines; Shinkansen (bullet train), Express, and Limited Express trains are also excluded. A good way to plan this trip is to use http://www.hyperdia.com/ which allows you to filter those options out of your timetable search. Be aware of time when you’re making a transfer- plan ahead if you will need to quickly hop from one train to the next, including making the necessary pit stops.

The last day to buy this ticket is August 31, and its validity expires after September 10. The next available period is during the winter- you’ll be able to purchase it from December 1-31, to be used from December 10- January 10. Just go to any JR ticket counter and ask for “Jyu Hachi Kippu.” Visit this website for more details: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html

One of the best benefits of riding the local lines is that these slow trains often take you through the beautiful landscape of oft-unseen rural Japan. A few key items to bring: a camera, snacks (there are drink vending machines on most platforms though too, as well as conbinis in many stations), a sweater for cold cars/a fan for hot ones, coins (a good number of stations have lockers for you to temporarily stash a bag), toilet tissue (always a good idea), something to read or do, and patience. This last one is important, as you never know when one of the trains will be incredibly crowded, or you’ll get slightly lost, or your train will be delayed or even canceled- although in this country, renowned the world over for convenience and efficiency, the chances of that are rare.

Armed with this information, along with some good old excitement and determination, you are now ready to begin your own rail odyssey in Japan! Go with the flow and everything will be zen. Happy travels! Ganbatte!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Backwaters of Tokyo

As published on December 13, 2012 in Living in Japan: Culture, Food & Dining for Gaijinpot.com

Tokyo is a quintessential stop on the trail of any traveler, both for foreign tourists on holiday and expats looking for a weekend away. But the popularity of the destination doesn’t mean that it must be a common trip. Having tapped out the tourist circuit the last time I was in Tokyo (Asakusa, Shibuya, Harajuku, Tsukiji, etc.), I opted for something a little more low-key this time on a 48-hour visit with a friend.

Our first stop was Shimo-kitazawa, a location beloved by young Tokyoites looking for style and deals. Its charms got me the first time- I’ll forever be a loyal customer. Forget Harajuku- this place is less crowded and more eclectic, with many shops ranging from Bohemian imports to second-hand items to small booths and even boxes rented out to local jewelry-makers and clothing designers. I picked some artsy souvenirs and a few weird T-shirts. There are also many great, inexpensive restaurants and pubs in the area, from Thai to Spanish to Italian to standard Japanese fare. Our choice that day consisted of a drink at what was basically a lean-to.

Next, I went to Sangen-jaya (affectionately known as Sancha to locals). This area is a veritable maze of restaurants and bars where you are sure to find something unique to eat or drink. I had come for a nomi/tabe hodai experience offered by a Brazilian establishment called Bancho. For 3000 yen we were given T-shirts and free reign over a lavish buffet-style feast and bottomless drinks. Glorious hunks of beef and more than a few caipirinhas later, we were winding our way through the streets between the two branches of the restaurant: challenging but fun.

We ended up at a small “club” in Shibuya that was a hole-in-the-wall… literally.  We wandered up some stairs in a building full of what might have been storage units. Through the first steel door we saw a sparse room with furniture that might have been collected at the corner on garbage day. The theme appears to have been “your weird uncle’s 1960’s living room”. There was a small bar on one side and a DJ booth on the other; the entertainer stationed there kept receiving fake calls on a blue handset as he turned French filter house. After things slowed down here, we ascended one floor to a bar where we sank into a sofa to play Jenga and wait for the first train.

The following day we went to Yokohama- but you need not traverse that far to enjoy what I did there. We had rented a kitchen in a community center and proceeded to cook the food of at least 8 different nationalities. Because space is so limited in Japan, this was an incredibly effective way to have a cheap, enjoyable night-in with friends. And there’s always a conbini or supermarket close by if you run out of ingredients. My favorite dish of the night was a Senegalese curry over cous-cous.

Before heading out the final day, I did stop at Harajuku after all… but not for the suffocating shopping frenzy that is inevitable there. I went instead for a stroll in Yoyogi Park. The autumn foliage was a secondary treat in addition to the great people-watching available there. Specifically I had been clued in to the existence of a group of “rockers” who could be relied on to bring large stereos and dance to 1950’s diner music on Sunday afternoons at the park’s entrance. Locating them and settling in to observe, I wasn’t disappointed. Every one of them was dressed like the Fonz- black leather jackets and greased up hairstyles that had to be constantly sprayed and combed. We did brave the Harajuku crowds momentarily just to have lunch at an art gallery/café called Design Festa- I elected a random combination of Jerk Chicken and a pot of Earl Grey Tea (we were sitting outdoors on a chilly day!)

Overall I passed another great weekend in Tokyo. It was a much-needed break from the stress of work. Hopefully you can add some of these side-jaunts to your itinerary in the future.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Nuclear Winter

“Fukushima… why have I heard of that place?”

(A major nuclear disaster caused by a giant tsunami does tend to make itself memorable.)

Explaining to family and friends abroad that I was relocating to this stricken part of Japan for work was exceptionally hard to do. Almost as hard as making the decision in the first place. I struggled just to get enough information on which to base the decision.

Try an internet search for “Fukushima radiation levels” and you get a jumble of confusing pieces of information, a mix of the most recent news reports on the subject: “The WHO declares the levels aren’t enough to cause cancer.” “Fish offshore from the plant have 100 times the normal limit!” and so on. Conflicting accounts make it difficult to interpret.

For a high-paying, short-term contract, I ended up deciding it was worth the risk.

When I first arrived, things seemed normal enough. I mean, I didn’t expect to see devastation all around or anything; it was cleaned up relatively quickly right after the fact, with all the efficiency to be expected of the Japanese.

I just supposed it would be a little more like the twilight-zone. You know, eerie or something.

But this small town seemed not unlike the one I grew up in: slow-paced, quiet.

Then again… maybe a little too quiet.

My neighbor pointed it out to me. “Listen,” she said, and fell into silence. 

I waited expectantly.

“You can’t hear anything. That’s because: there are no children here.”

It’s always harder to observe the lack of something, rather than what actually is there, but I slowly realized that she was right. Parents do not tow their children along on trips to the grocery store or the pharmacy. The small school I run past on my afternoon jog is perpetually empty. I hardly even see the fashion-conscious teens that drive the vast Japanese marketing machine; ad space on the trains is generally left empty.

Radiation can affect DNA. Children (even fetuses) are the most susceptible to these effects. So most have been sent away.

I remember my old students in Nagoya at times being quite vocal about the situation in Japan. Some would engage in the very un-Japanese pastime of debate about whether the nuclear plants should be put back into production (exchanges were always respectful of course).

Another student was involved in research through his graduate program to see if the soil in Fukushima could be decontaminated. Not when or how it could be decontaminated. If.

Vegetables linger on in one section of the supermarket until they start to rot- it is required to clearly label where they come from and Fukushima is not at the top of people’s preferences these days.

Persimmons, one of the famous crops from the area, manage to cling to the trees long after they’ve ripened. No one will harvest them this autumn, so they remain, bright orange against the progressively darkening skies, ominous ornaments heralding another winter that won’t be punctuated by the glorious laughter of children sledding, building igloos, having snow fights.

The people I’ve talked to here are keen to share their experiences of the earthquake and life since then. In fact, events are frequently referenced as having taken place either before or after “The Tragedy.” But they are also quick to point out that “so many others suffered more.”

My company-issued Geiger counter shows that I get a little over 3 micro-sieverts a day living here. In my 10 weeks here, I should receive about 120 micro-sieverts, the equivalent of 2 chest X-rays. However, that does not account for having already lived 6 months in another part of Japan.

Tokyo and other nearby places in Japan are getting about two-thirds the daily amount of radiation I’m getting in Fukushima. Nagoya, my old city, is getting a third.

The airwaves aren’t the problem now though. Radiation that can be taken into the body through inhaled dust particles, groundwater, and soil remnants on vegetables are the things to be concerned about, and that all comes from the initial contamination. There are rumors that it will be an issue for dozens, if not hundreds, of years.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, my first contact with the “outside” world since entering the exclusion zone, almost everyone I met, including Japanese people, did a double-take upon hearing where I live: “Really?? I thought all the foreigners left there.”

I explain the situation to the best of my ability: “There is no visible damage where I live.”

Still incredulous, they press for further info. “But how do the people seem?”

I can’t think of how to respond… Ambivalent? Resilient? Unhappy?

“I don’t know,” is all I can offer honestly.

In Tokyo, there are still weekly protests every Friday against the re-commissioning of the nuclear plants. However, the media has stopped covering it. The people are made to hold them in a very inconvenient location, where few passersby can see and the numbers cannot be fully comprehended because of the small space. Regardless of whether it is given airtime, the subject is still being discussed with urgency in many homes across Japan.

For now, those that remain behind in Fukushima are carrying on as best they can. They are invested in their lives here and either can’t or won’t pack up and move away. Existence continues in no more mundane a fashion than it did before the disaster, with people still going about their business as usual.

And still… there are no children here.


Monday, July 30, 2012

Climbing Mt. Fuji: A Tale of Misadventure in Three Parts

Part III: Down to Earth

The number 3,776 (meters above sea level- Fuji's summit) will be forever etched in my mind by the mild trauma I endured to get there. In terms of recovery, I am shocked that since I’ve come back I have all the signs of complete mental and physical soundness, even after all of the viciousness that mountain threw at me. I still expect somewhere down the line a condition will develop or a sudden or gradual loss of sanity will occur and I will have this little “adventure” to blame. But for now I seem to be ok. As more time passes, I forget why it was so bad, and even think I would do it again… I should probably take this as a sign that I’m losing it. 

Now where were we?
Maybe this will give you a better idea of how the trail was
...No matter how hard I tried, I could not get warm. The shivering was now constant. Perhaps due to lack of sleep or my preoccupation with my physical condition, I wasn’t really aware of whether I was truly at the top of the mountain or not. And I didn’t care. I also realized that there would be no sunrise! We were essentially inside a storm cloud, with very limited visibility. Again, I was hardly able to be concerned. I saw that people were going inside some kind of building (the same one I had been sitting against possibly?) and I rushed to join them.

Once inside, I was focused on trying to get warm- taking my gloves off, rubbing my hands together, jogging in place. I began to realize that it was actually some kind of shrine- there were several Shinto monks standing behind a counter passing out amulets in return for some coins. My despair grew- how could a sheltered room packed with people generate no heat for my frozen body? (It didn’t occur to me that with my saturated ensemble in the freezing temperatures, I was basically a human icicle!) A stranger handed me something. A small heated pouch of the kind I have usually seen microwaved and used to reduce muscle pain. I thanked the man and he disappeared. I set about using it to try to make my hands warm. If only I had a few hundred of these right now! (My friend later informed me that most people on the mountain were probably carrying them, as was she. Because that’s what you do in cold weather in Japan, didn’t I know that?)

“You look very cold.” My ears perked up at the sound of my own language. Another foreigner dressed in a similar lack of appropriate gear had wandered into the shrine. “There is a restaurant next door where you can get hot soup- maybe that will help.” I followed him out of the shrine back into the wind. Inside the next lodge, a group of his colleagues were waiting for meals. They had apparently come to Japan on business and decided last minute to do a side-trip to Fuji- except they hadn’t packed accordingly. One man from Iceland had been certain that his national origin would be preparation enough- he was wearing a thin wool sweater and had only recently swapped his shorts for pants. The others had little more in the way of winter-ready attire. We all stood there, a collective of fools on display for others’ amusement (I really do hope though that our sorry state was at least good for a laugh for bystanders).

We inquired about the weather conditions; the lodge proprietors explained that it was not advisable to climb down at the moment. But after an hour of standing around in wet clothing, we realized that we needed to try. I couldn’t wait anymore to look for my friends- they had either not made it or had already come and gone, without us ever bumping into each other. I figured it was better to stay with this group. We started our descent.

I couldn’t wear my gloves at all because they were wet and would make my hands even colder. I alternated carrying my stick with one and putting the other in a wet pocket. The walking wasn’t fast enough to generate heat either. There was another line to get down. This got old very quickly, and we decided to pass people- some members were going more slowly though, and since they were friends they kept waiting for each other. But I really could no longer afford to do so. I told them I’d meet them at the 8th station and picked up the pace. Never saw them again either.

Have a rest here- this post is almost as long as the climb down! Haha

The next station contained a large crowd. After waiting a long time just to get through the bottleneck between the building and a fence, I stopped inside and asked how long it would take to get down. When I was told 5 hours, I started to panic a bit. I had already been outside for 12 hours! A friendly English-speaking staff member advised me to just keep moving and not wait for anybody. I also bought another pair of gloves (they were soaked in an hour).

I was now booking it down the mountain. The trail had separated into Up and Down paths and also converted once again into switchbacks. These were steep enough on the ascent- on the way down, they proved even more tricky. Pebbles slid under my feet like marbles on a concrete floor. While others had hiking boots and rock-guards around their ankles and moved almost effortlessly down the mountain, I only had my poor, battle-weary tennis shoes to convey me earthward. I skidded downward, nearing a speed comparable to skiing. Hitting a particularly unstable mound of them meant sliding out of control. There were quite a few times when I couldn’t regain my equilibrium- the result: bouncing down the mountain on my ass. One exceptionally spectacular fall had me trying to catch my balance by throwing my weight to the side… I ended up flailing my arms wildly, doing a 360 degree spin and sailing headfirst down the slope! People came to my aid, only to discover me laughing hysterically. I must have looked like a maniac!

Just a moment later, I discovered my friend waiting alongside the path. It was so relieving to find her- I had been wondering how we would meet up again, what with our phones not working. I had assumed I could get back to the city by myself- but I had mostly been focused on actually making it down the mountain. She told me that she had only made it as far as the 9th station- by the time she reached it, the weather was so bad that they started sending people back down. (Yeah, I definitely shouldn’t have been up there). We started down together, but she was still moving at a snail’s pace (she’d been mobile for two extra hours and started down before me!), so I told her I would move on and meet her at the Fifth station.

It seemed to take ages to reach the Sixth- the Seventh gets the skip on the descent path, not to mention there was a longer distance to walk back this time. But I was finally on the home stretch! And it was finally not freezing. Unfortunately, my knees were not cooperating, as the repeated smashing of my patella into my tibia on the way down had caused quite a lot of pain. I was now having to so a sideways crab-scuttle to continue descending, and I could no longer move quickly. I just wanted it to be over already! I was tempted to use my remaining strength to kick all of the people who were passing me in apparently cheerful moods. At long last I made it though, resisting the urge to lift my arms in the air in a victory gesture as I approached the Fifth. I immediately went to a restroom to attempt to find some dry clothes within my pack- to no avail! I selected the least soaked items, dejectedly put them back on, and went to wait for my friend…
Hateful clouds on the evil mountain
Thankfully, we went to an onsen before heading back to the city- I had to make amends with my body for so egregiously mistreating it. Relaxing in a hot mineral bath was exactly what I needed at the end of this excursion! When we got on the bus to head home, I looked back at the mountain through the window. Clouds were still gathered around it, and I thought of the people who must at that moment be attempting to navigate that mad, swirling snow-globe… I laughed to myself. Good riddance Fuji!!!

Additional updates: I never saw the group that we were meant to meet up with. Apparently they had the same problem my friend did, having to go back down because of the weather. Only 3 out of 11 of them made it to the summit.

The assertion by a colleague, who had previously done the climb, that I would “ruin a pair of sneakers” was absolutely correct. My 10-year old reliable pair of tennis shoes that has traveled all over the world with me sadly didn’t make it. Bless their soles.
My poor shoes! Their soles have separated from their bodies haha, time for a funeral.
...or maybe I can resurrect them by doing some triage with Shoe Glue?
Oh yeah, and the moral of the story: ‘Survival of the fittest’ is clearly just theory.

Wait, I’m not sure that’s the lesson I was supposed to learn…