Tokyo: Conquering Mr. Fuji

For the final instalment of my adventurous Summer holidays, it was time to climb Fujisan! Famous from its appearance in  ukiyo-e block prints, its a iconic status can only be matched by anime and crazy Japanese electronics.

Thursday: Arigatou Mr Robotou

Always a joy to shorten the work week, I woke up at 0515 on a Thursday morning, and caught the first train out of Mie, enabling me to get the bus to Oita airport at 0655.

I love domestic flying! Within 5 minutes of arriving at the airport, I was through security and sat waiting. Landing in Tokyo, I was messaging Savvy arranging to meet up (she was flying home in 48 hours – forever!) and we agreed on meeting at Asakusa station, to then take Rob and Becky to Senso-ji temple nearby.

Struggling to get in contact with Rob and Becky, Savvy and I headed off and… bought Dominos pizza – yum yum YUM!

Eventually we met up, dropped R&B off for sushi and we ate the dominos.

Senso-ji was busy! And coming from Kyoto, R&B were pretty templed out! So we didn’t stay too long, and walked over to the Sky Tree – boy was it expensive! After trying to figure out how high we could get without paying (not very…) we walked across to another building and got a 21st floor view of Tokyo – it sufficed!

By now we could check in, did so, and headed out to the ROBOT RESTAURANT!!!

Zoom, zap, zap! Pow, boooong!

What a weird show! From scantily-clad, taiko drummers, snakes and dragons to robots and bikini clad robots! Even a fight between aliens and forest dwellers -so weird! Not to mention the Daft Punk inspired lounge band!

Next we joined Savvy for dinner, with some of her Tokyo friends, at a Nabe pot restaurant – it was tabehoudai, all we can eat!

Finally we got back to the hostel around 2230 – still to shower and pack for Fuji.

Friday: Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side; It’s the Climb

Another morning of waking 0515, Rob and I quickly set off to the station to rise to Shinjuku and the bus stop. Becky had decided not to join us for the full pilgrim walk, from Fuji station to the top, saving herself 4 hours of walking.

From the station, we made our way to the Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine.

Surrounded by the straightest trees in the world, the grand, red tori gate is almost as thick as the trees themselves!

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The Tori gate at Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine

The lower part of the walk was through general forest. Unfortunately for us, the whole area was covered in mist, and would continue to be misty right until the 5th station, and persist even as we went higher than that.

Weaving through the forest was fun, though undermined by knowing there was a smooth, easy to walk road only a few metres away, and we tried not to dwell too much on the numerous watch out for bears signs…

After a time we hit a cafe, and knew the longest stretch of walking was over, and that the time between landmarks was diminishing.

Getting towards the 1st station, things began to get much tougher. The incline began to increase very quickly, and into the path, were cut surface water run-off channels and dams, presumably to channel melting snow off of the walking paths. The route began to consist mainly of 12 inch or higher steps, which started to take their toll on my knees.

The sun was getting closer to being over head, but still the mist persisted, and it gave the forest a strange defused lighting, like a photo studio. In clearer parts, you could see the mist roll and wash over us – really cool! Like a Narnia, or it reminded me of childhood days at my aunt’s house.

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The mist moved so fast, and was so thick

The old 4th and 5th stations were pretty dilapidated, collapsing on themselves and creating some wonderfully atmospheric feeling, like nature reclaiming space back from man.

Finally we hit a road, and knew we were near the 5th station – it wasn’t even 1200 yet!

Alas, the station was still a kilometre up the road from where we were! Off we trudged to find Becky.

After 20 minutes of no luck, we headed in for a bit of food before hitting the main ascent to our hut for the ‘night’.

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Our first view of Mt. Fuji at the 5th Station

The previous path had been pretty empty, we’d overtaken maybe 3 groups of 10-15, and a few couples, but on this path, there were so many people! So many groups in bright coloured jackets and trousers, round foreigners huffing up the hill with their poles and rucksacks, then Rob and I in tee shirts and shorts!

The first part was dull. The clouds were tight to the mountain, so we had no idea of how high up we were, or how high the mountain was. The mist rolled along the paths, and we simply zig-zagged up the hill, the earth of the mountain held back by huge metal barriers and cages – as if we were in a post-apocalyptic war, storming the alien stronghold.

We passed Becky pretty early on, leaving her with her new-found American friends.

Perhaps an hour in, and we began to hit the 7th station huts. By now the price of drinks and food was increasing substantially! 400 yen for a water, instead of 100 or less!

Rob and I found that by far the quickest way to climb Fuji is not to follow the person in front of you, but using the full width of the path to get round tour groups. My god! The groups are slow, pausing every few stretches and just climbing slowly. No wonder it says it takes so long to climb fuji! They’re especially slow as it begins more of a climb than a walk.

By 3 o’clock we’d reached our station for the ‘night’ – it had barely taken 2 hours! But now what to do?

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Our accommodation for the ‘night’

We took off our stinky clothes, and changed a little, and took a nap to wait for Becky!

About an hour later she had arrived! Yay! We’d been worried she’s just walk past!

With the gang reunited, we waited for our dinner! As we waited, the clouds cleared and we could see the view above and below us! We were so high up! Thank goodness! We’d walked so hard without seeing the fruits of our labours!

Dinner was a light affair of mackerel and curry rice, with a lil cake, and they gave us our breakfast – boil in the bag rice!

Nearing 7pm we decided to call it a night!

Saturday: Sunrise on Fujisan

Waking at 0000 to a cacophony of alarms, we clearly weren’t the only ones to have read about leaving at midnight for the sunrise!

After having dressed, and eaten breakfast, we left at about 0030. We were at the bottom of the 10 or so 8th station huts, so we had a lot of people to overtake and beat to the summit!

It was a race to the top! Headlights illuminating the way, we had many tour groups to get past, taking risks climbing on the outer edges of the path and sneaking our way up the hill, whilst trying not to get too sweaty!

As we finally got above the tour groups, the lights ahead began to diminish, and the occasional head touch began to merge in with the stars above us, whilst below there was a snake of blue-hued lights illuminating the entire path up here, and disappearing into the clouds.

Out beyond the mountain, the nearby towns twinkled through the cloud, and help provide some hint of how far Rob and I had walked that day!

At the 9th station, little more than a hut, was a man asleep in sleeping bag – had he been there all night?

Through a tori gate, and then bam! A stone pillar, that read (in Kanji) Fuji Summit – very proud of my Japanese there!

So it was 0215 – 3 hours until sunrise!! Luckily there are seats at the top, so Rob and I took position at the front, surrounded by less than a dozen people. Time for jumpers, jackets, trousers and waterproof trousers – it was gonna be a cold night!

Forty-five minutes later Becky turns up, joins us under our blanket and whips out… her tablet and we watch the Amazing Spider-man! Which turns out to be a great distraction as you freeze your ass off!

After a long wait, the first rays of light broke out from the clouds, and we began the sunrise.

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A sea of clouds as the sun teases us on at the summit of Fujisan

It was a beauty! The double clouded sky framed the sun wonderfully, and watching the hills and lakes below arise from the darkness really emphasised the height we had scaled – about 3700m.

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Adventure Time… The sole reason I made this hat

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Conquering of the sky

The way down was far better than the climb up! The weather held nicely, giving a great view of the base of the mountain, but also a double layer of clouds above and below us.

The path was mostly loose shale, on a shallow incline zig-zagged path – no rocky faces to climb. It was almost laughable how regularly and clearly you could see the route down the mountain below us, but pretty easy on the knees.

We set off around 0545, and were at the 5th station by 0745 – super quick! Our bus wasn’t even leaving until 10am!

Time for breakfast – american pancakes – and postcards to right and send (with the official Fuji postoffice stamp!). We managed to get onto an earlier bus, 0930 back to Tokyo and were back in before midday – and Becky had been so worried she’d miss her 9pm flight – ha!

The group split up, and Rob and I headed to our capsule hotel for the next two nights, over in Shibuya. Split over 10 floors, there were a number of bedrooms, a lounge, locker room and onsen. This was a problem for us, and we spent a lot of time going up and down trying to sort out laundry, changing for onsen, finding the onsen was closed etc.

But after a couple of hours, we were off exploring Shibuya!

First stop was the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the film “Lost in Translation”. I read in Timeout magazine that it was the best attraction in Tokyo as voted for by visitors.

Jesus!

I mean, it’s a crossing, it’s busy, and you cross from many points at once, but it is just a crossing in quite a small area.

We then checked out the highly mentioned Shibuya 109 mall – I mean, it’s a small-based, tall mall, for women with waists the diametre of my thigh… Not so good for Rob and definitely not good for me!

The day was passing, we chose a restaurant to check out, and munched. It wasn’t enough so we hunted down a Dominos pizza, walked there via a small temple surrounded by towering blocks, and munched it on the side of the street.

Having been up since midnight, we took the night pretty easy and got some much needed shut eye.

Sunday: Anime in Akihabara

After a nice lie in, and after discovering that the capsule hotels have porn on the built in TVs, we headed out to Taco Bell!!!

It wasn’t as good as I remembered in Korea…

Off to Akihabara to indulge in otaku culture!

Akihabara is the home of anime and video game culture in Japan. The streets are lined with shops selling anything and everything related to any and every anime and manga, from figurines, to outfits to trading cards and memorabilia.

We mostly went there for the arcades, and after exploring for an hour or so, headed into one. After 2 or 3 floors of UFO/ the claw machines, we made it into the games section. There was a super cool pokemon stadium game, were you actually played your moves in real time, and reacted to the opposition! Super cool!

On the next floor we found what we were after, and jumped into a 2 person Transformers shoot’em game! We sucked, throwing in yen after yen after yen! Then next was an immersive fighter pilot game – it had a massive curved screen that filled your vision and made me a lil sea sick…

Finally we finished off with a game of air hockey – though a version with a weird multi-puc mode that allowed me to win! 🙂

Off to the AKB48 cafe for some drinks! AKB48 are a band, with rolling membership, but what really differentiates them is that they have a permanent performance centre. Every day of the week you can go in and watch a performance. This gives fans permanent access to the band, and to counter exhaustion, they have nearly 50 members from which they choose a few to perform each day. And the name? An abbreviation of Akihabara > AKB, thus spawning a splurge of sister groups based in other areas of Japan.

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AKB48 Cafe next to Akihabara station

It was a nice enough cafe, but the music video of all the members performing on the beach in bikinis was a highlight!

A whistle stop visit to the Anime centre (little more than a room, but a fascinating seeing loose line work turned into fully inked manga panels/anime cells) lead to us checking out the 3331 Art centre.

The 3331 art centre is set in an old junior high school, with the classrooms rented out to different business, artists and exhibitors. A cracking idea in principle, but a lil empty on a Sunday, or perhaps it hasn’t taken off yet – I’m not sure.

Next we headed to Shinjuku. Like Akihabara, it was strange exploring these places I’d been to the previous year, back when I was completely green, totally lost and had no idea of the geography of Tokyo.

We walked amongst the illuminated signs that screamed for our attention, that scrambled and clung to every vertical surface, and informed us that all 10 floors in every building had something to offer us (though what it was offering I had no idea!).

We went in hunt of ‘Drunk’s Alley’ and ‘Piss Alley’ and eventually found both, or so thought…

We definitely visted Piss Alley, I’m almost sure of it, its description as a small network of alleyways, next to the tracks departing from the northwest side of Shinjuku. Two short streets lines with tiny little restaurants.

The other area turned out to be the Golden Gai. A piece of traditional Tokyo that managed not to be burnt down by the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), it is now a favourite haunt of people with artistic tendenacies, and with its ‘Patrons only’ mentality, is pretty niche. It’s a much larger area of alleys – perhaps 6 street – with bars located in the basement, first floor and second floor levels. It looked pretty cool, but perhaps not at 8pm on a Sunday night.

Ultimately we headed back to the capsule hotel, taking aboard some ramen at a nearby eatery. Capping off Rob’s Japan experience in a truely japanese way – by buying your ramen by ordering from a vending machine.

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J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.