Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Seoul*ful Experience

*Don't worry, I won't make any more puns on the name

Seoul! I don't know about you, but Seoul was the place I'd heard about as being amazing and thought of how much I'd like to go, but never actually made the plans. Well, this second time around the JET block means I'm finally having the time to go to these places I only ever thought of in passing. I'm really grateful for this chance since now some of these 'wish-list' places have become my favorite travels.

Seoul is a city full of vibrant people who are unfazed by the foreigners who visit. It is international while retaining it's culture. It is fashionable, yet gritty. If it were a person, it would be like talking with the most fascinating person you just met, but while you are absorbed by their every word, they aloofly glance at their phone. It was such a fresh breath of air for me compared to Japan. As great as Japan is in many regards, I feel stifled me from time to time and constantly like an outsider by the all the homogeneity. Thus, it is through these glasses that I give you insight into my Seoulful experience...and that pun doesn't count since I already used it.

While Japan was still sweltering away in mid-September, my friends and I found a good flight deal via Peach Airlines and bounded off to the land of kimchi. The weather while we there was beyond agreeable with only the slightest chill at night. Our hostel was excellent too; It had a great complimentary breakfast in the morning, was nicely decorated, conveniently located, and had cheery helpful staff. It was located near a university so it had a great night life. Each night, we'd return from sightseeing with every intention of turning in, but the buzz of young people coming in and out of bars, restaurants, shops, and clubs kept us out exploring. Our feet did not thank us for the extra work!

Traveling in groups can be tricky. Everyone has priorities when they travel whether they realize it or not. Their focus can be on relaxing, shopping, sightseeing, eating, or some other quirky thing (I don't know, maybe you have an affinity for hanging out with the locals). Seoul can satisfy all these aspects and more, but with only a long weekend to work with, we merely dabbled a bit in each. Some notable places we skipped were the Korean War Museum and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). No loss on my part there, but instead we walked along some of the famous areas eating street food and laughing at odd findings, did some awesomely cheap shopping in Asia's largest underground mall, and saw sights old and new, namely, two of the famous palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung), North Seoul Tower and even went to fake Disney aka Lotte World!

Foodie or not, you gotta eat so we had the famed Korean BBQ a few times. One night, we went in search of a place where you supposedly eat on top of barrel drums. If this sounds strange it's because I can't accurately describe it since we never found the place. The foodies on our trip were quite sad and still talk about it to this day (they really have to let it go..), but I was happy with any meat and kimchi place. I will say though as a big fan of yakiniku places in Japan that I found the wait staff at Korean BBQ places to be... too involved in your dining experience (for my preference). They'd bring plates of raw meat and then rearrange our grill to fit the new pieces, flip some over, and even cut up the big slices for us. It was just kind of awkward to keep a conversation going with the waitress leaning over my friend, so we just sat there and watched before resuming. At Japanese places, they bring the goods and let you do the rest, coming only when called. Small gripe, but in any case, the food was excellent. Interesting observation on my part - I didn't find the kimchi to be any better than anywhere else in the world I've had it. Maybe my palette isn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference? Or maybe the dish isn't hard to mess up? I don't know. I'm curious though so let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts.
Overall we had as much Korean food as we could pronounce save for the time we got excited and detoured to eat at Quiznos and Jamba Juice. Well, honestly I think I was the only one who was excited since back home in the States I could live on subs and smoothies - both of which I am sadly deprived of in Japan.

As a graduate of Asian Studies, seeing my studies come to life in my travels, via something like the unique style of temples and palaces in different countries, has been immensely interesting. But like it is said of churches in Europe, eventually they do all start to look alike. I think for that reason, the North Seoul Tower was my favorite sight this trip. Probably a combination of the things actually. We arrived at the tower in the evening just as the city was transitioning from twilight, to dusk, to nighttime. The popular 'love locks'  gimmick (where a couple combines two locks on a fence thus sealing their love) lined the periphery which made for an interesting stroll along an otherwise boring fence as people often leave notes and messages as well. The gift shops had the cutest souvenirs of the tower and other Korean items (I'm a sucker for nicknack shopping). And then as we were just about to start heading back, we heard an announcement come on and announce that a light show on the tower would start. We hadn't known there would be one, so from exactly where we were standing, ready to leave, we had the perfect place to sit and watch the show. Instead of a typical light show, they used the side of the tower to get creative with cylindrical objects. For example, filling a glass of water, as an aquarium, pulsating with music, and so on. Oh, and did I mention that this was after we had the subs and smoothies? That probably also had something to do with my elevated mood and this being my favorite sight

If you get the chance to go to Seoul, be open to interesting sights and tastes in a bustling atmosphere and you'll enjoy it immensely! I'd love to go back to this wonderful city, but alas, I find myself filling up my limited time here with even more points of interest. I guess this might've been my Seoul opportunity to see one of Asia's best cities. (oh, shh! that one was too good to pass up!)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mt. Fuji.. never again..

I have been wanting to climb Mt. Fuji ever since I laid eyes on the thing in 2005. Later of course, I learned more about the significance, difficulty, and admiration associated with climbing the tallest mountain in Japan. Let me lay out some of those points:

Significance: Mt. Fuji is not only Japan's tallest mountain, but also it's most revered. It's literally the symbol of Japan along with cherry blossoms and the rising sun.

Difficulty: At 3776 meters (12,389 feet) high, it cannot be climbed in a day. Don't even try. In fact, most people (including myself), start at the 5th station (2,305 meters) and some still don't make it to the top because of altitude sickness, fatigue, or an underestimation of the difficulty.

Admiration: Don't quote me, but supposedly less than 1% of Japan's population climbs Mt. Fuji and even those who attempt it don't always succeed. Saying that you made it to the summit always yields some form of accolade from Japanese people. If they've done it themselves, then an instant camaraderie is formed.

My journey to the summit began in May 2012. After much research and an assessment of my permitting circumstances, I decided I would go about mid-climbing season with only a few friends who were up to the challenge. I also decided that despite being a former athlete, the days of being in my optimum endurance condition were behind me and I needed to train my body for this. The way I saw it, I only had one chance to make it to the top, so I couldn't leave things to chance - not leaving things to chance is something I should've stuck to..

Together with my friend who was part of the trip, we climbed mountains in the area and built up our endurance. Leg strength, breathing techniques, power snacks, element control, equipment management were all aspects we improved on that really did help once we entered the dark side of the moon, also known as Fuji.

With an impending trip home in August, my time to plan to the logistics of the trip was falling behind. At this point, my friend suggested going with a preplanned tour that would get us there with less hassle and take care of all the planning (transportation, accomodation, etc). With my to-do list so full as it was, I agreed. This was first mistake, because as it's said, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

The day came in mid-July, and our group of 4 headed out to meet up with the tour that would take us to Shizuoka Prefecture. We were meeting at 8 in the morning in Osaka which meant that I left Tamba at 5:30 am. The bus was comfortable enough, and the first two hours were spent introducing ourselves to the 50 plus other tour members. Around noon or so, I was really starting to feel the hunger pangs having had no breakfast since waking. The problem though, was that so far each rest stop only had souvenir type food (cakes and cookies) or convenience store food (I know, seriously?). The last rest stop had an eatery with not a thing I liked on the menu. It was like someone was playing a joke on me. I like plenty of Japanese food for there to have been nothing appealing. Not even a side bowl of rice! In the end, I had some chocolate for it's caffeine benefits and chips to satisfy the carb cravings. Chips and chocolate, people - all the fuel I had to climb my formidable opponent. Even if I had bought something at the eatery, the tour guides told us we had 10 minutes at the stop. Ten minutes to wait in line, buy food, and choke it down and if that was your plan of action, then forget a bathroom break. So, trusting the tour would make time to get us brunch since they hadn't told us to pack a lunch: Mistake number two.

We arrived at the Fujinomiya 5th station around 1pm - an hour later than schedule. It immediately started to drizzle which was likely to happen at any point during climbing season, but woe is you when it does. I proceeded to buy a walking/stamping stick and a poncho. For whatever reason I found myself at the back of the pack as we started climbing in one long line. But, I actually didn't mind it because I knew I'd be stopping for pictures and annoyed if someone were constantly on my heels, trying to set my pace. What I didn't expect was the constant "encouragement" I got from the guides that came with the tour. They thought I was having a hard time keeping up and would yell "Ganbatte! Hayaku! Mousukoshi!" (C'mon, hurry! a little farther!) every 5 minutes. I'd just look up at them and use my stick to point at my camera with a smile that could only be interpreted as, "Can ya SHADDUP?!"

I hear you guide! I just don't care!
The Fujinomiya trail is one of several trails you can take up the mountain. This one happens to be the steepest, but shortest route to the top. From the 5th station there are stations 6, 7, 8, 9, and 9.5 before you reach the summit. We were stopping at station 8 to spend the night before waking at 2am to resume our hike and make it to the top by sunrise. Now, three stations doesn't seem like much to cover, but when you're on the trail, you think that next sign post will never show itself! Climbers are climbing up and down the same trail and the trail is roped off by tiny steel rods. This means that if you were thinking of sprinting up the mountain head on, think again. Being careful with the people coming down and climbing within the rods means it's dangerous to try to pass other climbers. The terrain itself is as I described - like being on the dark side of the moon. I was warned before that it's not a "pretty" hike like many other gorgeous ones throughout Japan. Instead of lush forest, rivers, and forgot relics of Shinto tradition to surprise you along the trail, Fuji is nothing but red rocks, small and large with twigs sprouting out here and there. 
What did I sign up for?!

Being at the end of the group, by the time I would reach each station they had been there for their 10 minute break and were ready to move on. Us at the caboose though would lag behind and catch our breath for 5 minutes before that last guide would "encourage" us some more. So with little food and rest, in the rain, it was forward ho! Around the station 7, the next obstacle presented itself...

The mild asthma of my youth never stopped me from playing sports, but it did mean that I had to take care to know my limits. On only a few occasions did I nearly pass out from over-exertion, but having no experience and little knowledge about it, I was quite worried about getting altitude sickness, something that affects those with strong lungs but definitely has it out for a previously pre-asthmatic kid. Luckily, they sell oxygen cans with built in masks just for this kind of thing and were readily available. Actually, most essentials are available on the trails, but for no small fee. Basically, they know you need it, so get ready to pay at least 3x the price. For example, the 600en (8 dollar) can of oxygen I bought in a sports center in my town, cost 2000en (30 dollars) on Mt. Fuji. It was like that for everything too - snacks, water, heat packs, etc. So back to my climb. Somewhere approaching the 7th station I noticed that I wasn't feeling sick, but that I was starting to take in less oxygen and needing to stop more frequently than my group to catch my breath. The first burst of oxygen from the can felt like a cool breeze on a spring day had wafted in through a window and into my lungs. I don't know if I was ever close to getting altitude sickness, but I can only imagine this helped fend it off because from then on I was taking oxygen shots often until the descent. Don`t worry, I`m off the stuff now. haha!

Puff, puff, pass...

At this point it had stopped drizzling but was still overcast. Now, I anticipated it being cold of course, but one tends to forget how amplified the cold can be when you add sweat to the equation. As long as I kept moving , I was ok, but once I stopped at our bunker for the night at the 8th station it was a different story..

Our end group of about 12 people made it to the 8th station at dusk. Between all the head starts at the other stations, we heard others had been there for over half an hour at that point and had already chosen their "beds." I didn't imagine much for sleeping quarters, but I wasn't expecting a wooden floor with only enough room to lie on my back either. But that`s exactly what I got. Last choice meant I was near the door where rude and inconsiderate people coming in and out would open it wide and let cold air gust through every time. Oh, and I forgot to mention that our cabin was literally next to a glacier. Cool to see, but totally ominous at the same time and of course, freezing! Needless to say, the 4 hours of "sleep" we were suppose to get was more like 4 hours of quiet time in sweaty, cold clothes and a hard wooden floor with strangers being close enough to breathe on you. Ya. At least I had my boyfriend that I could face, but that breath on the back of my neck was still unnerving. I did finally have something to eat though. We were given some Japanese curry and rice. It was hot, so okay by me.

Is that what I think it is?!

2am, rise and shine. I was given some bread with custard in the middle and sent on my way up to the summit. But! before that, we were treated to the most spectacular and unexpected surprise - a view of the Milky Way! It was so clearly visible and filled with tons of stars! We stared in awe for a few minutes, re-charging ourselves with cosmic energy. It was amazing to be made to feel so small, but in a good way.

Now, maybe you're wondering how I hiked a mountain in pitch darkness and I was wondering too until I stepped outside of the cabin. A trail of lights shone beneath and above me. Upon closer inspection I saw these were other climbers and their head lamps! They had stayed at stations lower on the mountain and had gotten up earlier to start the climb to the top! Even with lots of headlamps all around me, it was challenging to look down to where I wanted to point my light, and then up to not crash into things. Back and forth I did this for the next 2 hours.

Previously, three stations had taken me 6 hours and with 2 more to go with sunrise deadline, I had my work cut out for me. However, like I said, this was my one shot, and that motivation kept me going as I wanted nothing more out of my time in Japan than to see the sunrise over Mount Fuji. At one point I did get nervous because the sky was turning blue in the east and I was only shortly past station 9. In my panic, I did the dangerous thing and started passing people by darting in and out of the marked trail. At one point, the crowd was at a standstill as people were goose necked into a thin part of the trail. Suddenly as I was darting, two other foreigners (surprisingly) stopped us by sticking out their walking stick and nearly tripping us just to say, "Guys, there's a line." My friend and I exchanged glances momentarily with looks of disbelief before he shot the best line back - "Ya, well this isn't Disney World and we're not waiting in line." HA! and onward we went with their grumbling behind us. And it's true. As dangerous and ill advised as it is, if we want to go outside of the trail and pass them, it's on us. If they think it's not allowed to butt someone in line while we're hiking a mountain then they missed the fine print of this trip that read 'every man and woman for themselves!' I don't think they made it to the top by sunrise either considering how many people we passed to get there in time. Hope they thought following the crowd was worth it to miss what could be a once in a lifetime view.

So despite my worry, we make it to the top with some time to find a spot to view the sunrise. Being completely stationary and sweaty at the peak of the mountain was intense. For 20 minutes I sat at the top of the world and contemplated how long I had dreamed of this moment. It was a quite a journey I was recounting in my head, but to others I must have looked like a frozen gargoyle waiting for the sun to come out to reanimate her. Finally, the sunrise started to send its rays over the horizon and although it wasn't as spectacular as some photos I had seen, it was my sunrise on Fuji. And it was one of the most gorgeous things I'll ever see.

I wish I could end the post there, but that's not where the story ends. In fact, the worst was yet to come. After being at the summit, snapping pictures, stamping my stick, and gazing upon Fuji's crater, we began the decent. I thought we'd be going down the same manageable Fujinomiya trail that we'd gone up and had seen others go down, but I was wrong. Instead, this idiotic tour picked the dreaded Gotemba trail. This trail is supposed to be the fastest way down, but hmm... how can it be faster than Fujinomiya is that's the shortest trail? BECAUSE YOU RUN DOWN IT!! At a 45 degree angle in a sandpit of small red rocks that you sink in with every step, you have no choice but to jog as gravity drags you down. Also, the sandpit is dotted with huge boulders that with any misstep could have you suddenly breaking to stop if not crashing into it. And at that angle it means you could fall head first into the sandpit. Thank God I had some snow boarding experience where leaning your body back parallel to the terrain is what keeps you upright. However, even good snowboarders (which I am not) fall, but instead of fluffy snow it would a face full of lava rocks! LAVA ROCKS! (at least it's minus the lava...)

I was beside myself with rage at this tour at this point and later we were all apologized to by the Facebook group that booked this tour, admitting that they were unhappy with the way things had turned out as well. But at the time I was just trying to get off this god-forsaken mountain. It really puts you in a desperate mood to know that you can't give up. If you give up, no one is coming to save you. You have to climb down yourself. I was also not expecting that unlike the stations on the way up, the way down had a different set of stations. Station 9, 7.5, 6.85, 5. This really made the climb seem longer since we couldn't anticipate the next time we'd see a station or get a break. The craziest part about this climb down was that at one point we were climbing UP again! And it started drizzling again! Argh!! So much rage!

Finally we got back to the Gotemba 5th station. After nearly 2 days of straight climbing there was nothing better than to look forward to than the onsen we were taken to (the only redeeming factor of this tour. Nearly two days of climbing, exhaustion, malnourishment, being wet and cold just melted away in the onsen.

Plainly said, it was an experience. One that I would have to be crazy to do again, so that seems unlikely for me (or likely depending on who you're talking to). I certainly don't regret it, but I do regret going with this tour that seemed to cause most of the irritants that I had. If I still had the same experience without them, then I'd have no one to blame but myself, but since that's not the case, I blame them. lol. Also, I wouldn't ever in good conscious recommend for anyone to climb Mt. Fuji. If you don't have the desire and will-power to do it on your own, then you'd only hate me for putting you through it.

Climbing Mt. Fuji was at the top of my Japan bucket list and now it's been checked off.

A Japanese proverb says that if you don't see Mt. Fuji during your time in Japan, then you are destined to return.

I saw more of that mountain than many and so I am no longer destined to return to Japan.
My 大和魂, my Japanese fighting spirit can be finally be at ease.