Nine Days in Japan

On the seventh day of our vacation in Japan, Anu and I finally managed to figure out the direct route from Shimbashi Station to where we were staying, Park Hotel Tokyo. This route was as simple as riding up an escalator and taking a short walkway upon exiting the station, but for the first six days, our tradition was to follow this three step process: (1) look for the Shiodome exit from the subway, (2) get lost within the indoor shopping area, and (3) use trial and error to eventually discover a new route to the hotel.

The problem is that each rail station in Japan has a complex subway system with multiple exits, making it difficult to acquire any sense of direction. And if that weren’t confusing enough, there are at least three different buildings that have names that sound like ‘Shiodome’, all connected to each other – the Shiodome Media Tower (where we were staying), the Shiodome Sio-Site, and the Shiodome City Center. On most days, we would meander into the City Center, stumble our way to the Sio-Site, and eventually spot something familiar that led to our hotel.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. Our trip to Japan was designed to be a semi-planned vacation, which meant that we had booked our flights and hotel stay ahead of time, but that was all – we had no clue what we were going to do once we were in Japan. Anu had been to Japan once previously, so she played the role of skilled guide – an assertion that she rejects vehemently because “planning is a shared responsibility” – and lined up some ideas once our vacation began in earnest.

On a side note, getting a Japanese visa was a relatively painless process. Indian citizens are asked to get visas for pretty much every country that is not India, so we’ve had a fair bit of experience getting visas to travel. In this case, there was a Japanese consulate in Seattle downtown that we could walk up to with no appointment, drop off a short application form, and get an immediate answer from the officer on whether the visa would be issued and when to pick it up. The part that stood out to me the most was that you don’t need to pay a fee until and unless the visa is issued. Most other countries require an upfront payment merely to consider your request, sometimes an exorbitant amount.

Hiking Up Mount Fuji 富士山

We had plans to hike up Mount Fuji on Wednesday evening, but that was before we visited a nice bar called Ben Fidditch in Shinjuku on Tuesday evening where the bartender warned us of a typhoon expected the next day. So on Wednesday, we scrapped our plans and rode the Tōkaidō Shinkansen 東海道新幹線 – the “bullet” train – to Kyōto instead.

But on Thursday, when we finally got out of bed in the afternoon, it seemed the typhoon had passed and it was an optimal day to climb Mount Fuji, so off we went! The idea was to start climbing in the late evening, reach the top by around midnight, sit around at the summit until dawn to watch the sunrise and then head back down in the morning. So we took at bus leaving from Shibuya Mark City just past 6pm, and landed at Fujisan Station a few minutes past 8pm. It had turned dark by then.

It was the wrong station.

It turns out we needed to get to Mount Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, about 31km away – this wasn’t it. In hindsight, we should probably have looked at the bus tickets a tad more carefully or noted the ticket-issuing clerk’s slight tone of surprise when we asked for ‘Fuji’. Anyway, here we were, and it was too late to catch another bus (the ticket counter was closed), so our only options were to either stay the night at the station or take a taxi to the trailhead. We opted for the latter, and it was almost 9:15pm by the time we began our climb.

The Yoshida Trail was dark, and we trudged along up the path with a small flashlight. Fortunately, as we went higher and the climb got slower, the trail became fairly congested with other hikers, which gave us some comfort and silent company. There are ‘stations’ along the way – we started at the 5th station, and passed through the 6th, 7th, 8th (old and new), 8.5 (I think they did this just to have a quick laugh at the expense of the poor souls struggling to haul themselves up) to reach the summit. There are also additional stops every 200-400 meters where you may purchase water (¥500 for a small bottle as you go higher!) and snacks, which made the climb a fairly entertaining exercise. At 2:15am – around 5 hours later – we reached the summit with a literal sigh of relief, and huddled up to wait for the sunrise, expected at 5am assuming no changes to the schedule.

This is what sunrise looked like:

Just kidding!

That was sunrise seen from Haleakalā National Park. All sunrises look fairly alike, but here’s what sunrise from Mount Fuji actually looked like:

And here’s yet another beautiful view a few moments later:And another:And here’s irrefutable proof that we were up on the summit:With that, we headed back to the base. The downward trail was a different one from the trail up, less steep but much longer. I clocked our speed at about 2 minutes and 50 seconds per 100 meters. We took a bus straight back to Tōkyō, and reached our hotel at 1pm, showered, ate some lunch and dropped into bed exhausted.

To Kyōto 京都 (and Back)

Japan is a strange mixture of culture, history and advanced technology. The written language embodies this mixture in a way, consisting of three types of letters: Hiragana (phonetic symbols used for words, and parts of words), Katakana (phonetic symbols used for foreign words and sounds) and Kanji (Chinese logographic characters used for word-stems and conveying meaning). Note that all three types are used together in the same words and sentences. Oh, you can also throw in some Rōmaji (Roman characters) if you like. Sentences can be written vertically (top-to-bottom, usually – but not always – scrolling right-to-left) or horizontally (left-to-right, scrolling top-to-bottom), based on the writer’s preference, although vertical text is more formal and respectful. Newspapers use a mixture of horizontal and vertical text on the same page to utilize space efficiently.

Cash is still king in Japan, and many places refuse to accept credit cards, which meant that we were forced to convert our United States dollars to Japanese yen and make sure we had enough to cover purchases. On Wednesday, given that our Mount Fuji plan seemed effectively cancelled at the time, we decided to head to Kyōto instead, taking the Tōkaidō Shinkansen on the Nozomi line, a fancy rail service with trains that go really fast.

So here’s how all of this works. Listen up –

You top up your Suica card (a pre-paid stored value card you can use for paying the train fare), touch in at the Shimbashi Station entry gates, then take the Yamanote Line to get to Tōkyō Station. There, you can use the ticket-vending machine to buy a fare ticket for the Tōkaido Shinkansen, but you need to make a fare adjustment using your Suica card (you never tapped out of the Tōkyō station, remember?) as you do so.

The fare ticket isn’t enough. You also need to get a separate ‘express’ ticket for taking this train, which is inexplicably provided by a different ticket-vending machine. Now you can enter the platform by inserting two tickets sequentially at the gate.

In our case, we managed to pay for the fare ticket using Anu’s debit card, but when we got to the express ticket, her card could not be authorized for some reason. Plus, the machine didn’t seem smart enough to realize that my credit card didn’t need a PIN to operate. Luckily, we had just exchanged some dollars for yen earlier at the station, so we used up most of the cash we had to get our tickets one-way (which are expensive!). Anyway, we were glad to finally get onto the train and be on our way. The inside of the train looked…pretty much like a normal train. Like this –

We found some good seats, settled in and relaxed just enough to get us thinking – since we had used up all of our remaining cash and our cards wouldn’t work, how the heck were we going to get back? And this thought left us in silent but stern contemplation. The scenery sped past us at 300km/hr.

When we reached Kyōto two and a half hours later, we immediately made our way to a 7-11 in the hopes of withdrawing some cash from our account with Bank of America. A quick Google search had yielded the fact that ATMs at 7-11s and Post Offices tend to work with international banks, and that there was a 7-11 located close to the station. Fortunately, we got even luckier – we found an ATM at the station itself that worked for us, and we could withdraw enough to breathe a sigh of relief. We could go forth and enjoy ourselves in Kyōto without fear of being stuck there forever.

Kyōto is a beautiful city, with a ton of temples and other peaceful spots to visit. In many ways, I enjoyed Kyōto a lot more than Tōkyō – it seemed a lot more traditional, peaceful and quite distant from Tōkyō’s entertainment frenzy.

We took a long walk through the city that day, visiting several spots along the way, browsing shops (even buying a couple of keychains as souvenirs), and having ice cream or cool drinks to keep the heat away.

And boy, was it hot. Every place we went to in Japan turned out to be hot and humid, except Tōkyō for the short duration when it rained – remember the typhoon? Clear skies dominated, and since I like taking pictures of clouds, here is one of clouds seen from Kyōto –

It was late at night on Wednesday that we finally got back to our hotel in Tōkyō. On the way, we dropped off our souvenir keychains in the trash can at the station, and…wait a second – that wasn’t supposed to happen! But it did, and sadly that was the end of our souvenirs. On the bright side, we don’t care too much for souvenirs anyway.

Days later, on Saturday, the day after our hike to the summit of Mount Fuji (our muscles still aching from exhaustion), we did a little bit of cafe-hopping to find a nice spot to sit and work from. Not work per se, but I wanted to capture some of our memories into this blog post, which is a much better souvenir than a keychain, if you ask me. If you are looking for a place to open up your laptop and sit for hours, FabCafe is an excellent place to hang out, plus they serve coffee. And when it is time for dinner, there is a Thai place a few hundred meters away called Thai Food Pub Conrow, serving good food and spirits.

Entertainment is like a drug for the modern Japanese: large audio-video screens located in high-density public areas throw loud commercials at you, the gaming equivalent of cyber cafés exist everywhere, and lots of stores sell toys of various kinds. Nothing fascinating or interesting, mind you – just stuff that might interest you for a few minutes until you find something better to do. This is especially true of Akihabara Electric Town. I never could understand this craze, but perhaps it is just that my tastes are simple. For instance, when Anu ended up dunking her contact lenses in ear drops instead of contact lens solution on Sunday morning, I found the episode to be incredibly entertaining (“Why is this so viscous?“, she shrieked in alarm, having packed and used the wrong bottle…).

The clock has turned past midnight, and it is once again Sunday now. Our trip to Japan is coming to an end, and we need to head to the airport later today. I will say sayonara さようなら – which is a solemn ‘farewell’ in Japanese.

Of course, if you are interested in learning about the 16 other ways of saying goodbye, here’s a handy guide, summarized below:

Casual:

  • じゃあね – see you
  • またね – see you
  • じゃあ、また – see you
  • バイバイ – bye bye
  • またあした – see you tomorrow
  • またらいしゅう – see you next week
  • じゃあ、げんきで(ね – take care
  • また連絡するね – keep in touch
  • また会おうね – let us catch up again

Place of Work:

  • おつかれさまでした – thank you for your hard work
  • おさきに失礼します – I am rude to leave before you

Respectful:

  • 今日はありがとうございました – thank you very much for today
  • それでは失礼します – please excuse me

Polite:

  • お元気で – take care of yourself
  • また連絡します – let us keep in touch
  • またお会いしましょう – let us catch up again

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