Roppongiiiiiiiiiii!!!!

For as long as Jaime has been in Japan, she’s been telling me about Roppongi and the madness that can be found there during the night.  Since I’ve been in Japan, we’d talked about going down there almost every weekend, but nothing panned out.  To say that we successfully completed that goal this past weekend would be, in my opinion, a dramatic understatement!

I’ve had a great time the past few weeks with the build-up to the World Cup and the ensuing matches that have been played.  I whetted my football appetite by taking in a game at the Yokohama International Stadium, then kicked off the World Cup at a bar here in Fussa.  I’d watched the Japanese National Team’s first game at Jaime’s place, yet was determined to get to a bar to take in the next game with a bunch of crazy Japanese fans.  This goal, along with getting to Roppongi, came together this past Saturday night for an unreal twelve hours.

Earlier in the day, I’d met up with Jaime and some of her friends down in Harajuku to get some dinner then watch the game.  We decided to head into Roppongi to eat.  Roppongi is one of the best places to try on your party pants in Tokyo.  Lots of foreigners and adventurous Japanese people descend upon the place at night and don’t leave until sometime the next day.  Our plan was to eat, watch the game and then see where the night went.

Harajuku packed with people

Harajuku

We settled upon a Mexican restaurant for dinner, where I proceeded to put down a plateful of tacos and enchiladas, topped off by a pitcher of margarita-flavored tequila that the four of us shared.  Moving from dinner to the shot bar Propaganda, we met up with another group of people from Fussa to watch the game.  By game time, the place was packed with expats and Japanese fans alike, all there to cheer on the home team.  Actually, our group of eight Americans was the loudest table there, leading the bar in countless songs and renditions of the Japanese National Team’s chants.  I’m pretty sure we were the best fans in that place.  After countless rounds and shots, the game ended with Japan losing 0-1 to the Netherlands.  Even with the loss, I’m pretty sure we all had a great time.

This happened TOO many times

From Propaganda, we headed out into the streets of Roppongi and made our way to Geronimo’s shot bar.  Along the way, groups of Japanese people in blue jerseys were out, still cheering wildly even after the heartbreaking loss.  Geronimo’s was packed with jersey-clad fans who quickly warmed up to the boisterous Americans.

From this picture, you'd think Japan had won, not Holland

Niiiiiiiipppppoooonnnnn!

Geronimo's

More Geronimo's

At this point, details start to become a little fuzzy and time seems to have warped, leaving the next five or so hours somewhat of a blur.  The camera was packed up and safely put away.  The girls ended up catching the last train back home at midnight while the five guys remained behind.  This is no easy decision, as the trains don’t resume operation until 6 am.  This means you must either find a hotel or party your face off until you can pass out on the train back home.  We chose the latter, and I think it was a good choice.  We ended up at some dance club at one point.  Pretty unsure of when we got there, but by the time we left, only two of us remained from the original group.

Walking out of the club at 5 am was equivalent to walking out of a bomb shelter after massive explosions had just devastated the immediate area.  We’d gone inside while it was still dark, but the sun was out and shining when we stepped out of the doors.  The streets were still packed with people, although most looked much more haggard than they had about six hours previous to that point.  I was no exception.  My contacts were dry and burning, making it hard to keep my eyes open in the glaring sunlight.  My ears were ringing so bad from the pounding music that I could barely hear anything.  My throat was hoarse from trying to yell over the music, while my body ached from the ridiculous dance moves I’d been creating over the past few hours.  Clothes were hanging at odd angles and I’d lost my memory at some point.  It felt as if I were having an out-of-body experience of some sort, as I was able to see what was going on while the rest of my senses were rapidly shutting down.  Staving off offers by surprisingly un-sluttily clad Philippine prostitutes to join them for specially priced, “just-for-us” deals, we made our way to McDonald’s and then the train station.  The fact that we made it to Mickey D’s twice in one night, while I haven’t been to one back in the States since sometime last year, aptly describes our level of intoxication.  I’m glad I did it, but I’m pretty sure I took a couple of years off my life in the process.  Sunday wasn’t much fun, but now that I’m feeling much better, another round in Roppongi sounds pretty appealing.  Good thing I’m leaving soon!

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Tackling Takaosan

Last week was spent trying to wrap up and see and do as many of the things around Tokyo that I had yet to accomplish.  Since I haven’t been able to get to Mt. Fuji and won’t by the time I leave, I decided to hike to the top of another mountain, Mt. Takao, instead.  I wasn’t really sure what was up at the top, but some of the books I’d read had said there were excellent views of the Tokyo area and surrounding mountains, including Mt. Fuji.  Sounded like an excellent trip to me.

Getting off the train at Takao-san-guchi, I made my way through the little village to the base of the mountain.  Takao, similar to Mt. Mitake, had a cable car to take travelers partway up the mountain.  However, unlike Mitake, there were no trails leading elsewhere once you reached the top.   The only trails started at the bottoms of the mountain and went to the top.  With the whole afternoon and plenty of energy to spare, I took my chances with the Mt. Inari Course trailhead and set off.

Five minutes into my hike, I’d come across two rather annoying realizations.  The first was that I absolutely hate spider-webs, especially those that span the distance between trees on either side of the path.  Now, I’m not abnormally tall, but compared to the average Japanese person, I stand a good couple of inches higher.  This equates to my forehead constantly being slapped with sticky spider strings that most other hikers are too short to have cleared out before me.  Had I not been continuously wiping the webbing out of my face, by the time I reached the end of the trail I would have resembled something similar to a mummy swathed in bandages and such.  On an hour and a half hike straight up the side of a mountain, this little annoyance can quickly turn into a giant frustration.

Dealing with the spiders would have been one thing, but couple that with my second realization, incredible humidity, and it makes for a loooong trip.  It must’ve have been raining for most of the day before I got to the trail, for most sections were minefields of puddles and mud, just waiting for the opportunity to transform a misplaced shoe into a nasty swamp creature.  The rain not only made the footing perilous, but the humidity was off the charts.  Most of the trail was straight up, so the normal amount of energy required was quadrupled in the heat.  Within the first few minutes of my hike, I was literally dripping with condensed water and sweat.  That stickiness made it really hard to get rid of those pesky spider webs!

About twenty minutes up, I came to a little rest stop/overlook at the small peak of Mt. Inari.  From here, I was able to look out over the sprawling area of Tokyo, settled beneath a cloudy blanket of gray hues.  Seeing as how I was already drenched, I found no reason to rest at this place for too long and set out after a few minutes.

From Mt. Inari

From Mt. Takao

The next hour saw me scrambling up tree-root ladders, trudging up never-ending flights of stairs and overall doing my best to enjoy the empty pathways.  I finally reached the top of Mt. Takao and was rewarded with excellent, albeit somewhat limited, views of the area below.  Through the mist, I could make out the skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo on the horizon.  On the opposite side of the peak, the sun had managed to break out of the cloud cover and was beaming yellow-orange over the city as it quickly sank.  I’d made it to the top of Takao about thirty minutes after the cable car had quit for the day, so all the stores had closed and nary a soul was in sight.

Found this little guy at the top of Mt. Takao

The descent down the opposite side was much more enjoyable and visually exciting as the golden sunlight shone on the path.  I came to the upper entrance to the Fudo-do sanctuary of the Yakuo Temple and was a little upset that the entrance had been gated and closed-off.  It was only 4:30, and it made no sense to me for the shrine to be already closed.  Silently cursing the shrine keepers, I continued my journey down the mountain.  About five minutes later I came to the bottom, main entrance to Yakuo Temple, and was pleased to see that it was still open and completely deserted of other people.  The temple was built in 744 A.D., and is still in excellent shape.  I had an excellent chance to explore the various little buildings in the fading glow of the sun.  I snapped a bunch of pictures and decided I’d better get moving before dusk was replaced by the quickly approaching darkness of night.

Fudo-do Sanctuary

Line of Buddhas at Yakuo Temple

Offerings at Yakuo Temple

Yakuo Temple

Yakuo Temple

The Yakuo Temple

Dippers for cleansing rituals

I’d been following a recommended path from a book called Day Walks Near Tokyo, and the author had done a decent job of pointing me in the correct direction throughout my hike.  However, about halfway down the mountain, I came to a fork in the road and was left hanging.  The description in the book reads “.”  Now, maybe I’m overlooking some subtle hint, but I see no explanation of which direction to go.  Thanks a lot Gary D’A. Walters!  (pretty sure I now know what the D’A. stands for!).  I chose the path to the right to check out the 108 steps (one step for each earthly sin) yet turned around at the top of them and headed back to the actual road, figuring if I got lost there’d be a chance to hitch a ride back to the train station.  As I followed the road, I came to a spot where the two paths connected again, right at the bottom of the stairs I decided not to take.  Well, now I feel like the dumbass! I had no idea they connected again, and in retrospect should have taken the stairs.  Regardless, I still hold Walters responsible.  All he had to do was add in a few words saying that either path would work and the confusion would have been averted.

Tokyo

In the time spent trying to figure out which way to go, the darkness had fully set in.  I still had about two miles to go to get to the station and no streetlights to guide me back.  With the dark forest canopy looming overhead, barely any light from the moon penetrated through to the road below.  Luckily, there were no other roads branching off so I made it back without too many issues, aside from nearly being eaten alive by mosquitoes during the last twenty minutes!

On the train back home, I hopped off at Hachioji to try to take a few pictures of the city at night.  This is the first place we partied at when I got here to Japan, so I needed a few things to be able to remember it.  Lots of people were out in the streets beneath all of the bright, neon lights.  Most people were dressed to impress and heading out for the night, leaving me looking like a schlub in my muddy shoes, shorts and sweat-soaked t-shirt!  I’m pretty used to looking out-of-place by now!

Hachioji

Singing songs in Engrish

We love Hachioji!

Hachioji

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Mitakesan’s Mystique

This is the end! Here I am, clinging to a tattered, fraying hemp-fiber rope, dangling precariously about twenty feet above a pile of jagged rocks below.  My feet have lost any form of traction on the slippery stone wall I’m trying to surmount, the mist from the clouds mixing dangerously with the soft green moss covering the pathetic excuse for steps carved into the wall’s face.  As I try to regain my footholds, hands burning, arms shaking from the strain, legs heavy from the blood draining down and the previous two hours of exertion to get to this point, my hands start to slip ever so slightly.  Maybe I should have just gone to the mall today.

In order to explain my current predicament, it’s necessary to start from the beginning of my little adventure.  Two weekends ago, I had made plans to go hiking with a couple of people up on top of Mt. Mitake.  However, as an eventful Saturday night came and passed, Sunday morning found me a little bent out of shape and just slightly hung over.  Rather than rouse myself to face to sun, heat and further brain-pounding dehydration associated with the hike, I curled up in my bed, clinging to my pillow for dear life.  Later that night, I met up with everyone and listened to stories of how incredible the hike had been and how I had definitely missed out.  I had been planning on doing the same hike since the first week I made it to Japan, and after hearing about it from them, I was determined to climb Mitake before I left.  Checking the weather forecasts like I hawk last week, I determined that this past Sunday was going to be my best shot at comfortable temperatures and zero precipitation in my remaining time in Japan.  So unwavering was I on completing this journey that I took it relatively easy Saturday night, knowing that if I didn’t, I’d never find the motivation.  That being said, I still didn’t get a very early start, choosing to sleep-in and build up as much reserve energy as possible (at least that’s how I like to look at it).  I finally got myself going, snagged a bunch of water and set out for the train station and my destination at the town of Mitake.

Once in Mitake, I found the local bus headed to the Takimoto cable car station and enjoyed the ten minute ride.  The cable car takes hikers and other travelers 519 meters up the side of Mt. Mitake, ending at the Mitakesan station and the beginning of a vast network of trails.  Alternatively, it’s possible to hike the whole way up the mountain, but for $5 it seemed pointless to not take the cable car and save your energy for the actual trails.

Our cable car about to ascend Mitakesan

From the little village at the top, a twenty-minute hike straight up brought me to the summit of Mt. Mitake and the Mitake-jinja Shintō shrine.  Shintō is one of the most practiced religions in Japan, and it serves as a way for Japanese people to connect with the spirituality of nature and the country’s ancient past.  Shrines can be found all over the country, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to pass by their entrances without even noticing them.  That being said, it was impossible not to notice the Mitake-jinja shrine.  Sitting at the top of Mt. Mitake, it’s construction is said to date back over 1200 years.  Even as an outsider to the Shintō religion, it was hard to miss the spirituality surrounding the area.  Many Shintō believers treat the journey to Mitake-jinja as a pilgrimage, and I have no doubts as to why.  Upon first sight of the shrine, one must spend another ten minutes climbing up steep, weathered steps to get to the entrance.  With each step, the shrine becomes larger and larger, slowly filling your entire view.  At the top, you are able to see the different levels and areas in greater detail.  The entire complex consists of beautifully designed buildings, some large, some small, all made out of wood and crafted to perfection.  Intricate woodworking decorated the eaves and entrances above doors and windows.  Red and gold were very prominent colors, adding to the splendor of the structures.  The views of the surrounding mountain range were beautiful, although fairly obscured by gray clouds stubbornly hiding all but the shortest of peaks.  I walked around the shrine for a while, yet I was anxious to get started on the rest of the hike.  Most people don’t stray too far away from the shrine and the village below it, but my goal was to make it to Mt. Otake, a good five-hour round-trip hike from Mitake-jinja.  The trail was supposed to pass by waterfalls and various rock gardens, and that was my main reason for taking the cable car to the top.  So, I tightened the laces on my sneaks, grabbed a couple of maps from the visitors office and set out west.

Mitake-jinja Shrine

Beautiful colors accentuated by the trees

I love the architecture

Still in great shape after 1200 years

The first half of the hike was fairly easy-going.  The path was wide and cleared of most obstructions, allowing for more people to walk.  I made it to the first waterfall in no time, scrambling down the step stairs to the pool below.  Nanoyono-taki waterfall was small yet very peaceful.  The poured out of the green foliage above, landing in a shallow pool surrounded by boulders and a muddy, pebbled beach.

Nanoyono-taki Waterfall

Moving on from Nanoyono-taki, I quickly started to regret my choice of food for my pre-hike meal.  Word of advice: on a five-hour hike where bathrooms are virtually non-existent, it’s not wise to snack on foods named Fiber-One bars.  Contrary to most supplements or nutritional products touting amazing muscle-building or healing properties, these bars actually do what they claim.  Keep that in mind for your next trip.

For about an hour, I hiked through the Rock Garden, and small bubbling stream constantly broken up by moss-covered boulders and the occasional footpath crossing.  With massive trees rising up to block out most light from reaching the creek bed, the “garden” had a peaceful yet slightly gloomy feel.  The trail brought me to the Ayahirono-taki waterfall.  Taller than Nanoyono-taki, it also exuded a much stronger spiritual aura.  A small Shintō shrine was present, decorated by shide (white, paper zig-zag ornaments suspended from hemp-rope) and rocks engraved with Japanese kanji.

Part of the Rock Garden

Ayahirono-taki in the background

Shintō shrine at Ayahirono-taki - drinking at a shrine shows unity with the gods

Shide decorating the shrine at Ayahirono-taki

I left Ayahirono-taki behind and began my ascent to Mt. Otake.  I passed a sign pointing out that the hike up to the summit was supposed to be eighty minutes in length, but I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that.  I’m slightly taller than the average Japanese person, with a much longer stride.  Plus, I was confident in my conditioning level and was sure I could make it up much faster than that.  The path got steeper as I rose in elevation.  The gurgling of stream below quickly faded, replaced by silence and the occasional call of a bird.  Not only did the trail get steeper, the quality quickly began to deteriorate.  Dirt was replaced by sections of tree roots, serving as complicated ladders connecting the “easier” parts of the trail.  About fifteen minutes up, I came to what appeared to be a leveling off of the trail, giving the impression that the summit had been reached.  Exulted, I let out a yell, then quietly chuckled to myself about the relative easiness of the climb.  I turned the next corner and was shocked to see the trail start back up again.  This time, however, both dirt and roots gave way to sheer rock with small steps daintily carved in.  After another ten minutes, my legs were burning, I was panting like a dog and was covered in sweat.  The path seemed to let up somewhat, but I was more weary of it getting excited this time.  And wouldn’t you know it, but around another bend, the path reared its ugly head back and ascended into oblivion once again.  At times, it was impossible to know if a trail even existed.  I was forced to literally climb twenty-foot sections of rock at a time, only to be squeezed through a slight gorge between two boulders at the top and then pressed to do the whole thing all over again.  In the worst places, ropes and chains were hanging down, providing only a small amount of assistance.  The higher I got, the more I wondered if this was going to be worth it.  The higher I got, the less visibility I had.  I was climbing through the clouds.  Gusts of wind would shoot pockets of mist across my path, allowing me to only see a few feet in front of me in some places.  This brings me to my current crisis.

As the mist got stronger and my legs got heavier from the ninety-degree climb, the trail naturally became exponentially harder.  One section towards the top required climbing up a wet rope while using your feet to find slight ledges on the rock wall.  I was tired, drenched (either sweat or mist, I don’t know) and quickly losing motivation.  Almost to the top, my right foot slipped, causing my whole body to slam up against the rocks.  Spinning around on the rope, I couldn’t seem to find a foothold.  I would have slid down the rope to the bottom and tried again, but the rope had been neatly severed about fifteen feet from the bottom, and I wasn’t about to chance a drop onto the rocks below.  Luckily, I was able to push of the wall, spin around and find a small rock jutting out to set my foot on.  I found another hold and then another, and made it up and onto somewhat level ground.  Thankful, I pushed on, rounded a corner and came to the summit of Mt. Otake.  Thinking I was going to be rewarded for my efforts and for not turning back, I went to the outlook and saw…nothing (aside from a young couple obviously upset I’d interrupted them…they left soon after).  Clouds blanketed the valley and mountains.  I could have been on top of Mt. Everest or down by a river and I wouldn’t have known the difference.  A little disappointed but happy with myself for sticking it out, I checked the time and discovered I’d made it to the top in about forty minutes, or roughly half the time the signs had allowed for the hike.

The view from Mt. Otake

The one bright spot at the top of Otake

Knowing I had a good two-hour hike back to the cable car, I headed back down the way I came.  The way back didn’t require as much effort, but it called for much more patience to get back down all the obstacles I’d overcome.  Many places had chains to hold onto to help with the descent, but, note to the Japanese National Forest Service: metal tends to get a little slippery when it’s wet.  I tried to take my time but ended up slipping a sliding a good portion of the way down.  The mud slick on the back of my shorts made it look as though the Fiber One bars had finally broken through my defense and won the battle we’d be fighting for most of the hike.  Already dirty and lacking the conviction to hold myself back, I allowed gravity to take over towards the bottom and began an up-tempo, slightly controlled run back to the river.  I passed the couple that I met at the top of Mt. Otake, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  They were both spotless and holding hands.  The girl had on some tights and a little sun dress, while the guy was wearing bright white pants.  Here I am, soaked, ankles and legs caked in mud splatter, clothes dirty and looking incredibly haggard, while they look as if they’re out for a fucking picnic.  It doesn’t seem right!  And they weren’t the only ones.  As I got closer to the village, I passed more and more people who were dressed in their Sunday best.  I don’t understand how these people can look so clean and natural.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  I wonder what their secret is!

Pretty sure I was somewhere up there in the clouds

Before getting back into the village, I passed an old, abandoned Shintō shrine.  Walking up to it, I rang the giant bell outside the entrance, gave a primal yell into the surrounding forest, silently thanked the Shintō spirits for allowing me safe passage into their domain and headed back into town.  Goal accomplished!

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Walking Along the Tama

After my first hike out to Lake Okutama, I’ve been a little anxious to get back out into the areas of Japan relatively untouched by human development.  However, most of the week following that trip was spent touring around the Tokyo/Yokohama area.  Talk about an urban jungle!  Needless to say, it’s pretty refreshing to be able to hop on a train and within an hour be in the dense Japanese wilderness.  I’d been searching through different websites, trying to find some interesting hikes that aren’t as congested with people as the more popular sites in the area.  I came across this obscure website talking about the beauty of the trail connecting the towns of Kori, Hatonosu and Shiromaru.  However, whoever had written the little blog about this trail didn’t seem to have a strong grasp on the English language, so it was a tad difficult to determine how to actually get to the trail or if it even existed.  A picture with a curvy red line connecting two dots was masquerading as a map, yet no other reference points were visible.  I tried to find other pages with information about the trail, but to my knowledge, none existed.  It didn’t help that I had no idea what the name of it was.  The only thing I had to go off was a rough English blurb promising a great adventure.  So, what the hell?, I thought.  Armed with a gallon of water, a sesame seed bagel, some White Cheddar Cheez-Its and Jaime’s camera at my hip, I caught the JR Ome train and set off on what I hoped would be a worthwhile journey.

The train ride did wonders for my confidence level as swarms of hikers piled on and headed in the same direction I was.  However, that quickly evaporated as the train pulled into the Kori station and I was the only person to get off- really, out of hundreds of people on the train, I was the ONLY person to step out of the doors.  Outside of the station I came across a large map of the area.  Normally, maps can be quite helpful.  This one, not so much.  Everything was in Japanese and I wasn’t able to make out any landmarks or even where I was on the map.  Eventually, I settled for a random guess of where I was and where I wanted to go and set off in what I hoped was the correct direction (although I had no idea what that was).  After about 15 minutes of walking through Kori, I came across a little wooden arrow with the words “Ootama path” painted on it.  Figuring that this would at least take me somewhere, I followed the arrows and wound up on a huge bridge overlooking the Tamagawa River as it lazily drifted through the valley below.   The trail took me down to water level and then followed the Tama upriver.  Around the first major bend in the trail, I was delighted to see a couple of waterfalls cascading down from the rocks above.  Looking for a different perspective, I decided to scramble down the 20 or so feet from the trail to the pools the falls were emptying into.  Actually, with my first step off of the trail, my foot slipped and I slid on my butt all the way down.  Brushing myself off and checking to make sure no one was around to point and laugh, I went about my business of snapping a few photos and then continued on my way.  The trail seemed fairly easy.  Occasionally, patches of bright orange and yellow wildflowers would spring up alongside me, accompanied by the soothing yet slightly uncomfortable sound of bees buzzing around.  As the hike progressed, the trail became a little rougher.  Old trees stretched their roots across the dirt in front of me, providing excellent opportunities for sprained ankles and perhaps serving as a warning for what was to come.  I ignored their efforts to get me to turn back and pressed on.  The trail immediately started to climb up and away from the river.  Pretty soon, I was almost hitting my nose with my knees as I scaled the steep, rough steps that seemed to have no end.  One thing about following a trail description from someone who doesn’t speak English very well is that you miss out on a lot of the important details, as in the one for this trail that should have read “If you ever get to the top, you’ll want to die, that is, if your legs haven’t given out already and sent you tumbling back down to the river below.”  I probably would have listened and found an alternative route.  I passed old, traditional dwellings and felt sorry for the people who had to make this trip on a normal basis.  Actually, on second thought, I don’t feel bad for them.  If they are still living there and putting themselves through that every day, they deserve it!  After a good 45 minute ascent, I reached the top, marked by a covered rest area.  As I stepped into the little wooden structure, I was greeted with breathtaking views of the valley below.  The mountain town of Hatonosu sat nestled between the cliffs overlooking the Tama and the foothills of the mountains behind.  The town seamlessly fit into the little valley.  As I sat catching my breath and trying to replenish some of the 15 or so pounds of water I lost climbing to that point, I was glad the trail’s description hadn’t mentioned the difficulty level.  I could have avoided the climb, but I also would have missed out on the gorgeous image that I was lucky enough to discover.

Hatonosu

I made my way down into Hatonosu, crossing the Hatonosu-kobashi Bridge before entering town.  I had seen pictures of the views offered by this bridge in multiple guidebooks, yet none gave any directions on how to find it.  I’d almost given up hope of standing on the bridge, and I was fortunate enough to find it.  The trees provided a perfect frame for the oversized boulders that seemed to have been strategically dropped into the river below.  White-water rapids swelled around the jagged rocks, giving way to deep, blue pools below.  To be honest, I was pretty ecstatic to have seen this!

From the Hatonosu-kobashi Bridge

At this point, something must be said about the Japanese style of marking trails.  Out in the forest, one can’t go more that half a kilometer without seeing a sign pointing in the correct direction.  There are signs posted at corners, where there’s only one direction to go aside from the 20 foot high embankment in the opposite direction.  While I appreciate the thoroughness, I would ask for the system to be carried throughout the entire length of the trail.  When I got into the various towns the trail supposedly passed through, all signs seemed to vanish.  Not so helpful when you’re faced with multiple different roads leading in any number of incorrect directions.  However, with a little common sense and even more luck, I managed to navigate the winding town roads of Hatonosu and come back out on the trail.

The last section, from Hatonosu to Shiromaru, seemed much more popular.  Japanese men with 20 foot long fishing poles sat along the riverbanks, silently waiting for their next bite.   I guess this is a form of fly fishing, because these poles don’t have any reels on them.  I tried to catch a glimpse of one of the guys fighting to bring a fish in, but nothing happened while I was watching.  The fishermen weren’t the only people out taking in the beauty of the valley.  Groups of people were seated all along the banks, sketching or painting scenes of Mother Nature’s beauty.

Check out that fishing pole!

The river was plugged up by Siromardam, creating Siromaru Lake behind it.  Similar to lake Okutama, the water was a turqouis-blue and full of fish.  I wandered along the lake and made my way up into the town of Shiromaru.  Finding my way to the train station, I was exhausted but very pleased with the journey!

Kayaks on Siromaru Lake

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Yokohama & the F. Marinos

About a week ago, Jaime, Holly and I hopped on a train and headed down into the city of Yokohama.  Yokohama, one of Japan’s largest ports, is also one of the largest cities in the country, topping out somewhere between 3 and 4 million people.  In combination with Tokyo, the area constitutes the largest metropolitan area in the world at around 35 million people.  The city lies south of Tokyo on the edge of Tokyo Bay (or as Yokohama residents refer to it, Yokohama Bay).  While a bustling port city, Yokohama is also well-known for its international vibe, energetic festivals and soaring architecture.  We visited the city on a bit of an off day, so we didn’t see anything too crazy in regards to street performers or other types of entertainment.  However, we definitely took in the sights of the various skyscrapers and soaked in the international flavors.

Yokohama

Our first main stop was at the Yokohama Landmark Tower.  Built in 1993, this is Japan’s largest building at 970 ft high.  While it’s true that the Tokyo Tower actually edges it out in height (1091 ft), the Landmark Tower has the highest observation deck in Japan on the 69th floor, otherwise known as the Sky Garden.  Plus, the 70-story Landmark Tower is an actual building consisting of shops, restaurants, offices, etc. on the first 48 floors while an impressive 5-star hotel occupies floors 49-70.  Our goal was to get to the observatory, and to do that, we were put on the world’s second fastest elevator, topping out at 28 mph.  That may not seem very fast, but the ascent from ground level to floor 69 took all of 40 seconds.  It was easy to tell we were gaining some altitude because my ears were constantly popping throughout the quick trip.  Stepping out of the elevator, we were greeted with expansive views of the bay and urban landscape below.  To the north, the skyscrapers of Tokyo were just visible, proving just how massive the Tokyo Metropolitan Area really is.  We wandered around the observation deck for a while and settled into some nice leather chairs for a drink.  The tower is regarded as a very romantic place, as evident by the multiple candelabra strategically placed around the couches and by the windows.  The views were awe-inspiring.  In the past two weeks, I’ve made it to the top of Tokyo Tower for sunset, flown a little prop plane over the entire prefecture, and was propelled to the top of the country’s tallest building.  I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen the area from an assortment of different perspectives!

Landmark Tower

View from the top of the Landmark Tower

After browsing around the shopping mall (and scoring a classy white suit), we walked through the area of Minato Mirai 21 (the urban development project home to the amusement park, Landmark Tower and most other attractions of downtown Yokohama) where Jaime and I took a ride on Cosmo Clock 21, the world’s largest clock and one of the world’s largest ferris wheels.  From our seats, we were able to see even more of the city (as if we needed another bird’s-eye view) as the sun slowly sank behind the Yokohama skyline.

Cosmo Clock 21

We got our Yao Ming on by strolling through Yokohama’s Chinatown, the largest in Japan and one of the world’s biggest.  What was most striking about the area was the preference for the color red, which was used in everything from paint schemes for restaurants, lanterns, temples and clothing.  We settled on a small restaurant (of which there are about 500 in Chinatown) and had something close to a 15 course meal.  The food was good, but the waiting staff could have been a little nicer.  Nonetheless, it was a great ending to a day in Yokohama.  Aside from the drunk man we saw piss himself on a street corner outside the train station, nothing too crazy happened!

Chinatown

Chinese lanterns

A couple of days ago, I went back down to Yokohama with 5 other Air Force people to watch a soccer game between the Yokohama F. Marinos and the Urawa Red Diamonds.  The two-hour train into the city passed fairly quickly with the help of a few rounds of Chu-His (alcoholic beverages available for cheap at any respectable train station).  The game was being played in the Yokohama International Stadium, also known as Nissan Stadium.  It hosted the 2002 World Cup championship game, and its size made it easy to imagine 100,000 crazy fans packed in to watch the world’s largest sporting event.

Outside Nissan Stadium

The game we saw was nowhere near being sold out, and our tickets had us about 9 rows up from the sideline.  At each end of the stadium, each team’s respective fan section waved flags, pounded drums and belted out songs for the entirety of the game’s 90 minutes.  It was fun to see a game, but the teams weren’t all that impressive.  My guess is that each team’s best players were off in South Africa preparing for the World Cup, so the usual excitement wasn’t there.  However, I was at a sporting event with other Americans, and if there’s one thing Americans know how to do well at games, it’s drink.  Couple that with the fact that I go to school at the University of Idaho, where decades of futility have sharpened the fan base’s ability to consume ridiculous amounts of alcohol and the fact that I was with a group of military people, and, well, let’s just say that we had an excellent time.  Beer vendors cruised the aisles (actually, they kind of circled around us like a group of hungry vultures, just waiting for the first glass to empty and the opportunity to sell us another round) with small kegs strapped to their backs.  I have a feeling that an opportunistic company back in the states could make a killing by selling college-themed keg backpacks at tailgates…just a thought.  The game ended in a 0-0 tie, which was a little disappointing.  However, we made friends with a couple of old Japanese guys who were having as much fun, if not more, than we were.  In Japan, they don’t check your bags when you walk into stadiums, and even if they did, I don’t think they’d care if you brought your own booze with you.  I had a backpack on me, and I wish I would have known this helpful little tip in advance…would have saved a fair amount of money for everyone!  These two guys had carried in a couple of thermoses full of sake, complete with tiny plastic cups they were taking shots out of.  Every time one of us Americans would blurt out something stupid regarding a missed shot or a bad call, our friends would clap for us and do the same.  For me, they made the game!

Yokohama was blue, Urawa red

Yokohama's fans

Partners in crime

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Fujikyu Highlands

ROAD TRIP!  Thursday morning, we packed up Jaime’s Subaru hatchback with the crazy, balls-to-walls turbo and hit the Chuo expressway out of town.  Our destination:  Fujikyu High Land theme park.  In the two weeks I have been here in Japan, I’ve never been able to see Mt. Fuji in the distance.  Jaime keeps telling me that some days the mountain is very visible from her house, but I haven’t been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it.  As one of my top things to see when I came to Japan, you can imagine I’d been a little disappointed by that point.  My #1 goal was to hike to the top of Fujisan, but the mountain only opens up for climbing at the beginning of July.  I leave Japan on June 24th.  Thursday, my fortunes changed.  Fujikyu is the closest theme park to Tokyo (aside from all the Disney places), and it sits right at the base of Mt. Fuji.  After some initial hiccups trying to get out of town, we successfully navigated the winding, somewhat confusing roadways leading us to the expressway and ever closer to that elusive giant to the southwest.  The blue sky was occasionally flecked with lazy white clouds, providing sporadic cover from the warm sun.  All in all, it was a very promising morning- a perfect day to ride roller coasters.

Driving down toward Fujikyu, hills and mountains densely populated by trees surrounded us, seemingly guiding us on our journey to pay our respects to the largest mountain in Japan, presiding over the country at a respectable height of 12,388 feet.  I tend to accumulate some of the best sleep of my life when I’m a passenger on a road trip, and although this trip was only about an hour, I caught a little snooze about midway through.  I was awoken by Holly and Jaime and told to look out the windows.  Rubbing the bleariness out of my eyes, I gazed out upon Mt. Fuji for the first time.  While most of the sky remained blue, the gargantuan filling the passenger side windows was shrouded in mist and clouds.  Fujisan perfectly exemplifies the Japanese people- majestic and powerful, yet also rather shy and reserved.  The mountain peak is usually wrapped in a gray veil, only taking the time to peek out during exceptionally beautiful days or to take in the red glow of the rising, morning sun.  Unfortunately for us, we weren’t visiting it on either of those occasions.  Regardless, the snow that gently cloaked most of the top two-thirds of the mountain provided a beautiful contrast to the evergreen jungle rising up to meet it.  Simply put, it was a sight to behold.

Jaime and Holly with Mt. Fuji in the background

The peak of Dodonpa

We pulled into the theme park, ready to have a great time on some of the world’s craziest coasters.  “Dodonpa,” it’s plain white exterior belying it’s immense power, beckoned to us to be ridden first.  Upon standing in line for an hour, we discovered some interesting facts about the coaster, thanks to Jaime’s Iphone.  Dodonpa is considered to be the third-fastest roller coaster in the world, accelerating from 0 to 107 mph in less than two seconds.  This was exciting, but from what we could deduce, there were no crazy loops or climbs during the ride, and it was only supposed to last about 55 seconds.  “How much fun could that really be?” you ask.  Well, I never said we were correct in our deduction of the ride’s attributes.  As our turn to hop on came, the front two seats were open, and naturally Jaime pushed Holly and I towards them.  Sitting in the cart, our ankles, legs and midsections tightly strapped up, anticipation began to grow.  The cart inched forward, stopping in a long, dark tunnel that resembled something not unlike a massive wind tunnel.  The drag-car lights in front of us counted down from red to yellow.  Our hands were either white-knuckled on the lap restraint or freely hanging out above our heads.  Green.  Whoooooooooosh.  My breath was sucked out of me as I melted into the back of my seat.  Tears were forced out of my eyes, luckily leaving my contacts behind to enjoy the ride.  We flew down the track, hitting 107 mph.  As we turned a corner, we saw what we overlooked on the park map.  Our cart flew straight up at a 90 degree angle, barely cresting this abomination of a tower, then dropped straight back down with a mind-numbing force.  Did I mention we were in the front?  The ride came to an end, and rather than cheering as most people do at the finale of an amazing ride, everyone was still trying to catch their breath, swallow their stomachs and digest what had happened.  It was definitely a rush to say the least!

Our next challenge resided in the form of one of the world’s tallest roller coasters, coming in at a staggering 259 feet, with a 230 foot drop serving as the pinnacle of what could amount to my last few minutes on earth.  We hopped on, and the cart crept up to the top of the tracks at a painstakingly slow pace.  Mt. Fuji stoically stood directly ahead of us, but I was too preoccupied with the upcoming drop to pay much attention to it.  We surpassed the peak and dropped the 230 feet to what I was sure would end in an untimely death.  Luckily, we all managed to stay in our seats, the carts stayed on the track and we made it safely back to the beginning, albeit with a little less strength in our legs than we started out with.  After a few more rides, none as exhilarating as the first two, our day was cut a little short on account of rain and thunder creeping in from behind Mt. Fuji.  Regardless, we had a blast at the park, enjoying the rides and reveling in Mt. Fuji’s mystical presence!

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First Taste of Tokyo

Yesterday, Jaime, Holly and I all hopped on a train and headed into Tokyo for dinner and a chance to look around the city a little bit.  The train down wasn’t bad, as I slept most of the 1 1/2 hours there.  We hopped off at the Shinjuku station to connect to a different line, and people were packed into the place like a package of sardines.  Shinjuku is one of the main downtown areas of Tokyo, so it makes sense that the station was slammed with people trying to connect to different routes around the city.  We made our connection, and our destination was Tokyo Tower.  The tower functions as a communications tower of some sort, but it’s also a major attraction for visitors to Tokyo.  It closely resembles the Eiffel Tower, aside from the fact that it’s painted white and bright orange.  As we walked into the building below the tower, we were faced with a very challenging dilemma.  We could either buy tickets to go to the top of the tower, or we could buy tickets to a special presentation of the Best of Michael Jackson playing in the theater.  While it was a tough choice, we opted for the tickets to the top and settled for listening to MJ’s greatest hits, which were playing throughout the various levels of the tower.   We hopped on the elevator and headed up to the highest observation deck, which stands at 820 ft high.  From here we caught sweeping panoramic views of the urban maze of Tokyo and Yokohama.  From skyscrapers reaching up to poke the clouds to neighborhoods sprawling towards the foothills  of the mountains, the ocean and everywhere in between, it’s easy to see why Tokyo metropolitan area is the largest in the world, topping out at over 32 million people!

We stayed on the observation deck for a while, then headed down a few stories to get some coffee and wait for the sun to set over Tokyo.  The beautiful red-orange orb gradually sank behind the buildings and gave way to the bright, artificial lights of the city at night.  Having been at the top of the tower at the absolute best time possible, we could only follow-up the experience with an equally amazing dinner.  After Jaime’s Iphone took us in the completely opposite way for about 10 minutes, we caught a cab and made our way through the bright lights and masses of people of the Roppongi district to the Japanese restaurant of Gonpachi.  For anyone who has ever seen the movie Kill Bill, the restaurant fight scene at the end of the movie is almost identical to the Gonpachi restaurant’s layout.  We were led to our table in a room on the second level that looked out on the bustling kitchen and tables below.  After kicking off our shoes and climbing into the tatami mat-lined room, we settled in and prepared for the feast to come.  The meal turned into something resembling a 15 course marathon of culinary delight.  We started with seaweed salad and fresh vegetables served in a glass of ice water.  This was followed by edamame, dragon rolls (tuna and avocado rolls) and shrimp dumplings that resembled fried sea urchins.  After barely whetting our appetite, the waiters brought our tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables, seared tuna, grilled tomatoes that exploded with flavor when you bit into them and bacon-wrapped duck and asparagus (soooo delicious!).  Along with this, we were served a huge batch of fried calamari, cheese-baked egg-plant and another fresh salad comprised of lotus root and other greens I couldn’t identify.  On top of all of that, we received a plate of cooked shrimp, a bowl of cold noodles, ice cream and hot tea.  Needless to say, none of us left that table without having to loosen our belts a couple of notches.  This was by far the best dinner I’ve had in Japan, and it was a great ending to a splendid first trip to Tokyo!

Calamari fries

Tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables

Fried shrimp dumplings

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