Watching the sunrise on my balcony

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Fuji experience

The crew ~ just before the hike!
The climb to the top of Fujisan (富士山) started at Yoshida’s 5th station. There are 10 stations on the way up to the summit of Mnt Fuji. Most people start from Station 5 and some crazy people start from the very bottom. I caught the bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station with my hiking crew; Angi, Katie, Alex, Andrew and Chad.

When we arrived at Station 5, it was dark and around 7:30pm. We needed a couple of hours to acclimatize since we were at an altitude higher than 2000 meters already. We went inside, got changed into our hiking gear and put all our extra stuff in the lockers provided. We did some stretching in the gift shop and bought souvenirs for our schools (Japanese custom) as we thought we would be too tired at the end of the hike, and boy were we right! 

Station 5 

The girls ~ 2305 meters

                     Fuji hiking sticks

We chilled outside snapping photos with the iconic Mnt Fuji sign and bought our last minute water and food supplies. Just before departing at around 9pm I bolted out of the gift shop, camera in hand and bailed down concrete stairs saving my camera but not my knees. Not the best way to start a 16 hour hike!

We were prepared for the long trek with our head lamps, rain gear, water, food and our massive wooden hiking sticks we bought from the gift shop. At each station as you hike towards the summit, there are little huts where you can get a stamp burned into your wooden stick which represents your journey up to the top. It was a clear night, with no cloud cover above and we could see every star in the universe. We were all in fear that it would rain and make our trek miserable, cold and difficult. We picked the perfect night, because that was not in the cards at all... 

As we started our trek we chatted small talk, getting to know Katie’s brothers and full of excitement and energy. We decided to start a video blog and do short clips throughout the journey. This idea started out great, but we lost steam as the exhaustion set and even taking one picture seemed daunting towards the end. The path was easy in the beginning, not too steep and it even went downhill at one point. Katie turned to me and said, “downhill!? Are we going the right way?” Well, we were, but we took a side path which bypassed station 6 and brought us closer to station 7. We found this out after looking at a map we found in a hut along the way. We took a short break here to have a snack and some water before we continued on. 

Our 1st video blog ~ meet all the hikers!

From this point forward the climb was no longer easy. It was like walking on a 30-45% incline while semi rock climbing in the dark. It was so hard to breath because the oxygen was very thin. I had to stop frequently just to catch my breath and my heart was pounding at all times. While stopped, I had a great chance to take in the views. Even though it was the middle of the night you could see the lights illuminating from the towns below covered by a blanket of thin clouds. You could also look down the mountain in the direction you had just climbed, and see all the mountain huts lit up with a zigzag of headlights coming towards your resting point.  You could also look up the mountain to see all the huts that were next and the people hiking ahead with their lamps guiding the way. Over our heads, we were greeted with a universe of glistening stars highlighting the big dipper and other constellations. I kept saying to my friends and to myself, “This is the best day of my life, I am so lucky and I am so happy right now!” It really was magical, even though it was night and I couldn’t see much, I had the most amazing sense of freedom, self awareness and power within! I felt that I was at complete peace with myself even though it was the most physically demanding excursion I have ever endured. The hardest part of the climb for me was the breathing. Once I could stop and catch my breath, it was okay and I could keep going. After each stop, I got stronger and stronger, thinking that I had made it this far and I could make it to the top. After a while 
the exhaustion set in.... 

The hike in itself is physically tough but when you do not sleep and continue hiking for 16 hours with only short breaks it becomes SO SUPER BEYOND BELIEF EXHAUSTING. This is a type of tired I have never felt before. I could have fallen asleep standing up waiting for someone in front of me to take their next step forward. The tiredness eventually passed when my body came to terms with the fact that I was not going to bed. In return, I became very alert and awake and couldn’t sleep when the time finally came. 

Video ~ Angi showing us the Fuji walking stick

         Friendly hut attendants met us at each stop

The view down from the 7th station

Video ~ stopping at station 7

Keeping the coals warm for burning stamps into the walking sticks
in case you need anything at a steep price
Angi and Katie ~ Just paid 200 yen each to use the washroom!

When we arrived at station 8 we were really happy. Only 2 more stations to go... we thought! Well unbeknownst to us, there were 5 sub stations to station 8. We kept hiking, more tired than anyone can imagine hoping to get closer to station 9. At the first station 8 (8.1) there was a big sign saying we had reached 3100 meters so I took a photo. I thought it would be a nice idea to put the photo on facebook and add all the people I was hiking with. So at this station while I was busy taking the photo, the workers there were trying to get people to leave the station instead of sit around and warm up because of the herds of people trying to pass through. Everyone started hiking towards the next station except Chad (katie’s oldest brother) and I, who were working on the photo. At first, I couldn’t believe I had internet connection at the 8th station on Mnt Fuji (Japan you amaze me).  So as Chad was having challenges trying to use facebook on my phone I couldn’t stop laughing. He was making jokes and I was in a funny mood, so I hysterically giggled for about 10 minutes straight. I was laughing so hard that my stomach hurt and I blame it on the extreme altitude coupled with no sleep. I was delirious by this point. After all this laughter we realized our friends had left and we were a little concerned, hoping that we would catch up with them at the next station. Luckily they were waiting for us and as we walked up they said, “let’s never separate again!” 

At 3:30 am we arrived at station 8.5 and sat down because we were really cold and needed some soup. I ordered a bowl of miso ramen and we all just chilled there for about 30 mins. It was so nice to warm up and give our feet a little break. This is where I finally checked the condition of my knees from the gift shop fall and saw that they were bleeding and scraped. A nice lady who noticed, gave me two Band-Aids that had medicine on them too! Chad got altitude sickness at this point in the trek. He was really not well, and he also had a broken toe from an earlier injury, poor guy! We asked the staff how much longer to the summit and they told us another 2 hours. We all had our heart set on watching the sunrise from the top so we quickly got up and started going again. I totally could have fallen asleep on the floor of that hut if we had stayed sitting any longer. 

The mountain huts offer a little space on the tatami mats if you want to sleep. You can rent it by the hour or the night but its best done in advance because so many people make this journey every year and it becomes booked up. A lot of people plan their trek so they start at night and hike to 8th station where they sleep and then continue their hike in the morning. Then the crazy people (us) do the rockstar climb where you don’t sleep at all and hike all night and morning. 

yummy miso ramen
One of the many Torii gates we passed under during the hike
Video ~ Meeting the group at one of the station eights

Still over a km to go...

Video ~ The first 8th station (8.1) ~ 3100 meters 
(please ignore my incorrect meter - foot ratio)

As the darkness of the night became brighter by the sun, we could start to see the path without the use of our headlamps and we could now have a clear picture of the trek ahead of us...straight up the mountain. It looked never ending and was super daunting, because of how tired and cold we all were. We just kept putting one foot in front of the other, we just had to keep going. The sun was rising as we were almost to the top and we found a beautiful place to sit right on the edge of the mountain somewhere between the ghost 9th station and station 10. I had a snuggly blanket that I stuffed into the bottom of my backpack which made the experience so much better. The sunrise was beautiful and we were perched up on the side of the mountain higher than all the clouds. We could see all the mountains, trees, valleys and lakes below. It was the most amazing view I have ever seen in my life. It reminded me of the view I have seen from an airplane window a million times over, but this time I was sitting on the earth...the earth I just worked so hard to climb up! I sat there for about 45 minutes watching the sun rise up over Japan and took tons of photos.  I didn’t know if I would ever see anything like this again. Floating above the tiny landscape below put things into perspective for me. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and I was filled with positivity. I felt so fortunate to be there and with my friends who really made the journey special. 

After the sun rose we all got up and finished the hike to the summit....only 200 meters to go! This took about an hour because there were so many people on the same path so you had to wait. Typical Japanese activity...waiting in line. We arrived to the summit at around 6am screaming inside, ”I did it!” (well I was). At the top of Fujisan it was jam packed with tons of people who had made this same incredible journey. A guy pulled me aside just as I walked through the Torii gate and said, “can you take my picture?” You should have seen the look on my face! He tried to reassure me, “I know that you are tired!” It took all my strength to hold his camera up while he stood atop a rock so I could take his picture!

The sun was rising and we could finally see the top!
5 am ~ we stopped to enjoy the sunrise together ~ 200 m from the top

Can you see the people on the mountain?!
Looking down where we had just climbed up

The trail to the top
Beautiful sunrise

More sunrise ~ I could have stayed there forever 

As the sun started to rise many people joined the trail from their mountain huts

An ocean of clouds

Almost there!

Video ~ 200 meters from the top and the wind is howling!

All along the way we had gotten our sticks burned with different marking from all the stations we had passed along the way. Each stamp cost 200 yen and the stick itself cost 1200 yen. At the summit we raced in the queue to get the stamp we all wanted the MOST...station 10! The men working were so happy and positive saying, “congratulations, you did it!!” I smiled, but only for a second, I was too tired to hold the expression. We stayed up at the top for about an hour. I can barely remember it because I was out of it and felt like a zombie. After drinking a green tea we all fell asleep on the tatami mats of a small teahouse. The workers had to wake us all up, because we were lying around taking up paying customers spots. I think we only closed our eyes for 5 minutes but it was good enough. 

It’s strange when I think back, I concentrated so much about climbing up Mnt Fuji that I never thought about climbing down. As we started talking about the decent, panic set in, which was manifested by my exhaustion. I didn’t feel I could do it. We all decided to head down soon after we got up there just because of our sleepy condition. We took some photos at the top, Angi and I hysterically laughed while this was happening. A textbook symptom of delirious behavior. We looked around a bit, but really didn’t give the top of Fujisan the time it deserved. Later I heard about a post office at the top where you can send mail from. I wish I had found that place and sent a postcard. Also there was a crater that you could walk around, but it was one more hour of hiking to go and see. We all decided we had had enough and started to make our decent down. 

At the top ~ souvenirs of course

Of course there are vending machines at the top of Fujisan!? Only in Japan...
My only photo of the view from the top of Fuji ~ I was too tired to take another...

Resting benches
Everyone is sooooo tired! Look at Chad (far left) hehe poor guy...

This is where we all fell asleep for 5 minutes before they kicked is out
Angi was hysterically laughing...That sign above us says that we are at the top

The brothers look like they are having an out-of-body experience!
 Going down:
The way down was the MOST grueling part of the trek for me. It was super painful on my knees and felt never ending. We were all beyond the point of exhaustion and it was hard to stay awake during this part of the Fuji experience. The bump to my knees from the gift stop fall, came back to haunt me on the journey down. With every step, on this steep incline, my knees felt like they were getting hit by a crowbar. I was in sooooo much pain and decided after two hours to walk backwards. I turned around and twisted my head so I could see where I was going, careful not to trip down the mountain side. There were so many loose rocks and ash on the path and it was really easy to stumble. The incline was about 30-45% and it was similar to walking on marbles for 5 hours. For the first two hours the view was spectacular and you felt like you were walking on top of the world. All the clouds were below you and it looked like a layer of whipped mashed potatoes perfectly placed atop Japan! 

As we kept walking, the temperature started to rise, the sun got stronger, our exhaustion exceeded and the pain in our bodies got worse and worse. Many points throughout the 5 hour trek down we would all separate. The weak would lay down and chill, trying to forget the mindless, endless journey in front of us. Looking down the mountain was torture. The bottom was never in site and all you could see were switchbacks of death! At one point, I actually felt like I was in a nightmare. There was nothing I could do, there is no one that could help me, I just had to keep going, putting one foot “behind” the other. At one point Alex, (Katie’s youngest brother) turned to me and said, “Tamara, I am going to forget that this part of my life ever happened and I will just look forward to a time when my life will one day continue!” It was so funny, I couldn’t help but laugh. He is the youngest and fittest of the crew, only 18 years old and has a seriously positive outlook on everything. For him to have this type of feeling about the way down Fujisan reassured me that I wasn’t the only one! At one point I thought it was a good idea to leave the trail and head straight down the side of the mountain. My friends thought I was nuts and too be honest, I think I had gone mad. I asked Angi to come but she decided to stay to the switchback. As I descended on the loose gravel it felt like I was snowboarding. I just slid my way down to the next switchback bailing a couple time on my bum. To be honest, I thought it would be faster but Angi got there at the exact same time and she was hoping to hell that I wouldn't notice because of my wasted effort! I was willing to try ANYTHING to get me down that mountain faster! 

When we reached the forested area I finally felt at peace. We had some shade from the strong sun and a cool mist of fog greeted us. Only 2 more hours to go! This part was much easier on my knees because it would become flat at some points. As we walked through the forest we saw an oasis of horses and I instantly felt saved! “Yes!! I can ride a horse the rest of the way!” We walked up to the horsemen and asked the going rate. Only a cool 10,000 yen ($120) they told us for a short 30 min ride. So not worth it! I figured I could have knee surgery cheaper in Japan than pay that exorbitant rate! So we kept going and eventually we started to see more and more people. 

One man passed by us shouting to me “keep your head up!” I didn’t really understand what he was shouting about so I walked over to have a chat. He told me that I almost walked off the cliff edge into the depths of thick fog. I was too tired to care. I warned him about coming down the mountain on the Yoshida trail (the one we just came down) telling him it was super long and difficult. He said, “I climb Mnt Fuji every year! I would never go down that trail it’s the hardest one!” I couldn’t believe it, my friends and I chose the hardest trail, what were we thinking! When we told Chad and the boys they were a little disheartened. Nothing seemed okay at that point... 

I must have looked like death near the end, because I was hobbling along, dragging my stick and an enthusiastic hiker skipped passed saying “Ganbatte!” Which is an expression in Japanese to encourage you to try harder or wish you good luck. I just smiled and though to myself, “you are crazy for hiking up Fujisan right now.” As we got closer and closer to 5th station we saw more and more people. There were masses of them and we didn’t even recognize the trail! When we started our hike it was night time and there was almost no one around. Now it looked like a lineup at Disneyland. People were so genki (happy) and full of energy which clashed massively with the looks on our faces. Some joggers even ran by us! They were going to actually run up and down the mountain! Wow, they deserve a trophy! 

So when we arrived back at the 5th station there were hundreds of people there getting ready for the hike. We all felt trashed as we waded through the masses of people. We were hoping to get our stuff from the lockers and get to the hostel ASAP. After retrieving our belongings and calling the hostel we realized we were still an hour by bus to the town where we had booked the night’s stay. Katie was an angel for figuring it all out and getting us on the right bus. She really saved the day since the rest of us were mentally incapable of making a phone call at that point. 

After a good sleep and a fantastic dinner at the local pub we reminisced about our adventure together. We all shared the same sense of accomplishment and laughed about all the crazy stuff that had happened in the last 24 hours. I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life. 
It was life changing...

Going down Fujisan
Endless clouds
One hour down, only five more to go!
Cloud surfing ~ I wish...
Let's pause ~ photo time
A sea of clouds behind me
We finally made it to the first station on the way down the mountain
The station looks like it was floating on clouds too ~ pretty 
The way down

You can see the next station at the bottom of the picture
Above the clouds
View of Mount Fuji the next day

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ozato turtle

At my Junior High School we have a turtle that lives in a fish tank and sits right outside the teachers office and across from Chika’s room. Chika is one of my closest friends here in Okinawa and is the school nurse at my school. I asked her why they had a turtle living in the school and she told me that it just walked in one day so they made it a home. She has become the mother to the turtle taking amazing care of this little guy. She cleans out the tank twice a week, feeds it and takes it on walks around the school. I think she even requested that the school buy it a bigger tank with more interesting things inside to play with. As of now the tank has some rocks and a brick in it (how boring). She was mentioning something about asking Kocho Sensei about getting a new turtle tank at the takoyaki party. I wasn't exactly sure what she was saying though because I can’t really understand Japanese. But I guess we will just wait and see what April brings us.