Climbing Mount Fuji – never again!

So instead of just enjoying this iconic and sacred mountain from a distance, 400, 000 people each year attempt to conquer it by foot. And this year I was one of them. We were told by older JETs it was a great thing to do and it was little more than a ‘walk in the park that grandmothers do’. This would be true if every park included a 4000m volcano and all grannies were Olympic athletes!

Yet myself, Steven and about 14 other unsuspecting newbies signed up for the trip organised by Fukui JETs. It took about nine hours to get there in a coach and we drove through horrendous thunder and lightning storms. Thankfully by the time we arrived it was fine weather to attempt the climb. The previous year, JETs climbed Fuji in a typhoon and many of them were still mentally scarred from this event, and after climbing it, I could see why!

To get to the 5th station we went over the famous musical road which hums a tune as tyres drive over it. This is meant to wake up passengers up who are preparing to climb the mountain. The tradition of trekking in darkness comes from pilgrims wanting to reach the sacred Shinto shrine on the top and then watch the red sun rising from the East. We were lucky enough to experience it and that made the whole trip worthwhile, but not without bearing some hardships!

The climb starts at 2300m and begins with a mile of gently sloping paths through a forest. Without seeing a route-map this would be a very misleading way to begin the climb which quickly turns in to an uphill slog with no level plains at all. The most popular route criss-crosses the volcano, changing between naturally rocky boulders to gravelly paths with sheer drops to one side. As it is dark you can hardly see the steepness of the mountain and this is probably a good thing! I might have turned back if I could see what was to come!

Climbing at night was a new experience for me and had more perks than I’d expected. It was a new moon and a clear night so the sky was filled was millions of stars. Just looking up for a minute was long enough to see a shooting star or two, an added bonus to our trip! Then there was the neon lit city below which looked fantastic from such a height. And most memorable was the long line of head torches slowing moving up the mountain behind us. I climbed it mainly without a head torch and let my eyes naturally adjust to the dark. Being surefooted, I could find my way reasonably easily but I would’ve benefitted from a walking stick on the way down!

The Japanese people are in general much quieter than us Westerners. So apart from the occasional Westerner, usually American, we’d hear chatting or cursing away in the distance, it was eerily quiet for the thousands of people on the path. Yes, thousands! It was the end of Obon week, which is a national festival for remembering ancestors, and so this weekend was probably the most popular for going up Fuji. Thus frustratingly, our journey up the mountain was interspersed with queuing. Not really what you want, or what you expect, when going up a mountain! But as it is only warm enough to climb the mountain in August and September it is nearly always teeming with people climbing it like colourful ants marching up an unusually high ant hill!

Steve and I climbed the majority of the mountain with an American girl from Texas named Erin. We had a lot of fun going up together but she started suffering from altitude sickness quite soon on and we had to go at a slow pace with very regular intervals. This meant we hadn’t reached the summit by sunrise at 5am, even though we’d been walking for seven hours. Yet as a orange hue rose on the horizon, we nestled together and sat against the volcanic rocks to watch the sunrise. As the dawn lit up our surroundings we became aware just how far above the cloud line we’d trekked and how steep the volcano was! I hadn’t even noticed the rock was red either! Other trekkers stopped and waited for the sun to emerge from beneath the clouds and there was an expectant energy among all the tired and weary walkers. Some Japanese had bought mini stoves and were willing them on to make a cup of something hot. Others had bought thermal blankets and roll mats to try to get a nap before the descent. We only had our fleeces and coats, and they weren’t enough to buffer the cold.

When the sun rose, we realised what all the fuss was about. Suddenly we forgot we were sitting freezing and sleep-deprived 3000m up a volcano. Photos couldn’t capture the sun melting through the clouds and giving a watery mirage of its shape. It was magical. We celebrated with yet another sugary snack and our spirits were high.

Yet in hindsight, our spirits were maybe too high. As although the summit was insight there was a long zig-zag line of colourful coats waiting patiently to walk through the final Shinto gate to the top.  As we started walking again Erin’s altitude sickness became noticeably worse and we had to stop regularly to give her oxygen and water. I became more and more worried as she was obviously lacking energy and was feeling faint. At one point in the queue she actually fell backwards and I had to support her. This was when I realised we were in a really bad situation and there was no easy way out. The sheer number of people lining the path behind us, as well as the rocky boulders she would need to climb down meant it was more difficult to go down than reach the top and take the gentle path down. So we continued, stopping whilst people walked past us in the queue. I used my new phone to contact the JETs in charge and they waited for us at the top to take Erin down. We should have got a photo at the top of all three of us but that wasn’t top of our priorities then!

So the summit experience was not the highlight of the trip but we did see the crater and got a couple of quick photos from the top. I would’ve loved to post my postcards from the highest post-office in the world but we needed to get down as our bus was meant to leave in three hours! So we started the descent down, long gravelly zig-zags for about 10 km. As well as being incredibly monotonous and seemingly never-ending it was also painful on your knees which take all the impact. I’ve never wanted to get off a mountain more quickly. But it took another six hours to finally reach our coach at the bottom. We made it down with a larger group of JETs, including Erin, who was a lot better since we’d descended from the altitude.

Unsurprisingly, the bus journey home was quieter than the one there. Many people vowed never to do it again and I’m one of them. The saying goes ‘A wise man climbs Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice.’ But saying that it was a totally amazing experience and I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad I could help Erin and we all reached the summit together. We’ll definitely never forget that night!

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!

From Tokyo to Fukui

Konnichiwa! It seems like a lifetime ago that I said a tearful goodbye to my parents at Heathrow, but it’s only been a week since I left the UK. Boy, what a week! The mix of jet lag, meeting hundreds of new people and travelling across Japan has made it seem like a month’s experiences rolled into one. Here is the concise version!

The 11 hour flight left me dazed and bedazzled by the bright sunshine we were greeted by in Tokyo. The humidity and high 30’s heat added to the utter confusion I felt on that day, not knowing the time, orientation or my room number. The JET Programme generously put up the 1000 or so JETs who were in a likewise state of mind, having taken similar flights from America, Ireland and South Africa, in a 5-star hotel in Shibuya, Central Tokyo. The Tokyo Orientation is meant to be a place to adjust to the time difference as well as the culture, but this proved extremely difficult as we had meetings from 9 till 5 for the first two days! My body decided that staying awake through these meetings was physically impossible, so I gave in and slept during the afternoons and went out during the evenings.

First night, we went to a yaki-tori restaurant (BBQ’d chicken skewers) and then wandered round the neon-lit streets of Shibuyu. Second evening, we met the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) going to Fukui Prefecture and bonded over two hours of karaoke, loosened up by a good deal of beer drinking. Third night, we were welcomed by the British Embassy with English wine, coronation chicken sandwiches and fish-and-chips on sticks! We had a serious, turned not-so serious, talk about Japan’s harsh penalty system (drink driving or drugs= deportation/prison) and the way they like to make examples of foreigners. One Brit when intoxicated punched someone else’s blow up snowman and was made to leave the country for this act violence towards another person’s property! After the multiple warnings to not do anything stupid in this country, we were treated to a taiko drumming performance. The loud cicadas were humming in the trees and I was itching having felt something land on me. Next thing I know the Ambassdor’s wife was spraying me up and down with mosquito repellent! After I was thoroughly drenched in the stuff, we fell into conversation and I heard what it was like to live in an Embassy and have A-list guests dropping in every week. She told me that every night there was a reception like this and I felt a lot less special!

After getting a taste of British food, we met Sayuri, my Japanese student who I’d taught in Cambridge, and she took us to the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been too. It was Ninja themed, so all the waiting staff were dressed in black clothes and to get into the seating area we were led by a ninja waitress through a trap door and over a draw bridge to get to our dining cell underground. We ate many weird and wonderful foods that evening and were entertained by the best magician I’d ever seen. Seeing Sayuri and her husband Shio in her own country was great too, now I was the one sitting there like a lemon whilst she ordered the drinks!

The next day we left the comfort of the hotel and boarded a coach to take us to Fukui. When my geography teacher in Year 7 had told me that Japan was 2/3rds mountainous, I didn’t really believe her. How could such an economically strong country be so successful when there are just mountains? I believe her now. On the highways from Tokyo west to Fukui there were steep-sided, forested mountains and then flat, valleys with lush rice paddies or greenery growing. The humidity is obviously good for the environment! The mountains don‘t get in the way of the highways, tunnels let the roads go through them or the highways hug their lowest contours. The service-stations are also some of the most remarkable in the world. Like everywhere in Japan, they are clean with not a single wrapper on the floor. The toilets come with a remote control for heated seats, flushing sounds and a bidet squirter for ‘your posterior’! But the canteen is the most impressive. Not only are all the drinks in vending machines but you choose your meal from one as well. Once you’ve paid and got your ticket you hand it to the counter server who in minutes puts your meal together and calls out your number when it’s done. Amazing!

Once arrived in Fukui city we were welcomed by an annual lets-see-what-we-can-feed-the-new-ALTs dinner. Raw horsemeat, a bowl of sashimi (raw fish) and a salad with tiny fried fish (with eyes which look at you) was served on our table, all leaving me wanting my fish-and-chips-on sticks back! I knew I had to branch out at some point,  so I squeamishly swallowed a raw prawn and felt it slip down my throat, half thinking it might come alive again on it’s way down! The company was far superior to the food and we met some of the 70-so Fukui JETs who have been here from 1 to 5 years. I was one of the 23 new JETs, who are mostly American, starting their time on the JET programme.

After another morning of orientation we were taken on a town-tour where we tried the best shuu cream puffs, set foot in our first 100-yen store (where you can literally but anything for about £1) and had our photographs taken in a purikura machine (where it lightens your skin, enlarges your eyes and generally makes you look more like an anime character than human)! We had a BBQ by the river in the evening and I met my predecessor James, a New Zealander who has stayed five years and is leaving Japan with a Japanese wife. I have moved in to his apartment and  am taking over his position at Takefu Dai Ni Junior High School, so I have a lot to learn from him!

The final day of orientation was a welcome ceremony where we met our Japanese supervisors. These are generally someone from the English department at your school who takes care of settling you in so is half way between your boss and your mother! So when I’d registered at the city hall, got a bank account and seen my school, I finally got to see my apartment. It’s on the third floor of an apartment block, has a kitchen, living room, utilities room, bath and shower and toilet. My bedroom has tatami mats and everywhere has sliding doors. James and his wife left it in such a way that I don’t even need to buy a box of tissues! The two air-con units are keeping me cool as it gets pretty hot, but as Steve’s is on the ground floor I can just pop over if mine get’s too hot!

I wish I could describe all the sights and smells of Japan but it’d take all night! More to come soon.