Since my last entry a couple of things have happened. There was another earthquake, 6.4 off Fukushima, which in Tokyo felt like a level 3. And I had a couple of days training, eating into my days off but I’m now on a 2-week holiday so no complaints. I got to meet a few of the other teachers and reacquainted with Adam from the introductory training. And I suppose I learned a few useful things about teaching – one of them, making a paper cat, I have already used successfully in a playgroup lesson!
I also endured some parental observations, now that my 2 month grace period is over (most teachers had these in June). It wasn’t so bad – I regularly have parents in the classroom for my younger students at Kachidoki and most of my younger students are generally well behaved and engaged in my lessons. One of the observations at Nishi-Kasai was with students with whom I’ve had some discipline problems in the past, but the feedback was ok. If I am keeping the parents happy I’m probably doing a pretty good job.
So, a two week vacation in August, it was time for some tourism. And I decided to do the most touristy thing of all, a visit to Mount Fuji. I picked an all-in guided tour rather than trying to put together my own itinerary – this had a few extras like a boat trip on Lake Ashi, and a trip on a cable car up Mount Komagatake, and the option of a ride home on a bullet train (which if I’m honest was probably the clincher).
I booked for Tuesday, the second day of my vacation so I would have one day to rest and get it out of the way to leave time to do other stuff. I just booked it on the internet through Viator – the price seemed reasonable though nowadays I’m converting everything from dollars to yen to roubles to pounds in my head and I’ve no idea what things are meant to cost any more.
The departure point was from a hotel in Ginza, near a station I hadn’t used before (Higashi-Ginza). I thought it would be prudent to scope it out the day before I left so I wasn’t running around looking for the right exit or walking down the wrong road for 20 minutes and missing the tour bus.
In the event I found the hotel pretty quickly, and had a little stroll around the Ginza area, which houses a Kabuki theatre. In fact I ended up walking to Shimbashi Station (to my limited Japanese that sounds like “New Bridge” Station), an area full of lights and restaurants. I found an interesting toy shop which kept me occupied for half an hour or so.
The next morning I was up very early – even earlier than when I have early classes – and had to squeeze myself onto a rush hour train towards central Tokyo. I changed at Kayabacho to a less-packed train, and emerged at Higashi-Ginza with plenty of time, but from completely the wrong exit. I was momentarily lost but looked up for a building with a crane on the roof which I remembered from the previous night, and straight away found my bearings.
I waited outside the hotel, I was not alone, another group of 3 travellers were waiting at the same spot. We kept out of the sunlight but it was still a very hot morning. Eventually a woman came out of the hotel waving a sign for our tour, and we were gratefully led into the air-conditioned hotel reception where a dozen or more other people were already waiting. We were told the bus would be a little late. I was given my tour ID badge, and sat using the hotel’s free wi-fi while we waited.
The tour operators explained that we were part of 2 separate tour groups but we would all be getting on the same bus which would take us to another point in Tokyo where my tour group (group 3) would switch to our own tour bus. It seemed like there weren’t enough seats on the bus but we were told to use jump seats – fold down seats that filled the middle aisle. I ended up switching with a guy who didn’t want me sitting between him and his daughters.
We switched at Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal and got on our big yellow tour bus. I forgot we had reserved seats and just sat anywhere, and had to get up when the seat’s owner came to claim it. A few others had the same issue and we were playing musical chairs when the tour guide barked at us to sit down – we were already late and needed to set off immediately! I ended up taking a pair of seats to myself further back than my allocated seat.
Fortunately the tour guide mellowed a bit, he introduced himself as Harry (that’s how he spelled it) – an older, 60-year old guy. His English was far from perfect and there were a few misunderstandings but he generally conveyed a lot of useful information throughout the day – and got us where we needed to be.
With me on the tour were an older American couple (the guy was particularly grumpy), a middle-aged American couple, a French (or maybe French-Canadian) couple, a couple of younger black girls, a couple of sporty-looking white American girls, a couple that looked Asian but weren’t speaking Japanese (or reading it on their devices – I couldn’t make out the language but it used the Latin alphabet), and the three who were waiting outside the hotel with me, I think they may have been South African – a middle-aged couple and younger woman – maybe a daughter or younger sister.
For the first hour we were driving through Tokyo, on the expressway. These roads tend to be raised above street-level so it was a slightly different view of the city than I was used to. Eventually Harry told us we had left Tokyo proper, and were in the outskirts and suburbs – an area called Hachioji that used to be the centre of Japan’s silk industry, the silk that was sold abroad and the money used to pay for arms and weapons. Now it was a university district.
Eventually the shape of mountains ahead of us began to form and we were told that beyond the mountains lay Kanagawa Prefecture. We would soon come to a tunnel that marked the border and we would leave Tokyo Prefecture behind. We passed rice paddy fields, and cemeteries as the area around us became more and more wooded. Harry told us that 70% of Japan was mountains and they could be self-sufficient in timber, but they prefer to import timber from abroad and protect their forests.
We went through Kanagawa very quickly and into Yamanashi which is Japan’s “fruit basket”. Since westernisation – which began in the Meiji period after the Shogunate was abolished in 1868 – it also became Japan’s wine-making area. Eventually Harry pointed to a looming triangle becoming visible from behind another mountain and told us up ahead was Mount Fuji.
Fujiyama (“yama” means “mountain”) is Japan’s highest peak and is famed for its beauty and symmetry. The slopes seem to form the same angle from whichever direction you look and most of the year it has a distinctive snow-covered white cap. It is also a volcano, classified as dormant rather than extinct, and last known to erupt in 1708. It is known to the Japanese simply as “Fujisan”.
You can drive quite a way up the mountain – in summer the roads are open only to tour buses and authorised vehicles – so that’s what we did. On the way Harry pointed out areas where typhoons had knocked down trees, and an avalanche had knocked down a building. He also told us there are bears on the mountain, but they are only small bears. When we leave the coach, we would be given a ticket which we could exchange for a small bell, this was a good luck charm and would ward off any bears.
We drove up into the clouds and reached the 5th station which is at 2,305 metres. Unfortunately cloud obscured our view of the summit further up, and mostly our view of the surrounding countryside. There was a huge, bustling tourist area with several buildings – groups of climbers assembled in the central square, from this point it is about a 6-7 hour hike to the summit. Climbing is only possible for two months in the summer, and everyone in Japan wants to climb Fujisan once in their lives, so it is very busy.
I got my voucher and found the bell man who gave me my bell and posed for a picture. I walked around and took a few more pictures but there wasn’t really that much I could capture. The view from the far side of the tourist building seemed to be a bit clearer but there were still too many clouds for a clear landscape vista. I ended up making my way back to the coach in good time.
Our next stop was Lake Kawaguchi – a very popular tourist spot, but we were only here for lunch. I opted out of the group lunch and ended up getting chicken and chips from a machine (not very nice, really). The scenery was pretty, there was a cable car up a nearby mountain, but while I was eating it started pouring with rain. I decided not to let this ruin my day and bought myself an ice cream (a proper soft-scoop with a cone, not the freezer nonsense). Very tasty but I got pretty wet for my troubles. I made it back to the coach right on the dot.
Harry wasn’t troubled about the rain – the rainy season was over, this was just a localised shower and we would be driving away from it. Our next destination was Lake Ashi. Most of this leg of our journey was spent arranging various transfer plans with different members of the group – some of them would be staying on at a hotel and a taxi would come and collect them and Hakone. Some would be returning by bus (about 2 hours including traffic jams) and the rest, like me, would be travelling by Shinkansen bullet train (about half an hour) from Odawara station.
At my end of the bus we also tried to get some good pictures of Mount Fuji. We finally had a clear view of the triangular shape, but there were still huge puffs of clouds swirled around the summit. As we drove higher over a twisty mountain road it became unpredictable which side the mountain would appear on – often the tree cover would suddenly disappear and there she was, beautifully framed – but by the time any of us had pointed our camera at the window, she was gone again, masked by the tree cover. Harry talked about ninjas – originally they were just spies sent by feudal lords to help them plan attacks on rival territories. Fujisan seemed to be a ninja mountain.
At Lake Ashi we got on a boat and travelled 15 minutes to a place called Hakone (our bus would follow us by the land route). The lake was very pretty – other boats that sailed it were styled like pirate ships but ours was more like a spacecraft. There was a commentary in Japanese and English but it was very sporadic and difficult to hear with the wind. There was something about a dragon and a whirlpool…
At Hakone we went up a cable car (they call them “ropeways” for some reason) to the top of Mount Komagatake. This was an agreeable plateau containing a torii, a shrine building, and for some reason, a garden of carefully balanced rock-piles. Between the sheets of cloud it was occasionally possible to see the distant coast, and Fujisan even came out from behind her own cloud cover.
The top of the mountain was refreshingly cool (even high on Mount Fuji it was t-shirt weather) and it was a shame to come back down into the heat haze. Harry was waiting for us (though I was momentarily distracted by a so-called “Ninja Bus” that drove into the lake) and soon we were on our way again to the station. 7 of us made our way to the platform to wait for the train, which was about 20 minutes away.
As we waited, Shinkansen regularly whizzed through the central tracks, very fast and very loud. They looked more like aeroplanes without wings than trains. When our train eventually arrived, I got on a carriage on my own. It wasn’t so crowded, and was pretty comfortable with plenty of legroom. This wasn’t even the “business class” section which supposedly was even more comfortable!
The train’s service number was 666 – I found this unusual for a country that refuses to use the words for the numbers 4 and 9 because they are bad luck! It was a pretty smooth ride, we stopped at Yokohama and another station before arriving at Tokyo Station. Although I had to walk a little way there was an adjoining station on the Tozai line, so I got home in pretty good time!