Monday, June 26, 2006

To not climb it once is foolish

... but to climb it more than once is also foolish.
-witty Japanese cliche about Mount Fuji

It's been awhile, blog. It's interesting- the more I've got to talk about, the less time I've got to say it- and with five weeks left in my Japanese adventure, I'm trying my best to have as little time spent in front of this keyboard as possible. Out of a sense of duty and a little bit of pride, though, here's a quick recap of the latest adventures:

1. Went with Veronica to go see the latest from the national Taiko drumming group, Kodo. Their piece, entitled Amaterasu, works with some big names in the Kabuki business, and retells the story of the sun goddess's fight with her brother, the wind god. This story is to Shintoism as Genesis is to Christianity, and as such it is told and retold over here in just about any form you could imagine. Let there be light.

It was... awesome. Sheer percussive bliss on giant taiko drums. Oh, and the sun goddess- the figure in white and gold on the Kodo splashpage? Yeah. She's a man. Scroll down to "Men's Kabuki"- these guys are called "Onnagata", and it's one of the most respected roles kabuki players can fill.Across from the Kabuki theater, we discover that some humor lives on independent of culture.

2. Walked the Philosopher's Walk, from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto. It's a two-kilometer stretch of little temples, shops, and shrines set along a canal. Evidently, some famous philosopher dude woke up every morning and hiked it as his constitutional. Either way, it was beautiful. I spent half a morning wandering around the halls of this smaller temple, the Eikando Zenrin-ji; a zen temple where (according to legend) in 1082, the head priest was chanting before a statue of the Amida Buddha when said statue stood up and walked past him, towards the door. He was so shocked (as should be expected) he stopped his prayers and stared gapemouthed at the walking figure o' Buddha. Amida turned back, looked over his left shoulder and gestured for the monk to keep at it before wandering out the door. Bereft of his Buddha statue, the head priest comissioned a new one- this one looking over its left shoulder. This is, evidently, the only statue like it in existence. Couldn't get a picture- that's 100% forbidden- but the temple was nigh unto abandoned, and as I was the only guy there who wasn't a monk, I spent a good chunk of the day just hanging out in the gardens.Gardens at Zenrin-Ji

3. Last weekend, I packed up some gear, called up my friend Jake, and hopped on the Shinkansen headed northeast. After a number of train transfers and about six hours of travel, we ended up at a little stop called Kawaguchi, the last station one can reach from this awesome-looking train.
Is it not beautiful? This thing goes to a theme park named Thomasland- well, to be fair, it first goes to Thomasland, and then continues on to Kawaguchiko, at the base of Mount Fuji.
That's Fuji in the middle there, poking out of the clouds ominously. We had decided that last weekend was the weekend to tackle the beast and finally climb the tallest mountain (3,776 meters!) in Japan. We climbed one weekend before the season began, and as such the place was nigh-unto deserted. On the way up, we passed: 3 Americans running for the bus at the bottom, one angry Texan who took the wrong road from the top, and one disappointed Australian who turned around one station from the top... she came unprepared- no coat, no gloves, no nothing.

Five people- all foreign tourists. Nearly four vertical kilometers. The mountain was all ours. It was empty, and beautiful, and cold. But let me start from the beginning.

We took a bus from Kawaguchiko to Camp 5, where the paved road gives out. Fuji's got nine numbered camps, nine being at the top and one at the bottom. Five is halfway, and about 2 kilometers up in the air. We only had to climb the last vertical 1.7 kilometers- not too much work, eh?

We spent 19 hours on the mountain. For Fuji, that's fast. We spent six of those hours in a hut at camp eight, waiting out the subzero hours between sunset and two a.m. The rest of the time? Climb away.

Camp 6 marks the treeline, at which point the landscape gives up on this:

and turns into this, complete with landslide-blocking walls reminiscent of jailblock

From the base of camp 7, however, it turns into something a whole lot more pleasant and fun- but quite a bit slower.

By the time we reached Camp 8, it was getting pretty dark, and pretty cold. We stopped to catch our breaths in front of what we thought was just another abandoned mountain hut, when we noticed people moving around inside. None of the huts were supposed to be open, but there was this British guy on a trip around the world who had booked a bunk in there- so, mindful of the cold and the dark, we took shelter in the hut for awhile.

Pictures Around Camp:
At 2:30 in the morning, Jake and I strapped on headlamps and made for the summit. The British guy came too, but he turned out to be as woefully equipped as the Australian we met earlier. This guy headed for the top in two t-shirts, a rainjacket, socks for gloves and a pair of raver glowsticks for illumination. He made it about twenty minutes uphill (the air starts to thin really quickly up there in the last half-kilometer to the top) and started to take laborious, gasping breaths. He got a present: the oxygen I had brought along in case I couldn't acclimatize. Fuji isn't so very tall that oxygen support is necessary- I didn't end up using it at all- but if for some reason if your body doesn't want to get along on less than it's used to, it's good to have a bottle. Especially if your newfound buddy's idea of "climbing gear" is tube socks on his hands.

We made the top just before first light, and kicked back in the leeward side of a boulder to watch the best sunrise in the land of the rising sun.

After the sunrise, we kicked around the crater a bit, visited the meteorological station on the far side, and touched the Highest Point in Japan- 3,776 meters in the sky.

This is particularly cool- this is the shadow of Mount Fuji, thrown down the west side of the mountain. Note the symmetry- it's Fuji's big selling point.

This is also really cool- there's a Torii (shrine gate) on a rise just above the shrine at the top of Fuji (which, when we were up there, was bolted shut for the offseason)- and this shrine gate has a bunch of coins POUNDED INTO THE WOOD.
The hook in the center is used to hang offerings to be burnt during the big Fire Festival they have up there every year.

After spending a few hours playing on the summit (there was this cool expanse next to the crater where everyone who came up spelled their names out in white rocks- how could we not?) we headed back down, back through the layers of clouds we had walked up through the day before. On the way, we saw a hut owner drying out his futons on his roof- pretty cool.

Down through the clouds...

climbing chains on Fuji.

We hit the bottom a few hours before the first bus back to the station- plenty of time for a celebratory ice-cream cone at the 5th station. 5th station is a bit of a tourist trap- it's low enough that they can pipe power to it, rather than having to run generators (like our hut up on 8) so there are souvenir shops, a burger stand, some ramen stores, a rest house, and pony rides that'll take you as far as Camp 7. Oi. We opted out of all that, and clambered back on the bus- for the six-hour train ride home.

Next day, was I smart? Did I sleep? No.

I went with Veronica to Osaka, saw a Chagall exhibition at the Suntory museum, wandered around the Osaka Aquarium, and rode The World's Largest Ferris Wheel (that may or may not be the actual largest- they used some pretty fuzzy language, but who am I to argue with their pitch?)- and THEN collapsed for a few hours. Today?

But these two signs, they bolster my courage.

As a parting sentiment, I leave you with a message straight from the streets.

Monday, June 12, 2006


All right, time to take a break from the weighty philosophical issues and pedagogical kung-fu of teaching in Japan, and go have a little fun.

This past weekend, I went to the Koka Ninja Village! Koka's a little town about half an hour away from Ritto down the JR Kusatsu line, and it has the dubious honor of hosting a famous little place where they used to train deadly assassins to be hired out by lords living in the not-too-distant but far-enough-not-to-kill-us capital of Kyoto. It's up in the mountains, worlds away from everything else, and in today's age where convenience reigns supreme, it looks quite frankly as if it's had the crap kicked out of it by a rival clan of ninja. The plural form of Ninja is, of course, Ninja- they're like deer, or sheep, or whatever. My secret theory is that the plural and singular are identical so that you never know how many ninja are under discussion- and the cry of "Look out! Ninja!" should always be interpreted to mean "Look out! 50 or so armed killers!" rather than "Hey, a guy in black pyjamas."

Though the place is a wreck physically, historically it's still impressive- on these grounds, the Koka-Ryu school of ninjitsu was founded and perfected, and these guys were feared for their fighting prowess and all-out sneaky choppy buttkicking. There are an array of entertainments- for the kids, of course- that one can partake in if one is so inclined, but the financial state of the village makes it so that most of the attractions are enjoyed sans attendants- which, in some ways, increases the fun by adding an element of ninja danger. All of the attractions are, thankfully, pretty do-it-yourself, with the exception of the Ninja House, of which I have no photographs- the ninja guide was less than permissive, and I felt that disobeying the orders of a man in black pyjamas wearing two-toed boots would be, frankly, unwise. The House was pretty cool- what seemed to be a one-story thatched-roof hut was in fact a three-story thatched-roof hut riddled with secret doors, panels that rotate and swing around, entrances hidden behind hanging scrolls (cleverly, the shodo calligraphy that hung in front of the secret door said, as if we needed a reminder, Ninja), false floors and secret ninja crawlspaces. Unlike the defenses of a castle, all of these systems seemed to be centred upon getting people OUT of the house- escape being the Ninja way, and all. You saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "Ninja- VANISH!"

Speaking of which, they had these cool tunnels running through the village that an enterprising ninja could use to move undetected- like this one.

They had a shuriken throwing range- fun and dangerous, perfect for the kids- a ninja museum, showing real ninja armor, secret ninja ropeladders, shuriken, kusari-gama (ninja fighting chains), ninja hand gestures (a combination sign language and "ninja chi magic"- pretty cool) and an outdoor stage, next to the long list of "Ninja Adventure"-style attractions. I think that the Ninja were likely the first ropes-course construction experts in Japan- there was a fallen log to shimmy across a mudpit, some walls to scale, a roofline to navigate, a ninja zipline (again, over a mudpit- the ninja believe in consequences) and, best of all, a Ninja River Crossing Simulator.

Check it out. You stand on these Ninja Donuts, and pull yourself hand-over hand across the Ninja Pond. The donuts are made of the highest Ninja Quality Styrofoam and Plywood, both invented in the year 670 AD by the Ninja masters.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled ninja-free programming.
(they're not my pictures, but for more shots of the grounds and features of this ninja village, visit this site.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Thoroughly Uneventful Apocalypse

Well, if you're reading this, we all made it. I'm posting this at work, which means it's around 11:30 at night where most of you live- the likelihood of an apocalypse and/or rapture in the next thirty minutes is pretty slim, so I'm prepared to say: I have seen the future (having lived through the coming apocalypse yesterday), and the worst that 6/6/6 had to throw at me was a bum battery in my alarm clock, nearly making me late for work on 6/7/6 (or 7/6/6, depends on where you are). All of this is immaterial in Japan, where it's Year 18, and the number of the beast nonsense matters to nobody but fearful ex-pats and thrashmetal bands (I'm lookin' at you, "SIGH" and "MORBID AXE"), and the Day of Reckoning passed with hardly a blip.

Mandatory Kids Are Hilarious Story/Johnny Cash Reference:

So I'm teamed up with a student teacher to teach a unit on nicknames. We explain a short dialogue of the "Hi, My Name Is James, Call Me Jim" variety, pass out some fake nicknames that the kids will appropriate, and get ready to start a dialogue game in which they collect as many names as possible in a short amount of time using the English dialogue we've prepared. Pretty standard stuff. The moment we pass the names out, a kid throws out the biggest "MY GOD, THIS SUCKS" (In Japanese, "men do kusai!!") and, when questioned, expresses that he is unhappy with his nickname, as it's a girl's name and he's a manly little eighth grader.

The name? Romeo. Oddly, the boy across the room with "Juliet" seemed entirely unperturbed- so we whipped out a list of nicknames, and ran down the list asking the students whether each was a boy's name or a girl's name. Turns out that Deborah is a man, Romeo is a woman, and there's really nothing wrong with a boy named Sue.

Mandatory Japanese Is Hilarious Post:

Check out this promo poster for an upcoming epic film on the rise of a gangsta superstar:

The title, in katakana, reads "getto ricchi oa dai torain"- which, after sufficient verbal gymnastics, resolves into Get Rich or Die Trying. That's funny enough, but the real kicker here is in the fine white print, which advertises "Hip-Hop World's Charisma: 50 Sento!"

also: Osaka

is crowded. To charm you, it has:

great manhole covers,

cathedrals wedged into hotels,

and spiral escalators.