Kumano Kodo pt 1: Dawn in Osaka, Sunset in Takahara

We got the aforementioned overnight bus at Shinjuku Station.

It looked very much like a regular bus. I don’t know what I was expecting with the “dream liner” seats we purchased (not first class, but not economy), but I thought perhaps more than regular bus seats that flattened a bit more. Perks included: bus slippers (Liam immediately put his foot through the paper top), blankets and pillows.  We left the station at 10:30pm, which made sleeping easier (as did the bottle of Caol Ila Liam brought with him). Comfort or not, it was still a ten hour bus trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I woke up early with bus pains.

Sunrise in Osaka was an interesting experience. It’s a busy city, but like many big cities it was quiet at sunrise.  Groggy, we hopped off the train, grabbed our backpacks, and immediately searched for coffee.  Our train to Tanabe was not until 11am, which gave us roughly three hours to enjoy this incredibly popular Japanese city.

We chose Osaka castle and Dotonbori as our tourist spots.

I thought Osaka castle was lovely. We didn’t have time to go in, but the grounds were beautiful and not too crowded. Liam and I pondered how they moved the large stones for the walls. The stones were gifts from other warlords in the area – did they push the rocks on trees, perhaps? As always, early morning is the best way to beat the tourist crowds. As we were leaving, no less than four large tourist parties pushed forward, flags and mascot sticks held high.

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This is the largest stone in the wall. It’s so big, it gets its own photo spot (no mosaic setup)!

Dotonbori as a big shopping street/district, and perhaps one of the most iconic sights in Osaka. I did not take advantage of the shopping; I was in a hiking mentality. The only thing I bought was sunblock. Still, I saw the giant crab statue! I bet seeing it at night would really be something. I love eccentric capitalism. I was still feeling fried from the bus trip, so it was also mildly overwhelming.

Osaka made a great first impression and I felt a little sad to leave it after only a few hours. Still, it was exciting to head south, watching the grey cityscape turn to beaches and the smaller towns of Wakayama. I slept on the train – about two hours from Tennoji to Kiitanabe. Once in Kiitanabe, I used the information in our Kumano Kodo travel pack that I prepaid for. We had to take a bus to the start of the trail. Luckily, the bus stop is literally next to the station.

(If you are interested, you can also visit the Kumano Tourist office, which is located on the first block across from the station. Walk through the small plaza and you’ll see it on the right. It’s a small, welcoming space that sells some branded items, as well as maps and camping/hiking gear) – on a Google Map near Kiitanabe station, it’s labeled クマノトラベル . Munching on cold sausage and spaghetti sandwiches, we caught the bus heading to Takijiri-oji (one of the last stops on the bus, so be advised that you’re going to ride for farther than you might think). We stamped our Kumano Kodo stamp books at the community center there, grabbed some iced umesh to refresh ourselves, and started the official hike.

Yes, be advised: If you aren’t staying in Tanabe or somewhere beforehand, getting from Osaka to the start of the Kumano Kodo is going to take a few hours. Plan your trip accordingly.

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I’m always a little surprised by how little fanfare actually follows that first step. Much is made of starting a journey, or so I thought, yet every time I start a big trip I find that the start is a little less momentous than I thought it would seem. As I passed the giant boulder announcing the start of the pilgrimage, I did not feel a great presence. I searched for a connection to history, or a stirring in my soul, and I didn’t feel much. I felt a little apprehensive, a little travel-weary, and a little hot. You can’t force it, I admonished myself mentally. If you get a moment of grace, it won’t be because you’re demanding it.

Second note: the start of the Kumano Kodo is a steep uphill climb. It’s series of stone and root stairs, with not a lot of flat space or saddles to relax your muscles. Stretch. Stretch before you climb! I did not, and I started to struggle with the constant incline. From Takijiri-oji to our first stop at Takahara it was just over 4km. We paused to climb through the cave that was said to symbolize giving birth, and paused for our stamp books at the small designated shrine boxes.

The sun was setting as we reached Takahara. The rough path turned to a road, and suddenly we were up above the trees and looking down into a glorious valley of green. The beauty of late spring was everywhere, the hills stretching out into the distance. We paused, soaking in the sun and the view. I found a bench near the small community center, and sat under the giant carp flags flapping lazily overhead. A large chorus of frogs sang in the small ravines below me, and farmers worked in rice flats and vegetable patches.

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We were so lucky, I thought, to get to stay in such an idyllic spot. Little did I know that our accommodations for the night would be some of the best I have ever used. We stayed in a small cabin called Suzushiro, rented by a lovely family in the small hamlet. Our host, Kashiwagi-san, walked us over and gave us a tour of the tiny home. He said he would return to bring us our boxed dinner we had ordered. As Liam and I oohed and aahed over how well everything fit together in the small space, I went out onto the patio and immediately decided I could live at Suzushiro forever.  The views, the fragrant tea fields, the singing frogs – everything was picture perfect.

I had assumed when I bought the additional meal option with our tour that we would be eating simple bento boxes – rice balls, dried fish, mushrooms, etc. I did not anticipate a luxury bento filled with tempura, udon, and our our individual sukiyaki pots! It was more than I could have hoped for. Liam and I ate like monarchs and reveled in our food, which tasted like ambrosia after bus sandwiches, black 7-11 coffee, and steep hiking.

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As I fell asleep, I was aware of my own contentment. It’s a rare feeling, contentment. I knew that the real hiking would begin at dawn the next day, but as I drifted off to the sounds of frogs and the sensation of being held in the night I paused and allowed myself to be fully present and happy in the moment. Small victories.

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Building a Pilgrimage

Much has happened. 

I’m going to rewind to the spring of this year – which I know is not current, but my experience may still be relevant even in this age of instant updates. I’m going to write about hiking the Kumano Kodo, the ancient Japanese pilgrimage trail. This first entry is about my decision and the initial planning for the trip. I’ll try to keep it from running too dry, since it won’t have photos.

Once I realized that I was going to get a whole week off during the Spring/Summer semester for Golden Week, my whole outlook on life took on a brighter hue. I had yet to receive more than two weekdays off together in the “good” seasons! I had never actually been allowed (for want of a better term) to travel around Japan while I was working in Japan. I think it was the nature of my company to want us to be focused on the teaching, not on the fact that we were in an interesting foreign country.

As I learned the news over tea with David, the whole of Japan stretched out before me, beckoning with rose-colored tourist glasses. I could fly to Naha and finally see the beaches of Okinawa! I could take the overnight ferry to Hakodate, and tool around the plains of Hokkaido! Osaka, Kobe, Nagano, Aomori – all viable options. I had spent two years listening to students give dry presentations on the same major Japanese cities. Now I was finally given space to see them (while employed, which makes a really big difference).

I opened my Lonely Planet Guide and reread all the summary chapters. I narrowed it down to Hokkaido and Wakayama.  I was sorely tempted by the allure of the far northern island and the indigenous culture of the Ainu. I liked the idea of seeing a cold ocean coast. Then there was Wakayama, the “Spiritual Heart” of Japan. The picture captured my heart immediately – two towering ancient cedar trees set like sentinels along a moss-covered stone staircase (the Daimon-zaka). In my heart, I knew that I had to see those trees. They were on the Kumano Kodo – the ancient pilgrimage trail that runs along the mountains of Wakayama. A pilgrimage – a sort of test of faith. I’ve always wanted to walk a pilgrimage route – there is something appealing to me about reflection, faith, and action. I recalled in my very first semester in Japan talking about going on a pilgrimage with Katherine, who had completed the St.James pilgrimage in Spain. She had said she wanted to hike the Kumano Kodo, but that there was no time to do it during the school season. I had assumed that would be it for me as well. I couldn’t afford to stay in Japan outside of contract.

Wanting to be fair, I presented both options to my boyfriend. I even threw in Naha, to make it clear that I would listen to his opinion. He agreed that Hokkaido or Wakayama would be nice, but we had months to decide. This was not true – I had told my MBA students about my plans, and they politely but pointedly told me to book anything set for Golden Week immediately (it was March at this point – Golden Week was in May).

In a bit of a frenzy, I did a cost construct.  Going to Hokkaido proved to be too expensive in terms of transportation. Air, ferry, train – all were going to be several hundred dollars, which isn’t a lot until you make believe you are a poor English teacher with student loans trying to save money. ** Then a few hundred dollars becomes serious. Wakayama was not much better – Golden Week prices made Shinkansen tickets richer than usual. Luckily, we found a nice alternative – the JR Bus lines.  An overnight bus to Osaka would make a viable option.

But what to do in Wakayama? Did you just hike the trail and hope for the best? Knock on ryokan doors as the sun set behind you? Again, I asked my students. No, they said emphatically (I like my spring semester teaching MBA adults – they’re plainspoken) – reserve everything ahead of time! I looked on AirBnB, but the prices were again going up for Golden Week, plus I didn’t like the idea of having to navigate sporadic buses to find out of the way locations.

Then I found Kumano Travel – a community based tour planning group sponsored by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board. The website had an old feel to it and was not intuitive (and it might not be the most secure), but it offered customizable tours of varying lengths, and guaranteed room and meals if one paid ahead of time. It was going to cost, of course, but we could choose our level of comfort. I liked that the website was built by and for the community – I wasn’t feeding some cold third party system.  I did feel a little perturbed that they charged per person, effectively doubling the price for everything on top of Golden Week inflation. However, with all costs calculated out I was getting a five day hiking vacation with room and board for about five hundred dollars.

Liam was sold when I told him the tour ended at Nachi falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan. He likes waterfalls. I like old trees. All we had to do, then, was hike from location to location.

This is where I hit my first stumbling block. I’m an active person, but I’m not very fit. My knees sound like they’re filled with secret granola. My feet pronate and act up. I looked at the elevation gains and the length of the hike – roughly 40km through the mountains?! I got nervous as I finalized the initial reservations. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I hurt myself?  Then I remembered why I had really wanted to go on this particular trip, even more than Hokkaido. It was to make it to the cedar trees at the end. I wanted to complete a pilgrimage – my relationship with God was not fit either, yet I was open to discussing it out in the mountains.

I realize that I am simplifying the initial stages of this particular adventure. I’m going to skip the agonizing shopping trip for a raincoat and the unnecessary panic over realizing how little hiking equipment I own. Suffice to say – Liam brought me a nice blue raincoat from the UK, I bought a baseball hat, fanny pack, and a good pair of thick socks from the Montbell store. 

The set up is important, I know, but the adventure is why you’re reading this. Of course, if you have any questions you may ask them. I linked some of the websites I used up in the text.

 

** There is a cheaper option for the ferry – a public sleeping area that runs about $90 a ticket (one way). I will readily admit to vanity here. I’m over thirty and I was *not* going to rough it on a 17 hour ferry trip sleeping in a communal futon room.

 

 

A One Time Event

“Let’s try it once, so we can say we’ve done it. And then let’s never do it again.”

“Agreed.”

I’ve been curious, so very, very curious.

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I have a lot of angry feelings about how Japan harvests from the sea – the tuna population is in collapse, changes to yearlong trawling practices are going slowly and against a hungry market that demands cheap fish. Then there is the whaling. Japanese whaling has faced a lot of criticism because Japanese ships sail well into the ocean to harvest whales, and does so by exploiting (a strong word, but an accurate one) loopholes in the global ban on commercial whaling.

It’s a part of Japanese history. It’s also on the menu at the sushi restaurant Liam and I found at Yokohama. I’ve been looking for a replacement conveyor belt sushi restaurant ever since my favorite shut down. We found this friendly, smelly restaurant tucked in behind a pachinko parlor and across the street from a trendy new pizzeria bar. The waiter provided us a flashcard menu with pictures accompanied by Japanese, Korean, and English names.

I have avoided whale since coming to Japan on moral grounds, but I have also been curious about the taste. What could be so alluring about whale that it continues to be hunted for food, despite not accounting for any significant portion of the Japanese diet?

One portion, one piece for each of us.

The meat was a dark – almost purple like the skin of an eggplant, except it was also red. Full of mild, moral trepidation, I ate the whale. I would like to say it tasted horrible, or had a bad mouth feel like a chunk of squid. It did not.

I don’t know if it’s ok to tell you, my reader, what the whale tasted like. I do not want to encourage you to try it and see for yourself. While I did not find the taste repulsive, I didn’t find it delicious enough to condone the practice of getting it.

That is perhaps what you should take away from my experience – whale tastes fine, but it doesn’t taste good enough to warrant killing the whale for it. Don’t go out and see for yourself. Take my word for it.

Fuji-Q Highlands : Investigating Terror

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I had heard of Fuji-Q Highlands in my first visit to Japan. The advertisement did not make me feel confident in the amusement park on the whole – it featured an old animation “loose mouth” character screaming in Japanese to come to Fuji-Q. I passed, and continued to pass until recently, when a group of teachers put together a trip to Fuji-Q to partake of the “scariest” haunted house in all of Japan, if not the world (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records).

I am not into haunted houses, horror, or being scared. For me, there is no joy in jumping out of my skin, even if I survive the process. If I want to get my adrenaline going, I’ll join in a game of tag or try to teach a lesson without a plan. I was not that keen on going, until Kirsten brought to my attention the presence of “ride” called Ultimate Fortress 2.

An escape-room style fortress building with motion detectors and robots. A 99% failure rate. Tactical style laser-tag like gameplay. Spy craft, sneaking, and sensors? I was in.

We took a bus (far cheaper than the trains – more on that in the logistics below) – just over an hour and a half from Shinjuku station. We left relatively early in the morning, in one of the first sunny days in what felt like weeks. I slept on the way, and awoke to find a stunning view of what was to come:

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Fuji-Q is not just an amusement park – there is a large resort there as well, which is fitting given the view. If you are wanting a weekend away, in the off season the rates did not seem unreasonable. I hadn’t seen Mt. Fuji up close in a long time, and he did not disappoint. Throughout the day he would watch over our antics, screams, and age regression. This started with the Haunted House.

The sheer amount of buildup into getting into the house was unnerving, with signs everywhere promising multiple “escape” points for when the terror got too strong. This buildup was enough to get two of our intrepid party to back out and refuse to enter, despite our gentle “You do you and we respect your decision,  but also come on and be scared with us!”  My nerves were on edge before we even entered the first room and watched the “backstory” of how the hospital we were about to enter into turned into a bone-gnawing, demonically possessed horror house.

I surprised my group by taking point and the flashlight. They knew I did not like horror or terror. My reasoning is that if I have to be concerned about keeping the group together, I won’t focus so much on my own fear. It’s a good distraction for me. So we went through four or five stories of twisted hallways, jump scares, superb foley work and some very well timed effects.

I won’t tell you what we saw. That would ruin the haunted house, and mystery is what makes a haunted house special. Was it the scariest thing I had ever been through? No, but that’s because I was with a group of friends. We kept each other in check, even when we got startled and Shawnali shoved me forward like a she was unleashing a greyhound.

Note: The Haunted House is not included in the day pass ticket. You have to buy a separate ticket, which costs 1000 yen.

Then it was on to Ultimate Fortress 2!

I did not win.

I did not get killed by the robot. I clearly didn’t get the area effect of the laser lights. And I’m not entirely convinced that the second “level” is not intentionally meant to capture everyone. We all had such a good time, and agreed that we could easily repeat the ride, if not for the fact that there were many other rides available.

Fujiyama: The King of Coasters, for example.

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What makes Fujiyama king? It’s the highest roller coaster in the world – the initial fall starts at 79m (237ft). You hit a maximum speed of 130 km/h (about 80mph) and it is a long course. I haven’t been on a real roller coaster in some time, and starting with a coaster that never seems to stop climbing did a number on my system. I’m not quite a brave person – I focused on my hands, and the people in front of me. Occasionally I looked out at Fuji in the distance, eternal and probably laughing at my growing nerves. Once the coaster fell, however, you better believe I had my hands up in the air, and I was joyfully screaming the whole four-minute ride.

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Regaining my voice with some hot lemon tea from a vending machine, we got in line for our second coaster, Takabisha. It looked smaller than Fujiyama (naturally), but it had one thing that I did not like at all – a seeming free fall from a sheer drop. The cars would hang, slightly suspended, over an s-curve before plunging down. In line, I learned that Takabisha is the world’s *steepest* roller coaster, with a drop of 121 degrees (this is also on the website, which I did not read). Note: THEY WILL EMPTY YOUR POCKETS. I had a clipped on ticket – CLIPPED ONTO MY BELT LOOP WITH METAL. They still made me take it off and store it. THESE GUYS DO NOT FOOL AROUND ON THIS!

Once the rides begin, I love them. I hate the build up, the anticipation of climbing. So I was fine with the drop itself, and loved the ride. My anticipation/dread got really bad on the vertical climb up to the drop. I just hated going up on my back, hearing the tick-tick-tick of the chain. It doesn’t help that the drop is in the middle of the ride, rather than at the beginning. Tori, sitting next to me, kept trying to help by gleefully yelling for me to “Look at Fuji! Look at Fuji!” When we got off, I had the literal shakes.

We went on several other rides, but the final ride I’m going to talk about here is Tentekomai, a flying ride. You get into a plane with flexible wings, and as you’re raised to an impressive height and spun around, you flap the wings to make yourself spin. It was fun and terrifying, especially when done correctly. Once you get the g-forces correct, you start spinning without having to do any flapping, and you gain speed. As a short person, I found I did not like spinning as much as I thought, as every time I inverted I left my seat a little and found myself hanging momentarily upside down in the air. Kirsten said she thought she could hear me from the ground.

Did I mention the carousel? They have a nice carousel too – much easier to handle.

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So soothing…

So, day done, we headed back to our bus. All in all, I had an amazing time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a big amusement park, and going to one with some many “World’s ****est” rides did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a day trip out of Tokyo, might I suggest going to Fuji-Q Highland? I know I’d like to go back – I didn’t get to ride on Eejenaika, the roller coaster with the most number of spins in the world….

Details

Fuji Q’s English Website – use this to get all sorts of useful information, including closed days and ticket discounts.

Cost: Varies. You can pay by ride (roller coasters are 1000 yen a ride, most other rides are 800 yen, and the kiddie rides are around 500 yen), you can buy a three ride ticket, or an all day pass (5100 yen). I did the all day pass, and I made sure to get my money’s worth. I can see why people buy the 3-ride pass. If all you want is to ride the three big coasters, you’re going to be waiting in line for a long time, and you might only get those three rides. If you want to go to Thomas the Tank Engine land and ride the carousel, the per ride option makes more sense.

Also worth noting is that Fuji-Q closes relatively early for a theme park – around 6pm. With wait times of up to two hours, a day can go by quickly.

There are pay lockers available to store your things during the day. I stored my purse and kept my scannable pass and some money in my metro card holder. A lot of the rides have free lockers to store loose change, keys, and anything that might come out of your pockets.

Transportation: In our case, we took the Keio Highway Bus, but there is also the Fuji-Q Highlands bus. The cost, roundtrip, was 3500 yen. There are train options as well. Look for Fuji-Q Highland Station.

Timing: We went on a Friday holiday, and the lines were not awful. They were there, and the line for the popular coasters was well over an hour. I imagine that in the popular seasons or on weekends the lines are crazy, so if you can swing a weekday trip, that will make things much more bearable.

 

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Hiking in Japan: Nokogiriyama

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Whew!

It’s been a long break, and I have a whole list of topics which require attention. So let’s get to it!

Looking for an enjoyable hike outside of Tokyo? You should try Nokogiriyama!

First of all, you get to take a ferry. It’s a bit of a walk from Keikyu-Kurihama or Kurihama station, so I recommend taking the bus from the train station to the ferry dock. The ferry leaves roughly every hour, and costs around 750yen. I’ll explain why later in this post, but I thought the ferry ride was perhaps the best part of the trip. First of all, the seahawks follow the ferry because people throw food to them. They dive in and out between the seagulls, and it is quite a show. Additionally, you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance as you cross the bay (provided it’s a clear day). You can also go around the bay via train from Tokyo.

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Mt. Nokogiriyama is home to the largest stone Buddha statue in Japan, which is why I decided to go. The weather was great, so I made my only mistake of the trip – I walked to the south entrance of the temple from the ferry port. The maps of the area are misleading, and you need to know this. There is no safe path to the mountain trail from the ferry port if you head south. You can take the cable car easily enough from the ferry – there are plenty of signs. Fool that I was, I wanted the “full” experience and decided to walk.

I wound up going through some frightening highway tunnels. These tunnels have no pedestrian space – you have to walk along the shoulder, on a curving road. I was genuinely uncomfortable around several corners, as big trucks would go roaring by and I only had a couple of feet to work with. In between the tunnels, there were some beautiful ocean overlooks and a couple tiny roadside shrines. I would not recommend walking to the back/base of the mountain if you have children, strollers, or anything bulky. Either take the ropeway up, or take the train from Hama-Kanaya (again in the Ferry town/Kanaya) to Hota. It might be a slightly longer walk from Hota, but it will save you some clenched cheeks.

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I Google Translated this sign before entering the tunnel – it tells drivers to look out for cyclists and pedestrians. Once inside, however, there is no space for a pedestrian to feel truly safe.

After the tunnels, I found the road leading up to the path towards the temple. There was no one on the path (probably because they were all on the safe side of the mountain), which made for a pretty hike up to the entrance. At the back entrance, there was a solitary woman working in a garden, who came up to me as I wandered through the gate. I paid my fee (600yen), and got to exploring.

From the “southern” entrance, the first few photo stops include some pretty traditional temple buildings, including a beautiful wooden structure. Then comes the large Daibutsu. It was pretty warm that day, and the Buddha is out in the sun, so I did not linger. I lit my incense, said my prayers, and moved upwards. Of note: if you are looking for traditional Jizu/Buddha figurines, there is a sort of shrine where people stack the little figures by the hundreds. You can buy them at the temple shop nearby (it’s also where you light the incense).

Nokogiriyama is all stairs, so be advised. There are very few inclined spaces – it’s primarily stairs. So if you dislike stairs…well, this is not your day my friend. I realized this around the two-third’s point, as I was passing through the alcoves of preserved Buddhas on the way up to the “Hell view” (Jigoku Nozoki). It was tiring – I like hiking when there is a variety of inclines. I imagine that it would also be a difficult climb if you were in a wheelchair or needed assistance. I passed elderly couples huffing and puffing, and gazelle-like children who were literally jumping up and down the flights of steps up to Jigoku Nozoki.

The overlook is a sheer face down, and this is not a natural occurrence. This mountain was a stone quarry for a time, and so you can see the tidy work of the stonecutters. I liked it, and I asked a stranger to take my picture. This is where being in Japan works to one’s advantage – I left a stranger with my smartphone for quite a while as I walked down one viewing station to the overlook itself, which is a separate point. It’s a beautiful view. You can see all the way down to Hota, across the bay to Kurihama. It had grown hazy in the afternoon, so Mt. Fuji and Tokyo had disappeared, but I could see the Yokohama Bay bridge in the distance.

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Nokogiriyama is a good beginner climb, as it tops out at just under 400m (1200ft). I congratulated myself on climbing all the way up, so I took the fast, efficient, and only mildly unnerving cable car down. It took me about an hour and some change to make it around the mountain to the south entrance, and so by the time I got to the top it occurred to me that I would have saved a great deal of time if I had just been lazy and spent the money on the cable car.

The fishing village was still a bit closed (the season hadn’t officially kicked off), but there were several pleasant tourist shops selling fish and pickled vegetables, not to mention stuffed oranges as mascots. I wandered around the largest shop for awhile, waiting for the return ferry.

I took the ferry back, and again I thought it was a true highlight of the trip. It’s forty-five minutes of comfortable travel. I like water traveling, so I loved the pleasant rocking as we crossed the bay. There are fishing boats, large tankers. I even saw a submarine!  And I found I enjoyed the trip as much as the climb because it was something both exciting and calming. Unlike traveling by train, the ferry doesn’t stop and the whole of the trip is out of my control. All I need to do is sit/stand and enjoy being on a tiny bit of the ocean. I opted to sit in the cooled inner cabin and write in my journal on the trip back, having acted like a child watching the hawks on the journey to the mountain.

If you are are in need of an easy escape, Nokogiriyama is a great option. Want to know more? Here are some separate pages of information! Final information – take the bus from the port to the train station.  Go, and enjoy!

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You can see the Hamakanaya port below you from the peak.