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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Hunting Hydrangeas in Kita-Kamakura

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My friend Harry and I love hydrangeas, though he calls them “Old Grandma” flowers. While not the most dramatic or fragrant, I think of hydrangeas as big pom-poms of colorful cloud blooms. They’re soft to the touch, and pleasing to the eye – I mean, could you ask anything more of a flower (other than the aforementioned fragrance)? Harry has been talking about hydrangeas since last semester, and so we both decided that once the “viewing season” began, we would go to Kita-Kamakura. Kita-Kamakura is an a-joining suburb of Kamakura, roughly a twenty-minute walk to the main tourist drag of Kamakura station.

Now, guidebooks will tell you that you should avoid weekends when doing anything popular in Japan, be it hiking, sightseeing, or eating. When you’re working a full-time job with no holidays or PTO, weekends become the only time to do anything touristy. We braced ourselves for crowds of shade umbrellas and selfie sticks, and met at the small station of Kita-Kamakura. Luckily, though the streets up to the Meigetsuin (Hydranga Temple) grounds had a constant stream of people, it wasn’t quite as bad inside the shrine proper.

I like the different flower seasons in Japan – plum, sakura, hydrangea, chrysanthemum, etc. The Japanese really do love to photograph the flowers, almost as much as they like to photograph themselves among the flowers. Harry and I took a cue from the crowds and took many fashion shoot selfies with different giant blooms. It’s a little early in the season (when this posts it will be in full swing), but the hydrangeas did not disappoint. Blue, white, purple-ringed – hydrangea blooms reflect what’s in the soil. I planted blue hydrangeas back home, but they blossomed white because of the Ph balance in the soil. I wonder what must be laced in the temple grounds to get such a variety of colors.

The funniest moment occurred as we tried to find a place to buy Eno (the wooden prayer tablets). There were several lines what we had avoided, snaking up and around the largest shrine. Not wanting to be rude foreigners, we did not want to cut the lines if they were going the same place we were. One line, the longest, was packed with people carrying their Goshuinchou (red stamp calligraphy books), and led into the shrine. We couldn’t figure out why there were two lines until we worked our way gingerly towards the front. It turns out it was simply a line for taking a picture in front of a pretty window! This is something that is a bit of a cultural divide for me, as an American. We line up to take pictures with Mickey Mouse, sure, but not for the Liberty Bell. The Japanese are extremely good at queuing. And this second photo/selfie line specifically blocked the way to the Eno seller, so we wound up cutting anyway, with a demure “Sumimasen.”

Quick details:

Meigetsuin is a quick walk from the Kita-Kamaura station (Yokosuka Line), exiting on the east side. It costs 300 yen to enter the temple, and 500 to go to the second half of the temple (we did not do this, but according to this site there is an iris garden back there).

There are some other beautiful little shrines on this side of the station. The last time I went to Kita-Kamakura I got off on the west side, and found the town to be a little boring and almost industrial. Walking in the direction of Kamakura there is a main road full of shops and coffee houses, many of which are expensive small room eateries. There are also flowers everywhere. Harry and I joked that we could have saved the 300 yen to experience the “Hydrangea Temple” and simply walked up some of the side alleys. We noted many visitors who did just this.

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If you are a resident of the Yokohama area, you really should take day (a weekday, if you can afford to) and go exploring around this area. We found a nice coffee shop where we cooled off and browsed our many photos. In Kamakura, after turning left at Tsurugaoka, we got burgers at an excellent underground burger joint (Google Maps yielded nothing, since both places were new and the street views are from 2015. I think one place might be Rans Burgers, but don’t quote me on that).

 

They say it’s good to stop and smell the roses every once in a while. I say the same holds true for just about every flower, even old lady flowers that don’t have a scent to their name.

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via Daily Prompt: Blossom

A Weekend of Cultural Woofs

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Sakura season is coming to an end – by the time this goes to print I think all but the sturdiest cherry blossoms will have been stripped by the powerful winds that have been blowing through Yokohama/Tokyo the past few days. I have a sort of philosophy about Sakura and why it’s so popular here in Japan, but I will save that for another post.

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took a weekend to enjoy some cultural events in the Tokyo area.

First, I headed to Naka-Meguro after getting a Facebook suggested post. It said, “Go to the Danish Royal Embassy and see the floral arrangements!” So off I went. I’ve never been around Naka-Meguro that much. It reminded me of Chicago’s North side a little bit, full of boutiques and a multinational collection of restaurants. Just outside the Embassy a giant tree was losing its leaves, so I got the strangest conflict of impressions, as the street, temperature, and scents made me think of autumn, even though spring was all around

The cost of the Danish exhibit “YELL” is 500 yen. And let me say, it’s worth it if you have the time to spare (it runs till April 27).

On the eternal debate between flowers and chocolate, I fall firmly in the flowers camp. There’s more variety with flowers, better smells, and as neither chocolate nor flowers last forever I’d prefer to have the colors and variety. Looking at master arrangements can be just as thought-provoking as more traditional artwork, and Mr. Bergmann’s arrangements evoke a range of emotions, from austere wheat spheres to loud and brash collections of stems and blooms. I was impressed with the sheer variety of plants on display.

I also enjoyed the temporary structure of the gallery – pine and canvas that suggested camping and emphasized the fleeting nature of the installments. I love it when space and purpose meet. I bet I’m not alone in this thought…

There are other pieces as well, as there appears to be an upcoming celebration of Danish-Japanese relations in May (I would link to the websites, but they are all coming up as “suspicious” by my virus software. I don’t want to post bad links). When I get more information, I will try to post it here.

After the Danish exhibit, I headed further into Tokyo to attend the second of my cultural events – the 10th annual Tokyo Wan-Wan Festival in Yoyogi Park! What’s a Wan-Wan?

Why this is!

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It’s the Japanese interpretation of a dog’s bark. I think it’s fun to compare how something as “universal” as a dog’s bark gets translated across the globe. I believe I read somewhere that dogs bark in different languages (*Google search* yep, here is an example). And the Japanese take almost too good care of their dogs. Clothes, strollers, custom grooming – these are the fanciest of dogs.

I miss my own dogs. It’s one of the hardest things about living abroad; leaving all my animals behind. So this was my opportunity to shamelessly pet some fluffy doges, doggos, and puppers. The festival was far larger than I anticipated, with rows of dog-related stalls selling custom treats, leashes, and clothing. There was a space for showing off the well-groomed dogs, a space for demonstrating tricks, and at least two or three other spaces the purposes of which I did not figure out.

This is obviously my shameless attempt to lure readers with pictures of dogs. Here you go:

 

After this, I went to Shibuya to meet up with some coworkers. I took a final photo of another, more famous dog, and went out for a night of carousing. Nomihodai (all you can drink), combini beers, and some mucking about in the famous crowded crossing of Shibuya square. I met some of my former students, and was luckily not so drunk as to agree to go clubbing with them. I also met an “avant-garde” jazz musician who was photographing his cover art along one of the avenues.

All in all, this was a fine day.  Sometimes I fear that I get so caught up in the day-to-day of working in Japan that I forget that I’m actually living in Japan. When I was in China, there were not many means of getting out of my city, but everything was so utterly different that my daily life did not have a recognizable routine. Here it’s different. I have co-workers, a full day of classes, and a pattern that repeats itself. My company enjoys and promotes this sort of unchanging repetition I believe, and that’s alright. Nevertheless, it’s important to take the opportunity to go out into the world, especially when the world offers such wonderful sights.

Finding a Gym

Last semester, I had to walk three miles every day to and from school. I tried joining a 24-hour gym near my train station, but they wouldn’t accept me because I was not fluent in Japanese (yes, fluent, according to my friend’s boyfriend’s translation, who added it was code for “you aren’t Japanese.” Ouch). I did a little bit of yoga, but ultimately I considered the walk to be my “exercise.”  While my weight and body shape did not change that much, I inevitably toned up. Excellent default improvement!

My new company-assigned apartment is significantly closer to work, so I want to go back to working out at an actual gym. They are everywhere in Japan. There are 24 hour fitness rooms, large traditional gyms (like Golds), a growing collection of Crossfit specific gyms, massive community centers that have traditional Japanese sport rooms (martial arts, archery, etc.), all sorts of boxing and martial arts schools, and everything in between. Somehow I’m in a neighborhood with no neighborhood gym, save for a Curves the size of a broom closet. I’m not allowed to use the gym at my campus, so I had to expand my search.

After searches for “Gym,” “Sports Center,” “Fitness Complex,” and such, I found four good candidates for my new gym. I avoided gyms that were focused on Crossfit or offered any sort of “complementary” metabolism programs, since the advertised programs jumped in price once the complementary periods ended, and my Japanese is too weak to negotiate that kind of language.  I really wanted a pool, and my maximum budget was 10,000 yen/month (roughly $100/month).  From the map search, I started researching websites.

Research was difficult, as not every site had a good English translation. And comparing price points and distances, not to mention thinking ahead of my possible commute to and from work, I got frustrated. In the back of my mind, I remembered that the glorious spa and onsen complex in Tsunashima, Prime Fitness & Spa, has a gym. It was over my maximum budget, but only by about 2,000 yen a month, and I would get unlimited access to the beautiful on-site onset.  I tried to convince myself that I would happily go out of my way to access a gym I recognized, and that the onsen would be enough of a draw.

Then I cleared my head, and remembered what I learned from watching a lot of “House Hunters: International” back home. Going over budget is not a good option. While I enjoy onsens, I’m not a worshipper. And there was no way I was going to commute out of my way several days a week.  The price might guilt me into action, but I like having money to spend on other things (like my toaster oven, and the bread to put into the toaster oven).

The solution was to go and do some on-site visits – again, much like “House Hunters: International.” I do enjoy binge watching that show back in the States.

Gym 1: Jexer Fitness: Just under budget, had a pool, off a train line – I found this one by myself, after a bit of a walk. The place was friendly, very crowded, and just under by budget. I got a tour, and it was packed with people. I think this is because I visited on the weekend. Even so, I got a positive vibe from this gym. The women who worked the front desk were quite friendly, and were very patient with my lack of language skills.

Gym 2: Konami Sports Complex: Over budget, pool, six stories of options, closer to home – I took a friend who spoke Japanese with me to the Konami sports complex. This place had everything I wanted, but it was cold and lacked personality. That might sound like a strange thing to say about a gym, but nothing about this place made me want to go. And the price was almost comical – unlimited access cost about 15,000 yen/month. The cheapest monthly option allowed access to the gym four times a month. Yes – 8,000 yen/month to visit the gym four times a month.  So I said no to Konami.

Gym 3: Renaissance Lite: Under budget, old, has pool, ten minute walk to major train station – this was my last visit, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Removed from the train station, sort of tucked next to a school, this gym was old but immediately welcoming. Not as new as Tipness, not as big as Konami, Renaissance Lite gym had a pool, a training room (fitness center), an aerobics studio, and a rooftop driving range. What’s more, it had an included onsen in the locker room. Best of all, the price was only 6,500 yen/month.

Gym 4: Tipness – Modern, new classes and facility, recently renovated after the earthquake: I did not visit Tipness after I decided that I liked Renaissance. The website did not have an English option, and the price points were all over the place.

Hooray! I have a gym! It would not have been so painless if I did not have someone to help me. I’m glad that I did the research and the leg work. And in a fine twist, I’m now walking about 3 miles a day to and from the gym (which I do just about every day, as I want to save on my transportation budget).

I anticipate joyfully dumping EFL stresses in my gym’s pool/ cardio courses…

 

 

 

 

St. Patrick’s Day Samba

In an effort to get out and find low-cost things to do in Tokyo (my job gets a month’s labor from me before I get paid. I know, it’s rough.), I asked one of my coworkers about St. Patrick’s Day. He said there was a parade.

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Now, I lived near Chicago. Chicago dyes the river a bright green shade, and everyone drinks to excess starting at sunup and going until well past sundown. It’s a ridiculous amount of revelry and vomit.

In perusing the advertisement for the parade volunteer requirements, I saw the following in bold print : “No smoking. No drinking. No high heels.” Well, at least two of those make sense to me (smoking and heels). Still, it looked like a small, humorous event. If I am being honest, I had no idea what to expect when considering the relationship between Japan and Ireland, if such a thing existed in any depth.

I invited my friend Sharon with me as an “interpreter,” and we went to Omote-sando on Sunday. The weather was perfect – sunny, not too cold or hot. I told her about Chicago, and at one point I had to admit that while there’s a chance an ancestor of mine came from Ireland, I had no proof and had never claimed Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s day.

“That’s refreshing!” She said. “Most people try to claim Irish heritage, when it’s some second cousin’s uncle. Sorry, that doesn’t make you Irish.”

“Well, my patron saint is Saint Brigit of Ireland – and I don’t make crosses out of river reeds on her day either,” I added in full disclosure. I know my lineages pretty well, but I really only claim the ones in which I actively participate.

The parade started off with about as much awkward happiness as I expected, with the Irish Ambassador, Miss Ireland, and a tall man dressed as St. Patrick, complete with a fake beard, leading the parade. They were followed by bagpipes (“Scottish.” Was all Sharon said upon seeing them). Then came dancers, fiddlers, pubs advertisements, and giant inflatable Guinness pints. There were also samurai, cheerleaders, samba dancers, and a bunch of traditional Japanese…tap-dancers? I mean, it was the most glorious hodge-podge parade I have ever seen. Everyone was bedecked in green, orange, and white, and they were having a fun time.

And it was a lot longer than expected. There were no floats (the closest thing were the Guinness balloons), but there were a lot of Irish-appreciation groups. There were the Irish Setters club, the Druidic society of Japan (?!), at least three dancing schools, and of course the travel abroad and foreign exchange student programs. The parade went on a large loop between Omote-sando and Harajuku, so that at one point the samba dancers were competing with the bagpipers every time the parade stopped (usually coinciding with the crossing guards allowing pedestrians to pass through).

As the last of the emerald clad parade groups walked past, we decided to go on to Yoyogi park to check out the Irish festival, which had been going on all weekend. Sharon and I are both fans of hard ciders, which are notoriously hard to find in Japan (the closest thing I’ve found are some of the apple beers – not the same thing). We were in luck, and found that Magners (imported from Australia via Ireland we hope) was ready in cold bottles for just over $5.00 a bottle. I justified this by reminding myself that beer costs more for less at a baseball game. Magners is not my preferred cider (Angry Orchard or Woodchuck), but it was just what I wanted on a warming spring day. Too poor to buy souvenirs or actual food, it was a fleeting souvenir.

All in all, I am very happy I went to the parade. It got me thinking a little bit about the debate over cultural appropriation back in America. As Sharon and I watched the “Irish” band warm up – where only the fiddle player looked “Western,” I tried to build a theory. Irish fiddle music exists all over the world, but I have never encountered an Irish person upset at this idea. I theorized to Sharon that perhaps it’s because Ireland is seen as a partially “occupied” nation that it gets such acceptance into other cultures. The Irish are distinct from the English, and the English have an Imperial legacy that the Irish do not, even though technically they are both part of the same “United Kingdom.” Sharon agreed in part, citing that Irish music is distinct from Scottish or English music, and as such might travel better.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say. Judging from the festivities, this was high praise indeed!

 

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