Sunday, July 31, 2011

The annual countdown, part 2.2

Ok, let's bring this home!

5. Okitama bike ride, November (photos)
A bunch of people wanted to do a charity bike ride last autumn, and I decided to put my issues with charity aside and get involved. Some truly insane routes (cycling all the way through the mountains to Niigata, anyone?) were being suggested, so I took it upon myself to propose an approximately 70km circuit around the basin containing Yonezawa, Kawanishi, Takahata and my home town, Nanyo. It was accepted, and before I knew it we were all gathered at Yonezawa City Hall on a motley collection of rented mamacharis ("mama's bikes"), with me leading the pack armed with my trusty GPS and a high-vis green vest.

Once again, we lucked out with the weather: it was an unseasonably warm and sunny autumn day, and the hillsides were all kinds of stunning shades of orange and red. I'd included a couple of forays up into the foothills surrounding the plain on the route, just to keep things interesting - where's the challenge in just riding around a big circle on the flat? On the first of these, there were a few grumbles of complaint, but little did they know what awaited them in the afternoon.

We stopped off for a noodle-based lunch in my town. I had to improvise because Akayu's most famous ramen shop was queued out the door, as it often is on weekends. Then we tackled the big hill, and people started literally cursing my name. But we all made it, and I maintain that we all felt that much more accomplished as a result. With the light starting to fade, I had to axe my plan of taking in a winery, which was possibly for the best in retrospect. On the dusky homeward stretch we came across a graveyard full of monkeys, no doubt stealing the food and drink left as offerings in the Buddhist tradition. At last we made it back to Yonezawa and after the inevitable bit of cat-herding whenever one tries to organise gaijin to do anything, we had some well-earned refreshments at an izakaya.

The nice thing about the bike ride was that it was mostly with people from the other end of the prefecture that I don't see all that often, including a couple that, dare I say, I didn't like very much. But the common goal of getting around my masochistic circuit brought us together, and I feel I really bonded with some people and got to see new sides of them. Of course, they're all leaving now, dammit.

4. Gunma bungee jump, June
I think I've covered this in plenty of detail already. Moving on...

3. Boxing Day at the Stewart household, December
After 17 months in Japan, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to my old stomping grounds of Edinburgh and Inverness, and experiencing the confusing feeling of being unsure which end of my 12-hour flight constituted 'home'. The fact that Edinburgh was unusually snow-covered during my visit made it all the more memorable. But, once again I must follow my own arbitrarily set rules and pick one day.

I considered choosing the afternoon I spent with auld acquaintances in the Auld Hoose, the pub where I spent most tuesday nights for half a decade, eating nachos and trying to remember the capital of South Dakota, or something. As I've said before, I sorely miss British pubs. But no, I'm going to go with Boxing Day in Inverness. With my family, Christmas Day is a quiet, intimate affair, and then on the 26th we throw our doors open to whichever family friends want to come along. I think I have internalised the Japanese custom of giving omiyage, as I had brought back lots of little presents for everyone: local sake, complete with traditional tiny cups, and dried squid and grasshoppers as a comedy accompaniment. I regaled our visitors with tales of Nippon, and as is traditional at events of this sort, assumed the role of cocktail waiter. Kamikazes all round, naturally.

Partly in honour of my new Oriental life, and partly because we had run out of chairs, we made the dining room Japanese-themed, i.e. we sat on the floor around a coffee table, drinking Asahi. As the evening rolled on, we ended up playing an inter-generational drinking game that caused the crate of Asahi to be depleted with frightening rapidity. Around half ten, with the older guests calling it a night, the youngsters (plus me) decided to slam a quick tequila, jump in a taxi, and hit the divey, depressing nightlife of Inverness. However, we fell foul of the 'curfew' and ended up just going back to Blair's place, which was probably for the best anyway.

2. Osaka with the parentals, April
Often holidays can fizzle out a bit towards the end, but not on this occasion, as the final full day of my folks' stay in Japan was unquestionably the highlight for me. After rainy days in Kobe and Kyoto, we finally caught a meteorological break for Osaka. After a leisurely start, we trekked out to the remote Museum of Ethnology, situated in a weirdly sterile and bleak park that was built for the 1970 World's Fair. On arrival at the quiet museum (it was a monday morning) we were given jury-rigged PSPs with headphones for a personal English-language audio-visual tour. The objective of the place was to showcase all of human culture, and given the inherent impossibility of such an undertaking, I feel they did rather well. As well as being visually beautiful, the cultural artifacts were truly thought provoking. The main thoughts they provoked in me were:
  • How much of human culture comes down to tediously acquiring food and sheltering oneself from the elements, and how fortunate and historically unprecedented a position I am in that I don't have to worry about these things.
  • How obviously silly other cultures' religions are, and how foolish people who have the benefit of this perspective but who fail to generalise this observation to their own religion are.
  • Is it so terrible that Westernism is destroying all of this colourful, varied, beautiful culture, or is it in fact just progress?
Anyway, excellent though the museum was, fatigue starts to set in eventually, and we gave the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido (Japan was the final part of the museum) rather less attention than the canoes of the Micronesian tribespeople (Oceania was first up). So late the afternoon we headed back into the city and went up the Sky Building, sticking around on the observation deck for the stunning sunset (or stunset). Then it was a trip to the bustling Dotombori, Osaka's restaurant and entertainment district. After a bit of indecision about where to eat (during which the flyerers were quick to help us make up our minds), we went for a middling-to-up-market sushi place, where both the food and the atmosphere were excellent.

Back in Yamagata, my father had expressed an interest in experiencing the legendary nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink. This being their last night, it was now or never, so I decided it was time for karaoke. Marlo seemed a little dubious, but I booked us in for a two hour session. After a slightly shaky start - Lady Gaga songs really are quite vocally challenging - they got more into it than I could ever have hoped for: the Proclaimers' 500 miles, Chumbawamba's Tubthumping, Sweet's Ballroom Blitz... We ended up getting a supplemental half hour, very nearly missing the last subway, and then extremely needlessly having a nightcap back in the hotel.

1. Mt Asahi, June
If there's one thing Yamagata has no shortage of, it's mountains (the clue is in the name). I decided it's about time I started climbing up some in summer of them instead of just sliding down them in winter, so together with a friend of mine - Amber, a fellow British ALT - we set our sights on Mt Asahi, "one of Japan's least accessible mountains".

I'll say right now that this was a hardcore hike, and it probably wasn't particularly smart for two jokers like us, with no real outdoor expertise or indeed proper maps, to just rock up and have a go at it. Before we even put our boots on we were a little apprehensive, as we had spent the last half hour of our journey on a single track road that had got progressively less and less suitable for our kei-cars. In fact, as we finally parked up, a worrying smell of petrol was coming from my vehicle - had a stray branch or rock somehow compromised the fuel line? I sincerely hoped not.

We kitted up and set off in the light drizzle, rucksacks on back and GPS in hand. The initial section of the hike involved following a river upstream, and thus wasn't particularly steep. Nevertheless, it was far from easy going, as we were in essentially a ravine, and had to keep picking our way up and down the steep, rocky banks, often with the aid of ropes or chains that had been thoughtfully provided. The hairiest moment came when we encountered a partially wrecked bridge over the river, forcing us to go into full-on team-building exercise mode and start throwing rucksacks to one another over the gap and the like.

After a couple of hours the river section ended, and we started ascending through a forest at a punishing gradient. By about half an hour in, we were nostalgically reminiscing about the good old days of the river. Making matters worse, we had forgotten to take any insect repellent, so had swarms of flies permanently orbiting our heads. Of our two rucksacks, one was much larger and heavier than the other, and thus far, Amber had been shouldering its burden. With the going getting tough, I realised it was about time I did the gentlemanly thing and swap, and I descended into a whole new world of pain. After about 600m ascent, and with about the same ahead of us, I started to have some doubts about whether I could make it. But there was nothing to do but keep chomping down the Calorie Mate and climbing.

Eventually we emerged from the tree line. The views would probably have been stunning, were it not for the fact that the clouds had rolled in, the drizzle was intensifying, and the wind picking up. As we trudged up a rocky ridge, with about 250m vertical to go, I shamefully caved in and asked to switch rucksacks again. My spirits were instantly buoyed (it was literally a huge weight off my shoulders), at the price of Amber's soon-flagging morale. It was just like the Horcrux in the last Harry Potter book, really.

Our aim for the afternoon was to reach a mountain hut near the summit. As one final kick in the balls, it turned out that it was in fact on the opposite side of the summit to our approach. So, we reached the peak (1870m), but didn't stick around long before descending the other side, praying that a hut would soon materialise out of the mist. Thankfully it did after about 10 minutes (with maybe an hour of daylight remaining), and we were beckoned in by a friendly, if slightly crazy, old man.

It turned out that there were six of us in that remote shack: Amber, myself, the dude running the place, and three hikers from Iwate. Once we had got out of our drenched clothes and recovered from the more acute symptoms of exhaustion, they invited us to join them for a little picnic. Clearly, these guys were serious. They had lugged camping stoves, pans, and big cartons of sake up the mountain. Rather sheepishly, we went over and added our peanuts, crackers and cheese to the feast. It should come as no surprise that overzealous Japanese hospitality extends to mountaintops without electricity or running water: they were soon offering up their stove-cooked gyoza and refilling our cups with booze.

None of them spoke much English. Even though I was knackered, since they were being so nice to us I felt the least I could do was to try to be as sociable as possible in Japanese. Amber is only a first year, so I ended up acting as translator for her. If I say so myself, I pulled it out of the bag somewhat and the conversation went reasonably well. You know how satisfying it feels to be tucked up in bed when you can hear a storm raging outside; like you're sticking it to Nature? Well, this party had that cosy feeling amplified tenfold, as we had conquered the mountain and were now pleasantly tipsy, eating snacks in a nice dry hut. Because of our exertions, this tipsiness became outright drunkenness rather quickly, so around ten we wound up the torchlight soiree and retired to our respective corners of the hut to roll out our sleeping bags and set sail for the Land of Nod. Before doing so, however, Amber and I took a lengthy but hushed detour through the Republic of Smooch, for the first time.

Woah, reeeewind selecta! I feel I should now back up and put this development in context. Back in those snowy and uncertain days in March, Amber was one of the minority of Yamagata ALTs who didn't flee the country (though living way up in the north, she was in even less radiation-based peril than I was). During that panicky yet boring time (no-one around, no fuel to go anywhere), we started emailing each other. A lot. This kept up as the months went on, and although we saw each other at a few social events, the considerable distance between our towns meant that we never had any chance to meet one-on-one. So, this whole Mt Asahi caper was effectively an extreme first date. And one which was, as of that moment, going rather well.

We eventually got to sleep. Amber had been full of talk of getting up to see the sunrise (asahi means 'rising sun', so it did seem like the thing to do), but predictably that never happened. So we spent a leisurely morning nursing our aching legs and slightly dull heads before reluctantly kitting up again, filling our bottles from the tank of rainwater (mmm, fallout), and setting off back up to the summit and then all the way down the other side.

The rain had intensified a little (so the sunrise probably wouldn't have been up to much anyway), making the descent quite a miserable affair. While obviously going down is a lot less strenuous, one still had to be very alert to avoid slipping on the rain-slick rocks, and of course we were a lot more tired than we had been the day before. The river section, which had been an enjoyable adventure the first time around, was now a seemingly interminable grind. But finally we made it back, and thankfully my car had not hemorrhaged its petrol.

So, after a self-imposed three year hiatus (sort of; I wasn't exactly fighting the ladies off with sticks), I am back in the romance game. Exciting times. And this, you see, is why the blog has seemed so moribund of late: a) I was distracted with all the emailing, and b) I wasn't sure how too broach the subject on here. I try to avoid talking about personal stuff, particularly if it involves other people, but it would have seemed a bit evasive and disingenuous to write about climbing Mt Asahi, for example, without mentioning the Amber dimension.

There we have it. This time last year I was worried that my second year in Japan could never live up to the excitement of my first. While it hasn't been quite such a roller-coaster ride of new experiences, I've had a great time. I mean, just think of the things that didn't even make the top ten: skanking halfway up a mountain with sake bottles duct-taped to my hands, dancing around a massive taiko drum in samurai armour, chilling in an outdoor onsen with a tray of sake floating by my side... and of course, climbing Mt Fuji.

I suppose the most striking feature of this year's list is how outdoors oriented it is. I think maybe in first year I was still thinking like a city-dweller, but now that I've adjusted to life in Yamagata, I've realised that I would be a fool not to make the most of the beautiful landscape that surrounds me.

Roll on third year!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The annual countdown, part 2.1

As I am now a week shy of having lived in Japan for two years, it is time for another look back over the year that has just passed. Obviously, there was one very conspicuous lowlight that occurred on March 11th, and whose effects continue to be felt, whether in the sparing use of aircon to conserve electricity, or the 6.2 magnitude aftershock that woke me up at 4am the other night. Of course, these are trivial complaints considering the thousands of people who have had their lives ruined (or ended) by the quake and tsunami. It will still be months if not years before a lot of the coastal towns get back to normal, and perhaps decades before people can go near Fukushima Daiichi. Heartbreakingly, I read recently that there are thought to be hundreds of bodies still inside the exclusion zone, unrecoverable because of the radiation.

More personally, it is a sad time of year. Every summer people leave and are replaced by new ALTs; it goes with the territory and is just something you have to get used to. But this year there is an unusually large exodus out of Yamagata (I don't think this is to do with the quake, as we had to decide whether to recontract back in February), including many of my closest friends. I think one person in particular deserves a shout-out: Alda, who featured in a number of both this and last year's top tens. You're an awesome person, and I'm going to miss you.

But that's enough doom and gloom, let's get on with the top ten! Because my blogging has been rather slacker in the last 12 months, this is going to be the first time I've told you about quite a few of these things. In fact, I can reveal that this countdown will contain a previously undisclosed bombshell.

Alright, let's go!

10. Gassan Rock, July
A very recent one to kick things off. A bunch of Yamagata ALTs took it upon themselves to organise a small outdoor music festival. This year's crop of ALTs contains a surprising number of musicians, so between the various permutations of gaijin performers and a bunch of proper Japanese bands that had been invited (including one from as far afield as Osaka), they had a line-up for the whole afternoon and evening.

The weather was glorious, although uncomfortably hot, something which I (and many others) attempted to remedy by jumping into a paddling pool fully clothed. In fact, due to the heat I felt so drunk after just three beers that I had to lie down in the shade for a while. As dusk fell we were entertained my some great performances, ending with a rousing rendition of Rinda Rinda from Yamagata ALT band Turbo Hige ("turbo beard"), during which I moshed for the first time in years. (Moshpits are not included in my retirement from dancing, due to a curious loophole.) But then, the (male) guitarist proposed to the (female) bassist, who accepted, and they then promptly donned yukata for a surprise wedding ceremony. Maybe it was just sunstroke getting the better of me, but I was blubbing throughout, which isn't really like me. Actually, the whole event had quite a bittersweet emotional atmosphere for me, because it was the last time I would be seeing many of the people there. But what was good was that I was able to bond with Gemma (with whom I shared a car and tent), one of my few local friends who is sticking around next year.

9. Tendo night out, March
Drunken nights at izakaya and/or karaoke joints are kind of ten-a-penny in this line of work, but sometimes the planets just align and you have one that is truly memorable. This happened for me back in March, the weekend before the quake. I had spent the day boarding at Jangle Jungle, a great little freestyle-oriented resort in the remote north-east of the prefecture. That evening people were meeting up for yakiniku in the onsen town of Tendo, so I figured I could have a nice relaxing onsen to freshen up before hitting the town. However, despite the place being famed for its hot springs, I couldn't find a single one that was open to the public - they were all attached to hotels. With time running out, I eventually gave up and attempted to head to the meeting place, but I couldn't find it. Seriously, the sooner people just start giving GPS co-ordinates instead of "directions", the better. Anyway, I eventually rolled up, late, sweaty and still in my boarding gear. It's funny how often the best nights rise from the ashes of debacle.

The party turned out to be much better attended than I had expected. There must have been at least 25 of us, taking up about half of the yakiniku restaurant. We had the standard couple of hours of unlimited boozing and burnt bits of meat, then headed for karaoke. There were too many of us to fit in one room, so we split into a soft-drinks only group and a nomihodai group. No prizes for guessing which I was in. Even with our party divided, it was still the most populous private karaoke session I've ever experienced, with 16 participants and 4 (count 'em, four!) mics. It quickly became quite rowdy; it was my first introduction to the north-Yamagata tradition of taking one's top off, and soon almost everyone in the room was shirtless and dancing on the seats. It was probably the closest my life is ever going to get to a Skins promo. I gave a memorably unhinged, snarling performance of Rinda Rinda (I promise, that song is not going to feature in every entry). And, amongst all this drunken madness was when I first took a shine to a certain someone...

8. Lake Tazawa, July 2010
Technically, this shouldn't really qualify, as it was in my first year. But since I excluded my friends' visit from last year's countdown, it seems only fair to include it this time around.

A 16-day period is stretching the definition of a moment too much, so I feel I must narrow the holiday down. I'd say the Tohoku road trip section was the highlight, and of that, my favourite memory is from the first night, when we arrived at Lake Tazawa in Akita. I covered this one in detail at the time, but to recap briefly: illicit sunset swimming in a caldera, microbrewery (though the food was awful), then spending the night in a jazz guesthouse. Niiiice.

7. Niigata Russian Village, October (photos)
I blogged about one abandoned theme park that I visited last autumn, but it was a bit of a damp squib, having been almost completely demolished. Well, a couple of weeks later I teamed up with Alda again for another haikyo expedition. This one was rather more successful, but I never got around to posting about it.

Our destination wasn't a theme park as such, as it had no rides. It was just a Russian-style 'village' that someone had constructed in the hills of northern Japan, thinking that this was a surefire way to pull in the tourists. Clearly they were mistaken, as the place has been closed since the late 90s. Fortunately for us, no-one had yet bothered to demolish it, and though a few vandals had left their mark on it (the hotel, for instance, was little more than a burnt-out shell), some parts were still in eerily pristine condition.

Highlights included a wedding chapel complete with all sorts of Christian imagery (which is quite incongruous in rural Japan), and a hall containing a life-size imitation woolly mammoth skeleton. At first we thought we had the place to ourselves, but as we entered the central plaza, we could just make out the sound of a radio, that seemed to come and go. This really, really freaked us out - who knows what kind of psychopath hangs out in an abandoned fake Russian village, preying on dumb foreigners who stumble into his lair? But it turned out to just be some people wandering around, sensibly carrying a radio to alert bears to their presence and thus avoid dangerously startling them. As the day went on, we came across a few other people, including some Caucasians who turned out to be actually Russian. What the hell they were doing there I can't even begin to imagine. All in all, it was a deliciously odd day.

6. Cycling around Lake Hibara, May (photos)
The first week of May is Golden Week, where four public holidays fall in quick succession. The trouble with Golden Week is that due to everyone in Japan having a holiday at the same time, travel is even more extortionate than usual, lodging is hard to come by, and everywhere is crowded. However, I hit upon an ingenious plan to avoid the crowds: a camping trip to Fukushima, specifically to Mt Bandai and the surrounding lakes. Don't worry, Fukushima is a big prefecture, and this locale is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is.

So, I joined forces with Alda once again, and spent three days sampling the natural and only mildly radioactive beauty. It seemed the camping season hadn't started yet, as the campsite we went to was unmanned (and thus free!), and very quiet. Alda introduced me to geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt game where people conceal little boxes of trinkets in interesting or beautiful spots, and post their GPS co-ordinates on the internet. As you can imagine, this is right up my street. On the second day we attempted to climb the aforementioned mountain, but we had to abandon this on account of the large quantities of snow impeding our progress.

According to my own rules I have to narrow it down to one day, so I choose the third day, when we rented bikes and cycled the 36km around Lake Hibara. It was a gorgeous sunny spring day, and after an initial tough hilly section, it was an easy ride by the lakeside with beautiful views over the water. At one point we stopped for a rest and sat on a jetty, soaking up the sunshine and looking at Bandai-san across the blue lake. It put me in mind of the lochs of my childhood in the Scottish Highlands - Loch Ness, Loch Morlich, Loch Earn... - and I got a little homesick and nostalgic, but in a nice way. And then, as we completed our circuit, we stumbled across a burnt-out hotel to explore. A delightful day, even if it did cause my companion some third-degree chafing.

Ok, stay tuned for entries five through one, including that as-yet unexploded bombshell.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The seven things I hate about Fu(ji)

Or, 'Fuji-la'.

As I write this - on paper - I am sitting queuing for a bus on a misty morning halfway up Mt Fuji, or Fujiyama as it is known to morons. That's right, I've just tackled Japan's highest peak. However, I think I made a number of blunders in my methodology, and I feel it is important to discuss these.

I had planned to come with a friend, an ALT who is about to end her tenure and is consequently going on a mad Japanese sightseeing binge. However, we left the planning rather late, so she moved for a last-minute postponement. I'd already booked my day off to recover, and because of this combined with my general bloody-mindedness, I declared that I was going with or without her. As it turned out, it was without her.

So, on friday evening I boarded the dreaded night bus to Tokyo. As many of you know, I have issues with sleeping. Specifically, I often have difficulty getting to sleep, especially when under pressure to do so, and I worry a lot about my ability to function on insufficient sleep. All things considered, I did rather better than I might have expected on the bus, but it's still pretty much impossible to get a night's sleep that could be described as 'good'. So, I rolled into Shinjuku at 5am already feeling quite sub-optimal. Incidentally, Shinjuku at 5am is a weird place. There were still loads of people around, who I can only assume were a mix of hardcore partiers and super-keen salarymen/women. It wasn't always obvious who belonged to which group.

Then followed a tedious three trains and a bus to get to Fuji. There is a bus direct from Shinjuku, but tickets were sold out - that's what happens when you don't plan trips until the night before. Anyway, on the final, busular leg of my epic voyage, I was nodding off - something that I almost never do on public transport (usually, I have enough trouble falling asleep in bed), and thus a worrying indication of my pre-Fuji fatigue.

Mountains in Japan (and quite possibly elsewhere; I don't know) have ten stations marking your progress towards the summit (10th station). For Fuji, starting at the 5th is considered legit. So, I began my hike at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station (2305m), the base of the Fujiyoshida ascent. As the last point with electricity and running water, it represents a kind of final outpost of civilization, and an opportunity to get only mildly ripped off when buying supplies. I carb-loaded with a quick yakisoba, then set out at 11am.

(That's as far as I wrote in my jotter; I back at my laptop now, with the benefit of a proper night's sleep.)

You see, the traditional way to do Fuji is to ascend by night and take in the sunrise from the summit. It doesn't get any more Japanese than the rising sun on top of Fuji-san. But, as suggested by Wikitravel, I decided to avoid the crowds by bucking the trend and viewing the sunset from the peak. As I started my hike, the weather was perfect: blue sky, no wind, and - thanks to my already considerable altitude - not too hot. The first half hour or so was very pleasant, gently ascending through a leafy forest. But by the time I got to 6th station, the terrain had turned into the barren Martian landscape of jagged volcanic rock that would continue all the way up. The sixth station was also the first indication of the fleecing gauntlet that I was about to run, with nasty portaloos asking a 200yen contribution for their use.

And so I continued upward. There really isn't much natural beauty to be had when climbing Fuji; it is just a steep rocky cone with endlessly zigzagging paths very artificially carved into it. From the 7th station onwards, there was a squalid little mountain hut every few switchbacks, selling extortionately overpriced food and drink. I appreciate that they must have some serious overheads up there, but come on, 500yen for a bottle of water (that normally retails for 110)? You're having a laugh, aintcha?

Even though I wasn't feeling too tired, I made a point of stopping frequently to rest, eat some of the provisions I had brought, and do a quick altitude check on the GPS. I got into a rhythm, and before I knew it I had smashed through the 3000m barrier. I also invented the fun game of saving myself 200yen by urinating on the mountainside. This was harder than it sounds, as even during the quiet afternoon period there were still loads of people around, and there are no trees to hide behind. Talking of fluids, my water supplies weren't holding up quite as well as my food, so you can imagine my excitement when I found a bottle of what appeared to be water on the path. I took a tentative sip, and found it to be disgustingly vinegary. I'm hoping it was just very off sake, or possibly onsen water, and not something altogether more unsavoury.

It was only once I got past the 9th station and reached about 3600m that the altitude started to cause me problems. I found myself getting out of breath very quickly, and having to rest on almost every switchback. I was also stating starting to see weird patterns when I blinked, which probably isn't a good sign. I was simultaneously envious and contemptuous of the people I saw whipping out oxygen inhalers. But lest you think that climbing Fuji is too hardcore, I should point out that I saw plenty of people over the age of 60, and under the age of 10, taking on the mountain.

Finally, I passed through a torii, saw the Hi no maru flying, and that was it. I'd made it to the 10th station, just after 4pm. That's quite a respectable pace, if I say so myself. The top of the mountain was no less ugly than its sides; a bleak scree-filled crater with some filthy snow still clinging to its inner face. What was beautiful was the view from the crater's rim, looking down on distant clouds under a blue sky.

But something was bothering me. I knew that although I had reached the 10th station, the true peak of the mountain was a rocky outcrop with a decommissioned weather station, on the opposite side of the crater. Since I had at least a couple of hours to kill until sunset, I decided to do what few people bother to, and circle the crater. Thus, I got the satisfaction of standing on the actual highest point of Japan, 3776m above sea level. To someone as anal as me, this was very important. I then found a nice spot (as much as spot on top of Fuji can be called 'nice') to sit and wait for sunset. It was spectacular, and as I photographed it obsessively, it struck me that there was something poetically apt about a gaijin looking west from the tip of Fuji.

I considered just having a sleep right there on the mountain-top, but thankfully I thought better of that; once the sun went down, it got cold very quickly. As the light faded, so did my common sense, and in my exhastion I think I started to make some quite poor decisions.

For a start, there are separate trails for ascending and descending, a point which all the maps and signposts made very clear. But I'd somehow got it into my tiredness-addled head that the paths were the same for the top section of the mountain. After descending maybe 100m, I realised my mistake, and felt very sheepish. I am a man who prides himself on his ability to read a map, so to make this kind of error was galling indeed.

By this point it was dark. In one's normal day-to-day life darkness is never really a problem, but at times like this I am always surprised by how primally threatening and unsettling the night is. Thankfully, I had a head torch. I love wearing a head torch. It makes real life feel like a first-person shooter. Even better, my headtorch is so ludicrously bright that you can almost feel a recoil when you turn it on. The downside of this was that I had to constantly worry about dazzling oncoming climbers, whose path I shouldn't have been on in the first place, of course.

Thankfully, I found a place where I could cut across to the correct trail. This was very quiet; it seems no-one descends Fuji by night. Consequently, there are very few mountain huts. Around the 8th station was a kind of point-of-no-return: the last hut on the downward trail. Clearly, I should have spent the night there. But I decided I wasn't too bothered about catching sunrise, and I thought it would be best just to get off the mountain as quickly as possible, and spend the night back at 5th, where presumably the facilities would be better and cheaper. So I pressed on.

At this point I started to worry about my torch batteries running out. I foolishly hadn't brought spares, and although LEDs are efficient, the blinding illumination issuing from my forehead must have been eating up power. I encountered a few people slowly picking their way down without the aid of a torch (probably temporarily blinding them in the process), and it did not look like fun. So it was with an uneasy sense of urgency that I descended, my tired legs frequently slipping on the loose gravel. At times, fog was rolling in, making the whole business even more unnerving.

The descent seemed to go on forever. I'm pretty sure the downward path was actually considerably longer, but less steep. Sometime after 10pm, a good three hours after leaving the summit, the trail finally rejoined the upward one, where I was greeted by hordes of keen hikers just starting their ascent. My crowd-avoiding strategy had been sound, at least. What had been a pleasant stroll through the woods 12 hours previously was now an agonising slog, but at 11pm I finally rolled in to the bright, non-generator-powered lights of 5th station.

After a moment of euphoria and a celebratory Pocari Sweat (only 200yen!), I set about finding a place to stay for the night. I asked an official-looking man, who informed me that there was nowhere of the sort, but pointed me in the direction of some park benches and asked whether I had a warm coat. This was not good. Now, looking at the map in the cold light of day, I can clearly see that the mountain huts I was banking on using are situated at a different fifth station. (There are several possible routes up Fuji.) But what can I say, I really wasn't on top of my game by this point. So, I had no choice but to sleep rough for the first time in my life. I managed to find a very small amount (a quantum?) of solace in the fact that there were a few other unfortunate souls in the same position as me.

I decided to make a picnic table my bed for the night. I donned every item of clothing that I had, with the exception of my cagoule which I used as a pillow. Remember, although this is Japan in July, I was still at 2305m, so it was a bit parky. In what may have been quite a poor idea, I took a Nytol with a few big gulps of whisky from my trusty hip-flask to help send me off to sleep. But I was still shivering, so I decided to hit a shop that was thankfully still open, in search of more insulation. I was imagining those silver emergency blankets or similar, but I couldn't see any of those, so I ended up shelling out 4500yen for a Mt Fuji hoodie. Incidentally, this is not the first time I've panic-bought overpriced clothes out of fear of hypothermia; I still have a rather natty checked shirt from a time when I badly misjudged the conditions on Cairngorm. Having thus far avoided being fleeced by Fuji so well, it was crushing to fall at the final hurdle like this, but I'm pretty sure I'd have spent more sleeping in a mountain hut. And at least I have a hoodie to show for it.

Maybe it is worth describing my outfit, for the benefit of any would-be mountain bums who are reading. From toes to head:

Hiking boots, which I really wanted to take off, but needed the warmth.
Hiking socks (ladies, with hearts on them, but that's a story for another time)
Regular socks
Cargo pants (tucked into outer socks)
Cargo shorts
Long-sleeved T-shirt
Short-sleeved T-shirt
New hoodie
Snowboard gloves (outer only)
Mini towel, worn as a scarf
Bandana, worn as an eye-mask
Bucket hat

Still feeling a little chilly, I abandoned my picnic table, reasoning that it was too exposed and I was radiating heat in all directions. I relocated to a more classic vagrant spot up against the wall of a building. Thankfully, I did not die of exposure, and actually managed to have a not entirely terrible night's sleep. Feeling surprisingly refreshed come the morning, I shed some clothes, breakfasted on my remaining rations, brushed my teeth (how many tramps would bother with that, I ask you), bought some omiyage for my colleagues, and queued up nice and early to ensure I got on the first bus out of there, which is where we came in.

There is a Japanese saying: you're a fool not to climb Fuji once, but a fool to do it twice. Amen to that.