Monday, August 20, 2007

8 nights 8 cities

So, from my last night in Seoul, I have not stayed in the same place 2 nights in a row. It has been hard to find a computer sometimes, so I have been using my yen carefully to pay for time in the internet cafe to upload pictures and be sure that I have space in my USB to house the new pictures that I will take. Unfortunately I have been neglecting to write here. I will try to update you now on the events of the past week.

After Seoul I stayed in Gyeong ju, then in Hiroshima where I last posted my news. I went to the peace park in the evening, and was glad to go with another girl from the hostel because it looked a bit sketchy in the dark, and there were people that appeared to live there in the park. In any case, there was lots of lighting around the monuments, and the girl I went with had seen the place in the day time so she knew where to go. After that we bought strange food from the 7-11, and crashed for the night.

The next morning I decided I would go to Miyajima to see the shrine in the water. I had seen pictures, and had always wanted to go there. At the hostel many people had gone there to see fireworks the night before, and said that it was well worth going, but not when it was crowded. I checked out at 8am, and left my bags at the hostel, and I headed out on the tram to the train station. I could use my rail pass to get to the end of the line, and then I walked 1 block to the ferry dock, and with my rail pass I could just walk on to the ferry. It was about a 20 minute ride to the island. From the boat I could see the shrine gate in the water. The contrast of the orange gate, the blue of the ocean and the green of the mountains was beautiful. From the ferry dock I was greeted by a group of wild deer-well, maybe not so wild-but it seems like deer are not only found in Nara. These deer were hungry, and tried to eat my clothes and my pamphlet about the island. There were signs telling you not to feed the deer...that it might cause problems to their digestion. I walked to the shrine, and toured around. I took so many was such a beautiful day. I then wandered in the direction of the rope way. I had seen pictures of the rope way, 2 different types of rope way that would bring you to the top of the mountain to see the spectacular view of the island and ocean and other islands around. I swallowed my fear of heights and bought my tickets and got into the small cable car with 2 other people. It was a hot scary ride (nothing bad happened, but we were just so hight up). We transferred to the bigger cable car to get to the top. It sure was an amazing view, and there were monkeys here too! I wonder if there are monkeys on every mountain in Japan. I didn`t have a lot of time to stay at the top of the mountain because I wanted to see the peace park before heading to Kyoto later in the afternoon, so I headed back down the ropeway, and made my way to the ferry and back to the tram and to the peace park.

The peace park was anything but peaceful. I could see and hear from the tram that there was some kind of protest or demonstration or something going on. There were caravans of vehicles sporting Japanese flags, and coats of arms that looked like military something. It is very rare to see Japanese people waving their flag...I have seen flags only at schools actually. I remembered hearing that it was only the right wing nationalists that took to showing off the flag. These people definitely wanted to be seen and heard. There were loudspeakers on the tops of their vans, and they were broadcasting messages to all around. I couldn`t understand anything that they said. Closer to the peace park I started seeing police, and roads blocked off. I wasn`t sure how much was regular police presence, and how much was because of this demonstration, or how much was because of a meeting or something that was taking place at the peace museum. I asked a woman on the tram what was happening, but she just told me it was difficult, and english was difficult. I got off at the atomic bomb dome, and noticed then that the police were blocking the roads, and they were in full protective gear, and had riot shields waiting behind them. This made me a bit more nervous. I still wanted to see the peace park in the day time, this was my reason for going to Hiroshima after all. Unfortunately my visit was not a calm and peaceful one, I was continually looking around me for what was going on, and wanting to hurry out of the area as fast as I could. People in arm bands were passing out flyers, but I think that was for something other than the protest, but who knows. I was told that the museum was closed unless I was with the people in the arm bands--maybe there was a convention going on, I`m still not sure. In any case, I saw the peace park, took some pictures, got really nervous and went back to the hostel. I asked the hostel owner about what was going on, and he said that it was the extreme right wing Japanese people who were protesting against the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII on the 16th of Aug. It sure did make a statement to do that in the peace park. Anyway, he said that this group is sometimes dangerous, and it might be bad to be a foreigner in Hiroshima today. With those words I got my bags and headed directly to the tram that took me to the train station where I would take a bullet train to Kyoto.

Because of all the added excitement in the peace park I had missed my original train with the reserved seat, so I was now waiting in line for a non reserved seat on the next bullet train. This train went to Osaka, and then I would catch another train from Osaka to Kyoto. The timing of this trip was not the best. This was the day that most people were returning from their time in their hometowns for OBON (festival when the ancestors come back to their hometown). Osaka is a big city, so many people were coming back to Osaka, and the non reserved seats were not easy to find. Actually, there werent any, but still we were crammed onto the train. All the seats were occupied, all of the aisle space was occupied, even the spaces behind the back seats were occupied by small children. I was lucky enough to get some space beside a wall in the space between the two train cars. I was beside the bathroom and the drink machine along with about 10 other people and their bags. At each stop though more people were pushed onto the train. I was standing up, squashed between many people for about an hour. There was a young girl and her family on one side of me, and we were trying to communicate back and forth. Her dad knew a bit of English, so it made the time go by a little faster to have company.

In Kyoto it was about 37 C, and I had my 2 backpacks and 2 bags (still carrying my gear for Fuji). I followed the rather ambiguous directions to my hostel, and arrived there drenched with sweat. I checked in, and showered, and headed to the bus to find a good place to see Daimonji. A kind man on the bus directed me to the most popular place, and I arrived to see that many other people had been there probably most of the day having picnics and enjoying the afternoon by the water. It was dark when I arrived, but I could see that many women were dressed in Yukata, the summer cotton kimono, and some men were wearing theirs also. Some had sparklers and were having mini fireworks by the river. I asked a police man where the best place was, and he waved me on, pointing and saying "besto, besto". I walked until I found a really crowded place, figuring that it must be good, and sat down. The crowd was peaceful, and so polite. They remained seated the entire time waiting until exactly 8:00 when we could see the daimonji begin. This is a part of the OBON festival where large fires in the shape of chinese characters are lit on 5 or 6 mountains in Kyoto. From one place it is never possible to see all of the fires. From this place I was able to see 2 of them though. It was an amazing sight to see these huge fires in contrast to the dark mountains and the dark sky. They are lit for 20 minutes, and then quickly extinguished. After people had taken their pictures they left in an orderly fashion, and disappeared into subway and train stations. I managed to find a bus that would take me near the hostel, and I walked the rest of the way and went to bed.

I had made plans to meet another friend in Osaka the next day at 1:00, so in the morning I repacked my stuff, discarding things I would not need because this was my last hostel...bye bye towel, flip flops, etc. I checked out, and found a bus to the nearest station. I took a train to Osaka, and managed somehow to find a coin locker big enough for both bags. I found a store that sold salad, and ate that and yogurt for lunch at the station. I met my friend Yuko and her dad at 1, and we had tea in a hotel restaurant while we talked for about 2 hours. Her father left to go back to his hometown, and we went off to find an internet cafe so I could make space on my camera for picture taking that evening. In the evening we met 5 other people who were all students together and came to Queen`s as a big group. One of the guys was recently married, and another girl from the group was too, although she couldnt come for dinner. Even though it was holiday time, many people still had to work. It was too bad that I missed them...maybe another time. It was a fantastic dinner in a great restaurant on the 17th floor, with a view of Osaka. We had a great time, although English was a bit of a struggle for some (it was 5 years since they had used it). I am so glad that I could meet everyone again. After dinner we went to another friend`s house for a sleep over. Both of us were heading to Shin-Osaka station in the morning to take bullet trains in opposite directions. My friend was going back to work, and I was going to climb a mountain!

In the morning we were up early to catch morning subways to get us to the train on time. I just made it actually, and took the shinkansen to mishima station where Aya and her father were waiting for me. He drove us to the bottom of Fuji, and we got ready in the parking lot, ate some food on the bus to the 5th station, and then started to climb. It was misty and a bit rainy on the way up. We couldn`t see up or down, so it was not as scary as I thought it might be. I was amazed though at how fast I got tired and out of breath. We were starting the climb from 2400m above sea level. We had to rest for a while there just to get used to the height. I had been drinking tea from Peru that Tomomi had given me that was supposed to be good for altitude sickness. We needed to rest almost every 10 or 15 minutes and we were walking pretty slowly using our mountain sticks. We arrived at the 6th station pretty quickly (it was just 100m up). We got stamps burned on our sticks, rested for about half an hour, drank more tea, and continued on to the new 7th station where we would stay and sleep until midnight. We arrived after a very long (60minutes or more) climb. It was misty, but I was too hot to wear anything waterproof, so I was in my bare arms proclaiming that I was ok, I was a Canadian...all the Japanese climbers were pretty bundled up to stay warm.

At the new 7th station we got the stamps burned on our sticks, checked into the lodge and were given a bunk for 3. Instead of bunk beds, they had kind of bunk rooms, so we were given an upper box, with a ladder, and a futon floor, 3 pillows and 2 heavy futon blankets. There were hooks all around the edge for our gear, and we hung up our boots inside plastic bags. We slept about 3 hours, and then woke to eat ramen and snacks, and went to sleep again for another 3 hours. It was midnight when we started out again, and the weather was entirely different. It was dark, and the sky was clear. We could see the milky way, and Orion (which surprised me because I am used to that being in the sky in winter), we also saw many shooting stars. It was colder, but still not COLD really. I didn`t need my jacket yet, just sleeves, so I was in my long sleeves, and others were wearing thick hats and gloves. We walked on through the night stopping often for snacks, or tea, or just a chance to breathe.

We arrived to the old 7th station and were told to be quiet because people were sleeping. We didn`t get stamps because we would do that in the morning when we came down. We rested, and continued on the much steeper path to station 8. It seems like a blur now, all of the darkness, the frequent stops, and the step after step up the mountain feeling like you were getting nowhere, but following the headlight of the person in front of you step by step. My mountain stick found a rhythm, helping me to climb up the stairs, up the rocks, over the boulders, and not to slip in the pumice gravel as we walked on. At the 9th station we knew that we were getting close, the path was getting more crowded, and the pace was slowing down. We passed a group of blind hikers, each blind person paired to a sighted one, climbing in the dark up the mountain to see the sun rise. I am not exactly sure what would possess them do to this, but maybe it is the same for me...I was not sure at this point, why I was climbing up this mountain in the dark either. We kept climbing, and saw that around 4am the sky was getting pretty pink. We climbed on passing tori gates, and pretty soon we didn`t need the flashlights and the headlights to see any more. We climbed on extremely slowly with the crowd, hanging on to the ropes that outlined the path, and depending on our mountain sticks to help us with each step we continued on watching the sky become more and more pink. After station 9.5 we could see that dawn would soon be breaking. The pace quickened as people charged up the mountain to see the sun peak over the cloudy horizon. We just made it in time, shortly after 5am we were at the top to see the sun rise over the volcano. It was unbelievably cold at the top when we stopped moving. I needed that extra sweater that I had carried this entire month. I was very glad of my Canadian toque, and wool socks. We sat on the top of the mountain for some time, catching our breath, and marveling at the fact that we actually climbed the mountain. We took many pictures, and then headed to get the most important stamp of all on our sticks. There is a shrine at the top of the mountain that stamps sticks, and will make a calligraphy page to keep as a souvenir of your climb. There was also a phone which I used to call home, and a post office, where I mailed the last of my post cards. I bet it will take a long time for them to get to their destinations.

We walked around the crater, taking our time, having breakfast, trying to warm up in the sunshine. Along the crater we walked up to the highest point of the mountain, which was perhaps the scariest climb of all. The gravel was tiny, and very loose, so I was clinging to the fence at the edge, realizing though that a fence at the top of a volcano may still not be the safest place to be. I was glad when we reached the top, and even more glad to see that the path downward on the other side was not nearly so treacherous. Around the crater we could see many mountains peeking up from beneath the cloudy sea below us. We walked onward until we saw the top of the mountain reached from another path. At this site there were people cooking food, and even a coke machine. 500¥ for a bottle. We bought some souvenirs, and then finished our tour of the crater. We rested for a bit, put on sunscreen and headed downward.

It was hard to get used to going down when we had been climbing up for so long. DOWN requires an entirely different set of muscles, and a different technique of mountain stick and foot placement. I was busy concentrating on my feet, so I didn`t look at the view much. When we stopped I was amazed to see how small the people below us looked, and how steep the path above us looked. I decided that concentrating on my feet was probably the smartest way to continue. Down was definitely faster than up. We didn`t have the traffic jams, and the difficulty of darkness, but we did have to actively fight against gravity trying to make us slip and slide down the path. We stopped at each station to get our sticks burned on the way down, but didn`t need the rest breaks in between as much as on the way up.

After about 3 or 4 hours we were down the mountain, and on the bus. The plan was to find a swimming pool with a jacuzzi to relax. We swam and showered and got clean, and then ate there before heading to Atami where dinner was waiting for us. We slept early, and Aya`s sister joined us in the middle of the night. Aya left early in the morning, and I was with Aya`s mom and sister the next day. We went to an fancy soba restaurant, and then went looking for souvenirs from Atami.

I left Atami at 5:30 and headed on the shinkansen to Tokyo, and then took the express to Narita where Tomomi met me at the station. My legs were still sore, and I was glad of the mountain stick! I had a quiet evening with Tomomi, and slept until late in the morning. I have been using her computer to update my pictures and to write this extremely long post. Tomorrow we plan on one more adventure to Kamakura, and then the next evening I will fly home to Canada. Time has flown by so fast!

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