Within 60 minutes of arriving in Japan we’d both been told off by an escalator and given a surprisingly thorough and not entirely consensual douche by a robot toilet. And it was only going to get weirder as time went on, from bed-shaking earthquakes and steaming volcanoes, to the many awful versions of Last Christmas piped into Japanese supermarkets and a toxic island of bunnies! But for the first part of our adventures in Japan, we were mostly just content to be able to eat a mountain of food and get teasing glimpses of Japan’s most famous volcano.
Neither of us had slept on our overnight flight from Hong Kong – our own fault as we shared a monolithic coffee at the airport followed up with vodka and cokes to assuage Jay’s nerves. We found some space on the padded benches in arrivals at Tokyo Haneda airport and got a couple of hours sleep, along with many other travellers doing the same. We had a Servas host lined up for that night, but couldn’t arrive until 5pm so we headed for the city to kill a few hours.
We took the monorail (monorail!) to Tokyo railway station, thoroughly enjoying sitting on a high seat at the front of the train cars to watch the city whizz by. The first thing we noticed when exiting the station was how quiet this part of Tokyo is. The city is modern, with skyscrapers and huge four-lane roads, but so many of the vehicles are electric and everyone was driving so carefully, that there was hardly any traffic noise. Not to mention that there were far fewer vehicles than in any other city either of us has visited. We now think this is due to the incredible public transport: why would you drive when the trains are so fast and efficient? We have since visited the noisier parts of the city! However this sense of calm and quiet endured, in comparison with any other city we’ve been to.
Another pleasant thing we noticed was the smell! Unlike the diesel and sewage combo of many Indian cities, or the meat and cigarettes we’d become accustomed to everywhere in China, we thought Tokyo smelled of trees. We could only put this down to how little pollution there was. We went for a wander around a couple of nearby parks, continually amazed at how quiet and peaceful it was for the middle of a city, in the middle of the working day.
Tokyo station has to be the most confusing train station in the world. As well as the train concourses it is comprised of multiple shopping centres. Each has a map somewhere on a wall, but it only shows shops there, not where that centre is in relation to the others or to the train terminals. It’s also mostly underground. So we spent a panicked 30 minutes rushing around trying to find the luggage store where we’d left our bags, before boarding our train to our Servas host in Tsujido.
We were both a bit nervous of being hosted that day. We had not slept for 2 days, and had only minimal sleep for 7 days before that, we were dishevelled and scummy, and feeling about as disinclined to communicate with each other, let alone someone else, as it’s possible to be. However, our host met us at the station and instantly made us feel welcome. She cooked the most incredible vegan dinner for us, with (as is standard in Japan) multiple delicious dishes, and then very soon after, cannily noted that we “must be tired”, and sent us off to bed at around 8pm. We were so grateful. We did really want to chat and get to know more about her and life in Japan, but not that night, and we were so relieved that she was obviously used to hosting travellers and recognised this. In fact she was so used to hosting that she helped us with shopping and did our laundry too while we were with her, as well as feeding us many fantastic meals. Breakfast in Japan was a revelation, with all the different savoury tasty things to fill up on before a busy day.
It was a mere 16C in Tsujido, a good 50% colder than Hong Kong, but after months in the tropics it was a welcome relief. Indeed, it was wonderful to feel a crisp chill in the air, and see the leaves turning and falling. It was also great to use our winter kit which we have been carrying around since we left the UK, only using it briefly before in the Himalayas and Tibet.
We headed out to buy a SIM card and a plug adaptor, making for a nearby shopping centre. People queued up outside before it opened, and our host explained that going to the shopping centre was entertainment. We spent the morning trying to sort out our onward transport, getting increasingly frustrated and despairing at the immense cost of transport in Japan. We finally settled on buying a bus pass that would give us 7 days of long-distance bus travel around the country, which was more affordable than the famous Japan Rail Pass. We also discovered that most of the toilets in Japan have heated seats! Heated. Seats.
After faffing around trying to find food we came across the most incredible tempura broccoli, along with fig and walnut bread, and we headed out into the cool grey afternoon towards the beach a few kilometres away. Interestingly en route, attached to lamp posts were tsunami markers telling you how high you were above sea level and whether you were still in the risk zone.
At the beach, we came across significant signs of damage. The day before we arrived in Japan, the region had been hit by an enormous typhoon, causing a number of deaths and widespread damage and flooding. Here the sea defenses and foot paths were decimated: completely destroyed in some places, covered in tons of the grey sand from the beach in others. We saw the tops of trees poking out from below huge, newly created dunes. As we walked toward the water’s edge we saw a line, many feet wide, stretching the length of the beach. We assumed it was litter and general detritus from the storm, but when we got closer we could see the terrible truth. The pale line was comprised of hundreds of thousands of dead sea creatures, torn from the sea bed by the power of the raging storm. Starfish, urchins, jellyfish, mussels, crabs, anything that had lived in the coast along that shoreline. It was a sobering sight under the muted grey sky, that blended with the grey of the water, and the grey of the sand. Walking back toward the town, we passed through a park. In the trees overhead and the bushes around us, orb spiders cast their glistening webs in their hundreds.
We managed to get a plan together for the next few days. We really wanted to visit Mount Fuji, which unfortunately was closed for the winter season (it’s considered too dangerous to climb in the Winter), but we knew we could walk up to the ‘5th station’ at around 2400m. We were however entirely shocked by the cost of accommodation. In India a dorm bed was a couple of quid, and a private room around 7 or 8. In China it was more expensive, but a room in a nice hostel generally cost around £16. We had thought Hong Kong was prohibitively costly when we had to pay about £21 for a room, but here for us both to have bunk beds in a dorm of 10 people was £38! So far during our travels, we’ve tried to keep our daily spending to around £30 in order to make sure we have enough for the year. With our hearts sinking we realised that we’d need to double it to be able to have board, and buy food, with little left over for anything else. Still, we were in Japan and just looking at the incredible scenery would be enough, without paying for tourist attractions.
Although sad to say goodbye to our wonderful and generous host, we were excited about the next leg of our trip, onward to Mt Fuji in Kawaguchiko. We were stung again by transport costs as it ended up being nearly £50 for us to get there, but we just figured we’d be super frugal for the time we were there. Although expensive, the hostel we stayed at was really lovely, with free tea and coffee (proper coffee!) and jam in the morning. No bread with it though, which was a bit weird.
On our first full day in Kawaguchiko we set off early from the hostel, in misty drizzly clouds, to hike to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji. We set off on the 17km hike to the station from the hostel, relieved when we were picked up hitch-hiking, as the first bit to the start of the trail head was about an hour of miserable road hiking. The lovely couple who scooped us up went out of their way to get us to the start of the walk, which was very kind.
It was hard to see through the trees, as mist and rain brought visibility down to about 10 metres. We opted to stick to the paved road for the first section, rather than the path that wound through the trees alongside, as we’d seen our first sign warning about bears, and Jay in particular was a little anxious about them. When the road ran out and the trailhead proper emerged, we were ushered out of the rain into a little tea room by a very friendly woman, who gave us free steaming-hot barley tea. She told us that we were the only people that day walking the Yoshida Trail, but reassured us that as long as we kept loudly talking then any bears nearby would stay away. And so began the longest and loudest game of eye spy that we’ve ever played.
Heading up through the Autumn forest the path was beautiful and ethereal in the mists that swirled between the tree trunks. In the moments of silence while one of us was trying to think of things beginning with ‘s’, the only sounds were muted bird chatter and the drip of water from the leaves. There were 5 ‘stations’ on the lower part of the volcano: places where the trail had pre-existing structures or some kind of historical significance. We dithered after an hour or so about getting to the first station, but once there we decided to push on to the second. From the first station, going back would take as long as going all the way up to the fifth so we thought we may as well carry on. With many stops for breath, to gaze in awe at the intensely colourful forest leaves, or to scoff some well needed snacks, we slowly made our way up the steep, muddy staircase that is the trail up Mt Fuji. Although we had no views because of the cloud, the air of magic that brought, along with the complete absence of any other humans for the 5 or so hours we were ascending, made the trek a breathtaking experience.
We’d seen photos of the 5th station. A huge car park, hundreds of people, restaurants, gift shops, all the usual tourist tat. As we approached we agreed we were too knackered to do the walk back down the trail to the road in the time we had before dark, and neither of us wanted to be on Mt Fuji in the dark. With the bears. So we planned to get to the station and try to hitch back to town or take the public bus.
And so it was with utter bemusement and dismay that we ‘topped out’ off the trail at the 5th station to find a street of huts which were all firmly closed for the winter. We were, frankly, worried. Tired, cold and ready to be done, the prospect of having to run back down the volcano to get back before dark, or take the much longer walk down the access road, filled us with dread. However we managed to get the internet to work on Maeve’s phone, and to our incredible relief we found that there were two 5th stations, and a brief 30 minute horizontal walk would take us to the tourist trap.
As we approached we could hear the sounds of engines and a throng of humanity extending tendrils out into the mist that surrounded us. And suddenly, we were there, surrounded by noise and hundreds of people. It was honestly a shock after the incredible quiet and solitude of the mountain-side forest, and it took us a little time to adjust to all the people. We ate our packed lunch, sat in a small visitor centre surrounded by our sodden gear while well-dressed tourists filed by, fresh off the coach, to take selfies next to the “5th Station” sign and look at the complete lack of view. A surreal but enriching day out on the hill. Also exhausting, as evidenced by Jay’s jaded face over lunch, and Maeve fast asleep on the bus all the way back!
The next day was, typically, much better in terms of the weather. Fuji revealed itself, different bits at different times, like some kind of mountain burlesque show.
The sun was hot and the sky in the town largely clear. We took our bags to a different hostel, where strangely there were no beds, but a room of sofas separated by large curtains hung like sails.
We had made one important decision. We’d been trying to book our onward travel with our buss pass, but there was no map on the website, just list after list of names of towns and cities, at the start and end of routes. It was impossible to know which bus to take without knowing where they all were, and even the Japanese staff at the hostel were completely bemused by the whole thing. After many hours with still no luck, we decided to cancel our bus passes. Instead we bit the bullet and decided to get a Japan Rail Pass each. At just over £1000 it would destroy our budget, but the alternative was that we spent hours every day researching and arranging the next bit of travel, or we stayed in one place for the whole trip. Although frustratingly costly, the JR pass would give us 21 consecutive days of free train travel around the whole of Japan. In the end it was definitely worth it, as rail travel in Japan is an absolute delight, and we were able to visit so many places that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
The next morning we boarded what was, strangely, a Thomas the Tank Engine themed bus back to Tokyo, and discovered to our delight that it had a toilet. After having to hold it for up to 5 hours at a time across India and China, the buses in Japan were much more user-friendly. Also, this one had no cockroaches, so was already 100% better than our Chinese bus travel experiences.
After collecting our JR passes and having some amazing tempura, we headed for our capsule hostel and watched Wales beat France at the rugby. We headed to bed early, as the next day we were off to make the most exciting trip of our lives1 : the journey to Bunny Island, the whole reason Jay had wanted to come to Japan in the first place. It was finally going to happen…
1. you may be able to tell that Jay wrote this bit↩