Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Awesome Japan!

I have never been one for giving people advice, mostly because I hate receiving it myself unless I ask for it.  Advice is often given by self-interested people who want you to think and do what they want you to do and really don't want what is best for you.  If people wish to give me advice without me asking for it, I am always wary and on many occasions I suspect their motives.  All that being said, I strongly advise that (if you can afford to do so) you should visit Japan at least once in your life.

I had visited Japan once before but just for a visa run to Osaka so I could not really look around very much and didn't make it out of the city.  This time I started out in Osaka, just like before, but quickly moved on to a small city in the Minami Alps called Kofu, where my aim was to hike up Japan's second highest mountain, Kitadake.

My original intention was to climb the highest mountain, Mt Fuji, but I had heard many stories of what an uninspiring hike Mount Fuji was, especially in the peak season, which I was in.  The trouble is that the hike is a zigzag up the mountain, usually in a line behind many many tourists, this is what I had researched and been told about anyway.  I didn't really fancy that, despite the promise of a beautiful sunrise.  Kitadake looked a more interesting hike and looked like it had a great view of Mt Fuji at the top, so I chose this.  My mind wasn't made up, however, until a couple of seconds before I was asked where I wanted to go by the clerk in  Abenobashi bus station in Osaka.

After an overnight bus journey, I arrived in Kofu and fortunately about 2 minutes later a woman approached me asking if I was going to Hirogawa (the main trail head for Kitadake) and brought me to the bus which was just about to leave, perfect.  2 hours on the bus through the mountains and I realised I made the right call.  The mountain landscape was much more beautiful and more vast than I had imagined.  These mountains were over 1000 metres higher than anything in Korea and it made for some spectacular scenery.

Luckily for me, Hirogawa had a very well organised visitors centre with good facilities, which was just as well as I needed to charge my camera.  I had to wait an hour, because of this, before starting on the trail (what a disaster it would have been if there were no plug sockets and I had no power for my camera).

The heat during the day in Osaka and Kofu was almost unbearable, up at over 35 degrees but the start of the trail was already at over 1500 metres, which made the temperature about ten degrees lower and was very comfortable for hiking in shorts and T-shirt.  There had been stories of people in Korea getting into some trouble hiking in the summer heat, but there were no worries of that sort here.  My wife had been concerned about the heat, but after the sun went down that was to be the last of my problems, as even with plenty of clothing it was going to be freezing near the top.

One of the great things about hiking Kitadake and not Mount Fuji, is that the people I met on the mountain were just normal Japanese people out for a nice couple of days hike and there were not that many of them.  There were enough, however, for regular breaks and chats and, surprisingly, most of them spoke very good English.  Unlike Korea, though, I found that I had to start conversations.  I was finding out that Japanese people were generally a little less interested in me as a foreigner than in Korea and also a little less confident in coming up to speak to me.  Just like most Korean people, they were perfectly nice and kind when we did speak and I appreciated that they spoke English well as I knew only about 3 or 4 words and phrases in Japanese.  One thing that did stand out as different from Korea, were the greatly improved manners of the Japanese.  People made way for me on tighter sections of the trail and always said thank you when I did the same.  This seems a common courtesy but these are rare events indeed on a mountain in Korea.

I was in a place where few tourists go, and this was confirmed by the Japanese people who I met, who mentioned that most Japanese didn't even know about the mountain we were on, they just knew about Mt Fuji.  I knew immediately I was in the right place for me as when I have traveled to famous places, popular with tourists, they have always been a bit of a disappointment to me.  That is not to say that these places are not worth seeing, but the general atmosphere around them can become a little oppressive and depressing for me.  The big tourist attractions are often where you find the people who are not interested in anything but the contents of your wallet and what you can do for them.  You can be ripped-off, begged at, stuck in queues, and drowned out in the crowd; in short the experience becomes less personal and the culture of the country is a watered-down commercialised side of it.  It never seems genuine.  Give me the second highest mountain over the highest or a town over a big city any day to experience the truest side of a country's culture.  Then, what I find, is that I almost always like the people I meet and I become fascinated by the differences between us rather than irritated by them.  People want to speak with you because they want to know something about you (genuine curiosity), in this regard Japan was a world apart from my last vacation in Indonesia and has made me think that in the future a further exploration of the Far East is a better option than South East Asia.  South East Asia appears to be affected detrimentally by excess tourism and genuine experiences are becoming harder to come by.  That being said there are still many natural wonders and cultures in these areas that I want to see, but I get the feeling I will have to put up with a lot of crap for it.

Anyway, after a long hard slog up the mountain and the altitude and all the travelling taking it's toll, I finally made it to the top, but the real beauty was to come at sunset and then sunrise the following morning when the clouds cleared completely and left breathtaking views of Mount Fuji and the rest of the Minami Alps.  It was picture perfect Japan, and couldn't be more iconic of the 'land of the rising sun'.  Standing at the top in the morning looking out I didn't want to leave.  Tops of mountains are almost spiritual places for me but this was quite special, it was nature at its most spectacular and it was my moment in pure silence with no crowds to spoil it.

I was contemplating spending another night camping but reasoned that with the amount of time I had spent travelling and the lack of a good night's sleep, I could do with checking into a hotel.  This idea also could give me time to explore Kofu and see the cultural side of Japan as well as its splendid natural side.  Once I got down to the bottom of the mountain it was clear that this was a good plan as I crashed in the bus, it was impossible to keep my eyes open.  Once I checked into the hotel I then proceeded to sleep for 13 hours and very soundly.

I had one-day to have a look around Kofu, and I confess, I thought this more than enough as it looked like a sleepy little city.  To my surprise, however there was plenty to see; Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, castles, and other interesting little curiosities, everything was in fact fascinating.  It was incredibly hot, though, and wondering around all day in 35+ degrees heat did take its toll and perhaps this was another reason why I saw so few people all day.

Japan has interesting differences to Korea.  One thinks of Japan as a place at the height of technology, all lights, flashy new inventions, and computers, the most modern place on earth.  What a pleasant shock it was to find that outside of the big cities this is somewhat of a misleading interpretation.  Japan had an old charm to it, the way that Europe has with its history and fine buildings.  In Korea, everything is new and super-modern and it is the computer capital of the world with the fastest internet connection of any country, professional computer game players getting TV time and earning six-figure salaries, and people are constantly playing with their tablet touch phones when you are on the bus or subway.  Japan felt more traditional and more in touch and more comfortable and settled with its culture and history.  Japan felt like the  English gentleman of the Far East, with good manners and a love of its own history.  Korea, perhaps mainly because of the Japanese, does not feel nearly at ease with itself and has a strong desire to prove their worthiness to themselves and others as a strong and beautiful country on the world stage.  This is not surprising and is not really a criticism but it makes for a country that is not so comfortable in its own skin and a tad insecure.

For these reasons Japan was at the same time more welcoming than Korea and yet more foreign.  I felt as if they cared not one bit that visitors would find their culture or their language was difficult to crack, indeed they appeared to revel in the difficulty.  They weren't going to accommodate for foreigners, we would have to figure it all out for ourselves; it was their country and they didn't need to tell us about it or big it up, they just let it speak for itself.  Like their culture or not, it felt like they didn't care, they were just going to carry on as normal.  This made Japan feel a very genuine place to travel to me, they were not unfriendly but did not go out of their way to help me or highlight me.  I was different to them, but importantly I didn't feel it.  It was because of the fact they were less interested in me, because I was not paraded as different and in need of special help that I felt more relaxed and welcome.  In Korea there is nothing like a well-placed 'Hi, how are you?' among a crowd of people to make you feel a million miles away from home, some cynical people will say that deep-down that this is the whole point of someone saying something like that.  I think it is a mixture of friendliness, curiosity, and an unconscious urge to single you out as different, the ratio of each varies from person to person.

For these reasons Japan keeps a traditional and cultural charm which Korea lacks and means if any of you wish to travel to the Far East and you want to choose one place to go, Japan is your best bet.  On the surface, the culture is richer, the mountains are higher, the scenery is more spectacular, the architecture is older and more beautiful, and their are amusing differences aplenty.  I actually can't think of a more interesting place I have traveled to and I would love to spend more time there in the future.

It sounds like I am being a little harsh on poor old Korea.  I have a connection with Korea now that will always make it my second home.  To me I will always be interested in how they are getting on and wishing them well.  They are my second team in world sport and affairs behind England and I have a strange urge to see them defeat Japan at every opportunity, but have to admit to not being overly devastated when they do lose.  Japan might be the more appealing place to travel, but I am glad I chose to live in Korea and not just for the practical reasons of being able to save more money and the fact my lovely wife is Korean.  Korea has had a bizarre ability to make everyday life so convenient and easy while at the same time throwing up all sorts of challenges that can catch you completely off-guard.  The Korean way of being quite forward, unplanned, and interested in me has thrust me into some of the most awkward situations of my life.  These are the kind of situations that, at the time, you are dying to get away from but in hindsight are not only memorable and funny but truly educational.  Maybe I am wrong, but I can't help but feel that this would not happen in Japan quite so much because of how they seemed not to force you into participating in their culture.  I have delved deeper into the culture of the Far East by coming to Korea than I thought possible.  Whatever bad things I might say about aspects of Korean culture, the people are mostly great and my job and my students; well, perhaps I was just lucky, but I could not have wished for better.  I can't complain too much, Korea has treated me very well.

Sometimes you need a good push to get involved and Korea gives you plenty of those.  The people of Korea have a very unique character that can make you go from the extremes of love and hate.  Uncomfortable it maybe and a good moan I like to have sometimes, it does however, make life jolly interesting.


  1. As you are such a mountain enthusiast I would recommend a trip to Taiwan's central mountain range. Particularly Hehuanshan, there is a campsite near the summit (2800m) where it has the most incredible night sky -- milky way clear as day. Possible to hire a scooter from Hualien on the east coast and ride most of the way leaving a few peaks above 3000m to hike.
    There is also Xueshan, 3886m (Snow mountain) or YuShan 3900m (Jade Mountain). Both require permits from Taipei, for which Xueshan is more attainable for similar reasons to the Mt Fuji / Mt Kitadake -- locals seem to love to have climbed the highest, even if this means being herded up there!
    Japan is on my list.

  2. It's funny you say that as Taiwan is my next planned vacation but I find information about it difficult to come by. I was actually gonna ask you about Taiwan closer to winter vacation time. Are all those peaks hikeable or are some only for climbers?

    Japan was great, not just for the mountains. Would love to work there for a while.