Mt. Fuji May 1

Mt. Fuji at 5:30 a.m.

Mt. Fuji at dawn with cherry blossoms

Me photographed by “pro” who “placed” me.

Woke early but could not motivate myself to get out of bed until 5:15 a.m. Many people photographing the mountain from the garden below my window. This morning Mt. Fuji had a cloud cap on the top, common on mountains like this. When I arrived at the garden, one extremely dictatorial Japanese photographer was holding forth on proper camera angle, at least that’s what I think he was doing as several other men with complex cameras were hovering around his tripod while he lectured. I took some shots from the same place as they were standing, then asked him to take a picture of me with my camera. He snorted derisively but complied.

Breakfast was a grand affair with vegetables, fish, eggs, toast, rolls, rice, soup and tea as the mountain became increasingly shrouded with clouds. We ate, paid our bill and left for the suicide woods.

The Suicide Forest…

The Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji is unfortunately know as a place of suicide and many depressed Japanese go there to end their lives. Tom had read an article about it in a recent travel section of the Sunday New York Times and had mentioned the article to Isao in an email. So, of course, although that forest was the last place Isao and Reiko (whose friend’s husband had ended his life there) wanted to go, they obliged Tom. The forest was a rather impenetrable tangle of low and high forest growing on an undulating floor of old lava flow covered now with dense moss and lichen. Not very inviting especially on a cloudy, rainy day like May 1.

Really complicated Japanese vending machines with everything

Isao searched in vain for an entrance to the forest. We purchased drinks from a vending machine. Finally, we stopped at the Wind Cave site and found this was one of the central entrances for  the forest. In fact, Haruka had seen the Wind Cave parking lot featured on a Japanese TV show about suicide victims, many of whom leave their cars in this very lot. When local notice that cars have been parked for three months, volunteers start searching for the bodies, usually hanging from trees. Great.

Inside the Wind Cave

We went to see the cave which was deeper than just the lava tube that Tom expected and filled with ice formations. But we never explored the forest itself, although there were marked trails, as it started to rain in earnest.

Nice cafe although we were forced inside by the rain

Walk around one of the five lakes by Mt. Fuji

After exploring the cave, we went to lunch at a beautiful cafe on the banks of one of the lakes. A beautiful spot. Isao drove me to peek at a Japanese Agway type store where I ogled the bean seeds and met a Japanese woman with great pants who instructed us to see her favorite shop in Tokyo.


Mt. Fuji

Ippei and Haruka having lunch on the train

Awoke on time, breakfasted in the apartment, then raced to the subway, to food store and onto the train, a fast one, but not a bullet train to Mt. Fuji. On the train met Ippei, Reiko and Isao’s son, a great friend of my daughters, and his girl friend Haruka. She was very nice, very pretty with a good sense of humor. She’s from Hokkaido, a north island just across the straights from the cherry festival we had attended.

Shaggy horse rentals

Shrine where Kameas prayed

Parking lot at stage 5 of Mt. Fuji

Rented a car and drove first to the road up to stage 5 of Mt. Fuji. I had been photographing it from the train as it was a super clear day. We parked near a large gift shop complex but there was also a shrine where many people were praying, horse rentals, coffee shop and museum.

Fabulous mountain and so clear today. MUCH bigger than it looks in photos. You can climb it in good weather but there is still a possibility of avalanche so the trail remains closed until warmer temperatures. Can see part of the trail. Nothing but Chinese tourists, Isao reported that he heard no Japanese at all.

Detail of trail on Mt. Fuji that can be climbed in good weather. Maybe next trip.

View of lake from our window. One of five lakes surrounding the mountain.

On to hotel called Mt. Fuji on a hill overlooking both the mountain and a beautiful cauldera lake under massive volcano. Lots of cherry blossoms still flowering even here.

Dinner at Mt. Fuji hotel

Dressed for the baths or just relaxing.

We took too many photos of the mountain.

Nice hotel with lovely gardens and real beds, sauna, communal baths. Wonderful traditional Japanese dinner, again with grill for our own steaks on personal grills topped with pieces of lava from Mt. Fuji. Again we dressed in the yakata provided and this time I got photographs.


The Massage

Reiko and I went for a massage in a really commercial part of town right near where they live. Roppongi is for the most part a bar-strewn, prostitute-lurking part of town but it is smack up against a perfectly calm, quiet, park-filled upperclass housing district, Very odd. So this massage parlor was off a neon-flashing, crowded street, down a tiny ally, up an elf-sized, nondescript  elevator that deposited us in a sort of gym with candy and drinks machines, one of which provided us with tickets for our massages when filled with $30. of yen.

I passed my ticket to an odd-looking, yellow-hair Japanese man who looked like a boxing trainer and was led into a dark green colored, rubber-curtained cubicle that contained a towel-covered massage table. He drew a large black cardboard storage case from under the table, drew out a nylon shirt and a pair of Bermuda length training pants and indicted that I was to put these on and place my clothes and valuables into the box. He left me alone and I conducted a whispered consultation with Reiko in the next cubicle.

A middle-aged, prize fighter sized man enter and indicated that I was to lie ‘face down.’ What followed was a most complete massage over every part of my body, not ignoring my head and hands. It was great. The man was strong, gentle and seemed nice. I could hear Reiko talking and laughing with her masseuse and I felt bad that I could say nothing to mine.

We left, Reiko said no to a tip. She goes there all the time so she knows but I wish I could have thanked the man properly.

Putting on the Ritz

Followed Reiko on an errand across Tokyo and saw the polished Japanese medical system at work. At a posh women’s clinic, no men were allowed inside. Nice architecture all around. Tom took pictures for his brother. Did some shopping but everything seemed way expensive so refrained from buying. Then we went to the Ritz Carlton Spa, Reiko and Isao are members as they live practically across the street.

First we went to the members only cafe for lunch: sandwiches, salad, and chocolates, so far so good. This was located way on a top floor, high above Tokyo. Then the fun began. The four of us went to the front desk to collect our equipage, previously ordered by size. We were provided with swim suits, caps, water shoes, dry shoes, sneakers, a robe, a towel, all in a handy, fashionably navy blue carry bag with a silver Ritz charm hanging from the strap.

We repaired to the sex appropriate side of the spa, down long halls past a series of closed doors. Feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole, I trailed Reiko. First, we encountered a locker room filled with cabinets with keys hanging from the locks. I started to undress but the smiling, bowing, dusty-rose uniformed attendant stopped me. The spacious cabinets were only for our shoes. I relinquished my shoes, received my key on a tastefully embossed chocolate brown fobbed key ring, slipped on the gold and white slippers provided, and looked around. Reiko was just outside, so stepping through a curtain, down another long hall and was led into a second locker room, significantly bigger than the first with a wall of larger lockers and one thin, half-naked Japanese woman seated in front of a vanity table applying makeup. I turned discreetly, placed my navy blue bag on the bench, and started to underdress. The attendant motioned me to follow her down another corridor to a small room equipped with a different pair of slippers, a private changing room. The door closed.

I began to change but on inspecting my navy blue bag, I found to my horror that it contained a pair of navy blue trunks, size 9 men’s sneakers, and a man’s track suit. Across the spa Tom was finding a maillot size 10 and women’s work out clothes. I consulted another smiling, bowing, uniformed attendant in one of the featureless halls. Apologies were made (I think  she apologized as everything was in Japanese) and in a few minutes I had my bag. I changed and tried to find the room with the clothing lockers. Finally, placing my clothes in the second locker and my shoe locker key in the small enamel dish indicated by the attendant, I put the second locker key on my wrist but found I had lost Reiko who had stepped down another hall into a shower stall with muted resting chamber and room for an entire swim team.  I found my own shower stall although I could not work the space age controls to produce any water so I sat in the arm chair in my anti room  for a suitable time, them emerged in my generous, white, gold embossed robe and new slippers from my bag.

Reiko’s toilet controls

More instructions on inside of toilet lid

But I had to pee. This proves difficult in Japan as “toilet” rooms are frequently off by themselves and when found are equipped with toilets that have jet plane control panels. Reiko has tried to instruct me but each toilet is different. Apparently, the devices wash, dry and powder your bottom but some have another orange button with the English word “STOP” written clearly. Very worrisome as I am certain that one of these toilet buttons opens a panel in the roof and shoots the unsuspecting sitter into orbit. Nowhere was there a sign or words ‘flush.’ I peed, stood, then pressed one of the buttons toward the end of the row until I heard a flushing sound. I had closed the lid to prevent any unwanted shower effect.

When I emerged, I had to find Reiko. Another smiling, bowing woman showed me to the huge pool. Two fierce-looking Japanese men sat in the whirlpool so I took a chaise, that had a members only sign on it, beside Tom and waited until the fierce men departed, then Tom and I slipped into the hot tub. Nice water, plenty of bubbles, no seats.

Isao called his massage place and booked Reiko and me in for 6:30 at $30. an hour. Then I did take a swim. Reiko was ready to go but first we needed showers. I made my way to the a private shower room but lost Reiko in the process. When I finished I managed to find the room with the lockers, but having no idea how to find the ‘changing cubicles,’ I opened a couple of doors ( one had low lighting and an empty queen-sized massage bed, the other has a rather startle-looking, sweaty, thin, naked Japanese woman in what I assumed was a sauna) In the locker room I turned my back on the half-dressed Japanese woman doing her makeup at the dressing table and put on my clothes. I didn’t know what to do with the wet towel, the robe, and the damp swim suit, so I deposited them one-by-one in various empty black lacquered laundry baskets I found scattered around the area, being emptied by bowing, smiling uniformed women.

Found my way to another makeup room where another three half-naked Japanese ladies were using the makeup bottles provided and drying their hair. I sat uncertainly in my jeans and LL Bean shirt, clutching my ripped, green LL Bean backpack. I tried to read one of the fashion magazines on the low table but they were all in Japanese and contained more writing than photographs. I did make a show of reading them back to front as I had seen others do.

Reiko finally found me and instructed me to go to the reception area but I never could find the reception where the kind, bowing man had given me the wrong workout bag and after a while I didn’t feel confident about moving around by myself. So when I found myself again surrounded by half-naked Japanese women, I high-tailed it down a corridor into another reception center surrounded by more makeup bottles and nail polish colors. I panicked and asked for the members lounge and was escorted by a smiling, bowing Japanese lady the Ritz had apparently specially hired for me as she spoke English and looked like some kind of manager in a severe navy suit with a badge. I thought I might be arrested as I had stuffed two packages of Ritz Carlton toothbrushes into my backpack to give to my daughters for Christmas.

The badge lady brought me, closely guarded, to the members lounge where Reiko, Tom and I had lunched. She sat me down and ordered me a ‘milk tea.’ But as soon as she left, I again felt the urge to pee. I went out the door and down the amorphous hall. On the third of three doors, all unmarked, I found a hand symbol. Holding my hand over the symbol, a panel slid open and there was a large bathroom. Inside was another ‘hand.’ I held my hand over that, the panel slid shut and an English sign registered “LOCKED.” I was trapped with another multi-buttoned toilet. Gingerly, I used same, flushed after 15 minute deliberation, washed, nicked another toothbrush and a small embossed facecloth for Tom from a pile of six on the sink and left.

Reiko finally found me at tea after I had fought my way out of the ‘hand controlled toilet.’ I left vowing never to return.


April 28

Woke up with Reiko and Isao talking loudly in the next room. Thought it was odd. Went to the bathroom to deal with the space age toilet that I will explain later. Instructions all in Japanese characters. When I returned Reiko commented on the beautiful day. I still didn’t get it until she mentioned that breakfast was in two minutes but that they could easily change it. Apparently, traditional Japanese breakfasts are arranged, so Tom and I flashed into action and we were ready in five.

Our breakfast tray

Breakfast clam shells with broth, scallops, onions and eggs on individual burners

No coffee for poor Tom although we smelled coffee in the lobby as we scurried past. A female waitress brought us elaborate clam shells filled with broth, scallops and onions set over individual burners into which she poured a egg mixture. Ours were great but Isao’s over overcooked. So another clam shell appeared and this was really undercooked, probably just out of the freezer as scallops are not native to this area. Everything else was fine, and we did get coffee brought specially as well as rice, some pickles and other Japanese breakfast foods. Many courses later we repaired to our room to pack for the journey home.

Local train station in ski country

Inside a local train station

Woman with a nice jacket

On the shuttle to the small local train I spotted a seed store. As a gardener I was interested but we had to make the bullet train to Tokyo. (Seed venture to be continued…)

A Night in a Traditional Inn, Kai Tsugaru

The lobby of the inn

We took a long train ride in a local train to the traditional inn. Turned out to be part of a chain of resorts, one in Bali and Fiji. The lobby was huge with a rather Korean style mural, Reiko thought. Registering took over an hour. In Japan, one does not register at the desk, at least not in this type of inn. A uniformed welcoming/clerk woman knelt in front of a low table where we all were comfortably ensconced on sofas, having been provided with snacks and tea. No one spoke English so I figured Tom and I could never have done this on our own. Reiko had called ahead to order our dinner and she explained about my gluten allergy. I had to sign a slip in Japanese saying I had told them.

our rooms

The climate was mild but there was still some snow piled against the building. We were in the mountains but spring was arriving and the inn was decorated with flowers. Our rooms were paper-walled, sliding door, traditional with  no sign of beds, just low tables and carefully decorated niches. I guess the mats were laid out while we were at dinner. We were also provided with lovely Hakata, wool jackets and sandals but I neglected to get photos of us.

Dinner was offered in a private room but Reiko moved us to an airier one on the floor. Our server was an obliging young man who knelt on the floor by Isao to answer questions and explain dishes. He seemed obsequious but they all do.

Our server at dinner

the meat course that we cooked ourselves

The food was all superb, about seven courses. The main course was pieces of terrific beef and vegetables  to be cooked on individual burners, fun and delicious.

After dinner we all went to dress in yakata to visit the baths, men’s and women’s, fed by hot springs in the area. I swam around the pool trying not to look at the matrons showering on low stools around the perimeter. This is difficult for Americans. I spied one woman helping her elderly mother wash her hair, an involved process for the Japanese. Each bath has seats and open showers all around, provided with shampoos, conditioners, loofas, everything. The women stared at me but I was coughing and blowing my nose from a cold contracted in China.

The pool was hot and contained beautiful, huge apples floating all around. This is apple country and everything is apple, pool, tea, cakes. Tom reported that a older Japanese man in his bath pool was breaking the apples in half with is bare hands. Tom thought it might be a show of strength, but who knows, he might have wanted cooked apples.

I had drunk Saki with my evening meal so I was pretty tired by the time we regrouped for a concert by a Shamisen played. It’s a long necked, three string banjo/guitar instrument, a little screechy but that did not prevent me from falling asleep in my comfortable chair. The room was full of attentive Japanese couples.

After the concert we retired to our mats to sleep.

Japan 4/26-5/3

I spent six days in Japan running after my dear, energetic friend Reiko through “her city” of Tokyo, through gleaming subway stations, train stations and shopping malls noticing all the fashionably dressed men and women streaming by me. Many Japanese women have a fashion sense not unlike the French, a je ne sais quoi of understated, unadorned elegance, drappier and with more fabric around their narrow waists, but like the French, one has the idea that everything in their closets matches, interrelates in a way nothing does in mine. Their colors seem to be black, gray, white, accented with a dusty rose or pale blue. I guess colors like aqua and orange have been outlawed. Red also seems to have been banned although it is part of their flag. I never saw those colors on anyone in Japan and we traveled from Tokyo to Aomori in the far north for the last of the cherry blossom festivals, then down to Mt. Fuji for a look-see.

Another thing that struck me was that many people, especially service people smile and bow a lot. It is a little disconcerting. We went to a large department store featuring food on their ground floor, about 100,000 different types of Bento Boxes as well as sushi, breads, sweets, teas, etc. We were on our way by train to the south and we hit the store at their opening time 10:00 a.m. Inside the main door were lines of uniformed employees bowing and smiling at us as we hurried past. I felt as if I were royalty being welcomed to Downton Abbey. Do I bow back, acknowledge them with a half smile, wave my upraised hand like the Queen or ignore them and barge on past to do my shopping? I chose to mumble ‘thank you’ as Reiko rushed us by them. It was as disconcerting as having my luggage loaded onto the bus from the airport into the city. The three attendants, bowed as they accepted our luggage, then lined up to bow to the departing bus. Amazing really.