Many happy returns to the father of Singapore

http://theindependent.sg/interviewing-lee-kuan-yew/

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Lost and found in Hakone

I lost my onsen virginity in Hakone and found one of the best sleep at Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse. We travelled by bus from Kawaguchiko to Hakone which took us to Gotemba and we had to switch to another bus from Gotemba. All in all, that must have been about 2 hours or more. I can’t be certain as my travelometer was totally off since five minutes on the bus stretched like 50 minutes with four guys in front of me who couldn’t stop talking at the top of their voices [no guesses for which nationality they are]. I must have heard everything about their lives in my journey between Kawaguchiko to Gotemba.

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Now, coming back to the good stuff. How can one not visit Hakone and not try its onsen (“warm water”)? Yes, even in summer. Good for us that we had private onsen within the guesthouse! I had the onsen to myself for a good half an hour! Half an hour sounds like a short duration for those seasoned onsen goers I would think.

The onsen at the guesthouse was private and since it was night when I tried, there wasn’t much of a view. After showering, I made my first attempt in getting into the bath. There was a running tap to keep the water ‘fresh’ and bits of powder on the ground of the tub [which I later discovered that those are the good bits of mineral]. I dipped a toe in the water and had a feeling of dread that I might not survive this and may have to leave without trying the legendary onsen. If my foot couldn’t take it, how would the rest of my body adapt to this temperature? It felt like I could boil an egg in it. How is this “warm water”?

Adamant on trying it nonetheless, I tried again and this time I managed to soak my feet for more than 2 seconds and proceeded to lower myself until I was almost squatting in the bath. That took another few seconds before my lower half regained its mobility to move completely into the water. I was probably half-boiled by then.

After having submerged my body completely in the  water, I found that my body floats slightly after resting my head on the side of the bath. My fingers were wrinkled within a few minutes too. I had a strange feeling of my body being compressed by the water. I lasted all 10 minutes, maybe less. The intimacy of the heat left me breathless.

I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep from the Mt Fuji climb or the onsen, possibly a combination of both, but I was dead to the world before you can say ‘cheese’. My room mates were amused with how I had fallen asleep when they got back from their shower and onsen. I was sprawled face down and had all intention to put my eye mask on since the light was switched on. I had no recollection of anyone going in or out of the room. In other words, I could have died and gone to nirvana.

Except the bright light which filled our room the next day with an odd alarm-clock chirping wasn’t the light calling from nirvana. I jumped up and searched for a non-existent alarm clock with the feeling of dread like a usual work day. I realised after a few seconds that I am actually in Japan and the guys in the room had also awoken to the sound. Someone groaned / or croaked that it was only 4:30am but it was getting bright outside.. Still groggy, I dozed back easily into sleep and woke again at 7am after a great night of sleep, also evident from a really puffy face.

I did try that again the following morning and there was an improvement when I started to enjoy the engulfing heat, enveloping me. That put me in a slightly better mood after having had the most dramatic experience travelling in a group, from the result of an explosive group dynamic which obviously was a catalyst for some discomfort. Since this is a happy post, I will leave this for another post. .

[As one could say, want to put your friendship or relationship to the test? Go on an adventure trip. Sometimes, a luxury trip may not evoke the same reaction.]

From Hakone back to Shinjuku and to Ikebukuro where we stayed one night and tried to cover as much ground around the city as possible but in all the wrong places since I wasn’t too keen on ramen as food or walking aimlessly at night, in the humidity popping in and out of shops. I thought Singapore was humid and hot. But I soon discovered that the city was worse. We later found out that it was actually 41 degrees Celsius.

I recall reading somewhere between the correlation of crimes and the temperature. It was mentioned in the article that there was a slight correlation between how hot the weather was to how inclined a person may be towards certain petty crimes or violence. I wondered then if there were indeed more crimes recorded in summer then. I for one, just felt irritated with some things but that soon passed when irritation or any form of non-scheduled action brought on more perspiration. I preferred the calm state of mind where I could rest in a constant state of non-reactive system hibernation.

Every pore was open and I think it was hot yoga in open space. I felt detoxed. Imagine our walk from Shinjuku to Yoyogi park close to noon. Standing under aircon vents later at the subway was heaven.  Picture four drenched and red-faced people trying to get beamed up an aircon vent at Harajuku station. Once our system cooled, we gathered our wits and let the stomach lead the way.

Our next and final stop after Ikebukuro was Narita. One of the best travel decisions was to take the high speed rail to Narita.

What a difference space and privacy makes. Narita Excel Hotel was an adjustment to normality. I got back into a sane sleep pattern and the dessert I have been eyeing at all Lawson stores – The cup of cheese pudding of some sort. Simple yet most enjoyable in my room after a swim at the indoor pool.

A visit to Narita is not complete without visiting the quaint town. Do spend some time walking and exploring the shops along the street. It was a Public Holiday when I was there and the Tourist Centre was closed. There are plenty of brochures on the town and the vicinity for your reference so I would highly recommend one to pop in for a look when you get the chance to visit.

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Unagi and onsen help with fatigue. With the numerous fatigue-remedies in Japan, one might think that the nation is full of energetic people and they truly are. Energetically upbeat on the exterior which do not explain the high suicide rate in the country.

It is the richness of the culture and the effort in everything they do which makes me feel truly at home and Asian in Japan. And fresh, convenient food…

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Watching the same sun rise in the Land of the Rising Sun Part II

 Fujisan (continued)

Travelling in groups, especially in one which I am not too familiar with takes the edge off my senses in travelling. I feel that my travel experience isn’t as sharp as what it should or could be and does not quite satisfy my discovery process.

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Nonetheless, the hike started well. It was plain walking in the beginning which led to giant steps (if a metal grill counts as one) which were meant to help lessen the elevation and trudging through volcanic soil. I find it easier not to use the ‘steps’ as there is a lot more stress to the thighs.

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The group split up during the climb due to a large difference in climbing speeds. The hike got a little boring after seeing the same paths and reconstructed walls made up recycled materials. It was the same brown against a grey, cloudy backdrop. As the weather changes really quickly on the mountain, that changed by the time we arrived at the first mountain hut.

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The hike quickly progressed to a climb. As if the mountain were paying me back for my passing thought on boring the terrain was. I was soon regressed to climbing on all fours at some point. Scrambling past some steep rocks, I came to the first mountain hut. Looking up, I noticed how steep the top looked and how the mountain huts along the way seem to sit perilously at the side of the mountain.

We rested and captured some shots of the scenery while waiting for the others.

 Be warned should you be scaling Mt Fuji in future. There are places on the hike which will actually seem more like a climb. You’ll find yourself grabbing rocks or anything you can get a hold on at some point. The trekking pole may help provide a boost but it is still much better to climb like spiderman.

After passing through several other huts along the way, we arrived at our hut somewhere at 2,800m. It was one of the better huts we’ve come across or even those further up. Do bring enough cash as the operators only take cash and we are looking at about 6,100 yen per night with one meal. Also, the huts or sleeping bags have to be pre-booked in advance of the climbing season. You will not be resting or sleeping much. We had dinner at 4:30pm and tried to rest by 7pm. There were about 60 people in the dorm, with men on the bottom bunks and women on the top bunks. Imagine my horror when I realised how much personal space we had to ourselves. For a person who is not used to so much people contact and company, I had my fill for at least a year. The lady next to me almost had her elbow in my face and her back plastered to mine. I probably slept 5 minutes. I can’t be sure.

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We got up at 10pm and tip-toed out which shouldn’t even be a bother since it was quite an amplified theatre of snores or what sounded like growls. I was wearing a uniqlo heattech turtleneck under the weatherproof jacket which looked and seemed heavy duty enough. However, since the first layer is under a heavy insulated layer, it doesn’t dry even though it is dryfit. Be prepared to have that damp layer stuck to you all the way. (I brought a change which I was too numb from the brutal winds to change into by the time I arrived at the summit.)

I must be insane to climb in the dark with night blindness. The headlamp was useful as it frees up both hands for climbing. One thing which got to me was the crowd. The path was filled with large groups of climbers, usually led by a guide who just can’t stop talking. It’s a wonder how no one has mentioned to him that it may not be required since they were climbing at a slower than slow pace. I was meandering around them all the way up, while whispering, “sumimasen” for cutting or overtaking. However, I understand that part of the draw for the climb is the spirit of having everyone cheer one another on.

I did almost save a guy from falling off the cliff when he wobbled and did the leaning tower of pisa on one side. Not thinking, I reached out and grabbed his arm almost too forcefully, which probably jolted him out of his daze. I think the lack of oxygen got to me at one point when I felt a little dizzy too. My nose was like a leaky faucet all through the climb and I had nose burns from rubbing my nose too much, by the end of the climb.

There were marshals further up on the mountain nearer to the tori gates which seemed so near yet so far. They look out for climbers who may require rest or first aid. As I drew closer to the summit, I noted that there were also fewer people. I felt like a lone climber and almost dramatically dug my trekking pole into the volcanic sand like a sole survivor. The wind was rather brutal closer to the summit and you could hear and feel it whipping around you, attempting to knock the foolish climber off the mountain. As mild as the mountain appears, do not underestimate it.

I should have waited longer at the last stop instead of proceeding up on the climb. I arrived at the summit at 3:30am which was an hour too early for sunrise. I need to emphasize again how brutal the wind was. I was chilled to my bones and I thought I was going to pass out from hypothermia. It will be funny since I was fine on the climb, only to succumb to damp clothes and possibly a lack of insulation. I should have taken the pain to change out of the first layer. I searched frantically for a cover from the winds, but there was absolutely no refuge. Also, I lost the other guys on the trail since we split. I knew that one had already arrived since he was ahead so I ventured up and down the summit looking for him. I knew I should have devised a way to identify one another, like a flickering light on our headlamps or something. The rest will take some time and looking for him helped kill some time while keeping me warm by walking up and down the summit. I looked suspicious after my fifth lap and trying to peer at people resting or sleeping on the benches.

A sight to behold was brightly lit vending machines. I should have bought something to see if the drinks were warm.

I gave up looking for my team mate and sat down to chill. That was mistake as I took chilling a little too literally. My teeth were chattering on its own accord. I thought I would lose my mind before I lost control of bodily functions. Then I saw two more team mates who just arrived at the summit and I almost shouted at them in relief. Freezing to death together seemed like a better prospect to me at that time. Another mistake was queuing up for the toilet which was 300 yen per use. I was in a daze from the cold and the queue seemed like an eternity. I saw people, I saw their mouths moving, I heard what they were saying but I think I stopped trying to process information. It was like a system hibernation mode.

The sunrise was spectacular. I was seeing the same sun I would see in Singapore. I couldn’t believe I flew 8 hours, travelled on incessant train rides, scaled a 3776m high mountain, survived the brutal winds, to see the sunrise. But I did and I was thankful for the opportunity. The pleasure of seeing it collectively with thousands of others on Fuji. Wherever they are, they stopped. I think the beauty was sharing the experience with thousands others who were overwhelmed and humbled by such an experience. The looks on their faces and their reactions were part of my happiness.

I couldn’t wait for the sun to appear in its full naked glory. I needed to thaw.

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The descend was tedious and with a system of jogs and slides, I made it down within 2 hours; but hey, who’s racing?

[Hakone and the rest of the trip in Part III. ]

Watching the same sun rise in the Land of the Rising Sun

Every time I travel, I forget how painful commuting can be. I was reminded of that again during my trip to Japan earlier in August 2013.

I took a midnight flight on ANA from Singapore to Tokyo and arrived in Tokyo Narita at 8am. I am always envious of those people who sleep like they’re dead to the world on flights. Most times, I just find myself adjusting to a position which will allow me to rest without falling into the lap of the stranger next to me. That is if he or she isn’t already drooling on my shoulder.

The waiting commenced at the airport. With a snaking queue at immigration, I’d expected to be in the queue with two companions I am not too familiar with, for at least an hour. I was impressed right away at how efficient the Japanese are with systems and processes. They have opened additional lines on the other side of the barrier for Japanese passport holders.

We met up with another member of the group who’d landed slightly earlier. Since I had a different rail card which allows me to travel on the JR greencar line, I proceeded to my ‘rapid line’ while the rest (3 other guys) took the local red line on the metro. We were to regroup at Shinjuku where we will meet up with another member of the group. (This is the same hiking group back in 2009 when we scaled Rinjiani in Indonesia together.)

Since it was my first time in Japan, I felt the first fluttering signs of excitement. The scent of discovery. With a 10kg backpack and a day pack, I boarded the first train I saw waiting at the tracks. Since I was directed to it by one of the rail staff.

“Excuse me, you are in my seat,” a well-dressed lady with a guy busy putting away shopping bags said, jolting me from my daydream of an adventure. I realised then that this was the wrong train. It was the NEX, or Narita Express. For those who do not know, the NEX is JR’s express service from the airport to Tokyo and you will require a ticket to be purchased separately from the counter. It is 3,100 yen for a 30-min express ride into Tokyo.

I got off the train feeling blustered and felt a preliminary panic washing over me when I couldn’t locate which train I was supposed to be on having gone up to where I’d started on the ground level and re-directed back down to the platform. Afraid that I might miss my train and I may end up arriving off schedule at Shinjuku,  I approached two young fresh-faced rail employees or security and asked about getting to Shinjuku on the non-express line with my Suica card. (My mom who visited Tokyo about 20 years ago had a bad experience. She was pickpocketed and lost her passport. She said no one could understand or speak English and it was difficult to get help. That has certainly changed in the two decades. Of course.)

I seem to get a set of positive response when I waved the Suicia card in their faces. Bewildered looks became enlightened like there was a scientific breakthrough. They happily showed me how to get to Shinjuku and how to pay for my ride at the self-service kiosk. I was told to take the rapid line in blue to Shinagawa and then change to Yamanote line in green to Shinjuku. That must have been like 100 stations. I commented that it seemed like I am going on a long ride. The guys smiled nervously and one nodded while the other shook his head. I was resigned to my wait.

One of the guys ran somewhere and came back with a rail map for me. (It has been proven useful for all of us!) I thanked them and wandered to one of the little snack shops I passed earlier. Since it has been a complete red eye flight, I felt like a little snack to keep the energy going. Eyeballing the numerous things in the stand, my eyes rested on something which looked snackalicious without too much calories and bulk which may spoil our lunch later. It was something like cheese sticks which is cheddar-flavoured and probably smells like something fermented.

My train finally arrived after a half-hour wait. My suica card allows me to ride in the greencar carriage or the ‘business class’ carriage. I was excited. It was a two deck train and I took the upper deck which was completely empty. I was slightly suspicious as there wasn’t anyone boarding the upper deck. Then I saw the familiar rail guy who helped me earlier. He was looking for me alongside the train on the platform  to check if I was on board this train. I waved to get his attention and he smiled, nodded before walking away.

The rapid train took about 90-minutes to Shinagawa, pulling up at 80% of the stations along the way. I regretted not getting a proper sandwich before boarding though trolley girls came up to sell some snacks at major stations. The train started filling up midway through with many businessmen.

I switched lines at Shinagawa to Shinjuku and the rail system is rather efficient and easy to locate. At least for the Yamanote line since it is the main circle line for the city centre. The other 3 guys were already at Shinjuku and had a MacDonalds lunch by the time I’d arrived. We waited for another member of the group who was due to arrive in about an hour.

We continued our train marathon after the fifth member of our group arrived. The last time I’d commuted that much was on a 12-hour bus ride from Delhi Airport to Gaya after our domestic flight was cancelled.

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There was a trend. The trains got noticeably shabbier and older as we switched trains towards the countryside. We finally arrived at the town where we will take the last train to our destination.

It was also where we had our first ramen after touching down which felt like ages. For a person who doesn’t like noodles or ramen, I thought it must have been the best I’d ever tasted.

We were off our schedule that day and arrived at our guesthouse in Kawaguchiko at nightfall. We missed the last bus shuttle to the guesthouse from Kawaguchiko station. We walked mechanically to the guesthouse and were heartened by the sight of a nearby supermarket where we could get some snack supplies for our big day the next day.

K’s House was great and better than I’d expected for sure.

Of course, we set out to explore the area and visited the supermarket before it closed. It felt like ages since we last had a proper sleep. I stumbled into the shower after returning and it was probably the first time I was able to reach everything from the shower tub. I raised one arm and touched the ceiling and door. I could reach the towel rack and toilet bowl from the shower tub. I could reach the door knob from the shower tub too. It was a skill not to hit my elbow against the wall.

All in all, the ryokan style room accommodated 6 of us comfortably. We had a little game of mattress tetris laying out the mattresses in the best possible sleeping position where no one could be at the mercy of any sudden leg movements. I knocked out flat on my stomach after packing for our hike to Mt Fuji while the room was still bright and bustling with the rest packing and taking turns in the shower. Good thing I did as a lesson learnt during my last group trip was that one should always try to get into a deep sleep before the symphony of snores. I really mean a Metallica S&M orchestra. Or the zoo. I am still deciding if one of the snores was actually human.

We slept with the windows opened as the aircon wasn’t working well. We were in Japan during summer and it was humid. The cool morning air and bright sunlight woke me up. The sun came up at 5am and we could hear groans from the awakening corpses around us. It was a different experience waking up with so many people in the room. That’s a first for me, for sure. I have always enjoyed travelling alone except for some trips as such. Our last trek in Indonesia Rinjiani had us camping in twin-share tents. But I must say, that was a restful sleep. I was well-rested for Mt Fuji and boy did I need that since we will not be getting any sleep that night. Our shuttle van will leave by 8:45am to the train station where we will get our bus to the Fuji starting point. It was a rush for the toilets and we stumbled down for our breakfast. The tea room was cosy.

Fujisan

I admire the steadfastness and strength of the ageing population I’ve encountered in Japan so far on Mt Fuji and beyond. They have all shown me a graceful side of ageing. Long commuting rides drain my energy. It’s different on a roadtrip when the purpose is to explore along the way. My excitement was a little deflated after we got off at the visitor centre. It was a cloudy day. Thank goodness too as there was a lack of shelter on the trail. The only cover from trees were at the base of Mt Fuji.

It was already a little chilly at the visitor centre and I was decked out in leggings under my FBTs and a thin cotton Puma top. Without care for the fashion police, I whipped out the microfiber towel I’d brought along and used it as a scarf. A sunhat complete my outfit and I looked set as target for the fashion police but that seemed like the usual gear for the locals.

After some exaggerated stretching, we set out.

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[Part 2 in the next post!]