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.
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.
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.
[Part 2 in the next post!]