Discovery Intern: Land of the Rising Sun

The weather puts a dampener on my trip to Mt Fuji.

At 5:05am, the night’s silence is pierced with a shrill disturbance as the alarm goes off – an event followed by mad scrambling and fingers stabbing blindly, hoping to connect with any button that will rid my eardrums of the disorienting noise. Bang! *pillow comes flying at me*, Guy, my trusty travel companion is up, dragging his body like a zombie across the room to get the first shower.

This has been the start of my day for a consecutive five weeks. The life of a creator. Up before the sun, and on location before any other soul has the chance to stir. In these moments, coffee became my greatest friend. I hastily dress, grab a handful of charged camera batteries, and head outside.

There’s something special about wandering the streets of a foreign country as the rising sun gradually removes the black-point off any shadows. Sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes too quiet. A distant bus motor idling, the faint smell of smoke or cooked food lingering in the air, and maybe a stray cat trying to figure its way into a rusty bin. This morning was different though, we were in Tokyo and our first destination would be the busiest that day – the subway.

I’d always dreamed about seeing Mount Fuji. It reminded me of Taranaki, a mighty mountain back home in New Zealand, but Fuji always seemed out of touch and too far away for a kid growing up on the other side of the world. Today would (hopefully) be the day I changed that dream into reality. Mountains have a special awe about them that attracts people, and drawn closer than most are the adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts among us. If I were asked to reminisce about a feeling of absolute euphoria, it would probably begin with watching sunrise from the peak of a tall mountain. Climbing Fuji would have to wait for another time, but I was hoping to at least get some great memories from today, and ideally some sweet photos too.

You may have no idea how tricky it is to navigate in a country where every word is a character your brain fails to recognise. The Japanese calligraphy of Hiragana and Katagana I studied years ago never prepared me to read Kanji, the Chinese influenced characters used alongside the former two literally EVERYWHERE in Tokyo. This meant I was frequently tackling the language head-on, or playing a game of ‘memory’ with the few characters I actually recognised, hoping they made enough of one word to tell me I was headed in the right direction. Let’s face it though, sometimes the best way to get somewhere is to just ‘hack it’ and go with your gut. Through a mixture of luck, and with the help of a kind lady at an info desk, I eventually found myself on a bus departing for Kawaguchiko – a lake town near the base of Mount Fuji.

As the sun rose higher, my heart sank. The weather forecast had grown worse overnight, and we were headed towards a pretty moody area over the distant hills. It didn’t look like many Fuji photos would be taking place… actually any.

Two hours later, I arrived at Kawaguchiko. We wandered down to the lake to find an area for that classic reflection shot of Fuji Yama. As suspected, no mountain, which was mildly disheartening considering that was the primary reason for planning the trip. In moments like that, my brain has been trained to say something like “Hey bro! You’re here for the better part of the day anyway, so let’s find somewhere awesome to go!”

Too right! Time to catch a train to Chureito Pagoda and enjoy the experience for everything it was.

The hike up the pagoda was FUUNNNN following around 400 steep stairs (only 400?? Is that a Wiki number? It definitely felt like there were 10x more!) straight up the face of a hill. I swear any stored energy my body had maintained from any hotdogs I consumed in New York was burned off instantly. On the way, we passed a small shrine, with a customary water fountain or Temizuya out the front. I took the time during this short break to learn about the cleansing ceremony required prior to entering many shrines in Japan. It’s quite a detailed process, but it’s something I think everyone visiting Japan should take the time to read up about, in case a shrine or temple visit is on the cards.

Reaching the Pagoda, it was magnificent! There were cherry trees and maples everywhere in brilliant red autumn colours. Fuji was still absent, but that didn’t stop us from trying some creative angles! Unfortunately, it also didn’t stop Mother Nature from dumping a constant tirade of water from the sky wherever we walked.

And then we saw it … Bear in area, please be aware.

Um, what? Is that all? A million thoughts racing through my mind at the same time… Are Japanese bears dangerous? Are they big? Oh wow, that would make a dope photo! Would I take the shot or run? Should I run? Should I be worried? As you can tell, it was a pretty new experience for me. Eventually we decided that should we encounter a bear, Guy would be used as bait, while I would at least get one photo of the event to tell the story (I’m just kidding guys, but seriously, that scenario was a consideration). At the end of the day, and after walking numerous forest trails while maintaining constant bear-awareness, we decided to head back down that insane staircase. Not going to lie, Guy and I were both pretty disappointed we didn’t meet our big furry friend.

As you can imagine, a day of hiking around Fuji carrying bags loaded with camera gear left us exhausted! Back in Kawaguchiko, it was getting pretty cold, and none of the restaurants or food places were open till later in the evening. Through some miracle, we found a hearty feed at the local convenience store and back to the bright lights and busy streets of Tokyo. I still don’t know for sure, but looking out the back window as the sunlight faded, I saw the clouds move for a brief moment to reveal the famous silhouette I had been waiting for all day. It was hard to confirm against the dusk sky, but I like to think that I did see Fuji before I left Japan, just that one time.

That’s the end of my story for now, but I’ll finish with three ‘pro tips’ you can take home from my experience that day.

  1. Weather in any mountainous region changes rapidly, so check the weather in Kawaguchiko the morning before you go, and have something else planned as a backup if you think Fuji will spend the day hiding under cloud cover.

  2. Express buses and trains head to Fuji from most major stations in Tokyo all day, but if you haven’t bought a pre-booked return ticket package, you need to get to the appropriate station EARLY! Seats for each direction fill up fast and are first come, first served. When you get to Fuji, buy the returning ticket ASAP from the station you arrive at, then enjoy the rest of your day without having to stress about negotiating some sitting space in the storage compartment of the last bus.

  3. Finally, be prepared for the cold. The area is quite a few degrees chillier than Tokyo, so packing that extra fleece or puffer jacket isn’t going to be such a bad idea. It can get pretty windy too!

Oh, and if you do see a bear, you’re on your own. I have no wisdom to impart for such a situation, but if you manage to walk away with a solid photo, I’ll definitely give you a high five!

– Kaleb Anderson