I’m 24! Which means I’m one year older than I was when I left. I’ve been gone a total of 346 days, and the season has again returned to fall. I’m going to get right to it in saying that this blog post is dedicated solely to how hilarious my life has been this last month. I have had 3 ridiculous experiences that I’m dying to share with you. First, climbing Mt. Fuji, second, experiencing my first Onsen (I’ll explain what an onsen is later on), and third, becoming a Japanese TV star (that’s an extreme exaggeration by the way). So, please feel free to laugh with me, and at me, as I share a few parts of my strange world with you.
Adventure 1: Fuji May I?
Last year, I celebrated my 23rd birthday with friends and family and a special guy. It was relaxing, enjoyable, and I treated myself to all my favourite things. This year, I decided to crank it up a notch (or 12) and climb Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan (also an active volcano, cause I love me some volcanoes). My initial plan, when I decided to extended my time here, was to climb Fujisan (Mt. Fuji in Japanese) at the end of September. I was then informed that it closes each year to the general public on September 10. So, at the last minute, really, I decided to head to Tokyo and do the climb on my birthday.
I had met a really cool Japanese guy when I was in Montenegro. When I told him I was moving to Japan, he said to give him a call when I decided to climb Fujisan and we would do it together. So, 7 months later, I fire off a message on Facebook, with no real expectations of him even replying. I was prepared to do this climb on my own if I had to (hahaha….. Oh Jody..). Surprisingly, he replied, and was totally up for the climb. So, after narrowly missing my bus to Tokyo (missed the last train, got in a taxi while my friend called the bus company and asked them to wait for me. Ya, typical me.) I headed to meet this guy and his friends who would be joining us. I’m just going to break this down for you here, because, if you’ve never climbed it, you’ve probably also never looked into the logistics of it. Buckle up, it’s going to get intense.The majority of people generally climb Fujisan at night, this way they reach the summit in time for sunrise. The summit is 3,776m and there are ten stations, but you start the climb at the 5th station which is 2,305m. “Oh, so you’re already over halfway there from the start”, that’s what you’re all thinking right? Well mathematically, you’re not wrong, but please hold that thought. Anyone who knew me in my middle school/high school days, knows I’ve had my struggles with breathing problems. Considering the degree of incline, I did not want to have an episode on the mountain, so I planned to take oxygen with me, and we left extra time for breaks to avoid altitude sickness. At ground level, the temperature was a balmy 30 degrees, but by the 5th station, the temperature had already dropped to 19 degrees. We started our climb at 7pm. It was misting and visibility was low, but we were in good spirits; singing, laughing, and getting to know each other. The 6th and 7th station came and went, continuing with low visibility and misty rain, but we remained happy and energetic. There were small moments of clear skies, at which point if you looked up, you could see millions and millions of perfectly clear stars. It is something I will never forget. It was around this point I realized I forgot to bring the oxygen with me. Whoops. (Flash forward: no embarrassing fits of hyperventilation were had on this climb) By the 8th station, it was pouring freezing rain and the wind was getting stronger. Most people stop at a small cabin and take a nap there, but, being the troopers we are (and how cheap I am), we decided not to pay for shelter and just keep climbing through the night. Hour 4 of climbing, temperature about 9 degrees, all clothing now soaking wet, including the extra “dry” clothing we had in our bags. We continued on, as there’s no option to turn around….. From this point on it turned into an actual climb. Setting the scene: No more walking up hill, but rather using your hands to climb from rock to rock. Starting to loose feeling in my hands and feet, wind and rain so strong we had to hold onto rocks or hide behind them at points, and God forbid you ever looked down. It was straight down and there was nothing there to stop you from falling. The boys spoke good English, but the joke of the night that kept us going came from a play on words (if you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you know that jokes, puns, and any play on words are EXTREMELY hard to learn). As we turned a corner and saw the pathway get incredibly steep, one of the boys started singing “isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful” … I looked at him in slight confusion, (easily could have been hypothermia kicking in and making us all crazy) but he looked back at me and said, “Wonder, Steepy Wonder”…. I almost fell off the mountain side I was laughing so hard. Steepy Wonder became our encouragement for the next two hours of climbing through typhoon-like weather conditions. By the 9th station I could no longer feel my hands. My shoelace came undone and I was unable to do it up because I couldn’t move my fingers (you know, like when you’re outside in winter and then you go in and try to text and your fingers move the speed of a sloth… Like that). We managed to reach the summit together after 7.5 hours of climbing (2:30am) only to realize that the warm up huts didn’t open until 4am. We found a small door frame to huddle in, and basically waited for death. I have never experienced a feeling like that, and I’m from CANADA. I actually couldn’t picture my life in an hour. I thought if I closed my eyes, I might actually never wake up. My body was shaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t feel my extremities. Somehow, I convinced myself I had to keep moving, so I marched. I’m not joking you. I marched back and forth across the summit. High knees baby! Just as I started to tire, the lights in the hut came on and everyone ran towards it like a posy of wild cats hearing a bag of Whiskas treats. (Ya I just used a cat simile… Sue me) I bought the hottest thing on the menu… Hot coffee. Unfortunately, through my seizure like shaking, I couldn’t even hold it, and spilled most of it on my hands, which actually felt good…. We headed back out, as the storm had cleared just in time for the sunrise. I have never used the phrase “I feel on top of the world” in such a literal way. The view from the summit, miles above the clouds, watching as the sun peaked over the clouds, gasping in perfect time with the 200 or so other climbers, made us forget the terrible night we just experienced. Just as the sun peaked over, and people started full out cheering, a cloud came in and covered it again. The sounds went from “ahhhh, ooooo, wowwwww” to ” noooo, ohhnooo, waaaa” but, for this disruption, we were awarded a second sunrise. Imagine that. Many people climb through the night, only to reach the top and never see a sunrise, but, we got to see two. It was a beautiful way to start my 24th year. Surrounded by unfamiliar people and new friends, in an uncomfortable amount of wet and frosty clothing (now about 1 degree), but filled with an unimaginable amount of pride and accomplishment. Of course Irene was there too, as she always is. We almost lost her during the night to the wind and rain, but she persisted, as she always does. My inspiration. They sang happy birthday to me as I held my candles on top of Mt. Fuji, and I mentally checked off another thing on my bucket list. It also marked double digits in the countdown to Canada. 99 days. I could never have done it on my own. In total, I was awake for 30 hours, and 14 of that was spent on the mountain.
Adventure 2: Lets Get Naked
So onto the next one, guys, I promise it’s worth the read. Awkward, naked, public bathing…. Okay so I regained your attention? I don’t have any picture proof that this happened, and trust me that’s for the best. Nobody wants to read this story with visual aids. (I tried adding random Japan photos here, but it doesn’t work. It has to be all story here)
So, Japan is famous for its hot springs, known as Onsens. Sure, Canada has hot springs, so why is this so different? One word: naked. In a Japanese onsen, you MUST be naked. I’ve wanted to try it for a while now, but I’m not a big fan of hot tubs or spas and I’m extremely uncomfortable being naked. If you know me from home, you know I’m extremely uncomfortable even in a bathing suit… I’m a really big fan of clothes. The second reason I had never tried an onsen, was that generally if you have a tattoo, you’re not allowed into an onsen. In Japan, tattoos are seen as a gang related symbol with the Japanese mafia. Yes, even my small Italian foot tattoo, written in cursive handwriting, with a tiny little bird, is not accepted. Things you didn’t know about me…. Secretly a member of the mafia… Why else do you think the two countries I’ve lived in are Italy and Japan…. (I got you thinking there didn’t I) For future employers Google searching me…. I want to clarify that that was a joke. I am in no way involved in the Mafia or the Yakuza.
Anyways, after my climb of Fujisan, the boys thought it would be a get idea to relax our muscles and treat ourselves by going to an onsen. Now, for Western people, this might seem like a really weird thing to do, but for Japanese people this truly is a relaxing activity. Bathing naked together. As we pulled into the parking lot, the first thing we saw was a giant sign saying “under no circumstances can we allow people with tattoos inside this onsen”. I’m sorry, but I guess we can’t go…. The guys simply responded with “no, no, it’s no problem”. As we entered the building, another sign, as we got to the reception desk, another sign. Just to clarify, men and women are separated in onsens, so, the guys would go to the men’s onsen and I would be alone in the women’s. My fear was that the staff would see my tattoo as I nakedly walked into the pool, but when they came to kick me out, I wouldn’t understand Japanese and I’d just politely nod or something like that and then they’d end up dragging me out. Naked. As I told the guys this they just said, if that happens, just wait outside for us. Great…..
So, I made my way into the changing rooms and, as pre-informed, just naked people everywhere. I mean, props to the women who are comfortable enough to hang out in an onsen with their family, friends, or coworkers, but I’m just not there yet. Now, as with anything Japanese, there are rules. Rules of course which I can’t read because I’m illiterate in Japanese. So, shyly and in a state of complete awkwardness, I just followed everyone else. Like a baby deer learning to walk on its own for the first time… Well that’s a really majestic way to describe me trying to somehow achieve a state of invisibility. Walking, well shuffling, with my legs somewhat crossed enough to cover the tattoo on the side of my left foot with my right while trying not to draw attention to myself: the only white woman in sight.
Now, they give you two towels: a big towel for after, and a tiny, hand towel sized towel to take into the onsen. So I walk out holding this tiny thing over myself like a weird sarong of sort. And there it was…. The area I had been warned about…. The washing station. I’m going to paint you a picture, close your eyes… Wait no, don’t close your eyes, keep reading…
A line of tiny wooden stools, like toddler sized, each sitting in front of a shower hose. You are expected to crouch on one of these stools, naked of course, and scrub every part of your body before entering the baths. Next, you can choose which bath to enter. This was a large onsen and had 8 options… I went into the closest one, which happened to be a laying down one with jets. It was actually quite nice, until I realized…. Laying down, the water covered nothing, it was the closest pool to the door, and I was the ONLY non-Japanese person there… It was like, every person who came into the onsen, I was just laying there, nakedly-foreignly greeting them. People were staring, and instantly I remembered my tattoo. So I went to a deeper bath that I could cover my foot, and the rest of my body for that matter. The hot water, mixed with no sleep, no food, and complete exhaustion, made my stomach queasy, and I desperately wanted to take a dip in the cold bath, but nobody had touched it and I wasn’t about to be the first. Like, oh, typical Westerner doing the opposite of everyone else. Finally, someone tried it out and I waited until they left (as it was a really small bath) and then I hopped in. It was so cold and felt so good, but as soon as I got in, like 7 people joined me. I kid you not, it was like naked shoulder to naked shoulder. I was just standing there like…. What do I do next? I’m going to cut it short and say I got out of there awkwardly, but successfully without accidentally violating anyone. When I met up with the boys in the lobby again, they asked, “so, how was it? Did you make any friends?” (Dead serious) Friends?! Friends?! A: I can’t speak Japanese, and B: I was NUDE!
So there you have it folks. The story of my first onsen. Oh ya, I also giggle when I’m really uncomfortable…. So that happened too.
Adventure 3: Big in Japan
Finally, I know you’re all wondering if I’m Big in Japan yet. Well, I truly don’t know how to answer that one. I mean, literally speaking, I am significantly larger than pretty much all of the women here, and many of the men as well. So I’m going to go with yes, I am big in Japan. In reference to stardom, I’m going to have to say no, but I’ll tell you about it anyways.
Friends of mine own this awesome little cosplay photo studio in Osaka. He is American and she is Japanese, and they do all sorts of traditional to modern cosplay shoots. Most of my coworkers have had their pictures done at the studio and they all turned out awesome. There is a TVshow in Japan called Kansai Joho Net Ten, I think it’s operated by YTV, but I could be wrong (sincere apologies, but I don’t even own a TV in Japan so I have no idea), and my friends got the opportunity to have their studio appear in a episode. The show was looking for some foreigners to partake in the episode and they asked me to be one of them. Obviously I said heck yes! So, I showed up without knowing anything that was going to happen. It was myself, another Canadian guy, an American guy, and a family of 4 Chinese people. We were instructed to go to a seafood market and purchase fresh seafood. Again, if you know me, you know how much I absolutely DESPISE seafood. So when the old shopkeeper jokingly came at me with a live lobster, I FREAKED out, screamed, and jumped backwards, almost knocking over a tub full of fresh eel. They were filming at this time, and a crowd of people had gathered around the store in hopes they would see someone famous inside (sorry for the disappointment). I tried to keep my cool, and purchased lobster, clams, shrimp, octopus, and some beef. The crew walked ahead of us, filming as we walked down the streets of Shinsaibashi. People were taking pictures of us with their phones, clearly thinking we were some sort of celebrities. I couldn’t help but laugh.
They took us to a tiny shop where we were taught how to make たこやき takoyaki (basically dough balls with, usually, octopus inside). たこTako means octopus. やき yaki is like, grilled. It’s actually quite difficult to get the hang of it. After many burns and casualties (the takoyaki, not people), we finally were able to enjoy some delicious takoyaki featuring different ingredients. I even tried some seafood for the camera. Octopus is ok, beef was great, shrimp I’d rather not, and clam I wanted to throw up. Next we headed over to the studio (Japanese Cosplay Photo) and I had my first experience in a kimono. A not so traditional kimono actually. At the studio they had so many awesome outfit options, but I got to try one of the traditional-meets-modern-with-a-twist outfits. The crew filmed as Sayaka dressed me in the many layers that make up a kimono, and pose me with traditional Japanese props.
I was so happy with the pictures and the experience, I went back and got a few more pictures done in both the traditional kimono and the short, unique one. I’m so happy I have such an awesome souvenir to take home with me and I would definitely recommend this to anyone in Japan. Check them out!
So my TV debut is set to air next week and I’m awaiting to see what scenes actually make it on TV…. My guess, is it will be the scene of me screaming at the lobster. So this month has awarded me with some unforgettable experiences. In the next few weeks I’ll be going to my first Hanshin Tigers baseball game, spending the day at Universal Studios Japan, and taking a trip to Hiroshima, all while starting to wrap things up here. I have given my resignation at all three jobs, gave my move out date for my house, started working on closing my bank and phone account, and even set a date for my sayonara party (which I get to share with one of my great friends who is also leaving Japan at the same time). I’m missing the fall vibes from home: pumpkin spice lattes, crunchy leaves, hazelnut everything, and my fall playlist (yes I have a set playlist for each season), but on the bright side, I found pumpkin pie here. I’m now taking suggestions for a Halloween costume. My ideas so far include Sailor Moon (come on people, I’m in Japan), a storm trooper, or _______________________. Fill in the blank and help a hopeless hallowe’ener out.
Happy fall! The countdown is on. Mark your calendars, December 13 my feet touch Canadian snow again.
Forever and always,
Your Armstrong Abroad