Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gangnam Style!

For those who don't know, Gangnam is an actual, real place in Seoul. It's basically the Beverly Hills of the city. And it's also pretty huge, incorporating numerous sub-areas within its district. While I didn't go to Gangnam proper (i.e. Gangnam Station--the area actually called 'Gangnam'), I went to Samseong, one of the areas within the overall district. And I chose to go there because it's home to COEX Mall, the largest underground shopping mall in the entirety of Asia. (According to Wikipedia, it's about 85,000 square meters.) Within the mall is a huge aquarium, an enormous, 2-story movie theater, a kimchi museum, 2 food courts, a massive bookstore, and a ton of other stores that you'd typically find in a mall. It's also home to convention centers, stages, etc. It's so massive that you can get maps to take with you through the mall because even people who frequent the place tend to get lost while there. While it's not at the top of the lists, it's usually on the lists of one of the things to check out while in Korea.

Unfortunately, it also began massive renovations this year and will be under renovations until early 2014, so I'm assuming the place wasn't as bumpin' as it usually would be. Still, outside of one shop I went into (which I'll get to later), I didn't notice any real effects of the renovations.

The entrance to the mall is connected to the Samseong subway station, so it was pretty easy to find. You just walk through this outdoor area that has a few food places and head in through the main doors on the other side.

I got to the mall around 10:30-ish in the morning to give myself plenty of time to get lost on my way to my first stop--the COEX Aquarium. But really, while the aquarium was on the completely opposite side of the mall from the entrance, there were signs everywhere that pointed you in that direction, so I found it with no problems.

The aquarium itself cost about 20 bucks to get in. It's split up into 4-5 different themed areas. At first I was really worried I'd just wasted 20 bucks, because the first area is pretty dull. It's just regular looking (and some really ugly) fish. The atmosphere of the aquarium itself was nice, but the fish weren't that exciting. However, the further you went into the place, the crazier things got. Fish became bigger and/or more exotic. Then you had things like stingrays and sharks and giant eels and octopus and jellyfish and manatees. And there were even a few areas with non-aquatic creatures like monkeys, penguins, and squirrels. I was in there about an hour, and I thought it was pretty cool and stylized well. I think it was worth almost exactly what I paid for it, though not much more than that. And I'm not sure I could see the point of buying year-round passes for it, unless you like coming during the times they do shark and penguin feeding (which I wasn't there for, sadly). Anyway, here are a handful of pictures; as usual, more will go up on my Facebook than I put here. And I'm also putting up one video that I filmed of some color-changing jellyfish.

(NOTE: You can't really tell in the pictures, but a lot of these fish or other creatures were massive in size.)

After the aquarium, I had a lot of time to kill. I had pre-ordered a movie ticket for later in the afternoon, and I still had about 3 hours or something left until I needed to be at the theater (which was actually right next to the aquarium). So I ended up checking out the massive bookstore. Though heading that way, I noticed a big line forming around some kind of exhibition. It was for the Nintendo 3DS with banners and screens promoting the upcoming Pokemon X and Y games. So I'm not 100%, but I think maybe it was a demo exhibition for the games?

Anyway, I went into the bookstore, which was big enough to get lost in, in and of itself. Sadly, the place would have been better had English books not been relegated to a small chunk off to the side. In a place that had hundreds of aisles and tables and whatnot, the English section was maybe 5 aisles and 2 tables. And it wasn't like the area was devoid of life, either. There were quite a few Koreans who made their way around that section of the store.

So I walked around there for a while until I decided it was lunch time. This is where a lot of walking commenced. I was sad because all the blogs I read about COEX Mall, almost everybody went to this place called Kraze Burger. Sadly, it didn't seem to be there anymore. Instead, after much walking and deliberating, I decided to just go to Mr. Pizza (a popular pizza company here). I got a regular hawaiian pizza, and it was pretty delicious. The pineapple used was in huge chunks and actually had a hawaiian pineapple flavor to it.

I still had a lot of time to kill, but I figured I might as well pick up my movie ticket so they could delegate me a decent seat (since there's assigned seating in all movie theaters in Korea). Again, I nearly got lost within this massive theater just trying to find the ticket counter, but I eventually found it and got my ticket, and then I headed back on out to the mall again. (I was hoping for maybe an arcade or something inside, especially for its size, but no luck.)

I walked around aimlessly again for a while before going into this music shop. This was the one store I mentioned earlier that seemed to be affected by the renovations. All the shelves were nearly bare, even though they did have a good variation between k-pop and English music. They even had a jazz section and a classical music room towards the back. So this didn't really kill much time. I ended up going back to the bookstore to see if there were any other English sections that I might have missed due to its size. No luck there. But I spent the remainder of my time here until I needed to go back to the theater.

I had to wait for a little bit before they let us into the actual auditorium. It was pretty easy to find my seat once I got in, though they had me almost in the far back/top. I thought I'd hate that at first, but it turned out to be a pretty good seat. And I was so happy with this theater in comparison to the one I'm used to going to here. This one not only had an actually good-sized screen, but it had nice stadium seating and good cushioned seats (if a little narrow). This is a theater I'd like to come back to for any major movie I'm really anticipating. (Oh, and I saw Snowpiercer. It was really good, but I don't recommend seeing it when it's released everywhere else because the Weinstein's are planning on cutting out 20 minutes of important sections of the movie because they feel story and character development is too much for American audiences who just need non-stop action.)

When the film finished, I was ready to head on home. I'd seen pretty much everything there was to see at the mall, with the exception of the Kimchi Museum (sorry--don't care much for kimchi). I was tempted to stop by Baskin Robbins for some ice cream, but ultimately decided against it.

On the way out, this 4-girl rock band had set up near the entrance/exit and started playing. I thought they were actually pretty good (I might have even bought a CD had they been selling any), though about half the audience never really stuck around for much. I stayed for a song and a half, mostly because they were right near the outskirts of the mall where the air conditioning wasn't that strong and the humidity was catching up to me. I couldn't find any band name anywhere, unfortunately, but I did get a few pictures of them.

So that was my COEX Mall/Gangnam adventure. I'm sure there are other areas of Gangnam I could eventually check out as well, but this was good enough for now. It wasn't the most exciting outing I've ever had, but it was good enough for a half-day's entertainment.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Summer Camp

So here in Korea, even though you're on summer break, you're not really on summer break. This goes for both teachers and students. For example, I am allotted 20 days that I can take off for vacation throughout the school year. However, these days can only be taken during set times when school is "out." Unlike in the States, you can't just take a day off when you want, like a "mental health day." Why? Because they don't do substitute teachers here. So if you're sick or something... unless you're dying or in the hospital, you need to be there, because there's nobody to really take your classes over for you.

So, during times such as summer break, unless you're taking holiday time, you still have to go to school. But you don't just sit there, either. Our school in particular has those extra afternoon classes I already discussed, and those continue to stay in session (except for that one week I was in Tokyo--there were no classes at all that week, though teachers still had to be there). But not only that, schools in Korea implement "camps." Summer Camp is an extra, voluntary string of classes that students can sign up for to come to for one week during the break. Each session lasts 90 minutes a day for the full week per grade level. And then the next week, we get new grade levels and start over.

Naomi and I have had to plan this camp for at least a month now, as camps are built around themes. The theme we came up with for this summer is Summer Olympics, with each day focusing on a different area of the olympics. It was both an easy and stressful first week, as we were still wrapping things up about each lesson as the week went on, trying to solidify our activities and games. On top of that, we also had to prepare for our afternoon classes with no real time to do so. Anyway, here is how the week went (for this first week, Naomi dealt with 4th graders, and I had 5th graders).

Monday (Opening Ceremony)

Naomi was mostly in charge of putting this one together. We showed a video of London 2012's opening ceremony highlights, went over some sports vocabulary, and then had students work together to make up posters with their own made-up countries (they had to make a name, population, capital city, primary language, map, and flag). Oh, and we played some games, too, like a variation of Duck Duck Goose using vocabulary words instead of saying Duck or Goose. Oh, and we taught them "We Will Rock You" by Queen.

I only had 4 boys this first day, which made things pretty interesting. Nothing particularly unexpected happened on this first day except for that fact, either.

Tuesday (Track and Field)

Again, Naomi was mostly in charge of putting this one together. We also started off with a video highlighting track and field events and taught new vocabulary. And there were random games and activities tossed in that helped them with the new terms. The biggest activity we had this day was making origami jumping frogs which the kids would then try to race each other with. It was a bit difficult and a mild success, but it was overall fine. I had all 9 kids that had signed up for 5th grade.

But the most interesting aspect about Tuesday happened behind the scenes. Wednesday was set to be Water Sports day, which I had mainly put together. One of the activities planned was to make cardboard/rubber band boats which would be raced in a tub of water. However, there were some technical difficulties in making the boats. The cardboard we had was not thick enough, meaning when we tried to put on the rubber bands, the whole thing nearly bent in half. There was no way we could get it to work. We wondered about getting some popsicle sticks to help sturdy things out, though our co-teacher said they might be difficult to come by. But she would look into it. I tried pencils, as well. The theory worked, but the pencil method was a bit impractical. In order to avoid a total failure of a class, we had to switch our planned Wednesday and Thursdays around, meaning it was now into the afternoon (during which we had classes) and we needed to finish everything for Thursday's classes a day ahead of schedule.

We rushed, but we managed to get everything ready. However, this was not the only impending disaster. On this afternoon, my afternoon co-teacher missed an entire class (meaning I had to do it alone) because it appeared the fridge in our teacher's room had broken and started flooding the office. They seemed to get it under control before we left. Seemed being the key word.

Wednesday (Team Sports)

Tuesday night, I had meant to take home some stuff to work on for this day, but one of our co-teachers was in a rush to leave that afternoon, and I ended up forgetting my flash drive in my computer at the school. So I was going to have to finish the prep for that particular game at school this morning.

Unfortunately, as I step into our office that morning, I discover basically the whole floor is underwater. And I don't mean just like a thin layer as if somebody spilled a cup of water. No, this was the kind where you could scoop up water into a bucket in certain areas. And what was most dangerous was that it was completely surrounding the computers/electrical plugs and wires. But the afternoon co-teacher, although aware of the situation, was doing her zero-hour type class and couldn't be bothered to do much about the issue. So the office is underwater, and I still need to use one of the computers to make one of our activities for camp.

When Naomi shows up, we grab some mops (which are the worst mops ever. They're soaked in 2 seconds, and they don't have drainers, so you had to put on some gloves and squeeze the little mop rope thingies by hand into a bucket). We eventually took the roles of her mopping and me squeezing before two of our co-teachers came in. They began to work on the water situation while I went to one of the classrooms to work on the activity real quick. Then I came back and helped more with mopping/squeezing things up. We got things dried up to the best of our abilities, and I was able to hop on Naomi's computer to print stuff off since the water didn't quite reach her area. And some guys came in to look at the burst water pipe and turn off the water and all that, too. I finished the activity and got it to Naomi for her camp class in time and was able to switch back over to my computer area, which had dried up enough.

So as for the actual camp class, we started with another video (this one I actually put together myself the night before--Wednesday and Thursday were primarily the days I put together). Our focus was on sports like basketball, volleyball, rugby, etc. And we also focused on some sentence structure, too, which we did a few of the days this week (different sentences each day). This particular day was full of games. We did a team-picking activity followed by tug of war. We played a Bullseye Frisbee game where the students had to answer a question to get a toss, and then toss the frisbee into a bullseye target on the floor for points. There was a volleyball/pass the ball style game. And then a memory/matching game (which is the one I spent all morning trying to put together). It went pretty well. I had 8 students this day.

But we still had to figure out the boats situation for the next day, and our revelation came at lunch time. Naomi had made and brought kimbap for everyone, and as we're getting ready to go to the other room for lunch, one of our co-teachers takes out some wooden chopsticks for us to use. And that's when it hit us--chopsticks! Why hadn't we thought of that before? I spent part of that afternoon making another boat with the chopsticks to see if it worked and--ta da!--it did. So we finished prepping for the rest of the next day and everything appeared to be fine.

Thursday (Water Sports)

Sadly, there was a mishap in Naomi's class during the making of the boats and nobodies ended up working. And they spent a lot of time on the boats, so they didn't have a chance to do everything else on the lesson. But come my class, everything worked fine. We started with another video that I put together based on swimming, diving, rowing, and water polo. Then we made our boats, which worked out well. Then we had a little race tournament, which the kids loved. After the break, we did a balloon race/popping game with ordinal numbers and played a board game with little swimmers and a cardboard pool. I had only 7 students this day.

Overall this day was pretty successful, at least on my end. And I even managed to get some video footage of the boat races! Check it out.

Friday (Closing Ceremony)

Kind of an off day. Everyone was tired from everything and was ready to end the week already. Naomi and my classes were planned differently as she had some classes that needed to finish activities from earlier in the week first. As for mine, we watched a closing ceremony highlights video. Then we taught them (at least partially) "We Are The Champions" by Queen. We played a review game (which was really fun because of how it played out in points and point swapping, etc.). Watched another funny cartoon video where stick figures get hurt doing Olympic things. Played one last game. Then we awarded a gold medal to the student who won the most stickers throughout the week (based on games and whatnot). They had snack time and then left.

And that was about it! Now I get to do it all over again this coming week with 6th graders. Hopefully it goes a lot more smoothly since we have everything finalized from the start.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Final Thoughts On My Tokyo Experience

So the trip is over. I made it home fine. I can now say I've been to Tokyo. You've most likely read my blow-by-blows of each day, but what about the other, littler things? And what about that whole Scavenger Hunt list? And what were my favorite and least favorite experiences? That's what this post is about.

Also, here's a quick link area if you want to go back and read about all my experiences:

Anyway, first up, I wanted to make a few random comments about random things I noticed while in Japan.

Ten Random Things

1) Tokyo really is very expensive. I kept forgetting just how much I was spending on stuff because I would continually get my mindset confused with Korea. Both countries are very similar in their number systems, where they use more hundreds and thousands for smaller numbers. For example, in Korea, 1,000 Won is basically a dollar. But in Japan, 1,000 Yen is 10 bucks. Because my brain has been wired to Korean Currency for so long now, I'd forget that pretty big difference. A good example in price differences? Water. In Korea, I could get a huge bottle of water for like 50 cents. In Tokyo, I could get that same size, maybe even a little smaller, and pay close to 2 bucks. It also doesn't help that a lot of their smaller currencies (anything below 1,000) is in coins, not paper. And I'm really used to coins not being 1-5 bucks.

2) Anyone in customer service is almost creepily happy and helpful. They don't even hint that they are unhappy with their positions or don't want to be there that day or are frustrated with you or anyone else. They are there to serve you in the best way possible, and they will be happy about it. And they can't even take tips!

3) Money exchange from hand to hand seems to be a no-no. They have money trays that you put your payment on, and then the cashier will pick it up from there. And then they'll place the change down there for you to pick up, as well. I did do hand-to-hand exchanges sometimes, but I don't think I was supposed to.

4) It's funny just how different fashion is between Korea and Japan. For the men in Tokyo, the most common thing you saw was black or dark blue slacks with a white button-down shirt. That was like every single man in Tokyo. There were, of course, exceptions... but a sea of black and white was insanely common. The real noticeable differences was with the women, though. In Korea, looks are all about the body--plastic surgery; fresh, pale skin; hair color (usually red); all legs, no visible chest/shoulders. For Korean girls/women (not in business-wear), it's all about looking as sexy as possible, and that starts with the body. But for Japanese girls/women, it's about the fashion and looking kawaii (cute/adorable). You will see females in outfits almost nobody else in any other country would wear (or could even pull off). But they have to look as cute as they can, because that's just how the fashion works there.

5) There was a crazy amount of Europeans in Tokyo. In Korea, if you see a white person (generally in Seoul), they are most likely either American, Canadian, or Australian. But in Tokyo, the most common accents I heard were French and German (lots of French). And a bit of Italian, too. In fact, while there were far more white people in Tokyo than in Seoul, it seemed very few were actually American.

6) Thirsty? You can find vending machines everywhere in Tokyo. And I mean everywhere. You can't turn a corner without seeing one or two. Of course Japan is also famous for having vending machines for random things inside--anything from cigarettes to panties--but I only saw cigarette machines out of the weird ones.

7) The Tokyo JR train system is good, but I prefer the Seoul Subway system. Once you figure out the Tokyo system, it's super easy to find your way around, but it's not as extensive as the Seoul one. The JR system doesn't take you everywhere, and sometimes you would have to take an actual train or a different system altogether (though I never went anywhere that required me to do that). Or buses. But in Korea, the trains will literally take you basically anywhere you need to go, and you don't have to worry about having the right metro card or what have you.

8) Oddly enough, I found the Japanese people stare at you more than Koreans, which is funny to me considering I saw far more foreigners in Japan than in Korea.

9) The Japanese really do not like you to film or take pictures in a lot of places. I noticed this quite a bit while wanting to take pictures. There were signs everywhere telling you photography was not allowed.

10) Finally, a little about my hotel. It was pretty nice. The room was small, but that didn't bother me whatsoever. It had everything I needed. And I actually got pretty used to the weird buckwheat/bean-filled pillows. They were actually kinda nice. And it was so awesome to have such great air conditioning. The hotel also had pretty much anything I needed, and a Family Mart convenience store within the building was super helpful. And as we all know by now, it wasn't too far from Shinjuku Station, which was nice, but it still wasn't the easiest to get back from (until I finally learned how to work it near the end).

The Scavenger Hunt

OK, so I was challenged with a Scavenger Hunt of things to get pictures of while in Japan. I did this to the best of my abilities. I wasn't able to do it all, but I got what I could. I've posted most of these pictures already, but here they are in one easy location:

1) A Shinto Shrine

2) A PokeMon Center

3) A Hello Kitty Statue

4) A Totoro Statue

(Note: I couldn't go to the Ghibli Museum, so I couldn't get this one. But I did get some Totoro plushies?)

5) A Japanese McDonald's

6) A Cigarette Vending Machine

7) A Dance Dance Revolution Machine

8) A Ramen Shop

(As close as I was gonna get)

9) Mt. Fuji

(Lots of Fuji pictures... here's one looking down it)

10) A Maid Cafe

11) Shibuya Crossing

12) Tokyo Tower

(Note: I'm pretty sure this was Tokyo Tower. I couldn't make it to the tower itself, but I think this was it in the distance--taken from the bus to DisneySea.)

There was also a bonus for a random Sumo wrestler, but I knew that wasn't gonna happen. Sumo is currently out of season, I believe. And I would have had to go to a specific place within Tokyo to see training or a show, even if it were in season. But anyway, that's the list! I think I got everything the best I could.

Favorites/Least Favorites

Now that it's all said and done, what did I end up liking the most? And what did I not care for? Here's a list, ranked from Least Favorite to Favorite, of everything I did/everywhere I went while in Japan. You can read in more detail about each of these things, if you haven't already, in the last week's worth of posts.

13) Climbing Mt. Fuji

I can't say enough that this was the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. 

12) Shinjuku (Traveling/Navigating)

I grew a special new kind of hatred for Shinjuku over the week I was there. It's like every time I thought I got something down, it threw something new at me to screw me up. I did eventually figure out how to navigate Shinjuku Station how I needed to. But as soon as I did that, I was pretty much done needing the trains and started needing buses. And the bus stations in Shinjuku are more difficult to find/get to than navigating Shinjuku Station itself. And because I seemed to spend quite a bit of time in Shinjuku (as that's where my hotel was), I came to really dislike the area for its confusing layout.

11) Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Shinjuku)

On the other hand, this is the first real thing I visited in Tokyo, besides my hotel. It's nothing special, but I did get to see a nice night view of the city from the Observation Deck.

10) Takeshita Street (Harajuku)

It's a colorful and fascinating place, and I would have liked to see it on a Sunday as you're really meant to. But a lot of the shops were geared for girls, and the foreigner salesmen were really pushy and bothersome. But the crepes are a definite must.

9) Akihabara (Shops/Arcades)

Still in part due to the rain that day, but--with one exception--I felt this was quite the let down. I was super excited about Akihabara, but the experience wasn't really worth all those years of anticipation. It's neat, but not much more than that.

8) Shibuya Crossing

This was more of a "See Before You Die" thing. There's not much more to it than sitting in a Starbucks and watching people cross the street--then going down and doing it yourself. It's almost anticlimactic, since there's not much to it. But, like seeing Times Square in New York City, it's just that one thing you have to do while in Tokyo.

7) PokeMon Center

A PokeMon fan paradise. I imagined it being a little bigger than it was, and a lot of the stuff was geared towards the newer games than the original ones, but it was still really nifty and had a fun atmosphere to it all. And like a handful of other things in Tokyo, it really made me feel like a little kid again.

6) Meiji Shrine (Harajuku)

Super peaceful and beautiful. I actually preferred the garden path over the shrine itself, but it's a definite must-see if you're in the area. 

5) Maid Cafe

Yes, it was awkward and embarrassing. But I can't deny that it's also something I'm never going to forget.

4) Nakano Broadway

Now this was more what I was expecting out of Akihabara. This mall was awesome, and I probably could have blown all my money here if I hadn't restrained myself (I still somewhat regret not buying those Dragonball Z sketches from the original artists). But I'm glad I didn't, because as you know... money got tight near the end.

3) Fuji Sunrise

I might have hated my Fuji climb, but the sunrise itself was quite an experience. I'm not sure if it was 100% worth it, but I'm definitely happy I saw it.

2) Ueno Park/Zoo

Sure there are zoos all over the world, but this one was just so much fun with every kind of animal you can think of. I had a blast over the 3 hours I was there. I probably could have spent my entire day in Ueno Park, too, with all the other museums and stuff they had there. If I ever go back to Tokyo, I'm setting aside a whole day just for Ueno Park.

1) DisneySea

Hands down the best day in Tokyo. Yeah, it's the least cultural thing I did, but DisneySea can also only be experienced in Tokyo, so I don't regret it whatsoever. You can't hate being at a Disney theme park, even if you're waiting in queues for hours by yourself. I totally want to go back already.


And that's it! Those are my final thoughts on my Tokyo experience. It was incredibly exhausting, but I don't regret like 90% of it. Maybe some years down the road I can go back and hit the areas I missed out on (and even some places outside of Tokyo, like Kyoto). I hope you enjoyed reading about and seeing pictures/videos of my experiences there, as well!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Tokyo/Fuji: Days 5 & 6 (Thursday/Friday)

It's all kind of been building to this, hasn't it? The Mt. Fuji journey. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yes, I actually did stuff prior to walking up the tallest mountain in Japan. First, and least interesting of all, I slept in pretty late after the long day at DisneySea the day before. Yeah, I know. Riveting stuff. And then I had to finish putting together the DisneySea post.


But after that, I actually made my way to Hamamatsucho Station (a solid 30 minutes from Shinjuku) so I could finally visit the PokeMon Center. Because really, the thing that started me towards my want to visit Japan was my obsession with PokeMon as a kid. Of course that eventually expanded into other things, but PokeMon is where it really all began. And, if you don't know, there are huge shops called PokeMon Centers (so named after their video game counterparts) that sell anything and everything PokeMon related you can think of.

Turns out it was super easy to find, as it was in a building that was almost right next to the train station (and there was even a sign in the station that pointed you in the right direction--that's how popular it is). Though if that weren't enough, there were hoards of children with Pikachu hats heading into the station from the direction of the store. I also even found a video online that walked you right to the front doors. I was pretty set on finding this easily, and I did. And I think I probably spent a good hour inside just wandering around and looking at everything. And, yes, I bought a few things. Nothing major, as a lot of the stuff there was geared toward newer generations rather than the original 150. Though the store did have a huge lean towards Pikachu and Eevee (and all the Eeveelutions). I'd say after that was probably MewTwo and then Charizard and Blastoise. But I'm getting… well, not off topic, but I doubt many of you care this much about PokeMon.

And then I headed back to the hotel. I ate a quick lunch at the Italian restaurant (a very garlic-y, though still good, pasta). 

And then I wrapped up a few more things on the DisneySea post before I had to hurry off downstairs to do an early checkout, have them hold my luggage, and by some water and snacks for the big trek.

Now, I set a reservation for a there-and-back bus ticket from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal. It would take me right to the 5th Station halfway up the mountain and then back again in the morning. And the bus station (different from the other one I went to) appeared pretty easy to find from all the maps. Of course, unlike the PokeMon Center, it wasn't.

I had even left a good 45 minutes to an hour early just to give myself time. I found a bus station, but there were no ticket counters or anything. Just the buses. I asked one of the bus drivers for help, though he couldn't speak English. He just kind of awkwardly pointed me in a diagonal direction. I headed that way when I magically stumbled upon two young Japanese guys with hiking gear and water, and I knew I could just follow them right to the bus station. So I followed them.

And I'm sure you know where this is going.

They had no idea where to go, either. In fact, they were more lost than I was. They had me going in circles and would take off running at random points, making it really difficult on me to keep up. And I did eventually lose them. But it was too late anyway. My reservation time had passed by at least 10 minutes. I stood around a street corner, entirely lost for what to do. Even the Japanese dudes, with their Japanese language skills, couldn't get proper directions from people, so how would I?

But then I saw a couple white dudes, also with hiking gear and water, say something to the effect of "There it is!" and enter this tiny little corner shop that's not particularly labeled properly. I entered and, sure enough, there it was. But we know how complicated my life likes to make things like this on me. Turns out all the direct buses to the 5th Station were completely booked. So the lady ended up booking me the next bus for some place called Kawaguchiko and said something about a transfer. So I put my life in her hands, trusting she knew what she was doing, and bought the ticket.

Long story short (too late), Kawaguchiko Station is right near Mt. Fuji and has direct buses to the main 5th Station halfway up. So after a 2-hour bus ride to that station, I bought another ticket (which thankfully also acted as a 2-way return ticket the next day) and took another 50-minute bus ride up the mountain. I also had the pleasure of sitting around a bunch of annoying Dude-Bros (male and female) who were just one "brah" short of filling out the stereotypical Californian thrill-seeker.


(Note: I feel like I'm not going to do any of what follows in this section justice, so if it sounds bad, it was probably 10 times worse, and if it sounds good, it was probably even better.)

I finally reached the 5th Station and bought my walking stick (and another, smaller water to compliment my large bottle… just in case). It was already starting to sprinkle, though it wasn't too terribly cold at this point. It was roughly 9 PM at this point. I put on my head-light and began my trek into darkness (no Spock, sadly). And yeah, it was dark. Very dark. And eventually the clouds hit and it became that much more difficult to see. But what worried me at the very beginning was that I was going downhill. Why was climbing a mountain making me go downhill? And I knew I was on the right path. There weren't really many people around at this point, but there were a few who had started ahead of me.
Front of the 5th Station shop
And then the uphill began. And by uphill, I mean Up. Hill. It wasn't long before I began questioning myself. To kind of tease how this turned out, I'll say this: I've done a lot of stupid things in my life, but this was--by far--the stupidest. Like, sincerely… I cannot stress this enough… it was the stupidest, most terrifying, life-threatening, exhausting thing I've ever done. And I'm not hyperbolizing the life-threatening part. I was, at many points, afraid for my health and well-being. But let's back up just slightly. And just to give you an idea of what the trail and stops are like, here's an identical map to what I had (click to make it larger). It's the Yellow Yoshida line up the middle:

So the trail starts off pretty basic. And I was even tired just by what turned out to be the most mild part of the entire hike. Because what begins as an inclined dirt path soon becomes even steeper with a mix of dirt, stones, and makeshift stairs. And at first I was like "Awesome… stairs! I can take it slow, one platform at a time." Wrong. Avoid the stairs. Avoid the stairs at all costs. That's what I learned. It was much easier to brave the side of the incline where it was just hill, which is what I found out most people actually did. And not only does it go up, but it zigzags all the way up. So it goes up, up, up and then suddenly turns and goes up, up, up in the other direction. It came to a point where I was so exhausted and out of breath and my heart was beating so fast that I was having to stop for a break every 15 steps… then every 10 steps… and eventually every 5 steps. And I hadn't even reached the 6th Station yet. And there's something like 9-10 stations. It also didn't help when we got signs saying the summit was still another 4-5 hours away (not including breaks).

But I eventually made it to the 6th Station, which was more like an information hut, and sat down for a while. My clothes were already soaked, and it was getting colder. But I had to carry on, despite that little voice in my head telling me to just turn back now. And I wasn't the only one exhausted. Even those who appeared physically fit were losing it, so just imagine how I felt. I honestly have no idea how children and elderly make this hike, yet they do.

The steep hills/stairs continued on for quite a while, and then I finally saw it--the stretch of hut lights. I had never been so happy to see lights. But I didn't realize just how far away they actually were. I still had a long way to go to actually reach them, and the terrain shifts weren't over yet.

No, it got even harder. Besides the incline somehow increasing even more, it wasn't long before the huts where it turned from dirt to almost pure rock. That you climbed. Not like a vertical climb, but pretty freakin' close. There was no way to get up these stretches without using both your feet and hands. I was basically rock climbing. And did I mention that, of the 3 or so paths available to make this hike, this was the easy and popular one?

As the huts rapidly approached, the terrain was a mix of rock climbing, then stairs, then more rock climbing, etc. I was having trouble breathing from all the extensive cardio (not to mention the altitude)--like I said, even 5 normal steps and my heart was pounding. Even after a long break. But I finally reached Station 7.1 (there are apparently two Station 7's). I took a long break outside this one and realized just how wet my clothes were (except my jeans, strangely enough), even with the rain gear. I knew at this point I wasn't going to make it to the top. Honestly, I knew an hour before that I wasn't going to make it to the top. I was exhausted, both from the hike thus far and the lack of sleep. My hands were shaking. My legs and knees were very weak. I was freezing and wet. And this stretch from Station 5 to Station 7.1 had taken me almost 2 and a half hours. It was about 11:30 PM at this point, if I recall.

But I couldn't stop just yet. Even if I were to give up, I didn't have the energy or mental fortitude to make the climb all the way back down. I knew some of the huts offered beds to rest, so at the very least, I'd find one of those. I moved on to the next hut, which did offer rest for like 50+ bucks. I figured I'd try to make it one more. The next hut was actually Station 7.2, the last big Station for a while. So I made it, barely, and knew I couldn't go on. There was no way my body could handle it. I went inside the hut and was immediately asked by the guy if I wanted my walking stick stamped--two brands for 300 yen (about 3 bucks). Sure, why not? Might as well get something out of this. It had now been over 3 hours since I left the 5th Station, and it was after midnight.

The two brand-stamps on my walking stick.
I didn't want to leave the warmth and safety of the Station. And I noticed a family was sitting in there with me playing cards. And soon they went into a back room, and I realized this place must have beds. I asked the guy about it. He said, yes, for 5,500 Yen for the night (that's about 55 bucks). I didn't care at this point. It was 55 bucks or death from exhaustion and/or exposure, so I paid it up, and he took me back to my bunk bed (oh joy, more climbing). They were basically like a barracks--large, hard wood bunk beds attached to the walls with curtains over the front. I changed into a dry shirt and settled into my plank.

Now here's where new issues arose. I realized this as I paid the man, because I had to weigh the potential consequences of this option. Prior to paying for the room, I only had roughly 7,000 Yen left to my name. The room for the night was 5,500. That left me with roughly 1,500 Yen. The bus back to Shinjuku from Kawaguchiko was going to cost me 1,700 Yen. But hey, it was a major station. I figured they'd take credit cards. Either way, it's not like I had much of a choice. I'll get back to this later.

So I decide I'll get a few hours of sleep--it's about 1 AM by this point, and sunrise is at about 4:40-ish. I have no idea how well I'd be able to see it from where I was, but I might as well try and get a look-see, right? So, trying to ignore the insanely annoying boy who couldn't sleep and made sure everyone was aware of it, I tried to sleep on and off for the next few hours. Come 4:30, I heard lots of rustling about in the shared dorm area, but I was still pretty tired. i did eventually pull myself out of bed by 4:45 and hurried outside where everybody was looking at this:

And if those weren't enough for you (I actually took more, but just picked a few to put here), here is a short video I took, as well.

Oh yeah. Gorgeous. And I'm not sure how different the view was from the summit itself, though I can't imagine it being too different from this. Just… higher. So I stood around in the freezing weather watching the sunrise for a while before realizing I actually had to walk back down. And not the descending path that you'd take from the summit, either. No, I had to make the Walk of Shame down the ascending path, back the way I'd come. Fortunately I wasn't the only one. Mostly middle-aged and elderly headed back down this way, as well. I passed tons of people who were just starting their climb, I guess to do a day climb. They were almost all very friendly, saying good morning and even a few asking about the climb itself. And some people were cheating with horses (and I'm not sure how those horses were gonna get up the rock climbing portions, but I guess it's a thing they do).

I was surprised at how difficult going downhill was. My knees were still weak from the climb up, so going downhill made me pretty wobbly (and not to mention the reverse rock climbing was not a fun experience). Granted, I'd still take downhill over uphill any day (and it so wasn't cool when I got to that part at the start that, remember, was downhill? Yeah… no longer downhill. Not fun). And I did manage to take a few more pictures of the daylight scenery going down, as well.

The trek up might have taken 3 hours to where I stopped, but it only took an hour and a half to get back down. Then all I had to do was wait for my bus to Kawaguchiko to show up at 8 AM. I had to buy some more water because I had run out and I was dying of thirst, so there went another little bit of change that I couldn't afford to lose. Finally, my bus arrived, I got on, and then began the return journey.


OK, back to that not enough money thing. As I'm sure you guessed by this point, because that's how tragic irony works, the station did not take credit cards of any kind. So I was legitimately freaking out. I just straight-up did not have enough money to get back to Shinjuku. I only had 1,200 Yen, and I needed 1,700. But then I remembered somebody on the bus back to this station used a mixture of cash and their Suica subway card to pay for their ticket. I asked the lady if I could use my Suica Card and… thank God… yes. But I knew I didn't have enough money on it. I had 870 on the card and a 1,000 Yen bill (plus the other loose change). But after a little confusion, the lady was able to charge the 1,000 onto my Suica and then use the card to pay for my ticket. At this point, I had 170 on my Suica and 200 Yen in my pocket. So like… 3 bucks altogether.

But I didn't care. Well, as long as my hotel would take credit card for my airport bus (I'll save you the suspense--they did. Thankfully). So I took the 2 hour bus ride back to Shinjuku. Then I went to my hotel, got my luggage, and bought my ticket for the airport bus. All week, I had actually been worried about not being able to get to the airport on time from Fuji. Turns out, my real concern should have been actually getting back from Fuji in general. I spent the last of my pocket change to buy yet another bottle of water for the airport trip and then made my way there.

At the airport, the self-check-in line was actually longer than the regular check-in, so I just went to that. The guy said security might not allow me to take my Fuji walking stick onto the plane, though I'd heard you could. I checked my regular bag then went and checked with security. Sure enough, it was considered a security risk, so I had to go all the way back to the check-in line, wait again, and then have them wrap it up in a special bag and had me take it to the oversized luggage department, where it was checked in pretty fast.

And I'd like to say that was about it... but it wasn't. I sat down at the gate and wrote this out. Then got on the flight, and journeyed back to Seoul. But by the time I got through Immigration and all that, the trains into Seoul were closed for the evening, so I had to figure out the bus system. Once I got my ticket (wasn't too hard), I hopped on a bus to Sanbon. But if it were only so easy. The bus drops you off not in Sanbon itself, but at some random bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a few roads over. At first I had no idea where I was or how to go about getting anywhere. And I couldn't take a taxi because I didn't have any Won on me. So I had to walk for a bit before I recognized some Sanbon buildings, then recognized one of the back streets of Sanbon, and walked all around the little area until I found my way to the bus station I was familiar with. Then I had to wait for ages for my bus to actually show up, sweating like crazy because of this Korean humidity, but finally made it back home at right around midnight... probably more stressed than I was when I left for vacation. But I guess that's how these things tend to go, huh?

(Note: Stay tuned for tomorrow when I'll do one last post on Tokyo wrapping up all my random thoughts on the experience, as well as all my Scavenger Hunt photo in one place.)