Mount Fuji is the iconic image of Japan. Nothing else comes close. But when it comes to stalking Fuji, weather is everything. For a perfect view, you want some snow on the summit, and the atmosphere should be colder, preferably on a day following some rain so any haze is cleared out. If it’s too hot, the haze will leave the mountain looking dull. While wind will clear out haze, it can also bring in clouds to obscure the summit. Plus, your best chance for a clear view and a great photo is at sunrise. For Scott, there’s a long list of things that can go wrong when trying to capture a good photo of Mount Fuji. Of all the photos he could take in Japan, a beautiful photo of Mount Fuji was top of his list.

I asked Scott to plan. He hates planning. But I needed him to choose the location so I could figure out a decent place to stay, at the best possible time, giving us the best chance to photograph Fuji at sunrise. He chose Lake Kawaguchiko in the Fuji Five Lakes region. He wanted a lake with a full view of Fuji, close enough to be sharp and also have the volcano reflected in the water. He wanted to do a smokey photo (long exposure). No big deal.

Trains, buses, and taxis, making our way across Japan

 

THE MOUNT FUJI PILGRIMAGE

Staying in Fujikawaguchiko is expensive. It’s one of the few places where the whole mountain is reflected in a lake, so the cost of staying there reflects its premium view. We were going to be there at the beginning of the cherry blossoms, which is the height of tourist season. We booked one of the few cost-effective places to stay far in advance. A traditional-style Japanese Ryokan (inn).

 

Compared to the other options in the area, our place was affordable. But it was still very expensive for what you get: one room with futons on a floor of tatami mats. You share a toilet (squat-style) with other rooms, and you brush your teeth at an open sink in the hallway. Showers are communal. But staying in Fuikawaguchiko meant we were able to get up before dawn to get Scott’s photos at sunrise, return to our hotel in the afternoon, then  head out again for sunset.

As we got closer to our time at Fujikawaguchiko, I started to check the weather daily. It didn’t look good. Often rain was the forecast, or cloudy weather. It would show sun, then change to cloud by the end of the day. We began preparing by lowering our expectations, if not our hope. Weather is not something you can control.

Many years ago when I worked in politics, one of the best organizers I’ve ever worked with, Leslie Kerr, said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. I realize now in my 40s that I live by these words. No matter how well-organized you are, you can never win an unwinnable election campaign. But you can lose a winnable one by being unorganized.

We were never going to get the photo of Mount Fuji Scott wanted just by being organized. There were many other factors that had to come together if Scott’s photo “campaign” was going to be winnable. However, we could totally lose out and blow a fantastic opportunity if we were not organized. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

Two days before we were due to leave for Fujikawaguchiko, the forecast was for rain. A few hours later, the forecast would change to sun. Then back to overcast skies, then back to sun. The weather was taunting us.

The day we arrived, it had been very windy and a little overcast in Tokyo. By the time we got off the bus at Kawaguchiko Station, it was mostly sunny. And clear. There was a little cloud hovering around the summit of Mount Fuji, but the view wasn’t bad. Scott went out and took a few shots from our hotel and around town in case we didn’t get a clear day the next day. For now, the forecast was calling for clear and cold weather. Ideal. But things change fast in the mountains. We allowed ourselves some cautious optimism.

Photos around town, the night we arrived, just in case.

Scott had a spot picked out on the lake. The opposite side of the lake from where we were staying. It was about a 45-minute walk away. Technically close enough to walk, but we decided to book a taxi instead. Scott asked the guest house manager to book a taxi for 5 am the next morning. She looked glum and said it wasn’t possible. Another couple had asked the day before for the exact same thing. She had called but no taxi would agree to pick them up before 8am. Eight am! You may as well have told Scott the taxi could come at lunch. Scott asked her if she would try, just once? She graciously agreed and dialed her phone. They chatted back and forth in Japanese for a few minutes while Scott loomed, looking worried. She hung up and laughed. “You’re so lucky!” She said. “They will come at 5am!”

Lucky doesn’t begin to describe it.

At 4am the next morning, we pulled back our curtains and looked out the window. Dawn was still over an hour away, but we could see Fuji-san. It was perfectly crisp, cold and clear outside. The conditions were perfect.

View from our room  in Fujikawaguchiko – photo taken the night we arrived

I got up, went down to the vending machine outside the lobby and got four “hot” cans of black Coffee Boss, packed up our breakfast and waited for the taxi. He arrived early. We got in and headed to our spot as dawn was slowly painting the hills around us.

Mornings and evenings in Fujikawaguchiko are amazing. This is a very crowded place during the day. When we arrived at 3pm the day before at Kawaguchiko Station, there were hundreds of people teeming everywhere. But most tourists come in for a day from Tokyo to take their one shot (or selfie) of Mount Fuji. By 6pm, almost everyone is gone.

But the morning felt almost sacred. Crowds were spare compared to the afternoon before. Nearly everyone we saw out there at 5am was Japanese looking to capture a sunrise shot of the mountain.

Our taxi driver dropped us off. We hopped out, hiked down to Scott’s spot, and set up. We were totally alone on the shore.

If there’s a Fuji lottery, then we won it that day. We spent a few hours taking photos at various places and walking around the shore. We walked home to get lunch and rest for a couple of hours, before heading back out on foot.

 

The sunset shots were just as amazing. Clear. Pink. And tourist-free.

 

As we walked around the lake back to our hotel that evening after taking our sunset photos, there was no one else around. This town is beautiful in its own right. We were a bit exhausted but completely happy with our photos.

Fuji-san was a photographic pilgrimage for Scott. The next morning we turned next to a different pilgrimage, one getting us to a hair salon and one to Japanese baseball. We slept in a bit, then headed to the station for our bus back to Tokyo.

 

 

THE HAIR SALON PILGRIMAGE

My hair is an endless source of suffering when we travel. Scott just finds a barber and says, “Zero point five.” Perfect. If I could get away with it socially, I’d shave my head. But it’s not an option for me, so I fumble around trying to juke the calendar in tortured ways to end up in Vancouver to get a haircut where I have the perfect stylist, Saori (see link to previous post ). She is Japanese so I had asked her for a recommendation in Tokyo. She didn’t hesitate. “Peek-A-Boo,” she wrote. “In Ginza.” Sounded expensive. And there was no way to book in advance without speaking Japanese.

I wasn’t sure how I would get an appointment or how I would communicate my hair cut needs. But Saori had recommended the place, so I was going to try. I had a back up plan in Bangkok that would be a nightmare to get to (almost two hours taking an express boat, the MTR, and a local bus – for a 7pm appointment). That was the Bangkok strategy. The Tokyo strategy was to walk in as the place opened and try to book any appointment with any stylist before the baseball game started at 6pm. People in Tokyo work a lot. Perhaps, we thought, if we went during the day, there was a better chance for an appointment than later.

We took the metro to Ginza, found the address, went up to the tenth floor and walked into the salon. Tentatively, I approached the reception desk. Four people all greeted us in unison.

“Konichiwa,” said Scott. “My wife needs a hair cut,” and pointed to my hair. “A trim?” I said. The woman said, “Yes. Wait.” Then she motioned for us to sit down. A young man came along and said hello. He had with him what looked like a restaurant menu. He introduced himself to us and then put the menu in front of me. It was in Japanese. We figured out it was the price list of options for the seniority of stylist. He had covered up the levels that were not available – Director, Senior Director, Founder. I said I wanted a senior stylist, if possible. Today. “Yes, okay,” he said. He asked us to wait, then bowed and walked away. A few minutes later he returned with a senior stylist. She handed me her card with two hands, bowed, and said things to me in Japanese. Then the young man translated everything. I was getting my haircut. Right now.

After a brief consultation about what I wanted, I was taken to the shampoo room, where I was put into the hair salon equivalent of a high-tech dentist’s chair and given an amazing massage and shampoo.

Then the cutting began. Confidence is everything when getting a haircut. And without being able to communicate directly, I needed the stylist to be confident. She so obviously knew exactly what she was doing, I relaxed almost immediately, perfectly content to be left in her capable hands. Periodically, the young man would return to translate something. I was finally on my way to a perfect cut.

Scott waited on a couch in reception, sipping a tea. He spent a while in the bathroom checking out the most technologically advanced toilet he had ever seen. As he opened the bathroom door and stepped in, the toilet seat lid swung up. Soft music started playing, and the toilet began automatically disinfecting itself and heating up the seat. Oh, sweet, sweet Japan.

We had a few hours before our game. I started to get very excited around three o’clock.

 

 

THE BASEBALL PILGRIMAGE

This game was just a regular Tuesday night game at the start of the season. It wasn’t opening weekend or anything, just the first game of a three-game series between Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama’s DeNa BayStars. Just like the MLB, the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) season starts around March and the playoffs are in October. If you are curious, here is a link to the season schedule: http://npb.jp/eng/

Baseball tickets are not straightforward here. There is a bewildering array of choices. Even then, the tickets themselves are complicated, with specified gate, section, aisle, row, and seats. There are sections reserved for opposing team fans, home team fans, and cheerleading sections. We are not familiar with the fan protocol. Getting there early would give us time to look around,get food and take it all in.

The stadium opened at 4:00 pm. We arrived at 4:05.

From the moment you walk in, things feel different. The stadium looks older than Rogers stadium and is surprisingly low tech. The place has an analog feel to it. More like baseball in the 80s would feel. Ads around the field are printed on paper, the scoreboard is a barely digital version of the old card scoreboards. The field looks smaller, and even the bases look closer together. We felt like we were at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver, despite the fact that Tokyo Dome holds more fans than Rogers Stadium.

We ate all the things. The Tokyo Dome Burger, made using a (very) sweet melon bun, a weird but oddly tasty hot dog that was near impossible to eat without smearing it allover yourself, some truly excellent, crispy French fries, a crepe stuffed with fruit and other things. Then we headed to our seats to settle in.

The coolest thing about Japanese baseball is the long, complex, organized cheers conducted in perfect sync. The designated cheering sections have a couple of thousand people accompanied by trumpets and large Japanese drums. If we had cheering sections like this for Jays games, it is where I would be. Every time.

The fandom was cranked to eleven before the game even started. You have to see it to believe it. As you watch this video, keep in mind the game start was still about 20 minutes away.

Then there are the cheerleaders. Like, Dallas Cowboys-style cheerleaders. I’m not sure how I feel about cheerleaders in baseball. It didn’t feel right. Watching them all jump and run around with their golden pom-poms seemed to cheapen the game for me. A tacky distraction better suited to lousy games like American football. Or basketball.

There are some serious rules in Japanese baseball when it comes to cheering. For instance, you can only cheer for your team when they are up to bat. And heckling is frowned upon. When you watch this video, again, remember this is just a regular game at the beginning of the season and the Giant’s cheering section who are leading the chanting song, is on the other side of the stadium.

Our game was exactly the ballgame I love. At first your team is behind. Then they’re ahead briefly before the other side ties it up. Then they pull ahead. Right up until the end it was a back and forth nail-biter. In baseball, there is always an opportunity for things to change, right up until the last minute. Everything has an effect, the players, the team mood, the mojo of the pitcher. I loved every minute of it.

In the end, the Tokyo Giants lost. But it didn’t matter to us. It was just so much fun to be there.

With the game’s end, our time in Japan was also fast coming to an end.

We’ve absolutely loved our time here. Now we head to Thailand to celebrate Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, with a friend and his family in eastern Thailand.

We’ll be traveling across the country with all the other Thais that travel home for New Years. We booked transit for this trip months in advance because so many people travel home for the festivities. Despite advance booking, all we could get was the public government-run bus. Trains and planes were already booked. It should be an interesting trip.

 

 

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