Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mt. Fuji, Revisited

Angrily asking myself "WHAT WAS I THINKING??" was something I found myself doing frequently this past weekend, when Michelle, Tiffany, Kyle, Shak, Ryan, and I set out to climb Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest mountain at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet). In theory it sounded great. What could be a more exciting way to finish up our year in Japan than climbing its tallest mountain to watch the sunrise? I should have realized how foolish this was. Back in the summer of 2006, my brother Tyler and I decided that climbing Mt. Fuji would be a fun thing to do. We were wrong. It was one of the hardest and most not-fun things we did on our Asia backpacking trip. Unfortunately over the five years since our climb most of the bad memories faded, as I wholeheartedly went along with the plan to climb the mountain for a second time. There is an old Japanese proverb for people like me - "You are wise to climb Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice."

When we met at the base of the mountain we were pumped. From the base we took a bus to Kawaguchico 5th station, at an altitude of 2,300 meters (7,546 feet), to start our climb (Mt. Fuji is divided into 10 climbing stations, with the 1st station being the base and 10th station being the summit. Most climbers start from the trail at the 5th station). The dry and cool weather at that high an elevation was fantastic. Everyone, even myself, was buying into the illusion that this climb was going to be a nice and fun little stroll up to the top. We set out on Yoshida trail in high spirits at 5:00pm on Saturday. I was immediately winded, but for the first couple hours the climb wasn't too strenuous and we were treated to a wonderful sunset.

Really for the first four hours things went smoothly. The climb was getting continually steeper but we had a good pace going. When the sun went down around 8:00pm it got surprisingly cold. A bizarre experience considering that just a few hours prior at the base of the mountain we were melting in the sweltering July heat and humidity. At 9:00pm though we all started to realize that there were an unusually large amount of people on the mountain. Progress slowed. Our original plan was to get to the 8th station by 10pm to eat dinner and rest for a few hours before continuing our climb to the top. This plan was quickly thrown out the window - every hut was booked solid. As we continued our climb, we started to run into annoying bottlenecks at each hut and rest area. The higher we went, the more people seemed to just appear from thin air. We started to move at a crawl. We finally reached the 8th station a little after midnight, a full three hours after we had planned. The sunrise was scheduled for 4:37am in the morning. At the 8th station with two more stations to go to get to the summit, it became clear to all of us that if we wanted to get there by sunrise, there would be no rest or sleep. We had to hike straight through the night. Any break would put us further behind the massive throng of people that were following us up the mountain.

A river of lights - hundreds of flashlights and headlamps illuminated the trail down the mountain as far as the eye could see

After the 8th station, the situation got bad. The trail was probably operating at five times normal capacity. I had never seen anything like it. At one particularly bad bottleneck it took us 30 minutes to go 50 feet. It was 2am, freezing cold, and we were trapped in a throng of people on a small mountain trail near the summit of Mt. Fuji unable to move. Forget about using the bathroom, the wait there was easily 30 to 45 minutes. The only thing you could do was to keep moving. If you stopped to think you would panic. As we continued up the mountain our six person group disintegrated. Ryan and Shak were somewhere up ahead, Michelle and I were in the middle, and Tiff and Kyle were somewhere behind us.

No matter how far we climbed, the summit seemed to be the same distance away. The two hours of hiking that took place between 2am and 4am were excruciating. We were getting close but progress was so slow we thought we would never get there. We kept pushing through, and finally, at about 4:20am, we saw that we were almost at the summit. With only 17 minutes until sunrise, Michelle and I made a mad dash to get up as high as possible, and finally found a good area to put our packs down to enjoy the view. There could be no argument - the sunrise was one of the most beautiful things we had ever seen.

The sunrise was simply awe-inspiring, and the warmer weather that it brought a welcome relief. We picked up our bags and filed through the last Tori that marked the top of the mountain, where we eventually reunited with our group. We were all defeated. Under normal conditions, it takes 5 hours to reach the summit from our starting point. Because of the crowds, it took us 12 hours of hiking straight through the night to reach the summit, from 5:00pm on Saturday to 5:00am on Sunday. We were hungry, dehydrated, and exhausted. Michelle, Kyle, Tiff, and I wanted to get off the mountain asap, so the four of us hardly spent any time at the top. After a few pictures we set off on our way back down the mountain at around 5:30am.

Tori gate marking the top of Mt. Fuji

View of the surrounding mountains 30 minutes after sunrise
Thinking the decent couldn't be any worse, we once again were sadly disappointed. The decent was horrible. The crowds were smaller but still there, but the volcanic rock and steep slopes made the decent a slow and painful (literally) affair. We had to stop constantly to remove rocks from our shoes (our fault for not wearing proper hiking shoes), and we slipped, fell, or twisted an ankle seemingly every few minutes. The view was great, but the decent itself was an ugly and repetitive affair. The trail carved its way down the mountain for what seemed like an eternity. Michelle's knees and ankles were taking a beating and she was close to crying multiple times, and I honestly wasn't too far behind her. We wanted off the mountain so bad but there was a never ending path of volcanic rock that folded out below us as far as we could see.  

The decent
Eventually, after another four to five hours of hiking, we made it back to Kawaguchico 5th station. We were totally spent. We had been hiking a total of 17 hours on no sleep. We were covered in filth and dust. Our last real meal had been lunch the previous day. There was no high-fiving or partying between any of us. The only thing we wanted to do was get away from that mountain and to never come back.

Writing this now a few days removed from the ordeal, I can honestly say that our Fuji climb was about the most adventurous thing we possibly could have done for our last outing in Japan. As bad as it was, the sunrise was incredible and the time we got to spend together on the climb was great. It will definitely be something we all will never forget, so in that regard it was a huge success. What I do know for sure is that I will never, EVER, climb that mountain again, under ANY circumstances.

Please check out my friend Kyle's post about our Fuji trip! His post can be found here. Kyle also posted an awesome photo gallery of the climb that can be found here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

送別の辞 (Farewell Speech)

My base school's closing ceremony is this week and I thought I would share some of the words I prepared for my farewell speech. English translation follows the Japanese.



先生方:一年間助けてくれてありがとうございます。 問題があれば、いつも本当に助けてくれました。一緒に働けてとても楽しかったです。皆さんの御多幸をお祈り申し上げます。




Hello everyone,

I can't believe that I am standing here in front of you giving you my farewell speech. It feels just like yesterday that I came to Oshima for the first time and stood here to introduce myself to you. This year in Oshima has been incredible. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to meet all of you.

To my fellow teachers - thank you so much for supporting me through out the year. Whenever we had a problem come up you were always there to help. I really enjoyed working with all of you this past year and I wish you all the best in the future.

To my students - guys I am really going to miss you! I looked forward to our classes together each and every day. I really enjoyed teaching you and I hope that you had fun learning English and about American culture. Thank you for letting me join all the different clubs with you too - I really had so much fun with all of you! 
Please continue to study hard in school. Getting an education is one of the most important things you can do. Also, if any of you have an opportunity to spend time in a foreign country, please do so. The world is truly a huge and amazing place. Getting to meet foreign people and other cultures is an incredible experience.

Again, thank you all for making this year for my wife and I such a special time. I will miss you all but will never forget you. You will always have a friend living down in Texas.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Leaver's Weekend

Leaver's Weekend was tough. Getting a combined eight hours of sleep in a 72 hour period didn't help (nor did the harsh elements or my poor beverage selection), but I managed to survive the weekend and had a fantastic time in the process. So what exactly is Leaver's Weekend you ask? Leaver's Weekend is the title that we give to the last big farewell and party that most of the ALTs participate in before we either 1) start another year living here in Japan or 2) pack up our lives here in Japan and return back home. It's a time of fun, reflection, tears, goodbyes, and everything in between, and riding this emotional roller coaster for three days was exhausting - both for the people who are staying and leaving.

I consider the formal farewell ceremony at Yamaguchi Prefecture's central office, which was held on Friday, July 8th, to have officially "kicked off" Leaver's Weekend. The nine ALTs that teach here in the Prefecture at High Schools gathered together and went through the official "goodbye" ceremony with our contracting organization, the Yamaguchi Prefecture Board of Education. The ceremony was simple but unquestionably Japanese: no AC, lots of sweat, suits, speeches, and bowing. On a very nice note, the head of the Yamaguchi Prefecture Board of Education individually thanked us for our hard work and presented us with a beautiful certificate and parting gift. We also said our goodbyes to Seiki Sensei, the head boss of all the ALTs in the Prefecture and someone whom we all liked a great deal. We capped off the day with our last meal at Nishida's okonomiyaki and hamburger joint, one of our most favorite restaurants in the Prefecture. 

Farewell ceremony at Yamaguchi Prefecture's headquarters

Receiving the certificate and gift from the Yamaguchi Prefecture Board of Education

Seiki Sensei with the the nine high school JETs who are departing

Dinner at Nishida's

The following day on Saturday, we set out to Leaver's Party. This year Leaver's Party was at Omijima Island, a beautiful island near the town of Nagato on the north (Sea of Japan) side of the prefecture. There are around 45 ALTs in Yamaguchi Prefecture and 19 will be heading back home over the next month, and just about everyone made the trek out. We drank, bar-b-que'd, tossed the football, played cricket, got rained on, played a skit game, and crashed out in the cabins in what was a very fun but very emotional party.

Party on the beach!!

I still have no idea how to play cricket...

There was a moment at the party where I took a quick step back to try and take it all in. This group here of ALTs was a diverse bunch. America, Canada, New Zealand, England, Japan, and South Africa were all represented, but even among people from the same country there was a plethora of diversity. For America alone, we had people from Alaska, Boston, New York City, Seattle, Kentucky, Indiana, California, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Texas. Honestly, if any of us had met while living our normal lives back home, we would probably have never become friends. Every one's backgrounds and interests are so diverse that finding common ground would have been difficult. That's one of the greatest things about living over here in Japan with these people. Despite the diversity, we really are like a band of brothers. We are here together trying to make life work in this very foreign place - all experiencing and sharing the ups and downs that living in this foreign land entails. We all know that these goodbyes aren't like most. These goodbyes are final. After we all return to our small corner of the Earth, we will all continue our lives in a myriad of directions and most likely never have the opportunity to meet again. It's sad, but I know we all will never forget this special time that we got to share together here in Japan. 

Nighttime grilling
Hanging with some of the guys

Sunday morning before heading out

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Iwakuni Technical High School

I'll admit it. I'm an emotional guy. I really don't cry a lot or anything, but occasionally things will really get to me. This last Friday, July 1st, was my last time to visit Iwakuni Technical High School (ITS), and it hit me hard. I have been going to ITS every Friday since last September, and have formed great relationships with the teachers and students. I knew my last visit would be tough, but I was shocked by how much of a wreck I became. For most of the day I actually was ok, but after school things got intense. I visited the students while they were practicing in their clubs to say goodbye and to take a photo together. After the photo, the students would face me, do a long and pronounced bow and say sayounara (a goodbye reserved for someone you won't see for a long time or ever again). After a couple of those I was quickly becoming an emotional wreck, but the fencing club did me in. It was my last club to visit, and after their goodbye I had to run out of the room to avoid making a scene. The worst was back in the teachers room, when after I had cleaned out my desk and grabbed my stuff, I bid farewell to my English teachers and Chijimatsu Sensei, the home economy teacher who I sat next to. I couldn't even respond to her goodbye and well wishes - one word and the floodgates would have burst open. All I could do was give her a big hug (which probably shocked most of the Japanese teachers sitting around us, who would never show that type of physical emotion). With tears starting to stream out, I made my way to the door, turned back and did one more deep bow, and walked out. On the way to the train station, with a lot of emotion painted across my face,  I ran into the baseball guys who had just finished practice. We normally horse around together, but all they did was line up, respectfully bow and say " Sayounara, Brandon Sensei...". This process repeated with every student I ran into on the way back to the station. Talk about a long and sad commute back home. I don't think I could of had a more emotional farewell if I had tried. 

Help me now for when I bid farewell to my base school, Suo Oshima High School, on July 25th!

Some photos from my last day at ITS:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

友達 from Texas

A big shout out to my 友達 (friend) from Texas, Martin! A couple weeks back he made the grueling trip from good ole' San Antonio all the way to Oshima to spend some time with Michelle and I. I know it takes a lot of time and money to make the trip, and Michelle and I really appreciate that he made it out.

I'm sure like most people who are staying in rural Japan for the first time, Japan turned out to be not entirely what he was expecting. Rural Japan is a far cry from the images of Tokyo and Osaka that most people associate with all of the country. It was great to show Martin how we live our life out on our island. It was also funny to see how accustomed Michelle and I have become to things here (and also how bad our English has become, ha!). We hardly even notice anymore when people stare at us for being foreigners. With Martin here and pointing it out we realized again how much we get gawked at everyday. Martin's visit was also a huge boost for us emotionally. For the soon to be ex-JET, June is really a month of limbo. You are about to leave and everyone knows it so no one can really start anything new with you, but you are still two months out from going so it still feels like you have a long time left and you really can't say "goodbye" yet. Martin came over at the perfect time for us, and now Michelle and I both feel rejuvenated and committed to making our last month in Japan a great one. 

In the week that Martin was here we covered quite a bit of ground. He flew into Fukuoka, so we spent some time there, stayed on our island Oshima for a few days, visited Iwakuni (where a famous temple and the five arch bridge is), and stayed a weekend in Hiroshima. In Hiroshima we got to experience all the fun crazy that constitutes life in a big Japanese city too - a baseball game (with the beloved but horrible Hiroshima Carps), purikura and karaoke. Fun times indeed.

Exploring the old Samurai quarters in Iwakuni

Kintaikyo Bridge

A live Japanese baseball game is infinitely more entertaining than an American one...

Throwing the chicken skewers down at Sanzoku in Kuga

What can sum it up better than this purikura pic?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On the Road Again

Michelle and I, being the gluttons for punishment that we are, recently hit the pavement again in Japan for another road trip adventure. This time, instead of going south, like we did in during our Kyushu Roadtrip, we struck out to the north-east, past Hiroshima, past Kobe, past Osaka and even past Nagoya to the small town of Tajime.

The long trek from Oshima to Tajime, a 9 hours drive on the ETC (toll highway)

The trek was arduous. To get to Tajime from our apartment in Oshima it took a gut-wrenching nine hours of driving on the ETC. Luckily we were able to break up our journey on Friday (June 10th) night with a pit stop in Fukuyama, where we got hang out with our friend Allison at her apartment. Despite the fact we dropped our small car key down a tiny hole in the console of our car, and that I spent two hours in the rain trying to get it out, we had a great time hanging out with our friend in her town. Starting from Fukuyama the next morning the drive was a much more manageable five hours and 30 minutes.

The purpose of our trip to Tajime was to visit Sako San. Last October I began having a language exchange with Sako San over Skype. On Monday and Tuesday evening every week, we would spend 30 minutes conversing in English and then another 30 minutes conversing in Japanese. Talking with Sako San over skype over the past eight months has been a blast, but we had never been able to meet. With Michelle and I leaving Japan at the end of July, if we were going to meet we had to do it soon. Michelle and I decided that if we could all find a free weekend in June, we would make a road trip up to Tajime to spend time with Sako San and his family. Luckily over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, June 10th thru the 12th, we were all free.

It was great finally getting to meet Sako San in person. After we arrived we put our bags up in the second house that Sako San's family owns (so Michelle and I had a nice and traditional Japanese house all to ourselves), and we went to meet his family. His wife was very nice and kind, and his mother was one of the cutest grandmothers we have ever seen. Sako San's sons were very well mannered. His oldest son attends an international program at the local high school and just recently got back from a year home stay in Canada. His English was fantastic. After chatting for a while, his family cooked us a FEAST of different Nagoya style Japanese foods that we had never tried before. After dinner we played a game of Monopoly, which was followed by an awesome little welcome party that they held for us. They hung a box from the ceiling, and after we pulled the cord streamers fell out with welcome messages written on them. Then Sako San's grandmother presented us with some gifts that she had hand knitted. Michelle and I were in shock - it was all completely unexpected.

Having a feast with Sako San's family the first night we arrived

Getting owned in Monopoly

Welcome Party!

Michelle and I holding the gifts that Sako San's grandmother hand knitted for us

On Sunday, the only full-day that we spent in Tajime, Michelle and I went with Sako San, his wife, and his youngest son to play frisbee golf at one of the top ranked frisbee golf courses in Japan (I didn't even realize there were rankings for such things). We had a blast. The weather was great, and the natural scenery around the course was fantastic. We followed this up with a nice Kansai style okonomiyaki lunch, and then went to the Toyota Museum in downtown Nagoya (Toyota was born and raised in the Nagoya area, and the company's headquarters are still located there). That night for dinner back at their house, I had my first taste of Sukiyaki - a dish where you cook meat and vegetables in a large pot and dip them in raw eggs before eating.

Sako San "teeing" off at hole #1

My frisbee flew over the fence about two seconds after this picture was taken

Exhibit at the Toyota Museum

I thought it was great but Michelle wasn't a big fan of the raw egg dippage...

After dinner, they threw us a small farewell party. It was the sweetest thing Michelle and I had ever seen. Each of the family members presented us with a small present, and Sako San presented us with a wall scroll that he had hand painted kanji characters on himself. Michelle and I were overwhelmed. We weren't expecting any of this. We stayed up a little while longer talking before saying our farewells. The next morning we had to be up and out early, and after saying goodbye to Sako San one last time we were off on our nice 8 hour drive back to Hiroshima. Our trip to Tajime to visit Sako San has been one of our most memorable experiences that Michelle and I have had here in Japan.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Fukuoka is one of my favorite cities in Japan. It might not have a lot of "touristy" things to do, but its big, convenient, and overall just a fun place to be in. We have been numerous times throughout the year, but we just recently got a tour of the city with the best type of tour guide - someone who was born and raised there.

On June 4th and 5th, Michelle, Alice and I met up with Keiko and Masa at their home in Hikari. Keiko is one of Alice's English teachers and Masa is one of my coworkers at Iwakuni Technical High School. Masa was actually born and raised in downtown Fukuoka, and lived there until graduating from University a few years back. From their home in Hikari we all crammed into Masa's car and made the three hour treck to Fukuoka. We had been talking about the trip for weeks, and we could tell Masa was really proud and excited to show off his city. Fukuoka and his tour did not disappoint. When we arrived in Fukuoka, we hit things off with a nice western style meal at Hard Rock Cafe (wow do we really eat that much food at every meal back home?), followed up with some shopping at the new Hakata train station. Afterwords we took a quick break at Masa's parent's home to relax a bit. Her house was amazing. Located off a few side streets, it was incredibly tranquil even though it was located a stones throw away from Hakata Station. After a two hour rest, we were back on the subway heading out to Tenjin and Nakasu, where we dined at a British pub and had a couple drinks at a trendy international beer joint.

Hard Rock Cafe in Fukuoka!

Hanging together Saturday night in a British pub in Tenjin

With Masa's mother in her house in downtown Fukuoka

We stayed the night back at Masa's mom's quant Japanese home, and after we ate the fantastic breakfast that she made for us we took off to the small town of Yanagawa, located to the south of Fukuoka. Here we dined on the town's famous unagi (eel) dinner plates and strolled the city's beautiful river canals. The unagi dish, called kabayaki-don, was incredible. The eel is cooked and dipped into a sweet soy sauce, then served over rice in a tiered food box. Delicious. After Yanagawa, and a stop at the area's famous American style outlet malls, we started the long drive back to Yamaguchi Prefecture. It felt like we packed a week's trip in just two days. A big shout out to Keiko and Masa for being such awesome hosts!

Strolling alongside Yanagawa's beautiful canals

The Unagi (eel) kabayaki-don plate. Amazing.