The bright lights of Tokyo.
On to the penultimate leg of our journey, and in many ways the most exciting, as we were heading for the ancient, modern, crazy, calming and all-round belter of a city that is Tokyo. We had no idea what to expect from a city and country that is as alien to us as any on the planet, but that’s more or less the reason we picked Japan and its infamous capital, so off we went with a smile.
The smile was short lived on my part as we strolled into Hong Kong’s vast airport terminal, the thought of another flight weighing on my vertically challenged mind, but before too long we were settled into our seats and winging our way towards Taipei.
That’s Taipei, as in the capital of Taiwan. Shock and increasing levels of panic arose as we wondered if we had somehow done the unthinkable and managed to board the wrong plane. But no, our minds were set at ease by our courteous Cathay Pacific hostess who advised us that despite our tickets failing to mention it, we were stopping over in Taiwan's capital to refuel for one hour. Great I thought, another take off and landing to endure!
Asukusa Square, the oldest district in Tokyo.
We made it safe and sound to Tokyo at a reasonable hour, but too tired to do much more than find our hostel and settle for the night. We stayed in a hostel as was par for the course so for on the trip, but this was to be the first of 3 accommodations in Tokyo, despite staying in Tokyo for 7 short days.
We spent the first of them touring around the city, taking in its sights and sounds. The city is a massive metropolis, a concrete jungle that seemed to rival any for size and modernity. Tokyo has huge neon billboards, teeming city streets and that most elusive of all city essentials, trains that run on time. Everytime. It's really true, you can set your watch by them! When you think that they have broadband 50 times faster than anything we have, a violent crime rate that is a mere fraction of ours and phones that have being showing live TV and making video calls for 6 years before we envisaged them, you can see we have a lot of catching up to do.
Our capsule room, climb aboard!
The highlights in the first few days included a trip to the Sony building, which is simply a show piece for the technology of tomorrow at its earliest stage.
John was hoping for some seriously hard core gaming action or a trip down virtual reality lane, but instead had to settle for a look at the camcorders and cameras of tomorrow, which in fairness had screens and resolution so good you couldn't tell the difference between the screen and what your eyes see naturally. Very impressive. Another highlight was a trip up Tokyo's sky tower, which offered sensational views across the city's ultra-urban cityscape by day and by night.
In the capsule room.
After a few days of enjoying the markets and munching on sushi (just the once in all honesty, neither of us are huge on the old raw fish!) we left the comforts of our comfy and friendly hostel to satisfy one of my hankerings.
Having clearly seen a film or read some story about how space was so tight in Japan's capital that they had hotels where the 'rooms' were mere cubicles, with one on planted on top of another, I decided I had to see this for myself. And so we set off for an entirely different part of the city, away from the historical heartland we had been staying in to a more modern, business like side of Tokyo. The cubicle rooms are very popular with Japanese business men, although why they would choose such a lack of space wasn't immediately obvious to either of us. After checking in we were shown to our room, and sure enough, it was exactly what we had envisaged, except for the little quirks that made them all the more enjoyable. Our bed was on the ground floor and the entire room measured a mere 3 foot high, 4 foot wide and about 7 feet deep.
Starting to get cold and tired up the mountain at about 4am. The towel made all the difference!!
A large coffin, if you'll forgive the analogy! We took it in turns to climb inside and try the television that was cleverly built into the wall, the umpteen buttons on the walls for air conditioning and every imaginable need, and the small but cosy bed. After an hour of soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to make use of the Jacuzzi we had seen advertised, and set off to our separate toilets to freshen up. Just why these cubicle rooms appeal to business men became all the more obvious when we stepped into a scene of sheer decadence, with each ladies and men's rooms having massive Jacuzzis, steam rooms and luxurious grooming areas with all the pampering and beauty products a woman or metro-sexual could ask for. Great stuff. One night suddenly didn't seem long enough.
Outside the Sony building
The view of Tokyo from the city's tallest tower.
After a relaxing night watching non-English tv (it was either that or depraved and weird Japanese porn) we headed back to the hostel we had previously stayed in, dropping off our bags briskly and heading back for our bus. We had one great highlight left in Japan, and that was climbing Mount Fuji, Japans highest mountain at 3766 metres. And we were doing this by night, so as to benefit from the spectacular views of a sunrise coming across the the flat plains of Tokyo's hinterland. Aw, the folly of it all! Our bus left in the late afternoon, and by the time we arrived at the mountains base it was already dark and chilly. Perhaps it was best that we could not see the route that lay ahead, or the distance we were from the summit, as it may have dampened the excited air we had at the prospect of our 7 hour climb.
We went straight to the shop to see if anything could aid our ascent, and considering John was wearing dodgy trainers, a tiny coat he had purchased that day over a light jumper, and socks on his hands, we were in dire need. I, on the other hand was almost a mountaineer in comparison, with a hoodie, proper gloves and ear muffs. Oh, we were well prepared all right! We bought a walking stick, a vital piece of kit as the bare poles are 'branded' at each mountain station climbers come too for a small fee, a souvenir that money cannot buy. And off we went, into the pitch dark of night with only my tiny folding reading light for illumination on the 12388 feet ahead. eejits.
The climb started off easily enough, as we followed the designated path along the curve of the hill with fellow climbers in front and behind us.
We walked for about an hour or so before the gradient began to change, and gradually we stopped following the curve of the hillside and began making a more direct approach up the mountain face. We passed stations at intervals of around 45 minutes, each becoming an increasingly welcome rest in between ever demanding climbs. By the time 4 hours has passed, we were both well and truly exhausted. The dark was totally unforgiving, not a pinprick of light escaping from a black curtain of night. My tiny book light, try as it might, did little to help us find our feet on increasingly treacherous terrain. The climb was now noting short of a crawl, as we went from upright strolling to being on all fours at times, pulling each other up the bumpy volcanic rock. At times we climbed alone, while at other there were dozens of fellow lunatics.
.. I mean climbers, each at varying levels of prophecy in the climbing stakes. Some were as under prepared as we were, while others sported full climbing gear with ropes, helmet lights and even oxygen tanks that mocked our inadequate attire. Also a little embarrassingly, there were children as young as 11 or 12, being coaxed in further effort by their parents. At least I assume that was their Japanese reply to some incessant moaning was, something along the lines of "you'll thank me when your older". We're all the same in this big wide world really.
In the shopping mall.
By the time we had been climbing for 5 1/2 hours, we were both done for. I had hurt my leg on one of the twisted volcanic rocks that now constituted all of the surface, and John was freezing as temperatures got down to about freezing and his tiny coat and socks for gloves were proving woefully inefficient.
We came to the second last cabin on the way to the top, and we had already agreed at this point that it might well be our last. We were at least an hour and a half from the summit, and sunrise was due in about an hour, so it’s likely we would miss the sunrise we had been racing up the summit for anyway. So we both tentatively felt each other out on how the other felt about stopping here, and nearly bust into synchronised tears when we agreed to end the ordeal. We asked the Sherpa looking owner of the cabin how much it was to stay the night, and didn't even blink an eye at the extortionate £20 each we would be paying for 3 hours of warmth. We climbed into bed for what would be the best value and most needed warmth and rest of our entire trip! 3 hours later we were up and racing down the mountainside to be on time for our bus.
The views were impressive the further down we went, and we are somewhat comforted by the news from fellow climbers that the still present clouds had stopped anyone from enjoying the spectacle of a Japanese sunrise. The bus back to Tokyo was a quiet one, everyone reflecting on the night before, the achievement or ordeal written on their face dependant on their experience. We collapsed into our hostels beds, and spent a day recovering with hard earned rest and a fine meal.
Our final days in Japan were spent enjoying other aspects of the city, some markets and sites of historical interest. It took days to get over our exhaustion from the climb, so some days of TLC and good food were the order of the day.
We prepared for our penultimate flight to India before the flight home, which by this point we haven't seen for 11 months. Phwoar. When you say it like that! What does home look like again??...
Now, the obvious next step would be our blog for India, but alas, it wasn't to be!! After 11 months of not missing a single flight, or bus, or cocking up one hotel booking, we managed to do the unthinkable, and we did not prepare for India by getting a visa to enter the country. Major oops! Somewhere along the line we had got the impression that we did not need a tourist visa, that we simply paid for one when we arrived in the country to receive 60 days travelling time, similar to Cambodia and other countries.
We couldn't have been more incorrect, and on arriving at Tokyo's airport and being asked to see our visas, we were advised we could not be left on the flight. Nightmare. There was no way around it, and all we could do was follow the very helpful advice of the man at the desk, and fly to Hong Kong where we were already scheduled to stop and stay there for a few days while we sorted out a visa. Since we had enjoyed Hong Kong immensely the first time around, we tried to look on the bright side of the situation, and set off with a smile on our faces. India would have to wait a few more days! But the bad news wasn't stopping there. We went to the Indian embassy in Hong Kong, and tried to apply for a visa there, but we were told it would take 4 days. We were flying in two, and so asked if they had an express service or there was anything we could do, but sadly there wasn't.
Trying authentic Japanese sushi.
Return flights to Britain were few and far between, and we faced the dilemma of waiting to fly to India but risking having no return flights there for up to 5 weeks, way over the 9 days we had planned spending there, or flying into Delhi airport, having a 6 hour wait, and then boarding a flight back to Blighty, which we did. Home sweet home after 11 long months, never, ever, a bad thing...
We arrived home and surprised our parents. Starting with my brother, who had very nicely picked us up from the Cardiff where we had managed to get to from London, and we arrived at my parents place in the early morning, climbing the stairs to surprise a tired and delighted mam and dad. Having been back for some time now, with the benefit of hindsight, there is only one thing I would do different travelling wise, and that's to go sooner, asap, as soon as the idea takes you.
If anyone reading this is thinking about going away, I would say just go for it, you wont regret it. Every country we went to I would go to again, and even if it means going alone, go for it, if you stay in hostels you wont be alone for long! Its all right there, brilliantly set up for you, with all the help and support of guided tours and organised excursions when you need it, and enough space for adventure and solo exploration to keep you happy too. Don't question it, don't over complicate it, just plan your route, save your cash and go for it! There's a wonderful world out there!!!
Getting further up the mountain.