Thursday, August 28, 2008


Back from Fuji!  What a beast that was.  It was not snowy like in this photo, but it was just as high. My friend Lauren convinced me to leave the comfort of my tropical island to see what the mainland had to offer. I had in my mind the idea that it would just be a few hours of hiking and snapping pictures.  It was quite a bit more involved than that.

We left the hotel at 2 am to get to the mountain at 4:30 am, bags packed with liters of water, energy goo, tuna triangles (japanese treat) and government issued-peanut butter. I decided to be on the safe side and buy canned oxygen and a walking stick - no sense in being unprepared. 

The hike started out in a foggy mist through a forest, the outline of the trees barely visible in the dark. The only time I actually felt out of breath on the hike was in this initial stage, and I think it was just getting used to hiking with all that junk on my back.  The breathlessness quickly subsided.

You can climb during the day, or at night. Obviously, it seemed a better choice for us to climb in the day light, as much of the terrain was rocky, sharp basalt rocks that required some skill even in day light. But looking back, one of the most mentally challenging parts was seeing a rest stop just above you, thinking it was about 10 minutes away, then not getting to it till an hour later. Also, it always appeared we were at the top.

Then, once you get to that point, the mountain, inexplicable seemed to grow taller. I think I would welcome the cover of darkness just to keep my expectations in check.

After a few hours, we emerged above the cloud line.

Every now and then, there were leveled off "check points" where you could take off your pack and get a brief rest. Towards the top, I started to nap at each one for about 10-20 min, which was not a good sign. At each check point, they would burn a stamp into your walking stick, to show your progress.

Lauren refueling.  We ate about 2000 calories before noon.
Most of the walk was barren basalt with no foliage above the cloud level.
One of the check points
I was really surprised to see so many children on the hike!  I think these kids spent the night on the mountain (the checkpoints have a large room that I think you can camp in).  That way, they could break down the hike and adjust to the altitude. 
They were enthusiastic and even carrying there own stuff! I honestly cannot imagine American kids hiking up hill all day without complaining - especially this American kid....

There were many older Japanese people as well - I'm guessing 60-70. Maybe even older. I read somewhere that one of the reasons Okinawans live the longest on the planet was that extensive walking is part of their daily routine.  This was becoming evident as many of the Americans were peeling off and feeling the pain, getting whooped by 70 year old grampas hiking to the top.

Here we are at 3000 meters above sea level. (9842 feet)

This is about where it started to unravel for me.  I wasn't breathless - and I used my can of oxygen just in case.  My legs weren't even really tired (not until I was hiking down hill, and that was more of a knee/shinsplint issue).  I was well hydrated and well-nourished. It was the altitude sickness.  Basically my organs were expanding.  I had consistent nausea and a migraine that seemed to increase with each foot of altitude. I started to take mini-naps at each stop to relieve the headache, but as soon as I would stand up, it would return. I made it to the last stop before the top, about 300 m, and then decided it was best for me to head down. Knowing I would probably never attempt this climb again, I was a little disappointed that I couldn't make it to the top, but I was afraid I would get really sick. 
Here I am grinning through the pain.  

It's hard to see perspective in this photo, but the clouds were so far beneath me it felt like I was in an airplane.
Lauren powered through, and made it up to the top, and took a great picture, which I will post as soon as I get it from her.  I mean come on, would you expect any less from an Air Force 1st Lt?

I did meet some Army guys who turned around where I did, so I didn't feel so bad. We got to the bottom at 5:15 pm - 12.5 hours of hiking. When we got back on the bus, I overheard a guy say "Why did I think that was a good idea?" That pretty much sums it up. Except that as I was descending as quickly as I could, trying to relieve my altitude sickness, I glanced up at this volcano, and I couldn't believe I'd gotten up so high under my own power. That moment was worth it.

More about Tokyo in next post!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"The fastest I ever swam" or "How not to become lunch"

It was a bad plan from the start.  We were too casual.  We didn't have a buddy system. Looking back it was just a badly executed dive.

We went snorkeling today.  Correction, I went snorkeling, John, Cortney and Dick went scuba diving. There is a big difference. Scuba divers sink to the  bottom of the basin to check out the the intricacies of the underwater netherworld. Snorklers flail about on the water's surface looking like bait.

We went as a foursome, and we ended up as a twosome and two loners.  I was one of those loners.  We went to a place called "Toilet Bowl" which you have to hike in to on really sharp coral. It is very deep and wide, and so deep that when the scuba divers drift down to the bottom, you can't even see them.  Once I couldn't see John, Cortney and Dick anymore, I just shrugged my shoulders and started swimming.  The water was beautiful.

There were some fish to see.  There were Emperor Anglefish

Clown Fish

There were long skinny baracuda-looking fish that hung out on the surface.  I swam through massive schools of tiny fish, thousands and thousands of them moving in incredible synchronicity. As long as I stayed on the reef, I could see clearly to the bottom (about 3-10 feet).  

Then, about 45 minutes into it, I found myself hovering over some very deep water.  The fish coming up from the bottom were huge - 2.5 feet long and fat. The face of the wall of coral went down over 90 feet, as I would later find out, that's how far down John and Cortney were.  Big fish and cool fresh water just kept streaming up from the dark below.  

I find myself mezmerised, and at this point I'm just kind of floating and staring down.  I started to get kind of irritated that I was floating there alone.  I'm a pretty good swimmer, but this is the ocean.  I am no match for nature.  I have fins on, and I know that if this tide gets too strong, to swim parallel to the shore till I'm out of it's grip, then in to shore.   These life guarding lessons are going through my head when I look straight ahead of me and see this.

He was about 6 feet long, about 200 lbs.  he did not have a white underbelly like this one in the picture - just solid gray.  He was staring right at me, with his tail waving behind him. I'm pretty sure I saw him lick his lips.

Here's what was going through my head.  My brothers and sisters and I were raised on terrifying shark tales.  It was like my stepdad mentally filed away every terrifying shark tale in history and would tell the stories to us at night while we were vacationing on the beach in Del Mar. To be fair there were stories of deadly snake attacks and mountain lion attacks as well. The thing about those land animals is that you could reason with them. There were strategies to avoid becoming lunch. Play dead.  Never run. Stay quiet.  Show no fear.  Appeal to their maternal instincts. Somehow you know that you and that mountain lion could lock eyes and possibly come to some arrangement. She lets you go, you promise to return tomorrow with some filets for her cubs.  Trust can be established.

Not with a shark.  A shark is a perfect eating machine.  There is no reasoning with a shark.

So at this point, I'm thinking - holy irony batman - I am actually going die in a shark attack.  I should have played the lottery with those kind of odds.

You understand of course that these thoughts are flashing through my brain in nano-seconds and I am actually swimming as fast as I can to a piece of jutting coral that has formed an island about 20 feet from me - about the same distance from the shark but in the opposite direction.  The islands is about 5 feet wide and completely covered in very sharp mollusk shells which then cuts the crap out of my hands and legs.  So I'm hanging on this rock, bleeding and completely losing my mind, muttering "no, no, no" in a  whimpery voice.

I have no idea where John, Cortney & Dick are, and I have no way of finding them.  Minutes later, John and Cortney surface right in the area where the shark had been.  Thankfully they were able to keep calm, and after a few minutes they talk me off the rock.  We booked it back to the cove as fast as we could.  I was basically hugging the coral wall the whole time.  Meanwhile, there are fishermen overhead with lines of bait hanging right by us - footlong, bloody fish bait.  I don't think I've ever swam faster in my life.

Once we get back to the cove, we become worried about Dick, the other loner, who they have not seen in a while, even though their air is pretty much at the end. They take off their gear and reluctantly get back in the water to go look for him.  

Meanwhile, I'm on the shore and a woman diver surfaced, and she had apparently seen the shark too.  She seemed to have handled it better than I, although she was in a pack of divers, and crawling on the floor of the sea.  Apparently the sharks go for floating food, snorkeling food, like yours truly.  The ram you and then the eat you, she tells me with a grin.  I don't think I am ever going in the ocean again.

Thankfully Dick was already on land, by the car.  John and Cortney return and we all get in the car in the pouring rain to head home. 

So there you have it.  We returned home, John was nauseous with dive sickness, from going too deep. I am pretty banged up from scaling the mollusk-cover rock in 2.5 seconds.  The adrenaline has sapped me.  I'm sticking to land sports for the time being.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pandora's Box

Hello, loved ones.  I sure miss you all.  I wish that you were here to experience this crazy country with me.  Man these Japanese are funny. The children on this island run around from about age 4 without trace of an adult.  They hold hands and run across the street in a row.  They all wear uniforms - black skirts/shorts, white shirts, shiny red backpacks.  The smart ones go to school on Saturdays too.  They ride like 3 to a bicycle, hanging off the back, no helmets. Just out there having fun.  This is what I picture when my dad tells me about his childhood in Palo Alto. I caught the very tale end of that carefree independence in American cities.

I was shopping in a department store this week, and whenever the Okinawan children would stare at me, I would offer an "Konichiwa, ii desu ne??" which would make them giggle. Oversized blonde glamazon speaks Japanese!  Just a bit.  I actually found 2 dresses in my the "Big & Tall" store.  I'll take what I can get.

I start graduate school in 4 days!!  Very excited about this.  Have been doing a good amount of reading in anticipation.  Lots of books about the CIA. Just finished Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. According to the author, it is based entirely on recently declassified (2005-2007) documents, revealing an inept and quite frightening secret police/military paid for by our tax dollars.  Yikes.  I've opened Pandora's box.

Conspiracy central over here! John and I listen to Democracy Now! every night before bed, which he [jokingly] calls "Conspiracy theory radio" but I have to remind him that it's merely radio without corporate oversight.  There is a whole underground flow of power and pressure and influence that is completely removed from democratic oversight. Oh I'm so going to enjoy these classes!!!

Putting the finishing touches on this season's jewelry line.  I'm doing a one-of-a-kind line for the Tokyo stores as well, I hope it goes over well.  I've gone slightly over the design deep end as well. 

John says Hello!  Gunner is freaking out right now because apparently our house is haunted. More about Okinawan ghosts at a later date.