Mount Fuji has a reputation of being a bit shy and is often shrouded in cloud. However, as I arrived a week last Sunday after a bullet train and bus journey, it decided to put in an appearance and the skies were relatively clear all the next day when I took an ambitious hike up Mount Mitsutoge which has fantastic views of the volcano.
After a week of being immersed in temples and history in Kyoto it was great to be back to nature. I stayed in the Fuji Five Lakes area near Lake Kawaguchi which had a definite off season feel. My room was in the Japanese style with sliding doors and a futon on a tatami mat. It was a great experience, although I've discovered I can't sit cross-legged on the floor for any length of time and eating in that position also isn't easy.
It's a very laid back town despite its proximity to Tokyo (only an hour and a half by bus), the kind of place where the train driver of the local railway doubles up as ticket collector and has to jump down from his platform and rush to the gate. Mind you, nobody fare dodges. The Japanese are very law-abiding and I've always felt very safe even in the big cities.
My mountain hike was strenuous but rewarding, and also challenging given the lack of signs in English. On some stretches I saw very few people and was occasionally alarmed by signs in Japanese which had red borders. It was clear they were warnings of some kind, but I assumed they were simply advising people not to stray too close to the edge as there was quite a drop off in places. It was only later that I learned that there are black bears and wild boar in the forests. Given that it's spring and the animals are waking after hibernation with young to feed I could have come to a very sticky end!
I've spent the past week in Tokyo exploring the different areas, from the very modern parts like Shibuya which has the so-called Scramble pedestrian crossing where people cross in all directions, to Yanaka in Ueno which still has many small temples.
Although Japan and Tokyo in particular have a reputation for being modern and cutting-edge, I've found that to be only half true. Yes, everything is automated, but the coin machines to buy train tickets or drinks from vending machines seem quite old and don't accept credit cards. In fact, only one bank is hooked into the international network, so getting money from an ATM is tricky. Smoking is prohibited outside on the streets except in designated areas and yet you can smoke in special areas in restaurants.
Outside the main tourist areas it's quite hard to find restaurants with English menus. I've been staying in a shared apartment rented through AirBnb (my first experiment with this) and it's been great not to be in a hotel or hostel for a change. It's near Shinjuku station but in a quiet residential neighbourhood. There are some great little restaurants, and I mean little - some of the places only have room for about six people. But with no Japanese I've not really been able to go in unless there are pictures I can point to.
I'm off to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and I'm looking forward to being back in the steamy tropics. I'll miss the ease of getting around in Japan and the orderliness and the exemplary politeness of the people. However, the toilet seat which automatically heats up when it detects a posterior being lowered onto it and then automatically flushes is probably something I can live without. Nice though it is.