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Green Tea With Sugar

An interesting lecture on the science of choice. Opens with an anecdote on Japan.I’m exploring this topic the best way I know how, which is simply to sit and type until I reach some kind of revelation… or just leave a series of questions in my wake. Recently, a friend of mine told me she found my travel writing incredibly offensive, if not downright racist. I couldn’t understand where she was coming from, and kept prying until she said she thought I generalized an entire race of people, in saying that “all” Japanese do the same for foreigners.

But was it true? Had I been living in Asia so long that I started to embody some of the behavior I and others see on almost a day-to-day basis? When I wrote about life in Japan, did I paint all Japanese with the same brush, leaving no room for individual behavior? It reminded me of a joke I liked to tell around expats in Japan:

When a Japanese person trips, it means he had an accident. When a foreigner trips, it means he doesn’t know how to walk.

Implying that, to your average Japanese observer, foreigners simply can’t be seen in the same light as a fellow Japanese. Things are seen in absolutes, especially where behavior or habits are concerned.

– You saw a foreigner passed out drunk? Well, that’s what foreigners do.
– You’re living in Japan but you’re not an English teacher? That’s impossible; all foreigners are English teachers. You must be mistaken.
(this is hyperbole, if you can’t tell).

Is that offensive? Before I say anything else, I should say: that was not my intention. For whatever that’s worth.

That being said, I can’t deny the experiences I had in Japan. Never at any time did I feel a part of that ultimate in-group, Japanese society. And, of course, you can take that as you will: maybe my Japanese skills weren’t up to par; maybe I didn’t try hard enough to fit in; maybe I was just too stubborn to ever fit in. I personally believe there is and has always been (but hopefully will not always be) a clear barrier between Japanese people and foreigners… on the part of Japanese. Why? I know I’m generalizing here, but with good reason. This is not dealing with Japanese as a race, but Japanese that were born in Japan to ethnically Japanese parents, raised in Japan in the Japanese school system, and continue to live their lives in Japan; in other words, not any ethnically Japanese people raised outside Japan. No Japanese could go through that process without developing a sense of group mentality. Spending time in schools, becoming part of the system, told to fear individuality. In-groups and out-groups. And foreigners are the ultimate out-group, as gaijin (外人).

I’ve said it before: people who think Japanese are racist in the western sense of the word – and yes, there is a difference – are mistaken. There are racists as Americans and Europeans have come to know them in Japan: bigoted ignorant idiots. But, those who spend time in Japan know bigots aren’t representative of the population as a whole. So why do they feel discriminated against? Japanese people don’t treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don’t fit into society’s rules and therefore, must be treated like they don’t belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn’t work, because we can’t (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying). More on the subject here

So I need to know, and I need honest answers from my readers. Is that argument inherently offensive and racist? I honestly believed it was just being pragmatic. I suppose it very well might be 日本人論.

I’m sitting at one of Fukuoka city’s famous yatai: a food stall lining the river, usually stocking fresh ramen or sushi. This time, as I perch myself on one of the red stools and start slurping loud enough to attract the attention of Japanese, it’s as though I’m settling into a warm bath. With Japanese signs around me, Japanese speakers chattering away, and the local food settling in my stomach, it’s no wonder I feel a great sense of relief and excitement coming back. I’m certainly comfortable in Korea, but I can’t read all the signs, I can’t speak worth anything, and I’m much more lax in getting to know people. Maybe it’s because I’ve just been abroad too long.IMG_1516.jpg

As if on cue, a young lady strolled up to my yatai, looking inquisitive but a little out of place. The owner greets her in Japanese and directs her to a stool, but she remains standing, asking for something in particular.

“It’s ramen,” the owner says to her.

She said something I didn’t catch, so I chimed in, assuming she was Japanese: “It’s delicious, the best in Fukuoka!”

She didn’t react at all to what I said, but, as if making up her mind, slowly sat down and waited for a bowl. I thought I might as well enjoy a conversation about the food:

“福岡に住んでいる?” (Do you live in Fukuoka?)

Again, no reaction. I was confused now, until I realized she had only spoken one word of Japanese.

“Korea?” I asked, a little uncertain. But she nodded. “Ahhh, 안녕하세요!” As if on cue, the Japanese man to my right commented on my eating habits:

“I’ve never seen a foreigner eat ramen like a Japanese.”

So, of course, to be polite, I spoke with him for a few minutes. About food, my travels in Japan, his work… and then it hit me.


Two months in Korea, and I can’t even ask a Korean person if she’s Korean. Two years in Japan, and I can understand why a Japanese might look funnily at a foreigner loudly slurping noodles. Not only that, but I can talk to him about it at length. It was almost the perfect contrast between the life I had, and the one I’m living now. Will I one day be eating 고기구이 in Busan, talking merrily in Korean to the people sitting around me? Or will I stick with my affinity to Japan? It’s only been two months, but I still feel as though Nippon has more of a draw for me than Korea.

A few things happened on this last trip that made me reevaluate my experiences in Japan. True, I was coming to the country as a tourist this time around, which definitely affected my perspective: why should I care if Japanese instinctively speak English to me if I am in fact a visiting English speaker (who just happens to know a little Japanese)? But… as I was visiting an onsen ryokan in Hakone at the request of, I probably felt more respected that day and night than any other time in my two years in Japan.

Maybe I’m mistaken. But I certainly didn’t feel professionally respected during my year teaching at AEON, as I was basically an interchangeable part of the eikaiwa machine. I did enjoy my time at Shin Nippon Biomedical in Kagoshima, but the company was so laid-back by Japanese standards; not that this was a problem, mind you… I just felt I was given more attention in Hakone. I was respected as a travel writer, and that alone may have boosted my ego more than one year in a scientific company ever could have:

– It was the first time I can recall being addressed as “Turner-sama
– Conversation between my contact and the owner was smooth; they trusted my Japanese ability when it was necessary, and we switched to English as needed
– I think I received more than just superficial flattery when asked about my travel experiences in Japan; they both seemed genuinely impressed with my knowledge and appreciation of onsen

In any case, when I first disembarked the JR Beetle International Ferry in Fukuoka, a few things were immediately obvious. Korea has a fine system of roads and sidewalks, but Japan’s are definitely more orderly and cleaner. Citizens of both countries use bowing as a form of respect and introduction, but Japanese are much more genki about it; just walking into a 7-11 I immediately noticed that eyes were on me in a way they hadn’t been for two months at any Family Mart in Busan, Uljin, Seoul, or Gangneung. In that sense, I suppose customer service is just more user-friendly; workers are always “on” in Japan, from beginning to end.


Some things I had forgotten… the money is quite big. I remember how small US bills were by comparison. Japanese women, IMHO, are more attractive. To me, of course. But I also think they age considerably better. Food and cost of living are markedly more than that of Korea, but that was to be expected. It was just so surreal being back in a place where life had been going on the whole time I was away; it was as if I expected things to just freeze and await my return. Instead, I discovered Hakata Station was completely rebuilt, my favorite ramen yatai was relocated, and my language skills were much better than I had assumed they would be; memories and words came flooding back once they were required.

Another benefit to being back was getting a haircut. Of course there are plenty of cheap and decent places to get your hair cut in Korea, but this is one area I hate experimenting with the language for the first time; when it happened in Thailand, I ended up with a buzz cut: the barber thought I wanted to leave a quarter inch, not just cut it off. In addition, in Korea I might have accidentally walked into a place of prostitution:


Certainly looks innocuous enough, but in Korea, two of these means it’s a front for sexual services. One is legitimate. In the end, it was easier to pay ¥1000 at a discount place in Shizuoka and state I just wanted a trim.

I began my morning at the same time one would expect a Tokyo salaryman to rise. But he would gaze upon grey buildings and the same morning commuters ambling to Shinjuku Station, whereas I was surrounded by mist and fog. Far from Tokyo. From any large group of Japanese. There had been only one option to sleep as I stumbled down Subashiri Trail, using only the moonlight to guide me, and that was my current resting place, Taiko-kan.

Many climb Mt. Fuji for simply the experience, as those who do reach the summit are members of yet another in-group in Japan. Others, like those avoid the crowds by climbing in the winter, are veteran mountaineers, some of whom might enjoy running the mountain huts during the summer months later in their lives.

As for myself? I just wanted to get my legs good and sore, my skin sticky and salty, in preparation for the relaxation awaiting me just north of the Izu Peninsula.

I can’t help but wonder why foreigners come to Japan in the first place if so many don’t even bother to get off the beaten path. I know everyone has their own interests and perhaps limited time, but why do I only hear stories of visitors sticking with Tokyo, Kyoto, and sometimes Hiroshima and Mt. Fuji? Is it because they worry of using transportation other than trains, with the relatively cheap Japan Rail Pass? But anyone with this pass can take the shinkansen to Okayama and catch a number of local trains into Shikoku, a land of Buddhist temples, the oldest running hot springs in the country, and even Iya Valley, the rural home of Japan scholar Alex Kerr, in the time it would take to reach the floating torii in Hiroshima Prefecture. Why then do they always go to the modern high-rises and pachinko parlors of Tokyo, the traditional temples of Kyoto, the Peace Park in Hiroshima, and say “I’ve experienced what Japan has to offer”? Even Kerr has made this point: tourists fly thousands of kilometers, take the train for hours to their destination, and when an opportunity arises to go somewhere off the beaten path, the typical response is “but it’s so far…”

Or maybe it’s not an issue of distance but one of comfort; the accommodations have already been arranged, the closest bar serving gin and tonic located. Why go to the trouble of looking for something else?

To them, I would say: why in the world did you come to Japan in the first place? To see the source of the photographs in every guidebook ever published? Let’s let Google be the test, shall we? Do an image search for “japan”, plain and simple. What comes up? A map of the country, obviously, the streets of Tokyo, temples of Kyoto, geisha, trains, Mt. Fuji, the floating torii of Miyajima, and cherry blossoms.


If you come to Japan in April, cherry blossom season, that is the itinerary of the majority of foreign tourists: land in Tokyo, ogle the bright lights, take the train to Kyoto (passing Fuji on the way; easily spotted from the shinkansen), bus it to Gion, and hopefully spot a geisha. Maybe some will make the trip to Hiroshima – only two hours from Kyoto – but by and large, these two cities get all the attention, even among foreign residents.

There are some places in any country that draw in locals more often than tourists. Of course travelers want to experience aspects of a different culture, but when it involves more than looking or buying a ticket, some just don’t stretch themselves. Take hot springs in Asia, for instance. Communal bathing is a huge part of the lifestyle in Japan; in some small towns (and island communities), the best way to socialize is at the neighborhood bath, not the bar. Seeing a father scrubbing down his young son. Letting the stress of a hard workday melt away in the near-scalding waters. But many westerners I’ve spoken with are opposed to the whole idea; they like their private showers and hiding their “shame”; unfortunately, I do think this stems from repressed Christian ideas instilled in these non-Asian nationalities (even if it isn’t the dominant religion, the idea sticks) – showing your nakedness to another is seen as sinful. Or maybe it’s just something else entirely.

The source aside, the fact remains no Japanese or Korean I have ever spoken to has a problem when I suggest an outing to a public bath or hot springs. In Japan, there are areas rife with mineral waters and upscale accommodation, a refuge for couples looking for a romantic getaway.

Take Hakone (箱根), just north of the Izu Peninsula. Less than 100 km from Tokyo, this place offers the perfect escape for international tourists and Japanese alike: views of nearby Mt. Fuji, full of hot springs ryokan (lodging), and anything but an urban environment. A limited express train called the “Romance Car” (ロマンスカー) leaves from Shinjuku Station several days a time, a testament to Hakone’s popularity with those seeking a little privacy.


But even foreigners who aren’t traveling in pairs should take an interest in this side of Japan. A place that isn’t so worn down by tourism like Kyoto that you might actually have to *GASP* practice a little Japanese from time to time, but still boasts English signs if you run into any serious trouble getting around. The image I want you to associate with Hakone is popular and traditional. A place many Japanese know as a good hot springs resort, yet whose name just doesn’t resonate with most foreigners; you’ve all heard of Mt. Fuji (富士山) and the climbers it attracts, but have you any idea where Mount Takao (高尾山) is, a popular outing for Tokyo residents?

It all boils to the image of these attractions: you read about Hiroshima and learn of the floating torii and things to see around the city… most Japanese have a difficult time separating this name from any memory of the atomic bomb. You hear anything other than “Tokyo”, “Kyoto”, or “Fuji”, and it ceases to form any kind of image based on what you know of Japan.


In my mind, there will always be the experience of staying at Kiritani Hakoneso (桐谷箱根荘), a hot springs ryokan on Mount Hakone that took me in after a long day and night of climbing Fuji. Eating a full Japanese dinner in a private room with shamisen music playing in the background… I love how the Japanese separate each dish so you don’t mix one food with some undesirable flavor. I love how such resorts are designed for comfort, with amenities like shiatsu massages, a full karaoke booth, and yukata provided to lounge around your room and dining area.


And the focus of it, the purpose for creating such a oasis of luxury on this mountain? The bath. Always the bath. On Hakone, the waters are milky white from the mineral content with just a slight smell of sulfur to clear your sinuses. Flowing from the earth at 44 degrees Celsius, these waters cleanse you, in both a physical and spiritual sense. Time it right, and you should be able to manage five immersions before checking out the following day.


Other information

Kiritani Hakoneso, 桐谷箱根荘

Kiritani Hakoneso (日本語)
English information



A series of twists and turns. By train, take the local or shinkansen to Odawara Station (小田原駅). From there, take the Odakyu Line to Hakoneyumoto (箱根湯本). Switch to the Hakone Tozan Railroad; this will take you past three switchbacks up the mountain until you arrive at Gora (後等). From there, either walk north or take the Hakone Tozan Cablecar (ケーブルカー) to Koen-Kami Station (公園上).


Walk to the right of your direction of travel after exiting, then wait for the first “street”. There will be signs marking Kiritani Hakoneso; turn left. Walk about 100 meters uphill and it will be on your right.

I’m walking down the Subashiri Trail on the east face well after the sun has set. Unlike knowledgeable hikers, I hold no rain gear, nor a decent flashlight; fortunately, I planned my ascent around the full moon, and, being a clear night, this light is more than enough to guide me. My feet slide across the loose volcanic surface. For some reason, I imagine a fall to be nothing worse than a deviation from a slip n’ slide water machine… the lie is better for me, truly knowing that one false step could lead to scraped hands or worse. Less than eight hours ago, I had been cautioned against this undertaking by none other those working in the tourism industry of Gotemba; how could they be so wrong? The skies were clear, the surface dry, the view one of a kind.IMG_0891

Two years in Japan, and I never found myself hiking to the top of Mt. Fuji. It was always one reason or another: I didn’t want to go during Obon in August, which was sure to bring lines of people all the way to the summit; nor was I entirely sure how safe it was just outside of the climbing season, in June or September. I had previously concluded that the best time for someone in good condition and pretty independent was mid-late September. The crowds would be gone, a few mountain huts would still be open, and, unlike June, there would be a lesser chance of rain.

This was my thinking as I took the train into Gotemba Station without much of a plan; I didn’t know which trails would be open in September, if I needed a reservation for the few mountain huts that would be open, or if I could even stock up on supplies at the 5th station. Tourists generally start their ascent of the famous Japanese icon in stages: from the 5th station, where most buses run, to the 6th-9th stations for food, lodging, and medical care, to the summit, the 10th station. All I knew for certain was to have plenty of cash and water on hand.


Equipped with my best mountaineering Japanese, I walked into the tourist information booth direction across from the train station. Unfortunately, I knew there would be trouble before I even started. For many Japanese, if something doesn’t happen a certain way, it just doesn’t happen:

– You were stung by a jellyfish? No you weren’t! Jellyfish season ended yesterday.
– We can’t turn the heater in the office on yet! I don’t care if it’s 10 degrees, it’s not October 1st yet!

This is a bit of a generalization, but, judging from the reactions of the staff when I told them I wanted to climb today, I’d say it’s not too far off; they acted as though they would be the last ones to see me alive. There was some information they couldn’t withhold, namely that the only bus running to any 5th station from Gotemba was to the Subashiri Trail. The others had stopped in early September. And although the staff were capable of making arrangements for the mountain huts during the official climbing season, in the off season, they were astonishingly ignorant. I asked them which huts would be open on Subashiri, only to be told none were. Then I said I knew at least two were (Taiko-kan, 大陽館 and Osadasanso, 長田山荘), whereupon they spouted: “Oh, you knew that?” Ummmm… yeah…

It was almost funny. I mean, I understand them wanting to be concerned for the safety of those ignorant about climbing in the off season (high winds, snow, etc), but I was prepared, and I knew what I was talking about. They didn’t even know which huts were open, and for the official tourism office, that’s pretty sad. The reaction to my presence at the 5th station, however, more than made up for anything I felt at sea level.

If you are considering climbing Mt. Fuji, you should know there are four official trails to the summit:

1. Fujinomiya Route (富士宮ルート). Easily the most popular and most equipped for emergencies and less-than-perfect climbers. Also has the lodging closest to the summit (Mannenyuki-sanso, 万年雪山荘), if you want to see both sunrise and sunset.

2. Gotemba Route (御殿場ルート). I originally wanted to do this one until I discovered the buses to their 5th station had stopped running. Gotemba is usually less crowded than the other trails because it starts at the lowest altitude.

3. Subashiri Route (須走ルート). The subject of this blog entry. If you’re looking for a bit of a forest hike before you want to be surrounded by nothing but lava rock, go with Subashiri. The biggest gap is probably between the 6th and 7th stations.


4. Yoshida Route (吉田ルート). Like Fujinomiya, this trail is ideal for tourists with modern facilities en route. It runs up the north face of Fuji-san.

I was rushed getting out to the bus stop: the next bus left at 11:00, and the one after that, not until 1:30. It was a quarter to eleven: fifteen minutes to separate my luggage, stash everything I didn’t need in a coin locker at Gotemba Eki, and buy as much water as I could (didn’t want to pay absurd prices on the mountain).


The bus takes you way up there, rising about 1400 meters and well past the first layer of clouds. Don’t get discouraged if it looks overcast. Fujisan is a HUGE cloud-catcher of a mountain; one minute it may be completely surrounded, the next… clear skies.

At the 5th station, I was pleasantly surprised to see enough activity to warrant the two shops being open. Though I was less thrilled to discover the price of water had doubled, and bathrooms had gone from free to 200 yen:


A few interesting characters here: the obasan (grandmother) in charge of one of the shops was quick to offer mushroom tea to any climber, including myself. She was also quite helpful in answering my questions:

“I’ll probably stay on the mountain tonight. Will it be safe?”

“Of course. There might be a little rain… but no problem.”

“What if I don’t have a reservation, is that a problem?”

“No problem.”

Now that I was among people who actually devoted their lives to Fuji-san and climbing, people much more in tune with the moods of the mountain, I was given anything but discouragement. Even ran into a famous Kendo instructor, Ajiro-san; he told me to throw his name around Korea and see if it opened any doors for me. Just might – I do have his meishi. In any case, the Subashiri 5th Station is a great place to relax with tea and ice cream before or after a climb. I timed my arrival so I could adjust to the altitude over a short lunch before my ascent.


Between the 5th and 6th stations, the quiet was very unsettling for me. There was still greenery all around me, so I was a little confused (hadn’t read up on the topography of this trail): was I making good progress? It wasn’t until I caught sight of a fabric fish waving in the wind that I realized I was a good twenty minutes ahead of the recommended time. Ordinarily, I’d be quick to just ignore that “suggestion” and go at my own pace, but it’s good to give yourself time to adjust to the altitude, especially on the highest peak in Japan.


Prices on everything have doubled at the 6th station (六合目), but they do offer noodles, water, tea, and lodging. I’m warned by the old timer running the facility about going too fast, but I couldn’t really appreciate what he meant (not until later that night when I found myself with a killer headache).


Shortly after departing, the plant life became less frequent along the trail until I could notice some nice lava flows. Steeper and steeper, or at least it felt that way to me.

I didn’t have time to appreciate the 7th station too much. It looked like a pretty good setup considering the altitude. Meals are available for outrageous prices (¥550 for a Pepsi), but the staff are nice and English-friendly.


Nothing but pain from here on. I left the 7th station around 3:30, which gave me a little over three hours to the top according to the official climbing guide. Unfortunately, that station had the last available lodging on the mountain, leaving me with two choices: sleep outside one of the closed mountain huts close to the top OR climb in time to see the sunset, then hurry back to the 7th station to rest for the night. I opted for the latter, but that meant me keeping a pretty good pace the rest of the journey.


I won’t even begin to say how difficult it was… actually, not too bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not in decent shape. The sun had already “set” over my half of Fuji by the time I reached the last set of steps:


To be greeted by an overly enthusiastic crowd at the highest torii in all of Japan:


One of the reasons to climb to the summit at sunrise or sunset is to catch the conical shadow over the blanket of clouds. Fortunately, as I had ascended the east face and was in time for sunset, it was a perfect sighting:


I couldn’t stay for too long, though, as I had to make use of as much daylight as I could to return to the 7th station (assuming I would even stay there). You might think me crazy, but my plans were still flexible; I was considering Taiko-kan as one option among many. By the time I did risk my life more than once in that moonlight descent, I was ready to call it a night, and enjoy an evening with the fringe of Japanese society. These are guys who could describe what breathing techniques I should use to combat altitude sickness IN ENGLISH. Guys who spend months of the year out of contact with the world (pre-recorded TV, no internet obviously). The managers of the 7th station. I salute you.


Oh, and want to talk about fortuitous timing? I just missed the snow

Useful information:

Water is a commodity on Fuji. Unless you want to end up paying ¥500/bottle, I suggest you bring 4-5 liters from town; food is also a good idea. This applies to bathrooms and washing up too.

Taiko-kan, 大陽館
7th Station (七合目)
¥6300 for lodging only (no meals)

Mount Fuji Climbing Guide

UPDATE 10/5/2010

I found this video by StreetEnglishTV on an off-season climb up the Yoshida Trail. I stand behind what I said concerning a September ascent, but I’m also glad I was “forced” into going up Subashiri; Yoshida just seems way too developed.