Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stranded in Seattle

I have lousy luck when it comes to flying.

I have been stuck in Detroit due to a blizzard, endured eight hours of violent turbulence all the way to Europe, abandoned in Toronto when a pilot called in sick and now find myself stranded in Seattle thanks to a typhoon in Tokyo.

I was supposed to be landing in Japan right now but am holed up at the Holiday Inn across from the Seattle airport instead. My flight was cancelled. All flights were cancelled. Absolutely no one is flying in or out of typhoon-battered Tokyo today.

There's nothing to do but wait for the storm to pass and flights to open up. I could be here a day. I could be here two days. I could be here three days. No one really knows. I'm on standby for a flight tomorrow but standby is a crapshoot at best.

The worst part of it is that I'm paying for this little holiday at the Holiday Inn out of my own pocket because the airlines don't cover expenses for flights that are cancelled due to weather conditions. Most airlines will bend over backwards to rebook you when a flight is cancelled due to mechanical reasons. But when a flight is cancelled due to poor weather? Tough shit, you're on your own. No food vouchers. No hotel vouchers. No heroic efforts to rebook you on the next available flight.

So I'm having an impromptu vacation in Seattle, whether I want to or not. Or, more specifically, I'm having an impromptu vacation at the Seattle airport, whether I want to or not. Seattle is one of my favourite cities but the area around the Seattle airport is nothing like Seattle. It's pretty much like every other airport wasteland the world over. I know this because I went for a run earlier this afternoon.

My run took me along congested six-lane roads, underneath busy highways, past a Denny's, a Taco Bell, a bunch of gas stations and a dozen bland, boxy airport hotels catering to crowds of people just passing through. It could have been Anywhere, America.

But there are worse places to be stuck. Love it or loathe it, America is a fascinating country. It's so different from Japan. It's probably the polar opposite of Japan. Americans are so assertive and warm and friendly. And, man, do they ever love to talk!

It's culturally accepted to have random conversations with random people, to offer a hearty "hello" to strangers, to chat up everyone and anyone. I don't know how to describe it. Americans just seem so confident and open. Like they'd happily tell you your life story if you asked. I like it. It's refreshing.

When I was in the two-hour line up at the Seattle airport trying to rebook my flight, an American woman ahead of me chatted me up and demanded I use her cellphone to call the airline to figure out what my options were. The airline representative rebooking my flight told me all about his ex-girlfriend who lived in Vancouver and his favourite bars on Granville Street. A guy working at the Holiday Inn told me he loved the colour of my t-shirt, which prompted a 10-minute conversation about how much we both love bright colours. And on and on and on. I've been making friends left, right and centre ever since I stepped on American soil. It's just so different from Japan.

That's not to say it's some sort of extroverted utopia. There are some things about America I will never understand. The way no one seems to walk anywhere, for example. I went to the front desk at the Holiday Inn to ask where the nearest grocery store was.

"There's a 7-11 at the top of the hill," the woman working behind the desk told me.

I told her that wasn't exactly what I was looking for. She told me there wasn't really anything else within walking distance. I wasn't about to give up that easily.

She hummed and hawed and said the 7-11 was the closest thing in walking distance. But that it was still pretty far. It's funny how people define "walking distance" in different ways. For me, walking distance is about 45 minutes each way. For her, walking distance was no more than five minutes each way.

She finally admitted that there was a proper grocery store nearby but that I'd have to zig and zag through a few streets to get there and that I'd probably get lost. And that it was definitely more than five minutes away. She refused to give me directions and pointed me again to the 7-11 at the top of the hill.

The underlying message seemed to be that I was both too lazy and stupid to walk more than five minutes. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So I caved and went to the 7-11. I bought some snacks (oh man, do they ever have awesome snacks in America). I tried to buy some booze but got carded (didn't have any ID on me). Walked back to the hotel. The whole trip took about three minutes in total.

I'm heading back to the airport tomorrow (the hotel, by the way, is directly across from the airport and it would probably take less than five minutes to walk there but there is a shuttle bus to ferry guests back and forth) in an attempt to fly standby. I don't have high hopes.

I have lousy luck when it comes to flying.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Two weeks ago, four friends and I finally mounted Mt. Fuji. It may be the highest peak in Japan but reaching the summit is not as impressive as it sounds. That's because "climbing" Mt. Fuji involves little more than walking up a path so well-marked and beaten down it may as well be paved.

Not only is it not physically demanding but the trail is also lined with vending machines, toilets and mountain huts selling hot coffee and souvenirs.

Hiking Mt. Fuji isn't exactly a wilderness experience but it is good, campy fun!

We left Kyoto early Sunday afternoon. Three trains, one bus and several hours later, we arrived at Mt. Fuji's shockingly cold fifth station. We quickly abandoned our plan to hike in shorts and t-shirts and put on every layer of clothing we brought with us. This included the cheap plastic raincoats we bought at the last minute at a nearby 100 yen store (Japan's version of the dollar store, except way more awesome).

Everyone was a bit panicky about whether we'd be warm enough. Except Seema. Seema tied plastic bags around her feet and wore two raincoats over her fur coat (yes, a real fur coat). We looked a bit ridiculous in our ragtag outfits compared to the Japanese hikers who were all wearing gortex rain gear, technical hiking boots and steel-framed backpacks containing bottles of oxygen. They looked like they were about to summit Mt. Everest, not Mt. Fuji.

We started our ascent at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday evening. This is the way most people hike up the mountain. You start late in the afternoon or early evening. Hike for a few hours. Spend the night at a hut halfway up the mountain. Wake up at 2 a.m. and hike the rest of the way to the summit to catch the sunrise. Linger around at the top for a bit. Buy some souvenirs, mail a few postcards. And then hike all the way back down to the fifth station in one go.

This is how it's usually done and this is how we were planning on doing it too. We wanted the full Mt. Fuji experience. So we started our ascent in the dark with only headlights to guide the way.

We had no trouble following the path since it's roped off most of the way up. And the sections that aren't roped off can be easily found by following the large white arrows painted on the volcanic rocks. It took about three hours to reach the eighth station.

The hike is divided into 10 stations. Each station has pay toilets and a mountain hut where you can spend the night or buy food and water (the higher up the mountain you go, the more expensive the water becomes. A bottle of water costs 300 yen at the fifth station and 500 yen at the tenth station. It's a nice little racket).

Each hut has room for about 100 people. The sleeping arrangements are pretty basic. Everyone sleeps side-by-side on futons on the floor, packed in like sardines. There's not a whole lot of sleeping going on since most people are tramping in and out throughout the night. But it's all part of the Mt. Fuji experience.

We went to bed at around 11 p.m. and planned to get up at 2 a.m. in order to catch the sunrise from the summit. But at 2 a.m., the rain started coming down in sheets. We didn't want to embark on a cold, wet, dark hike so we decided to skip the sunrise and sleep in. Luckily, the rain stopped by 6:30 a.m. and we got moving half an hour later (they kick you out of the huts at 7:00 a.m. so a later start was out of the question).

The hike to the summit was uneventful and straightforward. It was an easy hike so we focused on having fun. Highlights included buying hot coffee from a vending machine at the ninth station.

Lowlights included getting a pounding headache. I don't think anyone would be in danger of getting a serious case of altitude sickness on Mt. Fuji but at 3,776 metres (or 12,288 feet) high, you can definitely feel the effects of the thin air.

We saw quite a few Japanese hikers sucking back bottled oxygen as they climbed toward the top. It seemed ridiculously unnecessary.

We reached the summit after three hours of relatively easy hiking. Unfortunately, there was nothing to see but a wall of white fog. It was also extremely cold -- the mercury was hovering around five degrees. And then the sky opened up and the rain started pounding down. We ran into the large shelter on top to warm up. It would have been a nice place to hang out except all of the other hikers were lighting up cigarettes. Nothing says good wholesome fun like breathing in second-hand smoke at the top of a mountain.

We didn't linger for long. We all had headaches from the altitude and a serious storm was brewing. We wanted to get down before it got worse. The temperature was dropping rapidly and the rain was starting to freeze. The wind was whipping wildly, shredding exposed skin with ice pellets that felt like tiny daggers. It was a pretty miserable hike down.

Of course, the wind, the rain and the ice wouldn't have been a problem if we were dressed properly for the weather. I was drenched from head to toe and the only way to stay warm was to run down the mountain. We must have made it down in record time.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. But I'd plan it around a sunny weekend so that I could see the view from the top. And even though the hike is easy, the weather conditions can be challenging. So next time I'd skip the dollar store and bring proper gear.

You can find the rest of my photos on my flickr page.