Families with infants are among those called upon to board the airplane early and do so in plain view of fellow passengers waiting impatiently in the queue. I carried on the baby along with the responsibility for avoiding a miserably noisy flight. Dean turned out to be the model passenger, playing quietly when not sleeping and wooing the stewardesses the rest of the time - a skill he would hone over the next two weeks. Travelling through Japan with a baby is challenging at times, but we still experienced a lot of cool things.
We rode bullet trains, shopped in Tokyo, hiked Mt. Fuji, explored temples of Kamakura and Kyoto, soaked in onsen, and ate great food! Here are some of the highlights of the trip…
Climbing Mt. Fuji
A traditional Japanese proverb says, "A wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool climbs again". It being out of season and cloudy, there were few other wise people hiking. I took the 'easy' way up by departing from Fifth Station (2,300 m / 7,500 ft) in the afternoon and spending the night at the Eighth Station (2,910 m / 9,500 ft). There were three other hikers staying in the mountain hut which has enough bunks to sleep 300. We agreed to rise early in order to summit for sunrise. When the alarm sounded, however, we awoke to windy rain and decided to sleep in since there was no visibility. I ended up hiking solo in gnarly conditions and only spent seven minutes at the summit (3,776 m / 12,388 ft). The weather cleared on the descent and it turned into a beautiful day and treated many a clear view of the volcano. I am foolishly looking forward to another opportunity to hike Fuji-san.
Dean's popularity grew as we visited more touristy places (read temples). His first photo shoot occurred at the great Buddha in Kotoku-in where a group of school girls asked to take his picture. This was first stop on a beautiful hike connecting various temples in the Kamakura region. The last stop of the day was the Kencho-ji temple, which turned out to be our favourite. The carpentry and architecture of the buildings is remarkable. There is also a sub-temple located at the top of the ridge which is notable more for sweeping views over the city and out to sea.
The Kinkaku-ji Temple is also known as the Golden Pavilion Temple and sure enough it is covered in pure gold leaf. A calm and sunny morning resulted in photos of the temple complete with its reflection in the pond. The Japanese gardens are pleasant to walk through and offer views of the temple from many aspects. We were lucky to arrive early because numerous tour buses were unloading hundreds of new visitors!
The Himeji Castle stood out as a highlight due to its amazing structure, surrounding village, and the tour. A self guided walk takes you through the grounds and castle where signs pointed out various features such as a room filled with sword racks. The castle was enormous and had many levels (and stairs). I could image hundreds of ninjas clad in black wielding razor sharp swords emptying out of the castle like ants from a disturbed anthill. The views from the upper levels looked out over the grounds and city as well as giving you a close look at the detail in the roof tiles. There were a lot of people here from Dean's fan club and I found that we had to keep moving to avoid a growing crowd. Dean was aware of his celebrity status and enjoyed every minute of it.
How's the serenity? As the Australian would say. Kurama was the only place we visited in Japan that felt like the wilderness - free from human touch. The small 'mountain town' sits at the bottom of a pine tree covered valley alongside a river. The Kurama onsen is just outside of town and offers a wonderfully relaxing experience. The outdoor baths are fed by natural hot spring water at just the right temperature. Every so often the pine trees would sway and a cool breeze would blow through and coax you to stay in just a little longer. There were about seven people including myself and only one other who was not Japanese (he was from Singapore). Apart from some friendly banter with a few locals, little was said as we all floated completely relaxed enjoying the view.