If I mention “Mt. Fuji” to someone in Japan, the immediate response is often one of smiles, favorable gasps, and expressions of elation. Indeed, Fuji-san (富士山), as the Japanese affectionately call it, is a true legend.

Umegawa in Sagami, part of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Umegawa in Sagami, part of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Mt. Fuji is the subject of many works of art, including the internationally-recognized “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” woodblock print series by Katsushika Hokusai. According to a journalist at Modern Tokyo Times, Hokusai-san believed “Fuji was symbolic of eternal life, a goddess having deposited the elixir of life on the peak“; a quote which may inspire you to view the whole collection of prints. And, of course, Fuji-san appears on many souvenirs, dishware, postcards, t-shirts, and even on the package for the special sakura green tea I buy for my family around the holidays.

Common cloud formations and names, courtesy of the Fujigoko Tourist League

Common cloud formations and names, courtesy of the Fujigoko Tourist League

Actually seeing Mt. Fuji is an entirely different challenge, however. The top quarter is often shrouded in clouds, as the very cold temperatures at the summit mixing with the moisture in the prevailing winds creates a unique weather pattern. Since moving to Japan, I have tried repeatedly to see the symmetrical volcanic rim clearly, often to be disappointed by cloud cover, haze, building obstruction, or some other reason getting in the way. On any given day, hundreds of thousands will try to catch a view of Fuji-san, from as far away as downtown Tokyo to as close as the surrounding Five Lakes region formed from previous volcanic eruptions.

During this past weekend, Kristen and I set out on a journey to finally see “elusive Fuji-san” in all its glory. I’ll admit, it’s not easy to accomplish that task!

Thus begins Operation Finding Fuji:

Upon arriving in the slightly elevated city of Gora (500 meters above sea level) just outside Hakone around noon, the sky started to fill with clouds and the sun virtually disappeared. (This is generally how afternoons around Mt. Fuji end up.) The scenic train and cable car rides through the mountains made the journey well worth the time, and we decided to adjust the itinerary and see if the next morning yielded a better viewing result.

On Sunday, fueled with a belly full of tamagoyaki, shirauo, and tea, we rode a ropeway gondola and ascended to Owakudani (1,044 meters above sea level) while the morning air was still clear and crisp. The air had the distinct smell of sulfur dioxide being released into the air from the surrounding volcanic fumaroles. The conditions were perfect for accomplishing our goal. Upon walking to the crest of “Great Boiling Valley”, we struck gold. Victory!

Presenting the almighty Fuji-san, photographed yesterday:

Mt. Fuji

Daryl DuLong

 

Happy New Year!

Yesterday marked the beginning of year 4711, the Year of the Snake, and ushered in a 2 week-long celebration in China and other countries who observe the Lunisolar calendar like Vietnam and Korea. [If you want to practice your higher math skills, the creation and maintenance of the Chinese calendar should do the trick.]

Since Chinese New Year is not a holiday in Japan, a little travel is required to join in the revelry. Just south of Tokyo is Yokohama, home to Japan’s (and Asia’s) largest Chinatown and the epicenter of the New Year celebrations outside of China.

The streets were decorated with lanterns and filled to the brim with people trying to watch the ceremonial lion dance (“Cai Qing”) weaving through the neighborhood. In short, the lion does a dance in front – and oftentimes inside – of each shop and blesses the shopkeepers and onlookers. He collects the gifts of money hanging over the doorway in traditional red paper envelopes in his mouth and swallows them down. Firecrackers are set off and the crowd erupts in applause amidst the smoke and merriment. It’s a truly fun and amazing scene.

Below are some photos capturing the atmosphere:

Chinatown Decorated for New Year

Streets Filled with Revelers

Lion Dance for Chinese New Year

Firecrackers Exploding in the Streets

Daryl DuLong

 

Tokyo Tower I cannot believe one year has passed already since I moved to Tokyo. It has been a challenging, fun, and rewarding year in Japan, with some valuable self-awareness education. I am forever grateful to those who made this work assignment possible, and want to share back some insights as I start my second year here:

1. We Americans/foreigners are very loud!
There is something affectionately called “the Japanese whisper”, or the normal volume of speech used in conversations. (Only the Japanese would invent a device which is supposed to make other people stop talking on command.) By contrast, I am loud, and people in the office know when I’m at my desk because they can hear me on the other side of the floor. I have become much better at knowing the volume of my voice and about accepting long periods of silence in meetings.

Full Yamanote Line Car 2. It is good to know where every inch of you is at any moment.
While living in the world’s most populated city, I have become acutely aware of where every part of me is – from my elbow to my briefcase to the tips of my shoes – at any point in time. Being on a full train is a reminder of the fact that someone else may not be so thrilled having the corner of my briefcase wedged into their ribs. This does put forward a wonderful respect for the space around all of us, where people use only what they need, and leave the rest for someone else.

3. It doesn’t matter how much you try, blending in is just not possible, nor necessary.
Japan is unique in many ways, once of which is the fact that Japan is comprised of 98.5% Japanese, 0.5% Korean, and 0.4% Chinese people. This leaves only 0.6% for those of us without north Asian physical features, and that small percentage is very apparent when I’m out and about. (For contrast, about 72% of the U.S. population is white/Caucasian, and even that can feel very skewed at times.) Let’s just say that people know where in a crowd I am at any point, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Lobster Cake Eggs Benedict 4. Food is amazing in Japan.
No, sushi and ramen are not the only foods in Japan! Yes, they are delicious, but we don’t eat them daily. Growing up, I was never too keen on certain ingredients, such as mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, dark meat chicken, etc. I eventually let my tastebuds run free during the first multi-cultural festival in graduate school, and a world of deliciousness opened up in front of me. The same has been true in Japan, even if eating the whole shrimp (head included) is required at times. The best of the best is here – Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world – and your palate will thank you for breaking through the norms.

There are more experiences awaiting me in 2013, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

Daryl DuLong

 

Japan as a nation has an interesting and complex relationship with the English language. There has been an on-again, off-again approach to integrating English into Japanese society from as far back as 1600. The real push started for the late 1800s, following the Convention of Kanagawa and the start of the Meiji Restoration.

IMG_6044 In big cities, it is common to see English translations underneath key signs in train stations or the airports. You’ll even see English used as part of the signage in department stores to try and lure in shoppers with the illusion that it’s a premium or international offering. However, outside of some neighborhoods catering to tourists, it is more common to see 95%+ Japanese language.

While Japanese students study English for 6 years in school, English is emphasized as a written grammatical exercise only, and not used as a verbal communication tool. There are some Japanese citizens who have taken their proficiency to the next level, and because of their careers or education have been fortunate to study and practice English conversation.

Even though I work for a multi-national company in Tokyo, nearly 80% of my day is in Japanese (with the help of an interpreter). I had been given a heads up about this before coming to Japan, and have been taking Japanese lessons for the past year with the hope of becoming at least functional in society, and relying less on my colleagues to speak English with me. The two languages could not be more diametrically opposed, which has made for an interesting learning process.

Today was a major milestone in my journey, thanks to my excellent and very patient Sensei!

I have been using a popular textbook aptly named “Japanese for Busy People“, and lesson one was like dipping a toe into a deep chasm filled with inky black water. You can see a photo of that page below:

Lesson 1

After this weekend’s lesson, I have finished thirty rounds of progressive education, and even made it through this seemingly daunting two pages of Hiragana:

Lesson 30

I know I am only part of the way there. Next step: Kanji.

Daryl DuLong