Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hiking up Mt. Fuji

This weekend, I underwent an extreme physical challenge, one that I'd say can go down as the greatest one I've ever had, even more than a marathon: I hiked up Mt. Fuji. I know many people that have hiked up it of varying fitness levels and all came back in one piece. They even mentioned they'd seen children hiking up it. So, when one of my husband's coworkers' wives put together a group trip, I decided to join- even though I'm 8 weeks pregnant.

Before I talk about the hike and show some pictures, let me give you some background information on Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is the most famous mountain in Japan, located outside of Tokyo. It is actually a volcano, that last erupted in 1708. It stands at 3776 m (12,290 ft). There are ten different trails you can use to hike to the top. Unfortunately for us, we hiked up the Yoshida trail (which is the most popular trail), and started at the 5th station, with about 10,000 other people. Our total ascent was 2300 m (7546 ft) to the top.

Mt. Fuji is only open for hiking in the months of July and August because of safe weather conditions. In Japan, school holidays are from mid-July to mid-August, so choosing a weekend near the end of August, we thought we were safe in avoiding most major crowds, BOY WERE WE WRONG!

We began our journey to Mt. Fuji here in Kobe, by taking a train about 30 minutes to meet our friends (there were 20 of us altogether). We boarded a bus and it took us on an 8.5 hour journey to the 5th station on the Yoshida trail. The journey was full of traffic jams and bus stops every 2 hours (for the driver's safety- Japanese law). Here is the bus that was waiting for us, cute how they had a "Team Caterpillar" sign:

When we got to the base, we spent about 45 minutes, gathering more food, purchasing walking sticks, and taking photos. Here's a picture of all of us before the start, unfortunately in the dark, some of the people in the back were not illuminated well with my flash:

The walking sticks we bought are traditional Mt. Fuji souvenirs (o-miyage as Japanese would say)- at each station or hut you passed, you could pay 200 yen and get a stamp woodburned onto your stick. Here we are at the first one, you can see the pot of hot coals where they heat up the branding iron and then you can see him stamping the stick. They actually came in quite useful for the steep climb up and slippery descent.

We were warned about altitude sickness because the climb was steep and we'd be at high altitudes quicker than normal. We were told to stop for about 30 minutes at each station to acclimate before continuing on. Thanks to the high volume of hikers, this was not necessary to do. We were stuck in a traffic jam of people. It was the worst crowd I have EVER been in in my entire life and there was no way out. Here are shots of crowds at various points:

At the top when I reached there, and this is only to the crater side:

From the top after sunrise, looking down (this is only 1 of 10 trails):

Going down:

By the time the crowd was at it's worst, we were above the cloud line, it was freezing and there was nothing to do but sit and shiver on giant rocks on the edge for hours until the crowds cleared. By 5:08 when the sunrose, I was about 100 m from the top. Not bad, here are some of my pictures of the sun rising and the beautiful fluffy clouds we were standing above.

First hint the sun was getting ready to rise:

First glimpse of the sun:

The sun rising up:


At this point, I wanted to get to the top, it was so close, I could almost touch it. All of the sudden, I got hit with a wave of altitude sickness and almost fainted. I had to stop and catch my breath and eat a piece of candy and 5 minutes later, I was at the top. I was so tired from hiking all night and battling the crowds, hungry, and freezing, the top was anti-climactic to say the least. The crater was cool, but if I wasn't annoyed, tired, hungry, and cold, I would have like to walk around the circumference of it. But, I knew I still had the descent and then the long busride home to follow.

Here is a view of the crater looking across, it dips down where the people are standing (it's 100m deep):

Here is our group photo at the top before we started the descent:

The descent was not as crowded as the ascent THANKFULLY! But, it was gruesome. It was the most painful part of the experience, in my opinion. The surface was loose dirt and ash, with big pieces of gravel, the whole way down. There were sharp switchbacks for the first 3/4 of the way down, then a long long road of up and downhills back to the station. The road down was soo dangerous, people were slipping all over the place because of the bad footing and steepness of the path. There was no food or water for sale the whole way down and since we had seen the sunrise, it was out and blazing hot!

Here is the surface for our descent:

I can say I am glad I did the hike, but NEVER AGAIN!!! I think that all 20 of us had the same sentiment.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Super Mario Brothers Birthday Party

Last week, we had another birthday. The theme for this party was a no brainer, my son is OBSESSED with Super Mario Brothers. Here he is in his birthday outfit that I made him:

I just bought a 5-pack of Hanes' t-shirts to use for various projects, so I grabbed one out of the pack (hard to believe my 7 yr old barely fits into the kids' L size). I had scraps of Mario Brothers fabric laying around from shorts I made for the kids last year. I cut out the characters, coins, and a number 7, and embroidered them on the shirt, along with the words "Happy Birthday"- no, I don't have an embroidery machine, it was all done with my wicked old Singer machine.

For the hat, I bought 6 plain red hats from, then I used white craft tape and drew red M's on them with a sharpie, and cut out circles and stuck them on. I'm amazed at how well the tape is adhering, it's been over a week and they're all still intact, and they have been worn a LOT.

Here's the table.

I bought plain yellow gift bags at a party shop and drew question marks on them with a black sharpie so they'd look like the hint blocks.

Inside the bags, I found stuffed Mario characters (at a store here in Japan- but you can also find them on ebay)- then I bought stickers, tattoos, and mushroom tins from birthday express, and the last thing each bag contained was a pack of Super Mario Brothers gummy treats that my brother found at a grocery store in Massachusetts. The plates, cups, placemats, and napkins were also from birthday express.

This was an easy party because for games, all we did was play Super Mario Brothers Wii and then went swimming, it's just too hot here to be outside if you're not in the pool.

I made some homemade ice cream, double cookie dough ice cream, found here at Annie's Eats, which everyone loved, but I have to admit, I prefer just cookie dough with a plain vanilla base. For the cake, I made vanilla swiss meringue butter cream (since I was using a lot of icing for a triple layer cake, this is less sweet than standard vanilla icing), and a white chocolate cake.

For the cake (from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum)

4 1/2 egg whites
1 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 cup cake flour
1 cup sugar
1 TBSP + 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
9 TBSP unsalted butter
6 oz. white chocolate

Preheat oven to 350'

1) Melt the chocolate, set aside
2) Mix together egg whites, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla, set aside.
3) In bowl of mixer, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add in remaining 3/4 cup milk- beat for 90 seconds.
4) Slowly add egg mixture to flour mixture.
5) Scrape down sides of bowl, add in melted chocolate.
6) Bake 25-35 minutes in 2 round cake pans.

And here is the cake:

The back:

I got the characters off ebay, I just typed in Mario brothers, and searched for a set of NEW characters. There were a total hit, the kids love playing with them!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Travelling alone with kids, halfway around the world, enjoyable or not?

There are many people that tell me that they'd love to come to Japan, but they just couldn't bear the thought of the long flight. Are you afraid to travel alone? Or maybe, you're not afraid to travel, but you have kids and you're afraid to travel with them? I live about 8,000 miles from home. I don't have the option of not travelling (and not alone either)- but I do have the luxury of travelling with four small kids (now age 2-7), when I started it was age 4 months- 3 years. Yes, imagine boarding a plane with a baby in hand, 2 toddlers in tow, a diaper bag swaying from your arm, and three car seats- dangling one from each arm, and one strapped to your back. Makes travelling alone seem like a breeze (I wouldn't know and I'm sure I won't know for some time). People are always asking me "how do you do it?", "why do you do it?".

For some reason, this trip back, I had the idea to buy a cheap watch (of course digital and spider man - so I could give it to my 5 year old who is learning to tell time-this made the flight even more fun, as I was constantly asked "can I have my watch yet, is it mine now?")- and I used the watch to keep a timeline of the events that unfolded from door to door on our trip from Massachusetts back to Japan. Now, I won't bore you with the entire 4 page spread, but I did photograph it, so if you are bored, (or travelling)- and you are looking for something to read, it is here for your enjoyment. I will however make a list of some of the highlights of my trip:

1) Leaving the house at 2:37 AM to head for the airport, nothing like stirring up a perfect situation for happy travelling children.

2) Checking in over 15 bags, including our 4 carseats (yes, for the first time ever, I did not take a car seat on the plane, I felt sort of naked).

3) Spending 8 hours and 5 minutes (to be exact) in 4 different airports in 3 different countries.

4) Having to go through customs and immigration 5 different times.

5) Using an airplane bathroom at least 15 times, yes I forgot to record a few.

6) Taking over 20 minutes to report 1 lost bag (yes, this included photocopying ALL my itineraries, my passport, EVERYTHING).

7) The taxi driver fitting all the bags in the van, including hoisting the 69 pounders up himself, and I'm sure they weighed more than him.

8) Actually being able to watch 3 20 minute TV shows that I downloaded onto my iPod touch :)

10) Finding out that China actually has a HOTTER airport than Japan, which I didn't think was possible.

11) 8 hours and 12 minutes- the amount of time Hazel the 2 year old slept for the duration of the 31 hour and 19 minute trip. And she arrived home in good spirits!

12) Surviving on 5 hours of sleep in 48 + hours and still having patience left in my pocket.

13) ZERO- the number of complaints I got about my kids and the number of minutes that I was bored.