Oct 13, 2010

A 23 km mountain hike

Koyasan is known for its historical monuments, Buddhist temples, and a vast number of mausoleums. Located in Wakayama prefecture (132 km from our place) on a hill top, the present day Koyasan is a popular tourist attraction. The small town is designed to evoke memories of the past Buddhist rituals. Koyasan doesn't have a train station, and is accessible by road and cable car. A night stay in the ryokans that offer Buddhist style pure veg food is what most visitors from abroad would like to try. Starting from the Daimon (Main Gate), as you walk along the streets you see building that could date back to several hundred years ago. Rituals conducted by Buddhist monks are still popular here. The Art of Living Japan representative Neela Srinidhi conducts residential courses in Koyasan ryokans. Certainly, Koyasan takes you to a 'Zen' type atmosphere (if you close your eyes to the unavoidable commercialization that becomes part of any tourist spot).

Koyasan caught my attention for its hiking trails. There are 7 or 8 courses popular among hikers -each hike taking 2-4 hrs and spanning 4-6 km. I chose the tough course -23.5 km long trail which would take 7 hrs as noted in Koyasan tourist association homepage. Known as "Koyasan Choishi Michi" this trail was registered in the UNESCO World Heritage list (similar to the Kumano Kodo trail -the one we did in 2008 Dec). Walking up the mountains 23.5 km was something new to me....I just wanted to give it a try.

Information received from Kudoyama town - the location of Jison-in temple where the Koyasan Choishi Michi starts- was very useful. Leaving the car in the Parking lot, I dressed up for hiking and walked towards Jison-in. In front of homes I found baskets of 'kaki' (persimmon) fruits kept for retails sale -but there was none to receive cash. Looking at the price tag, customers put the exact cash in the small box, and walk away with the fruits taking them in the carry-bag provided. I've seen similar scenes in Kumano Kodo as well. Unmanned shops!

As I walked up the steep stairs of Jison-in temple (8:20 am), I saw the first 'cho ishi' -the stone marker, which is actually the 180th stone marker. The trail got its name because of the 180 'cho-ishi's located throughout the trail, each at a span of 109m. Each cho-ishi is a 1ft x 1ft base & 1.5 m high stone pillar -was the 'milestone' in those days (and even now). I needed to walk up to cho-ishi 1, to reach Koyasan.

The trail wasn't as wide as Kumano Kodo's, which I realized in the first few minutes. In the first 30 minutes, the kaki tress standing at both sides of the trail provided a nice shadow; and the kaki fruits seen in abundance explained the 'unmanned' fruit stalls I saw down the mountains. I would not have carried the two kakis that I had carried in my back-bag, had I known about this. The trail was of 1-2 ft wide for the most part, and it was quite steep at several points. After an hour or so, there were tall pine trees at both the sides (again reminding me of Kumano Kodo); thanks to them, there was no sunshine.

Fearing that I may not be able to complete the train in 7 hrs as noted in the pamphlet, I started walking in a good speed right from the beginning. Met a couple of Japanese ladies at 10 am in a resting place, who said they started at 7 am. As I took less than 2 hrs to cover the distance they hiked in 3 hrs, I was confident I could make it in time. I continued to walk fast, taking a look at the cho-ishis and trying to look at the number written on them. Perhaps as it was kanji of olden days, I couldn't get what the numbers meant in some cases.

As I approached 60th stone marker, I could hear the traffic sound coming from the nearby mountain road. At 12 noon I could reach the 60th stone marker -covering 2/3 of the distance. At this point, the trail crossed the public road; and there was a restaurant and some vending machines (along the 23.5 km, this was the only place where vending machines and restrooms were there). Many hikers were having their lunch there, some cooking in the portable stove they carried. I had a banana and was all set to move.... for some reasons I never feel hungry when hiking. I sat for a while, feeling relieved that 2/3 of the hike was over! I had walked past many Japanese hikers that I saw, and nobody ever overtook me, unlike the Takamikura and other hikes where I used to see a number of people pass by.

The distance between 60th stone marker till the 1st one was steep, or so I felt after 4 hours of continuous hike. Saw a couple of families, young couples and groups hiking as I moved up. And then came all of the sudden the sight of the crimson gate -the Daimon -which is the traditional entrance to Koyasan (which is at 6th stone marker).

I reached Daimon at 2 pm -an hour less than the published 7hrs it would normally take. Good!

Sat for a while, and started walking 1 km further... till I reached the bus stop and went to Koyasan station. Though not hungry, I went inside a restaurant to relax my legs. Took the cable car & train to reach Kudoyama. While in train, I realized I had sweating all over my body, and my clothes were fully drenched in sweating. (Those sitting next to me would have had a 'stinking' time!) Only after a relaxed bath in the onsen ("Yu-no-Sato in Hashimoto), sauna and steam bath, I felt fresh. Started driving at 8pm and reached Takasago at 10:30 pm.

It turned out to be quite a challenging day for my legs. Now I'm OK to do more day-long mountain hikes in the days to come!

Oct 6, 2010

C-S Wedding

It was an amazing experience to attend Cheruba--Sanjay wedding in Connecticut State on Sep-18, 2010.

Both the wedding ceremony in the church and the reception that followed in the evening kept me wondering about the painstaking efforts and the attention paid to minute details without losing sight at the bigger things at the same time. That Malini anni chose to sing the popular 'MangaLam.. MangaLamE...' in church pairing with her co-mother-in-lawi was a great idea. (I recalled -this was perhaps the song I used to hear in all the Christian weddings back in India). Cheruba's rememberance note of her father was touching. As she noted, her dad would be watching the Wedding from above, and He would be watching with pride. Her note promptly recalled the other three gentlemen who were very supportive in the recent past, and traveled from India to attend the wedding.

The wedding at the church was simple and nice, and the pastor's brief speech was meaningful and to the point. He made the couple to repeat the oath that ended with this powerful text: "I am yours only".

Rajesh drove us to the Evening Reception which was arranged in a lake front resort.The evening reception sizzled with excitement though -with the Monsoon Wedding song and the couple's moms' and friends' dance performance. Both Cheruba and Sanjay did well in the toasts. The 'thali' ceremony was an interesting add-on! (They should have had the 'ketti-mELam' and 'NathaSwaram' palyed in the speakers!) The lakefront venue was a nice selection, and there was 'a lot' of food. Thanks to the careful picking of table-mates, we felt like being in India for a while! And there was this custom- an American custom?-the bride Cheruba threw the flower bunch backwards for one of the unmarried girls to catch, symbolically suggesting the next-in-line for the wedding!

Sanjay impressed us quite with his broad smile and courteous speech. He took me & Deepika by suprise by recalling our Mt.Fuji climb. Cheruba was gorgeous in her choLi-like costume that fit well for the evening -she was just 'too excited' that she uttered even a simple 'hi' with a lot of 'drama'tic facial expressions! :-)

The day also presented us an opportunity to mingle with some of our relatives whom we (or 'I' to be precise) met for the first time. Dr.Bosewell's two daughters -Beryl, Cheryl, their husbands, YaLini Ravi Arumugam, Murugesan-family & Amsa-anni were all new faces to me at the beginning, and not at the end of the day. Though we could 'catch' Divya and Thompson, we couldn't catch up with them as they were busy with the arrangements. (Thompson must be a fan of 'Sivaji' Rajini :-) In the hotel where we stayed in, we befriended Murugesan-family and another gentleman who said he was Cheruba's dad's boyhood friend from Nazareth.

I should be thankful to Malini anni for this opportunity for another reason -this was the very first marriage all the four in our family attended together. We have attended marriages of relatives in India but there was never a chance for all the four of us to be present. One thing our children miss being in a foreign country is the warmth of attending family functions/weddings -I'm glad that both my kids could attend the wedding of their 3rd cousin Cheruba-akka with whom they had traveled to Hiroshima, Nara and Kyoto in Japan in 2006.

Oct 5, 2010

Mt.Fuji -A once-in-lifetime Experience!

In August this year, Deepika, Shibu and I climbed to Mt.Fuji's summit!

Mt.Fuji, the iconic symbol of Japan, remained elusive to me for years. ln 2006, our Kalyan's team (Kalyan, Sudhir, Rajkumar & Nick) traveled to Mt.Fuji in a package tour with Nick making it to the top while others reaching 'almost the top' -the 8th station. A year later, a package tour booked by 15-20 of IITians got canceled due to storm forecast. There was no serious attempt for a Mt.Fuji expedition thereafter.

Mt.Fuji is officially open to public only for 2 months a year –July & August. (Due to extreme windy/snowy/freezing conditions at the summit, it is closed for the rest of the year, i.e, ‘officially’ -meaning, you could still go there throughout the year; but you are unlikely to return, as they say!). Deepika, Shibu and I decided to Just Do It it this summer. It turned out to be an amazing trip and proved to be an acid-test for our physical and psychological caliber. Here is our Mt.Fuji story (July 31-Aug 1).......

‘Roadside’ sleep: We chose to drive (one way 520 km) instead of going on a bus tour, to have extra thrill, fun & flexibility. And it just worked great. We left around 7 pm on Friday (July-30) from Takasago, drove along Sanyo, Chugoku, Meishin, Shin-Meishin, Higashi Meihan, and Ise Wangan expressways and were soon in Tomei expressway where we stopped at around 10:30 for late-night dinner. Being one of the oldest and widely-used highways leading to Tokyo, many Parking areas in Tomei expressway have convenience stores (like Lawson) and chain restaurants like Yoshnoya, Starbucks and McDonalds. At 1 am we stopped in a Parking area, and got ready to sleep (we had carried with us bed, bedspreads and pillows). As the restaurants were all closed except one or two, we made the tables they had left outside into twin beds, and comfortably slept under a shamiana! Almost equivalent to 'roadside sleeping', it turned out to be another unique experience we could do only in Japan! (We saw some others sleeping like us).

When we woke up at 6 in the morning, it was bright though the weather was chill, and the Parking lot was just getting busier. The place was surrounded by mountain in all the sides, and people were simply strolling or sitting at the viewpoints enjoying the mountains sipping hot coffee. We took local driving directions from the Information center (no GPS in my car!), had some hot Udon noodles for breakfast and left at 8 am to reach Kawaguchiko.

Kawaguchiko Trail: Mt.Fuji (3,776 m) is divided into 10 levels (known as '10 stations') and buses/cars could reach up to 5th station. There are four 5th stations at different points in the conical circumference Mt.Fuji namely Kawaguchiko, Fujinomiya, Gotemba and SubaShri (what a name! :-). We chose to climb from Kawaguchiko 5th station (2,300 m) as it is the most popular and supposedly least difficult of the 4 routes. The ascent to the top is 7km and could take 6 hrs, and the descent -in a different path- 4km and 3 hrs. (That's what internet said). Kawaguchiko's Visitor Center had all the information for tourists and the girl was helpful in Kanto style (which was different from the Kansai style in that the typical Kansai style politeness and friendly smile was missing). We had the first glimpses of Mt.Fuji from the 2nd floor terrace of the Visitor Center; wondering that soon we would be climbing to the top!

Preparation: At the car parking lot in Kawaguchiko 5th station we changed into our climbing attire and ensured that our backpack is equipped with the essentials -1 liter water flask, headlamp, gloves, face mask, sunglass, sweater, knitted hat, towel, plain hat, thermal in-pant, spat (?)*, rainwear, a cover to protect the backpack against rain, aspirin tablets, oxygen can, energy biscuits, dry fruits, chocolates, a number of Y100 coins, cash, cell phone & camera. We also carried a hiking pole -a 1 meter length stick sold for Y700 in any convenience store in that area. The list may sound redundant -but each & every item became absolutely essential at some point or the other when we were climbing up for day & night in areas where there was nothing but molten rock! 5th station is visited by not only climbers, but also those who just go there to see the Starting point. There were a number of foreigners (we met about 6-8 Indians along the route). Statistics says more than one-third of Mt.Fuji climbers are foreigners. Had lunch at one of the restaurants in 5th station.

The Start: It was 2:10 pm when we left the start point. The entrance to the climbing route had two stone pillars, and a small wooden board showing "Route to Mt.Fuji summit (320 min)". Deepika happily posed for a picture with a smiling face near the board. She realized little then that this 320-min was going to be 600-min for us and that too the toughest 600-min we have ever had!Apart from a number of enthusiastic climbers, there were also many families that were not in the climbing attire -they went for a 30-min hike along the route to get a feel of what climbing Mt.Fuji was. The initial path was not steep, the mountain was green, the trail was 2-m wide, and with the mild temperature in a cloudy atmosphere, the 30-min hike made a wonderful one-day-picnic for families & children. Horse-ride was also there. The first 30-min trail was the same for ascending & descending, and we saw those returning -all of them had only weary look. The trail was nice to walk, and Shibu was commenting if the entire route would be like that there would be no difficulty at all. He was naive.

The scene changed: The scenes of day-picnic changed after 30-min where we saw only climbers all set for a tough track. I found the climbing way different from the hiking we've done -that there was absolutely no greenery and the trail was very steep and continuous. At many places, Mt.Fuji’s exceptionally symmetrical conical shape made me feel like climbing up a conical surface with 60 degree base angle. And the trail was full of rocks, rocks & rocks. Without proper hiking shoes and the hiking pole, one would risk injuring his ankle. There were many groups led by tour guides that passed by. We decided to go on our own pace.

The 7th station (2,700 m level): As we reached the 7th station at 2,700 m level, both Deepika and Shibu were active; -they wouldn't let me go ahead; and they stayed ahead even as I was following them. Saw a 'mountain hut' (yama-goya) -a resting 'box' - where you can take rest in a 6 ft Length x 1 ft Width x 2 ft Height space in a 'wooden container' for Y7,000. We had only climbed 400m and reached 2,700m and I was wondering why one should rest at that level. The peak is at 3,776 m level, and we have to climb up another 1,076 m!. The hut had a small bench (just one bench) for us to sit & relax, and space for smoking. They sold 500ml water bottles for Y500, one banana for Y200. (I buy them for one-tenth of that price in Takasago Seiyu!). Despite a 'clear' weather forecast, it started raining, and we had to use our rainwear. It stopped in 10-15 minutes. It was still bright.

7th station (3,000 m level): It took nearly 4 hrs to reach the 3,000m level, and we were all tired having climbed 700m. People were seen taking rest at the side of the trail, mostly on rocks. Saw many people using their oxygen cans at this level. On seeing them, Deepika wanted to use hers as she said it would 'clear her lungs'. I had read that the air will get 'thin' as we climb up where the oxygen cans would come as handy, but I didn't feel anything strange in breathing at this level. Sensing that Deepika's need for 'clearing lungs' was more of psychological than actual, I promised her that we would use oxygen when we reach the 8th station, where I had reserved for 3 spaces in a mountain hut. She was a bit upset that I didn't buy her theory of 'clearing lungs' but she didn't have (her usual) energy to fight back either! I wanted to save oxygen for 'real' breathing difficulty one might face at much higher elevations. We were eagerly looking for 8th station to take rest.


The 8th station: At 7 we reached “Horai kan” the mountain hut in 8th station at 3,150m. Being well-mannered or being dead-tired, the in-mates were silent and the 'container' didn't look like the one where some 200 people were sleeping! They provided curry rice & salad -which were luxury at that level. The 3ft wide bed was spared by 3 persons, and a slight movement would disturb the other guy. Yet, there was absolutely no disturbance, and there was ‘pin drop’ silence. Shibu & I had mild headache and we took aspirin. Deepika used oxygen cans, and 'looked' fresh. We went to bed at 8:30. The sunrise on the next day was to be at 4:41 am, and we had to climb another 600m. We had a good sleep till 12:30, and woke up to see no guys around us -they all had woken up early and proceeded to climb up (without making any noise!).

We changed to winter clothing and left the hut at 1:30 am. Just outside the hut we saw a chain of people climbing up- with weary looks and heavy breathing- they all had started from the 5th station at night of the previous day. (A majority of the climbers start at 7-8 pm, and climb throughout the night without resting in the hut) I don't think I could do that- as the 4 hr rest in the hut came as a psychological boost.

The 9th station: Even within few minutes of climbing we were tired -apparently the rest wasn’t that refreshing as we thought. We all had headlamps. Our climbing pace had come down greatly. As it was 3 am there were a number of climbers lying on the rocks -and sleeping in whatever position they could --sitting, leaning on the rocks, or simply lying on the sideways. Tents are not allowed in Mt.Fuji. At times, I felt like walking through a battlefield where there were hundred victims lying dead. Some were seen vomiting -as they suffered nausea at higher elevations. I made sure that there was no breathing difficulty. Shibu was lagging behind. And Deepika was walking like a 'sadhu' --taking every step very slowly as if in 'slow-motion', holding her hiking pole like 'Auvaiyar', having her head lowered and mostly closing her eyes. Even when I asked if she was alright, she said '...mm' without raising her head or opening her eyes; I never knew she could speak in such a low voice! I commented if only she was this quiet at home, how peaceful my life would have been... She wasn't in a mood to smile (or ‘give back’). When she & Shibu were sitting on a rock to rest, I saw her eyes closed, and heard her mouth chanting "Muruga....Muruga...." !! (I doubted Lord Murugan in Mt.Palani (TN) could hear her thin voice from Mt.Fuji).

It was 4:40 and all the climbers got ready to look at sunrise, though everyone was dead-tired. A number of them continued to sleep on the rocks –apparently the sunrise failed to impress them to wake up and see. They've been climbing all through the night.

The summit: Since 5 am we could see the summit close-by, and the ‘tori’ they had built as the point of entrance. Yet it took another one-and-half hours to reach the spot... and at 6:30, we finally landed at the highest peak of Japan. Even before we could take pictures, Shibu slept on a small bench. There were a couple of petty shops, a cafeteria, and a post office (where you can buy cards and send anywhere in the world). Even as Shibu was sleeping, we went near the crater and walked around. It was a fulfilling feeling -wherever & whenever we see Mt.Fuji's picture, we can now point our finger at the summit and say "We have climbed up to this point..."

The Descent:Spent a couple of hours at the summit and started descending. I found the descent equally hard -if not harder than the ascent. We didn't get tired as we didn't strain the heart, but the legs ached as they took the load. The descent was in a different route, and though there were no rocks, the trail was steep, and full of small stones that would keep getting inside your shoes if you weren't wearing the so-called 'spat'. It got quiet hot at 9 am and without sunglass, sunscreen and mask it would have been really tough. And there was no hut -meaning there was no place to buy water. Mt.Fuji changed from black to red and finally to green in color at the 6th level. As we approached the start point we saw hundreds of enthusiastic climbers just beginning with a lot of vigor and energy their expedition –their long struggle to reach the summit.

It was 2 pm Sunday when we arrived at the Start point –it took exactly 24 hours for us to get back to where we started. We packed ourselves in the car without even changing the climbing wear and proceeded straight to a nearby onsen -Fujiyama Onsen.
Climbing Mt.Fuji is truly a once-in-lifetime experience. At 3,776 m elevation, Mt.Fuji is the highest point we have ever landed in/ climbed up on earth. To do that, we had to climb up and down continuously for 24 hours, except for the 4 hr rest at night and the 2 hr stop at the summit. We felt great that We Made It. We couldn't believe we made it!

Oct 4, 2010


Caution: Vegetarians must skip this page!
"Sushi" -rice ball topped with a slice of raw fish- is by far the most popular Japanese food known in the world. Raw fish ("sashimi") by itself is a popular delicacy in here -and is sold in all the supermarkets where you buy meat. People visiting Japan might wonder how the Japanese eat raw fish. Thinly sliced raw fish served on radish flakes eaten dipping in hot soy sauce is a tasty delicacy indeed -you would hardly believe its raw fish! Having most of its landspace very close to sea (and perhaps being in a hurry to spend time in cooking!), these guys have been historically having 'raw fish' as a main item in their menu.

Even 'adventurous' foreigners who like to try different meat often avoid sashimi -the idea of eating something raw is indigestible to them. You don't have to ask about Indians who dare to touch even beef. (Deepika still believes Sridhar changed his travel destination from Japan to Egypt mainly because of my writing about raw fish as a delicacy here! :-)

Eating 'raw' hasn't just stopped with fish -they eat beef, chicken, octopus, squid and shrimp also raw, rather occasionally. Lately, I came to know that they do eat horse meat, that too raw! Though not sold in regular foodcourts/ restaurants, there are restaurants that sell raw horsemeat -"basashimi"- and I got curious to give it a try. As Deepika won't even touch beef or sashimi, I had had to wait..... and visited last week a restaurant in Kobe that sells this item which, as the restaurant claims, comes from a farther island "Kyushu" in Japan. It tastes not quite different from raw fish. (See pics). ('Horse' is 'Uma' in Japanese)

Thought about the unique meats that I could put my hands on in all these years.... in Seoul, a local guide showed us a restaurant that sold snakes and only snakes! (I didn't have the guts to try, then). Tried turtle in China which also has dog meat restaurants. My Japanese boss who is otherwise adventurous in trying unique food was taken aback on seeing dog meat restaurant -and refused to try as he was raising a pet dog, and that pet dog used to sleep with him in his bed everyday! Though I didn't have any such affinity for dogs, as a courtesy, I had had to give up that chance. Pagals & Ponraj when they visited Florida have tasted alligator fries...(or was it alligator fin?) which tasted like chicken. Octopus ia another popular item among children in Japan.

Back in India, almost all the Tuticorin 'night clubs' (that's how evening-only non veg stalls' are known in Tuticorin) sell a unique item "kaudari" a bird which tastes pretty much like chicken. Pigeon is also sold in most of the restaurants, and Tuty guys comment that pigeon doesn't have much of flesh. Kathax and Isaac might have tasted them. Surprisingly, I haven't seen these dishes in Chennai or other places!
And here comes a response from my friend Isaac (another Tuty guy), with a poetic ending:
Subahar and AJB,

You guys are making my mouth water :-)~~~~~~~
The following is not for the faint of heart. Vegetarians should probably quit reading at this point...

Yes, I have had Kaudari, while living in Tuticorin. We used to buy from hunters, and later used to hunt them ourselves in the wilderness area that surrounded our Harbour colony. My younger brother was quite good at catching those birds. Kaudari is a flightless bird, but it can fly better than chicken. If you chase it, it will hide quickly, sometimes by throwing loose sand over itself. Because of its camouflage, it will be very difficult to locate. So, when it hid like that, we would surround the area and wait patiently for it to pop back up. We would then rush it, scaring the bird into hiding right in front of our eyes. Once we knew its exact location, my brother would pounce on it.

AJB, you are right, it is very difficult to tell the difference between Kadai and Kaka. In those days, we used to hunt, cook and eat all sorts of living things, including squirrels and vellai eli (as long as they were grey and not too dark, they were good enough for the table). One day, we thought, "Why not kaka?". So, we got a young Kaka and our grandma cooked it for us. I think my mom was too grossed out. For some reason, we didn't make it a habit of eating kaka (our mom must have prevailed). We did cook and eat kaka eggs sometimes. Once, my cousin, who is even more adventurous, wanted to try a raw egg. He cracked it open, poured it into his mouth, but quickly spit it out. The egg was not so fresh after all. Uncooked kaka kunji managed to gross out even my cuz.

We were "growing boys" and we loved meat. Chicken was expensive and mutton was almost out of reach. Thankfully, we found a person who could buy beef from a nearby village and bring it to our house on a regular basis. Eating beef was looked down upon and we had to kind of do it quietly. But we loved it, especially the unlimited quantity that we could eat.

Recently, we tried buffalo and elk meat, while visiting Wyoming. They tasted good, but I couldn't tell the difference between them and beef. Venison (deer) is not sold in stores here, but some of our friends are hunters and they do get a deer or two every season. Paavi pasangal are not sharing it with me!

There are some wild rabbits living in our backyard here in Carson City. I sit and watch them sometimes, wondering how things have changed. There was a time when they would have become tasty rabbit fry. Now, I refer to them by their names, like 'Cloudy'. They are names that my daughter has given them.