Sunday, March 29, 2009

So long for now, heated toilet

Few things in the world can bring such placid moments as a heated toilet seat that also allows one to use a bidet, vibrate, and for those less private moments emit an electronically initiated flushing noise. What happens when you become used to such pleasures and then have them taken away? Toilet withdrawal.

During the last two days of our time in Tokyo, we ran around, checked out some familiar sites and stumbled across some new ones.

One of the first stops was Edo Museum- located right next to the Sumo Hall at Ryogokyu Station. For 600 Yen, you can ascend six stories to the spacious viewing floors and check out all sorts of cool exhibits from mustachioed Samurai armor to replica dioramas of ancient Edo settlements (complete with little binoculars to look out across all the tiny people and buildings).

We then had a really nice tie-in of all things Japan: a wide variety of wood cutting prints showing sakura blossoms and iconic snow-capped Fuji- our winter nemesis- decked out in tons of color. From Edo Museum this was a solid transition into sakura blossoms alongside the Imperial Palace and Yasakuni Shrine.

Alongside the Imperial Palace and located midway to the Tokyo Station railway stop is one of my favorite statues- this being of the brilliant tactician and loyal Samurai Kusunoki Masashige. Masashige is known for giving his life in protection of the Emperor during the 14th Century:

"During an internal power struggle, the Emperor insisted that Kusunoki meet another Shogun's superior forces in the field in a pitched battle. Kusunoki, in what would later be viewed as the ultimate act of samurai loyalty, obediently accepted his Emperor's foolish command, left his death poem with his young son and knowingly marched his army into almost certain death. The battle, which took place in modern-day Kobe, was a tactical disaster. Kusunoki, his army completely surrounded, committed suicide along with 600 of his surviving troops. According to legend, his last words were Shichisei Hōkoku! (七生報國; "Would that I had seven lives to give for my country!")"- Wikipedia

And then it was time to go. Off to Narita we went complete with tons and tons of bags. Reid, Hiromi, Schactler and Peterson all surprised me with a birthday cake at the airport, which was a complete surprise and flattering to say the least.

Then we processed through customs, had some last minute sushi, a last glimpse for now at cool & campy Japanese signs. And then Japan slipped beneath the wing of our 777 bound for Seattle.

I'll miss you heated toilet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fugu & Sakura

Yesterday we walked around and went to various shrines and temples in the greater Tokyo area.

First stop was Ueno Park, where cherry blossoms (sakura) are almost in full bloom. You can tell that in about 2 or 3 days, these blossoms are going to go bat crazy and explode with an array of pinks and whites that make the Washington DC Tidal Basin seem like the kid brother who wants to play on the basketball team.

Because of the Sakura festival underway, oodles of foodstalls and vendors come out to ply their wares and sell goods. 99% are legit, some are your standard scam artists that we had a fun time calling out at one point. This is one vendor that didn't get a sale from us:

At the Kaminarimon Shrine with giant chochin, Asakusa is one of the more traditional areas of Tokyo to visit, and it's throngs of tourists makes it easy to see that it is as popular as it is busy. And why not? These shrines were one of the first places I visited in Tokyo, and I routinely come back here to bring people new to the city. It is literally chock full of shops, chotchkie stores and kitsch, but you can still find a nugget of gold nestled away in one of the hundreds of shops selling Japan keychains, replica swords, mochi, Godzilla figurines and Ninja facemasks.

By the senso-ji shrine, Schactler tried again, for the second year in a row, to get a good fortune. This is where you place your luck in the hands of an obscure metal box that you spin until a thin piece of wood akin to a chopstick comes out. On it, you read a number and pull a piece of paper out of a similarly numbered drawer. This, then, is your fortune. As we all learned, there are several layers of fortune: Supreme Good Luck, Good Luck, Moderate Luck, Luck, and Bad Luck. Schactler tried twice, and both times ended up with Bad Luck fortunes.

Given that our next stop was to eaf Fugu (blowfish), we thought it wise to make sure the waitress was aware of this, and to ask the chef to be extra special careful with the cuts made on his blowfish.

So off we went, to Akasaka (not Asukasa.. Akasaka) to eat up on our fugu meal. Tucked away in an obscure side alley, we found our store- it's sort of hard to miss if you are searching for it, given that massive blowfish replica on top of the store and a hundred odd fugu swimming around aimlessly in a tank wondering what happened to Bob and Joe, who were just there with them until a minute ago.

So while the sashimi comes out and is the version that is considered the most likely to inflict harm on a person eating it, there was one dish - a shabu shabu version that hit our table and was so fresh that chunks of meat were actually still twitching from where the poor fish was wriggling up until about 5 minutes earlier. That fresh.. crazy.

While everyone got out of there in one piece, one guy said that he felt his lips turn numb, and two eaters lips literally and honestly turned blue. I wish I were kidding about this, but it's the truth. Crazy stuff, but still quite an experience to remember.

Fuji Return

Heisman'ed again.. That's all I can say.

But even with a turnback, it wasn't something this team wasn't aware of. After all, each person on this team had been turned back at least once already, so we all went into it fully aware of what winter Fuji could (and did) throw at us.

After doing battle with some park ranger who did a fantastic job of convincing us that we weren't allowed to go forward (in his mind, essentially saving us from ourselves)- only to learn in hindsight that he really couldn't tell us, just warn us.. we found another route and continued on. Making a nice spot and bedding down, we all fell asleep like kings. But to show just how dramatically this old joker threw us off, I superimposed our route, turnaround points and how far we had to go out of our way once we encountered our setback:

At 7am we kicked it and made solid progress until about 9am, when a storm brewed basically out of nowhere. We were all excited because up until that point we truly all thought that we were going to summit this time. Then clouds moved in, and then a storm started dumping snow along with 75mph winds. We found a shelter at one point to try and hunker down out of the wind, and that worked for a few minutes until we all started getting cold- temps dipped to -20.

It was at this point that one of our team started feeling ill and essentially passed on the summit push. This is always the right thing to do, but unfortunately too many people can fall victim to "Summit Fever" and ignore all of the warning signs. With wind whipping around corners, snow whiting out even the small area we were holed up in, we made a call. I had already been up this part of Fuji in the summer months and knew the trail, having way-pointed it up and down in my GPS. But I also knew where I had placed the wands and knew the trail that I had led the team up, so I offered to take our one teammate down while the remaining 3 attempted to push higher.

The two of us sticking close together as we navigated the wands off of the snow field, we looked back and for only a brief second saw the rest of the team heading higher and quickly disappearing into the blizzard of white. On our way down, I noticed that the winds were strong enough that the marker wands placed on the way up were knocked over, so if that GPS failed...oohh nellie.

Fortunately, it didn't. The remaining 3 teammates moved farther up the mountain and made another thousand feet when this freight train of wind hit so hard that the whole team was literally flattened. At 7,000', this wind was strong enough to make me worry about the others, but for them the wind gusts were severe enough that they understood they had reached their turnaround point. Many of the wands placed to mark the route had been knocked over, so in a whiteout like we had it was a bit of a challenge given none of our original tracks were there- washed over with new snow and wind. So use of the GPS was critical, and through this tool they navigated themselves back down to where we were located and the whole team was together again.

It took about three hours to get back to the car, where we grounded our gear, loaded up and headed straight to McDonalds for a hearty meal. On the way home, Dana was A-driving and stayed awake with me while everyone in the back slept like champs. We finally made it back to Tokyo last night around 10pm and slept for close to 12 hours.

It was only after returning to the warm and safe confines of our downtown hotel room that we began the "what if" conversations. But like last year, this weather was so extreme, and so strong that there really wasn't much debate on the right course of action- and we had taken it. Even if that damned park ranger hadn't stopped us and made us go around, we would even now still be stuck on the Fuji Subaru Line trying to figure out how to get our car out- the road is still snowed in and closed 2 days later. I guess everything happens for a reason.

So, there's always next year.. or even before that if timing works out.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tokyo walkaround & prep for tomorrow

Today we spent the day walking around Tokyo, picking up last minute items, doing some shopping, and generally having fun. One of my favorite hobbies whenever visiting Tokyo is to pick out all of the great signage and ads to see how creative one can get with them:

As usual, we spent a great deal of time zipping around the city via subway, where we had some fun and entertained other riders.

We also walked from Roppongi down to Tokyo Tower, where we rode up the shoe box sided elevator to the very top, which was swaying like mad from winds. It was a nice reminder of where we are headed tomorrow, and how buffeted we are going to be when at 12,000' and completely exposed.

Tokyo Tower is the highest point in Tokyo, so you get quite a view from the top. We did come across this one great sign embossed on the bannister, which directs you to Mt Fuji way off in the distance. Wow, how great, we all thought and gazed out at a snow-capped mountain that was plainly visible. Then two thoughts raced through my head: (1) Wow, that's alot of snow we are going to have to hump through, and (2) why is the sign in braille?

After a great team dinner of oysters and extremely delicious Japanese food, we all returned to Hardy Barracks where we packed and prepared. We also found a website that had some recent pictures of the Fuji Subaru Line above 4th Station, where we plan to park our van and begin our assault on the mountain:

Snow. Lots of it. That means snowshoes from the get-go, and slow going the whole way up. It also means being extra vigilant for snow conditions. One last check of the forecast revealed this:

Temps are dropping like a rock again, and winds aren't showing much relief. This is going to be a slow and cold experience. Because of that, our gear is overflowing with what we are bringing- and that = heavy packs.

Oh well, it's going to be fun for sure- we are all completely excited!

Roppongi Hills

We landed uneventfully this afternoon Tokyo time, to rain, rain, rain.

After clearing customs and immigration, we met Dana out in the lobby of arrivals, hopped a Friendly Airport Limousine into town, and made it to Hardy Barracks, our home for the next few nights. I think between the five of us we have close to 15 bags- climbing gear, team gear, and personal stuff.

We walked down to Roppongi, grabbed some quick food and then back to the hotel where everyone crashed in about five minutes.

Sooo tired.... :)

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tokyo or bust

On our way.. the four of us are enroute for Tokyo on UA #875, arriving at ~4:30 on Sunday afternoon Japan time.

Weather appears to be settling down quite a bit on Fuji, but still extremely cold. Thats ok given the protective clothes we have, and in some ways we wish that Huntington were coming along to get the campfire going for us. We were expecting him and Leonard to be re-joining us on this climb, but then they got scared and decided that the comfort of a warm bed would be better for them. Even Schactler, who broke his foot on the 20km outhike came back to try again, checking in and looking just like David Beckham. You can read all about their trevails on last years climb at:

Snow is abating, which is good- and the winds are stronger, so I am confident that the snow that does fall will be blown straight off the mountain in time for our Tuesday attempt:

The thing that will be interesting is the mountain condition. It has changed considerably each an every winter sofar - similar to what Mt Rainier has demonstrated with snow accumulation, conditions, and ability to make the top. For example, this is what it looked like last year when it was negative 47 degrees but clear and windy as hell:

Then two winters ago, it looked like this with snow, mild temps and no wind:

Those are either my gloves, or Dana's. Hopefully it looks nothing like this at present, but if it does we are all equipped with snowshoes so no postholing will occur.
All for now, flight from Seattle is boarding in 15 minutes. All gear is checked in, laptops are charged and Dana is all set to meet us in Narita for our long bus ride into town.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Fuji-bound for shot #3

Well, i'ts time to start looking at another Fuji climb.

Our team departs this Saturday on UA #875 from Seattle and bound for Tokyo, where we will spend a day preparing and double checking gear, getting everything together and then heading out. Our goal is to depart for the mountain on Tuesday, positoning ourselves high enough that we can make a summit shot on the 12,776' mountain on Wednesday.

The two causes for our team to focus on as follows, and reflected in the below image taken from Fuji weather sites:

  • Moderate snowfall will leave ~6" of snow on the mountain before we arrive. There are strong wind gusts mixed in, so it is possible- and likely- that this snow will be either blown completely off the mountain by the time we arrive, or deposited in gullies that we will be avoiding.
  • Last years negative 47 degrees makes this years -22 seem downright balmy. This is an ever-shifting forecast in winds and temps, so the only thing we can predict at the moment is that it will be cold and windy.

Stay tuned...
Link to last year's Fuji trip report:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kuala Lumpur

A few days ago, I joined the William and Mary Mason School of Business on their annual trek to SE Asia. I love the fact that when you are in elementary school and head out on a field trip you go jump in a school bus and drive 30 minutes to go see how maple syrup is made. When you are going for your MBA, you fly halfway around the world and go see how business is conducted among expats, local and government officials, and MNCs.

Two professors, 29 students, and one tag-along (me) headed out for Kuala Lumpur (KL) via overnight train, straight from Singapore. It was an interesting affair- one that I promise that I'll remember for years to come. Don and I were talking about it as we boarded the train and jumped into our sleeper cabins. These cabins were humid, hot, buzzy with mosquitoes, dimly lit and all fabric from the dingy chairs to nappy carpets looked like they hadn't been changed in 20 years. On the wall, a TV turned on but didn't show an image and when I checked why noticed the disconnected cables extending on to nowhere in particular. We talked at length about the students, and what they were expecting to see once they arrived in this far-flung city.
Overnight, the train rumbled through crossing

Along the way, we were treated to several funny signs so simple in nature and definitely unique for sure. Want to know how to use a toilet? Better instruct people in how not to stand on the seat:

(DINGDINGDINGDIngDingdingdingggggggg........) after crossing, stopped intermittently and finally arrived after 7 sleep deprived hours into KL. Immediately, we were re-introduced to the strict anti drug policy here, and reminded that even the Economist isn't immune to censorship:

Many things remain exactly as they were when I was last here in '99- only with more activity. For example, the Petronas Towers- until recently the tallest building in the world- glimmer in the evening with a highly reflective aluminum coating and command the KL skyline. These beautiful architectural marvels were completed in '98 along with other massive and gleaming new structures like their airport and tower came on-line. Still, the Asian meltdown at the time and political unrest that came with the unjustified sacking and kangaroo court for the then-Prime Minister caused buildings like the Petronas Towers to remain only about half full. When we were here, only about half of the building remained occupied and the streets were.. quiet. Even the Renaissance Hotel where our group stayed was a shell above the 7th floor in '99. You could take the elevator up to, say, floor 15, and the doors would open onto a concrete hallway with doorless rooms. From the outside, it looked complete. But once you looked it became evident that much was left to be done.

This time, our group struggled through stop and go traffic, checked into a bustling hotel and were given rooms on the 21st floor.

Still, every time I think of KL, the Petronas Towers come immediately to mind and they represent to me one of the most unique places I have visited, if not because for a major city, KL isn't on really anyone's beaten path. For the days I have been in KL, I routinely found myself using these towers as a land mark and marvel to enjoy.

Another example of Matahir Mohammed's push to bring his country to the main stream through monuments and structures came in the form of Malaysia's war memorial- dedicated to those Malaysian soldiers who had been lost in struggles past. While looking at this monument, I was immediately taken to how similar this looked to the Iwo Jima Memorial- the Marine Corps memorial in Washington DC. Then I started asking, and learned that Felix de Weldon created this statue also.. complete all the way down to the black marble base, gold lettering and rocky outcropping that the soldiers are perched on.

One thing to note about KL is that during the 90s- and as I learned continuing into today- is an undying desire to move into the main stream. Their tiny neighbor to the south (Singapore) actually used to be a part of Malaysia until 60 years ago. I don't know enough about the history of what happened there to talk intelligently about it, but it is interesting to see how these two societies have taken different paths over the years. Singapore remains one of the largest ports in the world and one of the few countries that exports more than it imports. It is an IT hub and continues to set the bar for modern style, culture, and thought leadership in a variety of areas.

KL has some of this, but have spent a great deal of time working to develop it's presence on the world stage. In many meetings that we sat through- specifically in a place called Cyberjaya (Malaysia's answer to the Singapore IT market), we had a presentation complete with come-do-business-in-Malaysia numbers that made absolutely no sense.

Cyberjaya, as it turns out, is situated immediately next to Putrajaya- a now officially designated Malaysian capital that was carved out of the Malaysian jungle specifically to act as the seat of Government. Like the United States and so many other countries of old, the plan for Malaysia is to develop these locales into established cities well known and recognizable world-wide. In my opinion, this will take quite some time.

One of the other return visit sites we all went to is called Batu Caves. 400 million year old limestone caves located roughly 15km north of KL, you have to climb 272 stairs (they are painted to let you know progress) to enter the caves. The Hindu faith believes that these caves are home to Lord Murgan- one of Shiva's sons . As with everything we have witnessed here, significant work has gone into developing the Batu Caves- from the entrance and stairs, up to the cave itself. Much more modern, clean, and welcoming. Hindu statues adorn all sides of the entrance and walk up, including this one:

Returning to KL, the Petronas Towers lit up the night sky for all to behold (and take a half million pictures of):

And then several of us hit Hard Rock Cafe where we were introduced to something called a "tower".. as it turns out, the Petronas Towers aren't the only towers in Malaysia:

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