Thursday, July 31, 2008

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 3 - The Descent

As it turns out, getting down the mountain was way more difficult than getting up it. We expected it to take about two to two-and-a-half hours - it ended up being a solid three-and-a-half. To be fair, we were very tired starting off, but the path down was significantly harder than I expected it to be. It started off with a series of switchbacks, covered with very rough, broken rocks. It could hardly even be called a path; several of us slipped and fell several times, and there were a few slightly twisted ankles.

Then the joggers came. About an hour into our climb down, we were passed by a guy in a windshirt and running shorts jogging UP the mountain. He was breathing hard, but he wasn't slowing down. This was clearly something he did frequently. There wasn't a gram of fat on his body, and his calves were nothing but muscle. We respectfully stood to the side and let him pass. Over the course of the climb we passed about ten more guys racing up the side of the mountain. About an hour later, they began passing us coming DOWN the mountain. I promise you, you've never done a morning jog like this. I later found out about some Navy guys who are going to do the mountain circuit four times in a single day for charity.
About halfway down the mountain, at the final rest stop, the path changed completely. It went from the rough switchbacks to a steady downward slope of what I guess is called lava ash. It's difficult to describe: it was like a very thick bed of fine gravel. When you stepped on it, your foot would sink down several inches. Since it had a decent slope to it, your momentum would actually drive your foot several inches down into the gravel. The easiest and quickest way to navigate it was to let yourself kind of fall foward, then let your heel act as a shock absorber as it planted itself into the gravel. There were only two problems with this method: it caused my heel to slip inside my shoe with every step (resulting in two enormous blisters) and it worked over my calf muscles like they've never been worked over before. More on those two in the next post.

The ash flow was so bizarre. I ended up on my own, walking down this slope that seemed to go on forever. A mist had blown in, so I couldn't see more than a few hundred feet in any direction. All that I could see were grey rocks and then a wall of mist all around me. I was completely alone and the fog had dampened any sound but the wind and my feet crunching in the ash. One of my co-climbers later said it felt like being in a sensory deprivation tank. Either way, it felt a long way from home. I eventually pulled out my PSP and started playing some podcasts just to get my mind off the freakiness of the surroundings.

This path went on and on and on. There were markers every few hundred feet but just as I would pass one another one would appear through the mist in the distance. Due to the fog, I couldn't see the bottom of the mountain so there was no way of knowing how much further I had to walk. Since I couldn't see the sun, had it not been for my watch I'd have had no idea how long I'd been walking. As it turns out, I wasn't on the path as long as I felt like I was. In retrospect, it feels like it was an eternity, but it was actually only a couple of hours.
One of the things I remember most was just wanting to stop. I just wanted to sit down and not get back up. But there was no other option but to get up and keep walking. No one was going to carry me - the only way I was ever going to get back to the hotel was to keep trudging through the ash.
I'd drunk the last of my water as I left the previous station, thinking it was only another 30 or 45 minutes to the last station. As I walked on and the ash dust dried out my throat, I got more and more thirsty. Once I finally made it to the rest stop at the bottom, I ended up drinking four bottles of water before I started to feel better again.
Getting to the bottom of the mountain was only part of the journey. Once we'd all gathered together (I was the last one to make it down), we started to walk (!) towards the bus station. We hadn't received very good directions, so we made our way about half a mile down a very steep hill before we realized we weren't going the right way. So, of course, we had to walk back up the hill. Once we got to the top, we realized we'd walked right by the bus station. We took a one hour bus ride to another bus station, then another two-and-a-half hour bus ride to a subway station in Tokyo, then a subway ride to the other side of town. During that ride, a notification was displayed on a screen in the train that our train back to Tsukuba had been shut down because of lightning. By this point, we were all bleeding our reserve tanks dry. Fortunately, by the time we got to Akihabara and got something to eat (shamefully, at McDonald's) the train was running again. We had an hour-long train ride and then another 20 minute walk to the hotel from the station. Finally, at 9:00 pm, about 10 hours after we'd started the climb down the mountain and 35 hours after we'd left the hotel, I slid my card into the door and stumbled into the hotel room.
Next: the aftermath.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 2 - The Summit

The top of the mountain was a cool little village, with shops, places to rest, and of course souvenir stands. The sky was astoundingly clear, will only a few very high-level cirrus clouds and a solid bank of clouds several thousand feet below us. It was very crowded near the shops.

The most interesting experience though was trying to pee.
At the rest stops along the mountain there'd been nicely maintained, very clean bathrooms. Each cost 100 yen, about a dollar, to use. I expected a similar setup when we got to the top. Oh, how wrong. Because this is the top of a mountain in Asia, baby.

The line to get to the toilet was loooong, and the wait ultimately took about 30 minutes. I was with three co-workers, two females and one male (a detail which would become extremely important very soon). When we got to the front of the line, we were charged TWO hundred yen to use the facilities. That's capitalism for you- supply (very low) and demand (VERY high). When we got to the front we noticed that, right at the front of the line, there were two urinals and then a series of stalls. I have to confess that I have a weird thing about stalls: I just don't like going into them unless there's a particular need to, and in this case such a need did not exist. So I had every intention of hitting the urinal. But that urinal was right at the front of the line, with no walls around it, not even tucked out of the way. It was in full view of all 30 minutes of people standing behind me. I had to decide whether I was gonna do the stall or the urinal, and at that moment my pet peeve took over, and I decided I was more grossed out by the stall than I am modest. But I sure wasn't going to be able to perform in front of two female co-workers. So I stood in line with them until they moved on, and then I went up to the urinal, unzipped, and did my duty in front of a mountain worth of Japanese. No fear, baby.

We got something to eat and bought the stamps for our walking sticks that proved we'd made it to the top. After resting for a while, we began the hour-long hike around the crater that would put us at the highest point on the mountain, and thus the highest point in all of Japan. This part was particularly strenuous; we were all exhausted from the climb and the air was SO thin that any uphill walk was very difficult. In this picture, you can see the weather station at the summit just over my right shoulder.

Once we got to the top, we (you guessed it) had to wait in line to climb a staircase to a platform with a marker. The nine of us who'd made it to the top gathered for a group picture at the marker and then had a celebratory snack of Asahi beer and squid jerky.

Seriously, squid jerky is disgusting.

We wandered over to the highest post office in Japan where I dropped off a post card for the Monkey. He loves volcanoes, and I wanted him to know that Daddy had climbed a BIG one. Finally, around 11:00 am, we took a deep breath and started on our way back down. Little did I know the hardest part was yet to come.

Next: the descent.

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 1 - The Ascent

This weekend I undertook what was, for me, the most physically demanding activity ever: I climbed Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan. I should begin by stating that this is not a hard mountain to climb by mountaineering standards. There is no technical aspect involved: no wall-climbing or use of ropes. It's not really all that steep. It's not even really all that high (12,388 ft) - there are plenty of peaks in North America that are way taller. However, by slightly-overweight-guy-who-works-a-desk-job standards, this was tough.

Climbing Mt. Fuji is said to be a traditional pilgrimage in Japan, although I've found surprisingly few Japanese who've actually done it. Most of them kind of shrug their shoulders and just admit that it's something they've never done. I'm starting to wonder if maybe it's just a joke they play on foreigners: "Oh, yeah! Fuji! That's TOTALLY a Japanese tradition, Fat American! You should climb it, just like we do! And here, you should eat this raw fish, just like we do! And use these little sticks to pick it up, just like we do!" Then they all go into the back room and have a good laugh at our expense.

We left our hotel at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. Somehow we decided it would be a good idea to go tour around Tokyo for a few hours before starting the Fuji hike. We stayed in town for lunch, and then got on a bus at 4:00 to take us to the mountain. We gathered at the Fifth Station, the highest point the buses will take you to, and started the climb at 8:15 pm. We'd all bought walking sticks - the idea is that you stop along the way and get your stick branded to prove you've made the climb. In this picture, you can see my stick before I got it stamped.

Our goal was to hit the summit in about seven hours and watch the sun rise at 4:38. That's another part of the little joke: "Oh, yeah, and you have to climb it at night, just like we do!"

The Fifth Station is already quite high at 7500 feet, so the thin air began to show its effects quickly. Twelve of us started the hike and we managed to stay together for the first hour or so. We made good time at first - the paths were pretty clear, and there weren't too many people. We were optimistic about our chances of making it for the sunrise and were planning to stop to sleep for an hour or so along the way. We had plenty of water and food to share, and there were rest stops along the way that sold snacks (who knew you could come this far and still buy a Snickers bar?). As we climbed higher, the paths got more uneven, the air got thinner, and the temperature continued to drop. The paths narrowed, the pace slowed, and the crowds got thicker. At about 1:30 am, after a rest stop to have some warm soup, we began our final push to the top. It soon became clear that, if we wanted to make it by sunrise, we would no longer be able to stop along the way. At about 2:30 am, we effectively hit a wall of people - the line was moving at only a few feet per minute. In a way, this was a blessing. With the thinning air, it was becoming difficult to keep a decent pace. At best, I'd climb for a couple of minutes, then have to stop and catch my breath.

I should explain that the view at this point was amazing. There was a cloud cover, but it was several thousand feet below us, so as the Moon rose it reflected off the clouds around the base of the mountain. Above us was a fantastic view of the Milky Way. And while the mountain itself was effectively invisible in the darkness, you could see a steady line of flashlights winding literally thousands of feet up, reaching all the way to the summit. It was by far one of the most exotic sights I've ever seen.

At about 3:30, several hundred feet from the summit, the line came to an almost dead stop. Every couple of minutes it would move a few feet. Finally, at 4:00, the five of us who were together stepped off the path and relaxed while we waited for the sun to rise. Eventually, everyone did the same, until the side of the mountain was covered with thousands of people facing east, waiting for the sun to peek above the clouds.

I'm so glad we chose to climb at night. While getting to the top of the mountain was cool, seeing the sun rise is what made the whole thing worth it. The sky had been brightening for several hours already, and I thought I knew exactly where the sun would come up. Then I saw one of the most amazing optical illusions ever. Instead of rising at the horizon, from behind the clouds, the sun actually rose from inside the clouds. I still have no idea what made it look this way, but it actually looked like the sun was coming up from out of the clouds, in between us and the horizon. You can see what I'm talking about in this picture.

The pictures don't even come close to capturing what the sun looked like. The color was, as lame as it sounds, neon pink. Set against the blue-grey of the clouds and the orange of the sky, it was absolutely stunning.

Once the sun had risen, we started our climb to the summit. Even though we were only a few hundred feet down, the crowds were so thick that it took another hour and a half to reach the top. It was quite an experience to come over the edge and finally see the top of Mt. Fuji.

Next: At the summit.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New education?

So I’m thinking of returning to school to get a different degree. I was thinking of bioengineering. I could then go on to get graduate and Ph.D. degrees, with a specialization in limb regrowth therapy. Then I could spend years developing a process by which I could grow myself a third thumb. Why?

So that I can give The Dark Knight three thumbs up.

I could talk about all the standard stuff: the awesome acting, the good story, the fact that it’s not a comic-book-y movie, but a good movie in a comic book setting. But if you’ve read any of the reviews, you already know all this, so I’ll focus on another point in the movie.

There is no backstory for the Joker. There are no clues given as to where he came from. In fact, the Joker himself gives a couple of conflicting hints as to how he got his scars. His real name is never given, no hints are provided as to why he acts as he does.

Personally, I think it was very smart storytelling on the part of the writers. We the viewers know nothing more about the Joker than the other characters in the movie do. And, just as importantly, we never find out. As one of the producers put it, the Joker is just an absolute. Within the context of the film, not only do we not know why he does what he does, there is no reason for what he does. He just does it because, well, he’s the Joker. It’s who he is. It forces you into a feeling of frustration about the character: you’re continually trying to understand him and his motivations, but there are none. It’s not just that they’re not explained to you the viewer, it’s that he literally has no motivation. It narrows the focus of the character and, in a way, makes him easier to watch. Once you understand the simplicity of a character who does things for no other reason but that he can, you can’t help but enjoy watching him do it.

So maybe this is a little bit high-minded of an analysis for a Batman movie. But this movie is different. It allows, even encourages, this sort of thought. The themes in the movie are modern-day and relevant, but treated smartly. So even you if don’t like comic book movies, this is one you should see.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I tried, I really did...

As you well know, I love to find and eat the weirdest stuff I can when I travel, and Japan is a great place for that. Last night I almost out-did myself: I ordered rectum at a restaurant. When I asked her for it, the waitress just shook her head. I can't tell if she was saying they didn't have it, or if she thought it was such a bad idea for me to eat it that she wouldn't serve it to me. Either way, I didn't get to try it.

I did commit one of the most embarassing international incidents yet. The food I eventually managed to order came with a dipping sauce. They brought over this enormous bowl of sauce and placed it next to me. When my food came, I dipped it into the sauce and took a bite. Delicious. I dipped my food in again and took another bite. At this point the waitress (you'll recall her English was so poor she couldn't clearly explain why I couldn't order rectum for dinner) came over and said, "One dip, okay. Two dips, no!" At that point I realized this was some sort of communal dipping pot. Imagine if they brought you a huge bowl of salsa at the Mexican place and then, when you were done, just shifted the bowl over to the next table. So I'd just double-dipped into the sauce that would end up at who knows how many other tables that evening. Stupid American...

So I closed out the evening by running by the grocery store. There I was, surrounded by all these strange and wonderful foods, and I walk out with a box of cookies, a Kit Kat, and four Diet Cokes. I hate myself.

My first earthquake

I'm pretty excited, as I got to experience my first earthquake last night! I'm in Japan for business, and we got in late yesterday. Last night at about 12:30 I woke and felt the room shaking. On some level I knew it was an earthquake, but I was so out of it that I just rolled over and went back to sleep. Actually, the thing I remember most was that I could hear the water sloshing around in the toilet tank in that bathroom.

The earthquake itself was decently large (magnitude 7.0), but it was pretty far away from where I am now. Of course, most people around here were pretty unphased by it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sorry, bud, I can't let you play with that.

I'm headed off to Japan next week, and during the weekend several of us will be climbing Mt. Fuji at night. Apparently it's a big deal to be at the top of the mountain when the sun rises. Since we're climbing in the dark, I went and bought a clip-on head lamp that will attach to my hat.I want to show this to the Monkey, but I can't. I really just can't. And there are three very specific reasons.
  • First, he would definitely want to play with it until either the batteries ran down or it broke.
  • Second, he would want to disassemble it in the Secret Lab. For those who don't know, the Secret Lab is where he and I routinely go to take stuff apart to see how it works. I should clarify that "Secret Lab" is something of a misnomer. It is neither secret nor a lab. Pretty much anyone who can infiltrate our house (such as by knocking on the door) is told about it. And it's not really a lab, it's more of a master closet.
  • Third, he would want to keep it in his bed. That's the greatest honor he can show to a piece of electronics - keeping it in his bed at night. I can usually convince him to at least keep it on a nightstand or at the foot of his bed, but often we'll find all kinds of toys under his pillow the next day.

So, sorry bud. You can play with it all you want when I bring it back, but for now I kind of need it to work.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


I don't like summer. I really don't. And I feel like I've come by my dislike for summer honestly, for two reasons.

First, I live in a place where the summers are absolutely miserable. Right now it's 100.6 degrees outside. There's no way in the world anyone could enjoy this. It was even worse when I was a kid. Growing up in Argentina, we lived in a place where the climate was very similar to here, but we had no air conditioning. My parents eventually got a window unit in their bedroom and on the most uncomfortable of nights my sister and I were allowed to sleep on their bedroom floor. Then, the year before we left, my parents got a window unit for MY room, on the condition that I had to let my little sister sleep in there with me. TOTALLY worth it. But most of the time, our house was just hot.
Secondly, I've had more than my fair share of summers. Since we often traveled back from Argentina after the summer there (and into the summer here), in my 32 years of existence I figure I've gone through something like 35 summers and only 29 winters.
So as the season wears on, I begin looking forward to those little hints that the end is in sight. The summer solstice is a good example. Sure, it's the official start of the summer season, but from this point forward the days are getting shorter, which helps some. It's also nice when the summer movie season winds down. Once The Dark Knight comes out, most of the blockbusters will have come and gone, and so we can start talking about the fall movie season.
But my first real sign of the end of the season came in the mail yesterday:

That's right, it's a flyer for a fall clothing sale. A subtle thing, to be sure, but there it is. Soon, the back-to-school ads will start, and I can start smiling smugly at the little kids out on the street, throwing baseballs and riding their little punk-scooters until late at night, threatening to wake my children who have to be in bed at 7:30. Their time will come soon, a time when they'll have to be in bed at a decent hour as well.

And then maybe, just maybe, it won't be quite so hot outside...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The great questions of life

A friend of mine posed an interesting question to me today. Basically, she asked, “If a wizard turned you into a whale, would that be awesome?” This is the conversation that ensued by IM. I post it because I think it’s hilarious.

Hmm, I say No

May I assume that I'm a KILLER whale, as shown in the picture?

You may

Then, awesome. And I'd spend all day eating baby seals.

See, you had to go there, didn't you

You make me a killer whale, and you expect me to NOT eat baby seals?! That's a lot to ask.

You should befriend a troubled preteen who has to do community service at the local sea life park for vandalizing their water tanks
And then Michael Jackson will write a song for you

Can I eat the preteen at the end of their service time?

And you will take a mighty leap over the jetty in the ocean to escape the bad guys

I mean, I'm a killer whale, I'm pretty hungry.

Yeah, because that kid was pretty annoying

Yeah, he was. Can I eat Michael Jackson?

I don't know if you'd want to - I believe he's made entirely of plastic, polyester wigs, and eyeliner
Oh, and a single glove

Maybe there'd be little nutritional value, but you'd certainly be doing the world a favor.

Yeah, I was going to say it might not be satisfying to your hunger, per se
But there might still me some gratification

Monday, July 7, 2008

Statistical probability

This is a great story. According to CNN, the Virginia State Lottery continued to sell tickets for which the top prize had already been won. Some businessman figured out that the top prize was no longer available and is now suing the state lottery commission for damages equal to the number of tickets that were sold while the top prize wasn't available ($85 million).

So, to be clear, the odds of winning the top prize in the Virginia State Lottery are 1 in 175 million. This guy's odds of winning that prize had gone from astronomically negligible to actually zero. And now he's suing.

This is why everyone should be required to take a basic statistics course before playing the lottery.

This is why Japan is so awesome.

This video is the perfect example of why Japan is so awesomely bizarre. Apparently this is some kind of game show.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Disclaimer: The following post is NOT a statement of my personal philosophy or beliefs. It's an account of an experience that I had and some subsequent thoughts about that experience. Please do not think that this is my final, fully thought-out and concluded opinion on these issues. This post is just me thinking out loud.

I'm at a conference in San Francisco this week. I've never even been to California, so I was very excited about this trip. I had an experience yesterday though that was completely unexpected and got me to thinking about some stuff.

I saw the Gay Pride Parade. Not a gay pride parade, the Gay Pride Parade.

I didn't mean to. Well, not at first anyway. I was meeting an old friend of mine who was coming in on a train. I walked out of my hotel and noticed a bunch of people gathering on the side of the street, so I asked a security guard what was going on. Turns out the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transsexual (GLBT) Parade was starting right outside the front door of the hotel. As I had some time to kill before my friend showed up (which ended up being an hour and a half through no fault of his) I just sat and people-watched.

It was one of the freakiest things I've ever seen. I've been lots of place, and I thought I understood how the world worked, but this was a completely new experience for me. First of all, let me say that there were some serious, no-holds-barred fruitcakes. I saw one guy, tanned and shaved and completely naked walking down the street (where did he keep his wallet?). I saw at least two guys riding bikes wearing shirts - and nothing else. There was a woman wearing a tight shirt with cutouts for her nipples. There was another woman was had one breast hanging freely out of her shirt. I saw a transsexual who was wearing an S&M outfit who appeared to have had her breasts surgically removed. I saw one guy who was wearing little besides a length of pantyhose wrapped around his genitals.

These people fit every stereotype I've ever had (and many I didn't even know I had) for how gay people should look, dress, and act. But there was something else I noticed. Something a a little more subtle. Many of them were holding signs that said something like "Together for 22 years, married for one week." As you know, in the last few weeks it effectively became legal to get married in California. These people were celebrating their new opportunities. They were walking with the kids they were raising together. I was even standing there when the mayor of San Francisco drove through, and everyone around me was cheering "Thank you!"

So this got me to thinking about the issue of gay marriage in this country. Stay with me here - I'm just thinking this out. Don't burn me at the stake for this one.

First of all, let me say that I believe that homosexuality is a sin. That is certainly not a popular viewpoint (especially for 99% of the people in this city), but I really do believe that the Bible teaches sex is meant for a man and woman. Specifically, I think that it teaches that sex is meant for a husband and a wife. Seriously, hold on, I'm going somewhere with this.

Many Christians claim that marriage between two people of the same sex is not holy. But I contend that many, many heterosexual marriages that take place in this country are not holy. When my wife and I got married, it was a binding contract between ourselves and our God that we would live our lives together and for Him. That is not what the legal and societal institution of marriage is in this country. From the government's perspective, marriage is effectively non-religious. So applying the argument that we should deny that right to gay people on religious grounds seems inconsistent; shouldn't we then be denying it to anyone for whom the marriage is not a holy contract, as is the case for the vast majority of marriages in our country?

Let's put it a different way (and I may really rock the boat on this one): why is it okay for two atheists to get married, but it's not okay for two gay people to get married? In neither case are they recognizing the holy aspect of a marriage, so why arbitrarily say one is okay but not the other?

Of course, once you start down that path, it gets really ugly. Does that mean you can only get married in a Christian church? What if I don't believe my wife should submit to me? What if I'm not a biblical literalist, or a pre- or post-millenialist? All of a sudden, we're living in a theocracy, and that's a scary place to be. The bigger question becomes - what is the place for our particular religious beliefs in the government's legislation?

So maybe we just say the gay people can get married. They're grownups, they both love each other (at least, as much as most heterosexuals do), so why shouldn't the state recognize that?

Now, tell me why I'm wrong...