Kicked out of the apartment at 8am I find myself wandering the streets of Tokyo while Charlie takes a call back home to a prospective new employer, not happy with the title ‘unemployed, kept husband’ it seems. A light spatter of rain gives the city a sheen in the subdued morning hour, there’s little trace of the neon, the bustle, the noise; just workday commuters hunched under umbrellas and punching keys on vending machines for bottled morning coffee. I have about 45 minutes to kill and in any country on this great adventure that means find a cafe with WiFi and see what’s going on in the world. In the country that makes a habit of doing everything perfectly, a cafe as we know it is what brings Japan’s reputation undone and gives credit to the wretched idea of canned caffeine.
Modelled on American coffee this land of impeccable palate somehow manages to turn out largely watery dribble in the one place that it seems smoking is not only allowed, but a hobby. Tokyo has retreated indoors and I sit on a street corner feeling like the only person stupid enough to be outdoors as I ponder my next move. Shame stares me in the face, literally, there’s a Starbucks across the road; I feel dirty even saying the name. Dirty or not, it’s unlikely to be a smoke booth and has a good chance of offering WiFi, which in this tech crazy nation is a surprise rarity. Self esteem is overrated anyway, I step through the doors and order a WiFi with a side of watery dribble and a waffle. Keeping up this odd quirk of technology everywhere but not a byte to download, it turns out that the free in-store WiFi is only available if you register from another internet connection. So in sum: I trade my dignity to avoid passive smoking lung cancer to sip dirt water coffee only to find that to get my free internet I need to have internet. I think this is going well.
In the time it takes to conclude that Japan doesn’t do cafe’s, my 45 minute exile is up and it’s back to the pad for some debrief therapy; the things we do for love. On this drizzly morning when Tokyo crawled back to bed and called in sick we’re packing to slip out silently leaving a note on the hallway table. Tokyo, you’ve been a treat, but this was never meant to last. We brave the sodden streets that only now rumble with the first signs of life to the bosom of Shinjuku station, one thing that Japan certainly does well as I attempt to replace my coffee and WiFi failure with a better experience on the railway.More on time than a Swiss watch and cleaner than a high class brothel, Japan rail holds it’s place as one of the world’s great transports. Trainspotters and rail nerds are a force to be reckoned with in Japan and it’s not hard to see why, Japan lives by the extensive network of rail lines that link this nation together like arteries and veins. When I think of iconic transport I think of South American buses, South East Asian tuk-tuks and metro’s like in Hong Kong but with just a few travels on the JR rail network it’s hard to argue a case for any competitor other than for second place. Conductors dressed like aircraft pilots bow at the head of each car before entering and when leaving while quality food is available from the trolley cart to enjoy in your roomy recliner seats; and we’re in the economy section. Yes train travel is not just a means of transport, it’s a way of life.
All this romanticism bids us farewell as we arrive to meet up with Aki again after his visit to his family. Last weekend in Japan was memorial weekend, described to us as Japanese Christmas where families gather to remember ancestors in the loving company of the family they still have. Memorial weekend has passed for another year and we’re into our traditional hotel, a ryokan, in Gotemba for a very different reason. The drizzle of Tokyo has turned into buckets as we bunker down with a few beers before tomorrow pulling on the hiking boots to go for a walk up a hill. We came here on the rail system that just might be an icon of Japan to climb the mountain who’s icon status can not be questioned; tomorrow we’re climbing Mt Fuji, or Fuji San as we now know it to be called.
Not only has Aki never climbed a volcano, he’s never climbed a mountain. Travelling Japan with this close friend from home was a privilege to begin with, climbing with him on his first summit attempt, first volcano is also a special moment waiting to happen; that it’s the icon of his nation, Fuji San, makes this first ever summit a special thing for Aki, and by default, us too. Of course he shows little giddy excitement, his stoic reserve is channeled into making sure we are happy and have everything we need; typically his own desires come a distant second place.
The rain pours down outside but I don’t believe he appreciates the gravity of just walking through the clouds, using your feet to go beyond the rain, above it. We take turns in the traditional baths, a relaxing ritual as much as a cleansing process that Aki confesses to missing at home in Sydney. Through three showers and two soaks in the huge bath more like a spa, our bodies feel warm and new; after this one experience it’s easy to see why he misses this ritual. It’s lights out for the night, 6am we’ll be rudely awoken; us with bubbling excitement and Aki probably excited too but not entirely sure how to grab hold of it given his walk into a new unknown. We’re already in love with mountains, volcano’s especially and we’re rapidly falling in love with Japan, a nation so readily identified by this perfect conical peak. Tomorrow we’ll outrun the rain to the volcanic icon of this nation to show Aki the wonders of a cratered summit, to the icon too great to live with us beneath the clouds.