Thursday, April 29, 2010

Super Support Crew

Last night we had a celebration for completing the Trailwalker. It was a much deserved night out on the town!! We especially wanted to say a big thanks to these two ladies. There were a lot of people that showed up for support crew. I think there were between 20 and 30 people who showed up to support a team. None of us would have made it without them!!

These girls went above and beyond to support not just one team, but all the Shizuoka teachers that did the walk. They prepared tons of food for everyone - pasta salads, chicken and tuna salad, cheese dip, hummus, cut up veggies, cheeses, made cookies and muffins and sweets, bought us Red Bull and snickers and replenishing drinks and jellies. They drove other support crew around, let us sleep with our sweaty and muddy bodies on their pillows and blankets, and ran around to get things for us so we could finally rest at checkpoints.

This is Laura! She spent her birthday slaving away for all the hikers, even bringing international snacks for the Brits :) When we crossed the finish line Laura was the first one who tackled me with a hug -- it really meant a lot to me! I know you wanted the girls to finish more than anyone else, so I'm glad I didn't let you down!!

This is Nicole, one of my Japan besties. At times I felt like she was my personal support crew!! Thanks for the endless trips to your car, the calf massage, and the encouragement when I needed it most. "Today I'm grateful for you!" Love you hun!

I don't feel like a simple blog entry or words can fully express how grateful I was for these two ladies during the walk. They both sacrificed a lot to help the hikers, which indirectly helped a lot of people in need. We couldn't have finished without them and we wouldn't have raised as much money had we not finished. Thank you so much ladies!!! I love you both and am going to miss you dearly when I leave Japan!!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oxfam Trailwalker Japan

I'm not really even sure where to begin, as the last 60 hours of my life are a huge blur. In this moment, I think it was the most incredible thing I've ever done in my life, and also the worst idea I've ever had!

Some quick facts in case you don't want to read this whole thing...but I feel like after climbing up and down mountains and walking around lakes for 38 hours on 10 minutes of sleep, the least you could do is read about it :)

Starting Time: 9am, April 23
Official Finishing Time:
38 hours 39 minutes (11:39pm April 24)
Place: 55th of 188 participating teams
Total Ascent:
5420 Meters (If this means nothing to you, check out this website which gives you some visuals...)
Total Descent: 4512 Meters
Sleeping Time: 1 hour (but couldn't sleep because I was sweaty and cold and everyone kept coming into the nap room and talking)
Approximate Rest Time at Checkpoints:
8.5 hours
Total Money Raised So Far:
$1877 (donations still accepted until June 30). My friends and family helped me raise a total of $400 for my team! Thanks everyone who donated!!!

This is the actual elevation map of the course. It looks like 7 mountains,
but when you're climbing, they don't run together as much as they do on
the map! If I categorized it, I'd say it's 8 main mountains and small
sections of a few more.

Alright, so here's the long version...will try to keep it limited to the basics. Times are extremely approximate as I lost all sense of time shortly after starting.

I was really nervous before the event began. I kinda felt a big "What did I get myself into?" There was a lot of rain forecasted and I wasn't really looking forward to walking 62 miles and not sleeping for almost 2 full days. Here are my teammates thoughts just before the finish...I accidentally cut of Kory's second definitive "Let's go" at the just imagine a definitive end!

Start to Checkpoint 2: Two mountains, 18 km (11.2 miles
) Rain, April 23 morning

So you have to walk around a track a few times and then head out on the trail. Some teams run around the track to get out of the congestion, which we thought about, but decided against. That meant that start to CP1 was pretty much waiting in a queue to get up and down the mountain. In order to get ahead of the crowd, we decided not to stop at CP1 and just continue through to CP2. Start to CP1 is 9km with one mountain and CP1-2 also is 9 km and 1 really big climb. We hadn't hiked this section since January, so we forgot how big the mountain before CP2 really was. It was an intense climb. The guys seemed to be in a hurry to make up time from earlier when we were waiting in line to climb the first mountain, so this was the first time I started to doubt if I would be able to make it a full 100km as I was having a really hard time keeping up. I had a lot of mental highs and lows, and this was definitely a low point. At CP2 we got to catch up with some of the other teams, get some food (cup of soup and a juice box anyone?), and got ready for the next section which is a lot of flat walking. We "rested" for about 30 minutes, but there was no place to sit. Oh yeah, it was raining this entire section...

Basic weather conditions on the entire first day. Sometimes
heavier rain, sometimes lighter, but pretty much constant. Photo by CindiRocks, another hiker from Shizuoka.
Click on the picture to see her other pics on Flickr.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 4: NO mountains! 18km (11.2 miles), Rain
, April 23 afternoon and evening

The rain continued (basically this is going to be a theme for awhile), but the course is flat and easy, but only easy in comparison because we had already walked 18km. I think a few of the guys had a rough time with this part because it's easy to get bored with all the flatness. It was a high point for me however. It's easy to have good conversation during these parts since you don't have to watch your footing and many places are wide enough that you don't have to walk single file. CP2-3 is only 5.5km and beautiful. It goes around a pond and along the Old Tokaido road where people would travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka. We passed through this section with a breeze and got some more food (still no place to sit) at CP3. The next section is still flat, but the longest section yet. It's 12.5 km around a beautiful lake...that is less than exciting in the rain and fog. At this point I was excited to make it to CP4 because I knew all of our friends would be there with food. Also, I really wanted to get to CP4 before dark, and we made it without having to use our headlamps. And I also knew that I could change some clothes at CP4 and get rid of some of the weight in my backpack and give it to support crew. Start to Checkpoint 4 took us approximately 10 hours.

Checkpoint 4 was a great pick me up! We arrived basically exactly at our estimated time, which was surprising to us. Most of our friends had made it (they had to work on Friday, so some couldn't arrive 'til later) and had brought us changes of clothes and an incredible spread of food. I had like 3 sandwiches, veggies and cheese dip, some chocolate and snacks, my first Red Bull energy drink, and probably more that I can't remember. We stayed here for a little over 2 hours, changed clothes, got stretched by some "professional" volunteers, put our muddy rain gear back on and headed out rejuvenated.

Checkpoint 4 to Checkpoint 5: One mountain, 18 km (11.2 miles), Rainy, Muddy, Cold Hell. April 23 overnight until 3am

So this is quite a long section. The first 6 km is on the road, not so difficult. It was still raining and cold, and in the dark. We made it to the trail and there were a few people around and we were hoping it wouldn't be a big line of people was with good reason. I seriously cannot describe it as anything other than 12 km of hell. The trail was sloppy, slippery, slimy mud with rain still coming down (and some people have said hail...but I think we maybe finished before this or completely blocked it out!). We probably couldn't have gone too much faster even if there wasn't a big crowd of people. The mud was ankle deep in most places, deeper in some places, but not really less than ankle deep the entire way. I had to use my hands a lot to brace myself and they got cut up from the plants on the ground. The way down was just as bad...pretty much it was like skiing in the mud -- in many places we just had to let our feet slide down the mountain and be really careful not to get injured. I think we probably all took at least one fall in this section. We also got lost for a bit because of the fog and darkness. A Japanese team I think had followed us and yelled up ahead to ask if we were sure we were on the trail. We weren't sure and didn't recognize anything, so we turned back and got back on the trail by shouting down the mountain at some others.

We broke away from the crowd in a few parts, as we are pretty fast downhill walkers, even in the deep mud apparently. The mud was so unbelievably ridiculous that we actually just gave up any hope of being dry, warm, clean or sane and just made a lot of jokes. The word "dookie" was in 97% of our sentences. It was ROUGH. But we made it (it was still raining...)

These are the shoes after hiking through the muddy hell. It was hard to tell
which shoes were yours as all distinguishing features were covered in mud.
Photo by CindiRocks, another hiker from Shizuoka.
Click on the picture to see her other pics on Flickr.

Because this part was so ridiculous, we decided not to continue on in the dark and rain. We changed our rest plan and stayed at CP 5 for about 2 hours until sunrise. We ate some food, tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep, and changed some clothes.

Checkpoint 5 to Checkpoint 6: Road walking, steadily uphill. 9.5 km (6 miles), Rain? I think so. April 24 Early Morning

We headed out in the morning at around 6am. This section usually takes us 2 hours. Our muscles were tight and we were tired, so we took it easy and finished in like 2 hours and 20 minutes or 30 minutes. Took a short 30 minute rest at CP6 for some more food. So we arrived here at maybe...8:30 am and left around 9 am after Day 1.

I don't remember much from this section. I think our pain started to become real after 45km. Of course things start hurting before then, but we had done many practice hikes around 40km, so we understood the pain until this point. It was discouraging that we still hadn't even reached the halfway point, and hadn't climbed even half the mountains yet. I think I was mentally numb in this section.

Checkpoint 6 to Checkpoint 7: One Mountain, 16 km (10 miles), Light rain and sun for about 1 minute, April 24 Late morning/early afternoon

This section has one pretty challenging mountain. I'm the slowest climber on my team, so often in any longer climbing sections I take the lead so that I can go at my pace and we can continually climb together instead of me falling back, or us having to stop for breaks. On our first practice hike of this section, I had one of my lowest of the low points, so I always dread this mountain. In the daylight, it wasn't so bad. Because I expected it to be bad, it actually ended up being much easier than I thought. Of course challenging, it's a big mountain for god's sake. But so much of it is mental and I was in a pretty okay place. Also it was daylight and this section wasn't TOO muddy, so we were able to make good time back down the mountain. We try to jog down the mountains for less impact on our knees. It also helps our time of course and honestly feels like it takes less effort. And it makes you feel good that you're making good time. I felt good after the downhill. It wasn't as muddy and it was daylight, so we could get down pretty fast. We also passed the halfway point in this section which was a little bit of a boost...but then we had a lot more kilometers to go before reaching the next resting place.

After that however, was my lowest point of all. There is about 5 km of road walking at the end of this section, and it's a really boring walk with nothing to look at. I checked out emotionally. My pain was real. My left hip flexor was screaming with each step and my right calf felt rock hard, like the muscle wasn't even flexing as I walked. I hadn't had any REAL sleep in well over 24 hours and I had thoughts of dropping out at CP7. I knew that I didn't want to, but I just didn't think I would be able to take my body up 3 more mountains (which is actually more like 4-5 mountains I realized later at the point of no return).

In the last 2km of that section, I put in my headphones and played every inspirational song I had on my iPod that I thought would give me what I needed to continue. I felt better, but as soon as I reached the checkpoint, I realized that I couldn't really talk to anyone without starting to cry. I couldn't answer even a simple "How are you doing?" or "Can I get you anything?" without my voice cracking. I ate some food and went into the shower. One of my bags had gotten lost, so I had no clean socks or underwear, didn't have the towel I had packed for this checkpoint, and only had one clean undershirt to put on. I took a shower and soaked in the baths, letting some jets massage my calves and thighs and back. I blow dried my socks and sports bra and got stretched out. I thought I was doing better emotionally, but when around people again, I just couldn't not cry.

This was the checkpoint that I told myself "If you make it to CP7, you have to finish. It's only 20 more kilometers after doing 80." I knew I had to go on, and that if I could complete 80km, that I could do 20 more. And I knew that basically after leaving CP7, that it's a point of no return. CP8 is the final checkpoint and it's basically on the side of a road between two mountains, so you really can't quit there. It's also the mark where there is only 6.5 left in the entire thing, so it would be really lame to quit there. So I knew I had to do it.

The guys were ready to go, and Kory asked me if I was ready to go at 3:15pm, which was 20 minutes later. I couldn't respond with more than a "no." I was still unable to talk without crying and my calf still felt like a rock. Deep down, I knew that it was best if we got out and were able to climb the next mountain, one of the toughest of all in the daylight. I knew it. But my body didn't. We left anyway. I didn't take the time to tape my feet and decided that blisters at that point weren't going to make a difference.

Checkpoint 7-Finish: Officially 3 mountains...Technically 4+, 20.5 km (12.8 miles), Sunshine to start and a little light rain at night. Very cold. April 24 afternoon and evening.

I was pretty down at the beginning of this, as I just told you my emotional and physical state when leaving CP7. But about 10 minutes into the first mountain, I realized that I was going to finish. This is the most difficult section of the course, not only because you've already walked 80 km and climbed 4 mountains, but it truly has the steepest mountains of the course, and has 4 mountains packed into that "short" 20km. I had a few low points in the section because of the pain and also I was a little nauseous for awhile I think from lack of sleep, some food that I ate, and pure exhaustion. But overall what I remember about this section was just putting one foot in front of the other with purpose. When you're that close to the goal, each step has much more meaning than in the beginning when you can't even fathom the finish line.

We took the mountains slow and steady with me leading. The light turned into darkness and we continued on and up some more steep mountains. This section is tough. Really tough. There is a mountain with a bunch of never-ending stairs, a section where you have to pull yourself up some stairs with a rope, sections with no stairs or rope that are just steep and long. In many parts you can't see the top of the mountain. In many others you see what you think is the top, only to go 100 feet and have another steep incline start. I tried to not look too far ahead and focus on one step at a time. As cheesy as it sounds, all I could think about over and over again was about the enormity of what I was about to accomplish. Even now as I type this, it overcomes me with emotion. I have never and probably never again will push my body as hard as I did in those 39 hours.

On the last mountain, about half way up and only about 3 kilometers to go, we turned around and there was the enormous shadow of snowcapped Mt. Fuji over Lake Yamanaka. The sky was clear, the stars were out, and the moon was bright. I continued in my reverie of accomplishing something so great. We made it up and down the last mountain and continued quickly along the road for a few more kilometers to the finish line. We were all in an unbelievable amount of pain, but we still moved as quickly as we could, knowing we were so close to the finish.

The Finish Line

We crossed the finish line in 38 hours and 39 minutes at close to midnight on Saturday night. There were still some people around to welcome us in. Our support crew and fellow teachers from other support crews came to welcome us in with excitement. We smiled for lots of pictures, got certificates, got hugs and smiles. I was so glad to be finished, yet felt like the smile on my face was work.

I'm so thankful for my amazing teammates, Kory, Linton and John. I feel like it was truly a team effort and I'm so glad we could complete this challenge together. I've been saying it all along, but I think we have great team chemistry and I honestly don't know if I would have made it with anyone else. Thanks for pushing me when I needed it, being patient when I was slower than you, and for keeping me awake through long hours with dookie jokes and other unmentionables. Can't believe we finally made it!

We also had amazing support crew, which I knew we wouldn't have made it through without. At each checkpoint they essentially became our slaves, bringing us this or that, making multiple trips to the car to get the things we wanted, carrying around our changes of clothes and gear, rubbing feet and shoulders, giving us food, and waiting around for hours at different checkpoints for us to show up. I'm so grateful for the work that they did to help us along the way and they deserve a lot of credit for what they did. It wasn't as hard as climbing 8 mountains, but they also went without sleep, spent time preparing and making food, dealt with our crabbiness and exhaustion -- and did it all with a happy face. Thanks for helping us through. You guys are the amazing!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thanks Friend!

Nicole has been bothering everyday recently, asking me if I got her package yet - I think she was more excited than me!!! I of course was excited to get the package too -- my first one in a long while!! Like a well deserved prize, the box was hanging in a plastic bag on my door knob after biking up THE HILL. I think I might just refer to it in CAPS from now on.

I rushed inside and opened it up, and proceeded to binge on its contents!!!! My big hike is coming up and she got me a bag that says "Just One More Mile" - what a perfect gift :) I'm going to fill it with some peanut butter m&ms and girl scout cookies (which obviously were in the package too) to keep me going after many many "one more miles." Of course, I ate plenty of the food for my after school snack!!!

Thanks, Nicole, you have no idea how excited I was about those cookies!!!! Thanks for thinking of me! Love you and miss you lots!!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Car Update

So I've had a lot of ups and downs in the stress levels this week due to my car accident. I was worried all weekend of course, and all day Monday while trying to hear about what was covered by my insurance and what was going to happen with my car. Tuesday I brought my car in, thinking that insurance would be able to fix it and got a loaner car. Thursday they told me it would cost 35man (about $3500) + 1 month to fix and my insurance would only cover 25man ($2500) and my car is only worth 15man ($1500). Then I asked about replacing it, they said they would pay up to $2500 for a new car. The car dealer offered to "sell" me the loaner, taking the money from the insurance company, and then buying that car back from me when I leave in three months for $500. I thought I would probably do that and ask for a bit more money. Then today I found out that if I don't replace the car, the insurance company will just pay me 25man ($2500). $2500 right into my bank account if I'm willing to torture myself with biking for 3 and a half months.

I have to double check with the insurance company that I would get the full $2500. But no matter what, if it's over $1500, I think I'm going to make myself take the money. It would be nice to have that as a cushion when moving home this summer, almost a blessing in disguise as I haven't saved a whole lot while here trying to pay off debt. I'm dreading it a little bit, but also up for the challenge. I might invest $200 in a mountain bike or something, as I live on Mt. Fuji and my little grandma bike with a basket just doesn't really cut it. I can probably sell the bike when I leave for just a little bit of money, as it'll be quite new. I'll just have to keep envisioning the $$$ in my bank account as I exert myself biking up that devil of a hill each day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spring is in the Air

Well it seems that spring might finally be here, even though we're going to skip into rainy season and summer sooner than it took for spring to finally get here. It's been a bit chilly here recently and raining incessantly, which makes it seems like we did skip spring! But every once in while we'll have a pleasant spring day and I've tried to take advantage of them when they present themselves. Tulips are opening everywhere - we have a bunch in front of our school that I enjoy on my way in and out of school each day. I took a picture of these tulips in someone's garden on a walk the other day.

Sunday was one of the days that I decided I needed to take advantage of the weather. As my car had been smashed in the day before, I decided to walk to Sengan Shrine to enjoy the last of the cherry blossoms. Dawna reminded me to take advantage of the important things -- that I won't have any more "last chances" to see the cherry blossoms while living in Japan. I'm glad I took her advice and got out, even it it is a quite a walk there and back!

There aren't a whole lot of places around Fujinomiya where you can do cherry blossom viewing, so the few places are usually full of people. I just went by myself for some chill time, time to forget about my car and just relax. I sat under a big tree full of blossoms and read on my Kindle. Gosh I love my Kindle. I'm reading another James Patterson - I don't seem to read much else these days. I probably should be reading some stuff with a bit more literary value, but I enjoy James Patterson as I do TV shows like CSI and Law and Order SVU. Kinda the same sort of entertainment :)

I asked some students if they got to go out and do some cherry blossom viewing over spring break, but it seems that they were too busy studying, or maybe they just don't care either. But the pic below is some proof that they probably did spend a lot of time studying. That's a stack of Spring Break English homework -- each kid had to finish that book over break...I'm assuming they had one for each subject. I'd also like to remind you that in Japan, Spring Break is the break between school years, so these kids had finished up their school year and were moving on to the next grade only to be hazed with stacks and stacks of homework. I can only imagine if American teachers tried to give their students work to do in the summer!!

These carp streamers have started appearing as well to celebrate Children's Day in Japan. Though it's call children's day, it's mostly celebrates boys. People hang carp streamers outside their homes -- each one represents a boy in the house, the bigger ones for the oldest and on down in size. It's not until May 5, but some streamers are out already. This one was taken at a house near where I live in Fujinomiya.

I hope that we have some more nice and sunny days before rainy season and summer roll around. I have to cherish my last days with a view of Mt. Fuji, as it's usually too cloudy in summer and obviously in rainy season to see the mountain. I'm sure gonna miss it!

A Last Practice Hike

The trailwalker event is coming up quickly, only 10 days now! I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has supported us financially, we reached our goal far quicker than many teams. Thanks for your generosity. Also, a lot of people have encouraged me along the way and I truly appreciate your support, as even practice hikes are grueling and leave us exhausted.

We went on our last team practice hike this past weekend, doing the final checkpoints of the event from checkpoint 7 to the finish. Whoever designed the course is truly cruel, as the final checkpoints have the steepest and longest climbs. The final two checkpoints took us 7 hours to complete.

We began around 11pm and hiked through the night. Essentially this part of the course has three big mountains to go up and then down, and really not a whole lot else!! One of the mountains I've nicknamed "the climb the never ends." After already climbing one challenging mountain, you reach checkpoint 8, cross the road and begin climbing mountain number 2 -- the one that never ends. You start with a bunch of stairs (think log and dirt steps). This goes on and on til you wonder if the stairs ever end. I think at some point the stairs end, and then you just climb regularly for awhile, and then it's back to stairs, this time with a rope to help you so you don't fall backwards. Then more "regular climbing." This last hike was only 20 km, but truly challenging climbs.

The final mountain we were able to climb in daylight and it provided an amazing view of Lake Yamanaka and part of Mt. Fuji that decided to peek through the clouds a bit.

We're resting up next weekend to let our bodies fully heal so that we have fresh legs for the main event. It's going to be a grueling 62 miles, but I think we have chosen our team wisely and we're all going to make it together. I'm grateful for my team, I think we have great team chemistry and we've been lucky to be without injury thus far. Hopefully we'll be able to say the same on April 25th.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A cute little older lady gave me these post cards yesterday. You'd think that was the start of lighthearted story of how nice people are in Japan. And it is a story about how people are nice in Japan...just in the craziest times.

Yesterday, I got into my first car accident after having driven for almost 10 years! It's nice to say that I never got into a car accident in my younger years of driving, but still SUCKS that it happened in least it won't affect my insurance when I go back to America as they will know nothing about it :)

Unfortunately, it also sucks getting into a car accident in a foreign country with no prior knowledge as to how things work. So I was driving kinda out in the country, but there was a stoplight. I was trying to look whether I was supposed to turn or go straight. I think the car in front of me had already turned right (remember right turns are across traffic as Japan drives on the opposite side of the road), so I thought it was clear and I was looking at the signs to make sure I was turning in the right spot and turned despite the oncoming car. It was a green light, but I was supposed to yield of course, so the accident was 100% my fault. I felt like an idiot.

The lady was really nice, obviously, she gave me that stack of post cards. She called the police and I called my old supervisor to talk to the lady. She gave her all my info and I gave the lady my insurance card and we waited for the police. I really don't know what all went down when the policeman was there as the other lady did all the talking, but frankly it didn't matter. She couldn't try to blame anything on me that wasn't actually my fault, because I had no excuses to make to defend myself.

My car and hers were both still drivable and neither of us was hurt. I was wearing my seatbelt and I think nothing like a car accident will make you realize how important that is! I probably would have gotten hurt had I not been wearing it! I had to bed the front part of my car back up because it was rubbing against my tire, but then I was able to drive away from the scene. The other lady's car didn't have too terrible of damage either (see below). I have what I think is good insurance, it was the highest of three levels from the company that my car dealer recommended, so I guess we'll see how much I end up paying out of pocket. Hopefully shouldn't be too much.

After that, I pretty much moped around all day yesterday and felt like crap. Feeling better about the situation today, but will be once again embarrassed tomorrow when I have to drive my dented in car to school and then hope that one of my teachers can bring me to the car shop. If not, Dion's gonna have to help me and we'll explore the Japanese system of car accidents together. I guess all in all, not too terrible of an experience as the cop and the other lady were really nice, neither of us was hurt, and we were still able to drive away our dented cars.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Latest Trailwalker Practice Hike

This past weekend, three of the Fuji Crew repeated the hike from Checkpoint 4 to 7. Last time we cut off the first 6 km of road walking as we were doing a night hike and needed to go to a birthday party for a friend the next day. This time we added the 6km as we were starting in the morning. Though we added 6 km and ended up spending an extra hour after getting lost (see below), we still finished 15 minutes earlier than the last time. I was impressed with our pace! Here are a few updates for each part of the hike.

Kory and John on a small road surrounded by tea fields.

CP 4 to 5 - As I said, this time we did the WHOLE section, including the 6km of road walking at the beginning. This was a breeze, barely any uphill or down, just mostly flat road. We set off on a brisk pace in the chilly morning. Kory and I were both dragging a little bit mentally after getting up so early on a Sunday morning, so we did our best to be genki and have a positive attitude. After the road part there is a fairy big uphill in this section, and I was lagging behind. Last time I didn't have problems with this part, and for awhile I wondered if I was going to make it! I didn't get as much sleep as I'd wanted to the night before and a few other factors might have played in, but I was scared I was holding back the guys! Thankfully as I said we finished in a much faster time than last time, so in the end I didn't need to worry too much. We finished this section with only some lighter rain toward the end. Also, at John's suggestion, we've taken to jogging on the downhill sections when possible. This seems to be a little less hard on our knees, doesn't really make us any more tired, and obviously makes our time much shorter. I'm really liking this strategy.
Cherry blossoms and tea fields.

CP5 to 6 - This is all road, mostly at a slow steady incline. A little more tiring than I remember it being, but we still tried to keep a brisk pace going in this section.

Bamboo along the course.

CP6 to 7 - This is where my body shut down last time. It was about 3:30 am the first time we did this and I was seriously a walking zombie. Therefore I dreaded this section, but actually in the end it wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered. I think that was a good lesson for me, that during the real event, different parts that I remember are going to be difficult, especially when the whole 100 km is paired together. I still took the lead on the steep uphill of this section as I'm the slowest uphill climber and it's hard when I get too far behind. It started raining in the same place as it did last time actually, but it was still light outside and the rain was lighter, so it didn't really hinder us in anyway. At one point we go through a fence that keeps the wild boars out of the city. See the picture of Kory looking bewildered at the fence. He's gotten the nickname John Locke as he carries his knife to protect us from the boars!
After we got over the steep beginning climb, there is a lot of up and down. Our team has started getting a rhythm and mutual understanding. I'm slower on the uphills, but in sections where there is a lot of up and down, I catch up pretty easily in the downhill sections. In this section we were in a race with the daylight which kept us going as fast as our tired legs would take us.

Not a boar, but startled us nonetheless!

After dark with only about 6 km left, we got lost. This was a bit stressful as we all wanted to make the last train. I had my car and could have given the guys a ride home, but then I wouldn't have gotten home til about 1am and had to go to school the next day. There is a section where you have to follow painted trees all the way down to a stream. We followed the painted trees, and at one point they veer off to the left, and it's not really a trail anymore, it's really steep. But the directions said follow the painted trees, so we followed them. That brought us to the stream, but not the wooden bridge that we needed to cross to stay on course for the final 4km of road walking. We wandered back and forth across the stream trying to find the bridge, wondering if it got washed out in the typhoon a few days ago. We walked in circles, backtracked, and did a lot of talking in circles in trying to decide what to do. All of us secretly wondered if we'd be spending the night in the forest until the sun came up and we could find the trail.

Thankfully, we have different cell phone carriers and John's phone was working. We called a few people, and finally my friend Neil was able to explain where we had gone wrong. The directions that we have are a bit misleading. where the painted trees veer off and are no longer a path, we had to follow the path and the trees instead had some pink ribbons tied around them. We had already done this before, but apparently in daylight it seemed much more sensible to follow the path with the ribboned trees. Thankfully we made our way down and across the stream. We had to keep a brisk pace on the last 4km of road. I remember this being terrible last time as we were all exhausted from no sleep, but this time it wasn't as bad as we were rushing for the train and had our minds on other things. We made the train by about 3 minutes!

Me and more tea -- can you tell why Japan is famous for green tea?

My knee gave me some problems this last hike, and I'm a little worried about it. It's nothing serious for sure, but after talking to my friend who's an athletic trainer, I think I have hamstring tendonitis. I just need to ice and stretch it well before doing activity, but I think no matter what it's going to hurt. We're doing one more practice hike tomorrow night (an overnight hike), and then we'll have 2 weeks to rest up our bodies before the main event. I can't believe how quickly time has passed!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's the most wonderful time of the year: cherry blossom season! I've been a busy girl and though I've seen them around, I didn't get to fully enjoy the blossoms until Saturday. Last minute, we threw together a hanami part, or blossom viewing picnic under the blossoms. I absolutely loved this last year and looked forward to it all winter. It's going to pass all too quickly, but I hope to get out one more time this weekend.

Frankly, there's not a lot to tell. A bunch of us ALTs got together, had a little picnic, and enjoyed each other's company on a beautiful, sunny day under the blossoms. My friend Nicole made tons of amazing sweets - Ghiradelli chocolate chip cookies, several varieties of brownies, peanut butter cookies and more.

It was just the respite I needed before heading out on another 40 kilometer practice hike for the Oxfam Trailwalker on Sunday.

Not so healthy picnicking...

Our initial group of teachers, a few more came later.

I'll probably post an album of pictures on flickr, but you should really check out my amazing friend Kelly's pictures from the day. She took some amazing shots of the people and the blossoms! I even made her album cover! I even climbed up into a cherry blossom tree and got a cool pic, so be sure not to miss it!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Religion Relative in Japan

A few people have asked me about religion in Japan. Recently a Fuji area ALT wrote an article for The Shizuoka Chronicle, our yearly newspaper that goes to all the new ALTs coming this summer as well as all the area schools. I thought she did an amazing job and asked her if I could post the full article as a guest post on my blog. So, without further ado, here's Shivonne DuBarry on religion in Japan:

“I don’t believe in God personally. I don’t know many people who do.” This is how Mizuka, a teacher from Shizuoka, explains her convictions. Yet she visits Shinto shrines to pray for good fortune and, when she dies, her bones will be buried at the Buddhist temple of her husband’s family. Those of us from societies with monotheistic Abrahamic traditions may find it unproductive to approach Japanese spirituality using familiar notions of religion. Here in Japan, no prominence is given to the question of god, nor is there a preoccupation with ideological self identification.

“I think the biggest difference between the religions in Japan and the West is the existence of the God (the Almighty).” Rev. Takafumi Kawakami is Vice Abbot and Director of International Affairs at Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto’s famous Myoshin-ji complex. “In the West, the God is perfect and always right. But, in Japan, there is no perfect being. Thus, the religion in the West (Judeo-Christianity) has the clear definitions of "good " and "bad". But, in Japan, everything is relative.”

Most modern Japanese are Shinto (83.9%) or Buddhist (71.4%) according to the CIA World Factbook. These numbers show that most Japanese are actually Shinto and Buddhist. So, for example, a person might visit a Buddhist temple during the Obon festival to pray for his ancestors. But on New Year’s Day he might perform Hatsumode, or the first visit to a Shinto shrine to pray for luck in the coming year. Miyamairi is when a newborn is taken to a shrine to get blessings. Funerals, on the other hand, typically take place at temples.

And this syncretism has extended in recent years. Along with Halloween and Valentine’s Day, many Japanese now celebrate Christmas in some way, even if only with the mandatory strawberry shortcake.

More and more also choose to have Christian style weddings – walking down the aisle, exchanging of rings and even Christian vows. High school student Marie says she thinks “White Weddings” are even more popular than traditional Shinto ceremonies at the moment. She would like to have one herself someday. Why the popularity of such an importation in a country with its own rich cultural endowment?

“Cuz it’s pretty,” says Mizuki with a smile. “Many Japanese…accept what they think is good from different religions.” This kind of theological shopping around, alien though it may be to outsiders, takes place in many societies as a result of contact between cultures.

Some observers believe that the fluidity of the average Japanese person when it comes to religion is rooted in the nation’s Shinto foundation. The acceptance of myriad deities (or kamis), it is thought, made it easy for Japan to accept the philosophies of the outside world. Thus, Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century via Korea and was made the official state religion by the 8th century. Jesuit missionaries brought Christianity in the 16th century and today, about 1% of the population is Christian. Confucianism and Taoism from China have also had some influence.

Even though it’s still somewhat taboo to talk about religious beliefs among friends and colleagues, Japan is pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Extremism does not thrive here. Reverend Kawakami says that’s, “Because most Japanese are not religious at all. But, in the past, we had a lot of religious conflicts.” There are some notable exceptions though, like the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack carried out by members of Aum Shinrikyo, a new religious movement.

There’s also the interesting case of Pana-Wave Laboratory, a new religious movement that made headlines when they attempted to kidnap a beloved Artic seal called Tama-chan, in order to stop doomsday from happening.

It seems that the ideas behind religious practices aren’t particularly important to most, though. Kawakami says, “People just focus on the formality. They just attend the rituals. But, they do not know what those ritual means. I can say that the religion has become less important than the past. But, people are still very superstitious.” Indeed, amulets or omamori, are big sellers. They are supposed to bring anything from a safe pregnancy to safe driving. Teenagers like Ena go to shrines to pray for help at the university entrance examination.

Mizuki sums it up: “If you ask a Japanese person what god is, I don’t think they would know. We do (rituals) because of tradition. And because we think if we don’t, something bad will happen.”

*Shunkoin Temple offers zazen meditation classes in English as well as tours and accommodations in Kyoto.


Shivonne also writes a blog about cool places around Fuji City, which might be interesting to those living in Japan.

Above photo taken by me at Hie Shrine in Tokyo. A girl and her mother go to the shrine for 7-5-3 festival to pray for the happiness and health of the 3-year-old girl.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Tour of the DMZ

Two weeks ago, I was in Seoul. I don't think I'll update about everything I did on the trip, though I'll write a few posts about different things. First up: DMZ. In between North and South Korea is the Demilitarized Zone aka DMZ. The zone was created after the armistice between the Koreas and the buildings there are split between North and South.

Liz and I posing at the DMZ

We took a bus from Camp Kim through the USO, affiliated with the US military. We had to leave bright and early, piled on a bus and got some basic information about the relations between North and South. That big building behind me is on the North Korea side of the DMZ. The soldier directly over my shoulder is an American soldier who gave us the briefing. The other soldiers are from South Korea. If you look realllllly close near that big gray building behind me, you can see a North Korean soldier looking at us through binoculars.

These soldiers are in the ROK Ready position, a martial arts stance ready for attack at all times. ROK stands for Republic of Korea.

We were able to go in one of those blue buildings that you saw in the last picture. This is the room where North and South get together for talks. The table in the middle is divided by microphones and one side of the table is considered North Korea and the other South Korea. Here I'm standing on the North Korea side of the table.

Also in this room are mini flags of all the members of the UN. They used to be mini flags on mini flag poles, but then when watching the video cameras of the building, they saw the North Korean soldiers polishing their shoes with the American flag, so they put them in a frame and on the wall.

After that, we took the bus around the DMZ and passed the bridge of no return. This is the bridge where South Korean prisoners of war were released. We also stopped at a lookout where we could see a North Korean village within the DMZ. That's a huge flagpole. The North Koreans built a huge flag pole to fly their flag, and South Korea responded by building an even bigger flag pole. A few weeks later, the North Koreans built one even taller. The current North's flag is over 600 pounds.
We stopped at another lookout where we could see into North Korea, which had a line of big binoculars you could look through. However, you couldn't take pictures beyond this line, which meant you couldn't really take pictures. Everything was pretty highly secured for the entire tour. We were also warned several times not to wave, gesture or communicate in any way with North Korean soldiers. This could give them an excuse to attack.

One of the final stops was at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. After the armistice, North Korea has broken it several times by building tunnels under the DMZ and into South Korea. The tunnels were most likely being built to march soldiers through them to the other side and launch an unexpected attack on Seoul. Four of the tunnels have been found, but there are probably many more that haven't been found yet.

You're not supposed to take pics inside the tunnels, but a friend who was on the trip with me snapped a shot and I stole it. When confronted about the tunnels, North Korea claimed that they didn't break the armistice and that they were looking for coal. Over 95% of the area on the Korean peninsula is granite, so to cover their lie, they painted the walls with black coal. You could see on the walls where the paint has worn away over the years.

I learned a lot on the tour, though pretty much all the information given was one-sided. That was pointed out pretty obviously by one of my friends on the tour who is from New Zealand. She said she felt American propaganda-ized. North Korea also sometimes gives tours of the DMZ. It would be interesting to know what kinds of information is given on those tours and who they actually give permission to tour it since they restrict their citizens so much. I guess I'll never know!

See all the pictures from my trip to Korea at

Year One: An Adventure in Bookmaking

As most of you know, I've been making a blog book of my first year in Japan. This was my first venture at making a book, and it was a big one: the final book is 174 pages!! Ideally I would have designed a shorter picture book to start, but it obviously makes the most sense to divide my time in Japan into two. The program I used was through and it automatically loads in your blog entries from the internet. The pictures that I use on my blog are usually a lower resolution, so I had to swap them out for the original pictures on my computer and I also added more pictures from my trips around Japan and to Thailand last New Year's. The book shipped today, so I'm nervous if I'll be happy with the final product. I think it's a little cluttered, but overall, it looks pretty good and has a lot of memories that I'll be able to look through for many years to come. If you're interested in seeing the book, I've made it public for the time being, click on the picture below and you can browse through the pages. I probably will hide it from public viewing after a few months, so check it out now if you're interested!