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  • Tokyo 2013, Part II – An Accidental Tourist

    Posted on July 3rd, 2013 Michele Sun No comments

    The world is full of paths, routes, trails and courses that are just waiting to be explored, and I came upon the most beautiful scenes, people and experience by accident on this unplanned day trip in Japan. Totally unexpected…

    After few days of sight and sounds in Tokyo, I was getting a bit overwhelmed with all the neon lights and high rise buildings; the constant rushed train rides started to wear me down. Tokyo had been fun, modern, geeky, and exciting, but I started to long for some personal space, me time, and especially miss the  quietness of solitude. So on Sat, Feb 23rd, I decided to get out of this gigantic concrete jungle. I had a race to run the next day, so naturally I needed to come back to get adequate rest. Plus there would be a carbo-load dinner with Hata-san, Mike and Marco, and I really looked forward to that. Therefore my plan was to start this day trip early in the morning and come back around 4:30pm to get some rest before dinner.

    I looked at the JR map and decided that I would avoid popular tourist attractions. and instead of looking for a specific destination, I planned to go with a time-based approach. That’s how I picked Mt. Mitake — about 50 miles west of Tokyo, and I should be able to get there via JR train in about two hours. However, what I forgot to factor in was the time of transfer, wait, and the amount of time trying to figure out the routes and directions in case I got lost which not surprisingly did take place.

    I left my hotel around 7:00am and got a not so large “large” coffee at the nearby McDonald; the ogisan handed me my coffee and pointed to a stairway that many early commuters walking upstair with their trays of breakfast. I pointed outside and said “to go,” which must be a bit unusual because Japanese usually don’t walk and eat at the same time. It’s very cold that morning, so I was holding my coffee like handwarmer  as I walking to Shinjuku Station. I was feeling excited while standing among all the Japanese men in black trench coats at the intersections.; they were heading to their 9 to 5 desk jobs while I was going to the mountains 🙂

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    From Shinjuku Station I boarded JR Chuo Line (中央本線) toward Tachikawa, then transferred to Ome Line (青梅線) going to Ome. At Tachikawa I got confused about which direction I should go, so was climbing up and down the stairs while trying to find where the Ome bound train was, and a tiny voice inside me said  “You have a marathon to run, Michele, so why are you walking stairs?” Little did I know at that time that how much climbing I would end up doing that day :-p. On the Ome Line I thought of my friend Anita and thinking I had to tell her about my encountering Oume (green ume). I stopped at Oume for about 15 minutes, or maybe longer, to continue to Mitake and it’s still via the Ome Line.

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    When the train departed from the platform, I found I was one of the four passengers, and wondered why there were so few people on this train? And two of them were in full climbing mode – clothing, boots, backpack and hiking sticks. I should have picked up that as first sign, but it never crossed my mind how odd they looked. From Shinjuku to Tachikawa it still felt like I was in Tokyo, but the buildings started becoming shorter and less crowded as train moving westbound. From Oume to Mitake it got greener and greener, and buildings started to disappear. I did not see much commercial buildings except one or two timbers, and from time to time I spotted some rural towns with few residential houses scattered around. Finally I got to Mitake and immediately like what I saw.

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    Mitake Station (do not confuse this one with the Ghibli Museum station) is a tiny wooden station, everything in sight were built of beautiful wood.There was no one working in the station when I arrived, so I just simply walked out of the gate and forgot to swipe my Suica card. I started looking for where the bus stop was to take me to the mountain cable car station. As I was reading the bus schedule posted on a wooden window panes, I saw another poster right next to it and I did not have to try hard to decode what it said; pretty simple — There Would Be No Cable Car!!

    Due to construction or maintenance, the cable car to the top of Mount Mitake would not be in service between Feb 19th to Feb 28th, and “today is freaking Feb 23rd.” How wonderful!!

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    No wonder there were only so few passengers on that train, and no wonder two of them were in full climbing gears. That explained the hiking sticks, duh! So now what, Michele? Well, I really liked what I had seen on the way here, so how about explore this mountain area a little bit by hiking? The sunshine and mountains looked so welcoming out there! I picked up a map at the station and started my adventure!

    Mount Mitake Station was a tiny station, and I found myself stood in a very rural village after stepping outside. I was in the middle of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, which covers more than 1,250 square kilometers of forested mountains, hills, gorges, and from the map I could see the Tama River running through the mountains. I then decided that I would ditch the road and hike alongside the Tama River!

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    I crossed the first bridge I came upon, and there was a clearly visible path along the river with slight inclines. River was clear and fast, probably recently melted snow from top of the mountain. A small group of young people were taking notes while looking at the river through lense of some sort of measure tool, so probably college students? In the middle of the river lied couple huge rocks and a young man was working on producing Vitamin D. It’s so quiet that I only heard the sound of rapid stream and wind. If the trees had been replaced by bamboo, it would look like Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon scene 🙂

    Roughly 20 minutes later, I came upon second bridge which was smaller than the previous one, and after crossing it I came back to the east side of river with couple houses on the cliff.  I navigated between the riverside and their backyards for the next 15 minutes or so, and wondered why I saw no one at all. Wished I could turn my RunKeeper to track my routes and elevation, but needed to conserve battery. Continued walking further up and saw the third bridge and this time it’s a very small wooden bridge, crossing the bridge and there was no path along the river this time. Instead, I had to hop over huge rocks and walked on more technical terrains. Saw two guys changing out of their wetsuits, so they were diving somewhere down there?! They got stuttered a little when I handed my iPhone and asked them “Shashin o totte kudasai.” (take a picture for me please). They must be really puzzled that I appeared from nowhere, didn’t dress like a hiker, and I definitely did not sound local.

    After waved goodbye to them, I continued my hike which was getting much more difficult and eventually found myself came to a dead-end; unless I am a lead climber with rope with me otherwise there was no way I could climb this mountain in front of me now. I could feel my face was hurting  from sunburnt, and I had no water with me. For the first time I could not find a vending machine, and this was in Japan!!! I looked around and found rusty metal stairways on a pile of rocks that led to a beaten single file wooden bridge, and it took me to the back of a huge house. Walked around the walls and came to a courtyard, and from the sign at the entrance I found this place was a senior citizen housing. This place was so quiet that I only heard my own huffing and puffing, and wondered if this place was still operating or not.

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    Saw a slow-down traffic sign at the corner of this winding street, so there would be actual traffics obviously. On the other side of the street, nested in the woods,  I saw couple houses with straw rooftops that I had only seen in paintings before, how interesting! In further distance, a bigger road sign indicating “this way to the  shrine”, made me thinking if I should continue my hike and go visit that shrine now. I had no idea how long it would take to get there by foot, and I was feeling thirsty and hungry.

    At this point my sense finally came back — You better start to head back, Michele!! You have a marathon to run tomorrow morning. I unfolded the map that I picked up at the train station, and tried to figure out how far I was from the station. The village was really quiet, so I was so surprised to hear a car approaching and it totally got my attention. Immediately I raised both arms and started waving my hands; wanted to make sure they could see me — remember they drive on the WRONG side of the street!

    If you watch Japanese movie or TV program often, you probably have seen this type of tiny two seater minivan before. It looks like a loaf of bread and right now this loaf of bread stopped for me. The driver rolled down his window and I showed him my map, saying “eki” while pointing at the train station with my finger. Not sure what they thought about this gaijin popping out of nowhere, but this two 20 – 30 y/o men in the car were so nice to scoot over to make space for me getting in. The loaf.. er I mean the minivan wiggled on the narrow and winding street, and stopped at a stand alone building. I got out of the car with them and thinking it’s time for me to keep walking I guess.

    But the taller guy made a hand gesture telling me to follow as they both walked toward the building and unlocked the door. Tatta!!!!! A Ramen Place!!

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    Right before my eyes was a tiny ramen restaurant that I had only seen in Japanese TV program before, but now I was standing at the entrance like an Alice in Wonderland. First thing I saw was the working area, aka kitchen, which was so compact that I wondered how the two of them could washing and cooking in there. Then there was this L shaped counter with 5 or 6 chairs, and rectangular wooden boxes with chopsticks, jars of chilli powder, a framed 8 x 11 size handwritten menu… neatly sitting on the counter. There was a small TV mounted on the wall and the younger one turned it on but muted the sound. I peeled off my jacket and scarf, and pulled out a chair for myself then started studying the menu. Very well, I did not understand anything. Ahha~~

    I went with what Bruce Lee would have done in situation like this — pointing the menu from the top!!

    The two guys quickly started the stove, boiling soup base, cooking ramen and tossing in all sort of ingredients… Tatta.. number 1 ramen from the menu!! Assuming it’s the house special since it’s the first one on the list, I made a small bow to the chef, the helper and to the bowl in front of me as way of showing my appreciation. They chatted rapidly in the kitchen while constantly looking at the TV screen —  a soccer game was on. And I quietly eating my ramen but fail to make that slurpee sound. Sigh…  still can’t manage to make that slurpee noise to please the cook 🙁

    I finished my very yummy ramen with slices of pork, bamboo shoots, seaweed, green onion.. at an easy pace, and it’s so comfortable to sit here instead of hiking up and down along that river out there. Sun came in through the windows and the three of us shared a very peaceful moments together! I probably spent 40 minutes or so there, and then left with very happy tummy. What a great encounter, the ride and the lunch!!

    I continued walking down the narrow street and came upon an old guy sweeping with a straw broom, and there was a very classic looking shop behind him.  From the cloth banner I could tell it’s a sweets shop — traditional Japanese sweets and candies! I opened the sliding door and the old man followed me inside, he was saying something quite rapidly but I could only respond with “Nihongo ga wakarimasen” apologetically. But I could still order what I like, right? I knelt down and pressed my nose to the glass counter and drooling over those beautiful sweets. I practiced what I am very good at — pointing and sliding my index finger from left to right and said “ichi” “ichi” “ichi”…. yes, I would take one each of everything you have here! Haha!! The old man very patiently and carefully wrapped up my purchase in small and beautiful paper bags made of colorful origami paper, and I bowed before I left. Going to save these as my post race treats!

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    Next thing came up was very interesting! A metal sign on the wall got my attention first, and then I surprised myself that I actually recognized the wordings, “たばこ”, so this must be a convenient store or market because they sell cigarette. The shop was opened but no one was inside, so I stepped in and looked around and a sense of familiarity hit me by surprise — It’s like traveling back to a time that I was barely 4 feet tall and mom asked me to get half a dozen eggs and a bottle of soy sauce! This tiny and a bit messy grocery store looked like the ones only exist in memory land, from the sauces, flour, candies, dry seaweed, beans, soap…, I wondered how the shop owner could fit so many items in one small store. I spent some time just wandering around here with sweet memory of childhood, and the entire time no one came in or out at all.

    A quarter mile down the street, a dark wooden building with dark navy cloth banner waving in the wind; the flag said “そば ” in white ink (buckwheat noodle). I would love to try it since I fell in love with Japanese soba with dipping sauce from last year’s trip, but I was so full from that ramen lunch, and I wanted to get going since I wasn’t sure how the train schedules back to Tokyo would be like. Leaving the soba restaurant behind and felt so bad that I did not have two stomachs.

    Looking for restroom at the train station and found none; considered the size of the station, that did not surprise me but I knew there gotta be one closeby. I walked around the station and heard music from a radio, so I followed the sound and saw restrooms for men and women, and there was a bedroom/living room next to it with door opened. This must be the dorm for the station superintendent I think! And leaving doors open must be a very common thing in this village! I cleaned my face with the very cold but very refreshing faucet water, and now it’s time to go back to Tokyo.

    I hopped on the next train and went back to Shinjuku exactly the way I came – in reverse directions. When I scanned my Suica card at Shinjuku exit my card wouldn’t work, and it failed couple more tries. The staff working inside the ticket booth waved me over, and I told him my ticket would not work. He scanned my ticket with his machine then asked me “Where did you go?” I responded “ah, Mitake”; he punched his little calculator and told me “780 yen” and he pointed to the nearby ticket machines. I recharged my Suica card and went back to  his post so he could deduct 780 yen from my card. Apparently I forgot to scan or swipe my card at Mitake, therefore hours later my Suica card became invalid. But he was so nice that he trusted my answer about where I went, and he just calculated the fare for my ride. At that time I did not know how great this had been, until weeks later I had a very unpleasant and awful experience with Paris Metro. Save this story for later.

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    I was overwhelmed by how noisey Shinjuku was and the amount of people I was surrounded by. Walked across the street via the overpass, and saw a beautiful pink poster  by he Starbucks entrance. Why not treat myself some unique Japanese Starbucks coffee? The places was packed with young people enjoying the new seasonal Starbucks crafted drink “sakura” (cherry blossom) themed coffee and pastry. I asked the girl what exactly the sakura drink was and surprisingly it did not contain coffee. I asked her if there was any sakura drink had coffee in it, and she offered to custom make a sakura + white chocolate + espresso drink for me. Wow!! How nice! I then added sakura macaroon and sakura chiffon cake with my sakura coffee. The macaroon was not impressive except it’s very sweet, but the chiffon cake was nice and coffee was awesome! So happy to wrap up today’s adventure with Sakura festivity.

    A quick stop at the Family Mart to pick up couple beers as souvenirs for Max, then back to my room and let my tired body and legs rest for a while. I couldn’t stop thinking what an AWESOme day this had been. An unplanned adventure, interesting people that I came across, that tiny grocery store that brought back sweet childhood memory, and a village that doors seemed to be always opened. I probably will not come back to this place again, will not meet the two guys who gave me a ride, and will not experience an out of order cable car anytime soon…etc.  This day had been most suitable to the Japanese phrase  “Ichi go ichi e”, literally “one time, one meeting”!

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