Nippon ni ikimasho! Hai! Let's go to Japan! Yes! Yes indeed!
Japan is gorgeous.
From its people to its landscapes, the unique culture in the Land of the Rising Sun is visible everywhere you look. Traveling from Singapore, I was in charge of taking a group of 40 high school, junior high and elementary school baseball players to Yokohama.
With 8 million people, Yokohama is Japan's second-largest city, and is a happening place. Flying into Tokyo was certainly a unique experience. Let's just say there were...a few people. Staying at the Yokohama Park Royal Hotel, the tallest building in Yokohama, I was right in the heart of the action, and enjoyed first-class accommodation. Being on the 54th floor with amazing city views definitely enhanced the experience.
With baseball games against local teams, including Shonan from the Japan Boys League, the Yamato Sky Hawks (high school team) and players from the Tokyo Polytechnic University, the on-field competition was VERY good, and certainly challenged our players. The supreme discipline and unwavering focus from every single Japanese player was definitely admirable, and aligned perfectly with the culture. The Japanese are always prepared, and are known for their incredible bat control, footwork and glove-handling skills. Watching them perform certainly was spectacular. Every element of their game is an art; a craft taught and learned daily at a very young age, and nurtured indefinitely. During our journey to one game, our bus passed a local shop, where three of its employees were outside, in a small parking lot, playing baseball. One of them was hitting fungos (ground balls) to the other two. These weren't your routine two-hop, easy-to-field ground balls; they were scud missiles, and the guys fielding them picked them like it was their job. It was awesome to witness.
In addition to the baseball, I had the chance to do some traveling in the Kantō region of Japan, and visited one of the country's most well-known landmarks: Mt. Fuji. Expected to erupt sometime in the next seven years (I visited on October 21, 2014), Mt. Fuji was calm, but its presence could certainly be felt. The day I visited Fuji didn't start out as the most beautiful. In fact, the morning cloud cover and steady rainfall made it a seemingly less than desirable day for sightseeing. Tack on the traffic jam leaving Yokohama, and my final full day in Japan wasn't off to a great start.
Without a worry though, I traveled to Mt. Fuji, and the skies opened up, offering clear views of Japan's highest mountain. Wrapped with clusters of clouds - but its peak still visible - and patches of snow, Mt. Fuji stood as an imposing force, stretching the width of the bus's windshield. My journey to Mt. Fuji featured a patchwork of roadside decor, the roads were lined with trees with beautiful autumn orange, red, green and yellow leaves. A pit stop at Oshino Hakkai, a local village, offered incredible views of Mt. Fuji, and a chance for a much-needed morning stretch. Food and snack stalls, small shops and lush green landscapes surrounding the small ponds of Oshino made for a unique visit. As the bus climbed to Mt. Fuji's fifth station (as high as buses are allowed to go), I had breathtaking views of the valleys below. Small towns and beautiful blue lakes poked through the clouds, as I looked down 2,305 meters (7,607 feet). The most noticeable difference from Oshino to Mt. Fuji's fifth station was the outside temperature. Dropping significantly as I ascended (down to 7° Celsius, 45°F) strong gusts of wind ripped through the fifth station, sending everyone in sight for warm, cozy quarters indoors. The views from Mt. Fuji's fifth station were fantastic. Gorgeous autumn colors stretched as far as my eyes could see. Being above the clouds and peeking through them to see civilization made me feel like I was in an airplane. As I glanced back at Mt. Fuji though, I was quickly reminded where I was. Mt. Fuji is enormous!
During the journey down the mountain, I certainly took full advantage of the opportunity for a nap, dozing in and out as the bus took me back down the side of Mt. Fuji. The next stop was at the gorgeous Lake Kawaguchi, where I enjoyed a Japanese-style lunch from a restaurant overlooking the lake. Aside from the great views, caricatured paddle boats and a handful of local ice cream and shaved ice stalls seemed to be the go-to spots at this quaint lakeside village. I resisted temptation, and simply took in the views. After a brief respite, my next journey took me to the famous village of Hakone. Although fogged over, Lake Ashi, Hakone's famous body of water, was still a sight to see. Bordered by dense forests of towering green trees, Lake Ashi would have definitely been too cold for a late-October dip, but was fun for skipping rocks and taking some photos through the fog.
An early-evening departure from Hakone took me to a train station just over an hour away, where I boarded the bullet train (Shinkansen) back to Yokohama, cutting what would have been an hour-long bus ride down to a 15-minute journey on the train. Reaching speeds of up to 280kmh (175mph), the bullet train definitely lived up to its name.
It's always bittersweet when a journey is over and it's time to pack and return home. I didn't want to leave Japan, as I'd just become familiar with communicating in Japanese. My limited knowledge of the language was very helpful, and I certainly added to my vocabulary, while simultaneously enhancing my pronunciation, which is often extremely challenging for Westerners.
I have no doubt that I will return to Japan at some point in the near future. A nation laden with culture and history, Japan is equally as passionate about baseball ('yakyu' in Japanese), which makes a return trip a no-brainer. Hai!