I don't know what I expected of Japan, but what I got wasn't what I imagined.
Early Monday morning. 18.5 hours of flights. A rough landing in the brightest, shiniest, most-populated city of endless electricity. A new language. Unrecognizable characters. Ratty blonde hair and sleep-deprived blue eyes.
I handed my phone to the Chuo Highway Expressway agent and pinched the screen wider onto a section of a map that barely loaded under the weight of international LTE. A few scratches on a notepad, the agent pointing to two hands on the clock, and me circling some dates on his desk calendar placed a ticket to Fujikawaguchiko -- perfectly to our unspoken hh:mm:ss DD/MM/YYYY exchange -- in my hand, and me in a state of extreme comfort.
We figure out ways to communicate without language in the necessary moments.
My goals for a 2-day side trip to Fujikawaguchiko were simple: eat Yamanashi hoto noodles, run around Lake Kawaguchi, and find Mt. Fuji. Two of these goals were realistic.
Mt. Fuji is temperamental at best, showing its beautiful silhouette only a handful of days a year. My arrival apparently meant nothing to the sacred volcano, and she stayed hidden under a dark cloak of rain clouds as my bus pulled into the station. I couldn't even squint to imagine what she looked like, and I was sitting at base camp.
As I exited the station, the ticketing agent stopped me at the gate. "Sumimasen, hai!" She swung my ticket gracefully in front of her face and motioned both hands as to say "do not pass go." A desk calculator. Recognizable numbers: 5,000 - 3,250. The cash drawer clammering open. Yen placed delicately in my hand. "Overpaid."
The first agent got me to my destination, the second agent got me there at an honest price. While my overpaid ticket was an oversight in loading it with a single bill instead of exact cash, I was humbled at the attention and integrity of the attendants.
Fujikawaguchiko is crisp in mid-February. The temperature hovered at freezing, but the rain clouds parted. On Tuesday morning, I folded my futon pad gingerly on its tatami mat, turned off the electric blanket, and peered through the bedroom window of my rental. The early-morning sky looked clear, and I took off for the lake on foot.
Armed only with my barely-functioning phone, Fuji appeared: first just the nose above the treetops, then the full snowfield over a hillside. As I circled farther around the circumference of the lake, Fuji emerged in a valley that looked as though it were cleared just for the views. Blue hour molded into hues of pink and purple, and then came a bright sky for the rest of the day.
Sunrise on Fuji-san
Fuji-san & the Arakura Fuji-Sengen-jinja Shrine
Fuji-san & the Churieto Pagoda
Fuji was glorious. She was enormous, breathtaking, and so beautifully perfect. My break in trance came only once I had to thaw my frozen fingers.
Before heading back to base camp station for Tokyo, I made one more early-morning trip to my viewing ground. This time I tucked an actual camera into a backpack and shuffled gingerly in hopes for a final performance.
A few other photographers -- clearly locals who've staked out the area for their tripods -- turned to me as I ran by. They urged me to halt and pointed toward Fuji. "Ganbarou!" they exclaimed.
Fuji-san at sunrise
Fuji-san sunrise panorama
In a time when my home country is dividing against itself at an exhausting and disheartening rate, experiencing small-town Japan -- experiencing a culture that was honest, empathetic, welcoming, and kind to a foreigner -- was much needed.
But then there was Tokyo.