Saturday, November 27, 2010

Getting Out of Town - Mt. Takao

Last autumn, Mike, Yuki, and I went down to Kyoto on a long weekend to check out the beautiful fall colors, but the holiday was on a Tuesday instead of a Monday this year, denying us that extra bit of time to really get out of town. However, Mike set up plans for the Michigan kids to get together on that Tuesday and take a day trip to Mt. Takao, a relatively small mountain about an hour away from Tokyo that he had been to in past falls.

As the date approached, however, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to join. I had played soccer on the previous Sunday, the first real exercise I’d had in something like four months, and my body was an absolute wreck. I honestly can’t remember the time I was that sore and even just walking was painful, so the idea of hiking up a mountain didn’t sound too appealing, so I decided I’d see how I felt that morning and make a judgment call.

When I woke up, I felt only slightly better than I had the day before and at first I was planning on sitting it out. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I would regret not going. I usually work too late Monday through Friday to do anything outside of work and it seemed like a shame to waste a rare day off bumming around indoors, so I decided to suck it up and give it a go.

We all met up outside the train station at the base of the mountain. The morning drizzle had cleared up, leaving a cool but sunny late morning that was strongly reminiscent of Michigan falls. Most people take a cable car part way up, then hike the rest of the way to top, but we took a path less traveled that went all the way up. To be honest, it was a pretty gentle slope and not particularly strenuous until near the very end.


The fall colors weren’t the best, but it was nice just to be out of the city for a bit. The air in Tokyo never strikes me as particularly bad, but the fresh air at Mt. Takao was wonderfully refreshing. It just felt good to breath. The path we took was quiet and not at all crowded (a minor miracle anywhere near Tokyo on a holiday), allowing us to keep a slow pace, enjoying the nature and company.


It’s been getting colder around here lately and probably won’t be long before the idea of spending a day outdoors loses its appeal, so I’m glad we had a chance to get out. The scenery may not have held up to Kyoto’s last year, but it was a great day trip and it’s always a good time when the Michigan kids get together.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dive In

After we spent a weekend in Hachijojima last March, I wrote about how Yuki and I had a chance to try scuba diving and really enjoyed ourselves. We sat on the idea of getting proper diving certification for a while but never really did anything about it until Yuki happened to find a place with good reviews that was offering licensing courses for a fairly inexpensive price (more on that in a minute…). Figuring that it would be a fun option to have when we travel, we decided to check it out.


The advertised price at the place was $150, but there were A LOT of strings attached. They really pushed people to buy their own gear (wetsuit, mask, snorkel, etc.), the idea being that owning your own gear would encourage you to stick with the hobby. Honestly, I think it was largely them taking advantage of a common tendency for Japanese people to have a hard time saying no when put on the spot (I had no such issues). If, however, you don’t shell out the $500+ for one of their gear packages, you’d have to pay something like $70 per dive session to rent it (x3 session = +$210). There was also a number of little administrative costs and knick-knicks that they make you buy which add up to another $70-80 or so. All-in-all, the total bill comes out to around $400, which is pretty much what it would cost at most other places in Tokyo anyway, so we figured we’d give it a shot. I wasn’t really thrilled about the way they kept trying to get us to buy things or sign up for stuff (if we’d said “yes” to all the add-ons, we probably would have blown through another $200-300), but they were excellent teachers and took good care of us throughout the process, so if you’ve got the will power to say no to all the selling, it’s not a bad shop to go with.

There are three components to getting your diving license:
(1) A paper test on basic diving technique and safety
(2) Diving practice session in a pool
(3) Diving practice session in open water

The test is easy: if you just read the little book they give you, there’s nothing difficult on it. I used a Japanese book and took the test itself in Japanese and still got something like 95%. To be honest, you could probably pass if you just read the first half of the book and use a little common sense during the test. The pool section is mostly focused on learning how to prepare your equipment and actually trying out the techniques you read about in the book. It’s pretty dry, but it makes everything easier to understand.

The open water diving is about learning to apply the basic techniques in a real life situation and involves four dives split over two days, with an option to split it over two weekends or stay overnight and do it all in one. We opted to stay over and make a weekend out if it.

hdr - morning train to diving

Most diving tours I’ve read about go out early in the morning (though I don’t really know why), and this was no exception. We were on train before 6am in order to make it to the dive shop by 7am, with an hour and a half car ride from their to the diving spot.


Being early November, we were worried that it was going to be pretty cold, but we lucked out and had great weather. After our first two dives Saturday morning, we spent the afternoon lounging around in an onsen up in the mountains, perfect after a morning in the cold Pacific waters. We bummed around in our hotel, a cozy little place literally overlooking the coast, before heading out for dinner.


The coastal area is full of windy roads that snake through the mountains, giving us a great view of the sunset. For dinner, we ate sashimi at a little family run place way up in the mountains. Top class fish at a price you would never see in Tokyo, it was a joy to eat.


The weather wasn’t quite as good the second day, but still decent enough. Two more dives and that was it: licensed scuba divers! Now we can go diving anywhere in the world, something we’ll be taking advantage of on our upcoming trip in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait!