By John Lanier

Japan's Natural Beauty And A Fantasy Fulfilled


Debbie Lanier waits on the dock at Lake Ashi. At left, small private fishing boats are tied to shore.

(Editor's Note: Recently editor John Lanier and his wife traveled to Japan to visit his sister, who has worked there for 28 years. The following is the first in a series of observations made from his trip.)

Though Japan is one of the most densely populated countries, 70 percent of the island is mountainous. No mountain is more revered and iconic than Mount Fuji, a two-hour bus ride from downtown Tokyo.

The area around Fuji is somewhat similar to Western North Carolina. The mountains are taller and much steeper but in the summer covered with foliage, much of it is Japanese cedar. Even though it was June 19, two days before summer, when we visited, the road up to the 5th Station was covered in fog so dense that our tour guide, Shima, thought we would not be able to see any of the summit.

The 5th Station, of which there are four on Mount Fuji, is the end point for vehicles; from there on up you are on your own. It takes around six hours for most people to hike from the 5th Station to the summit and the temperature drops significantly at the top. The descent, which is half walk, half slide, takes about half that time. Due to the cold climate at Fuji's roughly 12,400-foot summit, which is actually a rim around the volcano, Hiking to the top is restricted to July and August. The oldest person to hike the summit was 104. Many hikers begin in the late afternoon or early evening and rest overnight at the top so that they can see the sunrise from the summit of Fuji.

Since Mount Fuji is comprised of volcanic ash, which makes Hiking the upper half like walking in sand, there are no rivers on Fuji. The water penetrates the volcanic ash and runs deep underground before dispersing into five lakes near Fuji's base.

Fuji is not only the highest point in Japan, but also considered its spiritual center. There are several myths surrounding its origin, and the name has been interpreted to mean "peerless" or "never die," according to Shima. Thus, visiting and scaling Fuji is not only an aesthetic and physical experience, but also a religious one.

When we arrived at the 5th Station, it was cold, in the upper 40s with a breeze. It had snowed on the mountain the day before and when the clouds began to break, we could see snow packs in various places. It seemed more like being at a winter ski resort than a summer Hiking destination. The clouds never cleared the entire summit, but there were times during our short stay that we did see part of it. The view was truly awe-inspiring and moving.

Hakone and Lake Ashi

Our next stop over an hour away was Hakone, a tourist area with its own lake. From our bus we caught a "ropeway," a gondola, up a mountainside. Cresting the ridge, we rose above Owaku-dani, "hellfire valley," and witnessed the transformation from a green mountainside to a yellow valley with its sulfur pits. The spewing sulfur is the residual effect of having been an active volcano. We were able to get out and walk around these pits, which gurgled with milky water. Never have I walked so far to smell something so repugnant.

Not far down the other side of the mountain is Lake Ashi. There are few places I think prettier than Lake Joccassee in South Carolina, but Lake Ashi rivals and possibly exceeds it. There are a few small resorts along the lake, but mostly it's lush foliage all the way to the water's edge. We passed one other tour boat and two small fishing boats. Other than that, it was nature undisturbed.

Robot Show

The evening before we toured Mount Fuji, Hakone and Lake Ashi, we attended the Robot Restaurant or Robot Show, which has been described as, among other things, an acid trip or a 10-year-old boy's fantasy.

The restaurant is located in east Shinguku in an area called Kabukicho. This area is where the nightlife is, including the "men's only" area of strip clubs and bars run by the Yakuza, Japan's organized crime syndicate.

Our first encounter with the Robot Show was on the streets when we passed several people dressed in costumes of robots, gorillas, samurai warriors, etc. That was only a precursor of the weirdness to follow. Recognizing the restaurant was easy. At its front were two huge female robots. On the front of one sat a staff member dressed as robot, directing it back and forth in a small area. Behind the gyrating robots was a three-piece band dressed as robots.

When we entered the restaurant, we went upstairs to the lounge, the personification of gaudy. The chairs at each table were of a different motif, one of which was silver conch shells. The lounge entertainment consisted of a singer, flutist, harpist, violinist and pianist – all dressed in silver reminiscent of Greek gods and warriors. The bathrooms were photo-worthy simply for their mere brightness and lack of taste. Quite frankly, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

After the 10-minute lounge show, we were guided down some dark stairs to the showroom itself. It consisted of three rows of seats on each side. We had front row seats, which reclined because some of the act would actually extend over us.

The show began with a version of dueling drummers, two groups of scantily clad women banging on large drums at each end of the room. They sat in a pyramid with the point at the bottom. As the two platforms on which they played moved forward, one of them passed directly overhead.

Audience participation included one young lady knocking out a person dressed in a robot costume. Then began the only story line I could discern: There was a harmonious paradise spoiled by creatures of greed and violence. The latter gunned down their opposition with swords and Gatling guns; in succession, the heroes offered up a pterodactyl, a Panda bear riding a cow, a land shark, which ate one of the villains; a large snake, which ate another villain, and so on. Throw in two intermittent performances by the lounge group, the drumming girls coming back to dance and cheer, and a few very large robots about 8 feet tall and I think that's it.

Those looking for a coherent narrative with some redeeming social value were at the wrong place. This was pure spectacle: scantily clad women, wild animals, fighting robots. It's a 10-year-old boy's fantasy fulfilled. As for the three of us, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

A gigantic snake kills one of the villains in the Robot Show.


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