Siberia and Japan
After four long days in my truck/hotel, we finally arrive in Vladivostok; Vitali invites me to his house but I refuse because he has a wedding to prepare and he has already done a lot for me.
So I settle in the first hostel I find since I will spend most of my time at the harbour to find a boat. It took me a whole day to find the port itself... inaccessible because militarized. So I go to many places to ask for advices, the French Alliance, the French and American consulates or travel agencies, but they all say I have no hope of getting there. On the other hand, it seems that situation between Russia and US do not ease access to the boats going from there to America. And for sailboats and other pleasure craft, I have no chance of finding one here: Vladivostok is not really a picturesque destination .... I have to surrender, I will surely not pass by Alaska.
I decide to go to Japan where it seems that there is more maritime traffic and more accessible. It was not for nothing because, in my research, a cargo company I called tells me that I need a leisure visa to get to the United States because most of the ships are not under the ESTA program. I will start the visa process once in Tokyo.
In two days, a ferry crosses the Sea of Japan. I quickly book the last ticket : this ferry is very busy in August, tourists from Korea, China and Japan use it.
To take the most of my last days in this particular city of Vladivostok, I visit and walk around in every streets and alleys. I would never have chosen to see Vladivostok by myself without this adventure, and that is precisely what makes its treasures and secret alleys even more valuable.
I even took the best cocktail ever in a bar of Vladi...
Wednesday afternoon, I board on the ferry to Donghae, South Korea. From there, I will go to Sakaiminato in Japan. The crossing has last a day and a half in a folk atmosphere. The boat is a fun mix between an old Chinese restaurant and a cardboard reproduction of the Titanic. In the evening, after our stop in South Korea, we are invited to dance on the rhythm of Russian techno-traditional songs.
After this unusual night, we disembark in the afternoon at Sakaiminato. From there, I just have to cross Japan by train for 750 km to Tokyo; but my curiosity makes me to stop in Kyoto. There I find a couchsurfer ; Xavier is a French expatriate who has been living here for a few years. I thought it would be a good way to learn a little more about local life because first, he knows about local life and I can understand him ; most of the Japanese speak little English. In a typical Japanese bar, we discuss about katakana, the Japanese graphic symbols, and other local stuff with an Asahi beer. Kanpai!
The next morning, awakened by a suffocating heat, I leave Xavier and decide to go for an adventure, a few days, on a bike. I choose Lake Biwa: 200 kilometers in total, the largest in Japan. It takes me 5 horrible hours to get along the lake, including 4:30 hours to climb the winding roads of a mountain under a tropical heat. But when I arrive, I dive in the water and I enjoy it like never before. Pure happiness, when you feel like you truly deserve a payoff.
In the evening, I planned to pitch my tent on the beach but the strength of the wind forced me to find an accommodation. I walk to the nearest small fishing village to find a "salary-man" hotel (workers in Japanese) along the road. The comfort of this room makes me feel almost bad but after such a day, and the ones coming, I think it won't be superficial to have a bath, air conditioning and a large bed. I even have a kimono to sleep. I'ts paradise.
The next two days take me from one village to another, where I can see manies of the small merchant houses of the old times. I sometimes have the pleasure to contemplate the castle of Hikone, and pretty gardens along the beaches. I'm sweating like hell but I'm free on my bike discovering this incredible places. That would have been such a shame to miss that, taking a direct train to Tokyo.
On the morning of the third day, I have finished my trip and come back to Kyoto in few hours. As I still have my bike for the day, I use it to reach the city center. I cross the famous bamboo forest, a massive forest of silence. Except from the clicking noise of the japaneses camera.
In the evening I gave back my bike, with a little bit of sadness, and enjoy a last night in the city. Then, I leave for Tokyo. I have the chance to take the Shinkansen, the ultra fast train pointing at 320km / h: I feel like watching a fast forward film through the window.
When I arrived in the capital, I am quickly dazzled by the energy of the city. Surely too used to a simple lifestyle, here everything seems glitzy, neat, crazy.
The euphoria slowly goes away but the wonder remains. Before I start to look after the US visa procedure, I wander through the very small and very clean streets of the city, I eat in some ramen-ya and sushi-bars and I rest in the imperial gardens or on the docks of the Sumida River. By chance, I even have the pleasure to watch the festival of the Pakistani-Japanese friendship celebration in Ueno Park, where Japanese women in short skirts sing - or rather scream - at the rhythm of Pakis drums. Then, I go out to explore Tokyo's nightlife with my new roommates.
A few sakés later, I come back to my hostel because the next morning I have an appointment very early at the American embassy.
Around noon, I was going to leave with my precious visa, but I've been stupid telling about the articles that I write and the fact that the journal paies me for that. Big mistake : I must now apply for a media visa. Yet again, I spend the day trying to collect all the necessaries documents, and then send them all express by mail, crossing fingers.
The next day, a summer camp from Marseille arrives and thirty young people of 17 years give me the impression that I'm am in French Provence. I tell them my stories of adventure. They invite me to their karaoke party. You know what it's like to sing on Celine Dion and Jul in the middle of Tokyo after two months without seeing French? I do. And I loved it.
While waiting for the answer for my visa, I track the geolocation of the cargo that I will try to take, the NYK Delphinus, via my application Marine Traffic. He joined Tokyo in Los Angeles on August 25th. All the cargo shipping companies I contacted in the last few days said they were closed to passengers on that route. So I have to convince the captain to take me on board, in exchange for work maybe?
To avoid losing myself on the day of departure, because I have no information on boarding procedures, I go to identify the two potential ports from where my cargo, Yokohama and Yumenoshima. Difficult to reach pedestrians, I have to cross industrial zones and climb over barriers before reaching a platform. At the moment when I was getting discouraged, I met the head of the port - a little old Japanese woman excited - who understands immediately my approach of cargo-stop (which is very rare). It tells me about a simpler access route. As she leaves, she slaps my hand and says, "You're a great challenger!" My motivation gauge goes back up. I will have spent hours there but at least I know where to go on the day.
We are August 18, more than a week before departure. During the processing of my request to the American Embassy, I decided to launch a physical challenge. Obviously my choice is Mount Fuji, culminating at 3,776 meters. After climbing his twin, Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, it was necessary.
It is by the Gotemba Trail, the least frequented, but the most difficult of the tracks, that I will pass; it takes at least ten hours for the climb, and about four for the descent. I choose to leave the afternoon to get to the summit before sunrise, to admire it, and to come back down quietly in the morning to catch the first bus of 9 hours. This challenge turns out to be both the best and the worst experience of my life.
In the morning, I prepare myself carefully, dress warmly, take my headlamp, and buy me small snacks, water, and what to make a good sandwich. I begin the journey by three hours of trains and buses to the fifth station (where the climb begins), located at 2300m altitude.
I start with a little walk in the ashes. Deceptive exercise because the terrain quickly becomes abrupt, loose and technical, requiring 6 hours of effort. I often turn to look at the valley and follow the movement of the clouds playing cat with me. The night then falls, the setting sun and the sea offering me a spectrum of light which alone justifies my ascent. Mentally I'm still on top, but physically, it pulls and I often have to stop to stretch my legs.
It is 8 pm, I arrive at the 6th station - which is actually a simple sign - at 2800m altitude. I am exhausted, mentally and physically, and have permanent knee pain. The light of the first and only hideaway of the trail seems to be still terribly far.
I leave and this time decides to give me real breaks and not to look at this light. At 11 pm, my pain becomes difficult to manage mentally: I accompany my leg with my hands to put it on the next rock and relieve it a little. Around 23:30, I reach the 7th station with indescribable relief.
Access to the shelter is only allowed to those who have reserved a bed, I enter quietly and m'affale on the ground. I start to cool down so I take out my sandwich and cereal bar. After half an hour of nap in the midst of snorers climbers, I try to motivate me to leave. I'm cold and the wind blowing outside is a bit of a shame. But it is only by walking that I will warm up so I put on my hat and my gloves, I close my coat, I put my hood and attack the most difficult part of the trail, the one that leads to the summit. From there, I have to climb volcanic rocks. The halo of my light, weakens like me. There is no question of being distracted. Paradoxically, I live better this passage of the ascent. Maybe because I have more landmarks to discourage me. I advance without knowing for how much longer, so I can feel free to imagine that I will arrive from one minute to the next.
What eventually happens; it has been raining for an hour and I am in a total fog but I see the Torii that tells me the summit. I am euphoric. Tempered but euphoric. It is 3:15 in the morning.
I go around the summit to savor my success but the cold quickly calms me, especially as the water has crossed my pants and ice my blood. There is not a piece of roof to take refuge, the rain is pouring over me and the temperature is well below zero. I can't wait for sunrise at 5:30.
Shivering cold and rather bad, I ask for help to a man who seems to manage the arrivals at the top. Two young Japanese help me and translate me, then the man comes back with large plastic tarps to protect us from the rain, he makes us sit on a floor mat, brings me a gas heater for me dry and serves us all a coffee. We spend the next two hours shaking and talking through our tarpaulins; I will never have seen the faces of the two Japanese. This situation is completely lunar but it is the best moment of my ascent, because it is full of humanity and humor.
The day rises, I salute my companions in misfortunes, and I stride away to warm myself. I discover all that I could not see when going in the dark, and the further I go in the descent, the more I am amazed to see all that I have traveled in my state. I cross the bright red volcanic rocks before the gently falling clouds offer me spectacular scenery. It is as beautiful as seen from a plane but to this is added the happiness of being up until then to the strength of my legs.
I swallow a piece in front of this show radiating and then directs me towards rock and black ashes. I run with great strides in the ashes for another two hours and finally arrive at the foot of the 5th station: it is 8:45.
The relief I feel is nameless, I want to scream at the world that I did it. I thought I knew my limits: several times during the climb I felt incapable, ready to give up. But, as in a game, I unlocked a new level.
On the way back, I fall asleep several times on the bus and miss a few stops. Then I arrive at the inn, where I prepare to sleep a dozen well-deserved hours.