Sassy foxes and sailor blood

Though my trip to Japan may have been leisurely by some standards, hitting six destinations in sixteen days was not my typical speed. It was, however, quite similar to Richard Halliburton’s visit in 1923. He spent a mere 25 days in Japan, far less time than he usually spent in a country. But he was finally at the end of his two years of travel, and I’m sure all he wanted to do was go home. I don’t blame him one bit for not lingering.

I’ve already written of Amanohashidate, but what of the other destinations? Fuji, of course, dominated Richard’s letters and his books. He was the first recorded person to complete a solo winter ascent of Fuji, as well as the first to photograph its crater in winter. Richard initially cursed his luck of arriving in Japan in winter, for he thought he wouldn’t be able to climb the mountain, while I cursed my luck at arriving in fall. How I would love to climb Fuji when she’s shrouded in snow and ice!

Gazing out over the sea of clouds at sunset from my campsite halfway up Fuji's Gotemba trail.

Gazing out over the sea of clouds at sunset from my campsite halfway up Fuji’s Gotemba trail.

Despite the differing conditions, Richard and I had similar climbing experience. He wrote:

“It was not easy by any means, but neither did it seem dangerous—just a long, steep, out-of-breath tramp, weighted down by clothes and food and camera and foot gear, but so filled with astonishing views of the sea of clouds beneath me and the glistening white island peak above that I quite forgot fatigue and time.”

Replace his white mountain with my black one, and I could have written those same words. The climb was a beautiful slog spent in solitude, and, after three weeks in claustrophobic Beijing, I savored every minute of it.

Fuji's crater in February 1923 versus October 2015. View of both is from where the Gotemba Trail joins the crater rim.

Fuji’s crater in February 1923 versus October 2015. View of both is from where the Gotemba Trail joins the crater rim. 

I followed up the Fuji climb with a few days in Nikko. Richard went to Nikko when he didn’t think he’d be able to climb Fuji, so his time there was marred with frustration and disappointment. He wrote:

“I went to Nikko instead, the tourist paradise. It has the most extraordinary temples and shrines, and is superbly situated, but I was so Fuji-obsessed I hated the lovely place.”


I hung on the words “superbly situated” and “lovely”, and booked three nights at a hostel hoping for the best.

Splashes of fall color adorn a hillside in Nikko, Japan.

Splashes of fall color adorn a hillside in Nikko, Japan.

It was amazing. Fall colors were popping everywhere I looked. I spent two full days hiking in the National Park above the city, a place Richard probably didn’t even see, and followed it with a day at the famous temples and shrines. As in most famous places, the sites accessible by road were utter pandemonium: crowds of Chinese tourists following a guide with a flag and megaphone; endless lines of exuberant school children in matching hats; busloads of Japanese with outrageous cameras in hand. But I followed trails into the depths of the park and found myself alone among ancient Shinto shrines guarded by sassy foxes and deified trees.

Prayers and totems tucked into a revered tree at a Shinto shrine in Nikko, Japan.

Prayers and totems tucked into a revered tree at a Shinto shrine in Nikko, Japan.

Tokyo was next on my list. Richard didn’t write a word about his time there, but I do know it was one of the five largest cities in the world then, and it’s the largest today with a metro population ticking up towards 40 million people. With only two days in the city I submerged myself in the glitziest, craziest, busiest sections of it: Shibuya and Shinjuku.

I passed more than an hour gawking at the crowds at Shibuya crossing; I explored teen fashions in Harajuku; I bar hopped in Golden Gai, a neighborhood containing hundreds of miniscule bars with décor ranging from waterfall posters to TVs showing nonstop horror movies; I poked around the shrines and temples that still have a toehold in the busy city; and I ate an incredible sushi dinner that was both tasty and entertaining.

Night lights in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Night lights in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Ever onward, I headed south to Kyoto, waving hello to Mount Fuji again as I passed her at 300 kph. In Kyoto I went running along the beautiful Kamo River, found the perfect teapot in a little ceramics shop, and dragged myself through one of the most famous temples in Japan.  Yes, dragged.  My pace of travel had me quite exhausted by that point.

That same evening a brief train ride took me to Nara, a city Richard clearly enjoyed:

“What a beautiful, breath-taking place—stone lanterns and fantastic pines and shrines in such profusion and artistic setting as I never saw.”


In Nara I finally did what I should have been doing all along, and visited the tourist attractions early in the morning before the Asian tourists were up and about. I saw the lanterns, I saw the shrines, but I loved the Buddha.

The Daibutsu in Nara, Japan, with some tiny mortals for scale.

The Daibutsu in Nara, Japan, with some tiny mortals for scale.

The Daibutsu is the world’s largest bronze Buddha, standing 15 meters tall, and he’s housed in what was the world’s largest wood building through 1998, Todai-ji Temple. The Buddha and the building complement each other perfectly, weaving together an interplay of golden light and shadowy darkness that drew my eye from one to the other, back and forth, from every angle in the temple. It took over an hour before I had my fill and I could tear myself away.

And then, before I knew it, I was stepping off a train in Osaka at nine o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, ready to board a ship that would take me back to China. A ship! After eight months of following Richard’s footsteps, it was the first time I was able to follow him across water. I must have sailor blood in me somewhere, because I when given the choice between open ocean and tropical beach, I’d choose the open ocean every time.

Sailor Sarah checks the horizon for land.

Sailor Sarah scans the horizon for land.

After two days at sea I awoke to a view of shore. My trip to Japan was officially over, but the best part of the entire trip happened in that final hour. The slow approach into Shanghai’s port was decadent, like savoring the first dessert after fasting through Lent. As we crept up the river into Shanghai’s heart, the city grew up around me like a forest of steel and glass, but hunkered down on the river’s shore were a handful of brick buildings with years proudly displayed on them in white lettering: 1883, 1899, and 1916. Knowing that, sailing from Hong Kong, Richard Halliburton arrived in that same exact port in the same exact manner gave me such a nerdy thrill—I couldn’t stop smiling.

Much to my surprise, the highlight of my trip to Japan was arriving back in China.

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  1. Oh my gosh…girl…you are so my hero! I will continue to live vicariously through safe..sending you hugs and smooches!…..oh..where are you now? Shelly

    • Back in Beijing for another month or so. Thanks for reading! Can’t wait to catch up over a haircut when I get home!

  2. Eerily Halliburtonesque, Sarah. I do believe you are successfully channeling our hero. Your writing in this instance is very mindful of his. I enjoy your frequent references to his thoughts and exploits. Yes, he was tiring of the trip and anxious to get home. That is duly reflected in his private letters at Princeton. Otherwise I suspect he would have paid more attention to the rich history and pageantry of Japan. The comparative pictures of the crater are fantastic. You have exactly the same view as his. Keep on Halliburtoning.

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