Stories of Kindness: Finding Garrett Popcorn in Japan

Sometimes the prospect of world travel can be so overwhelming. What if we can’t understand what anyone is saying, commit some heinous cultural faux paus, or people are mean to us because we’re tourists? Landing down in a new place can certainly be daunting, but there have been so many examples of kindness that we’ve decided to start sharing our experiences in a new series. You guessed it: Stories of Kindness.

Our first story comes to you from Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities and one that can set your head a-spinnin’ with its many wards and some thirteen million people. We had just finished visiting Yoyogi Park and were on our way to our last dinner before setting out for Fuji the next day.

That’s when Eric spotted it: A Garrett Popcorn shop. We didn’t even know they had one in Tokyo! Those of you from Chicago (or who have ever tried this popcorn) will appreciate what a big deal this is. For loyal Garrett Popcorn enthusiasts, there is no better snack in the world.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FromADistance.jpg” title=”From a distance” caption=”He spotted it from this distance – can you?” position=”center”]

But it seemed we weren’t the only people in Tokyo who had caught Garrett Fever. The line to get in snaked all the way down the block, and the wait time was more than an hour.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretLine.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The line to get in” position=”center”]

Feeling too hungry to wait for so long, we decided to go for dinner first and try again later. Indeed, when we returned the queue was much more manageable. But then they were closing, and the not-so-friendly Garrett representative told us that we wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to reason with him. I tried to explain that Eric is from Chicago and we’ve been away for a long time so this is a big deal, but he seemed completely immune to my beseeching.

Unwilling to give up so easily, we approached a young man at the front of the line (whose English happened to be very good) and asked him if he’d pick up a bag of cheesy popcorn for us too. He agreed, on the condition that we watch his car. Watch his car, we asked? Seems he was illegally parked across the street so that he could wait in an hour-long line for popcorn. Yes, it really is that good.

No problem, we said. If you’re getting towed we’ll let you know right away. The stars aligned, the police stayed away, and fifteen minutes later he emerged with not one – BUT TWO – bags of popcorn for us. The second one, you see, was his treat. Welcome to Tokyo, he says.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Garret.jpg” title=”Garrett” caption=”Success!” position=”center”]

Throughout our time in Japan we found that people there are consistently generous and welcoming. This particular act of kindness meant that we’d be able to enjoy Garrett Cheesy Popcorn on top of Mount Fuji. It made Eric’s day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretSummit.jpg” title=”Summit” caption=”Popcorn at the summit” position=”center”]

World travel is always full of eye-opening encounters, some good and some bad. But it’s experiences like this that motivate us to keep exploring and to pay it forward whenever we can. You never know – even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fuji-san. The iconic active volcano we’ve all seen in photographs and movies looming over nearby Tokyo. It’s an irresistible setting to escape the megalopolis, and a considerable goal for those aspiring to reach its summit. Rising to 3,776 meters (12,380 feet), Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has been a sacred site in Shintoism since at least the 7th century.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiClouds.jpg” title=”Fuji Clouds” caption=”Up in the clouds” position=”center”]

Climbing Mount Fuji was one of two activities around which we organized the beginning of our trip, along with the ill-fated Elephant Festival in India. Our friend Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and climbed it too – although he’s much faster and seems to have sprinted to the top!

[ptcPhoto filename=”Fuji5th.jpg” title=”5th Station” caption=”All together at the 5th Station” position=”center”]

With over 200,000 people scaling Mount Fuji every year, this is an extremely popular activity with locals and tourists alike. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and a number of preparations should be made to have the best experience. Here are some things we learned.

1. Plan Ahead!

Due to its terrain and high altitude climbing Mount Fuji is only possible during the summer months of July and August. Unfortunately, most of Japan is quite hot in the summer so there’s a trade-off between being able to hike the volcano or being comfortable when exploring the Japanese cities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiView.jpg” title=”Fuji View” caption=”There wasn’t much of a view when we set out.” position=”center”]

Traditionally hikers aim to summit Fuji just before sunrise in order to witness the spectacular view – some have said it’s the most beautiful in all of Japan. Since the hike takes anywhere from 5-7 hours, this requires either getting a late start and hiking through the night or booking a guesthouse halfway up the mountain. While guesthouses are plentiful, they fill up early in the season. When Sam and I called to book a bed about a month in advance, we were told that all beds were reserved in every guesthouse for the entire season! Our only option was to hike through the night and try to make it to the top by sunrise.

2. Pick Your Route Carefully

There are four hiking routes to the summit of Mount Fuji – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – so you need to select the one that makes the most sense for you. Each trail is divided into a number of segments with stations marking the end of each section. Stations can be anything from a single hut with restroom facilities to small villages of guesthouses complete with restaurants and warming huts. Most stations offer a service where they will brand your walking stick with a unique stamp for around $2. Collecting a stamp at every station is a fun way to turn your walking stick into a great souvenir (and walking sticks are absolutely necessary for this hike).

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiBrand.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Branding at the 7th Station” position=”center”]

The Yoshida Trail is by far the most popular since it’s easily accessible from Tokyo and offers well equipped stations along the trail. The obvious disadvantage is that the trail can be quite crowded. The second-most popular route, and the one that we chose, is the Subashiri Trail. You can get to the 5th station (where most people begin) from Tokyo by taking two buses, but it takes some time. Most of the stations along the ascent have everything you need, and there are far fewer hikers than the Yoshida Trail. The two trails meet up at the 9th station, so you have to climb the last bit in a single-file line.

3. Come Prepared

Sam and I were woefully underprepared for our hike up Mount Fuji. We should have taken warmer clothing, and our P.O.S. headlamps gave very little light and completely died an hour into the hike. We hiked the remainder of the trail using only starlight and trail markers to guide our way. Luckily the trail is well marked with a white rope skirting the trail. Nevertheless, it was not the safest experience and Sam had difficulty even seeing the ground below her feet. This made our progress much slower than it otherwise would have been.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FurtherThanItSeems.jpg” title=”Subashiri” caption=”Further than it seems” position=”center”]

There are a few places where the trail markers disappear altogether, so at those points we had to use our intuition to decide which direction to go. This is harder than it sounds when the fog rolls in at exactly the wrong time.

Don’t be fooled by the extremely hot temperatures in Tokyo in August. The elevation and total exposure to the elements means you need to be prepared for very cold temperatures and the possibility of rain or snow as you hike the volcano.

4. Consider the Proverb

There’s an old proverb about Mount Fuji: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool”. The reason for this proverb is simple – this is a tough hike! With nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a 26% grade, it’s more challenging than most hikes back home in Colorado.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGrade.jpg” title=”Steep” caption=”Yeah, that’s steep.” position=”center”]

Being a volcano with the varied terrain of black ash and blacker ash, and considering the fact that we were climbing in almost complete darkness, there’s not a lot to see as you climb. We tried to pass the time playing “I spy..”, although everything was either black or white so the game didn’t entertain us for long.

5. You Can’t Control the Weather

Despite some brushes with exhaustion, nausea, and frozen fingers caused by the gain in altitude, we made it to the summit with time to spare. Unfortunately, by the time sunrise rolled in there was little to see from the peak other than a white abyss.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiSunrise.jpg” title=”Sunrise” caption=”Sunrise?” position=”center”]

We made the best of things by enjoying a nice bottle of sake we had brought with us to celebrate the occasion. Jelmini and I also took a stroll and peered into the crater.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiCrater.jpg” title=”Crater” caption=”But once again – not much to see!” position=”center”]

I even had the chance to enjoy some Garretts Popcorn at the peak that we had procured in Tokyo the night before.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGarretts.jpg” title=”Garrett’s Popcorn” caption=”The best popcorn in the world.” position=”center”]

6. What Goes Up Must Come Down

After more than 24 hours without sleep and an overnight hike in the dark, we were more than a little tired when we started our descent. The first hour is pretty easy and sliding down the volcanic ash on the Subashiri Trail is fun at first. But then the fun stops. Truly, this was one of the most difficult physical things I have ever done. Going up was tough and tiring, but going down was an excruciating never-ending slog.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree1.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”More Fuji landscape” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree2.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Sliding down through the scree” position=”center”]

By the end, we all sort of felt like this:

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiAftermath.jpg” title=”Aftermath” caption=”Time for some shut-eye.” position=”center”]

Even with all the frustrations, climbing Mount Fuji was one of the more rewarding accomplishments of the trip to date.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGate.jpg” title=”Fuji gate” caption=”Tori gate at the top” position=”center”]

But unless they install a zip line down, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again any time soon!

Snapshot Sunday: Trekking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge

[ptcPhoto filename=”TigerLeapingGorge640.jpg” title=”TLG” caption=”View from the Tea Horse Guest House in Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan, China” position=”center”]

After a five hour hike culminating with the notoriously steep “28 Bends”, we stopped to rest at the Tea Horse Guest House. It was one of the best views we saw during our trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Looking Back: Nepal

Admittedly we didn’t put a ton of thought into visiting Nepal before we got to northern India, but we’re really glad we took a few weeks to go there.
The cities were okay, but the highlight of our trip was the trekking. It’s something that should have been on our bucket list all along, but we didn’t realize it until we found ourselves slipping and sliding in the Himalayas, feeling like kids again.

Nepal a Glance

  • Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita: $700 – Low income
  • Size: 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa)
  • Population: 30 million people
  • Population Density: 1,297 people per square mile
  • Government Type: Federal Democratic Republic
  • Ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report: #123 of 135 countries surveyed, scoring very low in Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • Our Daily Budget (for two people): $40.53
  • Some Notes on the Cities

    Kathmandu is a good starting point, as is the Lakeside neighborhood of Pokhara, a popular place to set off on treks. Both are tourist ghettos that can get old pretty quickly. But both neighborhoods have everything you might need as they’re completely saturated with travel agents, bars, restaurants, and gear shops replete with knock-off North Face gear. They’re also good places to shop around for cashmere, jewelry, and handicrafts.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”KCombo.jpg” title=”Shopping in Kathmandu” caption=”Shopping in Kathmandu” position=”center”]

    Sadly our favorite place in Thamel, Pilgrim’s Book House, burned down during our visit. With a huge variety of books (including an up-to-date travel guide section), it was an important landmark for the area that won’t easily be replaced.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Pilgrims.jpg” title=”Pilgrim’s” caption=”Pilgrim’s before the fire” position=”center”]

    Kathmandu is also home to some important religious sites like the Boudhnath and Swayambunath Stupas, both easily reached from Thamel. If you have a couple of extra days, it’s worth paying them a visit to learn more about Nepali Buddhism and to check out the giant Wisdom Eyes staring out from each side of the main towers.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”Stupa.jpg” title=”Swayambunath Stupa” caption=”The eyes are always watching” position=”center”]

    What Did We Learn?

    After two months in India, it’s difficult to describe Nepal without comparing the country to her boisterous southerly neighbor. But it’s definitely a distinct country in its own right, and one that is home to a unique culture and many languages. We found our time there really relaxing, but if you’re just landing down you might still experience a bit of culture shock from the pollution and recurrent indifference to safety. For example, it’s a favorite pastime to ride on the roof of public buses since it’s much less crowded up top. And Kathmandu’s air quality is pretty abysmal.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”NepalRiver.jpg” title=”River in Kathmandu” caption=”The city’s rivers are pretty dirty too.” position=”center”]

    After making it out of India relatively unscathed Eric and I both got sick in Nepal, which put us out of commission for almost two weeks. But in our experience the people were really welcoming, and there were less aggressive touts and more tourist infrastructure than India. Wi-Fi, for example, is available almost everywhere in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Power outages are very common (8-12 hours a day) since the supply of electricity is far lower than the demand. Each section of the major cities has a rotating schedule for when they’ll experience daily outages, so at least you can plan your frustration accordingly.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PrayerWheels.jpg” title=”Prayer Wheels” caption=”We should develop a way to store energy from prayer wheels” position=”center”]

    When dealing with travel business transactions like paying cabs, you still have to be on your toes. Bargaining is common here, although you’ll find that it’s not as aggressive as some places (India). You still can’t be surprised when people try to take you for a ride every so often. For example, there were several occasions when we agreed on a price beforehand and people decided to charge us more in the end.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”norickshaw.jpg” title=”No Problem” caption=”I love it when they try to sell you these shirts” position=”right”]

    The immigration officer charged us an extra $8 upon entering the country, and all three of us knew it was malarkey. A certain amount of this behavior should be expected and even tolerated, keeping in mind that the gross national income (GNI) per capita is around $700 a year.

    Gender disparity is still prevalent in Nepal. Although I didn’t experience any harassment, people do still tend to speak to the male when possible, and women are often cast to the fringes like they may or may not exist – except, that is, when men see something they like. In that case women may receive a fair number of stares. Whatever, as long as they’re not grabbing at me I’m cool.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”PokharaLaundry.jpg” title=”Laundry on the Lake” caption=”The buffalo are helping” position=”center”]

    One fun (er, I guess not-so-fun) fact about Nepal is that in 2005 they finally
    banned chhaupadi, the practice of banishing women to cow sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycles. This was most common in western rural areas, and unsurprisingly, the law hasn’t been completely effective in eradicating such idiocy. But progress is progress, I suppose.

    Our Best Memory

    Trekking in the Himalayas has a way of making you feel infinitesimally small amid rugged, unforgiving giants. It’s fantastic. As Eric said in our trekking article, ours was probably the easiest route that you can take in that region and it was still a challenge for us. But it was therapeutic to be detached and unplug for a few days. After our first day of the Poon Hill trek, we reached a tiny village where we stayed over with our new friend Alice. We drank beer, shared stories and sang songs, and I remember experiencing overwhelming contentment. I think our Colorado friends would agree that the mountains have a way of putting things into perspective.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”ViewGuestHouse.jpg” title=”Out the window” caption=”The view from our guest house on the first day” position=”center”]

    Would We Return (aka What Did We Miss)?

    We’d definitely go back to Nepal. If we did, we’d bypass the cities as much as possible and see more of the Annapurna Circuit, or hike through Langtang. With some training, perhaps we’d even take on Everest Base Camp. The Nepali people are by no means homogenous, and one could spend a lot of time learning about the many different ethnic groups and languages there. We’d certainly take a cooking class and go see the rhinos in Chitwan National Park. It would be nice to take more time to just absorb all the relaxing and recreational activities Nepal has to offer, and maybe knit a yak hair scarf in a mountain lodge somewhere. Also, there are numerous volunteering opportunities there. With the right organization it could be rewarding to teach English, help maintain trails, or work on projects that empower local women.

    Conclusion…Should You Go?

    Nepal is a colorful, beautiful country where many people live as they have for generations. Once you’re there, it’s also an extremely affordable place to visit – we spent just $40 a day for two people. The overall infrastructure in Nepal is poor, from the aforementioned power outages to mountain passes that are plagued with potholes. But if you love to be outside and don’t mind some challenges along the way, we think Nepal is a fantastic option for world travel.

    Snapshot Sunday: The Yuantong Temple

    [ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”The Pavilion at Yuantong Temple – Kunming, Yunnan – China” position=”center”]

    With a history of more than 1,200 years, Kunming’s Yuantong Temple is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. In addition to its elegant octagonal pavilion, the grounds are also home to two thirty-foot tall dragons – symbols of an emperor in Chinese feudal society.

    Click here to view a larger, detailed image.