- Climbers greet the rising sun at the peak of Mount Fuji.
At the beginning of 1998 I went to Chichibu, with the intention of starting a long term photography project to photograph the 34 temples in the pilgrimage that I had cycled around years before
with Alex and Pierre, but it never materialised. I also started going to our Corporate Research & Development laboratory in nearby Wakaba once a week, to study the IEEE 1394 protocol. This
should have been a full time move, but that was delayed because of a problem found in the CAN BUS of the model I had worked on for SAAB. I spent several months trying to reproduce the problem,
and trying to get NEC to do so also, since it must have been a problem with their IC causing it, but to no avail. This was probably my most frustrating time in Pioneer, since I was doing close to
nothing, and a really interesting project, the 1394 research, was waiting around the corner. I was already pissed at NEC because of the bug in their CAN chip which they refused to acknowledge but
which caused a lot of trouble during development, and this did not help.
In the summer of that year a very large typhoon hit the Kanto region, and poured heavy rain on the plain over the course of one night. Walking to work the following morning, I stopped in disbelief as I rounded a corner to enter the factory, because the road than normally ran on both sides of the little stream through the factory compound was no longer there, and the stream had turned into a lake! I had already gotten my feet wet on the walk to work, when I passed by another small river that had burst its banks, but this flood was coming up to the knees of people who tried to wade across. The company started shuttling people over and back using the baseball team's bus, and made announcements about the emergency measures which would be put in place for lunchtime, which started off promising to shuttle everyone over in stages, then promising to deliver "bento" lunchboxes and "onigiri" rice balls, but ended up telling everyone they could go home at about 11:30. Up till that time, everyone was chatting and staring out the windows at the confusion below, so very little work was getting done anyway.
In August of that year I went home for the wedding of my best friend Paul. Maeda, a friend from the research centre, was also going on a trip around Europe at the same time, and he asked me to arrange a hotel and rental car for him in Ireland. As we sat planning in the bar at Simple Simon, I went outside to call my dad to set things up. Ten minutes later I came back in and told Maeda that he was all set. He would be staying at our house, and my dad would lend him his car for the three days he was there.
He arrived in Ireland on the same day I did, and my father and mother picked us both up at the airport. He had his video camera running when I arrived, and kept it going all the way back to our house. On the first night we went to a local pub, and the next day we took my father's car and headed for Galway, since he was intent on seeing the Cliffs of Moher. On the way we visited the Locke's whiskey distillery which we happened to pass. I will never forget the look of shock on the face of one other tourist when she saw Maeda's tiny video camera, then looked at her own 8mm film camera with newfound dismay. We stopped for lunch at Tullamore, where the visitor centre for Tullamore Dew Whiskey was closed for refurbishing, but there was a pub named "Keyes Bar", so we just had to have lunch there, and a very fine meal it was!
We reached the cliffs of Moher in the late afternoon, and it was typically misty Irish weather that gave us an intermittent view of the Aran Islands. I was terrified that Maeda would get too close to the ledge, (which a few years previously had collapsed into the sea overnight, making the island of Ireland a few hundred square meters smaller!) since he was concentrating on the viewfinder of his camera more than on his footing. I joked with him that if he had fallen over, I would have had no way of getting the car home, since I did not yet have a licence. We drove into Galway town and stayed at the University campus, which was not using, and therefore renting out, the student accommodation during the summer months. We walked into the town, strolled around the quays for a while before happening upon a traditional Irish music session in one of the pubs in town, where we passed a couple of hours, regularly interrupted by one of the local barflies telling us all he knew about the area, which was not very much, and life in general, which was even less. We also met another Japanese man there who had travelled out to the Aran Islands to buy a sweater, only to find that he did not have enough money for lodgings after buying the sweater, so he had gone from door to door asking if he could sleep in people's hallways.
The next morning we drove back East, and after we stopped at a small town for drinks and snacks, Maeda dropped his wallet as he was getting back in to the car. An old man ran across the road and tapped on the window to warn him, and since that day he will never hear a bad word against Irish people, for the rest of his trip would have been ruined without his credit cards. In the afternoon of the second day we visited Slane Castle and then Newgrange, the five thousand year old burial tomb where the sun shines through an opening to light up the whole room on the mornings around the winter solstice. Maeda was totally amazed by this, and I was amused to notice that one of the carvings on the walls was an exact replica of the logo used by Dynos, the telesales arm of Fuji Television in Japan. We returned the car to my father and set off into Dublin city that evening, to visit some sights and enjoy a few more pints. Maeda left the next morning to travel on to Scotland, but he said that he was already certain that Ireland would remain the highlight of his whole journey. I stayed on for another week. When I arrived back in Japan, I went to Simple Simon to show of the souvenir I had brought back, a bottle of Dungourney 1964 Irish Whiskey, at that time the most expensive Irish whiskey available. When I showed Shimano the bottle, he said " Oh, I drank that yesterday!" - Maeda had brought back a bottle too!
In return for the kindness that my family showed him when he visited them, Maeda was falling over himself to be hospitable when my sister Helen visited a month later. He agreed to drive me out to the airport (over two hours away!) to pick her up, and we came back via the Rainbow Bridge. He later took us both down to Yokohama and Kamakura, driving over the newly built Aqualine tunnel on the way. Helen had a great time here, despite one day when I mistimed our lunch break and we spent two hours walking around in the Tokyo heat. She mistook my silence, which was caused by my own tiredness and the frustration of not being able to find a restaurant that was open (they were all in the post-lunchtime cleaning-up stage.), for frustration at her for walking slower than me, and got a bit upset. Despite my efforts to immerse her in Japanese culture by taking her to the Kabuki theatre (where a security guard outside the ticket booth was so amazed at my Japanese ability that he almost couldn't answer my question about where to get same-day tickets), and Sumo, she was most impressed by, of all things, 100 yen shops, where a vast array of cheap convenient items are sold at the fixed price of 100yen.
In November of that year, I was at Simple Simon for the owner's birthday and had way too much to drink. I fell asleep at the counter, and Shimano decided to leave me there until he closed up, when he would drive me home. Apparently, I suddenly sat bolt upright and then fell backwards, banging my head on the floor. I split it open about a centimetre, and left a large bloodstain on his stone floor. Luckily I had been growing my hair long for a while by then, and the thickness of my hair prevented more serious damage and allowed me to cover up the nasty little scar that remained.
As it turned out, I would hit that stone floor again only two months later, under very different circumstances. On the first day of business after the New Year in 1999, I went to the bar to wish Shimano a happy new year. I sat at the counter a couple of seats away from what looked like a family, an elderly couple with their grown daughter and her boyfriend. The father of this group, who was quite obviously drunk, tried to strike up a conversation with me by making some really stupid jokes, and, when I had told him where I was from, asking if I was a terrorist in the IRA. I did not find this especially amusing, but did not say anything as I presumed it was just because he was drunk. As his group prepared to leave, he reached down the counter and threw the remains of what he was eating on top of what I was eating. I knew he was trying to pick a fight, but I just kept looking forward and ignored him, as his family started to lead him out. The next thing I know he lunged at me, and I held up my arms to defend myself. He twisted me round in my chair and pushed me down onto the floor, at which point he started kicking me. The daughter's boyfriend jumped in between us and tried to calm me down, (even though I was not fighting back!) as the others and Shimano dragged the father away. He was led outside and it took several minutes to convince him to go home. I picked my self up and tried to recover my composure, but I was in no mood for a drink anymore. I went home soon after.
In the beginning of 1999, the group with which I had been studying in the Research Laboratory was moved to our factory in Tokorozawa to begin the implementation of the technology in actual products, and I went with them. No sooner had I got there than I was told that because of a new project for SAAB, I would be abandoning that research and moving back to Kawagoe. I spent only one week in Tokorozawa, and was glad of it. The canteen was legendary as being worse than Kawagoe. (The research laboratory had the best canteen of all Pioneer, which was another bonus to working there.) I began studying an optical fibre based communications system called MOST, which involved a trip to Germany for training and then to Sweden for specification meetings. On the day before we left, we were told that we would also have to visit Italy, to meet with the makers of the IC to be used. We didn't know until we got to the airport when we could meet the IC makers, so we had to change our flights just before check-in. We flew to Germany for the training, and the on to Sweden for the rest of the week. On Friday night, we arrived in Milan with only the address of the hotel. When the taxi arrived at the hotel, I went inside to get some Lira to pay for it, since I had no chance to change currency before then. I asked the hotel clerk to give me enough to cover the amount on the meter, but by the time I got back outside, the driver had added the luggage charges so I told him I did not have enough and would have to go back inside and get more change. He was not pleased, and let me off the difference. The hotel was a seedy little place, in what appeared to be a red light district. We later found out that we had arrived in the middle of the Spring fashion collections, which meant that every decent hotel in the city was fully booked.
We had arrived in Milan on Friday night for a meeting on Tuesday morning, so the entire weekend was available for sightseeing. The two Japanese with me insisted on going to Rome for the weekend, so the next morning we got on a train. We got reserved seats which were nice, but ended up standing for six hours on the way back, which only compounded the pain in our legs from walking around Rome for two days (with of course, overcoats intended for the cold of Sweden, and our overnight bags. I managed to get a lot of photos of both Rome and Milan, but unfortunately a lot of the landmarks in Rome were shrouded in scaffolding as they were being cleaned in advance of the millennium celebrations. Even the church holding Michelangelo's "The Last Supper" was closed for renovations!
On returning to Milan, we met with the IC maker, who treated us to dinner at the restaurant next door to the "LA SCALA" Opera House. Before the meal started I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and was disturbed to find that after I had done my business, I could not open the very old lock on the toilet door. I tried lifting, pushing, pulling and wiggling in all directions, but the key would simply turn in the lock but not engage the barrel, meaning that I was stuck in there for about five minutes, with my panic increasing unabated. I eventually got the door opened, and returned, visibly sweating after my ordeal to a table seeped in silence since the small talk had not prevailed with out my translation services. (All the time I was wrestling with the lock, I kept imagining the embarrassment of seeing newspaper headlines reporting my rescue from this historic toilet.)
But by far the most memorable (or rather, unforgettable) experience of that trip to Italy was the taxi ride from our hotel to the airport. Our flight was in the afternoon, but we decided to check out in the morning, get a taxi to bring our bags to the airport, and leave them in storage as we got a bus back into town to sightsee and shop. The taxi driver assumed that since we were going to the airport we must be in a hurry, and promised to get us there on time, in spite of the traffic jams caused by the unseasonal rain that morning. He then proceeded to drive like a total lunatic, jumping lanes, skipping lights and cursing anything that got in his way. At one point he tried to turn right from the left hand lane, cutting off one car and almost hitting a moped in the process. He wound down the passenger window and leaned across me, to apologise I presumed, but then he unleashed a torrent of abuse at the old man on the moped. At one point he heard sirens behind him, and looked nervously in his mirror. A limousine with two police motorbike outriders sped past us, and he looked at me excitedly saying "That's a VIP, they may be going to the airport! We should follow him!" at which point I exploded and told him to drive slower. When we got to the airport, I literally fell out of the taxi and kissed the ground. Our sightseeing thereafter was comparatively uneventful, save for the huge crowd of Japanese tourists queuing to buy goods at the "PRADA" store.
Only two weeks after I came back from that trip, my boss called me into a meeting room and told me that I would be moving from my current department to the navigation department. This was so sudden, I wondered what I had done to be booted out like this, but he went on to explain that they wanted me to be a part of the navigation team because my English skills would be useful. Apparently the manager of the navigation department had his eye on me from some years back. He used to invite me to join his department on the end-of-year greeting cards he sent me each year. I hadn't thought he was that serious, but the decision was made. The audio products department I was in had to move to an empty floor in the Research centre because of space reasons, and since the company had a rule about not telling anybody about personnel movements until right before they happen, (I have never been able to figure out why this is so,) I was told to move to the new building, knowing that I would move back a week later. This move meant that I had to open a bank account at a different bank, the one that the research centre did all their payroll transactions with, and because of a mix-up my account name was reversed from the one I had been using up till then. (This was to cause me substantial grief later - Japanese banks have no concept of customer convenience.)
One advantage of the move was that I was able to throw away a great deal of the documentation and other flotsam I had accumulated over the years, so when I moved back to the Kawagoe building to join the navigation department I had only a single briefcase and one cardboard box of papers. It turned out that the first work I was going to do would be a communications module that had been partially completed by the group I had just left, so I was back with them for the first few days to get training and orientation. I also had to train another member of that group to take over the MOST work I had been doing, and I am sure that was the first and only time I have ever had someone fall asleep while I was talking to them one-to-one! The work itself was not too difficult, and reasonably interesting, but again I was bedogged with hardware problems. Incorrect timing of signals between the processor we were using and the communications IC meant that the data transmitted was being corrupted, and since I had been plagued by problems like this before, I made a rock solid case to prove my software was NOT the problem, and threw the whole problem at the hardware designers. Since I had made it very clear where the problem was, they solved it reasonably quickly.
In the summer of 1999 I was invited by some co-workers to join their annual expedition to climb Mount Fuji, the tallest and most famous mountain in Japan. We set off one Friday afternoon in late July, and drove down to the so called fifth stage, one of ten staging posts on the climb, and the highest point that can be reached by car. The place was packed. One thing the organiser of our group (who turned out to be the director of the LD-COM video I had appeared in nine years previously,) had suggested to ensure we didn't get lost in the crowds was to wear luminescent wrist bands, something he had seen another group do the previous year. Unfortunately, the idea had caught on, and about half the people climbing that day were wearing wristbands of some colour or form. We started climbing at around 9pm, with the intention of reaching the peak before dawn to catch the sunrise. I had intended to take a lot of photos, but the darkness and the pace got the better of me. I also confirmed my suspected fear of heights, as at one point on the zigzagging slope up the rocky, lifeless mountainside, I was walking along a trail maybe half a meter wide, with a sloping rock wall to my left, and a drop of sheer darkness to my right. I found my self dizzy and disoriented, and this made me scared. I knew that if I stopped I would not be able to move again, so I kept going, and in time the fear passed.
We climbed through the night, surviving on water and calorie biscuits that we had packed. It was cold, but our activity kept us warm. As the sunrise began to approach, we were close to the top, but there was a considerable number of people before us. For the last two hundred meters of the climb, we had to stand and wait for the rocky step in front of each of us to become clear, as the queue of people waiting to reach the top snaked its way gradually closer to the "Torii" wooden gate that marks the goal line at the rim of the crater that is the top of the mountain. With about fifty meters left to climb, I could hear cries of "Banzai!!" from the top, which meant that the sun had cleared the horizon. A few minutes later we reached the rim of the crater, and a mix of joy at the achievement, and relief that the ordeal was over, brought tears to my eyes.
The top was crowded, with people taking photos and resting all over the place. We posed for our commemorative photo, with banner unfurled in front of us so that those for whom this would not be a once in a lifetime experience would know which of their climbs this photo was commemorating. (One member of out party was on his twenty fifth climb of Fuji, with plans to come back again the following week!) We then took an hour to look around the peak, and indulge in the semi obligatory activities that everybody seemed to be doing, the phone call from the peak, or arranging stones to spell your name or some other message among others. I took the opportunity to phone my parents. There was a restaurant at the peak, which was also considerably crowded, and in a state of some confusion. As I sat there eating a bowl of "Ramen" noodles, one of the staff walked around the room trying to find the customer who had ordered the noodles he was now trying to deliver. On his first two laps he cried out "Who ordered the ramen?", but on his third time around he gave up on his original customer and changed his cry to "Who wants a ramen?", which he delivered with a resignation that indicated this situation had happened many times before.
In time we gathered to begin our descent, and I realised that my ordeal was far from over. If climbing up a mountain is hard on your legs and back, climbing down is hard on your feet. Your full body weight comes down on the front of your shoes crushing your toes with each step. The gravelly nature of the path on Mt. Fuji makes walking on your heels difficult, and controlling your pace even more so. By the time I reached the bottom, my feet were aching, and walking was extremely uncomfortable. It is not something I will do again in a hurry, but the experience was well worth it. One of the photos I took at the peak, of the sun rising through the beams of the "Torii", was selected by CNN for a photo special they did later that summer, and is still listed on their website, so I can claim my immortality from that. Many Japanese considered Fuji to be a "holy" mountain, and in many ways climbing it is a pilgrimage of sorts, an act of faith in the gods to protect you at least until you return. This resonated with me, as it reminded me of the pilgrims who climb Croagh Patrick in Ireland.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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