I am such a good little gaijin. While some foreigners cease to strive for new gaijin badges of honor after living here for a couple years (JLPT Level 1, Okinawa trip, socializing exclusively with the Japanese, wearing yukata while at festival/fireworks, watching sumo, bla fucking bla) I continue to carry the torch. I may be slowing down in my collection rate, but I think climbing Mt. Fuji should at least be worth a couple minor badges (making okonomiyaki on your own! developing a taste for sake!). No matter how well I understand that calling Fuji “Fuji-san” in Japanese simply means “Mt. Fuji,” I will forever think that I am in fact calling it “Mr. Fuji,” confusing the “san” for “mountain” with the “san” for “Mr.” I’ve always been rather tickled to think of calling Japan’s favorite conical rock Mr. Fuji, as if it affords the Japanese a closeness with the mountain that other cultures built around a looming mass lack. I think that after climbing Fuji, however, that we should now be on a first name basis.
Before I dive into a long and twisted account of the climb, in accordance with Subsection 4.2.6 of Bylaw 79 of the Blogging Fuji Climb Rulebook, I am obligated to tell you a story about how some colleague or random Japanese person, when learning of my impending climb, recited to me the following timeless Japanese proverb: He who climbs Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool. Let’s just say an old toothless man whispered that into my ear as I passed him in a dark and narrow alley, the smell of Happoshu on his whistling breath. Mmmkay?
Having grown somewhat used to the difficulty in taking time off from the Kaisha, I now plan trips with ridiculous itineraries, often leaving from work with a suitcase and returning straight to my desk from the airport with my suitcase and inevitable cheapie tote bag filled with all the shit I bought but can’t fit in the suitcase. Fuji wasn’t much different: my girlfriend and I planned to rush to Shinjuku stn after work and begin our ascent a couple hours later. Let me just say – fucking stuuuuupid. Luckily we realized our mistake before allowing it to come to fruition and spent the night at a sketchy spa in Yokohama, ready to climb the following Saturday night.
The next day we made our way over to the base of the mountain and joined the hundreds (thousands?) of other people preparing for the night climb. Let me note here that Mt. Fuji is so big, you almost can’t find it. Once the clouds roll in, forget it. Needless to say, if I had been able to look up and see Mt. Fuji’s imposing vertical form, I probably would have come to my senses and called the whole thing off. Before taking the requisite “before” picture, I bought the must-have Fuji walking stick complete with bell, useful for cheering lagging spirits or guiding the search and rescue team when you topple off the mountain. The first stretch between the fifth and sixth stations is disarmingly easy. It is literally a walk in the park, er, woods. If only it continued that way. Once we hit the sixth station, the hellish switchbacks started and let me tell you, those switchbacks do next to nothing to lessen the incline. They are also “paved” with loose lava dust rock (scientific term) and this causes your feet to slip back every time you step forward, bringing a literal meaning to the phrase “one step forward, two steps back.” At this point I am starting to sweat and pant and I have a light strapped to my head, climbing a mountain in the dark. On a Saturday night. This being Japan, there was an honest to god line to get up the mountain.
After getting above the tree line, we couldn’t see the sheer steepness of the gigantic rock we were ascending, but we could most definitely feel it in our calves and the long line of headlights stringing their way up the mountain in sweeping zig zags. In the week leading to the climb I of course read everything online about the climb that I could get my hands on. This included a very funny blog post observing that it sounded like Darth Vader was climbing the mountain with all the hikers sucking back oxygen from small canisters. It does. I AM YOUR FATHER!!
During my in depth research on the climb, I noted that there were apparently a couple places where the path is so narrow you have to use a rope as a guide and this can lead to human traffic jams. Charming, I thought, and filed it away. After the 7th station, I was on my hands and knees a fuck of a lot more than my research had led me to believe. There was also a great deal more rope. That would be a smidge kinky if I wasn’t on a giant volcanic cone. From that point on, you are basically waiting in line to get to the top. Keep in mind this line is kilometers long.
So to recap, there we were, scrambling over giant rocks, in the dark, on a huge vertical mass. I think there is something to be said for climbing a good part of the way in the day time and finishing the rest early the next morning. There is something very disconcerting about climbing in the dark closely behind someone’s butt with only your headlamp to light the way and no real idea of the relative distance you have to go. It’s a real slog. It was probably after an hour or so of this that I started to call on my inner strong powerful woman. How do I do this? Well, I simply keep repeating “you are a strong powerful woman” to myself while hauling my body over the rocks and hoping that the rope doesn’t snap. I don’t know how much she helps but there is not much else you can do at 1am somewhere up Mt. Fuji.
At some point we stopped for a couple hours and paid 4000 yen to huddle atop a hard tatami bed at one of the many huts punctuating the trail. When we got up, it was starting to get light and the gravity of what we were attempting to do set in. It’s one thing to climb in the dark focusing only on the next butt in front of you and an entirely different thing to see the slanted red landscape that goes up until it is swallowed by the clouds. I guess I should interject that the sunrise was truly beautiful and it pretty much made up for the hours of hell on either side of it. Climbing Fuji you are in no way guaranteed a sunrise and I don’t even want to imagine what it would feel like to spend hours getting to the top for sunrise only to be fogged in. I’m thinking something along the lines of an epic meltdown, personally.
We should have had the good sense to turn around after watching the sunrise but we had our reputations to uphold and so we pressed on to the top…which was still a few hours away at the pace we were keeping (another thing to note: those who say this is a pretty easy hike probably didn’t climb at their unfittest). As it got light we thought we could see the top. It wasn’t. Then the fog moved in and we lost all sense of where we might be. Yes, there are sign posts telling you the elevation but those big numbers mean nothing to me. The only big numbers I deal with regularly have to do with money (can I afford this?) and walking distances so I can determine whether to wear heels.
Somewhere around the ninth station I saw a man hiking in a Bo Peep outfit and I am fairly certain it wasn’t a mirage. When I finally reached the torii gates signaling the top, I didn’t know whether to laugh or collapse. A kind man offered to take my photo and although I am grinning in it, I know that at that moment I was crying inside. From relief at getting to the top, from a small sense of accomplishment and from the knowledge that my legs still had to get me off the damn mountain in what was sure to be a hellish descent. The peak was completely fogged in the whole time we were up there, so we could have been anywhere, really. There were souvenir shops and ramen shops and lots of Japanese people. I drew my fortune at the shrine, we took some pictures near the crater and then wanted to get the fuck down.
This is merely a suggestion, but I really think the parks board needs to build a slide or some other more inefficient way of getting off the mountain. Four hours of ankle-tweaking, blister-forming hell is just not what people want to endure after seeing the main attraction. There’s not much I remember from those misty four hours, only that they felt like 24 and I was non compos mentis by the end, my vacant facial expression serving as a warning to the happy hikers we passed who were just starting out. I felt like clutching at their sleeves and telling them not to go on. Or to carry me back to the parking lot.
Near the end the trail starts to fuck with you. You are lulled into thinking you’re just about at the parking lot and then signs telling you there are a few kilometers left are followed by some uphill terrain, just to ensure you are practically crawling at the end. Yes, Mr. Fuji, I am your bitch, OK!?!?!
Having given up the pretense of conversation several hours earlier, my friend and I managed to snap the compulsory “we’re dooooone” photo and find enough words between us to buy bus tickets back to Tokyo. Despite the proverb and my swearing up and down that I would never court Mr. Fuji again, a small part of me wants to do the climb again in better shape and really make him my bitch instead of being reduced to a teary, sore mess. Even if Fuji-san and I don’t meet again, at least I can now call him Takeshi.