If there was one place I’d never expected my outwardly boring, sedentary life of languages would lead me, it was to Mount Fuji for a night I almost didn’t walk away from.
From April to August 2009 I studied at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Though it was my second time studying in Japan, the length of my first trip, only one month, had left me unable to experience much of the Japan I’d wanted to see. By the end of this second trip, however, I’d visited Hokkaido, Shikoku, and rural Kyoto Prefecture with a competitive yosakoi dance team. I’d experienced Tokyo long enough to know it was not my cup of tea, and Hiroshima long enough to feel guilty about being an American. And still it never occurred to me to visit the sacred mountain, until some of my dorm mates invited me along.
The six of us departed immediately after the university’s semester completion ceremony: Brian, the mastermind behind the trip; Michelle, his girlfriend; Kevin and Zealyn, an adorable but non-athletic couple; Miho, our Japanese friend and guide; and me, the complete mountain-climbing novice. We had little time to prepare. As early in the evening as possible I shed my yukata and biked home from the ceremony in shorts and a tanktop. The backpack I’d borrowed from a friend revealed itself to have much less room inside than appeared, and beyond the necessary toiletries and a light coat I dithered about what to pack. On Brian’s advice, I added a change of clothes, a light sweater, a two-liter bottle of Pocari Sweat sport drink, and a ziploc bag of cereal.
The idea to consult the internet for other mountain climbing essentials never crossed my mind.
My part of the journey began with Miho and a very long walk to the Hanazono train station, where we met the others and took the train to Fujinomori. This station, despite the name, was still in Kyoto, just south of Fushimi Inari. From there, a private bus drove us overnight to the mountain. Knowing it would be suicide to climb under the influence of sleep deprivation, I tried to make myself comfortable during the journey, but soon watched the dawn creep in with no idea whether I’d slept at all. With the lightening of the sky the bus turned uphill, leaving behind the little wooden houses on the outskirts of Fujinomiya City. Except for the road, there were no signs of human invasion here; only trees with trunks as dark as forest earth and leaves as green as gems, and beneath them a carpet of bright green scrub. A mist lingered all around us even as dawn passed into the fuller light of morning.
Around seven we pulled up in a broad parking lot filled with hikers, a few other buses, and a number of crewmen in orange uniforms. This was Go-goume, or the Fifth Station of ten on the way to the summit. Toward the outside of the plateau was a three-story building of the style one might expect from a Swiss mountain lodge. Beside it stood a more modern unit that boasted “green tea” and “food.” We went into the first and discovered it was a souvenir shop, but didn’t linger long. Brian, not just the leader but also the most experienced mountaineer among us, wanted to get a good lead early in the climb so that we’d have nothing to worry about later.
“It should take us seven hours to get up and about four hours to get down,” he said. “That’s what they say. Just keep in mind is that the bus leaves at eight tonight, and if we’re not on it we’re screwed.”
Though it was misty enough that we couldn’t see the trail more than fifty feet away, let alone any part of the mountain above our heads, I spent the first hour or so in perfect serenity. The trail was wide and easy, the forest silent, my friends and fellow hikers cheery. Every few minutes a traveler would come down the black trail on horseback. The trees grew horizontally from the sloping earth and bent and twisted as they reached over each other into abyss. Despite their bizarre appearance, I thought the whole scene beautiful.
After a while the trees grew scraggly, then disappeared altogether and left us in a strange wasteland. Here, the bare mountain had been carved into and was held up by thick walls of rust-colored rebar, grids of steel, and steps formed by wooden slats to keep the ground level. This path zig-zagged across the unfortunate mountain face. Underfoot we were sometimes lucky enough to have dirt strewn with pebbles, sometimes troubled by a full layer of slippery, fist-sized rocks. Oddly enough the vegetation began to return in the form of little green shrubs as we came upon the Sixth Station, where we took our first rest and waited for Kevin and Zealyn to catch up.
Though later parts of the climb were more memorable, the Sixth Station definitely had, in my opinion, the grandest view on the whole mountain. The sun came out at last, allowing me to remove my sweater and enjoy the fresh air. Sitting on a wooden bench at the very edge of the station, Michelle and I looked over the railing to see the top of a cloud just above our heads. Its bottom hung low over the trail below us, and it was then that I realized what we’d been walking through the whole time — not fog, but pure, ozone-filled clouds.
I made the mistake of expressing my discovery to Brian, who got a good laugh out of it. He and Kevin loved to mock me for being a flat-lander and a tropical freak — in other words, Floridian. Most amusing to them was the fact that my fingernails literally turn blue in anything less than seventy degree weather. In fact, I still wonder if some amount of sadism helped inspire their invitation to me for this trip.
(To be continued.)