An Atavistic Ascent up Mount Fuji
Originally composed July 24th, 2016 on a Bus somewhere between Mount Fuji & Tokyo.
Reprinted here, January 2018.
When in doubt do it for the story.
Raphael & I, two young travelers, weary from a day spent traipsing around technologic Tokyo, prepare for a long night & morning to come. We would be ascending the enchantingly esoteric slopes of mount Fuji, following in the steps of our late (great) Uncle Bill who had summitted Fuji decades ago in the 1940s during his stint in Japan as a map-carrier for General MacArthur. It was his unsparing kindness, ceaseless generosity, and empathetic benevolence that had inspired not only this particular endeavor, but much of the manner in which Raphael and I had endeavored to live our very lives. Fueled on some of the finest ramen Japan had to offer, minds soothed by some refreshing green tea, and nerves loosened by a cold Kirin, our bags are packed and we mobilize for a train to Shin-Matsuda Station, the 2nd to last stop on the Japanese Rail. While the regular rail users gaze downward into their black mirrors, entering their own self-imposed universes, us two travelers trade off taking power samurai snoozes. In a little over an hour we arrive at Shin-Matsuda Station and depart the train ready for the next leg of the journey, a bus ride to Mount Fuji's Subashiri trailhead.
To our stark disbelief, we missed the last bus from Shin-Matsuda to Mt. Fuji by over an hour. Standard miscalculated jabinry. We (and by we I really mean I) didn't even think to scope the bus schedule; I just assumed that it would be running at our personal convenience and leisure. Panic begins its slow ascent up our spines. So the bus is out, which leaves us a few other options: traveling back to Tokyo with much shame at an opportunity missed,paying for an expensive cab, staying overnight in Shin-Matsuda and climbing Fuji by morning light, or taking a train back to Tokyo and calling the whole endeavor off. Just as he prepares to head home, we grab the attention of the Japanese Rail information operator and implore him to give us the good news that there is still a train back to Tokyo and/or that there is a hostel we could stay at in Shin-Matsuda. With much chagrin, he informs us that the last train of the night was about 2 minutes ago, so there was no going back to Tokyo. Our options are now down to cabbing it or staying overnight in Shin-Matsuda. Panic found its way to the forefront of our consciousness. The JR operator, sensing our disquieting distress, then informs us that the small town of Shin-Matsuda does not have any place offering overnight lodging. Well shieeeet, what to do now that we cannot postpone the climb til day? It looks like we have to bite the bullet and cab it or sleep in the train station like the climbing bums we were masquerading as. With only a few thousand Yen in our pockets, we try to haggle a cabbie for an unreasonable ¥4000 Yen ($40) and quickly get laughed off; it'll be more like ¥20,000, approximately $200. Unbridled panic trammeled to our very core like a torpedo. Did we fuck up our opportunity to climb Fuji?
We'd come this far: to Asia, to Japan, to Tokyo, to Shin-Matsuda, within reach of the Fuji trailhead an hour's car ride away. Uncle Bill's mythical footsteps had to be followed. Our destiny was inescapable: Fuji had to be summited.
Armed with the power of our iPhones, specifically Google Translate, we somehow broke through the language barrier and haggled one cabbie down to ¥18,000 Yen, paid for by the plastic (paper money be damned), for a ride to the Subashiri Trailhead--at least that was the impression we got. So we hop in the cab, unable to really communicate with the driver, our night's hero or villain, outcome pending. Half-relieved to be mobile and on the way, half-stressed at the uncertainty of the situation, we half-sleep for about half an hour. Drifting in and out of sleep, I'm startled awake by a knock on the window. It's the cab driver. We've pulled over. He opens the door and beckons me outside. Where are we? What is this gypsy magic? Are we funked? He looks at me, somewhat confused and points up to a roadside billboard:
↖ To the left: Subashiri Climbing Trail | ↑ Straight ahead: Subashiri Village.
What an absolute legend. One of those faith in humanity restored moments. The respectful, courteous, and dutiful nature of the Japanese people shines through again. This cabbie was a modern day samurai, his honor was the stuff of legend. He had us two young American travelers in his vices: we had no choice but to take a cab to Fuji and pay the price, little to no ability to communicate with him, and were asleep in his cab somewhere way outside Tokyo without having any idea where we actually were. Instead of capitalizing on our vulnerability, he showed us kindness, generosity, and respect. We must have said "arigato gozaimas" (thank you so much) at least a dozen times, fully knowing our words were incapable of adequately expressing our gratitude.
Headed in the right direction towards the climbing trail, we arrived in less than half an hour to a foggy, desolate, and deserted park station at the trailhead. Suhweeeet, the misadventure continues. It's one mind-boggling miscalculation after another. Despite this unsettling development, we were stoked. Despite the uncertainty in our minds and against undesirable odds, we had made it this far. We had overcome our lack of foresight with train schedules, bus timetables, fiscal preparedness, and a massive language barrier with the cabbie, but still made it to the trailhead.
One thing at a time though. I whip out the plastic to pay the cabbie and he charged me about ¥16,000 Yen, the metered price, less than our agreed price of ¥20,000. His generosity was uncanny; his legend continued to write its own history. After all that drama, he gave us a freakin' discount. A little less liquid now, but we'd finally made it here. The tantalizing dream of ascending Fuji was within our sights now. We hop out and look around the Park Station, locked up and closed for the night, not a soul in sight. If that wasn't enough, there was a fork in the road with no discernible signage to us and neither direction looking too inviting, lovely. However, the cabbie, this amazing human being, sensing our uncertainty, hops out too and starts looking around with us to make sure we are headed up the right trailhead and not out into the forbidden forest never to be seen again. We were clearly confused & unprepared, but we couldn't help but smile at the warmth of this human going out of his way to keep our adventure going. A few minutes into our search party, another set of headlights pulled up behind the taxi. It was another taxi and an answer to our prayers, a group of young Japanese men hiking Fuji. Our cabbie seized the opportunity and implored them to help us in Japanese. In a short minute he signaled us, sputtering something in broken English about "we follow, they know". And with that he gave us a swooping bow and exited back to his cab stage left. Once again, we spewed "arigato gozaimas" out and bowed repeatedly; without him we would never have made it to the Subashiri climbing trailhead here at Mt. Fuji's base.
As the cabbie took off, we spun around and followed the headlights & flashlights of the Japanese trekkers ahead into the darkness along the trail. Here we go. After our arduous journey here, the actual midnight moonlight ascent of Mt. Fuji. Despite our unbelievable unpreparedness & incessant jabinry we managed to bump into all these benevolently amazing humans who guided us where we needed to be. If we hadn't taken the last train we may not have met the informative JR operator who explained the dilemma we got ourselves into at Shin-Matsuda and explained our precarious predicament to the cab drivers there. Without that conversation we might have settled on a different cab driver than our stunningly generous shaman guide. If we hadn't subsequently haggled our gracious cab driver for a lift we might not have arrived at about the same time as the other climbers who showed us the right trailhead.
Our misadventure had guided us from one connector to the next, and at precisely the right moment we needed to be there. Chasing our adventure, one Raphael and I only dreamed of when Uncle Bill regaled us with his own vibrant and vivid tale climbing Mt. Fuji during the allied occupation of Japan in the 1940s, it seemed like the world conspired to help us live this esemplastic, esoteric, and extraordinary adventure.
Confidently headed in the right direction, Raphael & I started our trek with a single step upward. We walked along with the other climbers on the paved road marking the trail's beginning, but as soon as we entered the forest we changed gears to a blazing ascent and left the youthful saviors of a moment ago in the darkness and dust behind us. In the forest, we were alone, for the time being, shaded from the midnight moonlight by the dark canopy of the forest.
The forest proved to be much more eerie than anticipated. It was a bright night illuminated by a marvelous near full moon, but no light breached the barricade of the towering trees surrounding us. It was black all around, inescapable and overwhelming darkness; only the light of my headlamp & Raphael's flashlight illuminated our woodland trail. Our light beams cut through the thick fog, a fog that appeared to be emanating from the ground as if from thousands of fog machines staged like the set of a horror film. A few thousand feet in the sky, the air was brisk with a biting high-altitude chill. Frost clung to the leaves and branches of the foliage around us. And the forest was quiet. Only the sound of our breathing and the rhythmic crackle of twigs beneath our feet broke the silence. All of the sudden something fluttered its wings and swooped down, arcing directly in front of our faces. A few more steps and this mysterious airborne tormentor did it again. What the hell was it? It was too big to be a bug, but didn't look like a bird. Whooooosh. Again. The third fly-by Raphael caught it in beam of the flashlight: a fucking leather bird, a devilish bat, a Japanese bat borne solely to scare the bejesus out of us. If it wasn't eerie enough already. Raphael & I looked at each other and let out a twisted laugh as we remarked that it's like we're in a haunted forest. Mid laugh we slowly swiveled our heads towards each other, our jaws dropped and we telekinetically asked each other the same thing: is this the haunted forest, the Aokigahara "Suicide Forest"?
Fuck our fear. Fear would be entirely wasteful, a sorcerous deception that would paralyze the realization of this atavistic dream. We've made it this far already, the way is onward & upward. Our feet keep moving at a breakneck pace and lead us one step at a time, one step closer to breaking the treeline, one step closer to the summit thousands of feet above us--and allegedly about a 6 hours climb. Starting a little after one o'clock, sunrise at four forty-six, six hours to summit? Fuck our fear, challenge accepted.
Following the beams of our lights, we trekked up the woodland dirt path for about 45 minutes until, lo & behold, way-station #6 of 9 along the Subashiri Trail. We took a quick breather to gulp some water down and energize on a Cliff bar. While resting we gandered upward and finally saw our impending destiny: the moon was still shining unmistakably bright in the night sky, illuminating the steep & sloping volcano. We noticed we'd thankfully broken the tree line of the haunted forest and escaped any truly and permanently haunting ordeals. A long ways off and much higher up, twinkling in the distance, were the lights from the other way-stations along the trail, guiding us up to the summit like a lighthouse guiding a ship to port. Looking up at the lights twinkling so far away we ambitiously believe we can reach the summit for a panoramic vantage point during sunrise in a mere three hours.
Soon enough our feet get moving again, powered by a mind of their own. Instead of dirt & sticks, our feet now tread on broken volcanic rock & stone. A few hundred meters later we find a solid look-out to see what we've already put behind us. Even further away than the way station lights above us, we can see the glimmering lights of the towns at Fuji's base. Even with no sleep that night, still running on some jetlag coming from California two days prior, we are lirious--the opposite of delirious. Is that even a word? Am I delirious writing this right now?--If not, it is now. I digress, we are lirious, or perhaps delirious enough to be more sane than usual; lirious enough to take a moment to be wholly present in that moment basking in the moonbeams, howling at the moon, reveling in the madness of our evening so far from the debacle that was just getting to Fuji to the strange and sorcerous forest to the rest of our atavistic ascent upward. Our cardio was shot, breathing more labored, but our feet would simply not stop moving. Onwards they demanded. Each step now becomes more deliberate and careful. Despite the cool and frosty early morning mountain air, sweat trickled down my back. Even though we were clearly moving, those twinkling lights in the distance didn't seem to be getting any closer, almost as if we were walking on a stationary treadmill.
The sun began its slow trek up to the horizon. Light crept up on the dark canopy of night in the sky. We pocket our guiding lights and let the incandescent moonlight and incoming sunlight guide us. We didn't realize it until now, but a few hundred meters back we catapulted ourselves into the surrealist heavens up above the cloudline. Below us the clouds rolled away into the distance, stretching off to the horizon hiding all signs of light and life of the villages below, hiding away the entire existence of humanity below us, hiding away the secret reality of reality. Here we were across the world, above the clouds, climbing a volcano--the highest natural peak in Japan--after having been to the highest manmade point in Japan at the top of Tokyo's SkyTree only hours earlier. The backdrop to our current setting a beautiful sea of clouds, colored with a tinge of indigo courtesy of the fading darkness of night, but gradually painted brighter and more vibrantly warm with each passing minute, the light blue hues of the day sky and warm yellow-orange-red glow of the rising sun, in the land of the rising sun no less.
We reached the 7th way station around 4:15am. The next checkpoint, #8 was in sight. With half an hour to sunrise, we decided to book it, we wanted to get higher. We took off at a draining pace, taking turns to share the singular backpack, essentially jogging up the mountain. We miraculously arrive at way station #8 in a little over 20 minutes, with just 5 or 6 minutes to spare until sunrise. Our cardio was totally shot. So much for us summiting by sunrise. Our farcically improbably expectations had been amateurish at best, but our ambition and willpower were beyond admirable. We gasp for air between sips of water. At this point the altitude is unmistakable. The air was colder and crisper. The temperature lower and wind more biting. It was our tempo that kept us warm & sweaty more than anything else.
Although it had been a trek to this point, let alone the misadventure just to get to Fuji, everything else slipped away in this moment. We forgot the steps we climbed and the steps yet to be climbed. There was just this. Words aren't spoken and don't need to be. The sun cresting over the horizon transforming the sky into a vibrant canvas, a surreal portrait of reality, of sun, sky, clouds, moon, mountain. Of us. The cool, luminous baby blue of the morning sky, a surreal and mesmerizing skyness. The sea of indigo-blue clouds stretching off into the ocean of the sky. The puffy blood orange clouds floating above this aerial sea, painted by the sun's warm radiance. The earth, brown mountain reaching upward into the sky, towards the still moon hanging beside Fuji's summit. Wildness in our hearts, tranquility in our minds. One and oneness with the Earth. We both feel our pulse, in tune with the heartbeat of the earth, beating with each passing moment. We forgot everything else and slipped into the sheer ecstasy of the moment. That was what living felt like.
So lost in the moment, we barely recognized that cold crept up on us like a tiger to his prey, so we throw on our minimal jackets (another mark of our unpreparedness) and head inside the way-station only to be shooed out immediately. We give it the old in-out of the way-station 2-3 times before the Japanese host/vendor shouts at us, "Guests onery!" Back outside it is, where we buy an overpriced cup of Ramen noodles and sit down on a bench facing the morning sun, warming our hands and bellies on not-so-cheap cheap noodles. Lost for words, we both sit eating eagerly and contemplating the cosmic apotheosis of this moment, of the profound clarity and consciousness to the present.
Our bodies nourished by the cheap & remarkably delicious noodles, our spirits rejuvenated by the beauty of the new day, our legs got firing again ready to climb the last 1500 or so meters. Looking up, just hanging above the peak, we could see the luminous moon in the final stage of its disappearing act. Below the moon along the trail's higher altitudes, we spied the bright colored jackets of other trekkers headed upward as well as the more distant colored dots of others descending from the summit after an uncanny sunrise.
The altitude wore on us. Each step became burdensome, strenuous, a mini journey within the frame of the larger journey. Concentration switched from conversation to each labored breath and each labored step. Our breathing and brainwaves heavied. Yet up through the altitude we continued. I want to say 40 minutes later (but not exactly sure)--it was a time-warped blur--we arrived at the Fuji-San Trail Hotel a.k.a. way station #8.5. Here our trail converged with the more popular Yoshida trailhead. This was where trail traffic bottlenecked as the snaking singular path created a slow-moving single-file ascent, each step of the way up it seemed there was another trekker waiting for the congo line of motion to snake its way down to them. Slowed by traffic--like we were we embraced the crisp (near summit) air and high mountain winds 10,000 feet up in the sky with delight. Compared to our pre-sunrise pace, we were moving at a sloth-like pace determined by the masses. It was like we went from driving on the Autobahn to driving in downtown LA during rush hour. Tone.
Although we were moving at a snail's pace up, it helped the adjustment to the altitude. Every few dozen steps we stopped for a hot sec to catch our breath and grab some water. Despite the lack of real layers and cool temperature, I was swimming in my own sweat. The sun was beating down, but I wasn't sweaty because of that flaming star shining in the sky. I was sweaty because of the work--legs toasted climbing the volcanic rock, sweaty because of the pack clinging to my back, and sweaty because well, that's just the genetic code I was gifted at birth.
We passed the last way station (#9) passing beneath a wooden Japanese archway. Up above we could make out a tiny white flag with a red circle fluttering in the wind--the summit. Our bodies were absolutely ravaged, but our legs commanded that we keep trudging, zig-zagging up the steep volcanic slope like a drunk zigzagging a sobriety test. Sometimes we seemed to be walking sideways aimlessly, yet somehow we got closer and closer. In single-file, we marched on, step after step, one step at a time. One step became ten, ten steps turned into a hundred steps, a hundred steps turned into a thousand. Wouldn't you know it, just a few more and that would be it.
Now we've done it! It was an overwhelmingly hectic journey getting to this point of proud tranquility, but we had done it. The journey of steps, the upward climb led to this moment, to us standing beneath the Japanese flag blowing high & proud in the wind atop Mount Fuji's summit.
We walked through the chaotic commercialized summit center dazed by the spectacle of souvenirs, trinkets, mementos, gifts, postcards, food, & drinks. Buy, buy, buy. "It tastes better up here!" Even here, in the Orient, atop Mount Fuji, we were unable to escape the global grasp of American capitalism. I was frustrated that a person's initial encounter with the summit would be this land-raped area catering to Western consumerism, but understood that these people were simply trying to make a living. It was pure hypocrisy I know (because I bought some postcards), but come on, half the knick-knacks up there were souvenirs you'd find just as easily at an airport. I digress, we wandered around dazed by the spectacle (and probably the altitude to some extent) before making our way over to an expansive vantage point of the reality we'd left behind 12, 388 feet below.
Looking down we saw the far off green of the Nagayama, Toyatsuka, Kamatikatsuka, and Aokigahara forests; the shimmering reflection of Kawaguchiko Lake on the valley floor; the fluffy sea of clouds stretching off into the horizon; the bewitching blue and beautiful sky; and the psionic sun higher than all else, shining down oh so radiantly. It was all so surreal, an utterly paradisiacal moment of sheer ecstasy. All morning had been a narcotizing dream and we'd just gone down the rabbit hole another level, incepting ourselves with mesmerizing doses of dopamine and dopeness. This was as good a time as ever to crack open a cold one for the boys, to crack open the tow beers we'd carried all the way from Tokyo up to the summit. A most opportune time to indulge, hedonism at it's finest. Kanpai! We just fucking summited Mount Fuji!
A long ways up and a long ways from home, I felt high, in more ways than one. I felt alive. There weren't a lot of words circulating through my brain at the time but, like sunrise hours earlier, words weren't necessary in this brilliantly magnetic moment. I was drinking a beer on Fuji's summit--made cold by the high-altitude air--to celebrate not only our summit, but the memory of the man, the myth, the legend, Uncle Bill, whose atavistic ascent of Fuji about 70 years earlier had inspired our own atavistic adventure. It was his impossibly cheerful spirit, eccentric problem-solving in the face of adversity, and boundless creativity that had guided our journey to this point. He couldn't know it, or maybe he could wherever he was now, up in the celestial heavens, that he had inspired this whole atavistic adventure. And here Raphael and I were, perhaps where he'd sat over half a century ago, with our heads in the clouds. It wasn't just my head in the clouds though. I was in the clouds too.