Climbing Mount Fuji, out of shape and out of season
The trail glows bone white under our boots. Konohana, the Shinto spirit of sacred Fujisan, smiles on us mountaineer-wannabes in the form of a harvest moon and cloudless sky. On short notice, I’m attempting an early, out-of-season ascent of Mount Fujisan – an overnight dangan tozan, bullet climb – with two friends from Tokyo, David and Naomi. The weather forecast looks good; the crowds on the most popular — read easiest — trail should be thinner. So far, we’ve been right. With a moon like this to light our way, we have no need for headlamps. Eight thousand feet below, Mount Fuji’s triangular moonshadow turns the Aokigahara, the so-called “Forest of Suicides,” a deeper, darker shade of green. At the top waits the promise of the fabled goraiko, the so-called “honourable arrival of light:” sunrise from the summit of the highest point in Japan.
We’ve also been lucky. Even in the official climbing season of July and August, conditions on the mountain — actually an extinct volcano — can and often do take a turn for the worse. Many of the 300,000 climbers who start never make it to the top of this newly anointed World Heritage Site (inducted in 2013). Wind, cold and altitude can turn this seven-mile, 4,900-foot-gain “day trip” from Tokyo into an arduous trek. Some who get caught out never make it down.
Once the snow arrives, only experienced and well-equipped mountaineers tackle Fujisan’s exposed slopes. Tonight, though, we’re in the shoulder season. Cold, yes, and it’ll get colder as we go higher and through the night: the average low bottoms out at about 13 degrees Fahrenheit, well below sweltering, tropical Tokyo. Still, only a mercifully light wind blows, and snow and ice have yet to cover the rocks. Lights shine from some of the huts, and a few tour groups follow guides up-trail.
Early September. A few weeks after my 44th birthday. And I’m here for the wrong reason: to test myself. Middle age caught me out during overtime in a three-year overseas adventure, with no end in sight. What started as a post-graduate trip to pay student loans and kickstart a writing career has turned into a career, a marriage, a house in the suburbs: the Canadian Dream written in kanji.
But staying overseas comes at a price, best paid when young, and I’m off to a late start. Meantime, until I retire, I’ll continue to hang on in the world’s biggest, busiest city, and in a samurai culture that embraces a work-till-you-drop ethic. In Japanese, the media call it karoshi, occupational sudden death. No wonder. Long commutes, longer hours, bento-lunchbox-sized apartments, and a work-hard-play-hard ethos has trashed my active-not-athletic lifestyle, and culminated in a precipitous midlife crisis. Again, Japan has a word for it: yakudoshi, the years of calamity, which for me manifested in an acute attack of back spasms, and a week on the couch.
I worked out a daily regimen of yoga and other exercises, and slowly, slowly, began inching towards recovery, speedy as the hero in Kobayashi’s famous haiku.
Fuji no yama
(Little snail, slowly slowly climb Mount Fuji)
Being in Japan helps. Genki, “lively,” retirees head to the mountains west of town for daily hikes. On a mountain trail in remote Hokkaido, I met a pair of septuagenerians hand in hand, enjoying the view and each other’s company. I thought then, “That’s how I wanna grow old.”
The memory of that couple kept me on the yoga mat.
Now I’m on Fujisan to see whether my self-prescribed physiotherapy has done the trick, or whether it’s time to hang up the Patagonia boots and socks.
In the distance, lightning cracks a ceramic sky over Tokyo and the broad Kanto plain. The spirit of Mount Fuji makes her own weather, however, and a clear, thin sky seems to pull us higher. But for the light of the harvest moon, we’d have a canopy of stars above.
Less than a mile from the summit, however, my knees and back are aching. If anyone asks, I’m more than ready to admit I’m cold, tired, and hungry. Not that anyone does ask. My friends can see it on my face as they wait in the halo of light around one of the precarious trailside huts. A hut! I could throw down a futon among the other climbers stacked like silkworms inside. Snap sunrise pictures from the front door and meet my friends on their way down. We would return to the city and back to work Monday like nothing had happened. Then I’d settle genteely into the reclining sofa of middle age…
On the other hand, conditions will never be better to summit. Besides, if I succeed now, I never have to challenge this blasted cone of ash again. After all, as everyone knows, “He who does not climb Mount Fuji once is a fool, but he who climbs it more than once is also a fool.” But what I do or don’t do here and now will set the pace for the rest of my life. So when I reach the hut, I warm myself with a paper cup of coffee from the all-night canteen, then continue up. A glow-worm of headlamps crawls up the trail. And passes us…
Step by step, breath by breath in this airless place, I follow David and Naomi, one foot in front of the other up the steep and rocky trail. By the time we see the little white torii gate that marks the final summit approach, my pack sways drunkenly on my back and my knees have locked.
But it’s done.
We make it to the summit of Fujisan at 12,388 feet, the highest point in Japan. Guess it’s not time to hang up the Patagonia quite yet. The sunrise is spectacular.
This story first appeared in earlier editions on my Japan blog site, Big Sushi, Little Fishes
(Update: Not sure when things changed, but there is apparently now an official(?) “extended” season to climb Mount Fuji. In 2015 the Yoshida Trail, for example, the one I climbed a few years back, will remain open until September 15th. Check the government’s Council for the Promotion of the Proper Use of Mt. Fuji for dates on other trails.)
Postscript (02/18/18): I just added the play.ht Chrome extension and used it to generate the computer-synthesized audio text of this post. Whaddya think? I’ve got my own impression, but as the author it’s hard for me to be objective. Please lemme know in the comments below what you think of this digital audio performance…