Thursday, November 08, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Fuji-san

Recently I have been going through some of my old notebooks, dating back some twenty years Before Blog.  Naive and poorly written as they are, some pieces deserve to be seen by more than my own single pair of eyes.  So it is, the birth of the Archives Series...

August 1995

In Kokura, my taxi driver was an idiot.  He couldn't find the ferry terminal, then later tried to take me to the Osaka-bound, then Kobe-bound boats, not convinced by my argument that I could read the damn kanji.  Thus flustered, I staked out a place on board my ship, then went outside to watch the loading of cars, and the huge earth crawlers pushing logs around the harbor area.  As we pulled out, flying fish played in the wake of our bow, and dolphins sounded nearby, their bodies glistening a funky brown and white.

Two mornings later, I rose before the sun and disembarked from my ship as it arrived in Tokyo.  It is the nature of ferries of course, to spawn automobiles in great numbers, so I stood a short ways down from the harbor and quickly caught a ride from a guy going to Yokohama for camping.  As the sun came up, the rain came down, and shortly after we crossed the Rainbow Bridge, it started to pour.  The early morning streets were mostly devoid of traffic, but there was a single jack-knifed tractor-trailor which dangled precariously from the bridge, its tires spinning in blue smoke as the driver pumped the accelerator, a puzzled expression on his face.

I quickly stowed my pack at Shinagawa, then headed up to Shinjuku to climb aboard a train jammed with hikers. I sat on my daypack amidst a forest of legs and read from Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain.  Later, I rode a smaller train filled with genki high school girls rebelliously wearing make-up.  We threaded our way through villages laid beneath mountains, their peaks obscured by clouds.     

At Fuji Yoshida, I hopped out and went to the nearest market to load up on food.  I walked up a steep hill through the town to a grove of trees and sat on the roots of one to eat my breakfast, all the while brushing away ants the size of raisins.  I passed through the forest to Sengen Jinja, the main shrine dedicated to Konohanasakuya Hime, the goddess of the mountain, a deity so jealous that in older times women were only allowed to climb the mountain once every 80 years.  Now, a bit more relaxed, the goddess listened to my prayers for a painless climb.  At ten a.m.,  I set off.

A sign said that I had 17 kilometers to the top, and I wanted to pace myself, hoping not to arrive too early, then have to wait through the frigid night for sunrise.  So I strolled along through the quiet forests until a highway pulled up on my left, escorting me up up up, past a gang of roaring motorcycles and a procession of beginner drivers on a learning excursion.  I whistled and I sang, my only concern being the corpses of snakes littering the road.  The goddess appears to hate them more than women these days.   

After an hour or so, a greater fear took hold of me, that this road I'd been moving along as not the correct route.  It's a common feeling in Japan, a place devoid of street names, location signs, or the ability to give good directions. But then a hut bore an arrow telling me that I was still on the right track.  The trail here cut sharply and for the first time in days, I was able to sample my nature without the throb of some type of engine.  The woods were quiet, devoid of visible wildlife besides mosquitos, but I relished the silence and the lack of automobile exhaust.  Here and there I'd pass other hikers, pondering the quality of their day with a "Konnichiwa?"  Eventually the trail ceased meandering and cut straight uphill through a gorge seemingly cut deep by water or lava.   I finally realized that what had done the carving was centuries of feet.  The earth at the bottom was darker than on the sides was devoid of all vegetation.  Rocks lay scattered here and there, and although none were bigger than my head, each was ample enough for sitting upon.  

Occasionally, the trail would level off and the ruins of an old shrine would appear from amidst the shrubs.  I was surprised to see these, for usually shrines are as cared for as they are revered.  But the familiar orange color was long gone, and the grey boards were about to be lost to the encroaching vines and weeds.  The kami of the forest were reclaiming what was theirs.       

Eventually, I climbed around a small bend and came upon the Fifth Station, or at least a building announcing it as such.  A young boy and girl sat cuddling off to one side and I felt somewhat obtrusive as I stood observing the valley out of which I'd just climbed.  I scrambled up a steep embankment, then followed a road to a parking lot, next to which was a small mountain hut.  This, the true Fifth Station, was the halfway point up Fuji.  Most climbers take a bus and start their climb from here, but I had wanted to climb in the true spirit of pilgrimage by following the ancient route from Sengen Jinja.  Besides, to me, climbing half a mountain is like watching half a movie.  

Sitting around a table was a gang of young guys with walkie-talkies.   The hut itself was really shabby and appeared moreso because it was set against the drab greys of the earth and sky.  The only color came from the clothes of the people criss-crossing the mountain's face on switchbacks high above.  The drabness of the landscape seemed post-apocalyptic and brought the memory of Scott Fitzgerald's Long Island landscape watched over by a pair of great eyes. From the darkness of the hut hobbled an old woman straight from Kobo Abe's Woman of the Dunes, bringing the literary references back to Asia.  I asked her if she'd refill my water bottle, and she agreed, and upon her return asked for 500 yen.  At first, I'd thought that she was joking, but then I reluctantly paid up, victim to an altitude sickness brought on by a pricing system that rose with the mountain.

Most people seemed to prefer a long system of switchbacks to my right, but on the opposite side of the hut was a narrow trail that followed the slope by going straight.  I scrambled up amidst the last vegetation I'd see on the mountain.  This eventually dropped me onto the wider switchback system, already filled with dozens of people.  The climb began to get somewhat routine, a laborious trudge over loose volvanic rock alongside hiking parties ranging between two and fifty.  Often the trail would shoot straight up over craggy rock, which was surprisingly fast and a refreshing change for the legs in using different muscles.  Every half kilometer or so was a mountain hut, each with dozens of people getting their walking sticks stamped or paying for food set at six times the usual value.  I was incredulous at the number of smokers at this altitude, but worse still was the bog of eternal stench that was the port-a-johns.  

The climb was very tedious and devoid of any flora and fauna to distract me from the screaming in my legs.  I was well inside the cloud layer now, with the temperature dropping dramatically.  In the forest below, I had hiked shirtless, yet despite the humidity, wasn't glazed with sweat.  But now, high up the mountain, my legs were beginning to cramp from the cold, and a sweater had joined the T-shirt on my torso.

At some point, I met up with some young American college students, who helped to break the monotony.  One guy was wearing a "Jesus Lizard" shirt, so I assumed these supposed neo-bohemes could fill me in on what I'd been missing on the homefront, musically speaking.  But sadly, their knowledge of music, books, and films, extended little past my own, so I suppose I'm not as out of touch as I'd thought.

During the next hour that we talked, I had slackened my pace a bit, so I decided to say farewell and speed up.  It was starting to get really cold, forcing a stop in order to zip on my pant legs.  Stepping back on the trail, I was feeling really fatigued.  I'd been going nearly six hours now -- all uphill.  The final Eighth Stage, the Hashimoto Hotel, loomed above, but each subsequent switchback seemed to take me no closer.  I was dragging myself uphill, and finally hit a steep rocky part that rose to the hotel's front.  For a minute, I considered pushing on for the final hour to the top, then descending to the mountain's base before sunset, in order to meet my friend Jordan (who'd climbed the day before) at his hostel in Numazu.  But the proper way to climb Fuji is to be at the summit for sunrise, so I wearily checked-in and sat by the fire pit.  They offered my dinner, but my tired brain didn't register that they were going to serve me at that moment, and the last thing that I wanted was to eat hot curry.  I must have picked slowly through my meal because the young woman next to me asked if I didn't like the taste.  We chatted awhile, and when I told her that I lived in Tottori prefecture, the young guy across from his said that he did too.  

The curry's spiciness triggered some reaction down below, so I excused myself and half stumbled outside to the toilet.  This outhouse was a mere hole cut through the floor and as I've already mentioned, the smell, a sweet mixture of feces and bleach, was toxic.  Between the agony of squatting on rubbery legs, the altitude, and the stench, I had to put my hands on the opposite walls to keep from pitching over.  

Once finished, I was led upstairs to the sleeping area, a long room containing only two bunk beds.  Each of the four bunks extended the length of the hut, and could sleep maybe 30 or 40 people.  There were heavy blankets, layered over the top of each other, but with the shared body heat, you hardly needed them.  I was lucky to be placed at the end, next to the wall, so I could kick out out a besocked foot, and was saved the discomfort of being wedged between two strangers.  However, the guy next to me snored and tossed enough for three.  My sleep, if any, was restless, and I too probably turned over every 15 minutes, like a pig on a spit.  Having be up since before 4:00, I was dead tired but couldn't sleep, my body still rolling with the ship I'd been on the past two nights.  Luckily, no one was allowed to smoke inside, but inevitably, some inconsiderate dolt would stand in the doorway and smoke, freezing all who slept on this end of the room.  At over 3000 meters, only shallow breathing was possible, so the cigarette smoke mixed with the smell of burning plastic somewhere beyond was agonizing.  I twice left my bunk at 7:30 and 10:30, and was amazed at the number of people moving beyond the doors.  At 2 a.m., the majority of the people left the warmth of the hut, to arrive at the top two hours before sunrise.  Let 'em freeze, I thought, as I turned over grumpily yet again.  

At 3:00, I left, my body stiff from having been prone for the last 10 1/2 hours.  I ate the remainder of my food, then joined the rest of the brainless robots on our slow march up the mountain.  (Too bad there wasn't a cliff at the top.)  It was easy to tell who had slept, for they bounded up easily.  The rest moved like centenarians, leaning too heavily on their staffs, which would slip on the shale and then hit other people in the feet or shins.  Or they'd unknowingly place them at odd angles that would trip any who tried to step past.  Worse still were the headlamps everyone seemed to be wearing, and when anyone turned their heads, all in the vicinity would be temporarily blinded.  

The lines of people moved slowly, like the longest amusement park queue in the world.  Above me, the lights zigzagged to the top.  Near the summit was a small shrine, and below this,  people stopped moving altogether.  The full moon sat behind the crest, and the clouds to the east were beginning to glow.  An Englishman standing nearby muttered irritably, "Let's move, ya fuckin' arseholes."  So I did just that, sticking to the inside of the trail, and cutting between switchbacks.  Leaving the masses behind, I reached the top, only to find it more crowded than down below.  I really should have expected this, on the Saturday night of the Obon Holiday.   (I heard later that there had been 10,000 people on the mountain that night.)  The food stalls at the top continued to gouge, gouge, gouge, and inside the shrine, three priests huddled around a tea kettle.

I weaved through the crowd to a dark building.  Stepping over a railing posted with a sign forbidding just that, I climbed up a small rise, just as the sun popped its head above the cloud line.  The crowd cheered and many bowed.  Others yelled, "Banzai!"  The reek of burnt plastic overpowered all, even the cold.  In the growing light, I realized that I was standing atop what must've been an entire summer's worth of garbage.

Realizing the cloud layer wasn't going to burn off anytime soon, I moved along the crater rim.   Finally, I limped up the incredibly steep final ascent to the true summit.  From here, I looked into Fuji's crater, reminiscent of one of Kurosawa's worst "Dreams."

At exactly 6 a.m., I started down.  The Gotemba trail began with some steep switchbacks, then after about a kilometer, a single hut appeared.  A short distance beyond was a small rise, atop which was a little silhouette of a man, standing amidst a pile of shiny metallic objects. The whole scene begs for the overused cliche of 'post-apocalyptic,' but no other word captures the mental image of this man on guard on his sentry post.  

Beyond this, the trail disappeared altogether, and so began a 5 1/2 kilometer descent straight down the side of the mountain.  This was by far the highlight of the whole thing.  I reached incredible speeds, nearing that of a car at times.  Now and then I'd literally be running completely out of control for minutes at a time, creating terrific slides as I'd skid to a stop in order to dump back ash from my shoes.  (Not all slides were as 'terrific.'  In 1980, twelve people were killed when they collectively started an entire section of the mountain to move, which subsequently buried them.)  It was awesome to run through the clouds alongside a single cord that marked the 'trail.'  Off to the side I could see other figures sprinting down through this wasteland, leaving a kilometer long dust tail in their wake.  Eventually one of these figures merged trajectories with mine, and we ran together awhile laughing with hysteria and adrenaline.  He was surprisingly, another foreigner, posted at an army base nearby, and in incredibly good shape judging from the speeds he was getting in his full pack.  Twice he dropped things, and I'd grab them as I swooped by.  When I stopped again to empty my shoes, he yelled "See you at the bottom!" and disappeared into the dust.

Near the bottom, the slope leveled somewhat and vegetation once again began to appear.  It was somewhat strange to see trees rising from black ash.  Off to my right, a river bed lay dark and dead. 
At the Fifth Station, I found that I had an hour's wait for the bus, so as I wandered over to the parking lot hoping to find my old Army buddy.  Predictably, he gave me a lift to the train station, and thirty minutes later I was on a train bound for my rendezvous with Jordan.

Arriving in Numazu two hours early, I disembarked looking like a ghost, covered as I was with dust.  Disheveled, exhausted, and undoubtedly reeking of all sorts of nastiness, I wandered around the small station of this onsen town, looking at maps and hoping to find a place where I could have a bath.  Finally, I asked a cab driver, who looked at me like I'd just come back from a jog on Saturn's rings.  So I turned and sat on a bench and opened my Stegner, feeling right at home with my homeless benchmates due to my appearance.  

And then Jordan finally arrived, beginning our journey down the Izu peninsula, on what would ultimately be a ceaseless 12-hour day of boats, trains, and buses...

On the turntable:  The Sacred Shakers, "The Sacred Shakers"
On the nighttable:  Dazai Osamu,  "Return to Tsuruga"



Zacky Chan said...

Great story.

Chris ( said...

Always good to read accounts by people who did Fuji the proper way - walking in from the station!

Edward J. Taylor said...


You're well missed here in Japan mate. Looking forward to future stories...

blaine said...

I had to give this a pass until tonight when I had some time but it was really good.

Is it bad I have no interest in climbing up Fuji?

And Chris, he lives!