Climbing Mount Fuji

by Steve Bragg

I dreamt that I was strapped to an uncomfortable chair while a creature from a Stephen King novel crouched nearby, playing an annoying Nintendo game.  I lurched awake as the 747 slammed into an air pocket, and realized that this was not a dream; I was strapped into a very uncomfortable coach class chair with my head jammed against the bulkhead and my nose crushed into the clammy window.  Outside, the sun was rising in a molten puddle over the Pacific.  Turning to look across the cabin, I saw that the Stephen King creature was real too -- too real, since he was playing a "Game Boy" Nintendo machine, and had apparently been doing so all night, judging from his bleary red eyes squinting from behind thick glasses.  He grunted hard and threw down the machine, while another Stephen King creature in the row behind us threw back his head and roared triumphantly like a primeval ape.  The two had linked their games with a cable for more competition; the rear player had clearly gained tribal supremacy with this victory.  The loser, still grumbling in some primitive jungle dialect, wandered off to the bathrooms while scratching his stomach.

The flight from Denver to Tokyo's Narita Airport was 12 hours long.  Having departed at 11 p.m. on July 4th, I arrived in Japan at 2 p.m. on July 5th.  Climbing Mount Fuji was the reason for this trip.  It is not a large peak, but I have wanted to climb it for years, since reading about the religious symbolism that the Japanese accord to it.

Narita is an old airport in desperate need of expansion, with only 28 gates to service a horde of incoming 747 and DC-10 aircraft.  The massive planes clustered about the gates like birds of prey, their pilots looking for the slightest edge over their competitors to rush into any available jetway and disgorge their passengers.  Our pilot was a wimp, and ordered everyone onto the tarmac.  We were instantly enveloped by a wave of hot, wet air as we stepped from the plane and walked to a waiting bus.  Most of the (English) conversation on the bus was about how cool and dry the weather was today.

We were dropped off at a door that led to a line of baggage carousels.  At the carousels, I had my first encounter with the ancient custom of bowing until one's glasses fall off.  An old gentleman assisted an equally old woman with her luggage.  When he was finished, they embarked upon a bowing competition to determine who could scrape lower without falling over.  I collected my baggage and wandered into the main lobby.

My cousin Eric was going to accompany me during this trip.  The trick was finding him.  He had faxed me instructions to travel by train to his apartment in Kashiwa, which was about an hour away from the airport.  Unfortunately, the instructions included several train changes.

Lurking in the subterranean nether world of Narita is a train station.  I hauled my baggage down there and found myself before an automated ticket machine.  It was covered with buttons that were helpfully labeled in Kanji.  Beyond the machine was a myriad of rail lines, also labeled with large green signs -- written in Kanji.

I gazed doubtfully at Eric's instructions, and wondered if it was too late to go back to San Francisco.  A young woman appeared at my elbow, asked me where I was going in flawless English, and punched the appropriate buttons on the machine.  I put the equivalent of about two dollars in coins into the machine, and received a ticket for a ten minute ride to the next station.  She then directed me to the correct train.  I thanked her profusely (actually with religious awe) and headed for the train.  Behind me, another tourist arrived, shook his head at the ticketing machine, and returned upstairs for the next flight to San Francisco.

I passed through an entrance wicket, where the ticket was punched and returned to me.  Tickets are collected at the exit wicket at the end of the trip, so it is not a good idea to lose the ticket.  I stepped into a rail car, noting that the trains waiting in the rail station were color coded to designate different rail lines.

I sat down and looked around.  I was the only non-Japanese person in the train.  Everyone studiously ignored me.  Fine.  I ignored them.  I looked in my luggage for Eric's directions so that I would know where to change trains.  The directions were missing.  I frantically went through all of my luggage and pockets.  It was gone.  I must have left it by the ticket machine.  Grabbing all of my luggage, I ran back to the ticketing area and searched.  Damn!  Now I had no way to reach Eric.

Hold on.

Reaching into a back pocket, I pulled out an airline ticket stub.  Scrawled on the back was Eric's phone number. Just before leaving the plane, I had scrawled his number on the stub as a precaution.  Phew!  I remembered that I was supposed to change trains at the next station, so I would call Eric from there and ask for directions.  I jumped back on the train, and arrived at the next station ten minutes later.

I navigated the stairs up from the train platform and located a telephone.  Phones used for local calls are colored lime green.  I inserted a 10 yen coin (about a dime), punched in Eric's number, and muttered a quick prayer.  A passerby looked startled at the sight of an American praying into a phone, and continued on his way.  Eric should be at home, since the reason he could not meet me at the airport was that he was teaching an English class at his apartment.

He answered the phone.  Yes! I wrote down the directions again and hung up. I turned to a nearby ticket machine to purchase a ticket for the next part of the journey.  The machine's instructions were, of course, written in Kanji.  No problem.  I looked around for the English-speaking translator, but there was no such person around.  You only find them in Narita Airport.  Hmm.  I walked over to a lone Japanese, and asked for help.  I did not speak Japanese and he did not speak English, but I repeated the name of the train station I needed to reach, and pointed at the ticketing machine.  With his assistance, I paid 560 yen (about $5) for a 60 minute ride to Kashiwa.  He followed me back to the train platform.  I stepped onto the wrong train, so he politely told me to switch platforms by using hand gestures.  I was beginning to feel that these people were exceptionally polite and helpful.

A group of students entered the train and sat opposite me.  One was drinking from a Diet Coke can.  As either a marketing ploy or a means of selling smaller volumes of Diet Coke per can, the diet version was more narrow than the regular size can.  I could have used that Coke.  The temperature was not excessively high, perhaps 90 degrees, but the humidity was close to 100 percent.  The average summertime humidity in Tokyo is 79 percent.  Sweat ran down my sides.  As the train pulled out of the station, a breeze wafted through the train, making the conditions more pleasant.

As the train rattled through the countryside, I was struck by the number of differences between Japan and the United States.  First, this was not what an American would call "countryside".  The land around Tokyo is a vast suburb, punctuated by sprouting office buildings and a spider-web tangle of roads.  There is no dividing line between city and suburb, so Tokyo sprawls far beyond its legal limits.

Also, since the land was subject to vast amounts of rainfall, vegetation was abundant, but was combined in an unusual way.  Hills were blanketed by pine trees and looked like an Oregon or Washington transplant, except for the pagoda roofs of Shinto shrines poking up through the vegetation.  Also, flat areas were filled with rice paddies instead of pine trees.

Another curiosity was the combination of pagoda roofs (invariably in blue lacquer) on what would otherwise be considered "normal" western-style apartment buildings.  As a further bastardization of the buildings, many sported 18-inch satellite dishes and solar panels.  Speaking impartially, these buildings looked awful. Also, the Japanese have a love affair with concrete.  Retainer walls were made of concrete, as were roads, buildings, and even telephone poles.

We pulled into the next station on the line.  I noted that the directional signs at each railway station showed the name of the current station on top, with the names of the last and next stations located below it.  Luckily, the names were written in both Kanji and English.

Upon exiting the Kashiwa train station with a horde of school children dressed in black and white uniforms, I located a phone and called Eric, who arrived a few minutes later.  I had not seen Eric for ten years, but it was easy to pick him out of the crowd.  After all, he was the only Caucasian in sight.  He shouldered one of my duffel bags, and we walked back through a maze of narrow streets to his apartment building.

Eric was in the middle of teaching an English class to Japanese housewives, and had to get back to his students.  He said that they had no expectation of using what they had learned; they simply had too much time and too little to do.  Their husbands were away working until very late.  I got the impression that the wives did not like their husbands very much.  We arrived at his apartment.  I stepped inside, into air conditioned coolness, and was confronted with a row of neatly laid-out slippers.  Eric jumped into a pair and disappeared into a small room off the living area, sliding a panel closed behind him.  I put on a pair of slippers, sat down on a small couch and looked around the apartment, listening to the chattering of Eric's students from behind the partition.

Eric's apartment was luxurious by Japanese standards, occupying perhaps 500 square feet.  Such an area would normally hold a family of five.  The main room was about ten feet on a side, and contained a couch, television, desk, and coffee table.  On the table was a copy of the Japan Times, the local English language daily newspaper.  The floor was made of blocks of woven straw called tatami mats.  Though called a mat, a tatami is actually the equivalent of a floor board, being made of a plaited rush cover on top of a straw pallet reinforced with yarn, which is sunk into the floor.  Tatami mats last for several years before requiring replacement.

Opening the door to the toilet, I was confronted with yet another pair of slippers.  A tainted pair of slippers are confined to the bathroom for life, and only leave it when they are thrown out.  The bathroom barely contained a toilet, which also had a sink built into its lid.  Even such standard amenities as a few copies of National Geographic were missing.

Next was the shower.  The walls and floor were covered with tiles.  This was necessary because the Japanese treat the room as a giant bath tub.  I stripped off my clothes, leaving them outside, and crouched down on a six inch high stool.  Sitting on something that small is akin to seeing a basketball player ride a tricycle.  Taking a hose from a wall clamp, I doused myself with tepid water and then jammed into a bathtub that was about the size of a delivery box for a television set.  Wishing for a shoehorn, I finally achieved a position with both knees jammed up against my nostrils and my arms wrapped around my feet.  The principle discovered by Archimedes asserted itself, as the water in the tub frantically evacuated in the face of my intrusion and found more comfortable quarters on the bathroom floor.  As a final insult, I began to float upwards out of the tub, rocking like a rubber duck.  I finished up and sat in the main area, reading the Japan Times.

Eric's class was finished and the women filed out, bobbing their heads at me.

Eric and I were both hungry, and went out for dinner. We stopped in front of a sushi bar.  Why not?  When in Rome, be like the Romans.  Of course, that just meant wearing a toga and partying.  Eating raw fish was an entirely different proposition.  We entered and sat at a long bar.  A conveyor belt rumbled before us, carrying a variety of especially unappetizing items, such as fish entrails, on small dishes.  Feeling bold and a little nauseous, I selected a plate of raw oysters, followed by a mound of octopus tentacles.  Grasping a pair of chopsticks,  I picked up a slab ofcoagulated oysters.  Being lubricated by a layer of fish slime, the oysters threatened to slide out of the chopsticks, so I hurriedly thrust the mess into my mouth.

Eric grinned hugely.  "Tastes good?" he asked.

I bobbed my head vigorously, trying to request a medical backup squad.  All that came out, however, was "mphmphmm!"

Eric nodded approvingly, as did the other patrons of the bar.  He slapped me on the back, forcing an unwanted swallow.  I had not counted on the oysters being laced with horseradish.  A blast of heat ripped up my right nostril like a lance, spinning one eyeball around in circles, and finally exited through one ear with a screech like a steam whistle.

After the meal was (blessedly) over, Eric gave me a tour of the city's innumerable side streets.  We passed a pachinko parlor.  This is the Japanese equivalent of a gambling casino, though only slot machines are used, where you turn a knob to play, rather than pulling a lever.

We entered a rotating restaurant located above a department store, and nursed some drinks while obtaining a 360 degree view of Kashiwa as the restaurant spun about its center.  The view was not inspiring.  Small apartment and business buildings sprouted up in the dusk, connected by miles of telephone and electrical wiring.  The tiny lights of automobiles moved below.  A rooftop "beer garden" occupied the top of a nearby building, where people drank beer in the dusk.  The only visible lake was actually a cesspool for untreated sewage.

Low clouds hung over the scene.  The rainy season starts in mid-June and lasts until mid-July, featuring an annual Noah's Ark impersonation by the entire Japanese fishing fleet, which finds its fishing preserves to be greatly extended into the Toyko suburbs.

We went back to the apartment to sleep.  Because of the time changes, I had missed an entire night's sleep.  The prospect of sleeping on a hard tatami mat was not troubling at all.  I was unconscious at once.

The next morning, Eric prepared a delightful breakfast of cold beans and rice.  Nearly every meal I ate in Japan contained varying amounts of rice and beans.  When close to Japanese people in enclosed spaces (e.g., subway cars) I could even detect a faint odor of rice and beans in the air.

We shouldered our packs, turned off the air conditioning, and walked to the train station through a light drizzle.  It was a Saturday, but there was still a sizeable mid-morning crowd of businessmen heading into Toyko.

Our train arrived in one of the huge Toyko train stations.  Trains entered on multiple levels, disgorging hordes of passengers.  Lugging our packs, we hiked up several flights of stairs to reach the ground floor.  From here, we would take a bus that would drop us off close to Fuji.  From there, another bus would take us halfway up the mountain.

Buses are not recommended for visitors, since the complicated routes fool even the locals.  The name of a bus's destination is located above its windshield.  Unfortunately, the name is only written in Kanji, so the foreigner's only hope is to know the meaning of the route number, which is also shown above the windshield.  Luckily, Eric had researched the route and purchased tickets in advance.

In the usual efficient Japanese style, the bus had a fold-down seat that straddled the aisle, so that a fifth person could travel in considerable (dis)comfort in each row.  As we drove through the countryside, small enclaves of homes broke into view through the fog, and were as quickly gone.  A few large green structures were scattered about the countryside.  They looked vaguely like aviaries, since they were covered with netting.  Eric explained that these were driving ranges for golfers.  Golf is a mania in Japan.  The problem is that land is fabulously expensive, which means that club fees are extortionate, so many people travel all the way to the United States to play golf.  In Japan, all they can afford is to practice on the driving range.

We watched the damp suburbs roll past for an hour.  There was lots to talk about, since we were catching up on a decade ofgossip.  Eric had come to Japan several years before to study Ninjutsu (yes, there is a Ninja in the family) and had set up a successful English tutoring business as well.  We had many things in common, and Eric proved to be an easy conversationalist.

We were let off at a bus terminal in the countryside, and splashed through puddles to the shelter of a general store.  Eric wandered about in search of snack food while I shrugged on a jacket and watched swirls of fog drive up into the surrounding pine-covered hills.

We boarded another bus an hour later.  This one was filled with Japanese climbers, for we were finally headed for the trailhead on Fuji.  I was concerned, because the weather was not improving.  Also, we would not be starting the climb until noon.  I prefer to be on the summit by noon, leaving the entire afternoon to escape in case of problems.  There were many huts on the peak in which we could stay for the night, but I was uncomfortable with the thought of descending through darkness.  We ambitiously planned to be down in time for the last bus of the day, which left at 6:30 p.m.

We were slowing down.  I rubbed the fog off the window and saw that we were pulling into Station Five on the peak.  We joined a large number of hikers who first walked into a souvenir store for Fuji mementos and then slogged along a wide trail through heavy fog and equally heavy scrub brush.  After a few minutes, the trail began to switch back and forth up the slope.

Mount Fuji is located in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park at 35 degrees latitude, and is 12,385 feet high.  In a straight line, Mount Fuji is 105 miles from Narita airport. No one has ever gotten there by traveling in a straight line, however, since Tokyo lies in between.  From Tokyo, it is a three hour drive to the base of Fuji.  The climbing season is from July 1 to August 25, which means that the innumerable huts on the peak are open between those dates.  If a climber can do without the safety of the huts, then the peak can be climbed at any time of the year.

Fuji can be climbed by any of six major trails.  Each trail has ten huts that provide accomodations, bottled oxygen, meals, and even cameras.  The huts are referred to as "stages," and access roads can take a climber as high as the fifth stage before any actual hiking occurs.

The peak is called a volcano, but is actually a large black sand dune.  Consequently, the trip is similar to an agonizingly prolonged step aerobics session.  The guide books suggest that the ascent will take 7-9 hours, while the descent should take 3-5 hours.  The volcano has been dormant since 1707, and is considered quite safe for climbers.  However, a number of climbers die on the peak each year during the winter months; since there is nothing to fall from, they must die from exposure.  Fuji can be a very cold place, and it attracts a great deal of snowfall.

After an hour of hiking through light mist, we broke through the clouds and into bright sunshine.  Towering cumulus clouds blanketed the landscape.  A light breeze and moderate temperatures made for perfect climbing conditions.  Above us rose the black bulk of Fuji.  Inspired by the view, we headed up the trail with new vigor. We passed a number of Americans from a local military base who had taken the day off to climb as a group.  We passed people at every turn of the trail, and walked through a half dozen who were loitering at each hut along the way.

Eric was not pleased about the crowds.

"Goddamned urban climbing," he muttered as we departed a particularly crowded hut.  I hiked around one switchback and arrived at the next hut, which was similarly packed with climbers.  I glanced down, and saw the last hut just 100 yards away.  Below that hut, there was a row of huts ascending in a straight line right up to where I stood.  A line of hikers extended between every hut.

Despite the number of people, this was proving to be an outstanding climb.  I moved at a leisurely pace while keeping up a running conversation with Eric.  Thin clouds whipped off the crater rim, which edged nearer at every step.  The air was clean and cold, and I felt good.  This was everything I wanted in a climb; good companionship, a legendary peak, and fine weather.

I walked around a corner and came face to face with a white lion. Lions are not commonly found on high peaks (or no one has lived to tell about it).  Since this one was not moving, I stepped closer and saw that it was made of marble.  Looking past the lion, I saw a long, low building filled with merchandise and surrounded by a milling throng of tourists.  The fabled summit of Fuji!  It had taken us 4 1/2 hours to reach the top.

I bought a $25 camera to replace my Nikon, whose batteries had died during the ascent.  A small camping area on the far side of the summit contained a few chilled campers in their tents (the wind was decidedly brisk on top).  Eric came up grinning.  It was his second ascent of Fuji.

The highest point appeared to be the top of a radar dome, which lay on the opposite side of the crater.  A number of buildings sprouted like warts around the rim.  Casting about for a more aesthetically pleasing high point, I found a hillock with a small wooden shrine at its summit.  Thousands of coins had been driven into its wooden posts.  I walked up to it and stood quietly at the top with a few other climbers, drinking in the towering clouds, the fresh breeze, and the clear light.  It was a fine moment.

Since we barely had time to catch our return bus (which departed in two hours), we decided to jog down a scree slope humorously identified as a descent trail. It was ideally suited to a fast descent, since the surface was so loose.  There was no snow on the trail (or anywhere besides the crater), so there was nothing to impede our progress.  We entered the mist again, which was thick enough for us to miss the turnoff leading back to Station Five.  We soon realized our mistake, but it was already too late to backtrack before our bus left.  Instead, we continued on and reached a different station.

The buses had all left from this station as well, but Eric hitched a ride with a local Japanese.  Bowing our thanks, we jumped into his car and caromed down the access road, disregarding all speed limits.  He drove us to a nearby train station, where we purchased tickets for the trip back to Kashiwa. We joined a large number of Japanese businessmen on the train.  Though it was 11 p.m. on a weekend, they easily outnumbered everyone else on the train.  An elderly gentleman across the aisle wore a cotton face mask; these are used to avoid giving one's cold to other people.  It had been a long day for everyone, for we all had a glazed look.  Eric and I sat dazedly with our packs between our legs.  The stations passed monotonously.

We eventually reached the Kashiwa station.  We dragged our gear into the apartment and barely had enough energy to haul out the futons from storage.  It had been a 17 hour day.  Sleep arrived quickly.