Climbing Mt. Fuji

The past five days have been quite eventful: I have climbed two mountains and interviewed Bobby Valentine and two former Major Leaguers, apart from my normal activities. As my time in Japan winds down, expect more e-mails packed with stories like these. I should note that the second of the two mountains was Mount Fuji, as some of you know. The account of that climb will occupy most of this post.

On Wednesday, Conor and I climbed Mount Takao, a sacred mountain rising 599 meters above sea level, technically within metropolitan Tokyo. It was less than an hour’s train ride from Shinjuku Station, astounding considering the presence of plant and animal life and the silence. I probably felt more at ease on the mountain than at any time since I arrived in Japan. We started climbing around 3:30pm, at the tail end of a 90+ degree afternoon. As such, by day’s end my t-shirt was as soaked as if I had gone swimming in it. The road to the top was dotted with Buddhist and Shinto statues, and the view of Tokyo from the mountain was quite impressive. There were a handful of other climbers, but it was more or less silent but for our own conversation and the occasional bird call. Even better was the trip back down the mountain. We took the long road down, through a heavily forested side of Takao-san (note: the proper names of mountains are followed by “san”). By the time of our descent the sun was setting, so the forest was bathed in the fading light of the setting sun. No one else was on this trail, and it was mind boggling to think that such serenity could exist so close to the giant mass of sensory overload that is Tokyo.

The following day, Thursday, I went to Chiba Marine Stadium in mid-afternoon for my scheduled interview with Bobby Valentine. His interpreter, Shun, met at the front gate and brought me to the field. I watched batting practice and milled about with members of the press, who were waiting for Valentine’s daily press conference. The conference began around 3pm. His facial expressions as he fielded questions were priceless, as were his responses to questions. While it was too windy to hear the questions asked by reporters or Shun’s translations, I could hear Valentine’s answers, which were heavily laden with sarcasm. (I have to imagine that the sarcasm was not translated into Japanese.) His responses included such gems as “The team with the most wins is at the top of the standings” and “I hope to win as many games as possible in the second half.” I waited another 45 minutes after the conference to talk to him, interviewing former NY Mets Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco while waiting. Agbayani spoke effusively of his appreciation of Japanese fans, while Franco spoke highly of the Japanese level of play. At about 4pm I spoke to Bobby one-on-one in the Marines dugout. I should have asked one of the photographers who snapped pictures of us talking for a picture (photographers followed Valentine everyone he went on the field). He gave me a cool reception at first, his responses curt. Admittedly, he was not the ideal source to shed light on the more abstract question of the significance of baseball to the Japanese people: he is a manager, and the focus of his thoughts is winning (as Agbayani told me). As the interview progressed, however, he warmed to me and spoke greater depth. Regardless of the utility of the interview for my article, I was glad to talk to have the opportunity to talk with him. I think it was useful to have a professional’s perspective of the game, if only to remind myself that it is just a game, that my abstractions are several levels removed from the reality on the field.

The next step on my quest is a game between the Japanese and Cuban national teams on Tuesday.

And now, at last, I come to Mount Fuji.

Climbing Fuji was an item on my list of things to do in Japan, but I had never given much thought to what it would entail. In my mind it was “Fuji,” the mountain present in so many Ukiyo-e prints and as emblematic of Japan as cherry blossoms and “Hello Kitty.”

I will never think of it that way again.

Conor and I began discussing a Fuji climb several weeks ago, but our plans were vague. We figured that since we would not be able to leave until late Friday afternoon, after classes finished, we would not have enough time to start at the base and still make it to the summit in time for sunrise. Thus we planned to take a bus to the fifth stage, halfway up, and hike to the top from there, as most people do. This would have given us plenty of time to reach the summit before dawn.

Unfortunately we did not consult a bus schedule to see when the last bus to the fifth stage departed. We found out just after arriving in Kawaguchiko, a gateway town to Fuji, that they stop running just after eight o’clock, meaning that the last bus left just as we disembarked at Kawaguchiko Station. Having no back-up plan, we plotted our next move. Not wanting to spend the entire weekend out of town, as waiting until the next day would entail, we floundered about the station until some amused taxi drivers offered their help. They pointed out that we could take a cab to a site at the foot of the mountain, from which it would take nine hours to reach the summit, by their estimate. While it would not get us there by dawn, it was better than hanging out Kawaguchiko for the night.

Little did we know what awaited us at the end of the cab ride.

We expected some sort of send-off area at the foot of the mountain, where climbers could buy food, water, and other essentials. Oh, how wrong we were. The cab dropped us off in an unlit field near a site marking the entrance to the sacred grounds of Fuji. No lights. No vendors. No other climbers. As we left the cab, we wondered whether we made the right decision to ascend at night, an impression confirmed by the “Ki wo tsukete” [Be careful] that were the driver’s solemn parting words.

So there we were, in a pitch-dark field, without a map and unclear where the trail even began. We had nothing but a tiny flashlight clearly not designed for mountain-climbing whose battery life we expected to be short-lived, several bottles of water and Pocari Sweat [a Gatorade-like drink] that we wisely purchased at a convenience store near campus, and backpacks full of warm clothing to don when we reached higher altitudes. At about this time, as we made our final preparations to climb in the darkness, my adrenal gland kicked into overdrive. Why exactly are we going through with this? Will we make it to the top, or back down, for that matter? Will find people along the way? Will we manage to eat at some point? (Neither of us had eaten dinner, expecting to find something at the fifth stage. The only food we had was a block, literally, of something called Calorie Mate, similar I suppose to Power bars.) And yet despite these concerns, we went ahead.

Before I continue, I want to provide some basic facts about Mount Fuji so to give a sense of what exactly we were getting into (from The Mount Fuji homepage):

The highest mountain in Japan, Mt.Fuji is 3776-meter high. Mt.Fuji, which had been a sacred mountain, appeared the present form about 10,000 years ago. More than 200,000 people climb to the top of Mt.Fuji in a year. 30% of them is foreigners. Now, Mt.Fuji is a mountain which the people from the world can be friendly.

3775.63m above sea level
Consists mainly of basaltic lava(about 50% silicon dioxide)
Mountaintop temperature: -18°to +8°C (monthly average)
atmospheric pressure 630 to 650 mb

History of Mt.Fuji
Tens of millions of years ago, when the archipelago of Japan was separated from the continent, Fossa Magna was formed. After that,Mikasa Sanchi was formed. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Komitake is formed by volcanic eruption. Tens of thousands of years ago, Kofuji volcano repeated eruption,covering Komitake volcano. Ten and few thousands of years ago, Shinfuji volcano was active for along time,until the recent form Mt.Fuji appeared. Since recorded history, ten and few times of eruption was repeated to create form of Mt.Fuji now. Most recent record of eruption is that of HoeiZan in 1707.

* * * * * * * *

At 9pm we began, our puny flashlight illuminating the trail. We were moving through the thick forest that covers the lower half of the mountain, and thus could see neither moon nor stars. We frequently came to clearings that appeared to be forks in the trail, but we always managed to find our way. We expected to find way stations at the stages we passed, but found nothing but abandoned shacks designated “Station such-and-such.” Nor did we find other people along the trail. It was just us and the mountain.

It was the fifth stage, at a clearing in front of an abandoned building labeled “Fifth Station” [we later found that the fifth station from which most climbers depart is on a different trail] that we had out first sign indicating that we had made the right decision to climb. Prior to this stage we had noticed the forest thinning, with patches of sky visible between the trees. At this clearing, however, we were treated to a sky filled with more stars than I have ever seen in my life, including the skies over the Rocky Mountains, with the Milky Way (in Japanese, Tennogawa, or “river of heaven”) clearly visible. Never before I had seen the Milky Way spread out across the sky, indeed looking like a river of heaven. It was a moment to give one pause, and I stood there for several minutes sweaty, muscles aching, and very happy to be alive.

We continued on, finally encountering civilization at the sixth stage. We reached the sixth station at 11pm, two hours into our climb, and found that it was manned and provided food for climbers. We rested for a half-hour, having perhaps the most satisfying bowl of udon noodles I have ever had. We also purchased walking sticks, the definite Fuji souvenir, which is branded with stamps whenever one reaches a way station on the way up. Comforted by finding other people on the mountain, we moved on. The flashlight died not long after we renewed our climb, but by then we had cleared the treeline and thus climbed by moonlight. The trail became much steeper and rockier at this point. The real climb had begun.

We were no longer alone on the trail at this point, as it was filled with climbers who started at higher stages, all of us trying to reach the summit by dawn.

At the risk of sounding cliche, there is nothing that clears one’s perspective better than climbing a mountain, particularly one as daunting as Fuji-san. I had come to the mountain annoyed about a presentation for Japanese class that had gone less-than-splendidly, and preoccupied by dozens of other concerns. The fears that accompanied the start of the climb quickly drove these from the forefront of my thoughts, but as we climbed Conor and I still discussed current events and other topics. As we reached the higher stages, however, conversation ceased but for the occasional Lord of the Rings reference (we were, after all, two guys climbing a volcano). Everything that constituted my life suddenly seemed less important than the next breath, the next step, the next station, the summit. Is this a cliched sentiment? Of course. But it was exactly as I felt as we moved closer to the top. It was my will versus the mountain, and, more importantly, my will versus myself. The struggle was as much a struggle to overcome the resistance of my legs, which made it very clear that they wanted me to stop, and the resistance of my mind, which kept telling me that I was doing a very stupid thing, as it was a struggle against the 4,000 meters of rock that are Mount Fuji. I am proud to say that my will won, that we did not stop for the night at a way station. Did it hurt? Yes, to which the soreness of my legs and the cuts on my hands (from using my hands to break my falls on the sharp volcanic rocks that constitute the climbing surface) attest. But I am better for it.

And so we climbed, stopping briefly at way stations for water, breath, and at one point to buy flags to hang from our walking sticks (a nice touch, I thought). Every stage offered a view of the world below better than the one previous. We reached the final station before the summit at 4am, a half-hour before sunrise and an hour from the peak. We were within view of the torii gate that marks the summit when dawn broke, so while we did not make it all the way to the top for sunrise, we were as close as possible without being on the summit, no mean feat considering that we reached the summit more than an hour before expected. After pausing to admire the dawn, we continued on, stumbling through the torii at 4:45am. In less than eight hours we had scaled the entire mountain. After having a small snack and getting the final stamps branded on our walking sticks we found room to nap in a hut at the summit, trying to keep as warm as possible on the windswept summit.

We began our descent at 9:15am, along a winding trail even rockier than the ascending road. Legs sore, it was perhaps more difficult than the hike up the mountain. We finally reached stage 5 [the one we planned to start from] at 12:15pm and took a bus back to Kawaguchiko. Several hours later we boarded a bus back to Shinjuku, and, after an American-sized steak dinner, parted ways.

I know that I will resume my normal ways, caught up in the ebb and flow of public affairs and the things I must do, but I hope I will always retain that “next step, next station” perspective somewhere within me. I know I will never forget standing near the summit of Mount Fuji after climbing for eight hours, watching the sun rise of the clouds arrayed around the mountain, aware that for all the apparent insanity of our hastily prepared ascent, it was the wisest thing I have ever done.

P.S. I have already updated pictures from the climb to my photo page.

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