My friend Saiko and I signed up with a tour group to climb Mt. Fuji and while I was hanging out in the States visiting my friends and family, she was training for what would be a challenging, breathtaking experience. Breathtaking, as in the air gets so thin your head feels like it’s going to separate from your body in dandelion fashion while the rest of you shrivels up like a sundried tomato.
I woke up at the hour of old people and took a bus to Shinjuku. I had time to kill so I popped into Starbucks for a cookie and iced chai latte. The barista praised my Japanese and I gave her a classic Japanese “I’m not so sure about that” expression. Suddenly and desperately needing to use the restroom, I waited at the door while a girl in front of me went in. I waited. And I waited. I heard some clinking and clicking and clacking. She must be done. More noise. After an agonizing twelve minutes she finally opened the door. She had been doing her makeup. Goddamn fucking doing her makeup in the single toilet room in Starbucks while there are plenty of other places at the station with walls of mirrors and numerous toilets and sinks to do whatever the hell one wants to do with them. Oh Marshall, why didn’t you just go find one of those bathrooms? I could have, but the urgency of my body’s needs demanded that I find the nearest facility available and secure my position at it. I didn’t know Japanese Barbie would be playing dress-up for nearly a quarter of an hour in the one single room designated for shitting. Besides, I wasn’t finished with my chai and I wanted to recycle my cup before leaving.
It was time to get going. Saiko said she’d be waiting at the East exit. I walked there. Oops, she meant the West exit. I walked there. Together we walked to the bus that would take us to Fujisan where we would then submit ourselves to steep slopes and loose stones and wind and darkness.
Traffic was downright obnoxious leaving Tokyo. Our bus sat in stop-and-go traffic for nearly two hours before pulling off at a rest stop. I was feeling dizzy from all the rocking of the bus because of this, and was in disbelief that an expressway could have such awful traffic for so long with absolutely no immediate cause or reason. The rest stop was a useless experience in itself. Mobs and mobs of people – like you-can-barely-move-around-because-The-Smiths-have-reunited-and-are-playing-a-free concert mobs of people – swarmed every meter of the place. I waited in line to get a sandwich, but as I slowly neared the counter my time ran out and I had to get back to the bus. We were told we’d stop again for a proper lunch. We didn’t.
We arrived at Fuji’s fifth station and had some time to get ready for our ascent. We were told that on this particular day roughly 7,000 people were climbing. That’s a lot of people with a similarly dumb idea. Our group, along with several other groups, cheerfully marched forth to the trail to begin our journey. At this altitude the weather was mild. A slight mist teased us and cloud cover kept us from sweating our socks off. As we climbed higher and higher, our spritely march lessened to a steady and deliberate pace.
Soon we were in the clouds, our view shortened to just a few meters ahead. Soon after that we were above the clouds. The wind picked up and whipped this way and that in unpredictable bursts. The packed soil of the trail turned to gravel, then to loose gravel, then to big loose gravel, then to rocks surrounded by gravel. The gradual incline transformed as well into a steeper and steeper slope. As we rose in elevation, the temperature dropped by degrees. Climbing groups stayed together for the most part. When they would get split up by too long of a distance the front would pause for the tail to catch up. Eventually that system would break down, and the big groups would transform into two or three smaller groups.
Everyone had a buddy. We were to look out for one another, help and encourage each other, and to keep an eye out for sickness or any ailments. My head was pounding. My peripheral vision set off feelings of swirling and possible puking if I caught glimpse of the mountain or the sky. My eyes needed to stay focused on the trail ahead of me lest I wanted to feel nauseous. Was it altitude sickness? Or was it a combination of a spell of vertigo I hadn’t shaken since earlier in the week coupled with the sickness I felt from the bus or the exertion of my body that had not shifted into such a high gear in a really long time? A few times I needed to pause for a rest. A few times Saiko needed to pause. A few times I suggested she pause to rest and hydrate so that I too could pause to rest and hydrate.
The sun eventually retired for the day and headlamps took over visibility duties. I didn’t wear mine because there was enough ambient light from others’ lamps, and with frequency the motion of those lights against the darkness made my head spin and throb even more. We had passed the sixth and seventh stations. Our goal for the evening was the eighth station. There we would sleep until about 1am before continuing our ascent to the summit. While not pitch black, our environment was much darker than a typical light polluted town. Stars filled the sky, and in the moments when I mustered the will to point my head upward I would admire them. The trail, a back-and-forth zig-zag that looked like the Donkey Kong game screen from afar, was no longer speckled with colorful dots of people in overpriced hiking jackets made by their Southeast Asian neighbors. Now it was a zipper of tiny dim lights against darkness that continued upward as far as my eyes could see. A few brighter lights – beacons of hope – pulsed in the darkness. They were the stations, the rest houses and huts where weary climbers would take a rest to warm up and nourish and sleep. Saiko and I were walking along with a group different than our own by now. We knew there were a handful of members behind us still, but a large bunch of them were ahead and well out of sight. Well, everyone was out of sight really. We met up with two other couples from our group. They confirmed that it appeared the others were further ahead and had not waited for the rest of us.
Nai, one of our guides who had assigned herself to the tail (a certified guide led and another guide floated about in the middle of the group throughout the hike) eventually appeared at the next resting point. She said we had just two more stations to go before our stop for the night. We pushed on. My balance was that of a toddler’s who got a hold of a bottle of cough syrup. A few times I stumbled from dizziness, the ground around me waving back and forth like a sheet on a clothesline against a soft breeze. It pushed toward my face and pulled back away, the sound of it like the low frequencies a submarine would emit in an intense scene of a hellishly long war movie. The eighth station was in view. We were almost there. Suddenly, almost instantly as if the tape had been fast-forwarded to the next track, we were there. It was closer than it felt just moments before, and now we had arrived. Mobs of people sat outside of the guesthouse on long benches while others filled the warm and bright entranceway of the hut. People moved all around us in every direction. A cue for the bathroom snaked around the side of the building. Staff ushered people inside and directed them to their quarters. Food was being ordered and served and eaten at low tables just inside the entrance.
We were led to the shoe rack and then upstairs to a loft with rows of sleeping bags and mats some forty or so deep. Saiko and I each claimed a mat and dropped our gear. The ceiling was so low that I had to crouch down as if I were avoiding getting picked off in a game of paintball or a visit to Camden, New Jersey.
Downstairs I negotiated with the staff to create a meal I could eat. I had been joking throughout the day that I wanted ochazuke when we arrived. And wouldn’t you know, they actually had it! I had asked for rice and tea and soy sauce and said I’d make my own, and the lady behind the counter exclaimed, “Ochazuke! We have ochazuke!” They didn’t have it on their menu, which is just as well because it’s so delicious and I’d be sad if they were sold out.
As we sat there having dinner the rain came down in a fury. Another tour group was just arriving and they flooded the lobby of the guesthouse. Workers hastily but orderly pulled bags and boots from the climbers and placed them in plastic bags to get them out of the rain. Their efficiency indicated they had clearly done this before. I went to the bathroom, which was located outside behind the building. A small man stood there ringing out his shirt, his glasses fogged over with condensation from the warmth of the washroom. He stood there shivering and I wondered why he was bothering to ring out his clothes instead of just changing into dry ones. I asked if he had another shirt. He did not. So I told him to wait while I gathered my spare shirt along with a hooded windbreaker I had. I gave them to him. Then I took a shit.
By nine we were in bed and wrestling with sleep which didn’t come easy due to the hard floors and large man whose snoring vibrated through my pillow. The Japanese girl next to me was using her air canister pretty often. She and her friend chatted with Saiko and me. We discovered we share the same birthday, and I also learned that so does Bernie Sanders. She asked me if this was my first time climbing Mt. Fuji. I responded only slightly jokingly, “Yep, first and last time.”
My head was still spinning and throbbing but I was reluctant to take any medication due to the altitude and effects it might have on me. In just a few hours we would be woken up to continue on to the summit. Could I handle it? Did I really care? I felt like I could throw up at any moment. I was breathing fine but my head and inner ear were not cooperating with me. Any time I sat up or moved position my head would spin worse. I listened to the sound of rain pounding down on the roof that was just above my head; I could touch it just by reaching out my arm. “Listen,” I said, “It’s the sound of me not going outside any time soon.”
One of the guides came up to the loft and started waking people up. Saiko got up and nudged me to do the same. I didn’t budge. I was going to stay there as long as I could. My head felt like a balloon full of lead. It wouldn’t take me long to get ready, and I wasn’t interested in getting up just yet. As I lay there I listened to the sounds of our group packing up and getting dressed. Zip, zip, swoosh, shuffle, zip. Moments later the guide returned. “Wait, wait. Hold on. Listen, everybody listen. I have some bad news. We have to cancel.” I sat right up. Cancel?
At the summit there was pretty nasty weather. So much so that all the huts further up the trail were reporting it. Other groups had already canceled. It was a blanket cancellation. We were told we could continue to sleep for a few more hours. And I had no qualms with that. While I didn’t hear anyone griping, I felt pretty sure I was one of the only ones that didn’t really care that we wouldn’t be going outside at one in the morning to spend another three hours tromping up the mountain.
And so it was. At just before 5am we were again awoken, this time to see the sunrise. At this altitude we were already well above the clouds. I made my way outside with several hundred other climbers. Beams of orange light cracked through the clouds and began to gently brush the tops of them with solar magnificence. The mountain slowly came to life as it welcomed the sun’s arrival. This is why I came. I didn’t need bragging rights to say I made it to the top. I didn’t have a bucket list I was checking off. The reward was this, only 3020 meters above sea level.
Soon daylight took over the mountainside. It was unmistakably morning. Groups packed up and prepared to move on. Our group was packed and waiting at one end outside of the building. (the toilet side, as it were) One of our guides got our attention. “If I said I was going to the top, how many of you would be interested in joining me?” A few more than half of the group raised hands. I was not in that group. My heart was now set on my body’s recovery and a (hopeful) return to a normal-feeling head. It was explained that since we would be departing several hours after schedule, this final leg of the trip would have to be at a quicker pace than usual, and the descent would require a lot of running down the trail. Anyone who had trouble the night before would be excluded from joining. Knowing how I was in my current state, and knowing that the guide knew I was in that state, (she had checked me for altitude sickness at one point) I was not going to kid myself into thinking I was in any condition to push twice as hard after about three hours of sleep. And I wasn’t about to be dejected if I did raise my hand to join in.
The ascent group lined up to climb. The descent group lined up to return to oxygen. The certified guide would lead the descent. Her buddy would be the girl who packed eight liters of water (two to three liters is what’s recommended) and whose bag was half the size of her body. “We still have to move quickly,” the guide said. The descent would take nearly three hours alone. We began marching. The space between the guide and the girl (and everyone else who was behind her) widened by every step. I could barely walk at a normal gait without running into her. As this went on, the guide said we could split up but we were to remain with our partners. She said she would take the tail. The girl with the bag was holding up the line now with her bag next to her, asking for T-Rex, the third guide in our group. (That’s really his name, wouldya believe it?) She requested to swap bags with him. He agreed, if not because he was understanding then because he wanted to move things along. Saiko and I marched on, as did every other pair at its own pace. At times it was difficult to refrain from getting speed as the slope was steep enough and the ground loose enough to cause constant instability underfoot. We slid along, each step relocating our feet nearly half a meter from where we put them down before the earth settled beneath them. T-Rex joined Saiko and me and we walked together for most of the decent. This had been his fourth climb, and he said he was glad the season was over and he wouldn’t have to do this again until next year.
At the fifth station the three of us decided to get something to eat. It was only 9am but the restaurants and shops were open for business. I had a delicious pilaf and miso soup, along with a $4.00 cola in a Dixie cup full of ice. The bus had arrived so Saiko, T-Rex and I boarded to get some rest. Eventually the rest of the troops, both descending and climbing, returned to the station and boarded as well. Some were late so we departed late. I was jarred awake by the guy behind me, telling me to put my seat up. That’s not a way to make friends with me, so he was immediately at the top of my “I’m Not Having It” list.
After about an hour we stopped at a little resort: an onsen and restaurant and a farmers market and museum. I had inquired months ago about the onsen, as they are a part of many of the tours the company leads (it’s like a little bonus I suppose) since I have tattoos and they are almost exclusively prohibited. I was told in my email reply that many foreigners with tattoos attend these tours and they never have trouble. I was looking forward to the part where we’d go to an onsen. Do you see where this is going? Upon walking into the resort I read a big sign that was written in at least five languages. The English version went something like this: “Absolutely nobody with tattoos is permitted in the onsen.” I was told by a guide to just not say anything and go in. So I did. The locker room was full of naked Japanese men. My locker (number 111) was located right below a naked Japanese man’s locker, and I tried to get past him while he stood there staring at me while toweling off with his dick flapping around. Lots of them were staring at me. They weren’t having it. Knowing that the next step would be them whining to the front desk about my body ink, I gathered my towel and key and walked out and returned it to the desk. Just to be sure I asked the man there if it would be okay. Nope. Not okay.
A bunch of members of our group were waiting to check in to the onsen. Knowing several had tattoos, I informed them that they were wasting their time. A discussion began with the foreigners and our guide and some of the staff. Those offenders decided to get lunch instead. One girl, a vegan, had been struggling to get a decent meal the entire trip. I read over the restaurant menu for her and her boyfriend as best I could. There was not a single dish on the menu she could have. In fact there was not a single item I could have either. Downright annoyed, I marched out to see what other ways I could kill an hour and a half that I otherwise would have spent relaxing in steamy healing water, had I been told the truth about the place we were going. I did manage to find something to eat and then finished off my third ice cream cone of the day.
It started to rain just as the bus was leaving. Everyone boarded and we headed back to Tokyo. 60 kilometers from our destination we again sat in stop-and-go traffic. Stuck going out, stuck going in. Now I had identified one major problem with a monoculture hooked on uniformity. Everybody is doing the same fucking thing at the same fucking time. Forget traveling anywhere on a holiday; prices are through the roof because it’s the one time EVERYONE IN JAPAN IS GOING SOMEWHERE. The concept of taking any random day off seems to be beyond them, and here, on this plain weekend, everyone who was leaving at the exact same time we were were now returning at the exact same time as we were. Our scheduled arrival time was 4pm. At 3:52 I looked at my surroundings. Nothing looked remotely like Tokyo. In fact nothing looked like any town, just mountains and trees. By ten after five we finally arrived. I had band practice at six, had to pick up a bag of my bandmates’ belongings I had stowed in a locker at Shinjuku station the day before, needed to get some food, and had to walk a healthy distance to get to our practice space. Well, I made it. And four hours after that I got a bus back to my town, and showered and crawled into bed, realizing only then just how much my legs hurt.