Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Wise Man Climbs Mount Fuji Once, A Fool Climbs It Twice...

I knew a girl once who had been to Egypt six times but had never seen the pyramids! I spent two years living in Japan and not climbing Fuji would have been a similar faux pas in my books. Its something you have to do once. So as soon as I arrived and with very little Japanese I set out to climb the iconic Fuji-san. 

My trip was scheduled for late August, about a month after I’d arrived in Japan. The extreme temperature difference between my point of departure in Ireland and my arrival in Japan meant that I no longer had any sense of "cold" and couldn’t at all relate to needing to wear a jumper (sweater) or lie under a blanket. So when it was suggested to me that I would need some warm clothes for the climb I decided a crumby pair of gloves, a sweater, and an extra pair of socks would suffice.

Enthusiastic to depart
A bus brought us to stage 5 of the mountain and I tumbled out excited and optimistic. It was 4pm and raining with a mist covering most of Fuji and thus it was still possible to maintain the belief that "it wasn’t that high!" I put on my sweater and attached my dollar-store bicycle light to my head. I bought a walking pole as an indulgence and set off with what was to become one of the many people who has saved my life. The plan was to climb through the night to arrive in time to see the sunrise. This sunrise is meant to provide such clarity and wisdom that some people have climbed mount Fuji a hundred just to witness it.

The climb was something I will never forget. I set off in as an individual amongst friends, confident that I'd switch between friends and climb on my own for a bit. Gradually the singing died out and changed into checking back and forth with my partner to see that they were coping. The going was slow: there were hundreds of old-age pensioners climbing at a very slow pace ahead of us. The cold descended faster than we could climb and we had to take frequent breaks to rub hands run on the spot. Darkness encircled us, and then the rain started.

sweet bean soup is never the answer
By the time my climbing buddy and I reached the top, 9 hours later, all social boundaries had been broken and I huddled close with my partner to steal any warmth I could. After hours of freezing climbing in nothing more than a sweater and a pair of now-soaking gloves, I had concocted a myth that the top would be some kind of oasis with hot spas and all-you-could-eat soup. Unfortunately, all we found at 2 am was an open-sided large hut with rows of wooden benches. But there did seem to be soup and I hobbled forward to claim my bowl - I'd eat anything! Unfortunately luke warm sweet bean paste (adzuki) soup did not even begin to hit the spot.

I was too cold to create a distraction as my climbing buddy changed out of his trousers (in the middle of a crowded room) and into a transparent pair of rain pants he'd purchased out of damp desperation from the lady dolling out soup. It didn‘t matter by then, dignity seemed ridiculous under the circumstances. For me, there was no point in trying to protect myself from the rain on the downward trail, everything I owned was soaking wet. I considered taking it all off and going down naked!

The long and winding road
In the end there wasn't time to follow this thought through, or to experience the transcendental sunrise, as a tropical storm warning was issued about half an hour after we had finished our soup. A little old Japanese man came up to us shouting that we had to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. I'd only been in Japan a month, but I had already wised up to the fact that you do not ignore the elderly in that country. I charged down the gravelly track with my partner, falling every so often on the loose gritty red and black volcanic pumice that constituted our path. To keep each other's spirits up my philosophy-major friend explained the meaning of life to me and by the time we reached the bottom I really did feel enlightened, wiser, and proud to have survived.

My epic climb over one of Japan's three holy mountains did not yield the memories I was expecting: I thought I'd feel exhilarated by the physicality of the climb, instead I felt exhausted; I thought I'd remember the stunning rising sun, I remember the luke warm soup; I thought I'd climb on my own, I now know I wouldn't have made it without a friend to help me through. I guess there's wisdom in there somewhere. As the Japanese saying goes: a wise man climbs mount Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice. I certainly won't be going up it again.


Last eruption was in 1707. 
The summit is 3,776m (12,340 ft) high.
The Japanese style paintings we often see of Fuji are by Katsushika Hokusai. 

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