Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sayonara Mt Fuji

One would be a fool never to climb Mt Fuji – but also a fool to climb it twice.
--Traditional Japanese expression

Based on this expression, I am quite a fool. This week I climbed Mt Fuji for the sixth time. It has been an annual event for me during my time in Japan. Mt Fuji is beautiful on postcards, but for climbers it is a long dusty slog. The half-way point where most climbers start is at the tree line, and above that the mountain is a volcanic wasteland. I am always reminded of pictures of Mars.

The first few times I climbed I was invited. But eventually I started organizing the trips myself. Something kept drawing me back. With around 200,000 climbers a year, Mt Fuji is not exactly the road less traveled. But for me, there is something special there. The way there is something spiritual about it, despite the crowds and the commercialism. The physical challenge. Helping each other make it through the climb. The chance of a beautiful sunrise.

And the fact that none of us belong there.

Japan can be an isolating place to live, especially as a foreigner. But despite its important place in Japanese culture, everyone is a stranger to Mt Fuji, Japanese included. All of us are focused on making it up the mountain. And despite the exertion and sometimes strained tempers, people seem more open somehow.

This week’s climb was pretty simple and straightforward. The weather was good, we had no injuries or major problems, and my physical condition is better than it has been for a while. The sunrise was beautiful. And apart from tired legs I felt fine afterwards, unlike some other times.

But more than anything, this climb felt like a goodbye to Mt Fuji. As we climbed up the popular Yoshida trail, I remembered all the people I have climbed with, people from Australia, Korea, Uzbekistan, the US, the UK, Japan, and Mexico. I remembered the deep and meaningful conversations, the arguments, the jokes. The mock swordfights with hiking sticks. And that time I decided sprinting down the mountain would be a good idea, resulting in an unexpected forwards somersault. Fortunately I walked away with injuries only to my pride.

Coming from a country whose history spans barely more than 200 years, one of the things I have always found fascinating about Japan is the length of its traditions. In the case of Mt Fuji, Japanese have been climbing it since at least the 9th century AD. And it has been a privilege to take part in it. Whatever the ups and downs of my life in Japan, I have always known that Mt Fuji was there waiting for next year.

But now, it seems likely that my time in Japan is coming to an end, and next Summer there will be one less climber. That makes me a little sad. But all good things must come to an end. Even for Fuji-loving fools.


  1. Wow! that's a really sacred experience I'm sure...Good for you, I would have to train for along time to do that. If you took pictures I'd love to see them! It's important for people who have a mental illness to have consistency in ones life and i hope where you go next you find another touchstone that moves and reaches your spirit/soul as much.
    Would love to know how you came to live in Japan and where you're a native from. And where are you off to next? Thanks for sharing your climbing experience

  2. Yes you fool! But I admire how you can conquer Mt. Fuji every year. When I climbed, I felt like someone had ripped my legs off and stuck them on my back, forced to climb on my elbows..Does this make sense? I can compare climbing Mt. Fuji to other various torchures but I digress from the real point of your blog. Even though Mt. Fuji's a bitch it's too bad you won't be going next year. I think every mountian needs a dose of the "depressed reader"...BTW I think I need to come up with some kind of nickname for you

  3. I've never climbed Fuji, but I've heard quite a bit about the commercialism you mentioned. There is a rumor going around that there is a vending machine on the summit - can you shed some light on this depressed reader? If true, it must mean someone's job is to trek up the mountain and refill the vending machine. What a job!

    Do you have any photos from the climb? I would love to see the volcanic wasteland you speak of.

    So sad to hear your time in Japan might be coming to an end. Fuji will miss you.

  4. About photos, I will post some at a later date!

    Wendy - I am from Australia, and the story of how I wound up in Japan will probably feature in future posts. You are right about Mt Fuji being a sacred experience. I'm actually not religious at all, but there is something special about climbing Fuji.

    Noodlefingers - I look forward to hearing your nickname. And yes, Mt Fuji can be somewhat tortuous. But it gets easier each time. Do it again! You know you want to.

    Soccermom - With thousands of people climbing every day, commercialism is pretty much inevitable. And it does make the climb much safer, with lodges to stay at, food and drink for sale, etc. But I am not quite sure what the old-time monks would have thought about it.

    And yes, there is a vending machine at the top of Mt Fuji.