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.