ON HIGHEST GROUND

SEPTEMBER 2007

#47 – FUJI-SAN

sengen shrine fuji yoshida

“What’s up man?”

“Eh?” I peered out through the fog clouding my faculties and into the bespectacled eyes of a young Japanese bloke armed with a clipboard.  A look of bemused indignation plastered across his suntanned face, framed with thick locks of wavy hair.  How dare I just wander into his hut, out of the blue – or black rather – and slump down on his doorstep at such an hour.

Fuji-san, the most famous of all the famous mountains in the realm lay deserted.  Twenty days into September.  Nearly a month after the eight week open season had officially ended, when hundreds of thousands flood its flanks.  I’d seen not a soul for six hours.  And gauging by the welcome I received on the doorstep of the hut there weren’t too many souls inside either. The sound of jovial conversation emanating  from inside though gave me heart, there were at least a few other system buckers out on the mountain.

mount fuji forest

I’d commenced the climb from Sengen Shrine in the town of Fuji-yoshida and wandered up through the oft overlooked forests cloaking the lower reaches of the mountain.  A latish start from Kittie-chan’s didn’t see me arrive in town until lunch time.  My early morning motivation had wavered as I was greeted by another glug clad Kanto day.

I dilly dallied at the shrine photographing, mingling with the small crowd of tourists, smiling at a happy looking dog, occasionally ogling a pair of lovely ladies’ lycra clad bottoms.

Beneath the gaze of one of the shrine’s stone komainu guardians, a Japanese man strode past, waggling a finger at me he bellowed in a lambasting tone, “That is not a lion!” Damn fool Gaijin in the midst, taught a lesson he was off hunting down more culturally inept victims.

“That is not a dinosaur!”  to the Korean granny staring at a dragon motif.

“That is not a bird bath!” to the Taiwanese man alongside the purification fountain.

Well, I imagined so anyway.

I needed to get a wriggle on.  1pm was fast approaching.  Wandering out a side gate and into the woods I followed the gently rising Yoshida Trail alongside a strip of blacktop.  At a tea house beside a sealed road I stopped and gobbled down a bowl of hot ramen noodles and guzzled a cold brown tea and upon departure, although over laden with two Lonely Planet guidebooks, a hiking map and a pocketful of folded pamphlets from the local tourist information office I blithely, unthinkingly wandered straight up the tarmac strip into the woods on the wrong side of the shop.

Epic brainfade.

Arriving at a sign directing me off into the woods to my right to a spot called Uma-gaeshi my lack of judgement at last dawned on me.

“What the -,” I was supposed to be arriving  at Uma-gaeshi not heading off into the woods towards it!

I pulled out a map.

“Faaaark,” I moaned.  A couple of weeks previously I would’ve howled to the heavens in fury or kicked a squirrel but by then, well beyond the torment of the Dirty Thirties and nearly through the forties to boot, I’d harnessed an inner calm which restrained me at something resembling even temperament.

“At least there was a trail here to rectify things,” I breathed a sigh laden with more relief than annoyance.

at umagaeshi

Half an hour later back on the main drag up the hill I arrived at Uma-gaeshi.  In olden times the devout, heralding from all parts left their horses here and proceeded higher up the mountain on foot.  I passed between a pair of serious looking stone monkeys and continued, through the lonely, silent woods.  I came to an abandoned shrine lying in the vicinity of the second stage of ten on the mountain.  Cloud drifted through the trees.  I sat down inside a small timber entrance way, knocked back some water and half a box of chocolate almonds.  The place was eerily quiet.  There was no sound of wildlife, humanity or even the wind.  Stone monuments reclined at odd angles within the undergrowth.  The cloud seemingly crept through the sanctuary of its own volition.  Years ago it was there the women were left behind, like the horses before them and all nags vanquished the men continued ever higher up onto holy ground.

shrine on fujifuji relics

At the fifth station I emerged simultaneously from the woods and the cloud and joined the main trail leading up from the massive car parks, from where the hordes of modern day summer pilgrims spill out of buses and cars and begin their ascent of the mountain.

Maybe one day in the distant future they’ll say in hushed tones, “This is where people left their cars in the old days before climbing further on up the mountain.”

A cloud sea, flat and becalmed stretched to the horizon.  The mountain dark, treeless and imposing rose behind me.  I left the treeline behind and followed the track up over coarse, volcanic ground bound for the Sixth Station.  Although light still prevailed it was noticeably fading by the time I arrived there.  The mountainside appeared black and featureless, rising overhead.  The place was deserted.  Lights up at the Seventh Stage were taking effect and I found a sign indicating it was nothing more than an hour’s climb above me.

cloud sea mount fuji

Darkness was closing in.  I could retreat to Five or go for Seven.

My water was gone.  There was no more time for breathers…

“Just go lad,” I willed myself onward and upwards.

Switchbacks were held in place by reinforced walls of iron bars and wire.  Enormous bundles of cable encased rock were strategically placed to stop erosion.  Concrete had been slapped on mountainside here and there like peanut butter on burnt toast.  It was all rather ugly.  But as I marched ever upward, slowly weakening and dehydrating the ugliness was overshadowed by just that: shadow.  The sun dropped below the horizon and I and Fuji-san itself were cast in an ever increasing gloom.  The lights shone above me, my only reference point in a vertical sea of blackness, beckoning me higher.  I clambered up the last twenty minutes of steepening volcanic ground in complete darkness.  My head spun.  I swilled spit as thick as glue.  Pupils dilated to the max sucking in whatever source of available light they could harness.

And then, at the end of all that exertion, as I am about to shrivel up and die like some pathetic open mouthed Japanese fish snack on his doorstep, some long haired, clipboard toting fucker says: “What’s up man?”

“Eh?”

“Clipboard up rectum it was going to be,” my mind was still firing on seven of eight cylinders even if my tongue wasn’t.

“Can I sleep here and have some dinner?”

“Sure man.”  Everything was cool.

He showed me to a spacious, empty dormitory deep inside the spotless hut.  I dumped my pack and we went back to the dining and reception area.  Other hikers were polishing off their evening meals and sitting around, red faced, laughing and chatting over beers and hot sake.

I ordered dinner and ate.  Mid feast – hamburger meat, cabbage salad, soup and rice – as the cogs in my head started to clunk back into action I noticed a solid, white haired woman with a heavy European accent at the reception, surrounded by a clutch of hut staff.  She was concerned about something.  I couldn’t make out the conversation, just heard some English laced with an accent and distressed tone.

I wondered if she was greeted with a “Yo, what’s up mama?” as she stepped inside.

Maybe not.  She seemed a little more coherent than I had been and appeared as though she could have snapped the ‘Dude’s’ neck with her bare hands if she wanted to.

I got the full story in the dormitory when she was given the futon opposite mine.

She’d been waiting in the vicinity of the hut for her son and a friend to return from the summit but now, with night having long fallen, it seemed as though her counterparts were lost out on the mountainside somewhere.  The effort to press on for the summit herself had been all too much.  She had no money or food on her and didn’t know what to do.

I gave her my half finished box of chocolate almonds.

All she could do was wait.  At least the weather was clear and calm.  It might have been chilly up there but that was better than rain, sleet and gale force winds that often lash Fuji-san’s higher reaches.

I was asleep before nine.

Around midnight a group of climbers arrived marching into the dorm like it was morning parade and I wondered, not for the first time on the trip, where the usually ever so polite Japanese had misplaced their consideration for other people sleeping around them.

I was awoken for the second time somewhere beyond midnight by a carefully sliding dormitory door and a whispered “Sumimasen.  Hello. Hello.”

A muffled voice in the dark replied.  The woman opposite slowly awoke.

“Someone is coming,” the other voice said.

The old girl hauled her stiff frame up off the futon and, grunting a little as she went, quietly slipped out into the hallway and the door slid softly shut behind her.

It was the last I saw of her.

dawn on mount fuji

A few hours and not enough sleep later I collected my pre-ordered breakfast bento of fish and rice from the hut reception.  I enquired about the lady and her group but the old chap distributing the food couldn’t understand my bad Japanese or didn’t know so I just as quickly assumed all was well and stepped outside.  The air was crisp and clear, a soft breeze blew, the Pacific horizon illuminated.

Just above the deserted, for the season, Eighth Station I called a halt to my methodical march and found a smoothish rock to sit down on and take in the sunrise.  Mists swirled in the valleys between the mountains.   Distant horsetails lining the flat horizon erupted in a blaze of ochre, the sky above transitioned from mauve to a deeper purple then, as I chewed on a piece of salted salmon, the sun appeared and lit the day.  A climber clambered up past me.  I hadn’t even noticed his approach as I took in the view.  Before long it was time to follow.

mount fuji sunrise

Fuji-san’s crater rim and the huddle of stone reinforced huts huddling around the spot where the trail emerges on to level ground is considered the Ninth Station.  Up there a  small crowd milled, soaking up the warm sunshine and I wandered past and out behind the huts for a view across the crater to the high point opposite.

Devoid of plant life and encrusted with a few stubborn patches of dirty ice, the scene wasn’t as overpowering as I’d imagined.  Maybe I was getting a bit jaded on this mountain caper.  I don’t know.  But the feeling of being on top of Fuji-san alone outweighed any emotions the views could engender.

empty fuji

“Volcanoes shmolcanoes,” I smiled and sat down in the rock and gravel and stared across at my goal, the white weather station plonked atop the summit of the mountain.

Fuji transcends its realm in the natural world, permeating the Japanese psyche like no other natural wonder in the chain.  Bulldoze the rest of the mountains and smother their footprints in concrete, drain the rivers and sell Okinawa to Korea if you must.  As long as Fuji-san is still there I don’t think the Japanese would bat an eyelid and all would still be well in the Land of the Rising Sun.

What if it reawakens?  I often wonder.  What some rising turmoil churning deep in the bowels of the Earth causes Fuji-san to blow its top?  To collapse in on itself or catastrophically blow out a flank a-la-Bandai-san?  I often wonder about this and what kind of blow it would be to the psyche of the Japanese.

fuji crater

I raced a growling, soot spewing, caterpillar tracked vehicle up to the summit weather station.  Up top I clambered over the structure and took in the views out to the Southern Alps to the west.  A rising wall of blue soon to feel the tread of my stockinged feet.  And soon after that it was time to go.  Get off the mountain a nation worships and venture onwards, knowing it was all downhill from here.

Alone on the Suna-bashiri I half flew as I ran down the sandy eastern side of the volcano, hollering all the way.  Ten hours up transformed into some three down.  Never before had I laughed and whooped with such delight on a mountain.  They say climbing Fuji-san more than once is a foolish endeavour but I’d do it again just to run down the Suna-bashiri.

this way downmount fuji sunabashiri

2 thoughts on “ON HIGHEST GROUND

  1. I too started from the shrine, and found the lower parts of the climb to be the most fascinating, with its trench-like pilgrim trails and dilapidated little shrines. Definitely a haunted place.

    God knows why, but next month I intend to climb from the Fujinomiya Shrine on the other side…

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