Japan’s geography is seventy percent mountainous, but only one peak captures the imagination like Everest, Kilimanjaro, or Denali could. Mt. Fuji looms behind Tokyo, a location that makes it as inseparable from the Japanese identity as cherry blossoms and sushi. But for many Japanese, its mere presence doesn’t compel them to climb it.
“It’s not going anywhere. I’ll climb it someday,” My host family mumbled these sentiments to me over dinner every time I jawed about how I was going to climb Fuji, “Even if I have to do it all by myself!” Their blasé attitude confounded me, but did not deter me.
It was Monday, September 8th and only one weekend remained before the mountain trails were closed up. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday anxiously rolled by. It appeared that I would have to follow through with my threat to solo Fuji. I was seconds from buying a bus ticket to the foothills of Fuji when my host father, “Papa” as I knew him, stopped me.
“Let’s climb it together,” he said excitedly. Behind him, my 17-year-old host brother Shotaro nodded in agreement and that night we furiously sorted out all the logistics. Papa and Shotaro were self-described novices and balked at the proposed amount of water and snacks. But having been underfed and dehydrated on a hard trail before, I demanded three litres of water per person and a Smaug-like hillock of hearty snacks. They wanted carbonated drinks and shrimp chips, yet conceded that good ol’ H2O and Calorie Mates (which are nutritionally balanced yet chalky Japanese snacks) would actually get us through the day and up the mountain. Friday we bought our meal-plan, packed our packs, and prepared for the challenge to come.
Like most mountaineering tales, our day began before the dawn: a 4:30 alarm clock roused us for the long drive to the base of the mountain. From there, a bus shuttled us to Subaru station 5, the main starting point. It was a veritable city of tourist offices, restaurants, and gear shops, not unlike the city of Nagoya that we had just left. I heard naturalist John Muir’s words in my head, “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity,” and wondered if he could have imagined a mountain being so over-civilized. But the structures melted away as we waded through the crowds towards the trailhead.
We hiked along the legendary trail up the side of Fuji, though we were not alone. Though in nature, we were never out of eyesight of other climbers. I felt anxious about the lack of isolation; I had a feeling of claustrophobia on an open mountainside. I also felt responsible for giving Papa and Shotaro the experience of nature that I loved so much. But they seemed more concerned with their cardiovascular systems than whether the nature experience was ours alone. We trudged on, the weather chilled, and a classic Mt. Fuji mist rolled in over the mountain as we climbed higher and higher. Ten mountain stations lead the way from the foothills of Fuji to the top; since starting at Subaru 5, each station we passed meant fewer and fewer people on the trail. Finally it felt like we were hiking in nature.
Growing up in Oregon, with seemly endless and empty wilderness to explore, I developed this idea that nature was distinct and separate from humanity. To be in nature was to be alone in nature, to see nature with as little human influence as possible. Only lonely trails and empty valleys could give me the sense of naturalness I sought. Albert Einstein, a certifiably wise man, once advised folks to “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I, not as wise a man, had always associated aloneness-in-nature with depth-into-nature, so the increasingly unpopulated trail was a welcome experience.
The closer we approached the top of the mountain, the closer the fog came in and the colder and emptier our trail became. It’s popular to spend the night in a mountain hut next to one of the stations up the mountain and tackle the summit at sunrise, so most folks were probably resting there as we approached the peak, but we were on a warpath to conquer the mountain in one swift day. Our excitement grew and grew as we noticed Tori (gates leading to a shinto shrine) and shine markers along the sides of the trail, a sign that the top was fast approaching.
The final ascent to the summit of Fuji are the stone steps leading up to Kuzushi-jinja, a shinto shrine ruggedly perched atop the mountain. This ancient pathway crept out of the mist as we approached, so discreetly that we hardly noticed. Only when I almost tripped on one did Papa comment that the shrine was near. We made our final slog up to the top, and as we climbed those final steps, we stepped through the Tori and into the body of the open-air shrine.
There I saw a silent huddled mass of people writing little prayers on wish-papers or taking pictures. Our comfortable loneliness was shattered, and I felt deflated. Up until this point in my life, the pinnacle of outdoor adventures and memories were populated by the most unpopulated vistas and scenes. Shotaro and Papa were relieved, brimming with excitement that they made a pilgrimage that they had always counted on making, but never planned to.
Just as we were catching our breath and preparing to explore the rest of the expansive mountaintop, the weather shifted oh so gently. The shrine before us brightened delicately, as if the floodlights on a theater stage were slowly turning on. One-by-one, people noticed this subtle change, and one-by-one we began to turn around to face out from the mountain, looking over the squatting sea of mist stretching out before us. This mist, pea-soup in consistency, stirred. The pea-soup became stew, then chicken noodle, then a light pork broth, before finally and completely dissipating.
In the Fall, Fuji is notorious for being shrouded in mist; it adds to the mystique of the mountain. The morning sun usually burns off the mist for a scant half hour, only for it to be engulfed once again until the next sunrise. But here we stood, 16:00, the sun climbing down the sky, and the Tokyo valley spread out beneath us. We could see down the rocky mountain we had all ascended, through the dense green of Aokigahara, the suicide forest, crouched in the foothills, onto the sharp grey metropolis that is Tokyo, the most populous city on the planet, finally onto the glittering steel-blue-grey of the Pacific ocean beyond. It was a spectacle you can only see from the top of certain mountains, mountains that rise far above their surrounding sisters and brothers. But for that short moment, we all shared that mountain view. At first the scene was frozen in time, just as we were frozen with awe. Then, as the picture on the landscape began to thaw and move with its own irrepressible, inexhaustible life, the heavens exhaled, returning the mist it had sucked up into their lungs just moments before.
I turned around to face my family. The shrine was once again cold stone grey, regal and determined, so unlike the tinged-gold structure it was mere moments ago. I looked at Shotaro, scouring my brain for words to capture my feelings, either in English or Japanese. He had the same look of searching; I turned to Papa: same story on his face. I began looking at the faces around me, the faces of people I’d never met and would never see again, and saw that same awe.
One by one, as we each broke the spell of silence and resumed our journeys around and across and down the mountain, we sealed some of that moment in our souls. The Kuzushi-jinja is a shinto shrine, dedicated to the folk religion of Japan. Shinto extols the connection of people and nature. In shinto, nature is not the absence of people, because people are simply another aspect of nature, born of it, indiscrete.
After absorbing our fill of the grandeur of the top of Fuji, we trudged down the return trail. Sun falling and sunlight failing, our muscles aching, my brain whirled. That asian philosophy of humanity in unity with nature percolated into my psyche. I didn’t mind the company along the trail so much; their presence didn’t dilute the beauty of the mountain. Instead, their presence enhanced it. We, as humans, completed the natural vista. And more than that, I realized how selfish my discomfort with the crowds had been: if I really enjoyed nature and loved what it had to offer, I should not covet it as if it were some secret thing. These thoughts occupied me during the four hours we step-slid down the gravelly side of the mountain.
That night, as I lay on a futon in a hut on the side of the greatest mountain in Japanese culture, I reflected. Papa and Shotaro seemed bursting with pride, excitement, enthusiasm. Mt. Fuji didn’t go anywhere, but they chose to climb it “today” rather than “some day.” I was reminded of how much nature can improve a life, even if it’s simply a hike up a mountain. I was reminded that people don’t need to delve into the uninhabited wilderness to experience nature. I was reminded that going into the outdoors is about loving nature, not scorning other people. My final fleeting, sleeping thoughts were capitulated in that famous poet William Wordsworth’s words. “Come forth into the light things, let nature be your teacher.” If you are willing to give it a chance, nature can, and will, teach.
Doug Bender is a senior who spends his time here with the program. He is an Outdoor Leadership Minor and spends his time exploring languages both here and abroad with German and Japanese emphasis.