America Versus Mount Fuji
Humidity and concrete.
My face is melting.
In August of 2001, my two months in Japan were drawing to an end. This should have filled me with sorrow, but instead I found myself looking forward to returning to America, where I would no longer feel like the tallest woman with the largest feet in the history of the planet Earth. Sweat poured down my face in the sticky summer heat, as I thumbed through my guidebook in search of one final Japanese adventure. When my gaze fell on a photograph of the azure vista of Mount Fuji, my eyes widened. I had struck post-vacation-storytelling gold.
I peered over the book at my father. As a marathon runner, a lover of nature, and a vendor of fine life insurance policies, I knew that he was prepared for the challenge. “Dad, we should climb Mount Fuji before we leave.”
He nodded, but a shadow of doubt flickered behind his eyes. He had only been in the country for one week, and so far not all of our tourist outings had gone well. Two days before, we had boarded the wrong train, ridden into the darkest heart of nowhere, and finally slunk back to the hotel after six wasted hours, depressed and broken. Despite our qualms, we nevertheless agreed to brave Fuji.
When we arrived at the bus station the following day, I expected to see a poorly-translated yet relatively straightforward sign reading something along the lines of, Please for giving yen here and mounting bus there, enjoy your fun of Fuji climb. Instead, we were greeted by a teeming crowd. Even though Mount Fuji is a popular destination for foreign tourists, signs written only in Japanese graced the walls. At a loss, we could only huddle at the back of the room. Eventually, we were given tickets by...someone, and dismissed with a vague wave to...somewhere.
By some miracle we managed to board the correct bus. While waiting to switch buses in the town of Kawaguchi, hours later, a crowd of schoolchildren swarmed around us and snapped photographs of our stunned faces, despite the fact that we had done nothing of interest except sit on a bench and look foreign. Confused and feeling like rare circus animals, we had no choice but to acquiesce. Thankfully, we were soon rescued by the arrival of the second bus.
The rattling monstrosity crawled through the villages at a pace usually reserved for severely impaired tortoises. I trembled as I imagined the engine exploding and sending shrapnel flying into our tender flesh. When we disembarked at the mountain’s Fifth Station without any organ damage or signs of internal bleeding, I breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
Nothing compliments the awesome beauty of nature like a gift shop. When we stepped off the bus, our view of the mountain was thoughtfully blocked by a square building stuffed with postcards, walking sticks, and little drums from the movie The Karate Kid, Part II. Only through great force of will did we manage to resist the allure of such cultural treasures.
As we began our ascent, a voice cried out from the fog ahead. “Go back! Don’t do it!”
We halted. A pale, trembling foreigner and his equally pale, trembling son stumbled down the hillside. The boy mauled a slice of watermelon while the father spun their tale of woe. “Everyone said the climb would be easy.” He pointed to the fruit-eating boy. “He threw up halfway there and we had to get an oxygen tank...” His eyes widened as if wailing ghosts haunted his thoughts. “It’s really bad. Don’t do it.”
Thanking them for the shining beacon of their optimism, we continued up the path. Ahead, the trees parted. A naked slope of muscle-grinding verticality loomed over us, its peak wreathed in clouds. Our delusions of rugged heroism evaporated.
“The guidebook says that children and grandparents ‘regularly’ make it to the top,” I breathed, my head thrown back and my eyes trained on the spot where the summit might have been.
“Let’s try it,” my father managed, his face graying. “We’re already here.” Flanked by a crowd of foreigners and Japanese, we dug our boots into the earth. Dust and pumice rained down the path. For every step gained, a half step was lost as our toes slid backward on the sea of gravel. An hour passed. Familiar faces fell behind. When we reached ten thousand feet, thick mushroom gravy seemed to fill our lungs. My father waited in line at a way station to buy Hershey bars; he winced as he scanned the prices taped to the window. Stamping and shivering, we gobbled the squares of chocolate and slogged onward.
Time slowed with every step. “Only one hundred vertical meters to go,” I gasped, my lips struggling to shape the sarcastic words in the thin air.
Cramps tormented our muscles as we wrestled with the meager weight of the packs slung over our shoulders. When I summoned the presence of mind to raise my eyes from the ground, I realized that no one had crossed our path for some time. My face reddened as I imagined a crowd giggling at us from behind some camouflaged blind.
After an eternity, I glimpsed an arch spanning the path ahead. “We’re here,” I croaked, although given the dust in my throat the words probably sounded more like, “Warrgl hilr.”
My father’s only reply was a subdued grunt.
We milled over the barren moonscape that was the summit. The waning sun streamed into our eyes as we snapped photographs of desiccated rocks. While my father visited a pay toilet, I plucked one of the tourist guides from my pocket and scanned the departure schedule for the buses back to Tokyo. 3:30, 5:10, 6:20, and 8:00. I glanced at my watch, cringed.
When my father shuffled over, I explained the treacherous bus schedule. “We only have a few hours before the last bus leaves Kawaguchi. If we get stuck there we’ll miss our flight to New York tomorrow.”
Once again, my father’s only reply was a subdued grunt.
Our feet skated over pumice as we hurled ourselves down the path with reckless abandon. Snippets from my guidebook flashed through my mind: most tourists climbed Fuji to watch the sunrise. Therefore, there was no demand for evening buses back to Tokyo. We had picked the worst possible time to make the ascent. Now we risked missing our flight to the United States, a land of joy and wonder, where shoes and clothing glimpsed in shop windows might actually fit, and where most people have never heard of the fermented soybean nightmare that is natto. Soon, we spotted a fellow foreigner on the path ahead. “Is this the way to the Fifth Station?” he called. “I went the wrong way. I reached the top this afternoon, but I took the wrong trail and ended up climbing halfway down the wrong side of the mountain. I spent the last three hours backtracking.”
The man’s blunder alleviated our shame. We learned that his name was Mark, he was from California, and he was a runner like my father. I tuned out their conversation, for I sensed that a discussion of marathon times was imminent.
Darkness overtook us. As we retrieved our headlamps, we glimpsed movement on the path below. A Japanese teenager with no headlamp and clad only in a flimsy jacket struggled down the steep trail. Turning his head, he looked up at us with pleading eyes. We waved him toward us, and relief flooded his face as our headlamps pierced the deepening gloom.
The descent continued. When 7:05 PM crawled past, I was ready to hurl myself from the cliffs. That way, at least my corpse might reach the Fifth Station in time for the eight o’clock bus.
Finally, we stumbled back onto level ground. The Japanese youth thanked us and hurried into the night, perhaps unable to resist the siren song of the mugs and pencils at the gift shop.
My watch read 8:15 PM. Despite our heroic efforts, we had missed the last bus to Tokyo. Despondent, we hobbled aboard the shuttle bus bound for Kawaguchi. It was probably my imagination, but I could almost see the bus driver casting shaming looks back at us in the rear-view mirror.
When we arrived at Kawaguchi, I asked the bus driver for suggestions in halting Japanese. He replied that a taxi would come “soon.” In the meantime, all we could do was wait. Mark had booked a room at a local hotel, but for the moment he was stranded just as we were. With mournful eyes, the three of us watched the empty bus careen around a corner and vanish into the night.
Huddled in the dark, we waited. And waited. When I had finally resigned myself to spending the night on a bench, gravel crunched and two blinding lights swerved into the parking lot. I can only imagine the taxi driver’s reaction when he saw three dirt-streaked foreigners frozen like deer in his vehicle’s headlights. Most likely he heaved a grim sigh and dreamed of retirement.
My father waved money in his face while I asked in Japanese if it was enough for a ride to Tokyo. It was not, so he offered to take us to the nearest station where we could board a train bound for the capital. Mark, heart no doubt racing in panic at the thought of being abandoned in the gloomy night, asked if we could share a taxi. The driver shook his head and indicated that his hotel was in the opposite direction from the train station. I translated for Mark the driver’s assurances that a second taxi would arrive to take Mark to the hotel after we had departed.
As we drove away, I glanced back. Clutching his pack to his chest, Mark watched our taxi vanish with wide eyes. For all I know he is still there to this day, waiting for a second taxi that will never come.
The driver raced through the night. At last, we arrived at the train station. My muscles shrieked in protest as I stumbled from the taxi. My normally gregarious father followed suit. He had not spoken for some time.
The taxi driver must have taken pity on us pathetic foreigners, for what happened next was one of our more amazing experiences with customer service. The man left the taxi, hauled our packs from the trunk, held them out so that we could shrug them onto our weary shoulders, led us into the train station, helped us purchase our tickets from the machine, and then inspected them to make sure that we had selected the correct destination.
Before the cynics scoff and attribute his kindness to greed for a larger tip, know that according to my guidebook, taxi drivers in Japan are not tipped. This point was eloquently demonstrated by the man’s reaction when my father offered him all of our remaining money: two hundred yen, or about two dollars. At first I was embarrassed—if a taxi driver in America was given such a small tip for so much trouble, the tipper could expect to be, at the very least, disemboweled. Instead, this driver waved the money away with a smile. I could only gape as my father offered him the tip again, and then a third time, before the man acquiesced with a solemn bow.
The quest for Fuji was over. We boarded our flight on time the next day. When the airport personnel at JFK treated us like dirt upon our arrival, I knew that I was finally home.
In summary, climbing Mount Fuji is boring. Very boring. It is also difficult enough to hurt, but not difficult enough to brag about to one’s relatives. But despite our disappointment, the most enduring memory of the journey for my father and me is that even though the trip was fraught with peril and setbacks, neither of us flew into a rage and tried to hurl the other from the cliffs. For my family, that is quite an accomplishment.
About the Author
While science fiction is Brinna’s first love, humor is a close second. She is an avid reader of fiction of all genres and non-fiction on such topics as sociology and medicine. Her work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle and the e-zine M-Brane SF.