Have you ever been on the dark side of the mountain?
As the sun falls into far side clouds and the shadows climb across your body. Temperatures dropping rapidly. Having no food, little water, and so much left of the mountain to go. When we realize we’re running out of time.
Mount Fuji tends to take on a mythic, shifting identity. It’s an icon the way no other natural wonder is, living on through paintings, haikus, and souvenir t-shirts. It is Japan, yet few tourists or locals get much chance to see it. They say on a perfectly clear day, you can catch it from Tokyo, but every time I’ve gone up the observatory, it remains hidden just past the horizon. In November, taking a bus across central Japan, I spent all day looking out my window, but the heavy clouds hung close to the ground, and at best I saw a base of something great and black—“is that it? Is that what I’ve been looking for this whole time?”
It made perfect sense to me that this would be the last real thing I do in Japan—damnit, it was almost too symbolic not to do it. It might have taken me 12 months to finally see Mount Fuji, but now I was gonna one-up it: see from Mount Fuji; take in the land of the rising sun one last time as the sun rises on it. I would get to live in one final ukiyo-e picture as I took in Japan’s greatest art piece. There’d be a hike. There’d be a lodge to rest in. There’d be my perfect profile picture.
It didn’t work out that way. I mean, of course it didn’t.
It’s anything but a leisurely climb. You set out not to enjoy, but to conquer. Everyone else we passed came with military boots, emergency flashlights, goggles, oxygen tanks, and walking sticks. And then here was my friend Peter and I with our hoodies.
We probably shouldn’t have been allowed up the mountain together. Peter is probably a little too like me for our own good. A fellow fledgling writer with a taste for the unconventional, he’s just as ready as me to jump into things without planning. Where I do all-nighters caught between the darkened back alleys of megacities, he’s just as ready to sleep in the fields as long as he’s got the starfield for a cinema.
And so, when we reunite in a crowded Shinjuku bus terminal one morning, neither having brought supplies or backup plans, well, you know how this one will go.
Breaking above the clouds and piercing the atmosphere, Fuji doesn’t follow the normal rules of its landscape. When we left Tokyo it was 33 degrees and sunny, and yet arriving at the fifth station, where the bus ends and the climb begins, dropped us down to 12. Living on the line of perpetual mist, little log houses sell souvenirs and triple-priced supplies while plush humanized Fuji mascots wave robotic hands. We’d gone from August to December. And the further up you go, the more you move into the land of always-winter.
Without food, without raincoats. After at least having the sense to stock up on water and putting some food in our belly, we set out. Our plan? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other until we have to stop.
And for the first three to four hours, this plan works extremely well. Once past the mist, it’s blue skies and enough space between the fellow hikers to keep a pace we both enjoy. Fuji, with its black and red rocks broken only by the rest houses along the way, isn’t exactly scenic, but the higher we climbed, the more the landscape below opened up. The valleys between the clouds. Glittering lakes. The gray edges of Tokyo. Farther up, great funnel clouds twisted into the sky.
And we could sit on an outcropping and feel light and free—the colors were deeper, especially the red of the mountain and the different shades of blue as they touched down on the northern edge of the horizon. Food—that little bag of nuts and two snickers bars— tasted amazing. And listening to the perfect songs (Annie Lennox’s version of “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” along with—naturally—the Joshua Tree) made me feel like I was floating with the clouds. I can do anything. After this: fucking Everest.
And then there was the change. Almost imperceptible. The breaks were longer. Rocks harder to hop over. Music was getting less and less effective at reviving me. And little things started to annoy me, unnerve me. But it was all going to be fine,
Until we learned the lodges were all full. Or charging 7000 Yen for a bunk. See, at the back of my mind, I’d kept promising myself this would all be okay. Easy, even. Get up most of the way, have a warm bed, get ready for the morning. It was still feeling like a leisurely jog up the hill. But 7000 for a cot? Nope, no, sorry. And when the bed was taken away, the reality of being up on Mount Fuji at 5 PM began to become clear.
And Peter thought we’d camp up there.
Not wanting to be the uncool, practical one, I started out tentatively: “Uh, Peter? Are you sure staying up Japan’s tallest mountain overnight is really a good idea?”
“It’s going to be cold. But it’ll be fine! Definitely.”
Right. You’re the tentless camper. You’ve slept on the rock piers of deserted islands and risen with the sun. I said I’d do things your way. Okay.
But the shadow is starting to climb over us, and already my hoody’s looking a little flimsy. That tiny rational voice in me finally takes over, and as this tight air really starts getting to me, I stop him.
“No. Really. We stay up here overnight, we’re going to die.”
He takes a long sweep of the horizon, then glances at me. Probably sees frost already forming on my eyelashes. “Okay. So what do we do?”
The only thing left to do: climbing down the same day we climb up.
Reality begins slipping on me. The less oxygen I can take in, the more I feel the little I have left—muscles flexing like trying themselves out for the first time. The taste of tastelessness. Clouds pull over the summit and turn pink as they touch the last of the sun. You feel the world moving around Fuji. And I’m so small. What would happen if we just disappeared?
I give a final sprint towards the summit, passing the empty shanty town poised on the point of disaster, keep-out shutters taped to the windows. I wasn’t in Japan anymore. I wasn’t anywhere I’d usually call Earth. And I reached the top feeling a giddiness close to despair. Clouds were all I could see, pulling over with great slaps.
When the clouds open on the horizon I feel like I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to. The light cuts, as if with a knife, a clear line between night and day: half of us is a bloody red, half is a deep purple. I’ve never been so insignificant. I feel, against the wind claps that slice down to snatch my hat, that I’m gonna be swept away. Piece by piece. Disintegrating.
For a moment there, I remember myself. My freezing hands and lizard skin; my shrinking lungs. We’ve gotta go. Now. And my run’s like a downhill ski, scattering ash and picking up speed, sliding down the mountain. I can no longer see anything past the black of the ash. When the road makes sudden turnbacks, it’s always one step from the edge. Sometimes a light cuts through the mist, marking the trail for lost travellers. But I see better in the dark. Feet crunch on burnt rock and I let myself flow with it.
So what do you do when you’re feeling so close to the edge? When things are already so strange? You let things get a little weirder. We start making up songs as we go down: great crazy Irish-ballad musicals about moonlight ghosts and sex in townhall meetings. Mistress Moly. The Masked Malinger. Our voices are about the only thing we’ve got left. Sometimes we’re laughing, other times we’re on the edge of collapsing. We’ve just got to keep moving.
Closer down, where small ingrown pine and shrub begin, the marching line of night hikers make their way past us. Three-eyed, making haloes with their headlights. Trudging miners. Sacrificing the climb to see the sunrise. Geared in packs, raincoats, emergency vests and oxygen tanks. Pointing at us as they pass. The two freaks in hoodies.
It’s 8:45 PM, but this night already feels like it’s been going for 12 hours. Maybe it has. And like Narnia you get back to Earth and time’s barely passed: here’s the tiny ski village cut from a German Christmas Catalogue. The log cabins. The orange lantern glow on the cobblestone streets. Welcome back, astronauts.
Hitting the village gives me a satisfied kind-of exhaustion that reverberates through me. My body doesn’t know it’s not still climbing. My brain’s already given up. All we need right now is a nice big bowl of food—the more heartily overprocessed, the better.
Except, naturally, we miss the last bus down the mountain by five minutes. We sleep in the shrine until it gets too cold, and then spend the rest of the night in the bus shelter, listening to some Americans fight about why they’re stuck here. We’re all stuck here. And I could’ve been pissy about the bed I’d made out of scrounged chairs, or the lights that never went off. I could be writing this post about all the things I probably should have done to make it a better climb. The moral of the story, etc.
But the truth is, I’m proud of us. We went up and down the tallest mountain in Japan in the span of eight hours including the breaks along the way. We’re alive. We even managed to make a kickass musical(s) during the climb down. I touched the sky. That’s enough.
I came to see that sunrise: leaving the cabin just an hour before dusk, get to the top, snap the perfet profile pic. Say goodbye to Japan. The reality: a few sparse glimpses of the sunset, me and Peter rushing to get the photos as the wind pelts us with clouds. And was my whole year here really that different? I mean, here I come to Japan with a lot of ideas about how it was all going to go. The dreams I brought with me. How smooth it would go, how easy I would adjust.
I didn’t get that sunset, I didn’t get that cookie-cutter ALT experience. What came my way instead, partly through circumstance, mostly through my pigheadedness, was much rougher round the edges, much wilder. Much more interesting.
I went up Fuji and I got the darkside of the mountain. And now when I think of Fuji I’ll always remember the black rock and icy winds before the pretty ukiyo-e pictures. I wouldn’t have it any other way.