The majority of my week was spent readjusting. With my role as host over, I could resume my normal bachelor routines. Cooking, cleaning and my diet all soon found their regular positions in my day. My bed time was again midnight and I quickly no longer needed an alarm clock. While I did miss my friend, I was happy to return to a schedule!
On Thursday this week an interesting thing happened. We had a prospective student come in. Between classes I introduced myself. I was quickly struck by her cuteness, she was a college girl. However this quickly passed when I determined her English level. It was at zero. I said “hello,” and was greeted with a blank stare. She returned with, “nani,” or, “what?” I spent a full minute trying to introduce myself. The poor girl had no clue what I was saying. I thanked her and excused myself. Outside the interview room I quietly told the manager, “beginner.” Then I grabbed my textbook and went to class.
50 minutes later I exited my class and walked past the manager. She pulled me into the office. “Alex-sensei, that girl knows you!”
Puzzled, but flattered I asked, “How does she know me?”
“She said you talked to her at Mos Burger and in the elevator. You have to go say hello again!” My managers words came out in a frenzy. My ears strained, but I understood. And then it clicked. I had been flirting with the girl last week!
Kellee and I had eaten lunch in a burger joint the week before. At the time I noticed a cute girl next to me. I thought nothing of it. However just 15 minutes I saw her again in the elevator at work. It was a golden opportunity to spark up a conversation. “Sumimasen, anata wa mos burger desu ka?” This roughly means, “Are you Mos Burger?” It sounded stupid, but was all I could manage to get out quickly. The girl stammered back in nervous Japanese. She said something as unclear as what I had just said. The doors opened, I smiled at her at said, “No harm in trying, right?” Then I went back to work.
Now here was the same girl from the elevator sitting in our counseling room. Less than a week after I spoke with her and I was seeing her for the third time. I followed my manager’s request and went back to talk with her. I told her I recognized her and was happy to see her again. Her reply was incomprehensible, but now I understood why; I made her nervous like a school girl. Our chat was short and I left her with a smile. I wonder when I’ll see her again.
What a great weekend; I climbed Mt. Fuji! Climbing to the top of Mount Fuji (Fujisan in Japanese) had been one of my goals since I first arrived in Japan. And this weekend I finally made it happen.
Sunday afternoon I met up with Elisha and her boyfriend, Yoshinori in the Ono. We ate lunch, picked up some food for the hike and set out. Yoshi had a car and was kind enough to drive us all the way to Fujisan. What luck! We drove two hours south and halfway up the mountain. At 2,000 meters we parked and stepped out of the car. The air was cold and thin, we were in the mountains. It was 5pm and we wouldn’t begin our hike for five hours. We mulled around the area taking pictures and preparing our gear for the hike.
The sun set at 7pm and we cooked ramen noodles in the parking for dinner at night. It was pitch black and we used only our headlamps for illumination. At 9pm we crawled in to the car for an hour’s rest. At 10pm our alarm went off and we climbed out of the car. The mountain was much colder than during the day. We put on an extra layer, drank some water, strapped on our packs and started the hike.
Before sundown I had purchased an authentic Fujisan hiking staff. For hundreds of years Japanese pilgrims have used such wooden poles. At each of the 10 mountain stations you can have a unique symbol burned in to certify that you did make the climb. I was ready to get marks for stations 5-10. With five liters of water, high calorie food and a Japanese stick in hand, I was ready to rock. At 10:30pm we started to climb from the fifth station.
Fujisan is usually swamped with people. The climbing season is only two months long, and it’s a very popular destination. So I was very happy when the three of us started the hike with no other people around. The first two hours of our night hike was done in a forest. We followed winding trails and many Japanese signs. Some had English, others didn’t. But they all pointed in the same direction; up. That was as good an indication as I needed. We hiked for three hours taking a 10 minute break every 60 minutes.
To say that I was eager and ready to race up the mountain would have been an understatement. I was teeming with anticipation. I usually lead our team up the mountain, often keeping an uncomfortable pace for my friends. Around the eighth station my friend Yoshi began to feel the effects of altitude sickness. He acquired a headache and grew dizzy. I felt bad for the guy, as he is in tremendous shape. Elisha’s pace also slowed down, her body being affecting by the lower oxygen and a rolled ankle. I felt it important to keep the group together, so I stayed with them. Moving at a pace they decided. I tried to hide my impatience, but I’m sure it was fully visible.
As the clock neared four we climbed every closer to the top. After the ninth station we were forced to stand in line as there was now a 500 meter-line to the front door of the summit. The pace of the crowd, mind-numbingly slow, allowed my counterparts to keep their breath. At 4am you could see the first signs of daybreak. The huge horizon was giving a soft glow of red. I grew very antsy at the sight. I started nipping at the heels of the people in front of me. Slowly but surely we crossed the entrance torii and stood on the summit of Fujisan.
We were immediately greeted by civilization at it’s finest: consumerism. The top of the mountain had vendors and business everywhere. You could buy food, drinks and souvenirs. I found us a good spot to view the sunrise and left Elisha with my pack. I ran off to the restroom and payed ¥500 to drain all of my excess water. Yeesh, expensive. I returned to our spot long enough to sip my coffee and turn to the horizon.
From our vantage point, you could actually see the bend in the Earth. Amazing. And with the blink of an eye the sun broke the horizon. I pointed with my finger and shouted, “sun!” All around me people turned from their conversations to see it. I heard many “ooh’s” and “ahh’s,” above the snapping of shutters. I too took many pictures wanting to capture the scene before me. But then slowly, a little voice in my head told me to put the camera down. I should enjoy the view not from behind a camera, but with my own two eyes. I obliged and turned my camera off. I took a step closer to edge and stared right into the sun. I felt my skin quickly growing warmer. My eyes scanned the sun and horizon from left to right, right to left. Sensational.
My gaze was broken when Elisha told me to pose for a picture. I leaned next to her and smiled. Less than 10 minutes since the first sign of the sun and it had almost completely risen. I took out my camera and shot away. Then just as soon as it had started it was over. The sky had changed from dark to light in front of my very eyes. I holstered my camera and returned to my coffee. The people around us quickly dispersed and begin to descend the mountain. Their exodus afforded me a better view of the world below. I again crept to the ledge and looked down. Below, was the entire world. I could see full mountain chains, lakes and rivers. Huge clusters of clouds opened and closed before my eyes. I felt like a king.
All through my meditation the sun rose higher and higher. Soon it stood tall in the sky. It was five am and already it looked, and felt like high noon. I split with my friends to walk around the crater top by myself. I had nothing particularly heavy to mull over but I wanted to do some introspective thinking. I set down a path at fast pace. I stopped on occasion to marvel at the crater in front of me or the world below. I was standing on a dormant volcano. It was both humbling and emboldening.
After long I returned to my friends. We packed our bags and began the hike back down. We moved very quickly and wound down and around a new part of the mountain. The weather above was beautiful, blue skies and cool mountain air. Unfortunately my mood turned a bit sour when I realized we were passing all of the mountain huts. I had planned to visit each hut on the way down to have my staff burned and marked. However I would have no such luck. Our path down, Yoshi told me, would bypass almost every hut. I let out a disappointed sigh. He heard this and told me not to worry, there was a surprise ahead.
The trail down was steep. Fortunately there were portions of the path that had been recently tended to. A soft and loose dirt covered the path down that made it easy to hop down the trail and keep your knees in good shape. It didn’t take long before I developed a system to quickly move down the this material. If you leaped down the track with a spring in your step you could almost run at a sprint down the mountain. I tried to explain to Elisha and Yoshi how to do this. Yoshi figured it out quickly. But poor Elisha with her bum ankle, wasn’t in the mood. So we moved down the mountain, with me running whenever I found the loose soil.
An hour down the mountain and I had found Yoshi’s surprise. Before me lay two kilometers of the loose gravel I mentioned. I looked at Yoshi with big eyes and a wide smile, “is this the surprise,” I asked him. He nodded yes. I cinched my pack tight on my back and pushed my shades up the bridge of my nose. “See you,” I said. I started down the mountain at a healthy pace. I tore a path through the dirt and left a trail a dust in my wake. The air grew thicker and richer with oxygen with each step down the mountain. I breathed deep and felt my heart and lungs working together to supply my legs with the energy I needed. I had soon reached a speed that was difficult to control. I lowered my walking staff into the earth and put on the brakes. It took 30 meters but I finally came to a halt. I let out a warrior’s cry as loud as I could, “AHHHHHHHHH!” I screamed until my voice was gone. I stopped and listened to the sound reverberate off the mountain. I reached into my pack and pulled out my water. I took a deep drink and stood there panting like a dog. My veins coursed with testosterone, adrenaline and endorphins. I felt invincible.
A few minutes later and my friend had caught up. We stood on a high bluff for a water break. The scenery was amazing. Above us stood the peak of mountain covered in clouds. Below us were clouds partially covering the forest we had already hiked through. We laughed at the beauty surrounding us. Outstanding. Elisha summed it up best; “This is how you’re supposed to spend your day off.” I could not have agreed more. We stowed our water and looked down the mountain. Another kilometer of soft earth stood before us. Taunting me. I gave my friends a soft Japanese bow and set out again.
I took complete delight in running down the hill. It was unlike anything I had ever done before. As awesome as an experience as it was to conquer Fujisan, I was happiest running down the mountain. At the time I decided it was perhaps the most fun I have ever had. It was the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing total bliss. Supreme.
Soon the trail turned back to hard dirt and the decline evened out. Our crew took a water break and we reentered the forest. We had a short trek back to the fifth station and finally the car. There we stripped down to our base layers and packed our gear. Next stop: hot springs.
The hot spring was almost too much for the senses. It was 90 degrees and sunny when Yoshi and I slipped into the outdoor waters. My body was cooking both above and below the water. Our restoring soak was short and soon we were on our merry way. We had a light lunch at a diner and then split ways. I had to work the next day, while my friends were going to stay another night. They dropped me off at the station and I began the commute home. Two hours and five trains later, I was home.
The return to my apartment saw no break in the action. I ran to the grocery store and did house chores. Soon it was 6pm and I jumped in the shower. I washed the mountain off me and spritzed some cologne. I had a date. I took a train a few cities over and met up with a sweet young thing. There we had dinner and drinks and I recounted my stories of triumph at Fujisan. Did I mention she was very cute?
Finally I returned to my home and laid down. I looked at my alarm clock, I had been operating at a high level for 40 straight hours. What a satisfying weekend it was. Lights out.
The streets in and around Tokyo are different from the West. They’re tiny. Residential roads are only wide enough for one compact Japanese car and a tiny Japanese person to stand. Primary roads are not much better. They’re wide enough for two cars with the occasional turn lane. It is insane.
I first realized how small the streets were when I returned from my visit to Okayama after the earthquake. The streets in western Japan were much wider. I then saw a picture of two friends holding hands and covering the full width of the road in Tokyo. Ever since I have been amazed and how these drivers can navigate the narrow roads.
Then there is the horrible city planning. American streets are generally planned on a grid system, God bless you, Thomas Jefferson. In Japan the streets have been laid out with little to no thought. Trying to navigate them for Japanese people is difficult. For foreigners, it’s impossible. This is why every Japanese car has GPS in it. Without road navigation the drivers of Japan would be going in circles.
If you were to take the average American sized vehicle and put in on a Japanese it would not work. Physically the space is just too small. Intuitively the driver would look for logic and patterns that don’t exist. Actually this is all very similar to how I feel when trying to navigate the tiny aisles at the grocery store…
If your’e interested in getting another take on our Fujisan expedition, please look at Elisha’s blog!