Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Mount Fuji is a tame mountain. Yes, thousands of people climb to the top every year, including senior citizens. Yes, you can summit without the use of picks, ropes or oxygen. Yes, the whole process is usually very well organized, very efficient, very safe and, in all of those respects, very Japanese. It even resembles a rush-hour commute at times, with the trails fairly packed with hikers and with the constant reassurance of regular rest stations where people can even get their official Mount Fuji hiking sticks stamped for posterity.
However, the climb is fairly strenuous, taking four to ten hours to get to the top. Fuji is one huge piece of rock. And it is very, very wide. It is also the home of the notorious “Jukai”, or “Sea of Trees”, a heavily forested section of the mountain in which, allegedly, compasses do not work. Jukai is famously associated with suicide, with many bodies being found and pulled out every year. It is especially known as a place where old people who do not wish to live any longer simply walk into, letting disorientation, starvation or exposure do the rest.
This is my story:
It is August, and I have only been in Japan a few months. Four of us, three Americans and a Brit, all new to the country, take a bus from Tokyo and arrive at Fuji in the evening, with the intention of hiking all night and seeing the sun rise from the top of the mountain.
The climb begins pleasantly. It is slightly chilly and invigorating, all of us excited by the challenge ahead and full of youthful bravado. The air gets colder as we work our way up, flashlights leading the way. The hiking gets more difficult after a few hours, and the trails more narrow. Our fellow hikers call out encouragement to us in Japanese – “Gambatte! Gambare!” Akiramenai!” “Good luck! You can do it! Don’t give up!” It makes us smile, and the feeling of shared humanity spurs us on.
As always, I notice how prepared the Japanese are, but our ragged little group has pep, and we keep our legs moving, our muscles pumping, stopping every so often to accommodate the couple of smokers, who seem to be struggling just a little bit more than the rest. Moving up through the dark night, the scale and majesty of the mountain remain only hinted at before a soft-pre-dawn glow begins to reveal more of our surroundings.
Realizing that we are still about a half an hour from the top and that the sun is about to poke its head up any moment, two of us break rank and begin to surge up the mountain as fast as we can. It is getting steeper and more crowded. At some points it seems more of a queue than a hike, and in those places we bypass the crowd whenever possible by scampering up the craggy areas on either side of the trail. Are we being rude? As always, in Japan, any slight deviation from the norm brings guilt, but we have to make it up by sunrise. Anyway, karma is just a theory, right? The climb is getting harder and now, practically running up the mountain, I suddenly start to feel woozy. It’s the altitude of course, and as I stop and rest for a brief moment, I realize that we must be at almost 10,000 feet by now. Wow. Almost there.
Made it. I turn to the east. My friends also manage to arrive in time and we all wait in breathless anticipation, above the clouds, for the sun to appear.
There it is. Glorious. And in what I consider a perfect tribute to sunrise on top of Japan’s holiest mountain, a group of men press play on the boombox they have lugged all the way up and the golden bars of the song from the opening credits of Star Wars breaks the rarified morning. With big smiles on their faces, they celebrate completion of what is a veritable pilgrimage for Japanese people. Besides a small clump of teenagers too busy texting their friends in faraway places, everybody is enjoying the same exhausted satisfaction, trying their best to capture the moment and rest their tired bodies for a spell before heading down. Our group heads into the warmth of an old, weathered noodle shop for some food. An ancient poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono smiles down on us as we sit on the wooden benches and slurp down our steaming-hot breakfasts.
Leaving the other two to rest a bit more, my friend Duckie and I head down. It is a different path this time, but it seems to be the way everybody is going. This trail is wide and strewn with gravel and, reckless with giddiness, I begin running and then seeing how far I can slide, like a child, over and over again – the first in a series of bad decisions.
I am doing this for some time when I suddenly feel something wrong with my knee. I’ve strained it, and now I am having a little bit of pain walking down the slope. Crap. The switchbacks in the trail prevent me from seeing Duckie, but I am quite sure that she is way behind, so I limp on, cursing myself.
I arrive at a fork in the road, with signs pointing in either direction that are written in Japanese. I wait for a while for the Duck to show up. When she doesn’t, and since I cannot read the signs at all, I follow the path that I see a few other hikers go down. What’s the difference, as long as I get to the bottom of the mountain, right? But even these hikers disappear ahead of me in time as I hobble gingerly down the slope. The sun is rising now and really beginning to beat down as I leave the high elevation behind. In fact, it is getting downright hot. I think of my water bottle and realize that it is in Duckie’s backpack, along with my wallet. I seem to be all alone on the mountain with not a single other person in sight. I check my cell phone. One bar.
Don’t worry, I tell myself, there is bound to be a rest station coming up soon. This is Japan. It probably even has vending machines with beer. But the first trickle of real worry is percolating.
I am walking and walking, with the pain in my knee getting significantly worse, when I finally see a small structure down the path. Have I reached the bottom? It seems I should have, though this place seems a hell of a lot different from where I started. No worries, there’s a park ranger. I’ll ask him.
The stern-looking man in uniform approaches me. Just to be clear about one thing. Japanese people are very nice. In fact, you can pretty much count on their kindness if you happen to get in a jam. Not with this guy.
Let me be clear about something else. My Japanese isn’t that hot. I know some greetings, some nouns, and about four verbs. And after a few minutes of trying to talk to the ranger, I realize that it is not nearly sufficient to explain my situation. Even worse, he is being a total jerk. He is not helpful. He is not nice. He is not kind. He does not seem to like me one bit.
What does emerge through the cloud of my piss-poor Japanese, no English on his part, a flurry of maps, angry finger-pointing and body language is that I have ended up on the wrong side of the mountain. I went down the wrong way!
“Well, how do I get to where I started?” I attempt to convey. “Bus,” he says, “in half an hour”. “Free?” I ask, remembering my wallet, which is now sitting somewhere else, completely unappreciated. “Two thousand yen,” he says, indifferently. I make the universal gesture of pulling out my empty pockets but he just shrugs. I make the gesture for ‘please’, but he isn’t in a very charitable mood.
Then I have one of the worst ideas of my life. I take the map from him and point to where I am supposed to be, where my friends will be waiting. I jab at it and make a walking gesture with my fingers, counter-clockwise around Mount Fuji. Why don’t I just circumnavigate the damn mountain? I am bound to hit the path I was supposed to take and then just follow it down to safety and an ice cold Asahi Super Dry.
He looks at me like I’m some kind of fool and says, sharply, “Da-MAY!” That means “No!”, by the way. But I have that crazy glint in my eyes. I am tired. I am hungry, I am thirsty and I am very, very sick of this ranger’s attitude. I am going to do it. The very last thing he manages to impart to me as I storm off is something about “only experienced guides”.
But who needs a guide, right? I got a glance at the map. All I have to do is go back up a little and then cut right at some point, eventually running smack dab into the original trail! Plus, my knee feels much better walking up and sideways rather then down. I’ll show that haughty ranger! It sure is sizzling, though.
I have found what seems to be a trail leading around the mountain. What I haven’t found is people. In fact, I can barely remember the last time I saw anyone since before the ranger. The trail is negligible. It is unmarked and treacherous. My knee isn’t getting any better. I am dying for water. It must be near noon and the sun is high in the sky, mocking me. I don’t smell too fresh. But I keep walking. And walking. And walking. I figure I have been hiking strenuously now since the night before, and I am truly exhausted. The last thing I ate were the noodles at dawn, and that was quite some time ago. I keep walking. I don’t seem to be getting closer to anything except sunstroke or death. I am fading. I know before even looking that my cell phone is out of juice. And then it happens.
I don’t want to be crude, but all of a sudden I have the uncontrollable urge to do that thing that people have to do at least once a day. Squatting atop a sun-baked boulder, the thought occurs to me for the first time that I might actually die in the forests of Mount Fuji. Can you imagine, me laughing like a lunatic as my body empties and severe dehydration takes its place? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be crude. But this is real life, not Star Wars, where nobody ever has to stop the laser-fight action to take a crap.
Right after this is when real panic sets in. I am ashamed to admit that I pretty much lose my mind for a moment. The sun, the heat, the unbeatable forest. Could I actually have stumbled into Jukai? I begin to panic. It starts with wild thoughts. The thoughts are 1) I smell smoke, 2) Smoke means that there are people around, 3) Those people are hunters and D) Those hunters are hunting me!
I begin running, my reasonable side trying to tell me that this is ridiculous and instantaneously losing its argument. I am tearing through the forest blindly, panting and heart pounding wildly. The bushes and branches are whipping my face and scratching me. I am stumbling and screwing my knee up even more. I am convinced that hunters are chasing me. I am utterly terrified. I run and I run.
Spent, I finally fall to the ground in some shade and await my fate. I close my eyes, telling myself that a helicopter is bound to find me sooner or later. My friends will have alerted the authorities by now. I give up. Whether I am airlifted out alive or dead is not important anymore. I sleep for a while. When I wake up, I have regained just enough strength of body and mind to once again begin picking my way through the forest.
This is when the miracle happens. Practically swooning with heat and thirst, I stumble into a small clearing in the forest. Before me is a ramshackle house, nothing more than a few pieces of flimsy wood nailed together, really. You couldn’t even call it a log cabin, this one-room, dilapidated structure in the exact middle of nowhere. But stunned at my good fortune, I manage to croak out the Japanese word for “Excuse me”.
“Sumimasen,” I say, and then again. An old woman appears in the doorway. And when I say old, I mean that she is really, really old. Older than dirt, older even than the dirt located under that old dirt. Older than the first Olympics. Older than Genesis, maybe. She stands about 4 feet nothing and resembles a withered kernal of pure age, with a hunched back and a ragged scarf over her silver head. We stand there gawking at each other, and I am pretty sure she’s thinking I’m no prize, either.
“Mizu,” I manage to say. “Mizu. Water, please. Mizu, kudasai.” She disappears into her hut and returns with the precious H20. Next, the miraculous liquid is flowing down my throat, quenching my parched body, restoring my sanity and answering my prayers. It is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.
Good bless her! This woman, this misshapen old raisin, who inexplicable lives alone in the middle of the forest, has saved my life! The Star Wars song from earlier explodes in my head as I tilt my head back and glug down the wonderfully clear fluid. Oh, precious water! Oh, water! Oh, lady! Blessed is thy name, whatever it is, oh sweet ancient lady sweet Jesus lady sweet Buddha lady, sweet lady of the waters. You are so old and I owe you my life!
Rejuvenated, I excitedly attempt to tell her of my predicament. Having been born before English was even invented, however, she unfortunately understands nothing. When I see her edging back towards her shack, possibly thinking about fetching the rifle she uses for rabid raccoon-dogs, I realize that I may be frightening her and try to tone it down a bit.
We communicate very slowly, but in time the aged little thing gets me to grasp somehow that there is a trail and that it would behoove me to take it. I further understand that this trail, apparently, will take me to safety and people who might be able to help. I thank her with all my heart and, with renewed purpose and will to live, head back into the wild. I soon realize that her “trail” is not much of a trail at all. In fact, it is just an imaginary path marked sporadically with red ribbons tied to trees or branches every twenty yards or so. It reminds me of a constellation in the night sky, only forming any sort of pattern unless you imagine it to. But I begin to follow these ribbons, and they are leading me somewhere, that’s for sure. Sometimes I can’t find the next ribbon and become frustrated, have to backtrack, have to scout around for ages before I finally find it. Sometimes a creek appears and has to be forged, only for the ribbon on the other side to hide, to play with me before revealing itself deep in the undergrowth. And the forest is thicker here. The trail is so narrow it seems only ever used by animals, and small ones at that. But as I push through the dense forest I am pulsating with hope, finding red ribbons faster and faster, feeling like an indigenous tracker, smelling success as I get closer and closer to civilization! The forest breaks!
Pumice. As far as the eye can see. A sharply angled plain of volcanic rock. It is so steep that I can’t even walk across it. I have to scuttle sideways with both arms and legs, moving awkwardly like some sort of evolutionary dead end. It is painfully slow, as I slide down the dead-smelling slag with every sideways scoot. I feel wretched again. I feel stupid. I feel puny. That’s when the fog rolls in.
It is so thick at one point that I can’t see anything. I think of yelling for help, but don’t dare for fear of attracting a pterodactyl or some other sort of winged, shrieking beast. What is this place? I continue moving blindly along. I’ve really done it now, haven’t I? I keep hoping for something profound to happen ahead of my impending death – a burst of enlightenment, the stereotypical “life flashing before one’s eyes moment” – anything to signify the premature snap of my mortal coil. But all I can think of is what a welcome relief the fog is. The sun is barely penetrating the thick miasma and it has become quite dark. I continue my journey through this otherworldly zone, the sharp rocks scratching and cutting my hands and ankles as I continue on for an hour or more. Maybe I am already dead, I think. Maybe this is actually Hades.
Human voices. The first time I hear them I refuse to believe my ears. But there they are in the distance, somewhere up the mountain, far away in the fog. I tumble toward them like a bear drunk on fermented berries, almost crying with happiness. Yes, I can hear them, real human voices, just on the other side of that rock ridge! There, down on the trail below!
I can imagine how I look to them, a white phantom come hollering out of the mist and a cascade of falling rocks, wild-eyed and beleaguered, dirty and pathetic. I mean, I appear out of nowhere, out of the very clouds themselves, speaking in tongues and slobbering all over myself with joy.
They are frightened at first, these young hikers, but when they see that I am flesh and blood, that I am lost and thirsty and hungry and bloody – when they clearly see the state that I am in – they recover. And I love them for their kindness. I love them for the warm, woolen socks and the banana, for the green tea and the guidance back to my base station. I love them more than my friends, who seem only antsy and bored when I finally reunite with them. But I love the old woman the most, the old woman older than thunder, the old woman who inexplicably lives alone upon the harsh slopes of hoary, holy Mount Fuji, the old woman who gave me water, who saved my life.
I will always be grateful to her, and I am convinced she is a ghost, no mater what anybody else says. How else to explain her very existence there, in that place and time, and her guidance in my greatest hour of need? Yes, I like to believe she was a ghost, a guardian spirit, and only one detail of my story doesn’t quite jibe with that belief.
A famous man once said not to let facts get in the way of a good story. I agree, for the most part, but I must in all honesty admit one thing: the water that the ghost gave me, the magical water that slaked my thirst and quite possibly saved my life was, according to the label, bottled by the Volvic Corporation and imported all the way from France.