A Japanese girl sat next to me and glanced repeatedly over to her mother who stood outside waving, she waved back limply and stared down at her oversized pack. The mother waited, back stiff, the ugliness of the yellow bus terminal light shattering on her high cheekbones. The girl seemed about to cry, her breath caught in her chest while her mother nodded tenderly with pursed lips, they quelled their pained excitement with delicate hands clenched together, eyes wet and tearless.
I eyed the girl's massive backpack wedged between her wiry legs and the seat in front of her, graphite climbing poles stuck out the side, magenta and grey hiking boots hung from the top- there wasn't a speck of dirt, a frayed thread, a scratch, a smudge, to be found on any of it. I thought she must be taking a long trip, going on a less beaten path that required a lot of gear.
As the highway blurred past, I pieced together a plan with my haphazard Japanese of how to find out what trail this girl was taking, why her pack was so much larger than my flannel backpack, why her boots were so official next to my old running shoes, why her farewell was so tender, so definite compared to my send off of "see you guys later" "oh, where you going?" "Fuji" "Oh, right, have fun".
I decided the best way was- "Ichiban? (first) make a climbing motion with two fingers, Fuji?"
"Oh yes," she replied in a soft, sweet voice.
I asked if she was camping on the mountain as I unnecessarily drew a tent shape in the air and pointed to her pack.
"No, no." She stopped abruptly and gave me a drowning look, begging me to let her stop speaking English.
"Up and down, no stop?"
"Yes, I hope so," she said hesitantly. I sighed, understanding, but not.
I ascended the Yoshida trail from the 5th station a few days past the official close of climbing season, in hopes there would be less people. Setting out, I felt a twinge of frustration as a chorus of giddy college age Japanese whooped and hollered and laughed and squealed behind me, their headlamps bouncing over stones like weak disco light. Rumor says there can be as many as 10,000 people on the mountain at once, so many people that you have to wait in line on the trail while you climb up the mountain. This struck me as a travesty, as sacrilegious to wait in line on a mountain like a ride for Disneyland- clumping myself together with 10,000 people seemed like the antithesis of the vast natural space my American soul craved.
As I waited for the group to pass I gazed out above the clouds, above the towns surrounding Mt. Fuji- city lights sparkling below, the stars sparkling above. The moon pierced the sky- illuminating my way and seeping through dark shadows cast by the arch of trees. I shuffled across crumbled lava, the trees faded revealing the dark gentle figure of Fujisan, a rotund black silhouette looming against the cobalt sky.
I hiked around the first bend of the switchback carved into the side of the mountain and gazed upward to see the path unfold into a hypnotic series of countless more bends and climbs. I looked up to the barren peak, it looked so far away, a long snake of lights crawled up its side, headlamps on every point of the trail, all at different stages in their journey, beads of time, past present and future strung on the same continuum.
The college group cheered each other around corners, "OK ok OK ok OK ok OK ok," they chanted back and forth. The elevation rose rapidly and noises from them sputtered and faded until all that was left was the occasional uttering- tsukareta (tired) muzucashi (difficult) daijobu? (you okay?) daijobu, daijobu.
I felt a cool emptiness in my chest as I carried myself up, the pull of gravity seemed stronger. I walked beside an old man and when he turned to face me, light from his headlamp spilled into the deep wrinkles around his eyes and I saw the emptiness was there too.
"Where from?" the old man asked me, half giggling.
I answered him and silence dropped between us for a moment- the silence of me knowing exactly where he was from, him trying to recall more English phrases learned years ago.
"First time, Fuji?" he asked.
I smiled and nodded, saving my breath which had become sparse. He told me it was his sixth time which, according to Japanese lore, makes him insane.
Gombatte I told him, good luck, and breezed past him with long crushing strides. "See you later," he said, pulling on his walking poles, sliding his feet into the dirt an inch at a time, his forward movement barely perceptible.
Yeah right, I thought.
I weaved my way through Japanese who climbed slow and steady, every movement planned through the prodding tips of poles, careful, unchanging for a flat groomed path or the side of a boulder; so different from the foreigners who bounded up the path, arms waving, small bursts of effort over rocks, unsteady, hurling bodies over terrain without thought, without a plan.
We met again, turtles and hares, at each mountain hut, rest stops strewn along the trail thirty minutes apart, large decks out front for vampires to sit and collect. People squeezed together on benches, expensive gear, richly woven in electric blues and purples and yellows, not yet tainted by wear, a runway for a Columbia fashion show.
A woman crouched next to a mountain hut and quietly vomited while her friend patted her back. A father fixed his young son's coat, the boy wore a serious expression, the dad glanced at me with pride filled eyes. The rest stops grew quieter and quieter as we went up, only the occasional gasp of atsui from crowds entering, samui they'd mumble minutes later as sweat turned to ice.
Time got lost somewhere in this process of climbing, emptying, breathing, waiting at mountain huts until my sweat turned cold, dodging mountain sickness like so many waves ebbing toward me on the shore until I finally reached the last station. Eye level with the Big Dipper, I looked to see the peak, absorbed in the black sky, the only indication of the top the discontinuation of headlamps.
Taking a rest on a bench before my final ascent, the crazy old man I met earlier sat next to me and giggled. He offered me a piece of Ghana chocolate, I gingerly peeled away the gold foil with throbbing, inflated hands. He told me through a huge grin that it was his first time climbing Mt. Fuji during the night. "See sunrise," he said, the excitement in his voice a contagious cheer.
I sat chewing on that hard chocolate, like a generous outstretched hand pulling me into the circle of climbers that I had thought of as barriers between me and the beauty of Mt. Fuji. As I looked around at all of their quiet struggles that matched mine, and the joy it was bringing them, I felt a break in my resistance to sharing this mountain, I felt myself melting into a part of something larger, into a current of awe and respect for this mountain that multiplied with every reflected glance and shared whisper.
I thanked the old man for the chocolate and made for the top during the last hour of night, feeling the sun deep in the earth ready to push out the stars and peel off the thick blackness that wrapped us in a mystery. Halfway up, the trail thickened with people until there was an impenetrable clog of bodies. We waited in groups huddled together around each bend in the trail until it was our turn to walk to the next bend where we stopped and waited some more without pushing or grumbling, the peak in sight, but unattainable still. It didn't matter anymore, the line that I had dreaded, we were 10,000 climbers with two thoughts- the top, the sunrise. We were like fans at a concert, a church congregation, feeding quietly from one another's joy.
As I stood with toes balanced on the nubby side of a boulder, searching for a way through the people in front of me, a small gasp came from the crowds and everything suddenly stopped. I looked up the mountain and saw everyone sitting down wherever they happened to be, I turned around and saw the first muddy red grumble of the sun stretch across the horizon. I found a spot to the side of the trail next to a group who was already boiling water for coffee and noodles, taking pictures and switching layers of clothing, unraveling blankets and seating pads. I understood then why the packs were so big.
The world around transformed into something not real, wisps of pastel pinks and purples, oranges and blues, the clouds waiting on the horizon a too-perfect canvas for the strokes of swirling sunlight, below a cotton blanket of clouds nestled amidst the shady tips of purple and blue mountains, a swoosh-shaped lake glowing sleepily below as soft morning light settled over its tiny ripples. The sky grew lighter in anticipation, shooting up neon orange and outpouring tender brightness that had been forgotten through the dark hours. We held our breath until at last the crowd let out a satisfied cry as an oily pink ball sailed through the clouds. Its beauty seared through every fold in my brain until I couldn't imagine how there could be anything wrong or impure about a world whose sun rose everyday so loving and strong.
The girl on the bus had given me a glove warmer, but my hands were so cold I somehow managed to make it stick to itself instead of my gloves, turning it into a cold useless lump. I started to shake and had no choice but to keep walking- I waded through people staring at the freshly risen sun, stationary bodies like fallen soldiers on a battelfield. I made it to the top alone and kept walking, I saw the sky, how blue it was, and passed through streams of faces wide awake, wet gleaming eyes, unrestrained smiles- hearts filled with mecca. As I walked along the rim, I carried my tears, in heavy pools in my under eyelids, until from the weight of 10,000 elevated souls, they broke free.