Destination: Mt. Fuji. I'm accompanied for the first leg of my journey by Takashi, one of my roommates of the Shared House in Kunitachi. This was Takashi's first time leaving the city on bicycle and he'd never climbed Mt. Fuji, but he had three days off and was thirsty for adventure. After a week of rain, the clouds had finally parted and it was blue skies. This is my third time traveling route 413 from Tokyo to Fujikawaguchiko and each time I notice something new. For instance, I hadn't realized just how tall the bamboo alongside the road is. Viewing them from above, thousands of small pointed leaves host a colony of tiny birds like shadows on a green field. Bamboo stalks descend some thirty feet to the river below; which, after all the rain this past week, has transformed into a white monster; her roar echoing through the valley is our constant companion. In grotesque harmony can be heard the desperate mating call of the cicidas, an eerie screeching, two short and one long. I have seen them many times referenced in manga, but I never before understood their significance. It is their season and several people have mentioned them to me with pride, including Takashi on this trip. Cicidas live underground three years and when they finally do emerge from darkness they have just one week to find a mate. Is it poetic justice? their entire lives cicadas prepare for light and love as if it is one and the same, just to die shortly thereafter. Well you know what they say...
The sun sets over Yamanaka Lake as we trudge onward. By the time we arrive in Fujikawaguchiko it is already dark and we are exhausted. Before heading off to bed at the lakeside park gazebo, we stop at a restaurant for some Hôtô, a local specialty of pumpkin and miso soup. We also sample another regional favorite, basashi, raw horse meat - consistency of tripe-like fungus, but goes down well with a little soy sauce and a draught beer.
We awake well rested shortly after 7. No police bother us; on the contrary the parkgoers seem pleased to see a couple of travelers making use of their facilities and bid us good morning with a cheerful "Ohiô gozai mas!" I make breakfast - hot instant coffee, bread with blackbean jam (ubiquitous in Japanese deserts) and fruit picked ripe from the supermarket trash, when Takashi, who has wandered some 10 meters to the lake, calls to me with uncontainable enthusiasm. I rush over to see what the fuss is about and behold a majestic Mt. Fuji's single peak hovering over Kawaguchi lake, its ghost-like reflection glistening beneath it in dark waters. It is precisely this vision of Japan's most holy mountain that has attracted scores of pilgrims and tourists alike; and for me, it is a prophetic first sighting of the mountain that I plan to climb today.
The entrance to the historic Yoshida pilgrimage trail begins at the foot of the mountain at the Sengen Shrine just off Route 138. If you're not careful you can miss it. A sign in Japanese marks a small opening in a dense forest. We enter a dark corridor lined with ancient moss-covered lanters and tall cedars that block out the light. The noise of a day-lit urban sprawl grows fainter behind us as we walk deeper into the woods. Finally we come to a clearing in the forest, where the suns rays filter from above, illuminating ancient wooden temples. Sengen shrine has been the starting point for pilgrims climbing Fuji for more than 1,000 years. Takashi walks me through the ritual. We pass under the large wooden Torri gate, which is painted red, and make our way to a fountain, where we cleanse hands and mouth. At the main shrine we stand before a gold-leafed image of a tree branch and pray. I'm not big on religion and the entire concept to me is ludicrous; but nontheless, I have a certain respect for animism, more so than other religions, and I close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the forest. After a minute or so, Takashi instructs me to clap twice to awaken the spirits, and then off we are on our 19 km ascent of Japan's most holy mountain!
Takashi quit on me after only a few kilometers; which is a good thing for him, because there is no way he could possibly have climbed the entire mountain and returned to Tokyo to work early the next day. I on the otherhand push my self to the point of exhaustion - I have to get to the 8th station tonight if I am going to see this famous Fuji sunrise tomorrow. From Sengen's cedars, the small trail makes its way southwest through a forest of red pine. A turn due south up the mountain face and the ascent becomes gradually steeper. By fifth station the forest opens to the sky and beds of moss beneath dark pines are replaced with groves of white birch floating on a sea of thick grass. At 6th station, ends the forest and begins subalpine shrubs and lichen clinging to black and red volcanic rock; the atmosphere is thinner and perceptably colder. The view is obscured by a thick fog that wraps itslef around Fuji's midsection like a chastety belt. Past 7th station, alpine level, and the terrain turns extremely difficult up scags of black rock. By this time the sun slowly makes its descent behind the Western ridge and a shadow passes across the earth. The clouds below turn from hues of gold to blue with the passing light of the sun. When I reach 8th station I am exhausted. The black rock has turned blacker still against a sky of navey blue and the wind is bitter cold. An enclave of rock providing shelter proves too hard to resist and I plop myself down right there in the middle of the path. I fix a dinner of ramen, while sipping on a small bottle of saki that Takashi gifted me right before departing back to Tokyo. Most of the trekkers that pass me in their freshly pressed mountain gear, headlamps, and skipoles, have taken a bus to 6th station, bypassing the entire forest. They climb in the early evening just a few hours to luxurious cabins at 8th station, where they will view the sunrise the following day well rested. My presence, hidden in a crevice of rock, just around a bend in the trail, catches them by surprise and more than one shrieks in fright. Laughing, I apologize, "Sumimasen". I finally gather the strength to move to a cave off the beaten path, where I crawl into my sleeping bag and pass out for the night.
I awake early the next morning to the most breathtaking sunrise of my life. From my cave on Fuji's northface I have a perfect view of the sun over the Japanese Alps that appear like blue wrinkles in a blanket of clouds, which radiate orange from where the sun's head emerges from beneath its nebular sheets. Wrapped in my sleeping back, I boil a pot of cowboy coffee and begin my sketch of la vista chingón. When it warms up a bit, I make my way to the summit. I've never before looked inside a volcano and I'm ecstatic. In my mind I've entered the oral cavity of a mythic Japanese beast. The charred rock that circumambulate the outer rim compose her lips. Rows of icicles hang from her hollows like teeth on a shark. The sound of a gravel falling inside her is constant and animates the monster I've imagined.
The worst part of climbing Mt. Fuji is the descent. A slippery gravel road back to 6th station feels as if the only way down is head over heals. I find it easier to run. Not the type to maintain a large selection of shoes in my wardrobe to rotate with each ensemble, I've worn the same trainers for three years, of which have climbed pyramids in Mexico and more recently glaciers in the Indian Himalayas. That said, the soles are completely worn. By the time I made it the some 19km back to my bike at Sengenjiji, my feet were riddled with blisters and my legs were so sore I could barely walk. Lucky for me, peddling utilizes a different set of muscles!