If Mount Fuji didn’t exist, the Japanese would build it anyway. I’ll leave it at that.
This stratovolcano juts out of the western edge of the Kanto plain, asserting itself as the highest peak in the Japanese archipelago. And for reasons lost in the mists of a climb up Mt Daisen, we have come here to climb and renew our vows on the tenth anniversary of our wedding.
The north side of the mountain is divided into nine stages, one every six or seven hundred feet vertical. The masses disgorge from their cars and buses at the 5th station on the north side, having taken the Fuji Subaru Line highway up to 7500 feet. Few care that they stand at what was the summit of Fuji’s precursor, Mt Komitake, which was active 100,000 years ago. Then 25,000 years ago Mt Kofuji erupted from Komitake’s southern flank, to form a double-cratered mountain. Mt Shinfuji, the present mountain, erupted around 10,000 years ago. It stood on the shoulders of its parents and engulfed the pair. Young Fuji is an ambitious upstart.
We plan to climb from the bottom.The traffic noise closes behind us as we walk through the tall cedars that line the entrance to Asama shrine. The gods appeased, we make our way along the road through the jukai, the sea of trees, which lay thick on Fuji’s lower slopes. The forest looks peaceful and lush; it hides its reputation as the suicide capital of Japan, and the old legends of tortured spirits which await those that set so much as a foot inside it.
The sun is low in the sky as we reach the first stage of the mountain, marked by a shinto tori and guarded by two stone monkeys, who crouch on their plinths with palms pressed piously together and watch us pass with doleful eyes. This is the old route up Fuji, the one which served for generations before the highway was built. The path cuts up through the forest, eroded so deeply by the feet of passing pilgrims over the centuries that it lies a good six feet below the forest floor. The old paving survives in parts, flat stones pressed elegantly together. The sky darkens, and the forest closes in. Presently our world collapses to the beam of our headlamps. If Yuka is nervous, she doesn’t show it. She’s keeping pace; I’ve loaded 15kg into my pack to slow me down, and it seems to be working.
By 9pm we are at the sixth stage, and we see the first signs of other life on the mountain. A steady trickle of headlamps are making their way up from the fifth stage at the end of the highway. Officially it’s closed season on Fuji, but the huts stay open until mid September anyway; the volume of climbers is many times less than high season as a result.
The sky is clear and a soft wind blows from the south-west. The lights of Yoshino and Kawaguchi town flicker far below us now as we take a short break. Shooting stars flit through the blackness, and I can feel Fuji’s mass looming over us in the blackness. On through the night we climb, more climbers pressing onto the trail as they arrive at the fifth station, or turn out of the huts along the mountain where they have been catching some sleep. The trail switches back and forth, and each turn looks like a battlefield. The dying lie motionless at the edge of the track, some doubled over trying to catch their breath in the thinning air. Up, up we climb, and I am racing over the rocks trying to circumvent the traffic jams caused by slow moving groups. Yuka has fallen behind; I stop and wait. She won’t let me carry her pack. “I brought it, I’ll carry it”, she says.
By 3am we are in sight of the summit. Yuka is spent. No amount of energy gel or chocolate covered almond bribery is going to help. It’s between her and the mountain. She hasn’t slept in 22 hours and is beginning to cough with the altitude.
“Does anywhere hurt?”, I ask.
“My soul”, she replies. And yet she puts foot in front of foot, and somehow, as the sky lightens before dawn, she makes the summit of Fuji. I’m very proud.
I wrap her in the sleeping back I’ve carried up, and make her a giant cup of konbu tea. As dawn finally breaks we exchange our vows once again and watch the sun come up through the sea of clouds which lie across the Kanto plain. Ten years has passed so quickly. I look at my wedding photographs and wonder who I was then. But Yuka just gets more beautiful by the day.
A few hours later we start the long descent, an interminably slippery switchback to the fifth stage where we look with envy at those heading back to their cars and buses. Our path still has many miles to go, and once again we are alone on the mountain. We pass the sad, dilapidated huts which once served the traffic from the first to the fifth stage, some little more than a pile of rotting timbers now. Such a contrast to the modern huts above with their solar powered lighting and chemical toilets. Within the space of a few hundred meters we have travelled back several hundred years.
At 1pm, we reach the car, almost 24 hours after setting out. At the nearest hot spring we bathe life back into ourselves and fall into a black sleep before starting the drive back to Tokyo.
“You owe me one, Mister. You’d better write about how well I did, and how much you love me.”
And she’s out the door. On her way to a three day meditation retreat, less than 24 hours after coming off the mountain. Do I need to say more?