Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mout Fuji with Mom!

So Tuesday morning, after getting back really late Monday night from Kyoto and having no electricity or air conditioning, we headed to Nabari station at 6:10 to catch our bus for Mt. Fuji! It was super convenient, just down the road and across the street, but the bad side was it cost a lot, we were the only non-Japanese, and our guides didn’t speak a word of English! Fortunately, I had read up on the trip and knew what to expect, and I understood most of what the guide said. We and two more ladies were the only people from Nabari, but we stopped to pick up others at Iga, Matsusaka, and then switched to a larger bus full of people in Nagoya. We slept many of the eight hours there, when I wasn’t frantically trying to get a hold of my landlord to fix the electricity, making reservations for Nara, or at a rest stop, anyway. Japanese rest stops always crack me up. There’s the free food samples (which range from squid guts to cookies stuffed with green tea flavored cream) and interesting little souvenirs. One was a “cat in a bag,” a robotic thing that looked exactly like its name, with the tail sticking out of the bag, and rolled on the floor for your cat to play with.

We got to Mt. Fuji about 3:00 and had lunch. Mostly pickles, white rice, and salmon with all the bones and skin still attached. I don’t mind even having the head still on, but Mom couldn’t really eat it, and I was glad I’d brought some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her.

At 4:30 we met our main climbing guide and began our accent. Here’s our group starting up; the walls are to prevent falling rocks during a sudden earthquake (but that's a bit redundant because all earthquakes are sudden):

And here’s the little shrine at the beginning where people take the bells and ribbons from their walking sticks they bought in the souvenir shop and throw them on the pile as an offering to the god for safe climbing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the priests collected them all at the end of the year and recycled them. Otherwise the pile would probably be as big as the mountain! Every year 200,000 people climb Mt. Fuji, most of them during the official climbing season of July and August. You can climb at other times, but the mountain huts where you can buy food, water, and oxygen, and also the medical station, are closed. So if you get hurt or run out of supplies, you’re SOL: simply out of luck!

Before we got any further, I asked Mom if she was ready.

“You bet,” she said. “I walk three miles every day.”

I couldn’t keep from laughing, even though it offended her. “What?” she asked. “That’s pretty good for an American.”

“Mom, it’s not that it isn’t good. It’s just that…comparing going for a three mile walk every day to climbing the tallest mountain in Japan is sort of like comparing bench pressing 250 pounds to giving birth to a baby. Both are impressive, but doing the first really isn’t going to help much with the second.”

She realized all too soon what I meant.

About halfway to sixth station, Mom got severe altitude sickness. Since we started at fifth station, we were already over 2,000 meters, or 6,500 feet, high, above the clouds and tree line. According to an article I just read, that’s when altitude sickness can begin. Nothing was growing at all; there was nothing but volcanic rock. Mom had it really bad, like a fish gasping for air on land. She felt dizzy and even started laughing uncontrollably. At first I was really mad at the guide, because she said there was no way we could take Mom back. She had to climb all the way to the top. But I argued with her, reminding her stubbornly that I had paid nearly five thousand yen for this trip and she was hired to take care of us. Thankfully, we finally came up with a compromise. Mom had no choice but to struggle to the 6th station rest house and stop there at 6:00 to sleep for the night. I really wanted to go on, but the route up and the route down were different. Fortunately, someone at the 6th station who had also decided he couldn't go on agreed to look out for Mom and help her down the mountain the next morning. So I was able to continue on with the group.

It’s a good thing Mom stopped, because after 6th station it got a lot worse. First of all, because we had lost quite a bit of time waiting for her, we started booking it with only a few short rests. The ground became very uneven and the volcanic rock tumbled out from under our feet. There were places when I had to grab onto the rope and pull myself up to keep from falling. But for me, it wasn’t a very hard climb. All the way to 8th station I never got altitude sickness, not even a hint, and my muscles weren’t sore at all. I wonder if living in Japan has anything to do with it? Maybe I’m used to altitude. But then, I’ve always been that way. I remember being on top of Sandia Mountain in New Mexico with Mom once. Mom was gasping away while I was running around with more energy that I have on flat ground. Something about the chill, thin air energizes me. I can go a lot further and a lot faster. As long as it’s not hot and I’m scrambling on my hands and knees, that is. That mountain in Komono, though much smaller than Mt. Fuji, is a lot harder to climb and I couldn’t keep up with everyone else.

One annoying thing about Fuji is that you have to pay $2.00 to go to the bathroom each time, and water is $5.00 a bottle. I had brought two liters of my own water, but I drank it all before we were ¾ of the way up. Maybe that’s what kept me so strong the whole time. I ended up buying three bottles for the rest of the climb.

At seventh station I met a lady from Matsusaka who loved Oscar and Hammerstein musical. She hardly spoke any English in conversation, but she knew all the English words to their songs! We spent the whole climb from 7th station to 8th station singing and discussing religion, travel, and our respective lives in broken Japanese and English. That was fun. We reached 8th station about 11:30, about seven hours after we started. We slept there until 1:30, and then were given the option to stay there or climb on. I definitely wanted to climb on. But all I had was a light sweater and my rain jacket. Fortunately, the lady I had befriended gave me her extra pants, blizzard jacket, neck warmer, and head lamp to light the midnight path. I would have died without them! Not only was it below zero, but it was so windy! Sometimes I thought I’d be blown clear off my feet. And thank God for my hiking boots and gloves! I’ve heard some people climb Mt. Fuji in flip-flops, but I wonder if they come back missing a few toes. I certainly couldn’t feel mine after the first hour out from 8th station!

I guess they were worried about me or something because they assigned the best English speaker in the group to watch out for me. But most of the time he was behind me, and there was nothing hard about the last leg. Much of the time we had to stand in narrow cues and wait for the person ahead to go on. All I had to do was keep my eyes on the lady in front of me, and her neon blue suit practically glowed, so that wasn’t hard. I taught my helper a little English chant, since I got tired of him saying, “gambatte” all the time. “Almost there, almost there,” I said. Not exactly the same sentiment as “fight,” but it works.

From 8th station it took us until 5:00am to reach the top, so total climbing time of about ten hours. But it was so worth it! We were just in time for the sunrise. I will cherish these pictures forever:

See how the sun peaks over the horizon, as if checking to make sure the world is safe? Has it changed during the night? Is it even still here? “Ah, yes, there’s my mountain, my Fuji San; I will rise to kiss his face and blossom over the rest of the world.”

And here’s a panoramic video:

Don’t they look like islands in the sky? Maybe this is where all those legends of floating islands come from. Nearly every fantasy universe has them, including mine. I just never realized how beautiful King Timmer’s “Enchanted Realm” would be. Now I know! I think I’ve gained more experience for my writing this past year traveling all over Asia than I ever did in my twenty-three years in Oklahoma!

There’s a shrine on the top where you can buy souvenirs, but I wasn’t wasting my time. I spent it running around on top taking it all in. I will never forget that glorious victory. I wanted to scream and shout and soar! Only…we were packed in like sardines at the summit. It’s flat on top, but there must have been at least 500 people up there. It was so freezing! I had to keep running back inside and warming myself by the coal fire before running back out again. But I can’t remember a more happy time in my life. My friend Lu once told me that in China they have a saying about people who love mountains versus people who love oceans. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like mountain people have big hearts and are very giving in a personal way. Ocean people have big hearts too but are less personal about it, preferring to help a lot of strangers. Oddly enough, I am a bit of both. I love mountains and oceans about equally. That’s why I love Japan! And oddly enough, I can see characteristics of both the mountain and ocean person in me. But I think I see a trend in my life of preferring to serve others in a personal way. I’m no Billy Graham or George Whitfield, preaching and serving the multitudes. I’m more of an Ester/Jonathan Edwards. I work my best in small groups.

Mountains remind me of faith. Sometimes we’re all a spiritual high and we never want to come down. We always inevitably do, but that isn’t because God isn’t close to us anymore. It’s because we’re mortal! We can’t stay up in the clouds forever, the air’s thinner and there isn’t so much work to do up there. Sometimes it’s in the valleys, where we meet people who are hurting or suffering, when we ourselves are hurting and suffering, that we can do God’s greatest work. So if you’re in a valley, don’t be discouraged. Look for the opportunities God has given you there and soon you’ll find that valleys can be beautiful places too.

And so at 5:45, it was time for the descent. I had my mountain moment, now it was time to come down. That was the hard part! Not getting up; that was easy. But because I’ve hurt my ankles on numerous occasions, they really swelled up on the way down. That’s when my Japanese buddy came in handy, along with some tape that the guide provided.

Here’s some snow near the top. Snow in August! Who would have thought?

We met up with the others who stayed the night at 8th station on the way down. Here’s me inside with the lady who leant me all her extra clothes. She was so nice:

Then she and everyone else went on ahead, but my buddy stayed with me to help me down, lending me his and the guide’s walking sticks. So that’s why everyone but me brought one! I should have bought one before the ascent, or at least at the summit. They made it a lot easier.

After that, the trail differed from the way up. A little warning to the wise. On the descent of Mount Fuji, you have to climb halfway down the mountain before you reach a bathroom! I started going a lot faster when I realized that!

Here’s what the descent looks like:

And here’s a Shinto priest blessing something from on top of the mountain. Fuji isn’t the most sacred place in Japan (that distinction goes to Ise Grand Shrine), but it comes close in most Japanese minds:

On the path down there were a lot of signs warning against falling rocks, and lots of falling rock shelters. That’s why you DO NOT want to climb in winter! It’s bad enough with the rocks; imagine what it would be like with avalanches to worry about besides.

After climbing and declimbing for fourteen hours, I felt ready to drop dead, so my buddy and I rode a horse drawn carriage for the last ten minutes. Here we are:

You can actually hire a horse to take you all the way down the mountain, but it’s really expensive. They’re also used in emergencies.

We got back to fifth station about fifteen minutes before it was time for our group to leave on the bus. Mom saw me come into the shop and ran to me, throwing her arms around my neck. She had been worried when I didn’t come back with the others, and since she can’t speak any complete sentences in Japanese, she didn’t know how to ask about me, and didn’t understand their explanation. We had just enough time to buy a souvenir walking stick with the Japanese flag (a little late to be of use, but I collect flags), use the bathroom and buy some ice cream.

The bus headed back at 10:00, but before going home everyone stopped at an onsen (hot spring) to soak out the soreness and have a buffet lunch. Japanese buffet food is…interesting. Mom was still pretty exhausted, and laughing hysterically about every little thing. “Come to Japan, climb mount fuji and get naked!” Though she took the whole naked bathing thing surprisingly well. Much to her relief, we had the bath pretty much all to ourselves.

We finally got back to Nabari around 9:00 on Wednesday night. Fortunately, I had been able to get hold of my land lord on the bus exactly one hour earlier, so he came out and fixed the electricity. I felt really stupid when he just flipped the circuit breaker above my door. I should have thought to do that, but I had no idea what a circuit breaker or that strange box above my door were before he told me. Well, live and learn. My dad always gave me a hard time when I was kid and I couldn’t remember how to do easy repairs on cars and household appliances even after he’d showed me a dozen times.

“You better marry a mechanic or a really rich guy!” he always shouted at me.

Well, I am a single woman living in a foreign country making a fairly modest income and I seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much. Most of the time, anyway.

Thursday we were planning to go to Wakayama, but ended up just stayed home. Can you blame us? I might not have felt it the day before, but after a good night sleep my thighs felt like they’d be stretched in a taffy maker! We cleaned up and organized a bit, then left the house about noon to take our laundry down to the laundry mat. Like most people living in Japan, I have no dryer or car, so I had to haul it 30 minutes to the laundry mat and 30 minutes back in Mom’s suitcase. I was planning on taking Mom to the nearby yaki niku restaurant for dinner (about 15 minutes further down the road) but it didn’t open until 5:00 and she was really hungry, so we ate a MOS burger first. Very different from American burgers (not as meaty), but it temporarily satisfied Mom’s craving for American food. After that we went grocery shopping, finished our laundry, and went to the yaki niku place. We did a lot of walking that day, so we weren’t exactly lazy. My calves wanted to kill me the whole time.

Friday we headed for Shirahama in Wakayama prefecture! You get to hear all about (and see) the pristine beach, beautiful fireworks, Adventure World, scuba diving, and other wonders next time on L.J. Popp’s blog…Now it’s time for me to do some REAL writing. AKA fiction. Does that sound ironic?

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