Oh Mount Fuji, that most majestic and much-loved mountain of Japan.
The source of inspiration for artists and climbers alike; Japan’s crowning glory.
Of course, it’s not really a mountain at all. It’s a volcano.
But that technical quibble didn’t stop me from climbing it when I lived in Japan during the last century.
That makes me sound ancient, doesn’t it?
When I say “last century” that is technically correct. It was 1999; the very dying last breaths of the 20th century.
It was August and I had only just arrived in Japan after moving there to teach English. I was fresh faced and still blinking into the rising sun of this new life when Mount Fuji beckoned.
I was in Japan as a participant on the JET Program, which recruits graduates to help teach English in Japanese schools.
Before I go any further, let me say that I had never before climbed a mountain. I was not a seasoned hiker. Mountains were not my thing. I did not own a pair of hiking boots.
My local JET group had organised a trip to Mount Fuji and I was invited along.
This was the kind of trip that had two minibuses full of JET participants so I thought it would be the perfect way to make friends with fellow English teachers.
Before we even left the parking lot one of the minibuses clipped the wing mirror of a parked car. Not a great start…
After a 9 hour drive across Japan we parked at the fifth station (more or less halfway up the mountain), and started climbing close to 9pm.
At first it was OK; it felt so good to be out in the cool air, and not sweating from the high humidity. However, these good feelings didn’t last for long…
It got difficult when we found ourselves climbing through the clouds. We were getting wet and cold, while the wind did its very best to blow us off the mountain.
I had to take my glasses off because the moisture in the air made it impossible to see out of them.
So there I was, in the rain, scrambling over rocks in the dark, with the wind howling and I couldn’t see a thing.
The other guys and I struggled on, finally reaching the peak of Mount Fuji at 4am.
I wandered into the nearest shelter and sat on a bench. I don’t think I have ever felt so cold, wet and miserable.
To add insult to injury it was so cloudy that we couldn’t see the sunrise.
The descent was shorter, at three and a half hours, but it was still terrible.
The landscape was so barren and bleak.
The path down was nothing more than just a slope of loose stones; everything grey and dead.
It looked like the end of the world; a steep decline into dust and desolation. A landscape like the last dinosaurs would have seen after the asteroid hit.
My feet and legs throbbed with every painful step. Why had I put myself through such a terrible ordeal?
Well, unbeknownst to my fellow climbers, I had climbed Mount Fuji to honour a friend.
I had been to Japan before, you see, during my gap year and had made friends with a Frenchman who had been staying in the same Tokyo youth hostel as me.
Climbing Mount Fuji was one of his goals but he never got to fulfill his dream; he died suddenly just a few weeks before I left home to move to Japan that summer of 1999.
It felt grossly unfair that here I was, pretty much living in Japan on a whim, whereas it had been his ambition, and yet now he was dead.
I had planned to defeat this mountain and to take a solemn moment to stand proud on the peak, to look around at Japan and to remember my friend, telling him I did it. I did it for you.
But in the event, I was too cold, wet, tired and miserable to even remember to think of him at all. The clouds not only blocked my view of Japan, but also of my friend.
After the depressing descent we all finally regrouped at the minibus, and left for home at noon, completely exhausted.
I slept the whole journey home.
There is a Japanese proverb: “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.”
I know I will never attempt to climb it again.