(September 16, 2015: The most recent edition of ‘little snail…’ in now over at Medium.com…)
Fuji no yama
– KOBAYASHI Issa
God’s headlamp, the biggest harvest moon I’ve ever seen, throws Mount Fuji’s shadow onto the treetops of the Aokigahara, the so-called Forest of Suicides, thousands of meters below. We won’t need torches on this climb. No birds sing. The cicadas which serenaded me into insomnia all summer back in Tokyo are silent here in the pre-winter chill of this desolate, treeless place 3000 meters above sea level. At the top waits the promise of the fabled goraiko, the so-called “honourable arrival of light:” sunrise from the summit of the highest point in Japan.
I still have a couple of hours to complete the final push, less than a kilometre up a steep but nontechnical trail which glows bone-white in the moonlight. I don’t think I’m going to make it. If anyone asks, I’m more than ready to admit I’m cold, tired, and hungry. Not that anyone does ask.
Every summer in July and August, 300,000 climbers attempt to summit Mount Fuji. Mostly so they can say they’ve done it, and never have to do it again. Now, in early September and out of the official climbing season, the trail is almost empty.
My friends David and Naomi, younger and fitter, wait in the halo of light around a mountain hut precariously perched trailside. A hut! A lighthouse to a storm-tossed sailor. A refuge from this misadventure. I could throw down a futon among the other climbers stacked like silkworms inside. A few hours from now, I would get my pictures of the sunrise from the front door of the hut. David and Naomi would meet me on the down-climb, and we would return to the city and be back to work Monday. Business as usual. Like nothing had happened. I could settle genteelly into the reclining sofa of middle age.
On the other hand, there would never be a better chance to summit. Konohana, the god of this notoriously fickle mountain, has blessed us with ideal conditions. Soon enough snow will creep down Fujisan’s ashy flanks, but for now winter is only a premonition on the wind which sweeps counter-clockwise around the mountain. Not strong enough, as often happens, to impede our progress. Just enough to keep us cool and sweat-free. And the cloudless sky promises a spectacular sunrise.
Besides, if I get this done now, I never have to do it again. After all, as everyone knows, “He who does not climb Mount Fuji once is a fool, but he who climbs it more than once is also a fool.”
So when I reach the hut, I warm myself with a paper cup of coffee from the hut’s canteen, then continue to climb. A glow-worm of climbers’ headlamps emerges from the huts and crawls up the trail and passes us.
Step by step, breath by breath in this airless place, I put one foot in front of the other and make my way up the rocky trail. I feel dizzy, but pass up the chance to buy bottled oxygen from another hut. My legs have turned to posts, not used to this level of exertion. And then, at last, I see the little white torii gate that marks the final summit approach. We take shelter from the wind among the — closed — souvenir shops and — still open — vending machines at the summit station.
The sun breaks over the Pacific. I guess it’s not time to hang up my Patagonia quite yet.