Friday, June 12, 2009


When I was about 20 years old we lived in Japan for two years. My father (aged about 50 then), younger brother (aged about 12) and I all climbed Mount Fuji one summer day, along with a solid line of other climbers, guides and suppliers.

It was physically the hardest thing I have ever done. Fuji-san is covered with loose volcanic rubble - for every two steps forward, you slide back one. I don't think any of us would have made it to the top if we hadn't been so stubborn. You can rent a horse that will take you part of the way up but we waved aside those offers at the start of the climb; halfway up, we were all regretting that decision as wealthy pilgrims brushed past us on horseback. However, we persevered. I was thinking, "Jeez, if baby brother can do it, surely I can do it." Dad was thinking, "If she can do it, surely I can do it." And, little bro was thinking, "If the old man can do it, I can do it." None of us wanted to be the first to give up. In other words, we made it to the top based largely on steadfast pride; that may be emblematic of my family.

Dad purchased a Fuji stick for each of us, a light wooden walking stick to help keep us from sliding backwards on the golfball-sized volcanic rubble. At each of several "stations" on the trail, for a small charge one has one's Fuji stick branded with the altitude as proof that one attained that height; at the summit, the brand is red. The guides started a chant that was supposed to give us a pace by which to climb; I know it can't be true but, to this day, I remember it as the Volga Boatmen's song.

Sadly, in those days, Fuji was liberally covered with trash dropped by generations of climbers and, at higher altitudes, it never decomposed. I have heard that more recently they have cleaned it up. The benjos were pretty bad, too. We climbed from about 2pm to 7pm, then stopped for dinner at the least comfortable inn it has ever been my discomfort to endure in Japan. Dinner was Spartan and the wooden shelves (literally) on which we slept three-wide were unpadded. Shortly after we fell into an exhausted sleep, Little Bro had a nightmare about being trapped and woke up shouting and panting.

Our guide woke us again about 2am and we climbed the rest of the way - the idea was to arrive at the summit in time for the summer sunrise. We struggled to the top with several hundred other pilgrims and awaited the blaze of the sun. When it rose, all the discomforts were forgotten and forgiven - it is an amazing sight. We stood in silent awe amidst a hubbub of clicking cameras and murmured exclamations.

The trip down took less than two hours - one more or less "skates" down on the volcanic rubble. We were greeted - dirty, sweaty and tired - by my elegant mother who had elected to stay in the very luxurious hotel at the bottom to have a massage and await our return. We adjourned to the showers and then to lunch in the restaurant. I don't recall what we ate but I never have Japanese food without thinking of that memorable trip. We all kept our Fuji sticks and I still have mine, proudly branded in red.


Fuji Japanese Restaurant, Petaluma, CA



Blogger Anna Haight said...

What an experience! I only went to the half-way point via bus with a gaggle of my schoolmates, and we didn't have time to try a climb.

Friday, June 12, 2009  
Blogger namastenancy said...

BANZAI Zoomie! Banzai! You sure were more ambitious than I was at 20. I was an exchange student in 1966 (?) and lived for several months in Koyoto. I traveled to the foot of Mt. Fuji but chickened out and decided to stay in one of the beautiful inns clustered around the foot of the mountain. Even as a 20-something, I doubt if I have your family's endurance

Friday, June 12, 2009  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

I think I told you I only made it to the eighth station. That was fine. We were hiking with a couple of jocks, so I totally understand the pressure you felt to keep going. But we tackled them to the rubble and said DOWN! NOW!
Congratulations on your ascent.

Friday, June 12, 2009  
Anonymous jananvan said...

I'm impressed by how many friends you have that have even been NEAR Mt. Fuji!!!
P.S. A great story and visual. I'm picturing it as a movie.

Friday, June 12, 2009  
Blogger kudzu said...

I saw Fuji only from the comfort of our hotel room when I was in Japan with my then-husband. It had been obscured by rain/smog and when I was able to see it for the first time I could hardly believe it was real.

I salute your courage. I would have been your mother in that family scenario, waiting for the three of you -- all the while, enjoying the pleasures of massage, tubs, sleep.

My strongest food memory from that trip is a dinner in a ryokan somewhere on the coast (Ciba?) when we were served in our rooms with the door open to the garden. A short-tailed cat came in and walked around us as we dined sitting on cushions at a low table.
(That and an hours-long dinner at a Kyoto-style restaurant owned by a photographer friend's family where we were sake-d and sated to the limit in a private room. It was the first time I had ever tasted chilled sake (kept in a block of ice at the table).

Friday, June 12, 2009  
Blogger Zoomie said...

Anna, it truly was unforgettable.

Nancy, you would have been in Japan at the same time I was - funny coincidence, huh?

Cookiecrumb, the funny part is that we all created our own pressure based on our observations of each other's capabilities. Wacky.

Jananvan, it would make a very colorful documentary! Let me know when you've lined up the backers. :-)

Kudzu, I think there is simply nothing as beautiful on earth as that - the open door to the lovely garden, the exquisitely prepared meal, the sublime surroundings - heavenly. The cat was a bonus, too - love those short-tailed (and often big-pawed) Japanese cats.

Another of my enduring memories is a large Japanese banquet to which I was invited - we had hot sake and the servers (geisha) played drinking games with us to get us all a little tipsy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009  

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