Man Vs Mountain
I think I mentioned in the Bathing Gaijin editorial, I’m no longer all hung up about being naked in public. It really only took me almost dying a horrible, miserable death to cure me of my modesty. Considering how expensive good counseling is these days, I think I got a bargain.
In September of my second year in Japan, the Kyoto JET’s organized a trip to climb up Mt. Fuji.
Now, I’m not much of an outdoors man. I’ve only been camping once in my life, and pretty much the entire time I regretted not bringing my Gameboy along (camping trips IS why the Gameboy was invented, wasn’t it?). But as I had a lot on my mind at the time, I figured scaling a mountain would be a good way to take my mind off things, and get to know my fellow Kyoto JET’s a little better.
It was a wonderful idea, and as many wonderful ideas are prone to have one fatal flaw, this one was no exception. September is typhoon season in Japan.
As we got on the bus to head to Fuji, it was already overcast and starting to drizzle. The trip organizer was wondering if the bad weather extended all the way up to Fuji, so I checked the weather service using my cell phone – the forecast was a 70% chance of rain. “So that means there’s a good chance it’ll rain, huh?” She asks me.
Allow me to explain a little something about the Japanese weather service. “30% chance of rain” usually means that we’re going to get absolutely shit on. Like, grab the really big umbrella, or else you’re going to look and feel like a Frosted Flake you’ve let sit in the milk for more than 10 minutes. A 70% chance of rain?! Phone ahead to Ariel and Sebastian, because we were going to be their guests under the fucking sea.
Nevertheless, we pressed on to Mt. Fuji.
It was raining quite steadily as we arrived. We rushed into the gift/supply shop for cover, and to buy additional supplies. I found a plastic raincoat, which, much like the other Japanese “raincoats”, proved too be much too small to be of any use. I did my best to squeeze into it anyway, as it provided about as much protection as a couple of Ziploc bags taped together. Add that to my “hiking” attire of a sweatshirt and jeans (I told you I wasn’t the outdoorsy type), and I was fully prepared for everything up to and including a gentle picnic on a warm summer day.
After a while, the rain eased off, and our guide decided that we could start our trek. But see, this was merely God’s way of lulling us into a false sense of security. The torrential downpours from before were only the appetizer before the main course. Like the Bloomin’ Onion before you get that 30 oz steak. That’s not to say that climbing up a mountain during a typhoon is quite as enjoyable as a big juicy steak prefaced by a giant ball of onion-flavored grease, but they’re probably equally as bad for one’s health.
Many people who endeavor to climb Mt. Fuji do so by starting at night. The idea is to reach the top of the mountain before daybreak, and enjoy a breath-taking sunrise from the top. That was the plan we set out on. Of course, mountains don’t really have street lights or anything of the sort, so it was dark. Really dark. And cold. And then, the biblical-like plague rain started up again. So, essentially, we were climbing uphill in pitch-black darkness in freezing rain, with each step getting colder and wetter. I thought that I’d died and finally been sent to one of those circles of Hell I keep saying I’m going to be sent to. This was almost certainly retribution for the Snuzzlebunnies incident. Hey God, I can understand you wanting to send me to Hell for burying my face in the under-developed cleavage of a 15-year old Japanese girl, but if I told you I didn’t enjoy it would you at least stop the rain?
Apparently, I did enjoy it, because the rain intensified. At one point, we had to stop climbing and try to find some refuge against the side of a broken-down shack on the side of the mountain. While we waited, to take our minds off how cold and miserable we were, we decided to play a little Shiritori using musicians. Shiritori is a Japanese word game where one person says a word, then the next person must say a word that starts with the same letter that the last word ended with. For example, if the person person says “Madonna”, the next person would have to think of a musician that started with “A” – like “Aerosmith”. The next person would have to come up with a musician that starts with “H” – like “Howard Finkelstein and the Stonerock Accordions” And so on. It’s a game we English teachers often use in class (especially when we don’t have any better ideas), except we usually don’t require our students to be soaking wet seeking refuge from a typhoon a few thousand meters up a mountain. Although I would like to try this one day, I feel nothing is a better motivational tool than learning in the face of mortal peril. Though I can’t imagine what kind of permission slips I’d have to have the kids’ parents sign. “In the very likely event of death, you will not hold the school responsible for taking your kid up a mountain during severely bad weather.”
At one point, lightening started to strike. It was hitting the ground maybe 15-20 meters away from where we were. It was kind of cool, I mean I’ve never been that close to a lightening bolt before, and then it was really nice to have light, even if only for .32 seconds. It was cool at first, but then you realize that you were only 15-20 meters away from getting struck by lightening, and it sort of puts things in perspective.
At about the halfway point, over half of our group decided to quit and stay there for the night. Can you blame them? Certainly, that would have been the most logical/sane thing to do. And if you’ve been reading my editorials long enough, I shouldn’t have to tell you which group I was a part of. The rain eventually did stop (I think we just climbed higher than the clouds), but the higher we got, the colder it got. Considering that we were all completely wet, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant feeling.
Mt. Fuji is 3,776 meters tall. We made it up 3,500 meters before our tour guide got a radio warning – the winds were going to pick up, and unless we wanted to be actually blown off the mountain, we were going to have to head back. Having just survived lightening and rain and God’s fury and shit, most of us wanted to keep going. I mean, it was only 276 more meters! We’d come so far! Unfortunately, liability kicked in and we were forced to come down.
While we were waiting as our guide got the radio transmission, I noticed a group of climbers on the way down. The guide for that group spoke to our guide, confirming that winds were in fact picking up – though his group had reached the top, since they didn’t want to become human kites they were returning. As the group piled in behind him, I noticed that they were old Japanese ladies. Huh. What that means is, that here we had a group of little old Japanese ladies, who just climbed Mt. Fuji, IN THE MIDDLE OF A FUCKING TYPHOON. This only further proves my theory that little old Japanese obachan are indestructible. You know how, in Dragonball, Goku was basically the strongest man in the universe, but he bowed down to his wife Chi Chi? Goku knew – she was gonna become an old woman one day, and when that happened she’d be un-fucking-stoppable. I woulda bowed down too, and I’m not even a Super Saiyan.
Unfortunately, one does not simply get off Mt. Fuji. Climbing down is also a process, which from where we stood, was going to take an additional five hours. Hearing that, I kind of hoped that the winds would pick up and blow me off the mountain, as not only would it have been faster, it probably would have been more fun. I was still soaking wet, and the coldest I’d ever been in my entire life. Really, the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that we would be going to a nearby bath house after getting off the mountain. Usually, Japanese baths are much too hot, hovering around the temperature at which Anakin Skywalker was burned into Darth Vader, but given the current circumstances I welcomed it.
Some five hours later, we were off the mountain and at the bath house. It was kind of funny seeing some of the first year JET’s, standing there with their hand towels and asking, “so, we’re not allowed to wear our boxers?” I think my exact response to this was something along the lines of, “BITCH! YOU JUST HAD A FUCKING MOUNTAIN TRY TO *KILL* YOU, AND YOU ARE WORRIED OH MY GOD, JAPANESE GUYS ARE GONNA SEE MY WEE-WEE!” For five hours coming down, all I could think about was relaxing in that nice hot bath, and now that I was here, I certainly wasn’t going to let a little inhibition stop me. I stripped down and jumped right in. There may have been a legion of Japanese guys staring at my junk (there probably were) but I didn’t care. I just survived a Nipponjin Smash from Mt. Fuji. You guys wanna look? Sure, be my guest! You want a better angle? Here, if I turn this way you’ll get better lighting. And here creates a nice blend of artistic shadows. And hey, look, if I push here – now it’s an ostrich.
And that is how I was cured of my bathhouse inhibitions. It only took something relatively minor as freezing my pancreas off, getting rained on for hours, and nearly getting struck by lightening. But hey, if I can do it, so can you. And despite the harshness of it all, I actually enjoyed the Fuji Trip. There’s a saying in Japan – “Only a coward fails to climb Mt. Fuji once; only a fool dares to do it twice.” I’m not quite sure where climbing in in the middle of a typhoon ranks, I think somewhere between suicidal tendencies, and legal insanity. But hey, at least I have a unique Mt. Fuji story, right?
I later talked to Ms. Americanized about my Fuji trip. Turns out, she had an interesting Fuji experience as well.
Her: So we made it up to the top. And it was nice and all, but on the way down, I kind of stepped wrong and sprained my ankle.
Me: Oh man, that’s rough. What did you do?
Her: Well, that day there was a unit of US Marines there. I guess they climb Mt. Fuji as a training exercise? Well, as you can imagine, they were falling all over themselves for the opportunity to carry a young Japanese girl down the mountain.
Me: Hold on, let me get this straight. You got carried down Mt. Fuji … by an entire unit of US Marines?
Her: (grinning stupidly) Yeah, that was a good day.
Me: This is so unfair. Why can’t I be carried down Mt. Fuji by like the Swedish Bikini Team or something?
Her: . . .
Her: Oh, I’m sorry, what were you saying?
I have a new personal saying about climbing Mt. Fuji – “Only the suicidal, legally insane dare to climb Mt. Fuji during a typhoon; only very lucky English teachers get to come down it on the backs of United States Marines.” I’m going to see if we can’t get that put on a t-shirt.