Over the clouds to a bowl of instant curry
Almost every person who comes to visit Japan climbs Mount Fuji. It’s like a tourist rite of passage. In all the years I have been here though, I have never actually done it. The closest I came was climbing for about 30 or 40 minutes before the group unanimously decided that we would rather have beer. So, we climbed back down to the car and enjoyed the view instead. Being that close to one of Japan's most majestic mountains is awe inspiring. It fills you with a sense of earth magic. They say that Mount Fuji is both a power spot and a haunted place. To me, it's just another magnificent view of Mother Nature. Its conical shape reminds me of an ample bosom pointing towards the sky.
Despite not having climbed the tallest mountain in Japan, I have climbed the second-highest, Mt. Kita Dake. This formidable beauty sits as part of the southern Alps of Yamanashi prefecture. The summit is 10,476 feet (3193 meters) in the sky. I was invited on the trip by a new coworker named Adam Oxer. He was a Jewish guy from Chicago. He wanted to go mountain climbing, but he didn't want to do it alone. Since I had never actually been before and regretted not climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji, I agreed to go with him.
We took a bus from Kanagawa prefecture. I don't exactly remember the route because it was quite a while ago, and also, I'm moving backward in the timeline. This is from when I was working at the English Resource. I'm not sure how many of these posts you have been reading, but it's the bookshop I mentioned in an earlier story, the one that was run by a husband-and-wife team. We called the wife, the Russian because she was so mean. At first, I did not want to go on the mountain climbing expedition with Adam because I barely knew him. I said yes anyway as nothing interesting ever happened because I stayed home. We set out on our grand adventure like two hobbits on the way to Mordor, but without any of the danger, of course.
The first trouble we faced was a landslide. The road to the mountain had been destroyed by giant boulders. Our only choices were to turn back or go the rest of the way on foot. I have absolutely no sense of direction, but Adam was great at reading maps and finding the way. He decided it was better if we carried on by foot. It took a whole day of marching, an overnight camp, and another half-day before we finally made it to our destination. On the way, there was a long dark tunnel that passed through an unknown mountain. Walking in complete darkness with a pinpoint of light ahead of us and one behind us was unsettling. Paranoia crept in. I started to wonder, "What if Adam turns out to be some kind of psycho killer?" I wanted to keep him walking in front of me rather than behind me, just in case. That way, it would be harder for him to launch a sneak attack. I'm pretty sure he thought I was just slow. Of course, Adam turned out to not be a serial killer, and we made it to the other side of the tunnel without incident.
When we finally arrived at the base of the mountain, it was rocky and magnificent. It seemed much more complex than the smooth slopes of Mount Fuji. I started to get a little nervous because I felt woefully unprepared. I'd never climbed a mountain before. I wasn't even fond of hiking. I love going for walks in the woods, but I don't like the hard labor of climbing. The mountain had become a challenge that I had to overcome.
We started up the sides in the afternoon. I was a smoker back then, so climbing wasn't as smooth and easy for me as it was for Adam, who also struggled a bit. All around us, however, there were seasoned mountain climbers in their 70s and 80s scurrying up the side of the big rock like mountain goats. We even saw a few curriers with gigantic wooden boxes on their backs having a light jog up the side of the steep beast. They made us feel a bit humiliated for being so winded. We both began to wonder if we had been too ambitious but we had already started, so there was no turning back. I also didn't want to have another Mount Fuji situation. Since we had no beer, our only option was to keep going up.
The climb was long and arduous. Because the mountain is famous, there was a carved path for climbers to follow so anyone could make the journey as long as they had the will and strength to do it. We didn't need hooks or ropes other than the ones left for us on the side of the mountain. The only real mortal danger came when the wind started to pick up. The gusts became so strong it felt like we would be blown off the side of the mountain. We crouched into a ball and pushed our bodies into the side of the rocky face until the gusty winds took a break from blowing. We repeated this process until we reached a point in the climb where the angle of the mountain wall offered natural protection from the wind.
The next great obstacle along our climb was when we reached the clouds. The fog was so thick that visibility was poor. We had to depend on the proximity of each other to make sure we moved along the path safely. It meant that I had to trust Adam as much as he had to trust me even though we barely knew each other. We stayed close so that each could be in the other's visual field, and we felt our way through the fog until we broke through to see a sky full of stars.
Just above the clouds was the summit. I was shocked by what we found there. After what seemed to me like a heroic journey, I expected to see nothing but rock and sky. Instead, we found shops selling hot coffee and Japanese curry. Behind us, couriers were carrying their heavy wooden boxes. We had no idea how they made it through the wind tunnels and the clouds with those giant packs on their backs. It did not look like they had just climbed 10,000 feet. It looked more like they had just walked there from around the corner. The curry was ridiculously priced, and it was the boil in a vacuum-sealed aluminum bag type you heat in a pan then rip open and pour over rice. I can't drink coffee, but I ordered one of the curries and sat with Adam under the stars, reveling in exhaustion and sense of accomplishment. It was the best curry I had ever eaten.