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Climbing in Japan: A Pilgrim’s Journey

I lay awake in bed, unable to sleep, listening to the torrential downpour outside my apartment in Ibaraki, Japan. In the morning, I planned to embark on a solo ascent up Japan’s venerated Mount Fuji: the most-visited mountain in the world.

As someone who had summitted all of Colorado’s highest peaks along its Front Range, I thought I should be feeling cool and confident the night before a big hike. I felt I had acquired the necessary skills to tackle Fuji-san. I knew, from experience, how to successfully fend off altitude sickness. I had hiked Colorado’s Pikes Peak, the most-visited mountain in North America, which reaches an altitude of over 14,000 feet. (By comparison, Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, stands lower at 12,389 feet.)

But just weeks earlier, I had come across a news story about two hiking partners–one American, the other Japanese–who had made an attempt on Mount Fuji. They both had successfully reached the top, it is presumed. But they were ill-prepared for the bad weather they encountered. Evidence suggests that, on their way back down, they developed hypothermia; which, under its vicious spell, might have seduced them into taking a wrong turn. Both were found dead on the mountain, days after having reached the summit.

I lay in bed, in the darkness, listening to the rain, that catalyst for trouble. Pitter, patter, pitter, patter, pitter, patter…

Still, I hoped to experience what is known as the traditional pilgrim’s route up Mount Fuji, taking in not only its oft-visited, rocky upper cone, but also its frequently-ignored, quieter regions closer to its base: its verdant forest and lower grasslands. By hiking the mountain in its entirety, I hoped to experience a serene and varied Mount Fuji, regardless of its reputation for heavy trail traffic and monotonous rock zones.

If I started at the true entrance to Fuji’s sacred grounds and continued up the Yoshidaguchi trail, I estimated it would take me about ten hours to reach the summit. In addition, I wanted to up-the-ante by watching the sunrise from the top—thus experiencing the Japanese tradition of goraiko. I planned to hike all through the night, treating the journey as one giant trek: from dusk ’til dawn.

At this point, I had been preparing for over two weeks. I had carefully read the brochures, made round-trip bus reservations, and gathered all the necessary equipment, purchasing any outstanding critical items.

Rain pants. Check. Poncho. Check. Flashlight. Check.

The day before, I had sprayed waterproofing agent onto my rain pants, fastidiously packed all my gear into my day pack, and emailed my itinerary to both my girlfriend in the U.S. and my company in Japan, just to be on the safe side.

With all these preparations out of the way, I thought, “What could go wrong?”

Later That Same Day…

I found myself in the middle of the forest, alone on Mount Fuji, with the sun about to set.

“Hmmm, what now?” I thought.

And as I stood there, with the sun setting, I was getting hungry…and tired. Still, there was no sign of the east/west trail towards the amenity-laden Fifth Station. If I couldn’t eat a proper dinner of hot ramen at a restaurant on the mountain, at least I wanted a snack. So I found a rock to sit on, unzipped my pack, and took out a package of beef jerky.

I began to eat. I finally felt just how tired I was. I was so tired I thought I could easily lie down on the damp earth and fall asleep for the night. I wished that I had a tent, but also knew it was against Mount Fuji’s policies to camp without a permit. I wondered if this rule included crashing out mid-trail?

Sengen Shrine

With clear skies and moderate temperatures that day, I already had seen Mount Fuji at its best. It had been about five hours since I first passed through the main entrance of Kanatorii, its gate serving as a divider between the land of the living and the spirit world. I had walked under the magnificent gate of the sublime Sengen shrine. Its tranquil, sunken garden contained a fountain that shot water high into the air from a majestic pool of water below. Tiered paths had led me up the mountain towards Japanese shrines, where stone monkeys kept watch outside torii gates, guarding their entrances.

As I had climbed higher, the air became refreshingly cooler, and a layer of mist became visible in the tree tops. At every turn, I had seen rays of sunlight shooting through the forest like oversized laser beams. The sun sometimes had eluded me, hiding behind the trees; then, alternately, it reappeared and disappeared, dancing before me. Appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing…Mother Nature had continued her natural light show for me.

I had experienced total isolation. Sunlight had shone through spider webs, high above in the trees. The only sounds had been of birds chirping and the crunch of my tennis shoes on red and black, damp volcanic rock. I had heard animals cry out in the distance: two deer. I had gotten a good look before they pranced away.

But now, sitting on a rock, alone, in the middle of Fuji-san’s dense forest, I hoped that I had enough energy just to make it to the next shelter for the night.

When I had strutted off the bus, with a confident swagger, at the base of the mountain earlier that day, I imagined if Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had possessed similar aplomb when they embarked for Everest. But now, all delusions of grandeur aside, I just felt weary, tapped of energy. The impending darkness and the solitude seemed to eat away at my remaining optimism. Maybe the food would help give me a boost and lift me out of my lethargy, I thought. Because at this point, I sure felt defeated.


“What was that?” I thought. “An animal?…a hiker?”

The sound had come from below, on the trail.

“Snap! Crunch!”

“There it is again,” I thought.

I stood up, nervous. Footsteps…human footsteps…approaching….hiking up the trail from just below. And, the person was almost at the bend, near where I sat on my rock.

Something deep inside of me, the competitive side of me, told me to gather my things and get moving. It just didn’t seem right to have made it all this way to have someone pass me now.

I zipped up my bag, threw it around my shoulders, and started upwards again. I rounded another bend and tried to quicken my pace from before. I entered a long stretch of fairly steep trail. I looked back. Two men were already gaining on me. They were fast. It was no use. They would soon pass me. I stopped and waited. My cat-and-mouse game was about to end.

“Hello,” I said and smiled.

“Hello,” they said back. I detected European accents.

View from the mountain lodge

“Excuse me, but, did you notice that the Fifth Station back there did not have any bathrooms or restaurants, or…anything?” I observed.

“Oh, that?” one of them said, the younger of the two. “That’s the old Fifth Station. The new Fifth Station is the other one.”

“Oh,” I said. “I was hoping some facilities would be close by.” I introduced myself, extending a hand.

The younger man’s name was Martin, probably in his twenties. We shook hands.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Czech Republic,” he said. “You?”

“America. New York,” I replied.

We continued together up the trail. Besides being great company, they had a sharp sense of direction. The path now seemed suddenly complex and intricate: picking up other roads, leaving others behind. We pulled ourselves over a small wall and merged onto a paved road, as our previous trail ended. Martin and the other man started down the new road, and I followed.

Most notably, not long after this confluence of trail and road, we had to pick up yet another trail. This one started as a miniscule break in the forest that cut abruptly into the woods. I doubt I ever would have noticed it by myself. Without the help of my astute new hiking partners, I’m sure I would have missed this sharp turn, obliviously walking right past it.

Martin told me he was living in Osaka and had been living in Japan for a number of years. He was a college student there; he seemed much older, wiser beyond his years.

I told him I had just moved to Japan this past March.

“It’s too bad…a lot of people leave Japan after only a year, or a short time…before they get a chance to learn the culture…really meet people and get adjusted…so they leave with a bitterness…a bad feeling about the country, which is too bad, before they ever get a chance to do something like this,” he said.

“Like climb Mount Fuji?” I asked.

“Right,” he said.

“How long did it take you before you felt you were really adjusted in Japan?” I asked him.

“About a year and a half…at least…before I was able to really make friends,” he said. “It’s hard getting started here, isn’t it?” he added.

“Whew, so hard,” I admitted.

Flashbacks hit me of trying to work the turn signal on my car but would clumsily, and repeatedly, turn on the windshield wipers by accident. Memories of first learning how to sort, recycle, and throw all my garbage, break down and rinse all my juice and milk cartons Japanese style, and learn on which days it was appropriate to do so, overwhelmed my consciousness: along with insufferable images of garbage quickly piling in my kitchen, like some twisted version of Jenga I was being forced to play.

“I don’t speak much Japanese,” I confessed.

“I studied the language for a year before I came over,” he said. “I tried to learn as much as I could before I came. I’ve always had a special interest in Japanese culture. It’s got a nice economy. Why did you choose Japan?”

I paused to consider his question. “Well, I had lived in Korea for a number of years–” I started.

“Wow,” he said.

“And Korea and Japan…and China have a shared history. I saw a window of time where I could do it…and try living in Japan or China for awhile,” I said.

“Wow, great,” he said. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah, yeah, so far so good,” I said.


Just as the sun was going down, at 6:35 p.m., we made it to a bona fide, civilized rest area with facilities. It was the first mountain hut we reached on the trail, known as Sato Goya, and thus a significant milestone. We made it just in time to enjoy the sunset from 7,000 plus feet up. We walked to the southern portion of the rest area to take pictures and enjoy the view. We were just above the clouds. They obstructed the view of the town of Fujiyoshida, just below, but not from the wide expanse of sky before us.

Jeffrey Rambo is a freelance travel writer from New York who lived in South Korea for three and a half years. He currently lives in Ibaraki, Japan and relishes in trips to nearby Tokyo. He’s written for Travelmag and Scholastic News Online. Visit his Web site at: jeffrey.rambo.stories.

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