The sun rose in the East just as it did every morning as I peered out of my dormitory window. If I pressed my face against the side of the screen hard enough, I could just make out the elongated orange
orb as it peeked over the horizon. Most of the year, I could not witness the
moment of sunrise due to the simple fact that several large buildings and hangers crowded most of the horizon line. It didn't help that I was on the first floor. Yet there
was a narrow space between two of the military structures that just happened to afford me a glimpse of the majestic, glowing
ball of fire on that warm August morning. It was a good omen.
Rick, I knew, would be fast asleep. Although we were the best of friends
during our military assignment in Japan, I tended to be an early riser while Rick stayed
up long past my bedtime. He drank. Heavily.
For three months now, we had been tentatively planning
a trip to the most famous of Japanese landmarks, Mount Fujiyama, and I was eager to get started on the packing.
Rick was not. More than likely he would toss some snacks, drinks and
clothing items into a backpack ten minutes before we departed for the train station in Tachikawa. I was more meticulous. We had each paid the five thousand
yen for our tickets – about forty-five bucks at the current exchange rate – and committed ourselves to the trip. We were going to climb the mountain.
It wasn't a demanding climb, mind you, like Kilimanjaro or Everest. No
rope was required, no hooks, clips or special equipment. Other than a good pair
of hiking boots and a willing spirit, we didn't need much else. The climb, our
military-issued, English language brochure told us, took about eight hours and usually required warm clothing as one ascended
the top. It was just over a mile high and not particularly demanding, with a
walking trail winding across one side of the mountain. Apparently thousands of Japanese
and tourists flocked to the base of Mt. Fuji
each day during the warmer seasons to climb the famed mountain, and being numbered among them gave me a unique feeling, a
notion that somehow we were all interconnected. I may have only been 22 years
old, but I was ever the philosopher.
After spending quite some time making up my mind on what to pack for
our overnight climb (most of what I wanted to bring simply would not fit into my backpack), I decided to head over to the
chow hall for breakfast. Minutes later, to my genuine amazement, Rick arrived
carrying his own tray. He looked like one of those gargoyles mounted atop the
parapets of Notre Dame, with hunched shoulders and eyes glazed over from the alcohol binge the night before.
“Man, look what the cat dragged in,” I said as Rick pulled up a chair across from me and placed his tray
on the table. He met my attempt at humor with nothing more than a single grunt. I continued, “What brought you from under the rock this early?”
It usually took until the afternoon before my buddy was fully awake and alert, so I knew it would be a pretty quiet
morning at the table. But I was wrong.
We actually engaged in human conversation that morning, something quite foreign to those defending their country abroad
– or anywhere for that matter. Most GIs, you see, are not exactly renowned
for their willingness to talk about anything outside of drinking, fighting and women.
A few “hoo rahs,” head butts and well-placed grunts were sufficient to get your point across. In fact, enlisted members of the U. S.
military used the grunt so often that it had practically risen to an art form, with the length, tone and inflection of each
guttural utterance giving the sound a completely different – and sometimes opposing – meaning. Words were optional.
After fine-tuning the details of our ensuing excursion, Rick and I headed back to the Air Force dorm for some final
preparation. The bus left at one o'clock sharp.
Although we chose to wear comfortable clothing for the hot August day, shorts and tank tops, we had heard that
it could get pretty chilly atop the mountain, so most of what we packed was warm clothing, jeans, sweatshirts, hats, gloves
and jacket. Better to be safe than sorry, we thought. Although we had made trips and forays together into Tokyo's Ginzu district
– a real tourist spot - and other places in the heart of Japan, we had never been this excited. Mt. Fuji was the inspiration for Japan’s flag and symbolic of the nation's very spirit, a red sun rising on
a white field. You've probably seen it in many of the old World War II movies. Rumor said that it is the goal of every Japanese citizen to visit the mountain and
climb to its summit at least once during their life, and when Rick and I finally arrived at the mountain's base, we could
both believe it.
There were people. And more people.
There were so many people, in fact, that I thought I was at Mount Rushmore or the Washington Monument on a Fourth of July weekend. It was a veritable ocean of olive-skinned, dark haired bodies with here and there
a smattering of lighter-skinned, lighter-haired Westerners obviously from America
and Europe. Feeling proud to be part of such
a momentous event, I was nonetheless prouder still of my own heritage, and Rick and I showed it by having mounted two small
United States flags from each of our backpacks. We were climbing the mountain, and we were doing it for America! Hoo rah!
Following the crowd along the wide path leading up to the mountain trail's base, Rick and I walked quick, passing most
of the other tourists and travelers in our eagerness to conquer the summit. From
the base, Mt. Fuji
did not look so tall, and we figured we might be able to shave some time off our eight-hour climb. Although neither of us were what you would consider great athletes, we were young and in good shape, and
we began setting a goal of pushing ourselves to see just how fast we could climb the mountain.
There's a certain unique, physical competitiveness among the young that is not often found among their elders, and
we were determined to prove to ourselves – and to everyone else – that as Americans, we were unstoppable.
The first couple of hours hiking were rather enjoyable as we made good time up the winding path. We were sweating, of course, but not winded, and we stopped a couple of times to pull out a snack bar or energy
drink and continued walking. Along the way, we slowed periodically to chat with
other climbers making their way up the mountain. Needless to say, these “others”
were usually women. Boys will be boys.
Neither of us spoke Japanese beyond a few useful words and phrases, but we still had some interesting chats and even
scored a phone number or two.
If you've never been to Japan,
I can tell you that one of the first things you will notice when traveling about is that practically everyone speaks some
English. For a nation with a long, proud history, Japan is as Westernized as any country of European origin. Part of this process of Westernization involves imitating other cultures, particularly America. Ironically, although most
of the citizens are plainly Buddhist or even atheists, their Christmas celebrations and public decorations rivaled any I have
seen since childhood. It was amazing.
Additionally, being Americans afforded us the opportunity of approaching many Japanese who were eager to test their
English skills and learn more about us. For me, it was an irresistible opportunity
to meet members of the opposite sex. Rick, I am sure, agreed.
Perhaps the most important items we brought with us on our foray were winter gear, particularly gloves. About four hours into our climb, the terrain turned rocky and the trail grew steeper. Numerous times, we found ourselves seeking better footing as our climb ascended, and the need to reach
out and grab hand holds on the increasingly barren rock made us glad we had both brought along gloves. As we stumbled and picked our way up the remainder of the mountain while the sun made its way steadily
toward the horizon, I could not help but ask myself how older climbers made it up the mountain. Surely, it took more than eight hours for them. I wondered
if they even made it to the flattened summit before the morning sunrise.
While we stopped a moment to rest and have a drink, proud of the fact that we had left everyone behind us, I spotted
three heads making their way up the trail behind us – and quickly closing. We
were unsure who these three hardy souls were, but it seemed to us that they might soon catch up if we did not move on. Rearranging our packs and donning our hats and gloves, the race was on.
Higher and higher we climbed, faster and faster. Yet each time we glanced
behind us, the three figures were looming larger and larger, gaining on us. We
moved even faster. Sweat poured from our bodies like rivulets of rainwater down
a mountain gully and still the interlopers were gaining ground. How, we asked
ourselves? It didn’t take long to realize, once they had grown close enough,
that these were not just any tourists, they were U.S. Marines. Heads shaved
and donning U.S.M.C. tank tops and shorts and no other packs or gear we could see, the race up the mountain became more personal
for us: it was a race for pride. There was no way Rick and I were going to let
these jarheads beat us to the summit, and with everything in us, we strove to outpace them.
It didn’t last long.
After another twenty minutes of grunting, struggling
and perspiring, we watched as the three marines greeted us from behind, then passed us by handily up the trail. We had lost. Although we continued at a near feverish pace,
it was plain to see that we were never going to catch them, so inevitably we slowed our pace and stopped for a few minutes
to drink heavily and catch our breath. Besides, it had begun growing dark outside
and the chill of a growing westerly wind moved through us like icy waters over wet sand.
We pulled the remainder of our cold weather gear from our packs and dressed like Eskimos.
By the time we reached the summit, we knew
we had made the right choice by dressing warmly, for it was bitter cold. The
wind must have been gusting over thirty miles an hour and a cold mist had enwrapped the summit like a death shroud. Dressed as we were, we still shivered at times in the frigid air while we searched about for a dry, warm
place to eat and wait until sunrise. It was while searching for the traveler’s
waystation that we literally almost stumbled upon something big wrapped together under a wind-buffeted tarp in a small, rocky
alcove. It was the three fellow service members!
Apparently, they had packed almost nothing for the trip to the top and were now lamenting their foolish choice, huddling
together and visually shivering under the scant protection of the plastic tarp. Rick
and I passed them, murmuring hellos, then nearly howled in peels of laughter as we rounded another outcrop of rock, bits of
sand and icy drops filling our open mouths as the mountain punished us for our pride.
We never felt so good.
Finding the waystation and a couple of very old-looking
buildings, we made our way inside, the warm glow of paper lamps filling the interior with a soft, subtle light. The spicy aroma of cooked rice sizzling over an open grill with bits of finely diced, bright red and green
vegetables set our pallets watering, and we pressed ourselves through the dense throng of slightly musty bodies to find a
place on the benches upon which to sit. It was like parting the doors of Dante’s
ninth circle of hell to find paradise with a single step. We paid the man who
served us and ate greedily.
Finding a bit of space on the warm floor of an
adjacent, common sleeping room, we rolled out our coats and packs and laid down for a nap.
The dawn was not for several hours, and we wanted to be well rested for our foray back into the cold. We sat talking about our trip up and about the three poor marines freezing half to death under the flapping
tarp, but when I suggested that perhaps one of us should go outside and direct them to the heavily cloud-shrouded building,
Rick thought it may make them “soft,” so we abandoned the idea. Real
When the faint, hazy blue light of dawn began to
appear in the east, practically everyone in the sleeping room arose, dressed and began moving outside the way I had imagined
dedicated pilgrims who trod religiously around the great shrine of Mecca. We hastily joined the procession and made our way to the east rim of the summit,
gaining in general height of our Japanese travelers what we may have lost in nearness to the front of the crowd. We waited. And waited.
As the sky shone brighter and brighter, we checked
our watches frequently, anticipating the moment of the great orb’s rise from the east, yet as the dawn waxed, we suddenly
realized that the heavy fog and cloud cover the night before had not yet lifted, and we stood in great anxiety anticipating
a tragic end to our journey. Would the clouds part? Would the haze lift? It was still bitterly cold and windy
on the mountaintop, and we prayed silently each in our own way for the wind to blow away the fog and bestow upon us the gift
of sunrise. It finally came.
As though the Muses had heard our plea,
the clouds and fog parted slightly – just enough – for us to make out a vivid red sunrise, an affirmation,
if you will, of our hope. Pressed together with literally thousands of Japanese
sojourners and others atop that bitterly cold mountain, it was as though the symbol of that great nation was something more:
a symbol for all of humanity.
Although that trip back down the mountain wasn't
nearly as rushed as the trip up, Rick and I had the impression that we were part of something much greater than ourselves. So, in the spirit of our shared humanity in a larger world, we met a couple of Japanese
girls with whom we exchanged numbers on the way down. I guess that omen was
better than even we knew!