26 Sep A Year In Japan, Celebrated With Best Friends From the Summit of Mt. Fuji
HIKING MT. FUJI is one of those ideas you knock around with friends for years, perhaps even a lifetime. To make the memory, action is required.
This prevents many of us from enacting the dreams our hearts long to live; they seem improbable until we take that first step and start climbing.
An extraordinary life isn’t so difficult to attain, it just takes intention.
I’m lucky to have Pat, such a man of intention as a brother by my side in Japan. Patrick Macmahon is a dude who’s constantly making moves and taking charge.
When I told him we gotta hike Fuji-san early in the summer, his response was, as usual: We do, don’t we. He was already picking up the phone to gather intel on how it could be done.
Our timing was auspicious, as we discovered that the climbing season takes place between July 10th and September 10th. That was that. Our motley crew settled to scale the shy mountain at the end of August.
When I made my initial plan to move to Japan alone, I thought I was willing to endure the solitude if it meant I could follow my dream of living in a foreign country while relaying my experience; but this wasn’t just any country.
I was moving to Japan, one of the most distinct, complex, and beautiful geographical and cultural destinations in the world.
The solitude was not what I expected.
I fell into a group of lifelong friends immediately, the first fallen domino in a string of serendipitous events, encounters and relationships over the past year that make me a believer in fate.
Fate’s a tidy word to sum up the phenomena. Fate, to me, is this:
If you listen to that spirit within and follow it into the unknown, stars will come alive and guide you through the darkest nights.
These stars might be books or strange encounters or revelations that strike like lightning on a very long walk. More often than not, however, these stars are friends.
“No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel,” writes the revolutionary 20th-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.”
Our work is to discover what it means to live in our body, our heart, our soul. Our work is to push against the boundaries of who we are with unwavering curiosity, joy, forgiveness and love, to become who we can be.
That’s why it’s our work. This shit ain’t easy. Nothing worth passionately going for is.
Pat, Paige, Ashley, Joe and I were part of the first training group in our company to arrive in Japan since Covid. It was September 2022 and the Japanese borders were closed to tourists.
That bewilderment of living out our respective ambitions in an otherworldly situation (Japan without tourists) became the impetus for our friendship. We were in this thing together and always will be, no matter where our roads lead.
For now, our roads would take each of us to the top of Mt. Fuji to cap off our first year living in Japan. Our troupe would meet after work at Shin Osaka station and take the Shinkansen to Shizuoka, the prefecture in which Mt. Fuji is located.
Not to mention it was Pat’s birthday, so vibes were exceptionally high.
The seven of us, as our homies Dave and Taena were joining as well, gathered on the train platform and sang happy birthday to Patty as he threw on a pink sash and pair of pink birthday shades, graciously gifted by Dave and Taena.
We boarded the Shinkansen, spun the seats around so we could all face each other, and cracked open a few Asahi beers and bento boxes. The journey commenced with a celebratory KANPAI!
After settling in, I headed for the slinky-like middle portion of the train to stand. A storm had been brewing in the Kansai region. Lightning illuminated the hazy sky and rain splattered the windows.
A year in Japan, I mused.
It felt surreal, and still does. Days can be difficult. I often have to make the effort to be grateful, joyful, hopeful. But these sorts of emotions will arise no matter where we are or what we do. Life is a journey to discover what makes the pain of being alive worth it.
The evening flashed through my mind:
I went to work, changed, strapped on my hiking pack and headed for the Shinkansen. I met my friends, we sang happy birthday and boarded; the lightning strikes the thunder roars the rain falls and we’re headed to scale Fuji-san. Cherish this. Every goddam second.
After passing around a bottle of Fuji-sourced whiskey I got for Pat’s birthday, sushi, chocolate nuts and tall tales, we arrived in Shizuoka.
The quintessential European hostel is known for cheap beds, partying and meeting other travelers. They can fall prey to debauchery and a bit of grime, which is part of the fun.
In Japan, however, hostels remain cheap but are often relaxed, quaint, comparable to somebody’s home rather than a pit stop for youthful globetrotters, especially in the countryside.
Our hostel in the peaceful town of Fuji was one of these places.
The owner ambled down the stairs when he heard us at the door. He grinned widely at the five of us (Dave and Taena were at another hotel) through the dark, dimly lit hallway, lined on both sides by shoji paper doors. It was around 10pm.
There was one other traveler in our room, a man from St. Louis, Missouri. He perked up in his bed, chipper to talk to some Americans. After we checked in and unpacked, we asked if we could kick it in the kitchen for a bit.
Yes, just had to be respectful. Pat dispersed kitchen mugs to us sitting at the kitchen table next to a small grey T.V. and a Nintendo-64. We sipped the burning whiskey while reminiscing on the past year, our plans and why we love Pat (it was his birthday, after all).
When the owner smiled and told us he had to close the kitchen, Pat, Joe and I asked if we could chill for a bit longer in the backyard. Again, he said okay.
The three of us stood on the small patch of turf beneath the stars, prominent in the sphere of black sky compared to when at home in Osaka.
These are the moments that matter. These are the moments I love more than anything, getting into the nitty gritty of how we feel, what we’re dealing with, what we love.
The night was warm and the bugs fluttered and bit and the picturesque contour of Fuji loomed from beyond the landscape of the town.
We were out the door before 7am. We walked along the vacant, quiet road beneath a pale morning sky, the fresh, light air reviving us; a beautiful day was in store.
After a short train and a konbini (convenient store) breakfast, we boarded the bus. Four trails lead to the summit of Fuji-san. The bus wove through a forest of soaring green pines on our way to the 5th-station of our chosen route, the Fujinomiya trail, from which we’d begin our ascent.
One might opt to summit the mountain in one go like our dear friend from St. Louis.
Preferring a more slowly paced climb, we’d be spending half a night at one of the mountain huts near the top of the mountain. At 3am we’d hightail it through the small morning hours to watch the rising sun from the summit.
This meant that we had all day to make it about three quarters of the way up the mountain to the 9th-station where we’d be sleeping.
Soon our legs were churning, the conversation was flowing and the landscape shifted from dark green trees and rich brown earth to lava rocks and a bare mountainside, interwoven with brushstrokes of abundant yellow flowers.
I’d stop to check out the flowers and sea of multicolored stones beneath our feet. Their colors of softened red, grey, black and blue washed against the brown soil like an array of drifting meteorites sailing against the backdrop of infinity.
The change in weather was sudden, beginning with a brilliant blue sky. A layer of fog slowly rolled upon the mountain face as we reached a more demanding stretch of lava rocks, no longer a hike but a climb that required stepping rock upon rock, craggy stone upon stone, while a layer of cool mist engulfed us.
Now it felt like we were climbing Mt. Fuji — one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an icon of natural beauty and culture.
Through the mist came the jingling of bells deriving from the walking sticks purchased at any of the mountain huts.
Joe purchased one. I’d live vicariously through him. A team member at each mountain hut would brand the staff with a hot iron.
The lovely scent of burning wood welcomed us at every hut. They slowly rotated the iron above a smoldering flame, denoting a unique symbol from each station and, at the end, an epic compilation.
The bells plus the sound of a powerful BOOM every fifteen minutes or so fashioned the ambient soundtrack of the climb. Damn, that’s a hell of a thunder storm, we kept thinking every time we heard the BOOM; alas, we discovered it was the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force training in the area.
There’s a camaraderie when doing something healthy and exciting and out of the ordinary.
Konichiwas and ganbattes, hello and good luck! were dished between hikers like hot cakes with little regard. We’re out here; we’re climbing; let’s do this thing.
We took our time at each mountain hut to talk to other hikers turned friends, snack on onigiri, sandwiches and protein bars, and take in the increasingly mesmerising views.
At around 4pm, after six or seven hours of climbing, we made it to the 9th-station. We’d be holing up here until our final ascent at 3am. The sky was radiant, blue, fierce.
Pearly white clouds drifted by with nowhere to be. I’d never experienced anything like that, the feeling of being in an airplane soaring through the clouds yet standing there, dirt beneath my feet on the side of a volcano, the atmosphere at eye level.
We threw on our thick beanies and fluffy jackets as dusk approached. The temperature dropped significantly. I thought I forgot what it was like being cold while experience the humidity of the Japanese summer.
But just like that we were freezing in the final stretch of summer, as if winter came early and seeped into our bones.
The hut had that cozy spirit of a mountain ski lodge, adding to the wintry sentiment. Travelers relaxed at tables dispersed throughout one main restaurant and shop.
Before tucking into our curry dinner we’d check out the sleeping arrangements, one long hall of bunk beds behind curtains with a myriad of slippers, shoes and walking sticks strewn all along the floor.
We peered behind the curtain to find our quarters: five mats and blankets side by side like the family in Willy Wonka, essentially sleeping in one big bed. It would be a slumber party to remember.
Back in the main cabin we got to know some of the legends who call the 9th-station home. The boys Daiki and Jin had a laid-back and colorful mountain style, which, paired with their beaming smiles, captured my heart.
We had beers and curry and hot green tea, then Pat, Joe and I had a second dinner of udon noodles — much needed.
Night rolled in and we were fading. However, as we stepped outside into the cold to catch the sunset, the scene inspired total disbelief. Pink and gold billowing clouds held us like a cocoon, stretching for as far as our eyes could see.
We passed around the bottle of whiskey to warm our spirits as the moon rose to the heavens. Soon enough, the clouds were consumed by darkness, stars, silence.
Now, there really was a storm brewing below.
At around 8pm we climbed into the bunk to hit the sack. Unable to stretch my legs fully and feeling intensely warm, I woke up at around 11pm and couldn’t fall back asleep.
Luckily I was laying closest to the window which I realized I could open. Fresh air, thank god.
12pm. Lightning flooded the horizon in the dead of night. I looked at our squad. Pat was gone. The others laid side by side, ostensibly asleep. I smiled; it was uncomfortable, a memory.
I sat up for a while, gazing out the window. Daiki was doing something outside, providing a comforting feeling of having him and his squad there, watching over us like a family. This was their life, at least for the summer.
The others began rummaging around — except Ashley. Knocked out. Paige laughed. None of us could sleep. I think Pat said screw it and was in the main cabin questioning everything.
I laid there and the hours passed — 2am — finally. The lights turned on.
I gathered my things and headed to the main cabin which I found full of others ready to hit the trail. Hikers breakfasted on bento boxes and noodles; Daiki stood at the order window, smiling joyfully as he dished out cups of hot coffee.
I like that stale, hot, muddy coffee in a paper cup — it reminds me of camping, road trips, cabins and canteens, informality and nature and fire. Tired eyes, scruffy beards and shining headlamps were plentiful, creating a buzz, a groggy-faced energy reminiscent of adventure.
I stepped outside and sipped my brew, watching as the lightning continued to strike above the faint city lights below. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Our team assembled and I said peace to my boys Daiki and Jin as we grabbed our bento boxes, part of the purchased deal sleeping at the hut.
Time for our final ascent. This time everybody was on the trail at once, as it’s common to hike in the early morning to catch the sunrise at the top.
While the amount of climbers slowed down our pace significantly, it was exciting to be a part of this snaking line of headlamps winding up into the darkness and down into the mountain’s depths.
Joe and I would stop, turn around from the mountain’s face and look into the dim yet glimmering, faraway lights of Tokyo. There wasn’t much that could be said, nor was it easy in this state to put together a cohesive string of thought.
We just smiled, thinking the same thing: This year has been incomprehensibly cool. Look where we’re standing; look what we’re part of.
The rest of the squad soon caught up and conversation transitioned into terribly absurd horror movies and who knows what other nonsense, as is typical for us.
After around an hour, we passed through a wooden and grey torii gate, a threshold, the final checkpoint.
It was dark, although a muted red, glowing light began to emerge. Morning. The summit of the volcano was vast and we could watch as, in the distance, the shapes and shadows of travelers crawled atop the rising mountainside.
After passing through another series of torii gates which followed the sloping crest of the volcano, we found a spot on a bit of dirt and lava rock that would do nicely as camp.
Fifty yards from our spot we ventured to find the great crater of Fuji-san, no keep out signs, nothing; just a bare, open mouth, inducing a Lord of the Rings reenactment where I channeled my inner Frodo and tossed the ring into the metaphorical pit of magma.
It was very cold. We were cheerful, cracking a 5am Asahi to commemorate our accomplishment, our year, our friendship.
The cold bento boxes of rice, dumplings, sausages and sour umeboshi were devoured while pink primrose steeped throughout the sky. Slate blue clouds lifted from the surface of the glassy Pacific Ocean.
It didn’t matter what we did to cap off our first year. We were together.
Friends turn this journey called living into a world worth voluntarily facing, for, even in the bitter cold, I felt at home up there warmed by laughter — for laughter is love and love is the point — a sound, a feeling, which follows in the wake of friendship no matter what life puts in our way.