The alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. That gave Emmi enough time to fix her hair with the curling iron and Marissa to put on her "face" before departure. On the bus we were given an XS sandwich and two rice balls. Luckily, we learned that the rice balls or “onigiri” were intended for lunch, which kept me from wolfing them down immediately. By 6:30 a.m. we had each been given the hand protectors Ben calls “Michael Jackson gloves” and an oxygen canister. Then, after the group photo that counts as mandatory in Japan, we started climbing Mount Fuji. After the many hours in the classroom it was nice to finally get away from the schoolroom, from keigo (honorific speech in the Japanese language), and from Tokyo. My classmates and I were very excited to be going on this excursion.

I was aware that Mt. Fuji is the symbol of Japan, a holy mountain to which the Japanese make pilgrimages, much like Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca. I learned that in the past women were not allowed to climb Fuji because the goddess of the mountain might become jealous. And I understood why the Japanese adore Fuji the first time I laid eyes on it. There is something dignified in the way the more than 3,700-meter volcano with its near-symmetrical summit dominates its surroundings. On a clear day you can even see it from the tops of the Tokyo skyscrapers. It wasn’t hard to understand how the Japanese must have feared this growling and spectacularly beautiful giant, and how they did everything in their power to placate it, rather than let it bury them in lava and ash.


On climbing the mountain I realized that nothing grows on volcanic residue. In other words, our walk was through a bare, reddish soil rather than a green landscape. So, instead of reminiscing on its beauty, I kept thinking about being on a volcano that, if the newspapers’ warnings are to be believed, could blow its top at any time. Periodically we reached a rest station with a lodge where we could rest (all night if we wanted to) and decide whether we wanted to keep going to the next rest station. Given the narrow trail and the huge number of climbers, you simply cannot turn around between stations.


According to our teacher, mountain climbing is a team activity and we were called on to behave like a team during the trek. Despite the warning we managed to “stretch out” pretty quickly and pick our individual mountain-climbing tempos. If we met at a station our communications were limited to telling one another in various languages that we were on the verge of collapse but were not giving up. My goal was to keep going, however slowly, and I kept setting interim targets. In the meantime I feasted my eyes on my surroundings. The view from the mountain was unbelievable. I felt that I was walking above the clouds.


I also found it interesting that most of the climbers were Japanese (I guess they really do make pilgrimages to Fuji) and that many of the Japanese had very small children with them. Many kindly asked where I was from. There were portions of the trek where we had to go single file. And the only way we could take a step was if the person in front of us stepped forward first. No one wanted to cut ahead of the others. Instead, everyone waited patiently until the slowest person had reached safety. There was something motivating in having so many other people going to the same place and paying attention to each other while on the go. Maybe it really is a team activity?


Getting to Fuji’s summit was amazing. I felt a mixture of triumph, joy, relief, and gratitude. Together with Diego and Ronald I had a meal of karee raisu (curried rice) at the restaurant of "weary wanderers". Then we looked into the caldera and started downwards. Climbing up Fuji was tough, but climbing down was really trying. We sank up to our ankles in volcanic ash and slid sideways down the slope. The more daring among us ran down the less steep slopes, creating clouds of ash that covered everyone and everything. Sunglasses and towels covering our faces didn’t help much either.


On reaching our lodgings, the teacher said we would only get dinner if we washed ourselves down thoroughly first. No one needed to be told twice!

The photos are my own, taken during the hike.