Part of my modus operandi for this trip has been to avoid schedules. Sounds liberating, huh? If today is any example, I’ve succeeded so much that my planning ability has gone to shit.
I’m visiting Mount Fuji, which means a train, a highway coach then a tour bus. It’s going to be a long day for which I should have been up earlier than 6:45.
Coaches have certainly improved since my university days when I did the milk run home from Ottawa, but I’m still not a fan. I prefer trains to coaches. Perhaps it’s my aversion to traffic, because otherwise, they’re pretty much the same. Nevertheless, I’m “headed on the highway, looking for adventure.” I highly doubt Steppenwolf had public transit in mind when they sang those lyrics, but that’s one of best ways to see a city and how people live in it. Sure, you can gaze on smart shops and cool condos in the heart of a metropolis, but most people live in the outskirts. Leaving Tokyo, I see mainly old, industrial-style apartment buildings, most of which have staircases on the exterior. They look functional from the highway, and I have no idea about how they’re laid out. Most have balconies outfitted with clothes lines. Flower boxes adorn others. In my experience, highways and train lines rarely traverse tony suburbs, so I’m getting a particular view; however, it’s a side of Tokyo I wouldn’t see.
The bus isn’t full. A few foreigners, but mainly locals. A woman and her father kindly invite me to join them for the Shiba-sakura Festival, featuring a spectacular floral display. I’m interested and wonder if I can visit both the flowers and fifth station, the usual starting point for the mountain. My question is answered when we arrive at Kawaguchiko, the main town near Mount Fuji. Here, we find a crowded pink ticket booth staffed by a handful of frenzied Japanese ladies wearing huge visors. There are two lines: one for Shiba-sakura, another for fifth station.
I file in behind a young man, who notices my camera and starts chatting. He’s from Belgium and, having finished school, is travelling the world to learn English. His goal is to become a photographer. We talk about how expensive getting to the mountain has turned out to be. After a bit, I get to the booth. No one understands me but there’s lots of yelling and hurried exchanges of money by people around me. I won’t be rushed, however. A suited man pulls me aside and we try to figure things out. It amounts to this: he doesn’t speak much English but doesn’t think I can buy two tickets. Fine. Since I must chose, I opt for fifth station. I can’t apologize to the couple who invited me to join then, which is surely a breach of protocol, but the screeching and carrying on has put me on edge. I buy ichi kippu for this (pointing at fifth station on the map) and have done with it.
The tour bus awaits, so I board and find the young man. At this point he has earbuds in and is staring out the window, making no attempt at conversation. Oh well. The Broody Belgian is a lot like many of the young men I’ve encountered: disillusioned and directionless. I suspect he’s been on the road too long and needs to go home, but won’t admit it.
Mount Fuji’s official climbing season runs from early July to mid-September, so clearly I’m not going to get the full experience, nor did I expect to. I did, however, expect to get some “nature time.” When the bus pulled into fifth station, those expectations were fractured. The mountain itself is lovely; all mountains are. How can they not be? They manifest earth’s unrelenting movement, Japan being at the epicentre of same. Their majesty is without question. Fifth station, however, is another thing entirely.
I leave the bus and realize that I’ve misjudged the weather, leaving my hoodie behind and wearing just a T-shirt and raincoat. Bad Canadian. So I make a beeline to the nearest shop and buy a replacement. Not cheap, but I’m warm. Properly layered, I can check out the place. The last bus leaves at about five, so I have a few hours.
Most climbers start their treks at fifth station, and from this has sprung a tourist hub featuring the usual tourist traps such as pony rides, over-priced restaurants, and souvenir shops.
There is also a temple and a gear store. This being the off-season, the parking lot is choked with buses disgorging tourists who, with sharpened elbows, jockey for group shots. Quite the opposite of the reserved Japanese citizens I’ve engaged with so far. They crowd around the postcard stand filling out forms to select the card, then actually buying the card, then head to a room to write the card. All as if their lives depend on it. It’s like they’ve saved up their aggression and let it go when they won’t be held accountable. I managed to figure out the system, get my meagre souvenir, and send it home without completely losing my temper. Apparently, I need to eat because my mood’s dropping.
There are no international ATMs here at this tourist destination. And, no, they don’t take credit. I need to make what little cash I have last till I return. So no restaurant, no ¥ 400 quartered corn cob or baked potato. I burst out of the shop to escape the mob.
I need air and nature. The area’s actual walking space is smaller than I expected. Most trails are chained off for various reasons. The ponies look bored.
A pack of adventure cyclists gather to refuel.
I wander back to the gear shop, where I got my hoodie, and find that among the actual gear (hiking poles, pack covers, and so on) they have Snickers bars for a reasonable price. It will do.
To my left I spot a trail. Nature! Trees! The illusion of solitude! I march past the selfie-stick wielding narcissists, past the flag-carrying guides, past the air-conditioned tour buses to the sliver mountain we’re all here to admire. I have over an hour before my bus leaves. At the trail head, I pause, take a deep breath to clear my head and recalibrate a positive attitude, then begin my trek.
It’s remarkable. Within seconds Mother Nature hushes the hubbub of the maddening crowd. Not only do trees filter air but they filter sound too. Flat rocks are embedded in the gravel path, so this too is cultivated to an extent. No matter. I keep walking. Patches of snow remind me of how high I am.
Perhaps one day I can cross the barrier. I promise myself that I will; that I will work up to Mount Fuji’s 3,000-plus metres. My spirit is willing, but my knees are another matter.
Reluctantly, I turn around and pick my way back. After more tourist dodge ’ems, I join the queue for the return trip to town. We wind down the mountain, ears popping and heart sinking.
On the coach back to Tokyo we’re stopped by an accident involving a Western tourist who appears to have been hit by a vehicle on this narrow road. No idea what happened, but the guy was down, surrounded by friends and firefighters. Paramedics examined him on the pavement, put him on a board then carried him to a dolly that was wheeled to an ambulance. The whole thing took a while. It must have been frightening, especially if he or his friends didn’t speak Japanese. I hope he has insurance. Makes me think that I should carry mine with me, along with my hostel’s address.
Reality can crash in so fast.