Climbing Mount Fujiama


I went to Japan on R&R while stationed in Korea during the war (Oops, conflict) and since I wasn't into the bar and bar girl scene, I thought I'd look for something a bit more interesting to do. The man at the hotel told me, "There is an old Japanese saying that there is no greater fool than the man who had not climbed Fujiama." He also said that he could set me up on a special tour to climb the mountain. Seemed like something different to do so I signed on and paid a fee which was supposed to cover everything for the two-day trip.

I met the tour leader and my fellow mountain climbers early the next morning at the train station and was told that climbing Fujiama held great religious significance and we had to have a blessing before we could even board the train. He just happened to have a blessing provider who would take care of the requirement for only two dollars per person. We paid, received our blessing and were on the train bound for the mountain. What we didn't realize was that there was also a get-off-the-train blessing; for another two bucks each. Same guy blessed us again. Seems that "everything" didn't include the official blessings.

We changed from the train to three tour buses which required another two-dollar blessing before they could lumber away in a cloud of smoke and dust as they climbed toward the place where we would start our hike. Every seat on the bus was filled and I noticed that I seemed to be the only Gringo or whatever round-eyed American GIs were called over there. The buses stopped about every mile to let us take pictures and so they could pour more water into the radiators. At one of these stops we found that to proceed further, everyone had to have a three dollar band to wear around their heads like the pilots in the movie, Tora Tora Tora.

In a final series of death rattles, the buses wheezed, gasped and clattered to a stop at the end of the road where we would begin our climb. We were at about the 7000 foot level and the snow-capped mountain towered another mile above us. We found that, not only was another blessing in order, but we had to have an official climbing staff to help us along the way. The final blow was when we were informed that everyone had to have their own personal guide to lead them on the climb. The guide fee was five bucks per person. This thing was getting to be a rather expensive deal when you consider that a dollar was actually worth something in 1951.

Our guides turned out to be a rabble of twelve-year-old boys who seemed far more interested in playing a game something like Hacky Sack than in guiding us. They were all dressed the same, blue pants and a white shirt, looked like a school uniform. I never did figure out which one was my personal guide. Not a big deal because the trail was so well marked that it would be impossible for anyone to get lost. Just before we set out up the mountain, we were told that we should buy a lunch to eat on the way, and wonders of all wonders, there just happened to be a guy selling lunches out of a pushcart. They were noodles with bits of fish in an aluminum box with a lid and wrapped in a piece of cloth about the size of a bandanna. We were finally on our way with our personal guides running ahead. Less than half a mile after we started up the tail, the guides disappeared not to be seen again. Guiding must have been a make-work form of youth employment.

In something less than a mile we came to another priest, or whatever they called the blessings guys, who had little branding irons heating over charcoal in a Hibachi. His blessing included branding our climbing staffs. A bit further was a priest selling little prayer flags to tie to our staffs. After two more brandings and one more prayer flag, I figured that I was fully immunized to all the evil spirits that might be lurking on the mountain and ignored them after that. Each time I waved them off, they would let fly with a barrage of predictions of evil spirits. I resorted to one of the few Japanese expressions I knew,"Ton demni ni," which roughly translated to "Never happen." I had already spent nearly as much for blessings, brandings, guides, staffs and flags as the tour had cost in the first place.

Along the way I met up with a couple guys from Australia who had also been suckered into this thing and at least I had someone I could talk with. When we stopped for our lunch break, there was the guy who had sold the lunches to us. He collected the aluminum boxes and bandannas, loaded them back on his pushcart and started back down the trail. Neat arrangement he had, let the hikers carry the lunches instead of him having to push them up the mountain.

While the Australians and I had no trouble with either the hike or the altitude, there were a lot of the older Japanese on the climb who would have trouble making it to the bathroom, much less up the mountain. Each time one of them would fall by the wayside, they would be placed on stretchers and carried away. There must have been a road just out of sight because when we arrived at the end of the hike, they were waiting for us.

I would estimate that we had climbed about two thousand feet in seven or eight miles when we came to a large log building and the tour leader announced that we had reached our destination. We were still a long way from the top and well below the snow level. When one of the Australians asked if we were going higher, the leader said that was as far as tours were allowed to go. The building was one huge room with rice straw mats on the floors and everyone had to remove their shoes before entering. At least it would be easy to pick my engineer boots out of all those rubber shoes and wooden clogs lined up along the wall. I never was really sure of what was going on because the tour leader would rattle on for ten minutes in Japanese and then give me a thirty-second translation in English. Dinner was sort of a noodle and vegetable soup served to us as we squatted on the floor at tables with very short legs. It was very tasty and each time my bowl was nearly empty, a little lady in a long robe would ladle in more from a big pot she was carrying around.

The tables were carried away after the meal and everyone settled down on the floor for the entertainment or whatever it was. But first, they filed by to drop coins through a slot in the lid of a wooden box. Then a big guy in the fancy robe came out and the show started. There was a lot of chanting, throwing salt and he made a big thing of tapping on the lid of the wooden box with a long stick. All the time some guy was plunking on the single string of a long-neck guitar that looked like it was made from a cigar box. As my dad used to say, "If you can't hold a woman and dance to it, then it ain't music." This sure wasn't music. The whole thing reminded me of a cross between a Japanese opera and an Arkansas Holy Roller church meeting. The Ausies and I got tired of it and went outside to enjoy the view and fresh air. We returned just in time to witness what I suppose was the highlight of the show. The big guy did a final dance around the wooden box, tapped it three times, picked it up and turned it upside down. The lid flopped open but there was nothing in it. Everyone gasped and the show was over.

Everyone started getting feather quilts and wooden blocks to use as pillows from boxes along one wall so I figured that it was bedtime. Looked like it was going to be one huge slumber party in which everyone slept on the floor. I got two of the quilts but passed up the wooden block. I put one quilt on the floor to lay on and was going to cover with the other one. A little Japanese woman rushed over and snatched the extra one away, scolding me like a mother hen correcting her chicks. I figured that I must have committed a social blunder equal to pissing in the communal bath. The lights were turned out and I fell asleep to a symphony of bodily noises.

It was barely light enough to see the next morning when I was awaken by a strange reedy sounding whistle, playing the same five notes over and over. People began to stir and I asked a lady who I had found could speak English what was going on. "Noodle man," she said. "Why is he here at five in the morning?" I asked. "That's when people buy noodles." "Why do they buy noodles at five in the morning?" "Because that's when the noodle man comes."

I wasn't about to go through that who's on first thing again so I got up. The lady who snatched my extra quilt was taking the money and handing everyone a bowl. The big guy who did the Houdini thing with the money box the night before filled our bowls with noodles. That certainly wasn't ham, eggs and hashbrowns and I would have killed for a cup of coffee. Oh, well. You take what you can get.

Signs in Japanese pointed the way to the trail down the mountain and we set out without the benefit of prayers, guides or even a tour leader. I suppose they figured they had extracted all the money possible and we could get down on our own. Just before we reached the busses, I could see the other trail through the trees and a new bunch of marks were on their way up the mountain. It occurred to me that the guy at the hotel had failed to give me the full saying, "There is no fool greater than the man who has not climbed Fujiama -- unless it's the one who has climbed it twice."


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