Skip to main content

Only Fools Rush Up 愚公爬山

I was having way too much sake that night.

At a noisy izakaya (居酒屋) on a Tokyo backstreet, my friend Yuji and I kept refilling each other’s cups. After we graduated from college, Yuji moved back to Japan and I to Toronto. Clinking cups with him that night took us back to the days when we used to do silly things together.

An adventure beckons

I quaffed another shot of the potent junmai-shu sake (純米酒) and blurted out: “You and I, let’s climb Mount Fuji tomorrow.” It was the alcohol talking.

Yuji, his face as red as a ripe tomato, hit back with the two most dangerous words in the English language: “Why not?”

That’s how it all started, 15 years ago – on a dare.

Hours later and still nursing our hangover, we boarded the earliest bus from Tokyo to Kawaguchi-ko (河口湖), the most popular starting point for the climb.

Mount Fuji is divided into ten “stations” from base to summit, and there at the fifth station base camp we found hordes of climbers warming up for their ascent and stuffing supplies into their backpacks.

All Yuji and I had were our windbreakers and baseball caps. It was like bringing a pocket knife to a gunfight. Neither of us knew anything about a climb that was about to turn into a near-death experience.

Going up Mount Fuji requires neither mountaineering gear nor experience. Along the way we saw children and their grandparents strolling about as if it was a family day at the park. The wholesomeness of it all gave us a false sense of security.

What we didn’t know was that everyone except us had a winter jacket, a raincoat and a flashlight tucked neatly inside their outdoor backpacks, ready to be deployed should the weather suddenly turn.

What we also didn’t know was that we could have easily died from hypothermia if we had taken our trip a few weeks earlier when it was still snowing at the summit.

The Kawaguchi-ko base camp

It took us seven hours to get to the top. At the tenth station, we were greeted by a torii gate (鳥居) and breathtaking views of lakes and valleys beneath the clouds. Our hangover and exhaustion gave way to awe and euphoria.

With drifting clouds and red rocks at our feet, even the icy wind chill couldn’t dampen our spirits. We walked along the crater rim, like astronauts exploring an alien planet. At the very tip of the ancient volcano, it was where Mother Nature met Father Time, and where beauty blended with mythology.

As if time goes by faster at high altitudes, the sun began to set after we had barely completed the crater circuit. “We must go now,” Yuji warned with uncharacteristic sternness.

Whoever told us that the descent took only two hours had lied, for we were still somewhere between the eighth and the seventh stations when the moon came out.

Without a flashlight, we had to negotiate the treacherous sand trail in complete darkness. We took off our jackets so that our white T-shirts would catch a bit of moonlight. And whenever the trail began to narrow, we got down on all fours and began to crawl. One wrong step and we would have fallen over the cliff.

To lighten things up, Yuji told me that only four people died climbing Mount Fuji every year. Cold comfort.

For a good hour, we screamed “tasukete” (助けて; help) like a pair of lost puppies, until we ran into an old couple and followed them all the way back to base camp.

“Why are you up here in the dark without a flashlight? Where are your backpacks?” the husband asked Yuji in Japanese. He continued his interrogation: “You kids are either very brave or very stupid. Which is it?”

Before Yuji had a chance to answer, the old man started to chuckle and his wife offered us a drink of water. To this date, I’ve never told my parents what really happened 15 years ago and how close they were to getting a sombre call from Japanese police.

On the slopes somewhere between the sixth and seventh stations

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Five years after my follies with Yuji, I was ready to do it again. I needed company, so I lured Wally, a friend from Los Angeles, with riveting tales from my first climb. I had him at tasukete.

Learning from past mistakes, I packed a headlamp, compass and waterproof clothing. Remembering the last scene from Titanic, I even threw in a safety whistle for good measure.

Wally had his heart set on watching the sunrise and our plan was to spend the night at a mountain hut near the eighth station. So there I was, once again at the Kawaguchi-ko base camp where it all began. From there to our lodge lay the same dreary uphill slog that Yuji and I had once ground out like foot soldiers in battle.

At the hut, Wally and I wolfed down our curry katsu and went straight to bed – a thin tatami in a spartan wood shack shared with dozens of strangers. Between the thunderous chorus of snoring men and our throbbing headaches from the thin alpine air, we didn’t sleep a wink.

Mountain lodging offers a spartan but welcome rest

At 2:30 am, the house staff banged their gongs and woke everybody up: it was time to head to the summit.

We fell into line with hundreds of other groggy climbers, forming a long procession of headlamps that snaked around the mountain like Christmas lights. The thermometer on my trekking watch registered minus two degrees Celsius. I was shivering despite having two layers of fleece and a down jacket.

But I was a happy camper compared to Wally. Not 50 metres from the hut, he started to vomit and lose his balance, sure signs of altitude sickness. Unable to continue, he reluctantly decided to return to the hut.

There, we used a combination of simple English and sign language to plead with the staff to let us rest for a few hours before making our way down. Descending the mountain was the only certain cure for altitude sickness.

I set my alarm for 4:30 am to watch the sunrise from the hut. At 3,100 metres above sea level, I had a front row seat for nature’s daily magic show. As blue turned into lilac and lilac into a mélange of pink, red and orange, all the gems in the world wouldn’t add up to the image before my eyes. Without warning, the breaking sun fired shards of light into the horizon and poured gold on everything it touched: the trees, the rocks and the morning fog wafting from the distant valleys. I turned around and saw Wally sound asleep next to me, snoring like a grizzly bear. I knew then he was all right.

The climb is as painfully beautiful as it is painfully exhausting

A glutton for punishment, I decided to climb Mount Fuji for the third time in July last year.

This time, I went with Jack, a Tokyo-born Taiwanese-American determined to get to the summit come hell or high water.

It was early in the climbing season and there was still snow on the trail. Soon after we began our trek, it started to drizzle and the drizzle quickly turned into a downpour.

The weather continued to deteriorate. By the time we arrived at the seventh station, we had thrown on every piece of clothing we brought with us.

At the summit, snow and hail pattered our faces and the bracing wind was strong enough to lift us off the ground. Visibility dropped to a few meters. Jack agreed to skip the crater and we began our descent.

With only our headlamps to show the way, we spent the next four hours braving the torrential rain and trudging down the muddy and perilously slippery trail.

At base camp, we learned the last bus back to Tokyo had just left. That’s not what two exhausted, soaked-to-the-bone and mentally drained climbers wanted to hear.

Jack turned to me and asked: “You have done this twice before, right? What do we do now?”

Trying to sound calm, I said: “Well, we can either sit here in the rain for eight hours until the first bus shows up tomorrow morning or...”

“Or?” he interrupted, dismissing the first option as lunacy. “Or, we go to Plan B: beg.”

Using his fluent Japanese, Jack begged the keeper of a souvenir store to take us in. After half an hour of head tilting and eyebrow furrowing, the keeper let us hire an attic room. He even offered us a warm meal and a hot bath.

Gratitude didn’t begin to describe how we felt, and I gave the kind man more 90-degree bows than I had given anyone.

Climbing Mount Fuji requires stamina, concentration and the right equipment

“A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once, but only a fool does it twice.” So goes the famous Japanese saying. On that account I must be hopelessly foolish. After three climbs, I am itching to go back. A fourth trip has been scheduled for summer next year.

To this fool, climbing Mount Fuji has gone from a one-off challenge to a lifelong pursuit. It has leapfrogged sightseeing status into pilgrimage. That iconic volcanic cone of perfect symmetry, that ultimate embodiment of grace and understated beauty, is an endless source of adventure, exhilaration, trepidation and sadomasochistic thrills. Its perils and vagaries are its very allure.

Mount Fuji may look harmless but it demands to be treated with respect. And the only way to pay respect to such a mountain is to climb it, over and over again.
*                             *                         *
Planning Ahead

How to get there – Take the Keio bus (¥2,600, HK$255) from the west exit of the Shinjuku (新宿) train station directly to the Kawaguchi-ko fifth station. There are three buses in the morning and three in the afternoon. The ride takes 2½ hours.

Where to stay – There are dozens of mountain huts along the trail that host overnight climbers. For a list of huts by location, visit http://live-fuji.jp/fuji/scott/huts.html. Reservations are not necessary but recommended.

What to take – Be prepared for all weather conditions and err on the side of caution. Trekking boots, raingear (top and bottom), extra layers of warm clothing, gloves, headlamps/flashlights, hats, sun-block and a basic first aid kit. Although more expensive, snacks and water can be purchased at one of Kawaguchi-ko gift shops and from mountain huts along the trail.

Further information – Japan-guide.com posts helpful, up-to-date information about climbing Mount Fuji. Visit www.japan-guide.com/e/e6901.html.
____________________________
This article was published in the June issue of The South China Morning Post's Encounter magazine.

As published in Encounters

Popular Posts

“As I See It” has moved to www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

As I See It has a new look and a new home!! Please bookmark www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it for the latest articles and a better reading experience. Legacy articles will continue to be available on this page. Thank you for your support since 2008. www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice. The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin -starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants , serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds. Dai pai dong is ever wallet-friendly While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents a

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is. In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers? Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read bu

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence , healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances. From White to Rainbow Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges , Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”  With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made ma

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief. Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively... It ended in divorce ________________________ This article appeared in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post . Read the rest of it on SCMP.com as " After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling localist politics ." As published in the print edition of the South China Morning Post

The Beam in Our Eye 眼中的梁木

With 59 confirmed deaths and over 500 wounded, the Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest one in modern American history. Places like Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Orlando—and now Sin City—are forever associated with carnage and death tolls.  They don't get it Not a week goes by in America without a horrific gun attack in a shopping mall, a school or a movie theatre.People outside the U.S. can’t fathom why the world’s wealthiest country can be in such denial over a simple fact: more guns means more gun-related deaths. But they don’t get it, don’t now? Instead, they tell us foreigners to stay out of the debate because we don’t understand what the Second Amendment means to the Land of the Free. So the anomaly continues: each time a shooting rampage shocks the nation, citizens respond with prayers and tributes for a while, but their lawmakers do nothing to change gun laws. And we—the foreigners—shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how many more innocen

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian , The South China Morning Post , Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight . His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK) . Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that charts the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. Jason also co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20   (2017) and Hong Kong Noir   (2019). Jason is also a social activist. He is an ambassador for Shark Savers and an outspo

Unfit for Purpose 健身中伏

Twenty years ago, a Canadian entrepreneur walked down Lan Kwai Fong and had a Eureka moment. Eric Levine spotted an opportunity in gym-deficient Hong Kong and opened the first California Fitness on Wellington Street, a few steps away from the city’s nightlife hub. Business took off and by 2008 the brand had flourished into two dozen health clubs across Asia. There was even talk about taking the company public on the Hong Kong Exchange. Then things started to go south. The chain was sold, broken up and resold a few times over. Actor Jackie Chan got involved and exited. The Wellington Street flagship was evicted and shoved into an office building on the fringe of Central, while key locations in Causeway Bay and Wanchai were both lost to rival gyms. What was once the largest fitness chain in Hong Kong began a slow death that preceded the actual one that stunned the city this week. It needs a corporate workout ________________________ This article appeared in the 16 July

10 Years in Hong Kong 香港十年

This past Saturday marked my 10th anniversary in Hong Kong .  To be precise, it was the 10th anniversary of my repatriation to Hong Kong. I left the city in my teens as part of the diaspora which saw hundreds of thousands others fleeing from Communist rule ahead of the 1997 Handover. For nearly two decades, I moved from city to city in Europe and North America, never once returning to my birthplace in the interim. Until 2005. That summer, I turned in the keys to my Manhattan apartment, packed a suitcase, and headed east. A personal milestone My law firm agreed to transfer me from New York to their Hong Kong outpost half a world away. On my last day of work, Jon, one of the partners I worked for, called me into his office for a few words of wisdom. He told me that there was no such thing as a right or wrong decision, and that people could only make life choices based on what they knew at the time. “I assume you’ve done your due diligence,” Jon gave me wink, “in that ca

A Farewell to Arms 永别了,武器

America is a bizarre country. To be an American — or to live in America — is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs , the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are deemed a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifl