Climbing Mt. Fuji

A monumental event that produced and unexpected gift

Mary McIntosh

Copyright 2002 by Mary McIntosh 

Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

It is said that he who does not climb Fuji at least once in his lifetime is a fool, but he who climbs it twice is a bigger fool. My husband and I didn't want to be known as fools. We climbed Mt. Fuji.

My husband was a sergeant in the Army. We had been living in Japan for two years, and I had settled well into the habit of having a local Japanese girl, Yoko, live with us, do most of the housework, and take care of my three young boys. She was very dependable, so this seemed like an ideal time for us to accomplish this feat of climbing Mt. Fuji. We would be gone only a couple of days and we thought of it as a "second honeymoon."

Mt. Fuji, considered by the Japanese to be a sacred mountain, is reported to be the resting place of spirits, and the dwelling place of gods. Rising 12,385 feet, its almost symmetrical volcanic cone, now dormant, is a magnificent sight familiar to many. Pictures of it are painted on ashtrays, china, and other Japanese souvenirs for sale.

In July 1954 we took the train to Yoshida, a town at the foot of Fuji. I'd left all the arrangements for the trip to my husband. He thought it would be fun to stay in a Japanese hotel, and I had agreed. He chose the Sugibayashi Ryokan Hotel, at the foot of Mt. Fuji, which cost 700 yen a night (then approximately $2.00).

Oh, boy, I thought as I entered the room, this is going to be fun. There was no bed, only piles of gaily-colored comforters heaped up in a corner, and a low table in the middle of the room.

"Where's the bathroom?"

"Don't know. It's probably down the hall. Why don't you go take a look," my husband replied.

"You won't believe this, though it won't make any difference to you, but there's just a hole in the floor for a toilet." I didn't want him to think I was upset with his plans, so I quickly added, "It did look clean. You'll never guess what the washbasins are like. They're one long trough. Except for the taps at the top, they look like horses should be drinking out of them," I laughed. "Maybe that's why this room cost only 700 yen." Oh well, I thought, it's only for one night.

We ate our dinner, Japanese style, seated on the floor at a small low table. This was my first encounter with raw fish. I'd tried to avoid it previously, and I'm not certain I ate it that night either. I knew I could count on plenty of rice to fill me up.

There wasn't much we could do in this room except read or sleep, and neither was on my husband's mind.

I began arranging the comforters on the floor.

"Let's make love Japanese style," Mac said with a grin.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, you know, they always do it on the floor, not on a big double bed. Maybe tonight we can start a new baby-san."

"No, no. I'm not ready for that. Kent is only seven months old. We don't need another baby this soon. Anyway I'll use protection, so I won't have to worry."

We started our climb in the early afternoon the next day in order to be able to spend a night on the mountain in one of the many huts built for that purpose, and thus witness sunrise from the summit.

The first part of the ascent was not too hard, and since I'd climbed Bear Mountain in New York State, and Mt. Mansfield in Vermont when I was younger, I thought "no sweat." Oh how wrong I was!

The early walk was a gentle incline, tree-shaded in many areas. Soon, however, instead of grass under our feet, we encountered places where there was nothing but sheer rock. We grabbed onto a rock just above us, pulled ourselves up, and found another rock close by. We looked like a bunch of monkeys. Along the way we came to rest stations. We were told these huts would be places where we could sit awhile, rent a comforter for $1.00 if we wanted to take a nap, and buy soft drinks and snacks, like chips and rice balls, which the Japanese loved.

At the third station we each purchased a 'kongozuye,' a tall wooden pole. These gave us support while climbing. Mine was five feet, not a smooth round stick, but six-sided, so it would be easier to grip. Several Japanese symbols, and words, and a picture of Fuji and the date 1954 were already burned into it. Along the way, at each of the rest stops, the Japanese attendants added the height we had just attained.

At the fifth station, at 7,000 feet, we passed through the cloud level. Continuing to climb, we arrived at the seventh station at 8 o'clock that night. Many people were already in the hut. Some were huddled around a hibachi in the large room; others stood drinking tea and talking; several were asleep, curled up under comforters.

"How come there are so many people in this last hut?" I asked Mac.

"I guess it's because this is the last rest stop before we climb to the summit. I heard someone say 200,000 people reach the top each season. Hey, kiddo, we're going to be two of that number. We'd better get some shut-eye while we can," Mac said as he moved among the crowd, over to the Japanese attendant who handed him two comforters in exchange for 700 yen. We found a space off in a far corner, laid one comforter out on the floor, donned the heavy sweaters we'd brought with us, wrapped the other comforter around us, and slept. At 2:00 a.m. a Japanese guide walked around the hut, banging on a gong, to waken us. It was time to begin our final part of the climb to the summit.

As it was still very dark, each of us carried a flashlight. Led by the guides, we climbed, holding onto the person in front, and the one behind, all the while juggling our light. We must have looked like some huge caterpillar slowly inching its way up the mountain.

At 4 a.m. at the top of the mountain, the sky was one mass of stars as we were far above the clouds. At first a faint glimmer of daylight began on the horizon. It almost looked like a huge giant was pushing the darkness upward out of the way, to make it easier for the sun to shine. He must have succeeded, for suddenly the sun burst forth on the horizon with such speed it seemed as if the dividing line between earth and sky had somehow suddenly, and mysteriously been eradicated. All I could see was this large, brilliant, golden ball. The stars had disappeared--another day had dawned. I turned to my husband and said, "It was worth it." I hadn't counted on the descent.

Because Mt. Fuji is a volcanic mountain, and consists of lava, now resembling burned coal, we discovered you do not descend the same way as we came up. We learned, from watching others in front of us, to plunge both feet into the cinders and slide for seven to ten feet, and then get up and start again. While the uphill climb was difficult, in many respects I think the downhill trip was harder. The cinders were rough on our feet, sand-like dust flew all around, and it necessitated bracing ourselves all the time. The poles came in handy.

When we finally reached bottom, we'd walked eleven hours that day. We caught a train back home, dirty, tired, but happy we had accomplished as much as we had, for we later learned some Japanese ride horses part way up, and then walk the rest of the way.

This became a highlight of my life, a one-time-only, never-to-be-forgotten, but never-to-do-again experience. No one was going to call either of us "a fool," but neither would we ever become a "bigger one."

I climbed Mt. Fuji in my mid-30s. I am now an octogenarian, and in all the years that have passed, and with the number of people I have met, I have never encountered anyone else who has accomplished what I did. That's not to say Americans do not attempt the climb, but when we were groaning with weariness, it was not our own kinsmen passing us on the way up, but our Japanese friends. It remains a "rite of passage" I'm enormously proud of.

I still have my pole. I don't know what happened to my husband's. Perhaps it got lost in our many moves. I tend to think one of the children might have misplaced it, for I remember one day seeing them play "Knights of the Roundtable," and jousting with these poles. I'm glad I still have mine. It's in my closet, and when I occasionally happen to look at it, it reminds me of that great accomplishment, and especially what occurred some months later, for you see, there's a postscript to this story.

I conceived my only daughter at the foot of Mt. Fuji. How many can say that? Of course I didn't know it at the time. Later when a doctor confirmed this, I explained it must not be true because I always protected myself. I remember so well, sitting across from him at his desk. He took a pen out of his white coat pocket, and drew a diagram for me. "You see" he continued, "the vigorous, energetic climb you took, helped propel the sperm upward." I smiled at him, for now I knew why. Because of the "strange" bathroom at the Japanese hotel, I was unable to take care of my usual personal hygiene.

I climbed Mt. Fuji with one extra item.

So I say, thank you majestic mountain for being there for me to conquer. My reward for the long, tedious, back-breaking climb was the best gift I could ever receive.


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