A JOURNEY TO THE GODDESS
It took another two hours to reach Mount Fuji’s peak. Just like the climb to the eighth station, the hike to the top was difficult and rocky, and it only got steeper. At one point, I struggled to navigate myself over one of the towering boulders, and as I was slipping, Moto-san grabbed my red backpack while Okubo-san pulled me to the top. Even though none of us had the official title of “leader” or “manager,” we developed trust and took turns leading and protecting each other along the way.
Around 4:30 a.m., we found a grinning Steve waiting for us at the summit, next to the temple of the Goddess of Fire. He was filled with excitement. “I made it to the top first!” he exclaimed, as he raised his hands in the air with a sense of victory.
All around us were groups of hikers gathering for the sunrise; they were a mix of Japanese family members of all ages sitting together, as well as non-Japanese tourists who were at the peak of their adventure. Steve, Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I walked over to a big rock located in a less crowded part of the summit.
We could see the sky surrounding us - 360 degrees with nothing blocking the way of the magnificent horizon. I felt the energy and excitement from the many other hikers who had just made the same difficult journey. It is a big accomplishment to climb Mount Fuji, and a great feeling of satisfaction was surrounding all of us. We had achieved our goal.
And then it happened … sunrise. We watched the sky turn from black to deep red to a brightly colored canvas of pink, orange, and purple. The clouds floated far below and reflected the vivid colors that marked the new day. We inhaled the fresh morning air, and the crisp atmosphere activated all of our senses. I felt awake and refreshed. It was one of the most glorious five minutes of my life, and the magnificent colors painted across the sky made the entire climb worth it.
We all exchanged high-fives, and Steve was in the middle of the celebration. Moto-san and Okubo-san stood up. I wanted to give them each a hug, but they started bowing toward me and toward each other. It was their way to respectfully show appreciation for making it to the top. But, within my own triumph I said, “Forget about the bow, I want to give you a big American hug.” So, I leaned in and hugged them both and thanked them for being amazing team members and leaders that I trust and respect. As two traditional Japanese men, they stood rigidly with their arms to their sides, not comfortable to give me a hug back. Even so, we each celebrated the accomplishment we had achieved together.
I turned to find Steve, but he wasn’t there. Instead, I saw him bragging to some other hikers about how he made it to the top at a record speed and how he even beat his own expectations. To him, that’s what mattered: the speed, “winning” the title of getting to the top first and the joy of bragging about it. But, Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I had a different view. We knew that if we didn’t manage to protect each other, we might not have made it to the top at all.
While we were at the top of the mountain, we were fascinated to see the famous post office where hikers and pilgrims mail their loved ones post cards to share that they had made it to the top. I picked out a postcard that had a painted picture of Mount Fuji at a distance, framed by a delicate pink cherry blossom tree. I only had my home address in Tokyo with me, so I proudly wrote, “I did it!” on the back of the card and mailed it to myself. I was happy to have a token marking my accomplishment.
We walked around the vast, open crater located at the center of the summit, stretching at a diameter of around 1,600 feet wide and a depth of 820 feet. I kept thinking that this volcano could erupt one day. I was naturally comforted that there were many pilgrims who had prayed for the Goddess of Fire to keep this sacred volcano sleeping.
After spending some time casually taking photos, I noticed a few clouds were gathering. I didn’t think anything of it, but one thought did start to grow stronger in my mind . . . “This journey isn’t over yet, we still have to climb down this volcano!”
THE UNPREDICTABLE MOUNT FUJI
As we left the peak for our descent, the first thing Steve said, as expected, was: “See you at the bottom.” He was off to the races. The three of us looked at each other, nodded with a serious determination, and began our descent as a team.
When climbing Mount Fuji, there are many paths to hike up and down. We originally ascended the Fujinomiya trail but chose a different descent, so the hike down was another new journey. The descending trail was supposed to be an easier and smoother trail with fewer rocks and boulders, but there were no stops or stations along the way, and there were no signs to guide us. Initially, a yellow rope guided us down the mountain, but then it disappeared, and it was just open space. We had to find our own way.
Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I followed each other and the yellow rope until it disappeared. The descent typically takes five to six hours, so we each put our headphones in our ears and kept walking, but suddenly, something happened.
It became windy, and the weather changed in an instant. A huge cloud drifted toward us and engulfed the side of the mountain. We found ourselves in the middle of very dense fog and immediately were separated from one other. The fog draped around me like a curtain and was so thick that as I stuck my hand out in front of me, I could not see the tips of my fingers. My heart began to race, and I felt a lump rise in my throat.
“Moto-san!” I called out into the fog. “Okubo-san!”
There was no answer. In a panic, I fumbled in my pockets for my cell phone. As I pressed the buttons of the old flip phone, the screen remained black. I held down the power button, and still, there was nothing. It was out of battery. Noooo!
I was disoriented and did not have a trail guide, cell phone, or team members. I was stranded.
I realized that when I called for help, I didn’t even mention Steve. Steve was no longer someone I could rely on or go to for help. He was just a person with an impressive title. I was calling for my teammates, my true leaders that I trusted. I was wondering where Moto-san and Okubo-san were and hoping that they were safe.
All I could do was continue walking. I was walking through a cloud, alone and without a map, unable to see much ahead of me and unable to hear anything around me. It was as if I was trapped within a clouded bubble, unable to see beyond the boundaries. I was no longer sure that I was even walking in the right direction. I walked for a long time, probably for two to three hours. I kept motivating myself to put one foot in front of the other. But, the conditions got worse!
I started to feel horribly painful things hitting me from the left side. It felt as though someone was throwing hard, white stones the size of ping-pong balls and smacking me with great force and speed. It was painful. I suddenly realized I was walking alone through a hailstorm!
Terrified and desperate for help, I pulled out my phone, but my heart dropped as I remembered it was out of battery.
With the hail came lots of rain. The ground became muddy and grainy like wet sand. This meant that my feet sank with every step I took. My socks grew wet, and I was freezing cold and shivering. I wanted to give up, to just sit down right there on the soaking ground and cry. But, I also knew that I should not stop. So, in order to distract myself from the terrifying reality, I started to visualize myself in my warm apartment in Tokyo, all the way on the 30th floor, facing the beautiful Tokyo bay with a calming view of beautiful boats. I was lounging in the hot tub that is lined with colored candles, enjoying their lavender scent. All around me, bubbles of different sizes were floating into the air, and I could hear them as they delicately popped. While I sipped a glass of red wine, listening to the beautiful beat of Arabic music in the background, I felt warm, peaceful, and happy.
It was this delirious dream and vivid vision that gave me the desire to keep going and complete my journey.
By the fourth hour, the fog disappeared, which made the conditions more tolerable. And soon, I started to see tiny moving dots in front of me. They were people! Even though they were far away, these little tiny specks gave me such great comfort.
Soon, I also began to see something that looked like an old hut. To me it seemed no more than a half hour away, and I was so excited to walk there. The hut became my target, and all I wanted to do was reach it. I was hoping that it was a cozy tea shop, and if it were, I decided to order not a traditional green tea, but a cappuccino.