The Top of Japan
“I would love to, but…”
When put together, these are my five least favorite words in the dictionary.
When I first decided to start traveling, I asked friends and family to come along. My proposals ranged from day trips to weekend trips to week long explorations of foreign countries, but finances, work, perhaps will, and to a lesser extent, desire, seemed to hold so many people back. Everyone claims they would love to go here or do this, and deep down they probably do, but very few will ever act on that interest. I don’t know if it’s fear, discomfort, or simply not knowing how to deviate from routine, but I’ve known more people who talk about how much they want to do something, than I know people who actually make an effort to do it.
I had a long-time dream to see the sun rise from the top of Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, which doubles as an active volcano and a sacred ground to the local people. I had grown up in Los Angeles, perhaps as a little bit of a shut-in and a lot a bit of a nerd, and I spoke no Japanese, had never hiked higher than a couple thousand feet, and had rarely even been as far from home as Arizona. The only plane ride I had taken was forty-five minutes to Las Vegas, and I could use a GPS about as well as I could operate a forklift. I’ve never even sat in a forklift.
No matter how many times I asked people if they’d want to go with me, there were always a million excuses. At this point, I determined that if I never did anything alone, I’d never do anything, so I took a deep breath and booked a ticket. This would be my first time overseas, climbing a mountain taller than I’ve ever seen, and navigating a country that doesn’t speak my language with only myself to rely on. Was I scared? Yes. Was it tough taking the time off work? Yes. But the thought of going my whole life having only wished I had done it was a far tougher pill to swallow.
So I boarded the plane and pointed my sights toward a whole 'nother world.
Now, to say things went smoothly would be entirely too kind. The rail and subway system of Tokyo is a complex series of colorful lines that took me days to understand, and navigating the subway stations themselves was more confusing than a Vegas casino. Having little experience with a GPS and no sense of direction, I struggled to even find places a few blocks from me. I still remember confidently leaving the station only to walk a mile in the wrong direction and having to get a cab to set me straight. I encountered no one who spoke English, or if they did, they chose not to speak it to me, and I felt overwhelmed and isolated. I started to think I had made a mistake and understood why people hold themselves back if they don’t have the right friends or family to travel with.
But then I started to figured it out. By the fourth day and a lot of trial and error, I had the subway system down pat, and I was on a bus to climb a mountain feeling pretty confident. The forecast had predicted rain all week, but this day was expected to have the tamest winds, so I filled a backpack full of too many pounds of winter gear, a handful of rations, and that typical mix of fear and excitement that rules my entire life, then off I went.
I got to the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station around noon. There are four routes to climb Mount Fuji, but because I would be climbing alone, I wanted the most popular one in case anything happened. The trail started like a very typical hiking trail with loose volcanic rocks over progressively higher switchbacks. As the first hut of the seventh station approached (The mountain is speckled with small huts that sell things like cups of ramen and water for unprepared hikers), all of a sudden, I was scrambling up erratic rock formations for hundreds and hundreds of meters.
It was actually pretty fun, but I quickly realized I might have to forget all those dreams I had of becoming a hand model. Before long, it was more grueling switchbacks, but now with the added thrill of not being able to comfortably breathe, as I started to hit the high altitude marks. I now know what the beginning stages of altitude sickness feels like.
Which brings me to my next point: the camaraderie when you do something challenging, be it mountains, motorcycles, or any sport, really, means you're never actually alone. As I sat at the rest point at 3,200 meters, fighting the growing urge to throw up, an American who was staying at the hut stopped to chat. He could tell I was struggling a bit, so he talked me through it, hunted down some altitude sickness pills for me, and convinced me to sleep there a few hours to try to acclimate better. He didn’t know me, but he really wanted to see me make it. I considered being my usual stubborn self and making the charge despite my discomfort, but I ultimately heeded his advice and cuddled up in the hut for about four hours. He may or may not have also been pretty good looking, which may or may not have affected my decision.
Much to my delight, I woke up at 1:00 a.m. feeling right as rain. The man had already gone ahead, but it didn’t matter. I now felt certain I was going to make it
The last stretch was all under the light of a headlamp. It’s pitch black on that mountain at night, and people moved at a snail's pace, partially due to the lack of visibility, but likely mostly due to the whole altitude thing. Which was all well and good until the summit was in sight and the march came to a halt to admire the pre-sunrise glow. It’s not rising yet, people! Let’s go!.
The trail was rocky and narrow, but I managed to squeeze through some people taking some of the rougher and steeper edges, then I stumbled through the final gate with barely fifteen minutes to spare before the 4:32 a.m. projected sunrise. The crowd wasn't too big, so I got a spot at the highest point of the crater rim, and enjoyed some pocky, a Japanese snack of biscuit sticks covered in delicious things, as the sun rose over the Land of the Rising Sun.
It was indescribably magical (aside from the whole not being able to look at it long because, well, it’s the sun), and despite all forecasts, I didn’t even get rained out! After a few laughs with some people I met along the way, I got a high five from the American who had helped me out and kept me grounded when I doubted myself, and walked away having met and bonded with incredible people who I know I'll never see again. While it may not be the most rugged expedition with all the added huts for help, climbing a 12,389 foot tall volcano is still no Sunday stroll. My whole life felt made.
As for the descent, well, the only good thing I have to say about that is it was fun to share my summit story with hopefuls heading up. Loose, steep gravel, that overdue rainstorm, and enough knee pain from the downhill impact that I was practically using my trekking poles as crutches as I limped to the bus seem irrelevant in hindsight. I would totally climb up Fuji again, but I would never climb down it!
At the end of the day, it’s amazing the things you can do when you stop holding yourself back and take a chance. If I had continued to wait for someone to say they’d go with me, someone to say it was okay or a good idea, I’d still be waiting and dreaming of my maybe, someday adventure. But now having made it to the top of Japan, I can stand confidently, excited, and ready to start planning my next bucket list trip.
Tiffani Burkett was previously a software developer and motorcycle racer in Los Angeles, but has since left her 9 to 5 job to travel the world on her motorcycle. She's been on the road for over a year now, seeking out the beauty and wonder of diverse cultures and sights across the globe.