The Most Photographed Mountain in Japan by Tony Coleman

We met at Shinjuku station and took commuter trains out to Otsuki, before taking the Fujisan Express—a train that leaned into a Japanese stereotype by having cutesy, humanoid, cartoon mountains as its exterior design—to Kawaguchiko, the folksy tourist trap built around Lake Kawaguchi, then got a shuttle to the base camp that afforded the shortest and easiest route to the summit. From the lakeside we all got our first look at it: idyllically snow-capped, unexpectedly squat. We’d decided to do Mt. Fuji.

Ten out of the dozen of us who’d arrived in Tokyo that July came on the trip. One guy said he was afraid of heights and a woman had backed out with an excuse that I now don’t remember, though I do recall it’d sounded like a pretty bald lie. As I’d later learn, however, ten out of twelve was actually an unusually high turnout for this kind of thing. You try getting a group of twenty-somethings to commit to going on a trip. A night out is trouble enough. But we’d all come to Japan individually and—still culture-shocked and lonely—were eager to stick together. The two other, mutually reinforcing reasons so many of us went were a) that July to September was the only period of the year when the mountain’s trails were open, and b) we were all ESL teachers with one-year contracts at a language school, meaning that, should we choose not to extend these contracts and go back home to our respective native-English-speaking countries, this would be our only chance to tick off a major tourist attraction. If you put japan tourist attractions into the big search engine and clicked on the first result, Mt. Fuji was tourist attraction number one.

We started at seven p.m., which is what you do, to avoid hiking in the daytime heat and with the intention of reaching the summit by sunrise. The first couple of hours were easy, as I remember. A slight incline to stroll up, with a backdrop of close-seeming clouds streaked in peachy twilight. Even a rainbow. Brightly coloured anoraks and digital cameras and found big sticks being used unnecessarily as walking aids: we were content. I walked alongside two other guys, Robbie and Greg; one Scottish, one Canadian; one tall, one short; one wildly freckled, one fair-haired, his eyebrows barely perceptible. Our conversation found a groove familiar to all-male conversations, in which everyone takes turns making fun of something. Our something was the Japanese culture we’d each been newly exposed to. Why did employees here scream irasshaimase! (welcome!) when you entered a bar or restaurant or supermarket? Didn’t they realise this was less welcoming than frightening? Why did toilets here have so many buttons on them? Scratch that, why did they have buttons at all? How many options did you really need, post-defecation? And why were there so many vending machines everywhere? Is punctuality so important here that no one can even spare enough time to go into the convenience stores that are on every street corner? At which point, we came to a plateau on the mountain and there, lo and behold, was a vending machine, as if put there only to justify our sarcasm.

After sunset, it got increasingly windy and unsure underfoot and everyone seemed grateful when, at around ten, we arrived at the mountain hut in which we’d booked beds. The idea of the huts, which were about halfway along the route, was to allow hikers to sleep for a couple of hours before continuing to the summit. The manager of our hut showed us into its dormitory, telling the one member of our group who spoke a little Japanese that we needed to be as quiet as possible when finding our assigned beds, so as not to wake up other guests. We stumbled around in the dark, speaking in a tone that had the quality of a whisper but was not, in fact, quiet. When we found our beds, each turned out to consist of a mercilessly hard futon, a thin sleeping bag and, for a pillow, a tied bundle of bamboo sticks. More guests came in at regular intervals, being as loud and clumsy as we’d been. When we eventually left, totally unrested, I wondered how I hadn’t been able to predict the shortcomings of the hut a week earlier, when I’d spent the equivalent of fifty quid on a prepaid reservation.

Back outside, now around midnight, we found that the wind had turned violent, so much so that the hut’s manager told us it was too dangerous to continue. We should head back down to the base camp, was his instruction. The manager was an elderly but robust Japanese man, tall and wiry, his face so taut it seemed carved. I didn’t want to argue with him. If I were there alone, I may have done as he said, but after some discussion (I don´t know, what do you think? I don´t mind, what about you? I really don’t mind, what does everyone else want to do?), a collective decision was made to keep hiking. A girl in wireless frames and an army jacket said she’d be going to the summit with or without the rest of us, which seemed to tip the balance. We started back on the trail, with a downward stream of more seasoned-looking hikers (weatherproof suits; staffs; apt brand names) passing by us.

The wind—and, later, the rain—made hiking not fun anymore. Particularly so for Greg, who’d come wearing trainers. Leanne, a tiny, muscular Californian, got AMS and did actually turn back, accompanied by a friend whose name I could never remember. The friend said that this had just got ridiculous now anyway, honestly. Not long after they left, a strong gust of wind made us all brace ourselves, before we straightened up to find Greg on his knees in the dirt, blown off the trail. ‘We few, we happy few, we band of teachers!’ someone shouted, when Greg was back on his feet. None of the other remaining teachers, however, were in the mood for polite laughter, let alone repartee.

But we galumphed on. The nearer we got to the summit, the greater the gaps between the pairs and trios of us who walked together, and I found myself closest to the girl in the army jacket. After walking behind her for a few minutes, I eventually caught her up and started making small talk. It turned out we’d both just finished a master’s in literature before coming to Japan. She was born in Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly. The glasses she wore were fake, i.e., they had no effect on her vision. Her name was Christy.

***

‘Seereeuzly, that’s the most bewdaful thing ave ever seen.’

Johno, a handsome and boisterous young Aussie in our party, had perched his impressively toned buttocks on a jagged rock, leaning forward with an eagerness that made it seem like he was trying to stretch himself into the sunrise. We’d managed to reach the summit in time to see first light coat an all-encompassing, rugged cloudscape in soft shades of pink. The summit was crowded with people sitting and taking in the view; photographing each other stood next to a crater or torii gate; drinking small plastic cups of instant coffee in barn-like eateries; and queuing up outside a number of vending machines.

Christy and I had sat next to each other and waited in silence for the spectacle of the sunrise to present itself to its audience. Ten minutes post-sunrise, it got to the point when people start wondering how long they’re supposed to keep looking at something before they’re allowed to leave.

‘Thoughts?’ I asked Christy.

She grimaced, wagging her cranium.

‘I mean, the word ‘ethereal’ does come to mind, obviously’, she said. ‘Almost too easily though. Almost like we’re supposed to say, ‘I saw the sun rise over Mt. Fuji, it was ethereal’, then never think about the matter again.’

‘Right’, I said, though I wasn’t sure exactly what I was conferring rightness upon. I let a minute go by, then asked:

‘What’s the population of—sorry, what’s the name of the island you’re from?’

‘Tresco. There are about two hundred permanent residents.’

‘Wow. Not many.’

‘There aren’t enough jobs. The whole economy is just tourism. It’s like a company town, only the company is a picturesque landscape. The CEO is a photogenic cottage. The line manager is a seagull with a fish in its mouth. Etcetera.’

Johno had started a conversation with an English-speaking Japanese couple who had set up a large digital camera on a tripod. He was telling them that today was his first real hiking experience, but it had inspired him to go on more hikes in the future.

‘You read much DeLillo?’ Christy asked me.

‘Bits and pieces’, I said, by which I meant, ‘no’.

‘There’s the famous passage in his novel White Noise about ‘the most photographed barn in America’. Basically there’s this barn that tourists visit solely for the reason that it’s the most photographed of all of America’s barns. So they get to this barn and then what do they do? Take a photo of it. They take part in and perpetuate the idea of tourism for the sake of tourism.’

‘Right.’

‘So isn’t that what we’re all doing here?’

I pulled a face that was supposed to convey lighthearted contemplation.

‘We didn’t just take a photo though; we hiked up a mountain.’

‘Yup, which makes it worse. That’s how committed we are to the dogma of tourism: we’re willing to go on an all-night hike for it, even though none of us have a passion for hiking. This is an egregious act of tourism.’

On the one hand I didn’t particularly agree or disagree with her, but on the other I thought she was being a crank and so felt that it was incumbent on me, as the more reasonable person, to poke holes in her argument.

‘What about that?’ I said, pointing at the clouds, which were starting to take on their daytime whiteness. ‘However you want to describe it, ‘ethereal’ or not, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? This isn’t tourism for the sake of tourism, it’s tourism for the sake of seeing that.’

‘But’, she said, with no pause between the end of my utterance and the start of hers, ‘is that really the reason we all came here? To take in the view? I don’t think so. Fuji-san is just a thing you do when you come to Japan. You do it because there’s an expectation that you’ll do it. You do it to say you’ve done it.’

Johno was still talking to the couple.

‘What’s wrong with that though? Do we have to analyse the fun out of everything we do? If you’ve got a desire to do something, for whatever reason, why not just give it a try?’

‘Because doesn’t the nature of the desire matter? Shouldn’t you apply some critical thinking to your desires? Otherwise you’re just being pulled around by dumb parts of yourself, like you’re on a leash. And, well, the reason it bothers me, personally, is because the question becomes not only why did I hike up this mountain, but why did I even come to this country? We’ve all done that introductory conversation seventeen times already, where you ask each other ‘So, why Japan?’ Have you ever heard an answer to that question that sounded honest? Or even really coherent? And doesn’t that alone fuck with your head?’

There was an awkward pause, during which we both looked—where else?—at the clouds.

‘So why did you come to Japan?’

‘Ha!’ She slid her fake glasses up the bridge of her nose. ‘If only I knew.’

***

By the time the sun had risen fully above the horizon of cloud, we’d had our fill of selfies and overpriced vending machine junk, regrouped and started our descent.

Within an hour, we were lost.

We’d started hiking down what seemed to be the most popular trail, but a few among us, afraid of losing their footing on steep stretches of the mountainside, took such small, timid steps that we eventually lost sight of everyone hiking ahead of us. Either unbelievably or entirely predictably, none of us had deemed it necessary to bring a map of the mountain. Soon we came to a fork in the trail, chose a tine essentially at random and found that it led nowhere.

At this point, the sun above and land below us teamed up for a little practical joke: the more lost we got, the longer we remained on the mountain; therefore the later in the morning it became; therefore the hotter it became; therefore the more exhausted and nauseous we all became; therefore the less able we became to walk or think; therefore the less capable we became of getting off the mountain; therefore the longer we remained on the mountain; therefore the later in the morning it became; therefore the hotter it became…

At around eleven a.m., Greg, who’d been traipsing behind the rest the us for most of our descent, gave up and sat himself down at the side of the trail. He hunched over, pressing his fingertips to his eyes. Someone noticed and we all stopped, before Robbie shouted over that he knew this was a shit situation but that we all just had to keep going. Christy lit a cigarette, stony-faced. Having already intimated it a few times, Johno insisted that we were going the wrong way and had to change course, which led him and Robbie to have an argument that went on for long enough to become about the fundamentals of navigation. During this argument neither of them lost their self-possession, which I suppose was admirable but, to me, had more to do with vanity. Too unassertive to get involved, I did the thing of imagining how I was going to tell an anecdote while still living through its source material.

The three teachers not yet mentioned were Beth, Leah and Kev. They seemed to be good friends and had been keeping to themselves for much of the trip. While Johno and Robbie argued, Leah put her head on Beth’s shoulder and whimpered. ‘Aw, you alright my lovely?’ Beth asked, squeezing her with thick, spongy upper arms. A few months later, after the language school’s Christmas party, Beth and I happened to have sex. We both lived in the same suburb of Tokyo and, as we headed home together, she cozied up to me on a near-empty local train. It remains the only one-night stand I’ve ever had. We spent the following months making effortfully polite and adult-sounding conversation on training days and work nights out. Beth left Japan at the end of her one-year contract, as did I. The big social media site suggests that Leah and Kev, who came to Japan as newlyweds, are still living in Tokyo. I never got to know them. The only memory I really have of them is from that moment late in the morning, ten minutes before a treeline would open out before us to finally reveal the shuttle bus station (which, we were all grateful to discover, was serviced by a refrigerated vending machine). When Leah was done being embosomed, Kev whispered into her ear, then started running off down the trail. Leah did a fun scream and ran after him. They went faster and faster, away from us, away from Mt. Fuji, until one of them lost their balance and fell into the other. Limbs entangled, they tumbled dramatically off a steep edge of the trail. They lay still for a long moment on stony, weed-ridden ground, as Johno, Robbie and Beth made to run toward them. Then we heard them both, at once, break into a loud, crazy, otherworldly—ethereal, maybe—kind of laughter.


Tony Coleman is a writer and ESL teacher from Liverpool, England. After graduating with a BA Honours in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University, he lived for three years in Kanagawa, Japan before relocating to his current home of Guadalajara, Mexico. Forthcoming pieces of his work will be published here and here. He can be contacted at tonycoleman757(at)gmail(dot)com.

 

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