After an intense relationship break-up, I decided that it was time for a sea-change.
Having just turned 31, I had never experienced living or working abroad. Canada came to mind, as I had previously visited Vancouver during my days as a flight attendant and I’d loved it. London also beckoned and then there was Europe that was only hours away on top of the fact that I had relatives in France whom I could stay with.
For whatever reason … I ended up in Japan.
For six months, I was an English language instructor in the land of the rising sun. Anyone who has ever lived in another foreign city will appreciate both the trepidation and the excitement that a new culture offers. Japan was an assault to the senses – Tokyo was a melting hot-pot of activity, mixing the traditional and the modern in sometimes chaotic and often mysterious ways. Teaching English was a delight, but at night I was plagued. I could not sleep. The frenetic energy of Tokyo pulled me into fractal waves of unsettling proportions. I often wandered the streets (where I lived in Azabu-Jaban) until the early hours of the morning.
After 4 months had passed, it was time to gain spiritual ground once more. With Japan as my backdrop, I felt it was time to conquer the holy and revered mountain of Mt Fuji. Many had attempted the climb before me and survived. ‘How bad could it be?’ I wondered. ‘It was almost like an initiation amongst foreigners that one just had to conquer. Less than 1% of the Japanese population has climbed it themselves. Indeed, many who visit Japan attempt the climb for one reason or another. Most are driven by the challenge, some, because it’s ‘there’.
I wasn’t sure what possessed me to climb – maybe a combination of everything. There is a Japanese saying: – “A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life; only a fool climbs it twice”. I knew I’d probably never get the chance to do again – I had 4 days off teaching. It was now or never.
A voice spoke, ‘Vina, sometimes the opportunity is just there for the taking.’
Spiritual Lesson No. 1 – Take a leap of faith and just do it.
Early September is just outside of official climbing season. This means less people, less services and more risks. I had heard various accounts of other climbing experiences and was determined to have my own unique experience. In hindsight, if I had known what I would be going through, I think I might have thought twice about it, but I’m glad I persevered. A fellow teacher and flatmate nearly died of frostbite when she climbed it. That thought alone prevented me from even considering it for months. Yet I knew that families with young children and elderly folk had also conquered Fuji. That same voice inside me whispered quietly: “If you never go, you’ll never know”.
Teaching schedules meant that it was hard to get the same days off to climb with another fellow teacher. I researched as much as I could, borrowing some gear from an old high school friend living in Tokyo. I equipped myself with 3 large bottles of water, fruit snacks and then ventured off to conquer Mt Fuji. Maybe it was my restless and reckless tigress nature. I was ready to do this.
There are a few different trails going up. Most people start halfway up the mountain at the official entrance at the 5th Station – Kawaguchiko. There are ten stations that lead to the top of the summit. As it was two weeks outside of official climbing season, I had arrived late at 8pm via train and there were no shuttle buses to the 5th Station till the morning. My choices? Either sleep at the train station over night or find another way there. I had timed the climb to arrive at the peak around sun rise. Most people take anywhere from six to eight hours to climb from the 5th Station. I prayed for someone else to appear – just one other climber … at least.
I couldn’t see anyone and was just about to retire on a bench when I saw a western guy approach with a backpack. I asked if he was climbing Mt Fuji. He said yes. I was elated! Chris, from the UK, became my climbing companion for the next twenty two hours on that mountain.
We tried to get to the 5th Station but were told a taxi would cost 10,000 yen ($100). We asked if he would take us to the base of the mountain that was a third of that price instead and we would split the ride. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we ended up hiking perhaps the oldest trail up Fuji – known as the Purist’s trail and added an extra six hours to the climb – simply because we were outside of climbing season and had started at the foot of the mountain. The Purist’s trail was usually reserved for dedicated climbers on spiritual pilgrimages back in the old days or for die-hard climbing fanatics.
Little did we know that the foot of the mountain had its own grim story!
Located at the foot of Mt Fuji is Aokigahara – a place known as the ‘Sea of Trees‘. Due to the density of the trees and an absence of wildlife, the forest is not only known for being eerily quiet, but is infamous throughout Japan as a popular spot for those taking their final journey. Later I would discover that many Japanese people come here to commit suicide. Aokigahara is considered the most haunted location in all of Japan, a purgatory for yurei – the unsettled ghosts of Japan who have been torn unnaturally soon from their lives and who howl their suffering on the winds.
More than 500 bodies have been found there since the 1960s, but no one knows how many more bodies have gone undiscovered. Signs cautioned us with messages such as “Please reconsider” and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!”. Our warnings were nailed to the trees throughout the forest.
And so we naively trudged on one of the most dangerous paths a climber in these parts could take. If I had known this prior to my climb, there was no way I would have climbed from the bottom of the mountain. As it turned out, I didn’t. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Or is it?
Spiritual Lesson No. 2 – Sometimes you have to travel through the valley of darkness and the shadows before you see the light.
Pitch blackness and pristine mountain conditions – a stark contrast to the foreboding energies surrounding us. Save for my headlamp and Chris’ torch, the night was completely still. Not a sound .Complete silence… It was hauntingly beautiful. The air was cool, the earth was dark and the forest, moist and lush; with a serenity one often witnesses in Asian martial art films. We began to chat about our respective lives and journeys in Japan. Fifteen minutes later, I began to run out of breath, so I decided not to talk too much and conserve as much energy as I could.
Along the way, we passed a few huts in dilapidated states and a few monkey statues. Chris made some coin offerings every time we came across a statue. Bless his beautiful soul, I smiled. As it turns out, his kind gestures may have invoked the hand of serendipity. Neither of us saw anyone else on that trail for hours and yet mysteriously, within half an hour of each other, two separate pairs of black climbing gloves miraculously appeared along our path. They looked brand new and never been worn – both pairs fit us both perfectly. I already had a pair that I borrowed from a friend, but these felt like a gift from beyond…
Spiritual Lesson No. 3 – Always be grateful for the little things.
For a solid hour, we were accompanied by a majestic white butterfly. We thought it amazing – perhaps it was attracted to the light from our torches… or perhaps it was sent to protect us along the path and guide us safely out of the ‘Sea of Trees’. I have since read up on various meanings of white butterfly symbolism – commonly signifying past spirits and souls, but also suggestion that angels watch over us. In hindsight, it made some sense considering where we were in that part of the mountain. For me, it was just a sign that we were being divinely guided and protected along the way.
Spiritual Lesson No. 4 – Always be open to miracles and mysteries of the universe.
Hours later, we found a hut – the doors were open, but it was 1.30am and as there was no one there to greet us, we assumed that they were fast asleep. We were hesitant in taking shelter there so we rested for ten minutes, then made our way again.
After that, time ceased to exist.
We were in another dimension – it felt like the twilight zone. We saw lights up ahead and heard a recorded announcement in the distance. We were probably at the 6th or 7th Station by now and must have somehow passed the 5th Station without realizing it. Either that or we were on a completely different trail.
The trail of lush forestry turned into rocky loose gravel and stone as we ascended. Up until this point, we were the only climbers. In the distance was the flickering of another torch light. A lone elderly man ascending the mountain decked out in his hiking gear and backpack approached. It just so happened that he over took us in the morning and put us to shame. We reminded ourselves that we had started at the base of the mountain and were ‘Purist‘ hikers on a spiritual pilgrimage.
Somewhere between the 7th & 8th Station, the sun came up around 5am. Chris took some amazing photos with his camera, but my camera and the new batteries I bought didn’t work, so I had to rely on my phone camera. It was just amazing being above the clouds up so high! It was a pure adrenalin rush – despite getting slightly dizzy, going stiff and numb.
We arrived at the 8th Station around midday. Fuji was getting steeper and steeper. We passed people inhaling oxygen masks and wondered why we didn’t have any. Not only was I getting tired, but Mother Nature decided to then pay me an unexpected visit … (What timing!) Maybe it had something to do with getting closer to the moon that conjured my cycle, but restrooms were few and far between and climbers had to pay to use them.
We took an hour’s rest and shared a bowl of soba noodles before moving on. At this point, we looked up to see how much further we had to go – surely two more stations wouldn’t take that long. BIG mistake! The distance was misleading. It seemed SO huge, yet so close. Like a mirage, we didn’t know if it would take half an hour or half a day to get to the next plateau. The last 2 hours were probably the hardest – considering we’d already done sixteen hours of climbing, with only sporadic five minute breaks in between.
There were moments I thought I just wasn’t going to make it and I honestly believed that I would die on that mountain.
But how could I give up? There was no turning back now. I had come this far. There was only one way back down the mountain but it meant making it up to the top first. The last twenty minutes felt like we were knocking on heaven’s door. Chris had kept his English gentlemanly cool and composure up until this point but we were both close to breaking point. Hardly anyone climbs from the base of the mountain any more, and so we gave ourselves some credit and cut ourselves some slack.
As you ascend, the air gets thinner and you feel like you’ve got the worst hangover in your entire life. Bear in mind that pilots who fly in non-pressurized planes wear oxygen masks above 10,000 feet. Now Mount Fuji’s summit is 12,388 feet above sea level. When you’re hiking up a mountain at a similar height, the altitude impacts you the same way I imagine kryptonite does Superman! No matter how powered up you are, your life force is simply brutally sucked out of you. By this point, we were so tired and must have been completely delirious. We were both hallucinating! I was seeing animal formations in the dirt and sand and Chris thought he saw a black cat sliding between his legs at one point!
Trippers, you say! Ha…
Spiritual Lesson No. 5 – Never ever ever give up.
We finally made it to the summit around 3pm. Hooray!
Actually, I was far from elated. It is customary to walk around the crater and I was kind of expecting an epiphany or something, but my body was sore and I was way too exhausted. We had to get down and make the last shuttle bus back to the train station before 8pm at night. We took a few photos and rested for ten minutes before making our way back down. All I could think about was getting off that mountain and soaking in an onsen (Japanese deep hot spring).
Fifteen minutes later, we were sliding down extremely loose lava, rock and stone. It is faster on the way down, but my feet and toe nails felt like they were about to come off. It took another four hours to get down the mountain (no breaks). We got lost, but were luckily offered a lift back to the station by two random Japanese guys – THANK HEAVENS!!!
Climbing Mt Fuji was the biggest physical achievement in my life to date. It taught me some valuable lessons that I still live by today. I sometimes shake my head in disbelief and often wonder how on earth I managed it – but I did! It gave me such perspective. Just when you think you’ve come to the end, somehow you get a second or even a third wind… and no matter how long it takes you, you just have to keep going… one step at a time.
One breath at a time – one day at a time.
With sheer courage and profound faith, keep climbing, knowing there is a divine plan – something bigger than all of us.
About the author Vina Von S – The Truth Vixen
Vina considers herself to be a mystic visionary of cosmic consciousness and love. A warrior spirit of radical truth, depth and integrity, she has been known to moonlight as a bohemian gypsy and a dark goddess during full moons and weird planetary transits. Endlessly following the erratic path of her soul has led her down many winding paths in various sojourns as a corporate slave – from marketing manager, flight attendant, teaching English, dance, co-contributing editor on other e-zines, to hosting her own radio shows in Sydney and New York, running an entrepreneurial speaking circuit, as well as dabbling in many other evolutionary, social and spiritual interests – at times – fine, dark and quirky.
She’s a post-Jungian analyst / psyche therapist with a Masters in Analytical Psychology and an Economics (Social Science) degree, but prefers her lifelong enrolment in the School of Heart Knocks, not Hard Knox.
Vina currently runs workshops on re-visioning Sacred Relationships and is also available for speaking engagements and keynote presentations.
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