A Blind Date With Mount Fuji
Better regret something that you did than something that you didn’t do
They say that we don’t learn from our experiences, but from the reflection on our experiences.
When we left for our trip to Japan, Mt. Fuji had a definite place on our itinerary. Yet, after the hikes in the Canadian Rockies, the 13 hours-difference time change, and the humid heat of Tokyo, we started disputing if this would be the best idea. Maybe there is another way to see the beauty of the Nippon symbol.
We went to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Observatory (Shinjuku-ku), where we were told that we can see Mt. Fuji. While the surrounding view was astonishing, we learned that Fuji-san requires very precise (Japanese) timing and conditions to reveal itself. It can only be see on sunny days between December and February, or on the day after a strong wind has been blowing. Even to climb it you can only do it in July and August. So we only saw the spot from where the mountain could have been seen.
Then, we had a family meeting disputing if we should just allow Mt. Fuji to keep its beauty secret from our eyes. To our surprise, both Elisa and Stefan insisted that the experience in Japan will be “completely incomplete ” without this experience. Mount Fuji not only had the distinction of being Japan’s tallest mountain, but also the world’s most climbed mountain and an enduring icon of Japan itself.
The final verdict was our Japan experience would just not complete without the trip to the mountain. And they wanted to climb the mountain to the top. During the night. On a steep 8-hour hike to the top plus the way down.
At that moment I knew it was the time that in my decision-making process I have to apply my old, time-proven criteria, and better regret something that we did than something that we didn’t do.
We all committed to have a date with Fuji-San at 5:04 am on the morning of August 16th, 2017, when the sun will rise in all its splendour and reveal the beauty of the sacred mountain.
The First Encounter
After visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in the morning, we had some rest in the afternoon and at 7:30 pm we took the bus from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji. It was a comfortable, peaceful (before the storm), over two hours bus ride.
We arrived close to 10:00 pm, when we received our first shot of shocks. Outside it was dark, raining heavily and cold. Really cold. The store in front of the bus station was preparing to close. Everywhere else was dark (and raining too, in case I forgot to mention). The first thought was, “How can we go back now?” We couldn’t; the next bus would leave in the morning.
We were the last ones to get out of the bus. We stepped into the store that was closing and got dressed with every single piece of cloth that we had with us. We found some rain coats for sale and grabbed them before they pushed us out of the store.
With nowhere to find shelter, we had to start our hike. The only other option was to freeze in the rain until morning. At least the movement would keep our bodies warmer. And, we were still able to smile for a picture.
The second thought was, “What was it in our minds to do this?!?” I had to hold on to that question, since the answer would not come until the next day.
Hope Dies Last of All
We started hiking at about 10:00 pm. In my attempt to raise the significantly dropped optimism levels, it came to my mind that we’ve been through worse than this. We did survive the rainy night when I got myself and the kids lost, hiking in Ceahlau, Romania. This time we were in a much better position: we had Andrei with us, we had hiking shoes and we had lanterns.
Also on the positive side, they were more hikers on the path. So it started feeling quite normal to be there, at that time, rather than being in the comfortable, warm bed in Tokyo.
Soon enough though, we learned that our idea of putting on all the clothes that we had to defeat the cold, didn’t prove to be so efficient. We all got as wet as we could get. Andrei was the only one who managed to save a dry jacket in time and replaced all the other wet clothes. It was too late though when he realized that he took Stefan’s identical jacket, just one too many sizes smaller. While Stefan was very happy with the bigger size, Andrei had to settle for a more intriguing fashion style, with a tight, above the waist, short sleeves jacket. He still looked handsome.
The Capital “Why” Question
Stefan seemed to have energy and determination which set him on a good hiking pace, so I asked Andrei to leave me behind with Elisa.
Yes, it was time for bed, we were outside in the dark and rain and, it was just the right time for existential questions.
“Why do we have to do this?!?”, she would ask (again, and again, and again).
Well, I didn’t have a very clear answer to this question even for myself, and as much as I tried to defer it, I learned that you should never underestimate “The Why Question”, even for oneself.
She was determined to get not only a clear, straight-forward answer, but an answer that would make so much sense that would actually make her feel that there is a higher meaning and purpose in doing this. She wouldn’t settle for anything less than this. And everybody who knows Elisa, also knows that once she has the answer to the “Why Question”, only the sky is her limit.
Where could I find such an answer at such late hour in the night, where everywhere around was dark, wet and cold?!? Before losing hope, the answer did arrive, from far beyond the dark, wet, cold night.
It suddenly occurred to me that we were still on August 15th, the great celebration day for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many years ago, my mom taught me that, if on Christmas Eve or August 15th, I say one thousand times, the Hail Mary prayer, I will be granted one wish. I used to do that over the years and it was always true.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I took out from my jacket, the rosary that I got from Vatican on our honeymoon that I have been carrying with me everywhere while traveling. I told Elisa about the prayer and the fact Mount Fuji is worshipped by Japanese people as a sacred mountain. Later on I learned that the Buddhist monks revere it as the gateway to another world.
Climbing Mount Fuji, I told Elisa, is like going to a monastery. This is the best way to celebrate this day; the efforts of climbing each step of the mountain, combined with the prayers, would definitely make any child’s wish heard.
A Reason Beyond Yourself
Even based on Elisa’s harshest criteria, this was an answer that did make sense, up to the point of having meaning and purpose.
But there was nothing else that Elisa wished more for herself at that moment than to be in a warm, dry bed and have a deep, restful sleep, when she eventually could dream about climbing Mt. Fuji.
Nothing that she wished just for herself could justify the great difficulty of climbing each step of the mountain at that time. It was too much for her.
She needed a reason beyond herself. Anything that she would wish just for herself would be easily washed out by the next slippery step on the mountain rocks.
This time she was the one that found the purpose in climbing the sacred Mount Fuji on the rainy, cold night of August 15th, 2017. She decided to say the prayers and take the challenge of climbing the harsh mountain for the health of her dear grandmother from Romania, who struggles with cancer.
She asked me to say the prayer out loud, so she can keep the focus. And that’s what we did. I heard somebody passing by saying: “I think they are enchanting something”. Sure enough, just like on the hiking trail in Peru, Elisa kept counting 5314 train tracks and another 2886 mountain steps to keep her mind out of the way and reach Machu Picchu, this time, the Hail Mary prayer kept her mind, her body, her emotions and her spirit in the proper order to complete her higher mission.
While she kept encountering other hikers on our way who were crying, throwing up because of the altitude or turning around all together, this was the answer to Elisa’s question, “Why do we have to do this?” that gave her the will, the purpose, the way and the strength to reach the summit of Fuji-San, 3776 m altitude (12, 389 ft.) the next morning.
And on our way we got reserved seats from above the clouds and the chance to watch the most beautiful spectacle of sparkling stars in all their glory.
The easiest and fastest way is to keep going
I would certainly lie if I would say that only Elisa had a hard time reaching the top. The mountain is divided in ten “stations”/ zones, with the first station at the foot of the mountain and the tenth station being the summit. After the 8th station (Taishi-Kan), which seemed to repeat itself again and again, I also reached my limits.
It was about 3:30 am, I was exhausted after the almost continuous night hike. If we would stop to rest for more than few minutes at a time, the cold that would increase with the altitude would easily freeze the wet clothes going straight to our bones. And to me, worse than a dark, rainy night is a freezing, wet night.
I handed the job of keeping the purpose alive to Andrei, Stefan was always ahead of us, his resilience appearing so natural, and I was left to face my own limits.
I soon realized that my limits are much greater than me, so I seriously started contemplating the idea of making a “wise decision” and “letting go” before I would collapse. Each single step seemed to take tremendous energy to move it. Only if I could sleep for few minutes, even standing up, but the cold was a harsh guardian.
It was Andrei that pointed out that, the easiest and fastest way to end it is to keep moving forward.
Giving up is not a real option.
Just as when we started the hike, we had the option of freezing in the rain over night, or hiking and keeping ourselves warm (and reaching our destination).
I suddenly understood why Stefan sometimes would do something that he clearly didn’t like or wanted to do, with an astonishing fervour and passion. When I would ask him, “How can you do it so fast and well when I know you don’t want to do it?” His answer would be, “Because I want to be done with it!”.
In my case now, if I stop here, I would weather freeze, or I would have to take the way backward through each single step that I have pursued so far. That would mean going down each single steep rock that I pushed myself to climb up. This looked nothing like an easy way. Then I thought that, once reaching the summit, I would still have to go down; but I remembered someone saying that there is an easier trail, better fit for going downhill.
Suddenly it felt so much easier to keep moving forward. We had only over an hour to make it on time for our date with the Fujisan and watch together the 5:04 am sunrise. This seemed like a much more inspiring and easier option than the way down.
Like with other hard ways in life, the fastest and easiest way to get where you want is to just keep moving forward.
Please Mind Your Head
Reaching the summit was reserving me another surprise and at the same time valuable life lessons.
Stefan was already there and I found him snuggled in a corner, fallen asleep, like the Little Match Girl, from Christian Anderson’s story.
He was the first one to reach the summit, and the only one that didn’t complain even once during the whole trip. Once he made his mind to do it, he did it all the way, and I truly don’t know where he got his resilience and determination from And he was the one giving positive energy and encouragements free to everyone who needed it.
When I asked him how did he do it, in the classical Stefan’s fashion, his simple formula was: “When it got too hard, I just kept repeating in my mind,
It reminded me of his motto from the Salkantay trail: “One step at a time”. It always seems to work. Or, as a Japanese proverb says, “The ocean appreciates the contribution of the smallest creek”.
While Elisa and I were enchanting “Hail Mary” , praying for the health of her grandmother, Stefan found his own way of keeping his thoughts in order.
It also goes back to one of the most frequent warnings that I saw in Japan: ” Please mind your head” . When you have your mind and your head in good order, there is no mountain that is too high.
This trip to Japan was Stefan’s dream for years. During our whole trip and even before, I kept being astonished by how natural the Japanese ways seem to him. I have to admit that his calmness, politeness, self-discipline, and amazing sense of order have nothing to do with my genes. No wonder he felt so connected with this country and its culture even before going there.
The Greatest Reward is The Experience Itself
We made it on time! We kept our part of the deal and, after about seven hours of continuous hiking, we were on top of Mt. Fuji at 5:04 am on August 16th, 2017. The great promise of the magnificent sunrise on top of Mount Fuji was legendary.
It is said to be one of those experiences that would definitely add great value to your time on this life. This is how Mount Fuji (Fujisan), Japan’s peaking pride, with it’s nickname “Konohana-Sakuahime” that means “making the blossom bloom brightly”, should have revealed himself to us:
Yes, I admit it. I do seem to defy the laws of physics in my wish, since we wouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the distance while being on top of it, but still. Instead, this is what we ended up with: nothing. We were able to see: a wide, great, grey… nothing.
This is what happens when you go on a blind date trusting the pictures from the internet :).
The sun was too sleepy that morning and somehow annoyed that we expected it to wake up so early, the clouds were making a mess on the whole sky (so much for the Japanese order in the clouds)
and Mount Fuji… well, the majestic Fuji-san made a point in teaching me a very precious life lessons.
I mean, any respectable mountain wants to show off its awe-inspiring beauty to those that dare and work hard to reach their peaks. You take each hard step of the hike, knowing that the summit would reveal unseen beauty that you just cannot see from its feet. The mountain summit gives us perspective of how small and even trivial things become once you can see the greater and higher picture.
All of these did not apply to our hike experience on Mt. Fuji.
Raising his head above the clouds (he did know how to mind its head), the wise, old, Fuji-san seemed to tell me:
“You want me to give you a reward for your hard work? Well, I have no greater reward for you than your own experience of making it here. If beauty was what you were looking for, many would say that they can have a much better view from anywhere else, but being where you are now (including the TV). Yet, no perfect image would have left you with what will always be part of you from now on.”
What can I say? Well said, Sir Fuji-San. I couldn’t argue another single word with the wisdom of the Old Man, who had so much more life experience. Instead, I could only feel the gratitude for being there and taking with me another glimpse of divinity.
Not only we saw the spirit of the Japanese symbol expressed in all their natural and man-made art (such in the Zen Garden), but on our last day, just before we left the country, when we expected it the least, the old, wise, kind mountain waved its hand to us, while riding the Shinkansen train (the”bullet train”) and once more, as if to wish us to always keep his spirit with us, he gave us a sunset smile while our place was taking us home.
Sometimes, when you look too hard to see or understand things, they seem to disappear; and when you let be, they come to you just like the sun after the clouds are gone. Beauty cannot be seen on demand or even through hard work, in the way you want it, when you want it, how you want it. It just reveals itself when your eyes are open.
When we were hiking in the Canadian Rockies, we met a 73-years-old gentlemen, a true inspiration of strength, youthfulness and lightheartedness, who just completed a cycling tour before hiking the Rockies. When I mentioned, “There is so much beauty here”, his simple reply was, “Everywhere is beautiful, if your eyes can see it.”
Indeed, beauty, wisdom, inspiration reveal themselves when we are ready to receive them. Some things are better appreciated it when you take some distance from them; some others give you wisdom through the heights.
The Great Fuji-San gave us more than what we came for. If somebody would have told me how the trip is going to be, with the details that I’ve just wrote here, about the conditions and challenges we will be facing, I would have politely declined the experience, being firmly convinced that, this type of experience is not for me (thinking for myself that you have to be a bit crazy to do it anyway), and even if it were for me, I would certainly not be able to do it. “I can’t do it”, my immediate thought would be (and nobody could have convinced me otherwise).
Only after we did it, not knowing what the experience would be like, so we would be afraid, I can see that we did it!
As the Sage Fuji-San put it, the greatest reward that it could give us is the impact of this experience itself for the next chapters of our lives. It gave us power, it expanded our potential, and our faith in what we are capable of doing beyond our self-imposed limitations. Now, that we climbed through a rainy, cold night and we made to the sunrise, despite all the challenges, it makes us wonder:
If I could do this, why wouldn’t I be able to do any of the other things in my life that before I thought I can’t?!
What if I can and I just don’t know it?!
Having said that, there is a Japanese proverb saying that a wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool does it twice. We did it once!