4:38AM – August 26: I noticed the three teru teru bōzu ( Japanese spirit-dolls) hanging on the door at Munatsuki-sansō (胸突山荘) at station nine-and-a-half of the Fujinomiya trail to the top of Mount Fuji. They had been my guardian angels, praying for good weather for my successful ascent.
Most of my fellow sojourners had already departed for the summit — they would miss watching the sunrise from the top if they weren’t arriving there by now. It was freezing outside — I had gone around to the bathroom behind the lodge and also that seemed to be everyone’s first topic of the day. I was standing at the doorway, gathering myself, contemplating whether I should linger longer inside the lodge for the sun to rise more and the air to warm up further. But the staff of the lodge must have seen me standing there with all my belongings on my back, looking ready to go. I could feel their gaze on me; it would be awkward not to leave now, so I said a final prayer to teru teru bōzu, then waved goodbye to everyone, and went outside.
The sun was just peering out at me from behind a vast blanket of cumulus clouds. I turned to look at the summit. It was just another 125 m or so above me, a zigzag thread of lights from the climbers’ headlamps leading all the way up. Above was a fast-brightening twilight sky. I opted not to join these dawn climbers since I went to the summit and circumnavigated the crater the day before. I was already an official member of the distinguished first group of climbers to summit Mount Fuji in the Reiwa (令和) era.
Orison: a prayer for good fortune
Just 24 hours ago I had passed beneath the enormous red torii gate of the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha (富士山本宮浅間大社) and was walking along the stone lantern-lined path between torii gate and shrine — it is customary to visit a Sengen shrine to pray for good fortune before climbing Mount Fuji.
I noticed how much the gable of the shrine’s hip-and-gable roof resembled Mount Fuji’s regally shaped slopes, but the building otherwise looked unapproachable to me.
The time was just past 5 am and the shrine was almost completely deserted, except a morning jogger who had beaten me to the altar to offer the day’s first orison to Konohana Sakuya Hime (“Princess of cherry blossoms”, goddess of Mount Fuji and other volcanoes).
Mount Fuji, of course, is a volcano, and I was asking for permission to trespass. Images from the unforetold 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake — and the many souls that perished in the tragedy were clear in my mind. The Sengen shrines were originally built to appease the fiery mountain (and its gods); the purpose had been a more benevolent one, but here I was, having come to selfishly ask for my own safe return. In the end though, perhaps karma was at work, I couldn’t string together a coherent prayer, so I just said to Konohana Sakuya Hime, “Meet you up there soon.”
Mount Fuji Ascent
The climb itself was very pleasant. My first attempt had taught me to go slowly and steadily, to not get ahead of myself. I learned to bring enough food. Getting caught without provisions on a mountain is no joking matter, so I brought more than a few onigiris (rice balls), manjus (buns), chocolate bars, some peanuts, a few bottles of water and a few extra drinks.
I arrived at gogome (fifth station) at just before 8 am by bus. There, I took half an hour to relax, to check for one last time that I had all my gear ready. Then, I purchased that wooden walking stick not for assistance but for burning stamps onto. Warmed up, and prepared myself mentally and got acclimatized to the elevation. At 8:27 am, I crossed the tree line into what felt like the beginning of heaven, and began my ascent.
The Fujinomiya trail was a lot quieter than the Yoshida Fuji Subaru route I took the first time with a guided group. This time I enjoyed much more personal space; the experience was much more intimate. I was able to take time to appreciate the smaller things — the frail-looking but resilient plants that popped out of the cracks between volcanic rocks, the rocks themselves that were crumbling and breaking into dust under my feet, the thunders — “the sound of the gods” in Japanese, aptly — that were resonating from beneath.
I was also able to stay in touch with my inner self: climbing Mount Fuji can be a deeply spiritual journey. To partake in one’s own time, on one’s own terms, and be ready — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
As a man of faith, I have climbed Mount Fuji because I want to know what happens when a man leaves behind what is worldly and comes close(r) to God.
Man to man
Japan is hiking paradise: each time I have gone hiking there — Yakushima, Sandankyo, Koyasan, Kamikochi — I would greet almost everyone coming towards me konnichiwa and they the same to me. The genuine friendliness embodied in that simple gesture has always been heavenly, because it says to me, when one decides to trek far, he is travelling to where there are no hierarchies.
The higher a man goes, the more he is reduced to the bare essentials — the less he can hide behind worldly possessions — and the more his essence — his soul, his truth — will be on display. So, in a way the mountain brings out the best of him.
There is, of course, the argument that when stripped to the bare bones a man’s ugliest side may surface for survival’s sake. But faith tells me that that wouldn’t happen on a place like Mount Fuji — such a man would not have chosen to climb a mountain like Mount Fuji; there’s nothing here that could sustain the pitiful purposes of his life. If someone decides to climb a mountain, he packs his own will to survive with him.
The Mount. The Temple
I arrived at Munatsuki-sansō at station nine and a half (which is the station closest to the summit), where I would later spend the night. At 12:33 pm, I deposited most of my belongings, and at 1 pm began to climb the last half an hour to the summit. The Fujinomiya route leads directly to the Fujisan Chōjō Sengen Taisha Oku no Miya (富士山頂上浅間大社奥宮), the better half of the shrine I had visited before the ascent. At 1:30 pm, I passed beneath the torii gate to the summit and to the shrine, and received the most coveted stamp from the shrine.
Throughout human history, man has labeled many places sacred they believed were graced by deity, and temples and monuments have been erected there. The Japanese call Mount Fuji sacred because it is just too perfect not to be noticed and claimed by the gods, and here too they have built a shrine. But to me, a temple is anywhere that my soul finds connection with God regardless of religion — it can be anywhere I happen to be.
I used to visit churches and oracles to look for deity and I used to enjoy them, but now, while I usually still find them aesthetically pleasing, they feel empty inside.
Here on Mount Fuji, the temple is the mountain itself, not that Sengen shrine — I rendezvoused with Konohana Sakuya Hime at a sunny spot right on the rim of the crater, where I then enjoyed the last chestnut-filled onigiri that I had brought.
Standing at the apex had been a glorious moment. Climbing Mount Fuji wasn’t easy, nor was it difficult either. Many people including even five-, six-year-olds do it.
Nevertheless it takes more than physical strength; things — including divine intervention in the form of agreeable weather and climbing conditions — have to come together. For my trip the gods had been very merciful.
So, on August 26, 2019, at 5:00 am, the sun was climbing, and I was well on my way of descending, but the gratitude inside me was ever rising like the morning sun, because I knew the gods had made the pilgrimage perfect in every way: It couldn’t have happened on a better Sunday (and Monday); I couldn’t have brought a more perfect amount of provisions — I had finished everything except a final chocolate bar, some peanuts and a small bottle of water; everything had been timed to perfection (a small word of wisdom: allow ample time if you climb — you need to let yourself break); Of course, planning wise, I had my first attempt to learn from, but more importantly, something more — a higher power — had been at work. I knew, and for that, I would be forever grateful.
I listened to the wind — it was otherwise tranquil — speak to me and ask: if this moment is your last on earth, would you be ready to leave? Or would you have regrets?
I said, “Haven’t I already left the world behind and sojourned in heaven?”