Mount Fuji

By Naomi O'Hara

MAKOTO stood behind his daughter Mariko, who looked out the front window of the moving train as her mother, Eriko, used to do. Nine years had passed since he had been to the mountain with Eriko, who had loved Mount Fuji almost as much as she had loved him. Makoto thought if his daughter could see the mountain up close, she would have a wonderful memory of the summer as he and Eriko used to have.

“On this train from Tokyo to Mount Fuji, I was always with your mother,” Makoto said. Mariko was absorbed with the flowing views and did not seem to have heard him.

After going through the long stretches of congested towns, the train meandered among green mountains.

Every green has a poem, Eriko used to say, her face close to the train window. She also said that in Tokyo she felt like she had to live, but the sea of waving green in Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures made her happy to live. Among the concrete, the buildings, and the crowds, everything seemed to her a matter of course. But surrounded by green trees and green mountains, her ability to be surprised and her appreciation for life sprang fresh. Traveling through these rural prefectures, Eriko would recite poems to nature like a little bird singing in the woods.

“This is Mount Fuji Express Train Number Twelve, bound for Kawaguchiko Station,” a polite female voice announced.

The train whistled longingly, like a harmonica played by a homesick traveler, as it ran past dense thickets and trees. A cross-shaped object jumped at Mariko’s face. She ducked as it crackled against the front window. It was a dragonfly, its body and net-like wings pressed against the window of the moving train. Then from the air dropped the papery wings of a beautiful yellow butterfly; it also smashed into the window. Unlike neatly pinned specimens, the dead bodies of these insects looked grotesque.

Mariko’s excited expression fell from her face. Makoto set a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Today was the last day for them,” she said. “And they didn’t know.” For this he had no response.

Soon, from the side window, an elegant cone-shaped mountain appeared, comfortably sitting like an unshakable king. Though it lacked a distinguished snow crown, no one on the train had to ask if it was Mount Fuji. No other mountain towered over the clouds, and no other mountain was so beautifully symmetrical. The other mountains seemed to change shape as the train passed, but Mount Fuji looked the same no matter which angle the train presented. Telephone poles, grape plantations, rice fields, and smaller mountains came and went, but Mount Fuji always remained in view, and its shape never changed.

“Are you all right, Mariko?” Makoto asked. “You are quiet.”

She answered his observation with more silence, unpredictable in the way her mother had been. At Fujiyoshida Station, they boarded a bus that took them straight through the green woods to Mount Fuji, which zoomed large as in a camera effect in a movie. Then the bus began climbing, the road winding, never to straighten. A creamy ceiling of clouds pressed toward them. Closing his eyes, Makoto felt the shaking. Right, left, right, left, Mariko’s upper body moved too, her head bumping his shoulder.

“The fifth station of Mount Fuji,” the bus driver said. “Your destination. Enjoy.”

The air felt thin and cool. “Daddy, how high is it?”

“Let’s see.” Makoto unfolded a climbing pamphlet, pleased with her interest. “It’s 2,305 meters. The top of the mountain is 3,776 meters.”

“How many stations are there?”

“Ten, with the first station at the foot of the mountain and the tenth at the top.”

Paved with restaurants, cafés, and souvenir shops, the fifth station felt crowded for a place so far from any large city. Most visitors dressed casually like Mariko and Makoto, while some wore mountain-climbing boots and alpine caps.

Makoto took Mariko into a shop where he bought a jigsaw puzzle of Mount Fuji, a good souvenir for a child of Mariko’s age. Mariko tried out the Kongouzue, the wooden pilgrim’s staffs, knocking the ends against the worn planked floor.

“Mariko, we can hike around the fifth station, ride a horse, and then go home if you like.”

Like it was a trophy, Mariko lifted a walking stick with a Hinomaru flag and round bells at the top. “Daddy, can you buy me this?”

“It’s for climbing the mountain.”

“I know that. I want to climb.”

“The bus brought us only partway. To climb to the top takes endurance and stamina.”

“Daddy. I thought you had enough sta-min-a to climb.”

He suppressed a smile at the slow, careful way she said stamina. “I’m not worried about myself.”

“I’m not a loser.” Mariko raised the stick, which was taller than her but much lighter. Then she tapped the bottom of the stick on the floor and the bells tinkled. It was the sound of an epic journey. She smiled at him, the corners of her lips spread wide toward her ears. “I’m climbing to the top. Let’s go.” Mariko took his hand. In her eyes Makoto saw Eriko’s determination. “We can do it, Daddy.” Her enthusiasm pleased him.

“Okay, Mariko. Let’s see how far you can climb.” Makoto bought her a windbreaker because he knew it would be cold if she lasted till evening. It would be very challenging for a child of her age to climb to the top, and he was sure she would have to give up eventually. But he also wanted Mariko to experience something difficult. She could talk about her trial and disappointment throughout the rest of her life, and someday it would be a sweet story. And when the mountain won, when Mariko was forced to give up her quest for the summit, the harsh reality might make her a little more humble.

Mariko marched under a red torii, a gate most commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. She held her chin high and her chest protruded as if announcing, I am here; I’ve just begun to climb—look at me! Women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868, in the era of the Meiji Restoration, and women were not allowed to vote until 1946, when the occupying forces of the United States pressed for change. This long subjugation of Japanese women would later upset Mariko, but during that summer of 1970, Makoto knew she had no awareness of what was her right and what was a gift. She claimed both from birth, like her arms and legs. Taking these opportunities for granted, as if Mount Fuji were a hill in her own garden, she strode with ignorance and innocence on the path of chauvinists.

The concrete pavement turned to ash-like black earth, but the path remained relatively smooth, flat, and wide—like a hiking trail. The green trees, shrubs, and weeds stretched their branches and abundant leaves over the path, like a throng of fans trying to touch celebrities as they passed. Led by a trainer, a horse with gray spots clomped on the path, carrying a mother and a preschool-age daughter.

Soon the tall trees were gone. With nothing to stop the wind, the plants became humbly shorter than Mariko; small shrubs dotted the slope on both sides of the path like dark green road signs. The spacious view from between the clouds allowed Makoto and his daughter to look all the way down to the foot of the mountain where the lakes appeared to be tiny puddles and where the forests seemed no more than lush green weeds.

On the path, red rocks sat here and there in the blackish earth. Climbers stretched their necks looking up toward their goal. Having hurled out volcanic rock hundreds of years earlier, the top of Mount Fuji towered alone, appearing no closer than it had an hour before. There were no mountains, no clouds near the summit, nothing but blue sky behind it. Mount Fuji appeared to understand its unique harmony with the background of the universe. Makoto shivered at the challenge that lay ahead for his daughter. “If you’re getting tired, we can turn back now.”

A thin film of sweat gleamed on Mariko’s forehead. Where she’d rubbed with the back of her hand, her skin was streaked with dirt. “Of course not.”

They continued, trudging past split iron rail fences like those used in construction, perhaps intended to halt an avalanche, to reduce erosion, or to block the wind, or even to catch a tumbling climber. The path narrowed and they could no longer walk side by side.

“I’ll go first,” Makoto said. “You watch my steps.” He measured his stride, challenging his daughter’s lean but small legs. She breathed in short puffs, looking determined to keep pace with him. They balanced along the edge of a cliff, shielded by a second rock ledge. At a sharp turning point, Makoto grabbed Mariko’s arm so she would not slip. He pointed at the mountain’s looming shadow, the gradual and symmetrical slant of its sides, its flat top. The shadow stretched across misty blue lakes, sprawling green forests, and brown patches of towns with thousands of dot-sized buildings.

Through rifts in the clouds, Makoto pointed at the northernmost body of water, shaped like a man whose hands and feet were tied with rope. “Between the green mountains, that must be Kawaguchi Lake.”

“It looks like a small pond,” Mariko said.

He moved his index finger to the northeast, to a body of water shaped like a whale. “And that must be Yamanaka Lake. Two of the five Fuji lakes. Those lakes are huge. It takes hours to walk around them. So you see how high we have climbed.”

“We climbed only a little with our feet, Daddy. The bus brought us most of the way.”

They resumed climbing. Mariko went first. The path became steep enough to make Makoto bend forward to stare at Mariko’s heels. Among adult-size footprints, Mariko’s small and short-strided but well-printed steps expressed the unique joy of blazing a frontier. Though his daughter was raised on the paved streets of Tokyo, the rural trail suited her wild and unsophisticated character.

*

“It’s fine to turn back now,” Makoto said.

Mariko shook her head, her cheeks flushed pink. “Let’s go, Daddy. The adventure has just started.”

They followed a long slanted path of irregular steps. At the end of the straight stairs, the landing was small, and from there the trail switched back and forth across the face of the mountain. Rough footsteps clamored behind them, young men in a hurry to pass. Makoto stood to the side, gripping Mariko’s shoulders so that she would not fall. Slanting sunlight leaped into his eyes from just above the slope of the mountain. The sky was bright but the sun looked distant and reserved. “The sun is tired, Daddy,” Mariko said. “Like it spent an entire day climbing up and down Mount Fuji.”

Makoto was tired as well. The sun no longer burned, but the air was still humid. Beads of sweat dropped from his forehead. In the halo of the sun, another climber descended, his footsteps and his greeting echoing along the rock walls.

Makoto spotted a bush among the rocks and stones. The higher they climbed, the fewer plants they saw. After several zigzagging paths, they arrived at the hut called Hinodekan and sank onto the bench outside the tin walls.

“Okay. This is enough, isn’t it?” Makoto asked.

“We are going on, Daddy. Unless you are tired.”

“All right.” Makoto rose, his legs stiff. They climbed a relatively short distance to the next hut, Tomoekan. A line of people stood before what might have been a narrow checkpoint for heaven. At the front of the line, a man pulled the rectangular end of a red-hot iron stick from the glowing coals of a grill to brand each climber’s walking stick. Mariko’s turn came. As it wisped from the brown Station Seven Tomoekan, 2740 m logo, the bluish-gray smoke stung Makoto’s nose. Mariko thrust her walking stick in banzai. The bells jingled happily. Makoto wished for the smell of the brand to burn in his daughter’s memory so she would forever recall this moment of pure, confident, innocent freedom.

“Again, we can go back from here, Mariko, if you are tired. Nobody would think you a loser if we turned around. It’s an accomplishment for you to get this far, and we can climb the rest when you’re older.”

“I’m all right. Are you tired, Daddy?”

“No.”

“Then let’s go.” Mariko led on the straight path, which now consisted of rocks of various sizes artificially lined up at irregular intervals, seemingly never-ending stairs along the cliff. Makoto stepped easily from stair to stair, but Mariko needed to step twice on each one. She wisely traded legs, reaching first with one and then with the other, so that they shared the burden of climbing. Her pace was steady and she was not out of breath.

Congested clouds hovered below like endless mountains, piling up as if competing for the highest position. Makoto shook Mariko’s shoulder and pointed at one small, stray cloud loitering along the path like a street performer. It changed shape: First, it was a jellyfish, the edge of its skirt moving up and down; then, it elongated and twisted its hips like a Hawaiian dancer.

The zigzagging turns tightened. Ahead, a long line of climbers straggled over the path, as far as Makoto could see. The irregular trail steepened and wove among the rocks. The climbers clutched a long chain that had been set for them. Where the chain ended, Makoto grabbed the jagged edge of a rock for balance.

Each step required a good deal of concentration and much work from the thigh and calf muscles. Makoto and Mariko passed climbers resting wherever they could find space along the path. The mountaintop peered down at them. “Do you need a break, Mariko?”

“No, not at all,” she insisted.

The vegetation disappeared and the landscape turned barren. Beyond the signs and metal nets posted for protection, the mountain looked like the surface of the moon or of Mars. Out of nowhere appeared a bunch of white lilies wrapped in white paper and a sake bin, protected by a wall of stacked stones.

Mariko looked up at her father.

“I think,” he said, “someone died here.”

She breathed deeply and in the sound of her breath, Makoto could almost hear her heart. Some fathers would have suggested a prayer for the dead, knowing that in her innocence Mariko would comply, but instead he looked through the dusk to the top of the mountain. It did not seem any closer, the face of it dignified as a statue of some historical figure. Yet, unlike a statue, the mountain could erupt at any time, spewing lava, ash, and smoke; disrupting roads, trains, and daily life. Some might believe such a disaster to be a sign of God’s anger but Makoto did not. He was spiritual but not religious. Unlike his late wife who believed God would help her, who believed she could see mountains move, Makoto knew his own limitations and his daughter’s. “We still have a ways to climb. Would you like to go down, Mariko?”

“No way. You can go back and wait for me at the bus station, but I’m going to the top.”

The rocks on the path became scant and the ground loose. The extra energy required to plod over the soft earth made the climbers quiet, their calves tight and burning. As from the fog of a short morning dream that resisted the challenge of reality, the summit loomed in the twilight. It still seemed no closer. It was also clear that the higher they climbed, the steeper the path would become. Makoto watched Mariko’s breathing. She took one step as she inhaled; she took another step as she breathed out, regular and strong. As a running coach, Makoto saw potential in his daughter’s lung capacity.

“There’s a stray rock ahead,” Makoto called to her. “Be careful, don’t trip.” Mariko tapped her walking stick, and he knew she was feeling for irregularities in the growing darkness.

“Do not give up, Daddy.” Mariko patted Makoto’s lower back. “Let’s show Mount Fuji we don’t back down easily. Our hearts are as big as this mountain.”

Soon other tired climbers sat on the ground nearby. One sucked air from an oxygen can. Another man lay face up next to the bench, his hand on his forehead.

Makoto thrust his climbing pamphlet at Mariko before she could complain about taking a long break. Fortunately, it was written in hiragana characters for children. Mariko read aloud, “Because of the lack of oxygen, mountain sickness is common on Mount Fuji. The best way to avoid it is to linger at station seven or eight, in order to adjust to the altitude.”

“We are at station eight,” Makoto said. “You see? To climb, we have to take our time. We will not reach the summit until sunrise.”

The clouds parted and stars spread through the sky. Mariko raised her hand as if reaching for one. “Look how they play,” she said, “while their strict teacher, the sun, is away.”

*

Eventually, they joined others in a dark room where people lay in sleeping bags, side by side like logs. As they slept, the floor gradually became packed with people.

Several hours later, when Makoto opened the door, cold air brushed his face. He made Mariko put on her Windbreaker. They left under a world of stars in three dimensions, stars that floated and swirled around them. They were calm and soothing like fireflies. In the western sky the gibbous moon shone bright.

As the path steepened, they could no longer marvel at the sky; the irregular rocks demanded their attention. Again they leaned on the chains strung for balance. The higher the altitude, the steeper and narrower the path became, the mild congestion slowing the climbers.

“Hold on. We can make it.” A stranger behind them mimicked Mariko’s loud, animated tone. She turned and smiled with the V sign next to her face.

Because they were short of breath, no one else spoke or cheered as she did. Mariko’s breath came hard too, but it was not her nature to be quiet. Her vocal energy, her determination to extend beyond herself—these qualities impressed her father, who quit asking if she wanted to give up and instead warned only that she watch her step.

Mariko watched her step but never quieted. “A little more. One more step! The goal is near and the dawn is close. We’ve got to show Mount Fuji what we’re made of. Let’s fight.”

They zigzagged across the steep upper slope of the mountain. The path turned to paved stone stairs. Like loyal dogs, two white stone lions guarded a torii gate, one on each side. Passing the gate, Mariko stepped to the top of a ridge where climbers stood side by side, cameras poised, flashlights beaming, binoculars ready. The top of the mountain was gone from their view. There was only the sky, filled with stars, pregnant with morning.

“We’re at the top, Mariko.” Makoto set his hand above hers on the walking stick. “That’s 3,776 meters. There’s nowhere higher in Japan.”

Under the light of the stars, all faces were clear and joyful.

A vast ocean of clouds rolled beneath them, disappearing in obscure darkness as they reached a horizontal line far away. The sky began to fill slowly with a bluish aura. Everyone looked toward the east. A needle-thin sliver of light crept vertically toward the top of the sky. The clouds above the light turned golden, born from a halo of fresh orange below. Fresh, as if it were the first morning on Earth. The curved head of the sun rose slowly, emphasizing the significance of light to the Earth. The obscured ground and the twinkling stars retreated, no match for the sun’s brightness. Gradually unveiled were the faraway forests.

Applause broke out for the sun, the awaited hero. Camera shutters clicked as the sun stretched its chin over the clouds, spreading its clean white aura.

Mariko’s Hinomaru, the sun-disc flag, looked very appropriate, hi-no-maru meaning the circle of the sun, the red circle symbolizing the sun. Nihon, “Japan,” means “origin of the sun.” The Japanese feel close to the sun as if it is a mother who, in rising, reunites with her children.

Makoto hoped Mariko saw how this day was different from all other days, when the sun waited for her to wake and come out of the house. She was inviting the sun to her country, to her mountain, to her heart.

___

Naomi O’Hara moved from Japan to the United States in 1986 to enrich her work as a writer and philosopher. She attended medical school to learn more about the human condition and has been practicing as a psychiatrist since 1999. She enjoys swimming, competing in triathlons, music composition, and travel. She writes under the pen name Naomi O’Hara.


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