The author is a diplomat whose career has not dimmed his enjoyment of foreign travel. He spent ten days in Japan in 1984 during a long vacation in the Far East. This is his account of the most memorable of those ten days.
It was raining as I emerged from the underground, and, when I plunged into Shinjuku railway station, I could not find signs in “romanji” indicating when trains left for Kawaguchiko . A bad start.
In the end I approached a ticket clerk. To my surprise, he understood me and told me what I needed to know - how many on the British Rail payroll can say “11.43” in Japanese? Unfortunately, it was not what I wanted to hear. It was clear I could not get to Kawaguchiko by train in time to climb Mount Fuji and catch a train back to Tokyo the same day. So I set out to find the bus station, in the hope that the buses would be more frequent.
I got there just in time to be pushed into a bus full of schoolgirls. For the last few days of the term they were going on an expedition to the foothills of Fuji. They had abandoned the navy-blue uniforms in which schoolchildren are so conspicuous as they make their way through the streets of Tokyo. Even in mufti they looked very neat and restrained -- much more demure than an upper-form outing from a European school.
As we got into the hilly country west of Tokyo, the rain stopped, and, by the time we reached Kawaguchiko, the day was warm and sunny. Only Fuji was engulfed in cloud.
At Kawaguchiko my bus from Tokyo connected with a bus which took a toll road up to the 2400 m base station, from where the most popular trail winds up to the summit at 3770 m. I started up the trail at midday, leaving behind me a gaggle of souvenir salesmen and mule-drivers.
As I began to climb, I encountered groups of children coming from further up. There were hundreds of them, dressed in blue or orange tracksuits and wearing floppy white hats. Although they had been awake since before dawn - it is customary to climb most of Fuji in the evening, spend the night in a refuge around the 3200 m mark, and get to the top in time to see the sun rise over the Pacific - they were full of life. As they passed, they greeted me with what sounded like “bon giao”. I hesitated before responding. I wondered whether the cheerfulness of their greeting was deceptive. I remembered the Chinese emperor to whom a British ambassador had been admitted through a gate known by Palace officials to be reserved for the envoys of tributary powers. I soon decided on the innocence of their words, and set about returning the greeting with gusto. (Had I thought of my War Picture Library days, I would have realised they were saying “banzai”.).
It was just as well that the last of them was behind me before long: I soon had no energy to spare for greetings. Ascending became a matter of getting to the next bend in the track, or the next refuge. Those coming down the mountain were now few and far between, mostly Westerners. They fell into two groups: those who assured me I was almost there, and those who maximised the difficulties which lay ahead. One American told me that up to the next refuge the test was physical; from there on it was all religion. My strength ebbed. Another American, bounding towards me dressed in a blazer and white flannels, gave me the sense that I had embarked on a stroll along a promenade. He was worth three pauses for a rest.
As I neared the summit, it began to rain. I thought I would be forced into a refuge. But the rain eased, and, when at last I stood on the rim of the crater, the clouds opened all around me. I looked out onto a vast expanse of blue sky. I realised why Zarathustra lived atop a mountain.
When I turned and looked down into the crater, darker thoughts arose. It was a desolate sight: odd patches of dirty snow, an untidy jumble of grey-brown rock, and ash. The volcano was lifeless.
I walked around the circumference of the crater, until I found a trail which led down to the 2400 m mark on the south side. I was reluctant to abandon the heights I had gained so painfully. But it was now four o'clock, and I had only two hours in which to descend what it had taken me three and a half hours to climb.
The sunshine lasted for a few hundred metres, and then I was once more in cloud. I encountered a group of Canadians, and tried to give them the boost I had welcomed from some on the way up. Over the last stretch I followed a group of local montagnards, armed with shovels and wearing PVC boots which allowed for the separate articulation of the big toe. Their daily task, it seemed, was to keep the trail in good repair. The climb which had seemed to me a major undertaking was for them a matter of daily routine. As I savoured a sense of accomplishment, they were thinking of their evening meal.
I reached the base station only to discover that my guidebook was out-of-date. No question of a six o'clock bus. The last bus had left at 3.30. I would have to hitch a lift. But soon the last cars would be gone. Heedless of etiquette, I waved down a young couple who had just begun to move. I shouted the names of towns on the southern slope of the mountain, until they nodded in recognition and opened a car-door..
I sensed they felt awkward in the presence of a “geijin”. But before long I was forgotten. We sped through pine trees down into cultivated land.
They dropped me in front of a small station in the town of Kiso Fukushima, eighty miles or so from Tokyo, at the south western corner of the mountain. It was seven o'clock when I boarded a train, and the late afternoon sun bathed everything in warm, golden colours. It gave beauty even to the grimy little towns and factories which extended along the coast from Tokyo.
From the train-window I could see townspeople preparing for nightfall: children ambling home from school and women carrying sacks of provisions. But hundreds of bicycles in station car parks suggested the breadwinners were still abroad.
In the outer suburbs we encountered commuter trains coming from Tokyo. They were packed. Many of those within them were asleep. A few swigged whisky out of bottles wrapped in brown paper. On the platforms men and women, their daytime solemnity cast aside, laughed and smiled as they waited for connecting trains. Even at 9.30 the flow of people from the centre was as great as the incoming crowds I had encountered at the start of the day.
As we drew into Shinjuku, a bullet-train on a parallel course eased up alongside us, soundless except for the click of its cantilevers brushing against overhead cables.