Mid July, 2011: I was a passenger in Paul’s car, driving east. Ben was in the backseat and we were listening to an Italian pop-song and eating non-perishable snacks loaded with complex-carbohydrates. It was a fine summer day but everyone had on long underwear and heavy-duty boots. Paul and Ben, two British boys, were returning to England soon and they wanted to symbolically overmaster Japan before they left. We were going to climb Mt. Fuji.
Paul’s car was a full-sized sedan and it comfortably navigated the serpentine, mountain roads. As we entered Yamanashi Prefecture, the highway tapered dramatically and Paul braked whenever an oncoming vehicle came. There was a short metallic guardrail that was scarred and bruised and bent and it did nothing to soothe Paul, who was intimidated by such things as fast-moving machines and sheer precipices. Ben and I teased Paul and did not acknowledge our own apprehension.
For the past month my adult conversation class had been advising me weekly on how to surmount the many obstacles I would encounter en route to Mt. Fuji’s summit. Bring a walking stick for when my legs tired. Ascend slowly to avoid altitude sickness. Strap a headlamp to my skull for night-vision. Wear layers and more layers underneath those layers. Load up on lightweight, revitalizing grub. Arrive early. Carry a Japanese-English dictionary. Be prepared to fail.
Paul sat erect and held the wheel with two hands. Ben bounced about in the backseat, shimmying and gyrating and requesting that we listen to that same Italian pop song, just once more. Occasionally Fuji would reveal itself, looming above and behind the massifs of the Minami Alps. Paul stared forward.
We parked in a large parking lot at the base of Mt. Fuji. It was early afternoon and the sun made my legs perspire. We performed some last minute clothing adjustments in the public restroom, which was packed with other climbers. Mt. Fuji’s “Climbing Season” spans just two months, July and August, and this was a three-day weekend. Japanese people were everywhere and they conversed quietly and smiled broadly and looked smart in their mountaineering garb.
The mountain has ten climbing stations – outposts where hikers recuperate and recharge. The lowest five stations are like wooden villages made of restaurants and gift shops. At the first station we caught a bus that drove us to the fifth station, the highest point accessible by car. On an outside deck we ate gyoza and ramen and asked strangers to photograph us. Paul purchased an overpriced walking stick and I bought an extra bottle of water. We commenced the trek at approx. 1930hrs. Our goal was to be at the summit by sunrise.
The trail was wide and it was an enjoyable dusk-time walk. We were warm and eager and cheerful. There were other hikers, but not many. Paul took long, aggressive strides and his stick made a distinctive clack, clack, clack. Ben sang in poor Italian and wore his sunglasses until after the sun had set. From the sixth station we watched the full moon rise and it looked like a lightning bug left to die. Paul tied a bandana around his head his head and we ate some granola.
Between the sixth and seventh stations the trail narrowed and the incline became steep. Foot-traffic slowed. Bodies contacted bodies. Japanese hikers activated their headlamps and a filament of light zigzagged up Fuji’s facade and melted into the mountain. Ben and I reminded Paul that he should ingest more nutrients ASAP because his metabolism was a hummingbird’s. Paul scoffed and tightened his bandana and his stick rarely clacked because we were progressing so slowly.
Pretty soon I got bored. The terrain was cragged but lots of boots over a long time had carved the trail into a series of defined footholds, a staircase of volcanic-rock. Hikers crammed together, single file, and the borders of the path were delineated with rope so it was difficult to overtake anyone. Senior Citizen Tour Groups languished and chittered and Ben and I made a game of seeing who could clamber past the most people in the least amount of time. It was early a.m. and it was not dark. Paul was decelerating noticeably + asking lots of altitude-sickness-related questions so Ben and I often scrambled ahead of like thirty hikers and it made us feel invigorated and alive. Afterward we always paused and drank water and waited for Paul and became impatient and frustrated. The deliberate clack of Paul’s stick preceded his gaunt, calcified face. He would not eat more granola.
At some point the stations twinkling above us transformed from beacons of progress into haunting reminders of how goddamn long this was taking. Paul insisted we rest at every station so he could catch his breath and have his walking stick officially stamped. Ben and I bought candy bars and inspected commemorative gewgaws to pass the time. We sprayed each other with water. We insulted people. We watched other hikers shuffle by us and enumerated how many of them we could bypass before the next pit-stop. The wind was weak, the air was brisk and the Japanese people did not realize that a lustrous, full moon rendered their headlamps pointless.
Between the seventh and eighth stations, Ben and I began playing a game that I call The Game. I’m not sure who invented The Game but my high-school friends and I like to pretend that we did. It’s an excellent game for many reasons, perhaps the greatest being that you can play it anywhere. All you need is: two people and a common language. The rules are simple. You count to three and then each person says a word/phrase simultaneously. Any word/phrase. So after one round you have two words/phrases that represent two distinct concepts (example: person 1 said chicken, person 2 said H2O). Each person must now silently think of a subsequent word/phrase that links these two, previously introduced and totally separate, concepts. Count to three and say your new words (example: person 1 says duck, person 2 says biology). Go again. Never repeat a word/phrase that’s already been said. And just keep going. The objective is for both individuals to say the same word at the same time. You play until that happens.
There are two basic ways to play The Game.
Option #1: Play to Win. I.e. take into account your partners personality + the total significance of the two words and concentrate really hard on what word/phrase would make the most sense in that particular circumstance with that particular partner. Try to land on the same word in the fewest turns as possible.
Option #2: Enjoy the Ride. I.e. disregard your partner completely. Forget his/her passions and character. Ignore whatever things you two might have in common. Just focus on the words/phrases. Mine the recesses of your mind for some semi-logical bridge between those two words/phrases, even if it’s only semi-logical to you. Go wherever you want to go. Eventually you and your partner will end up at the same place.1
Ben and I were fatigued and increasingly indifferent to the whole scaling-Mt.-Fuji endeavor. A line of Japanese people equipped with serious headgear stretched above us. Somewhere underneath us Paul clack, clack, clacked feebly onward. We found ourselves playing Option #2. Here's a sample:
Soon Ben and I were holding hands and hopping breathlessly and counting to three in unison. When our two words/phrases became closer, we became louder. When our two words/phrases married two disparate, very incompatible concepts, we broke into raucous giggles. We played over and over and over and when we won we danced and yelped. Gradually the Japanese people around us started paying attention to The Game. They observed us quizzically and smiled supportively. They did not understand any of the words/phrases, but they could count to three in English, so they chimed in. Within a few minutes there was a cluster of at least fifteen Japanese retirees surrounding us. They counted to three and they bowed forward and they waited for Ben and me to react to our newest words/phrases. When we groaned, they groaned. When we laughed, they laughed. When we boogied, they shook our hands and high-fived each other.
Our troupe marched right through the eighth station.
Eventually The Game got bizarre and pornographic. That’s just what happens when you play for an extended period of time. Sample #2:
The phrases crack horse and sperm oversupply sent Ben and me into hysterics. We shrieked and kept playing, shouting offensive, stupid stuff like gay party and Mitt Romney dildo. Sexagenarians cheered, engrossed and jubilant and ignorant. I could not hear Paul’s walking stick.
We arrived at the summit 40min before sunrise and found a secluded place to sit. It was a beautiful sunrise witnessed from a view I will not forget. The Fuji Five Lakes were like puddles. Cloud plumes besieged the miniaturized Minami Alps, suggestive of spume overwhelming a rocky coastline. Paul went to the tenth station to get his walking stick stamped and returned with three hot coffees. We did not move for maybe an hour.
I jogged down the mountain, Ben following closely and Paul somewhere further back. I stopped to take a piss and in daylight the seventh station looked like a ramshackle hut. My body ached and I wanted to eat something warm and viscous. An old Japanese man came and stood at the adjacent urinal. He looked at me and grinned.
“One, two, three,” he said.
1) I’ve made real friends playing Option #2 of The Game. It’s a great way to figure out real quick whether/not you like someone.