Love the sinner, hate the sin; that’s how the saying goes I believe. We love this mountain climbing thing but there’s no avoiding it, this 2:45am wake up is an abomination of biblical proportions. It’s not an abomination in the gay sex, eating shellfish or wearing different fabrics at once kind of way, that just gets death by stoning, this is truly damnable. Waking up at this hour is always hard, I’m finally awake about half an hour up the final steep rise of Fuji San (Mt Fuji), we’re just three of a steady string of people reduced to being little more than head torch lights in the dark. Aki is powering on and despite finding the going a little tough he refuses to show difficulty, but we can tell, we know him too well. Somewhere between not pushing Aki too hard and wanting to get to the top for first light we overtake other head torches like roadkill on a highway making great time.
There’s a guided tour ahead we can see, the distinct red flashing LED light sits apart from the other white orbs that bobble in the darkness, we’re chasing that red flashing light in the darkness through the whistle of a cold wind that exists only in places like this. Sand slowly gives way to pocked volcanic rock and the otherwise smooth slope of Fuji San becomes a rocky wonderland of inconsistent mounds on a mountain. Heavenly darkness beckons us still to the red flashing light that is salvation, still for the moment, giving up its flight perhaps. My head torch has died but my eyes have adjusted to the darkness that at this altitude is never really darkness, the red flashing light has tired, we move in for the kill. Less than 100m above us, our prey waits and the rocky lunar world evens out above to a black inky sky somehow a little lighter than the rock all around; the summit.Aki persists, the red flashing light awaits its fate, and the ink black horizon slowly dips to reveal the unmistakable silhouette of a gate, two posts and a plank across the top can only mean one thing: were nearly there. Like a triathlete claiming gold we soon burst through the gate like a finish line, the immense crater of Fuji San mere metres before us as our world becomes so much more than just lights in the darkness. I launch the few steps back to Aki insisting on him closing his eyes for me to guide him to toe at the precipice of the crater that so often defines his homeland. He’s never climbed a mountain, nor a volcano and never been to the top of his native Japan, until now. On the count of three I take my hand away and the steaming inverted cone disappears below his toes at 3776m altitude. A short silence; ‘wow’, comes the response. Correct answer. We started hating the sin but just after 4:30am we’re loving this sinner, images of hell used to terrify children lie just below us after this epic ascent into heavenly darkness; who ever thought hell was tucked away up here in heaven.
The roaring wind rages with renewed vengeance, our red flashing prey has disappeared in the emerging light and after previously sending back most of our hiking gear we’re setting in for braving this cold for a few hours a little underprepared. We scoot around the eastern side to catch the sunrise and hunker down away from the wind that feels like it might pick us up and take us away into the clouds like an ancient fable; but colder. The world disappears below us from the edge of this perfect cone that seems so much rougher up here to contradict the countless artworks that idolise where we stand. From this side the wind comes in bursts as we huddle behind rock ledges in shorts looking like the most idiotic maverick climbers in history watching the strings of cloud whip and pull away from the summit behind us to disintegrate into tortured swirls like spun sugar being stretched apart.We wait, we soak up the achievement and contemplate where we are as a new day becomes real for the first time. Blue twilight clouds lie below us puffy and distant like the sky of a world turned upside down, cold and frozen against the string of horizon blazing like the slice of a samurai’s katana in the sky. In pulsing waves the ever turbulent cloud swirls give us intermittent views of a horizon opening up like the wound of that slicing sword, blazing so out of place in this frozen world. In a fleeting moment between still night and warm day there is burning sunlight without the dense cloud of temperature change, a magic few minutes in the changeover between darkness and light. For that moment the hillside of Fuji San dances, the writhing webs of cloud being pulled over the summit by the ripping wind catch fire in the sun and dance like flames against the frozen cloudy world below; fire and ice in the moment between day and night. For now we feel no cold.
A moment is all that’s on offer, daytime and heavier cloud takes over and our world is cast into a sparkling azure that now just seems like a muted grey after the show. We take in a few views of the crater and think that this can’t be an every day occurrence, it feels too amazing to be so common; it is far and away the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen and I’m quite certain I’m not alone in that realisation. Atop Fuji San with Aki we witness the sunrise of sunrises over the land of the rising sun that needs only a moment to deliver divine epiphany. In the moment where fire and Ice, darkness and light, sky and earth, heaven and hell all blend to one, there seems no opposing forces in the world, no distance between ideas that can’t meet, just a window of perfection where balance is revealed in a way that we oft find it so hard to perceive. The moment passed too fast but the memory is a gift we will have forever, that moment on Fuji San where the world resolved itself.
Now for the descent. Like winding back an old VHS tape we farewell the horizon through the gate past the post office, yes there’s a post office on the summit of Fuji San, have food at last nights shelter and count down the numbers that marked our altitude on the way up. Through soft sandy scree we half walk, half skate our way back down in the blink of an eye; 24 hours of slog unravels so quickly as a clear day above and a cloudy day below farewells us with just a misty cap on Fuji Sans summit like a halo now high above. With the tape unwound we walk through the lower gate at the base of the mountain to stand on the black sand where we started with nothing to show for our troubles but a moment of epiphany that can’t be packed into a bag or stowed in an overhead locker. Like an ancient riddle we can hold it but can’t touch it.Back in the real world below the cloud we’re sore and tired, two days that feel like one have spat us back out and we’re again hating the sin while trying really hard to love the sinner. A bus, a walk, a train, some beef tongue on rice, another train, a train again and we have wandered zombie like to Tado station, Aki’s home town. A pocket rocket of a woman roars to a racing halt in a pocket sized car to pick us up, Aki’s mum has arrived to take us back to town. Seeing Aki’s town, house and mum pads out our view of this man who holds such respect from both of us; Aki, our Tamagotchi samurai kamikaze warrior now a home town boy his mum is just happy to have back home for a time. With no Japanese on our side and no English on Aki’s mums side we hand over our gift of sweets with some bowing and giggles before she shyly excuses herself to another room.
The day that never seemed like it would end indeed does just that, it never ends; it’s onsen time. As much as we’re about to fall asleep we meet back up with Ken and the band is back together for the famous Japanese hot springs, a perfect recovery with team Japan. Through locker rooms, showers, hallways and gardens we all walk completely naked as is the custom to a boardwalk that takes us through a wonderland of large rocks, tranquil gardens and a stream that cascades into waterfalls all around us. Any shyness is long gone as nakedness becomes the norm, the reviving hot spring waters cradle our aching bodies and lift us to a relaxed state where weightlessness replaces ache.
The tradition behind onsen nakedness is that it’s a place to talk and connect, there’s nowhere to hide when you’re naked and nowhere to escape to when settled into the hot restorative waters. The water is invigorating, the gardens pacifying and after two days of strain we indulge in the opposite, complete immobility. If coming down the mountain was unwinding the tape then this is returning the cassette back to the video store, Fuji San seems so far away but like a good movie we have the memory, that perfect moment, the experience together of being on top of Japan that we’ve stolen and won’t return regardless of the late fees. In this perfect place we are granted a moment to contemplate that perfect moment and all those in between, a moment where there are no sins or sinners, just a world perfectly in place.