We meet over a soaking wet konbini food run in the typhoon rains of Hayama, but then this comes as no surprise. Stuck in a hotel on top of a hill, with fixed schedules and guidelines and only a few hours each evening at our disposal, where else would we have gone? During typhoon season, clouds move slowly across the grey skies as we watch from the elegant hotel balconies in the brief rain pauses. The oddly shaped research institute a few steps away seems a poor fit for the otherwise rural scenery. Once, we take the long, laborious walk down a curvy road to the ocean. I can watch the rare car appear on top of the hill and slowly make its way down as slowly as I walk in this breathtaking humidity. The ocean: a few empty restaurants and steep cliffs, listening to waves crashing on rocks. Fifteen minutes seaside and another hour walking back up through the unfamiliar chorus of cicadas. Where else could we have gone? It’s the 7-Eleven or nowhere.
I can always eat, and the main meals here are elaborate and beautiful if I remember to bring my special token, the secret handshake: a tiny orange print-out reading “vegetarian food”. Such a fragile concept, my eating habits. I will soon go on drinking broths and tofu pockets of unknown origins, scrap tiny dried fish flakes off of tofu blocks during lunch, learn to crave shaved ice with syrup and crepes filled with whipped cream and green tea ice cream. At this mini-mart, all I need is mini-mart oolong tea in elegant bottles, and many green tea chocolate bars. Matcha latte everywhere. You grab the Asahi beer and push back your hood briefly to reveal your face and introduce yourself. Back in Hayama, I try on a louder than usual identity and talk to everyone in the lobby, in a way that I hope does not betray the loneliness already creeping into my bones. I thought sharing food and drink and stories could make us kin.
Remember the souvenir from Yokohama I saved for you before we set out to climb the mountain? Inside Yokohama’s Chinatown I stuff my face with sweet sesame cakes and linger over the gift items. Panda bears, mostly. I’m weighing my options and splurge for one of each: a box with sakura, stuffed pastries formed like cherry blossoms, and chocolate panda cakes. There will be more to buy, there is always more to buy. The bills are painfully unfamiliar still, after 7 weeks of handling them daily. Pushing them into the dispenser where I select the same items come lunchtime. In a country of all-you-can-eat dessert restaurants and regional foodstuffs displayed in a Shibuya museum, my workplace favors beef ramen and leaves me hanging every time. So I buy panda bear shaped cookies and Snickers bars to devour while chatting with you across an ocean and an island. You, always stuck inside the lab, and me at the local Starbucks, the quietest coffee shop I have ever encountered. “Are you still at work?” I type in every time your name appears online. The same answer, always: “Yes.” You must be so much more ambitious than me.
This mountain, then. It’s your idea, and I struggle with the taste of its name on my tongue. Hiking up Japan’s largest mountain, in the dark, from 2300 meters at the station up to the peak at 3776 meters. It sounds un-doable. One would need water, the tourist websites warn„ and also food to sustain strength. More facts: It will be hot where we start and icy cold when we arrive. Only if we make it in time, we can see the sunrise above clouds. Children hike up with their grandchildren, claims the seasoned expat on her blog.“It will be something we’ll never forget,” I hear you say. Preparations ensue. I need to borrow all these items from the many people who have hiked up there before me. I am mostly worried about water. I don’t yet know that every station will sell overpriced water bottles, kitkat bars and bananas. I needn’t have worried so much. I could have listened to you more when you told me to just say yes to adventure. “Yes” can be the hardest word.
I select the last food items in a hurry, can’t miss the bus or the ascent won’t happen today. One bus to catch, one estimated time of departure, and we are still unable to converse in this language in a meaningful way. The words remain slippery, grammar rules elusive. I know how to ask which kanji on the riceball packages means algae, which is plum, and which is for all the fish ones. So I ask and buy the algae and pickled plum onigiri, the wakame and ume, and some inari for good measure. I want to be prepared. It’s humid and hot as always in August, and my backpack weighs me down already. We make it onto the bus, and in the backseat I try to get some sleep. When I look up you are typing secret messages into your phone. I said yes and here I am, contemplating the things we consent to. For now, there is still space to stretch our legs.
The ascent is exciting until we reach the first checkpoint, and by the second one I know this has become a battle. Against my legs, against my heart, against my will. “You should go ahead, I’m going to need more breaks,” I tell you, and plead with you to walk ahead. Squinting at the guide map, I know: there is no way down now. There is only up, the earliest descend starting at the 8th station. Masses of humans obstruct the path behind me, forcing me to move on now. I’ve sent you ahead to not be a burden, and I won’t tell you how I cried just a little bit while putting one foot in front of the other. On my back, my water supply sags heavily and reminds me of how well prepared I had felt, all things considered. Maybe I had considered absolutely nothing.
I certainly hadn’t considered this: Every step knocks all air out of my chest. I can feel my heart pump at an alarming speed. I move slowly, grateful to the endless line of hikers in front of me. Three steps, we all rest because there are all these people on this one tiny path. So many people, and so many times I crawl on hands and knees to pull me up over the next stone step. Never look back, always look up. Breathe. Stop. I find space on the floor at each checkpoint and nibble my granola bars. Acclimatizing my body to the sudden lack of oxygen. “Please don’t get sick,” I whisper to myself. I am an animal, jiggling and crawling up the mountain, wheezing, crying. But also this: the sun rises and its pink fills up the entire sky. At 3776 meters after 9 hours I arrive around 4:30 a.m. amidst the longest human chain I have ever seen. These people. This light. It swallows up the peak until red turns into yellow, then white, and then I sit down on a heap of gravel and type a message home: “I don’t know how I am supposed to get back down.”
I spot you while waiting in line for the bathroom, and this is another story I should tell one day: how the world is so small. How relief feels in the early morning cold as I realize I will have a companion for the 6 hours it takes hiking back down. Sharing stories of this pain stabbing deeply into our bones will make us kin. We clink bottles to celebrate our foolishness.
Later that day in the wet heat down in the city, we will scrub off the dirt ten times in the shower, and clumsily navigate the unspoken sento rules. Sitting naked in the hot water, rubbed raw by the mountain.
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” — Robert Louis Stevenson