Even under my heavy layers, I still feel the blistering chill as a heavy gust of wind hurls over Mt. Fuji. I pull my raincoat tighter around myself, quickly wrenching the zipper up to my chin.
We’ve just stepped off the bus at Mt. Fuji fifth station; it had taken us two hours from the center of Tokyo. At this time of year, Tokyo is the city of sweat. On the twenty-minute walk to the bus station, heat crept up my back as I watched Jessica wipe a hand across her brow. And now, it feels like the beginning of a bitter winter.
Mai, Jessica, and Paahoua, all Americans, were the only three counselors from our English teaching program who agreed to face the evening hike with me. I glance at Mai. She wears a pair of black jeans she bought from a convenience store near Tokyo station. She’d lost her hairclip on the bus, and her long black hair whips against her face.
“You sure you won’t be too cold?” I ask. I can already feel the chill settling under my skin. I’m wearing a pair of thick leggings over my sweatpants. Jessica laughs before Mai can reply.
“It’s too late to worry about that now,” she says.
I shine my flashlight up the wide dirt path. The towering green trees, the gentle silence—all beautiful reminders of the past midnight hikes I’d taken. As we start up the hill, I bounce on my toes, letting my heavy hiking boots dig into the dirt path. The only sounds I can hear are my excited breaths and our feet crunching on the gravel. We round the first corner and I blink.
The lights of Tokyo city stretch out below us, an ocean of stars, as if the night sky had fallen to the ground. There is an empty blackness that I recognize as the sea and the rolling mountains beyond the city’s expanse. I think of my mother, of New York at daytime, and I wonder what she is doing in this moment—wishing I could call her. Paahoua captures the sight from behind the lens of her camera. Some sights are meant for pictures, for Facebook and friends, for teachers and portfolios.
I can’t be bothered to reach for my phone.
Ignorant. We are so ignorant to think the hike will continue like this for the rest of the evening. We leave the sparkling view behind and make our way up the mountain. At first, the hike is simple, easy even. Just a sprawling dirt path that juts slightly uphill.
But only an hour into the hike, my three friends pause at the next station. I had pushed them up each set of stairs, along each ridge, begrudgingly allowing as many breaks as needed. Jessica sits on the ground close to hut, and Paahoua, dragging a fluffy purple blanket from her bag, sits next to her, wrapping it around their shoulders.
“I don’t think I can keep going,” Jessica says, taking a ragged breath. Paahoua nods, and I try to look discreetly at my watch. It is 11:00pm, five hours until the sunrise. Mai sits down next to Jessica.
“You better keep going without us, Shannon,” Paahoua says, “You want it more than all of us.”
I want to push them, so that we can finish the climb together, but I want to make it to the summit before sunrise more.
And then I’m alone. For an hour, I struggle up to the next station, my hands scraping against the rocks I use to pull myself up the incline. As I drag my hand across a particularly sharp rock, I wince and clutch the stinging appendage to my chest. I heave a shuttering breath and sit down between two large rocks. For a moment, I’m sheltered from the wind, the chill, and the sand that persistently finds its way into my eyes. My cheeks feel raw where the wind has battered sand across my face. I want to stop, to stay hidden in the crevice until sunrise. I can’t think of why I’m here. I can’t even find the energy to glance at the glowing face of my watch. I just want to sleep and feel warm again.
You’ve got to do this, I think, looking out into the empty darkness. In inspirational films, the protagonist always seems to find some inexplicable reason, some inspirational purpose to keep going. But I have nothing. Sitting alone in the chilling gloom, I can only think that I have to do this. No reasoning with myself, no fantastic soundtrack to background my fateful choice, just thoughtless directives from my inner self that I can’t seem to ignore. So I keep moving.
I stumble as I stand, my shaking legs struggling to carry my weight. With the flashlight shoved back between my teeth, I continue up the hill, my whispered curses lost to the mountain, to the rocks, and the bellowing wind.
It takes me another hour to reach the next station. I squint up at the glaring floodlights illuminating the sleeping hut. The Japanese government recommends that hikers stop about half way up, to sleep in a warm hut, to drink tea, to help their bodies adjust to the altitude. Many hikers are known for getting altitude sickness, where an ache sets into their bones, into their heads, and they find themselves heaving for hours before they are helped back down the mountainside. Some are even airlifted to the nearest hospital. The hikers who foolishly climb through the night, those who endanger their lives by chancing little sleep and the threatening altitude for the sunrise at the summit are called bullet climbers. I am one of them.
I pay little attention to the other hikers as I slump, boneless, onto the long wooden bench near the hut. I rest my elbow against my knee and drink greedily from my water bottle. As I swallow, I crunch on sand that has crept into my mouth with the wind.
“Are you okay?”
I turn, glancing at a man who looks to be in his early twenties as he sits down next to me on the bench. He has a thin beard and a genuine smile that lightens my mood on sight.
“Fine,” I say, pausing to take another sip of water. “Just lonely. My friends ditched me a station back.”
The man laughs. “Mine too. Gave up at the sixth station.”
I eye the man’s pale complexion, hearing his slight accent. It wasn’t uncommon to see foreigners on Mt. Fuji. The amount of tourists climbing Fuji equaled the locals who braved the trip.
“I’m Shannon,” I introduce myself, holding out my hand, “from America.”
“Alex,” he returns, slipping his hand into my own.
“From France,” he adds with a grin. He offers me a cracker from his pack, and I nod my thanks. We eat in silence for a moment.
“We could go together? Up the rest of the mountain?” Alex offers, placing his snacks back into his bag.
I hesitate, worrying about his pace. Could I keep up? Would I embarrass myself in front of this sweet French man? Slowly, I find myself nodding, and I follow him away from the hut and the glaring lights, back to the trail.
What follows are four of the toughest hours of my life. The trees give way to volcanic rock that cracks like glass and slides like sand under our feet. At each bend in the trail, Alex and I stop to catch our breath, the thin air making it harder for us to take deep breaths. Between our pants and gasps, I learn that Alex is leaving Japan on his flight back to France the next day. I tell him about my sister, and my plans to be an English teacher. He has a little sister in high school who is thinking about going to America for university. We hike and push and climb and talk and breathe until, eventually, I notice that my flashlight is becoming useless. The sun isn’t on the horizon, but it’s close, and I still want to beat it.
I look past Alex, up the trail. I can see the summit now. To reach the top, hikers must climb the final steps past two white dragons and a torii gate, an archway that marks the entrance to most shrines or temples in Japan.
Alex and I share a look. He holds out a hand, and I reach over to clasp his hand in my own.
“Ready?” he asks as I slide one foot behind the other.
“Ready,” I say.
And then we’re running. Up the last steps, across the sliding volcanic rock, past the white dragons, pushing our legs into motion just one last time. We stagger through the torii gate, and Alex sweeps me into a hug. I think I can hear others cheering behind us as Alex and I gasp and shake and grin. We settle onto one of the wooden planks near the edge, ready to watch the sun crest over the horizon.
The skyline seems endless. Small puffs of white clouds hang over the distant mountains, and I squint, unwilling to blink or look away from the sight. The sun is the color of sweet mangos, of flickering candles, of glistening golden armor. It rolls over the mountainside, chasing away any memory of the darkness before it.
“I understand now,” Alex says quietly, “why they call it the land of the rising sun.”