The things that I remember the most from my one and only trip to Japan are the thoroughly weird stuff – weird being defined as being different from back home – people stripping down to their skivvies on the train to Kyoto, ice parlors that served scotch, a temple to penises – peni? – in the village of Komaki, fishhead soup for breakfast, fake pirate boats, hosing off before getting in a hot-tub to bathe, torii gates going nowhere or standing in the middle of the water, and an unbelievable number of people standing on the top of Fujisan. I would like to say that the people were the most memorable but that is not true (for example, I have no memory of the guy I am posing with, above, or where we were).
There were three very memorable groups of people, however, all women which should not be too surprising considering that we were two men in our early twenties with no access to datable women. We did see American Red Cross women who came by our Tac Site on the first Tuesday of each month to give us donuts, but they only dated officers and, really, only officers stationed in Seoul which is code for staff officers (which is code for officers with connections).
In our travels around Japan, at some point, we crossed Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, on what looked like a pirate boat. I don’t remember where we were going, how we got there or what we did at the other side, but the ferry was bizare. On the way to the departure port, we passed a torii gate and like every sight, like every anything, there were Japanese taking souvenir pictures. Everywhere we went, there were Japanese tourists and all the tourists were either taking pictures or having their pictures taken.
While we were waiting to get on the pirate boat to cross the lake, we saw two women waiting to get on. One was wearing shorts that would be short, even today; they were very short then. I am not going to say that we were hyper-ventilating but Terry did manage to get me to stand next to her to get my picture taken.
At some point, I think when we were near Osaka, we ended up going on a pearl diving boat. I guess that they were not really pearl divers, they were oyster divers and the pearls were in the oysters. Either way, they were diving for what my mother then called cultivated pearls because the oysters were raised in a farm (I think the grain of sand to start the pearl was also planted in the shell). Much later when I showed her the pictures, my mother was rather dismissive saying Cultivated pearls were not as good as real pearls. When I asked her how somebody could tell the difference, she didn’t know and I am convinced that nobody can.
Either way, why we went there or how we got on the boat is in the mists of the past. What isn’t a mystery is that all the divers were women.
However, fifty years later the thing that I am happiest for having done in Japan, the thing that I remember the most, is hiking up Mt. Fuji. The Japanese call it Fujisan, san being an honorific. There are several different classic ways up Fujisan and I have no idea which one we took. What I do remember is that we took the bus to the base of the trail where there was a huge crowd. Once there, we had no idea what to do and nobody seemed to know English. Happily, among the people in the crowd, were a group of young, international students, mostly girls, one of whom spoke English. They had come to watch some other students start their hikes but they were not making the climb themselves.
The English speaker was a Thai woman named Xæppeil (which means apple and it pronounced just like apple with a very heavy Thai accent). Xæppeil, the woman in the orange and pink dress, also spoke French and Chinese as well as, presumably, Thai. Both Terry and I feel in love immediately. We would ask Xæppeil a question which she would then ask the Chinese student – the woman with her head hardly showing – who would then ask the Japanese woman (obviously the woman in the white dress with pink polka dots). The Chinese woman would frequently have to write the question for the Japanese woman to understand. Then the answer would come back in the other direction. It was sort of like the game telephone using three different languages.
Our plan was to spend the day hiking Fuji, however we soon found out that the usual method was to hike at night to see the sunrise from the top. We had no choice but to spend much of the day hanging out with the students. We started late in the afternoon and the trail was wall to wall people. Climbing Fuji is more like going to a huge event and parking way too far away than hiking, say, the John Muir Trail. There were thousands and thousands of people on the trail, many of them helping their old parents. I remember it being some sort of special ceremonial ancestors day, but I can’t find anything like that on the web, so I am probably wrong. There were however lots of climbers in white, ceremonial, dress carrying special climbing sticks – kongotsue – which we also carried.
Mt. Fuji is 12,388 feet high with all the trailheads being above 6,500 making the climb much easier than it might, at first, seem. Every so often on the trail – I don’t remember the interval, maybe every 250 vertical meters – an old man would be sitting by a habachi and we could get a cup of hot tea and get our kongotsue stamped with the altitude. Higher up there were mountain huts where we could stop for the night. How far one hikes before stopping at a rest hut is determined by when you want to start rehiking in the morning to get to the top by sunrise. I recall that we chose a hut at about 300 meters below the summit and paid something like a day’s budget for the night and a cup of tea.
We got up at 4 AM and made it to the top for sunrise. On top it was like a county fair with the crowds overwhelming us. This is, after all, the most climbed mountain on earth. Today, I would welcome the crowds. I would realize that the crowds were a big part of the experience but, then, we wanted it to be like summiting Whitney or Mont Blanc. We did find an empty spot and I stood on a high mound while Terry took my picture.
Three days later we were back in Korea and fifty years later I still have the picture and the memory it evokes.