Mount Fuji is iconic; a singular image of Japan that can be conjured to mind by anyone who is even thinking of heading to the country, but for most of the year, the people who go to the region almost never step on the mountain itself. Tourists tend to gather in the National Park nearby where they photograph the near-perfect cone of Japan’s highest peak from lake cruises or look out spots, but despite it being March and outside the official climbing season of July to September, I wasn’t interested in a simple photo. I had come all this way and needed to go to the mountain.
So one morning I caught a bus that meandered through the forests and mountains of the Hakone National Park on twisting roads overhung with hundreds of telephone wires and electric cables and arrived in the bustling town of Gotemba at the foot of the volcano by mid-morning.
I could see Mount Fuji rising above me, its snowy white cap against a clear blue sky as beautiful as it is in every travel brochure and I set off on the road out of town, confident I would be at base camp in time for lunch. The walk was easy. To counter the steep sides of the mountain, the road twists back and forth with turns so tight the lower stretches are easy to see and the temptation is to simply leave the road and plough through the scrubby forests until one realises the ground is made up of crumbled black volcanic rock, broken up by tightly growing, scrubby pine trees, and climbing it is infinitely harder than expected.
It was well past midday as I turned off the road onto the small track that would lead up to base camp and I knew my time was running out. The walk down would surely take at least as long as the walk up, but I had come so far that stopping was out of the question. Eventually, the road petered out in a small clearing right on the edge of the snowline. A sign hammered into the ground in front of a small cabin declared that I had made it to base camp, but as it was March, the place was abandoned.
Above me, the top of the mountain looked surprisingly close and for a time I stared up the snowy slopes and contemplated hiking the last few hundred metres to the top. I knew that the hike was deceptive, that temperatures at the peak would plummet, and no one knew where I was, but as I gazed at the summit something called to me and I wondered. I stood there for a good half an hour watching the wisps of snow lazily drift off the peak before I summoned the energy to start the weary walk back down, knowing that the last regular busses left before sunset and I didn’t have much time.
Walking steadily, it soon became apparent to me that the distances had been longer than I had anticipated and it was unlikely I was going to make it back in time. Since leaving town that morning, I had seen almost no one else and as the sun began to settle lower in the sky I became certain I was going to miss my ride back to the hotel. It was a sad thought and in the eerie stillness of the mountainside, it hung over me as I trudged down the road.
Then, in the distance, I began to hear a muffled bass beat behind me. Turning, I peered up the road, but could see nothing. I walked on, but the beat was definitely getting closer and the next time I looked over my shoulder a tiny, square box of a car burst around the corner, veering across both lanes at speeds that are easily described as “death-defyingly reckless”.
The bass beat resolved into a loud hammering tune with a thundering pulse quickening rhythm and I could hear a woman’s voice wailing out over the electronic melody as the tiny car rocketed toward me. I stepped off the road to watch this little projectile hurtle down the mountain. It roared past me then suddenly, some fifty metres down the road, the driver stood on the brakes bringing the car to a sudden halt with a squeal of tyres. The back door slid open and a man poked his head out, shouted urgently in Japanese and gestured for me to get in. The road only went to Gotemba so with a passing thought to my precious life, I ran forward and hopped in.
The car already had four occupants squashed together, and climbing on top of one another to make space for me. The music roared like a nightclub as I closed the door and the car was once again tearing off down the hill like a terrified rabbit. No one spoke to me, choosing instead to nod their heads along to the music while the car barrelled down the road, constantly on the edge of tipping over.
Eventually, we came to another squealing halt, sliding slightly sideways and the passenger next to me reached across to open my door. The ride was over, that much was obvious. I got out waving my thanks only to notice I had been dropped off at the gate of the United States Marine corp base. I had barely glanced away when the little car leapt back into action, plunging down the hill on its way to the town that could now be seen just a few hundred metres in the distance.
I have never been as grateful to catch a bus as I was when I climbed on the last one out of town that evening. As the sun set and darkness crept in around us I looked out the window watching as Mount Fuji faded into blackness and silently thanked those four strangers and their fortuitous, terrifying little car.