I’d never given Mount Fuji a thought before I came to Japan. Even when I arrived here nearly a year ago it seemed a vague and unattainable thing; something merely depicted in art, pictures, and advertisements. Most of the people I asked about it had only seen the mountain from afar. Yet somehow the hair-brained idea of climbing Fuji slowly but surely crept into my mind.
I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis(AS) my senior year of high school. With lots of patience, and lots of Enbrel, I was able to get it under control, and had the privilege of studying abroad during university. I spent six months in France, but the ripples of that visit stretched far longer. The travel bug bit me hard, and once I returned stateside I knew that I wanted more time out in the big wide world.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to feasibly move and live abroad with my condition, though. The availability and cost of both insurance, and my current medication, were barriers that could not be skirted. Figuring this all out and making it happen is a story in its own, but I am now living in Japan, teaching English as a foreign language, and traveling to my heart’s content. I couldn’t be happier 🙂
Moving to Japan necessitated a positive but jarring lifestyle change. My previous job was mostly desk work and, like most Americans, I drove my car wherever I needed to go. Not so in Japan! My apartment is on the 4th floor (no elevator) and is a twenty minute walk (with hills) to the local train station. At work I am standing, crouching, crawling, or chasing children. Even on the weekends I am out adventuring. The prospect of having a flare so far away from home was terrifying to say the least, but thankfully the constant activity made me feel better instead of worse.
And as I did more and more, Fuji became more and more appealing. In my mind, if I could climb to the top, then I could overcome any challenge. I wanted to stand on the summit and know that I can. So I did.
Simply getting around each day was good training, and on my days off I hiked to prepare. I was equal parts nervous and excited when the time arrived. Like most pilgrims, I started climbing from the 5th Station. My boyfriend and I began in the afternoon and slept for a few hours in a 7th Station hut. Our aim was to reach the summit by 5 am to watch the sunrise, so we got up around midnight and continued.
I’d anticipated the worst and was pleasantly surprised to find the climb challenging but totally doable. I got tired and stopped often, but recovered quickly. Once I got into the rhythm of the hike I hardly noticed any pain or fatigue. The real challenge came somewhere in the early morning towards the top of the mountain. The forecast had been promising, but the weather atop Fuji is notoriously fickle. A storm swallowed us. I had expected low temperatures, but the wind gusts were almost strong enough to knock me off balance and the thick, misty rain soaked us to the bone. I had to take off my hopelessly fogged glasses and climb the highest, steepest, and rockiest portion of the trail with very limited visibility.
Nevertheless, we made it to the top with plenty of time and huddled together to eagerly await our sunrise. The hour came and went and the mist got slightly brighter, but that was it. I was devastated.
Mentally I felt as though the reward for all my hard work had been spirited away, and physically my body had begun to ache from the weather. We decided to take the closest trail down before my ability to do so was impaired. That trail, it turned out, was probably the longest and most difficult choice, but the trek eventually presented us with more gorgeous views of the mountain and its surroundings as well as lots of time to reflect. Hours later we collapsed at the Gotemba 5th Station, tired, covered in dirt, and ultimately satisfied. It hadn’t gone as we’d planned, but what in life ever does?
I didn’t get to stand victoriously at the top, but I made it there and back again, just like I’d set out to do. Summiting Fuji was an empowering experience. I wanted to share my story because it’s so important to know that even though AS is a part of our lives, it doesn’t have to run our lives. I get down on myself from time-to-time when I think of the things that I want to do but can’t, but I’m so much happier to think of all the things that I can do, and that is a long and exciting list indeed.
Written by Charlotte Faye.