Mt. Fuji is No Basic Bitch, or, How I Didn't Pee for 15 Hours

It is 3 a.m. and I am on a 45-degree slope that has lasted approximately five hours and won’t end. My thighs are wrung out and heavy. I have miraculously not yet lost my shit. Nor have I peed in the last five hours. I eventually will hold it in for a further ten.

That morning, the plan had been  to climb Mt. Fuji via the Gotemba trial on the southeast side of the mountain. It’s the longest route to the top, with the trailhead located at 1400 meters above sea level, and it’s also the least popular. The ascent has been described as a “gentle” slope, which seemed more reassuring given that we would be climbing in the off-season, when the mountain and all the huts along the way are officially closed. With an unseasonably warm weekend coming up, it was our last chance to climb to the summit this year. Suddenly I was packing a bag with borrowed gear and pulling out my base layers. Because, how bad could it really be?

gotemba trail.png

According to my parents, I was going to die. “Rocks will come flying at you,” my mother said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Bring your bike helmet,” she insisted.

This contradicted what I’d heard of Mt. Fuji: essentially, that it’s the basic bitch of mountains. Mt. Fuji is accessible enough from Tokyo to have become a tourist attraction; a heavily Instagram-ed, bucket list item that appears to be easily conquered by the “reasonably fit.” Online, the climb is described as a boring, non-technical ascent, almost like it could be done with a bottle of water and yoga pants.

That characterization is misleading. Temperatures at the summit can fall to below freezing, which is a terrifying concept if you’re the type of person who considers anything below 24C, “cold.” I layered almost every cold-weather item I had from commuting to law school on a bike through Boston winters, and borrowed an Arc’teryx coat from my mother. I looked like I was prepared to climb Everest. Come what may, I was at least dressed to survive.

Unfortunately, although I had realized that I could freeze to death, I failed to take into account several factors, such as the route being largely unmarked, the length of the trail, and the large elevation gain. We started our climb from the Gotemba fifth station at around 10:30 p.m., two hours later than planned, but figured we’d make good time on the trail.

“It better not be like this all the way up,” Jwizzle joked within the first half hour. I’d laughed in response. We would eat those words.

View from near the 8th station.

View from near the 8th station.

 With one headlight between us and no trail markers, we would later learn that we’d veered off the trail onto a path for whatever tanks they use to climb the side of mountains. After an hour, we were climbing a 45-degree slope. After another three hours, the soft, volcanic sand had sucked the strength out of my legs. On a much-needed break, I sat back and stared at the stars, which speckled the sky in varying degrees of brightness, like how I imagine my skin looks if examined under those skin analysis machines that show you exactly how shitty your complexion is. I kinda needed to pee.

The thing is, we were essentially in Mordor. There is no cover on Mt Fuji. It’s a barren landscape of volcanic ash and the occasional rock that is no bigger than a medium-sized dog. Ascended in the dark, every marker pole becomes a promise of some sort of turning point, before reality sets in and it breaks your soul. And then there’s the dust. Frodo may have been traveling with an anorexic suffering from a personality disorder, but at least he didn’t have volcanic ash blowing into his face the entire way.

By the time I started questioning whether I was going to get black lung, turning back wasn’t an option. We were still battling towards the 8th station when the sun came up, stretching its rays across the lakes below. The light gave me a little boost of hope and optimism. It lasted about five minutes before my legs were back to screaming and I was deliriously chanting the chorus to Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Elysees” in my head.

the trail.JPG
terrain like mars.JPG

Luckily, whatever path we were on intersected the real trail near the 8th station. The landscape changed from Mordor to Mars, the soft sand turning into large volcanic rocks and puddles of pebbles, the trail now a sadistic scribble of switchbacks. I heaved myself over unstable rocks, running on fumes and determination. That French chorus quickly became my only companion as I started to seriously lag behind. Every few switchbacks, I could see Jwizzle waiting for me to catch up.  

“You don’t have to wait,” I gasped unconvincingly, “I’ll be fine.”

It only dawned on me later that he was most likely waiting because he didn’t want a dead body – or the responsibility of being associated with one found on the side of a mountain – impeding his descent. At this point, although there were large enough rocks to sneak behind to pee, we started to see other hikers, both above and below us. This was enough of a deterrent; the last thing I wanted to do was to subject several Japanese mountain climbers to the sight of my bare butt. It was also cold. Cold enough that I didn’t know if I’d be able to warm up again if I exposed more than my face to the elements. I checked in with my bladder and reassessed my priorities. Peeing could wait.

We reached the summit a long, hard five hours after arriving at the 8th station. Near the rim of that volcanic crater, we ate a snack and I curled up against my backpack. I closed my eyes ready to jump into unconsciousness, fully aware that this is most likely how people die of exposure and/or freeze to death. I wondered where the helicopter would land to pick up my dead body.  

The Torii gate at the summit.

The Torii gate at the summit.

I felt a small pang in my gut and I opened my eyes. I was okay with the embarrassment of dying on the side of a mountain, but the idea of being found dead in a puddle of my own urine roused me from any chance of sleep/death. Because if I had to go, I’d strongly prefer it wasn’t with a full bladder. I drummed my fists against my dead thighs and prepared to get off the mountain.

Since we had wandered down the scenic route, it had taken us a total of twelve hours to climb to the top. It would take us a laughably easy three to descent. Once we scrambled down the web of switchbacks, the rest of the route is made of deep, soft volcanic sand that’s referred to as “the sand slide.” We were able to almost jog down, the sand cushioning the impact you’d usually feel on the walk down a mountainside. Back at the trailhead, I made a beeline for a bathroom that smelled like a damp corner of Paris in the summer. It was probably worse than the alternative, but at least I didn’t have to worry about volcanic sand getting into my underwear.

dirty feet.jpeg

 A couple hours later, I emptied about four tablespoons of ash and small rocks from my shoes into a hotel trashcan. After a shower I only got out of so I could lie down, I dozed off to Japan stunning the world by beating Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, and dreamed of toilets.

 [Some of the photographs in this post were taken with an expired disposable film camera.]

Unplugging at the Sanja Festival

I probably spend what would be defined as an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet for someone who is not a tween. With most of my friends living outside Japan, a career as a freelance writer with clients in the U.S., and a preference for reading the news in English, I am always well connected.

It’s not a bad thing in itself, but spend enough time on the Internet and you’ll eventually find some appalling stuff. Recently, a few curious clicks led me to a widely read forum for foreigners for Tokyo and their relationship advice. Of course, this was going to be bad, but given that I consciously choose to spend my time watching true crime shows, I am, by nature, morbidly curious. I kept reading.

There’s a strange fetishization of white male foreigners here in Japan, which places them in somewhat high demand, regardless of physical attractiveness or the ability to be interesting. As a non-white, foreign, male co-worker once described it, certain women seem to want to live out a fantasy of having a white, "exotic," boyfriend, based on information and stereotypes gleaned from Hollywood chick flicks, and white foreign men seem only too happy to oblige. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise to read a poster saying:

“…[W]hat she really wants is this funny athletic white guys attention and love for a day or maybe the weekend or more. And if she doesn’t, who cares, theres ten more out there that do…” [All typos and spelling errors from the original.]

I know. I shouldn’t be surprised. The last time I made the mistake of hooking up with a guy here, he mentioned my “great English,” which was almost as offensive as his attempts at sex which bordered on the truly horrendous. The reminder of how disposable women seem to the English-speaking guys here was the final straw in a shitty week that was at least entertaining when Trump was involved, but not so much when you realize that your potential dating pool is full of dicks.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

As if sensing the impending doom and gloom, my sister texted me last Saturday about checking out the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa. It’s a huge festival that features neighborhood mikoshis – large, portable altars – hoisted along the main road of Asakusa Shrine. It’s a three-day event, with the purification ceremony taking place on Saturday. Mikoshi were transported to the shrine, raised up as it was purified, then carried back to its neighborhood. It may sound zen, except that it’s built a reputation as an event at which yakuza show off their tattoos with pride.

We were, admittedly, looking for yakuza, but found out later that the tattoo-baring took place on Sunday. Despite the fact that we missed out on the tattoos, the event is like a textile designer’s dream. Every neighborhood has its own unique happi, a short-sleeved garment worn at festivals, which boasts its own crest, design, and colors.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The energy of the event was palpable as the heavy mikoshi swayed one way, then another. Each neighborhood team set up a human wall to control the lurching, as those carrying the mikoshi shouted out a rhythm. A predominantly working-class neighborhood, the men were bigger and burlier than most you’d see in Tokyo and the strength and energy required to transport the mikoshi – one usually requires forty people to lift it up – are impressive.

The irony of escaping from the disgust from reading a forum for foreigners at a Japanese traditional festival isn’t lost on me. As a third culture kid, I live in a space where everything seems a bit off and strange, where nothing quite fits. Where you’re stuck looking one way but identifying as another. Where you end up living online because you can’t begin to relate to most of the people around you. And where, apparently, when one culture disappoints, you end up seeking some sort of cleansing effect in another.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

sanja mikoshi
sanja smile
Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Yesterday, walking home from the gym, thinking about living in Japan, a rap song from long ago, made for a yakuza movie, began to play in my head. Along with lyrics about violence and social ostracization, there were two lines in particular that I had always liked, that had always replayed in my head.

tteyuuka,” he sang, “yononaka naseba naru.”

It’s a Japanese proverb that translates literally to “if you take action, it will become.” And while I may not be making best friends here any time soon, or plunging back into the dismal dating pool that is Tokyo, or feeling less like an alien, maybe, having a good day here – unplugged – isn’t all that impossible.

Instagram's #MyStory Event

Instagram Japan was kind enough to include me in their #MyStory event, which focuses on stories by female Instagram community members. Fifteen Japanese women were featured, and Instagram Japan threw one awesome reception party last night. 

Thank you, Instagram Japan, for letting me participate in this event! It was awesome to see my work on display! 

My self-portrait!

The crowd.

The food.

The parents.

Everyone raise a phone!

Oh heyyyy.

Oh heyyyy.

#MyStory.

mean girls

I once briefly dated a guy who was too concerned about being perceived as nice to actually be interesting. “I’m not going to encourage that,” he’d say to a snarky but harmless joke. “Encourage what?” I was always tempted to ask, “having a sense of humor?” Thankfully, it didn't last long, but essentially being called heartless bothered me a little.

I took this as a sign that I actually have a heart, despite the fact that friends have never quite called me nice. "You're one of the most loyal friends I have," my best friend once said, but "nice" was outside the bounds of my charming, pitbull-like attributes. I like to tell myself that biting sarcasm and an inability to hold my tongue make me interesting [or at least not boring]. That feeling that I should be nice[r], though, has a tendency to harsh my asshole vibe.
Being a [M]asshole was fine while living in Boston, but this feeling that I am ignorant of the fundamental concept of how to be nice returned once I moved back to Japan. I had finally found gainful employment, and one of the first things I did was nearly crush a secretary between the elevator doors. With about three other people watching. In the extremely awkward minute that followed, I got hosed down with shocked looks, before the three remaning secretaries arrived at their floor. They all made it a point to cringe a little on their way out, as if I'd pushed the "close doors" button on purpose and was eagerly waiting for the opportunity to do it again.

Which really didn't seem fair, because if I wanted to kill a secretary, I wouldn't use anything as ineffecient and unreliable as an elevator door. Please. Even a pedal wrench would be more effective than that.
This is probably where you expect me to say that the bike has made me this way. Fortunate enough to have been appropriately hazed by boyfriends who rode better, it would be easy to say that getting gears and getting dropped had a Black Swan effect to my ordinarily nice [that word again!] and delightful personality. If I'm honest, I suspect the opposite to be true. It's not what initially attracted me, but I keep coming back to the bike because I believe it sometimes requires allows me to be mean. And any sport that encourages stabbing the part of me that wants to be spinelessly polite while snarling, "it's my turn, now" has my full, undivided commitment.

The hitch is that - with a few exceptions - most cyclists I've met are noticebly nicer than I am. Maybe it's not so much that cycling requires a mean streak as it is that it requires the resolve to never shrink back from the things that are thrown your way. When you're already gagging on social demands to be less abrasive, that almost-aggressive [Bouhanni-like] assertiveness can bleed into the rest of your life, like tan lines in December.

So it wasn't the hazing boyfriends, but the bikes I'm blaming for having to re-learn docile submission of the Japanese variety. And as I found out the hard way, company elevators are no place to be belligerent or bold.
These days, I'm well-versed in the dance that I refer to as the "Elevator Fight." I race any other women present to push the "open doors" button before we even arrive at the ground floor and insist, quietly and politely, that everyone leave before me. The attorneys don't mind, but the secretaries can put up a bit of a fight. Sometimes they win, other times, I stubbornly insist on my subordinate status and make them exit the elevator before I do. It's still a learning process.

Last night, at the end of my shift, I slipped into an empty elevator and crossed my fingers that the car would slide smoothly and without stopping, all the way to the first floor. It did and I walked out, shoulders hunched forward like I always do on the bike, but with a confident step. The secretaries might have escaped any unfortunate elevator accidents that day, but my mean streak was already giggling gleefully at the thought of tomorrow morning's intervals.

attractive presents

Back in my fag hag days, a fabulously gay friend once informed me:
"I only like to be friends with attractive people."
I laughed in response, at least half in disbelief. The statement sounds ludicrous but I was also struck by its stark naked honesty. We all want to be friends with attractive, fashionable, interesting people, we just never say it out loud. Instead, we say things like "never judge a book by its cover blahblahblah" and make conscious efforts to be friendly to boring, unfashionable people. They deserve a chance, too, right? Besides, there aren't enough attractive, fashionable, interesting people to go around, anyway [even if I'm using "attractive" here to include more than just physical beauty].
The problem when you do manage to be friends with someone who is attractive, fashionable, and interesting is that the stakes of the friendship are naturally raised. They're interesting people, people! That means they give perfect gifts, say witty things, and have the kind of charisma that looks good in a burlap sack. By nature of being friends with these kinds of people, they [mistakenly?] believe that you're effortlessly capable of the same.

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Which is not true, in my case. That's right; I've somehow managed to finagle my way into a best-friendship with a girl who is attractive, incredibly fashionable, and interesting. She gives the perfect gifts while saying witty things about current fashion trends. Meanwhile, I give my Mom a call one, sometimes two, times a year: "Mom, Lauren's birthday is coming up. Can you get her something interesting from Tokyo?"
But despite my terrible gift-giving skills [or lack thereof], sometimes I see something that has both the lightbulb and the alarm going off over my head. It's usually accompanied by this sweet, bubbly feeling that I'm going to bring back something perfect, myself.
This time it wasn't for Lauren [sorry, Lauren], but a random stop by the bookstore resulted in a few awesome finds this past winter break. And when I saw the "Bicycle Custom" magazine, my brain screamed as I clenched the pages. The light bulb went on, the alarm was ringing full blast. Hello, Jason a.k.a. Superb Bicycle Mastermind a.k.a. D.J. Mayhem a.k.a. Most Hip Cyclist in Boston, I have the perfect gift for you from Tokyo.

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The magazine is full of bike reviews, bike-related clothing, and street shots of people in Japan with their various bikes. Pictures of men and women with anything from a tricked-out fixed gear to a downhill mountain bike grace the pages. Plus, there was a full page on nari/furi, a Japanese clothing and bag company of which Superb is the only distributor in the area. Excited and giddy, I purchased it, already on that "perfect gift obtained" high. Yesterday afternoon I finally delivered it.
We ended up poring over it [the pages going left to right] before it got added to Superb's fairly impressive collection of bike-related books on their coffee table. If you know your bikes, it's a weird treasure trove [think vintage Kleins and some crazy mountain bikes]. And because Jason's an awesome guy he even tweeted that anyone who stops by can take a peek.

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Oh, and while you're there, make sure to check out the array of Outlier pants, nari/furi bags, and the Swrve jackets that apparently every cyclist in the city is snatching up. Jason gave the Swrve Winter Softshell Trousers two thumbs up and for what it's worth, they look really good, too [if only they made a women's version!].
I ended up biking back home just as it started to snow, in my ratty, torn up jeans and coat that was decidedly not made for cycling. More homework awaited, but instead I ended up scouring Swrve's site for a lot longer than was really necessary. I'm starting to really want that jacket. Thanks, Jason...like most all of my attractive, fashionable, interesting friends, you can be quite persuasive.