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.

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 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.]

48 Hours in San Francisco - 2019 Edition

Day 1.

Get up around 9am to meet my best friend J for the first time in five years. Obviously, the first brunch place is Tartine Bakery, where we split a croque monsieur (okay) and the brioche bread pudding (as amazing as I remember it and I’m not a bread pudding person).

Tartine Bakery.

Tartine Bakery.

The Brioche bread pudding from Tartine Bakery.

The Brioche bread pudding from Tartine Bakery.

Next, head to Craftsman and Wolves for the Rebel Without A Cause, which tastes like a slightly onion-y scone with a runny egg inside. It’s particularly good with the pink salt on the side. We are getting kinda full. I hand off the Conveni stuff I’d bought for J back in Japan. He gives me a pair of coveted Air Jordan 1 Low Slip Chicagos in exchange.

Craftsman and Wolves.

Craftsman and Wolves.

Pastries at Craftsman and Wolves.

Pastries at Craftsman and Wolves.

The Rebel Without a Cause from Craftsman and Wolves.

The Rebel Without a Cause from Craftsman and Wolves.

Egg porn.

Egg porn.

We walk south along Valencia Street and drop by Dog Eared Books to check out their used book section. I get a used copy of “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen and get a couple recommendations from the guy at the counter.

#hypebeasts.

#hypebeasts.

J shows me Al’s Place, a largely vegetarian restaurant with a Michelin star. We walk to La Taqueria and get tacos (meat for him, vegetarian for me). The guy who rings me up gives me a rose because every woman there gets a rose and compliments along with amazing tacos and burritos. The Jamaica juice (sweetened, bright red, hibiscus tea) is delicious.

Tacos from La Taq.

Tacos from La Taq.

On the way to the CalTrain station, we stop by The Boba Guys because we haven’t exploded yet. J gets the Matcha Strawberry which tastes like strawberry juice, and I get the Dirty Horchata. The bubbles are chewy and delicious and the espresso mellows out the sweet horchata.

Our drinks from The Boba Guys.

Our drinks from The Boba Guys.

We part ways and I have a Whole Foods salad bar dinner because I have some work to do. A vegan carrot cake finishes the day.

Day 2.

I take an Uber to Green Apple Books, but decide I’m too hungry to browse books. I head up a block to Nourish Café and order the Bap Bowl. The vegan sriracha miso dressing is addictive and it has just the right amount of crunch and creaminess. I’ll be thinking about this for days.

Nourish Cafe.

Nourish Cafe.

The Bap bowl at Nourish Cafe.

The Bap bowl at Nourish Cafe.

I head back up to Green Apple Books and raid their used book section. They have an annex three doors down that has all their used fiction, plus a second story in the main store with used nonfiction. I buy as many books as I think I can bring back. I find a copy of a book about Hinault and buy it for the pictures.

hinault 1.jpg
hinault 2.jpg

Back in the Mission district, it’s time for dessert at Garden Creamery, which offers six non-dairy, vegan ice creams. I choose one scoop each of Earl Grey and Dark Chocolate. The Dark Chocolate tastes like the inside of a truffle.

Garden Creamery.

Garden Creamery.

All the flavors.

All the flavors.

The dark chocolate and Earl Grey (vegan) flavors.

The dark chocolate and Earl Grey (vegan) flavors.

I somehow get on the CalTrain that has a weird weekend schedule and have dinner with Bestie and his family. I learn I am not bad at playing with kids. We head to Salt & Straw for more ice cream. J orders a cone with the Wild-Foraged Berry Slab Pie flavor. I get a cup with a scoop of Freckled Mint TCHO-colate Chip and Dandelion Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies & Cream (both vegan!). The coolness of the mint chip balanced out the gooey-sugary-filled-with-cookie-bits Dandelion Chocolate flavor. I go home full of good food and great times and catch a flight back to Tokyo the next morning.

Salt & Straw ice cream.

Salt & Straw ice cream.

I love San Francisco.

Lost in Chiang Mai

Last month, on impulse – or what can be vaguely considered impulse given the forethought involved – I booked a ticket to Chiang Mai, Thailand. A Buddhist mountain mecca and an infamous vegetarian haven, the second largest city in Thailand always seems to get more Internet love than the first. Travel bloggers, digital nomads, and Solo Female Travelers compile multiple lists devoted to the cheap food, affordable massages, and plethora of cafes offering both outlets and free wi-fi. The abundance and availability of information on life in Chiang Mai fueled romantic ideas of escape. Of recharging mentally, meeting interesting people, and relaxing shamelessly. At the same time, I dreamed, it would harden me; that becoming a Solo Female Traveler – however briefly – would make me more resilient.

Instead, within 72 hours of arriving, I had a meltdown.

Had I been less optimistic last month, I would have booked myself a flight to somewhere busy, cold, and miserable, like New York City. The primary reason being that, when I am in my right mind, I am well aware that I don’t do relaxation well. It is seemingly always coupled with guilt, only occurs when asleep, or, in the best case scenario, lasts a mere day. Presented with the opportunity to do nothing for the better part of three weeks, alone, I panicked. I had no portrait to obsess and worry over, and any new ideas I came up with were inevitably shelved until December, exacerbating the helplessness. I couldn’t work. Worse, I couldn’t write. The vacation that I was convinced would be empowering was, instead, sapping my sanity.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, maybe, if perpetual indigestion hadn’t followed. For the carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan, Chiang Mai is a gastronomic heaven. Cheap, delicious food is available everywhere, from food markets to proper restaurants. There is pad thai that comes wrapped in an omelette, addictive, green papaya salads, and cheap, enormous smoothies. If it weren’t for my roiling stomach, I would have probably gained 20 kgs by now. Somewhat fortunately, my digestive system has put a near moratorium on eating. A difficult task when surrounded by the smells of sizzling, smoking, street food.

When I realized that this unhappy set of circumstances had solidified in my mind into the opinion that I wasn’t really enjoying Chiang Mai as I should, as I was supposed to, the experience became worse. I hate this place, I thought, alone in my air conditioned Airbnb, while simultaneously committing myself to at least go through the motions.

And so I dragged myself, stomach acid lurching, to Tha Pae gate – the main, and easternmost, gate to the Old City of Chiang Mai – and down to the Sunday Walking Street. From just outside the iconic red brick gate, down Rajdamnoen Road, vendors set up stalls offering soap carved into flowers, silver jewelry, tribal handicrafts, and silk scarves. Food stalls cluster into temple courtyards selling both snacks and bigger meals. Between the waves of tourists and Thai couples, I snapped a picture of a man selling omelettes cooked in small banana boats, and made my first friend in Thailand.

“Take a picture,” the omelette vendor demanded, then, “show me!” I laughed, for what seemed to be the first time that week.

“You come here alone?” He asked.

And breaking that rule of the Solo Female Traveler to lie when asked, to make up a phantom husband or boyfriend, I said yes, I did come here alone.

The questions continued, and when I bought a 10 baht omelette from him, hot off the grill, he also dusted burnt shards of banana leaf off the plastic chair next to him. “Sit, sit here,” he said. And suddenly I was behind a Thai food stall, chatting to its middle-aged proprietor while he served customers. Spooning the custardy egg into my mouth, I learned that Ernie – the man steaming the egg boats – was from Bangkok and his favorite city is Phuket. He dumped shards of imitation crab onto my egg boat, and motioned for me to eat up. “Let’s take a picture,” he demanded, and unable to find anyone else, we had a friendly customer take the following slightly ridiculous photo.

“The trip was totally worth it!” A friend said later when I related the story to him. Even if I didn’t make another friend here, it was so true. 

travel lust and the biknd helium

Like most young, single professionals with just enough money to spare if you’re okay with eating eggs and canned sardines every day, I’ve fallen pretty hard for travel. That itch to fly to faraway places, to breathe new air, and be herded along to world heritage sites with crowds of Chinese tourists. It seems to be a common thing for most half-interesting people; perhaps the product of unconsciously wanting to escape the dry, fluorescent lighting of corporate environments that are the just the right touch of too warm or too cold to keep you consciously uncomfortable. It’s such an easy expense to justify – the opportunity to explore a new culture and locale! The self-exploratory experiences! The beautiful things to see and people to meet! – that no one ever questions whether you simply want to escape the reality of your current, very real life. Instead people tend to express their approval at travel plans, bestowing you extra points on the life scale if “travel” also includes “helping the less fortunate” or “spectating something humanitarian.”

I would be lying if I said I didn’t love the romance of the idea of eternal [albeit, underfunded] travel. But I would also be lying if I said the idea of living out of a suitcase for months on end was appealing or otherwise seemed tolerable. Instability and unpredictability are concepts I am familiar with, but only as facets of my personality. I still struggle with situations in which they manifest outside my psyche. I’ve gotten better [I keep an umbrella at work, now], but it's been a process.
And yet I arrived at JFK airport last month with a suitcase and my bike, throwing caution to the wind and TSA the opportunity to fuck my paint job, again.

When good things happen to me when I least expect them to, I'm inclined to believe that tempting fate and acting like an asshole will actually yield results. Come at me, TSA, I mentally taunted while I checked in my bike, damage my paint again so I can kill you. My mouth was frothing in premature anger at the thought. But thousands of miles, a taxi ride and four flights of stairs later, I unzipped my Biknd Helium case to find my bike, safe, sound, and unscathed.

True, the condition of my bike is more likely due to the bike case than anything involving my questionably aggressive attitude towards airlines and transport security. An expense I managed to make room for a few weeks before I left for New York, the Biknd Helium case has turned into that friend who insists, "just one shot, I'm buying, anything you want," and suddenly you're stumbling around Harvard Square so drunk you don't even know how drunk you are until you get pulled over by the cops on the way home. It whispers that you should never be without a bike, wherever you go, and since it holds two sets of wheels, a wheelset purchase would be optimal, or, more accurately, necessary. In other words, it's an enabler.

But it's also like the kind of enabling friend who has your back, will make sure you're always safe, and stays surprisingly mobile when fully loaded. It took me 25 minutes to pack up my bike the first time, including the time spent Youtubing videos of how to take off my rear derailleur, and it rolled smoothly from my apartment to the taxi to check-in. The fork locks into the frame, the bottom bracket sits on a foam cushion, and the inflatable bags on each side provide substantial cushioning. There's no need to bubble wrap your frame or swaddle it in your sweaters. You'll take some risks, sure [doesn't fun always include that, though?] but you'll know that, barring some disaster, you and your bike will get to Paris, Marrakesh, Tokyo, New York City or wherever in one, pristine piece.
My Biknd Helium case is currently sitting quietly in a corner of my apartment, waiting to be pulled out, packed up, and rolled through an airport headed for exotic or familiar destinations. But like any true and good enabler, it goads me to do random searches for flights to all the places I've wanted to go and isn't beneath judging me for wanting to save up/stop my bank account from bleeding to death for a little while longer.
"Come onnnnn," it pretends to plead, "let's just gooooo. There are places to see, mountain passes to climb, cafes to ride to! The travel constipation will be totally worth it!"

And I think, as my hair trigger finger scrolls through flights to Budapest, Istanbul, and Reykjavik, yeah, yeah, you're right. It totally would.

travelocity

I don’t like to say that I hate to travel. The statement seems to immediately make you a smaller, closed-minded person who is only capable of being comfortable in familiar surroundings. It seems to kill off any ideas that you might have a sense of curiosity or adventure, or that you are in any way cultured. And that kind of sucks.
So I say, yeah, I love to travel. Gimme Europe, I’ve never been, and southeast Asia too. Dying to go to India, even if the water might kill me, and Machu Picchu is definitely on the list.
If only all that traveling wasn’t involved...!

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I’ll be honest. I’ve traveled enough times that the process just isn’t that exciting to me anymore. Unlike those who get excited at simply being inside an airport, the fluorescent lights and dry air characteristic of airplane terminals give me an instant exhaustion headache. I get cranky, thirsty, and bloated. Despite the countless times I’ve flown from Tokyo to New York or Philadelphia or Boston, I still haven’t shaken that feeling of wanting to just lie horizontally for at least 8 hours after a 12 hour flight. But of course there’s customs, immigration, baggage claim. And that headache.
So even if I tell myself that I have more friends in the city than in Boston, that it’s warmer down there, and that there are more vegan-friendly cafes in the Lower East Side alone than in all of Boston including Metro West, it’s strange that I’m making the trek out to NYC yet again. I got that headache [it’s not exclusive to airports], and I was also cranky, thirsty, and bloated, but this time it wasn’t family, home cooked meals, or the desire to simply get away that had me making the trip. It was a bicycle.

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It’s not new - pictures of it abound on this blog - and it’s not even mine. But the aluminum Cyfac that I can somehow manage to stand over presents the perfect solution to my current lack of gears, exasperation at the cold weather in Boston, and desire to spend time with good friends. It has me spending more time sleeping in a weirdly vertical position than I really should be, typing out posts furiously to match the speed at which the bus tumbles down the Connecticut highway, all so I can clip in today and try my hand[s] at the whole gears thing yet again. True, the whole ordeal was slightly terrifying when I first tried it, but just like a girl’s persistent pursuit of a man can break his stubborn desire to stay an eternal bachelor, perseverance can pay off. And when we’re talking bicycles, not boys, it doesn’t really matter that you’ll probably embarrass yourself repeatedly in the process.
So I’m off - ready to suffer, fall, and/or bonk! If you’re in the NYC area and see a girl on a blue and silver Cyfac with a NYC Velo cap, give a holler [or even a wave!]. If I happen to be plastered on the street, feel free to pick me up and dust me off. Oh, but make sure to save the bike, first. That thing has C-Record on it.
[And the first Rapha Scarf Friday of the year...!]