The following is an e-mail report I sent to a group of Rotarians back in 2000, at the end of my year in Japan as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. I was sixteen at the time, very impressionable, and very Japanoholic. These were my thoughts about Fuji, the first mountain I ever ascended in my life. Enjoy.
"Otsukaresama deshita" is one of those Japanese phrases that can't be translated into English, that means "thank you" and "pheeeew, that's over with" and "aaah" and "the end" all at the same time.
So it's July 18th. I'm just four strange days away from home and wondering "that's IT?!" And of course it isn't, but I'm still awed by how this year has gone, how it has peaked and valleyed and crested and surprised me and scared me and amazed me.
Last week on Friday we climbed Mt. Fuji together with some districts from the Tokyo area. At first we were walking along paths through forests and I thought it would be very pleasant... then the pain began. The path turned into a sharp zigzag going up the mountainside toward the top, with the sun blazing down on the bare volcanic rock face of the mountain. Getting to the top took five and a half hours of forced march with me in my loafers supporting myself on a big stick and trying to fight the skin cancer that was laughing at me from the back of my head.
That night I fell asleep on the bus, which, as usual in Japanese exchanger trips, was a big party at the outset and a big bus full of sleeping people at the end. I had to go to a goodbye party the next night for myself and the two girls being sponsored by my club this year, and needed a speech.
So that night I made it to the party in my yukata and straw sandals with the Sunburn from Hell, far worse than the one I got on the beach in June, with my entire face broken out in yellow blisters that were taunting me and saying "ha ha, silly fool, Fuji isn't cloudy, hee hee hee!" in Japanese. And after listening to two Indian Rotarians who had crashed the party after coming on an industrial training mission, I had to tell these Rotary people, most of whom barely knew me, about my year.
And I proceeded to tell them about going up the mountain and almost dying of sunburn and dehydration, saved only by techno music that kept my pace up, and reaching the top... and turning around... and seeing the clouds.
Imagine flying in an airplane, only not being in an airplane. No engines, no floor, no walls, no ceiling, just volcanic rock at your feet and wind in your hair. Imagine being in the airplane over a bigger rock in the ocean that you've fought, befriended, learned about, and tried to take over for nearly eleven months... now about to become a memory, now about to leave you as you leave it.
Above the clouds, above the rock, tired and sweaty, the ink on my T-shirt actually running (no joke here), I was atop the mountain, looking down over what was the Promised Land for me, and wondering how it happened, and how I did it. No answer came back.
So now I'm going home, on July 22nd, stepping off the plane in Miami late at night, returning to the old country. It's the end of this life and the beginning of another and I can't help but fear it and wonder about it and look forward to it.
For it is another mountain to climb, another land to look over, another set of clouds to look down on. I still have sweat left, and if I listen to the mountain, I can hear its voice as it tells me, "otsukaresama deshita."