02 Nov Japan: The Ramen Shop at the Top of the World
“Did you ever hear that proverb about Mt Fuji?” my friend Yuko asked me over a green tea latte one morning. “It goes something like: He who doesn’t climb Mt Fuji is a fool, but he who climbs it twice is a bigger fool…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I laughed.
“Well, maybe we should climb it, find out for ourselves…”
I’d arrived in Tokyo in the winter, when the mountain was at its most pronounced – on clear days the sun caught the snow-capped dome in such a way that reflected the rays towards the city like a giant mirror. Each time I’d imagine the view from the top, thinking of Yuko’s words. I resolved to make the climb, but it would have to wait – the climbing season was limited to a brief window mid-summer.
In the meantime spring came and Fuji-san turned suddenly demure. The sun melted away the snow and a humid haze blurred the view. Still, on rare cooler mornings it would momentarily re-appear, reminding me of my goal. Soon spring departed, taking the last of the sakura-blossom with it, and the local papers announced the beginning of the climbing season.
“Mt Fuji is easy,” a lady in a yukata told me at the tourist information desk. “And don’t worry about eruptions, it hasn’t erupted for about 300 years,” she added, her words less than comforting – I hadn’t even realised it was still an ‘active’ volcano. She wrote down bus times on hello-kitty headed paper, “the bus to the start-point takes two hours, the climb up about seven. Most people climb overnight to make it in time for the sunrise.”
“Any other advice?”
“Take a torch and some thick clothes, it’s dark and cold up there. But there’s a ramen shop at the top to warm your bellies at least.”
We left the city in sunglasses and t-shirts, arriving at the mountain to rain, mist, and fears for the expedition.
“Is it safe to climb?” Yuko asked the bus driver. He laughed, pointing to the hoards of neon-colored jackets already heading up the mountain. We took this as a positive answer, but changing into our warm gear inside the rest-station, we wondered whether he was in fact laughing at the folly of the climbers. We thought of turning back – would continuing now make us merely fools, or bigger fools?
We decided to climb.
Two hours in and we were feeling great. The first section was a gentle, well-trodden tail. The rain had subsided, and fueled by rice-balls we overtook a French tour group, their leader carrying the Tricolor flag. We were a third of the way, making good time.
Midnight soon came, tiredness too, and though still visible the lights from the city no longer lit our way. We paused intermittently for breath and squinted down below. To the east, Tokyo was now a distant sea of fireflies, lights twinkling dimly through the mist. To the west an infinite pitch darkness. We switched on our head-torches and resumed.
Five hours in and the hunger came. We stopped before a steep incline for another rice-ball, the last I’d brought. “I told you to pack more,” Yuko reprimanded me. We checked the map – still another two hours at least. The lights below were gone and we could see nothing below – we must’ve been above the clouds, hadn’t even noticed passing through them.
Conversely our growing hunger helped us through the final third, distracted us from the dark monotony. One foot in front of the other in front of the other. Minutes passed that felt like days. The light on the head-torches began to fade. “I told you to bring more batteries,” Yuko again. A few more days passed and the mist revealed something just ahead: I looked up and saw the torii shrine-gate above, signaling the end of the climb.
I checked my watch: 3.56am. Thirty minutes until sunrise. Shivering, we saw a queue forming a little further along, and the smell of hot pork soup drifted towards us. The tourist clerk hadn’t been joking – the ramen shop!
Some words are overused. But as I sat 12389 feet high, on the edge of the caldera, devouring the best bowl of ramen I had ever eaten while watching the horizon begin to glow, the sun stir to life beneath it…awe was the correct word. The sun climbed higher still, setting fire to first the clouds, before lighting up the whole sky, taking the cold with it.
I thought of Yuka’s words, the wisdom of repeating this journey. I’m not so arrogant as to question generations old Japanese proverbs, but climbing it again feels like a good idea – I’ve had a taste of awe, and I have to feel it again.
About the Author: Matthew first came to Japan six years ago. Several countries and countless bowls of ramen later, he has settled in Tokyo where he teaches English.