On the last day of August, I reflect what the forests, my ‘soft’ therapists, and the mountains, my ‘raw’ therapists taught me this summer in Japan.
Middle of June – Mt Fuji from below
Ten weeks ago I took this picture of Mt Fuji. I have not climbed it. I would be a fool, according to a Japanese saying, if I would want to climb Mt Fuji twice :D. However, my visitor from Norway had climbed and descended Mt Fuji in 4,5 hours. That guy climbed some weeks later also Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. I do not plan to beat his Mt Fuji record. You can add an 1 before that 4 ;). And that is ok. I should not compare myself with him or any other mountaineer. Or have the same dreams, targets etc. You’ve different kind of mountaineers and nature lovers. And that is ok. Climbing mountains is about knowing your limits, about conquering yourself, and we are all different, and that is ok.
Late July – a vision board
Summer is the time that Japanese, especially older people, greet the summits of the higher mountains of Japan. The lower mountains are “too hot”. So that is what I planned. I climbed two of the three Holy Mountains (三霊山 Sanreizan): Hakusan (also know as the White Mountain) alone and Tateyama (known as “standing mountain”) with two friends, and hope to add Mt Fuji. This is the vision board I made:
I thought a lot about mountains this summer. I saw a Netflix documentary about mountains, telling how they are like sirens, luring people far away from human controlled and human made environments, with their beauty, putting some of them in risk and danger. I can understand, and I recognised especially myself in the images of the mountaineers cursing, crying and failing. I really got to know myself through these therapists – or yeah, sirens. I cried. I cursed in three languages. I felt “op mijn bakkes” at height of 2700m. That is a very Flemish expression to say you tripled.
And I laughed. And I found stillness.
In June I had also headaches. I went to an Eastern Medicine doctor, and it was clear I had tension headaches. Maybe because I do so much … It was a good therapy session. I felt this summer, I encountered many different therapists who let me realise and point out where I am stuck in my personal development. Mountains, as therapists, let me realise sometimes what and when I can “drop” or cannot. I know I am very bad in saying no, or am interested in too many things, plan so much, dream so much, have so many ideas, but when you climb a mountain, you have to focus on the now. It’s different than forest therapy, which is more about relaxing, sensuality, intimacy, even pleasure. Forests are the nice therapists.
Mountains are raw. These therapists let you think about your body, your limits, your breath, your pace, and your fears. You do not think anymore about your Google calendar, to-do-lists or your appearance.
You think: concentrate. Up to the next step.
Or when you see a beautiful landscape… wow.
Or … oh my god, why I am doing this?
I curse when I had to descend. Most accidents happen when you descend Japanese mountains: they are quite steep and you need to focus on each step.
Hakusan’s lesson: breath through the nose, or slow down
I decided to climb Hakusan alone, and was disconnected for 36 hours. You start at 1250m and reach the height of 2702m and pass different landscapes which could be used for movies like sound of music or lord of the rings (including Mordor). It was very hot, but as an aforementioned mountaineer advised me two months earlier I try to breath only through my noise. Otherwise if you cannot control your breath you slow down your pace. This control of breath helped me to climb 1500m under 33degrees in less than 6 hours in a steady pace.
Hakusan is one of Japan’s three holy mountains. A Japanese lady I met in the mountain lodge where I stayed last night (with hundreds other Japanese, and I seemed to be the only foreigner) told me she had been 5 times to this sacred space and shared how important it was to her: I saw her paying respects to the mountain spirits. We became friends for some hours.
At the peak she pointed to the other side of the peak; to the crater and said she has never been there, because it looks scary. Five minutes later she and I decided to explore that place … nicknamed “hell”. We had to descend the crater, toured along lakes another crater and returned over a alpine field with snow patches. It was also her first time to cross a snowfield and we saw wild life (the cute ones; not the ones that can kill you). She pointed me to some famous flowers.
While the sun went down and colored the landscape in a warm palette of colors, I wrote some postcards and drunk beer (no showers in the mountain cabin, but they got a beer bar and a post office; the Japanese mountaineers know their priorities 😉).
The next days I walked along a sea of clouds and mountain peaks and realized that 1500m elevation gain was more than I thought the day before. At the trailhead while waiting 2 hours for the bus stop, the old Japanese park ranger gave me free instant coffee. Actually I got many small presents of Japanese people, like salt tablets for example. And I could practice my basic Japanese sentences. Which is mostly “the flowers are beautiful.” “Terribly warm; isn’t it?” and “I am from Belgium. We are famous for beer and chocolate…. Now I do not have some. Sorry.” And 300 times “konnichiwa!” to all the people I passed, which made them smile.
Tateyama’s class: while descending, first put your heel, then toes
After taking a bus, a train, stay overnight in Toyoma, then take again an early train to a station where I met up with two friends, a ropeway and a bus to Japan’s highest bus station (at height of 2400m), it was time for the second holy mountain. That was a steep ascend. While Hakusan required 1200 meter elevation gain, this was “only 600m”, but there I did not think about breathing and heat. I was almost bouldering up, and thought one thing “up, up, up”. I was not relaxing, as I realised I had to descend at some point. I was also more tired; some Japanese people called me brave, tough to do this right after Hakusan. I thought I was stupid 😉 But yes, I reached Tateyama’s highest peak: 3015m.
At some point, when we continued the path over the mountain ridge toward Tsurugi (no, I did not climb that one for the Japanese readers among you), the path was very small, we were hiking for 5-6 hours, and one of the the guys had to hold my hand, because I was very tired and also a bit scared. I felt back I was in Pakistani Himalaya, crossing a steep landslide, while dressed in the most conservative clothes, and also holding the hands of my driver, although it was not ‘appropriate’. I am grateful for all people that once hold my hand. It helps. Thanks.
After the end of the third day hiking (or first day Tateyama), in front of the mountain cabin, my muscles relaxed so much I tripped over my feet. Quite an elegant entrance. I got tears and laughed at the same time, saying to the guys: “Wow, I could have tripped in 1001 worse places today.”.
The guys left me to climb Tsurugi, which is one of Japan’s most dangerous mountains. Spoiler: they survived. The pictures are amazing, but no, I am a different kind of mountaineer. Tsurigi is a mountain I will watch and never touch. In the next morning, around 05.30 am I was gazing in the mountain cabin at this beauty:
The next day I joined a 70 year old Japanese doctor and his friend in the descend. We went very slowly and they gave me good hints about descending safely (they did mountaineering for many years). It did not feel “steep”, until I saw at the end of the trip, from distance, that it was really steep. I ordered beer and thanked the mountain spirits. This photograph is the summary of the trip: we ascended via the right, walked over the mountain ridge, and I descended somewhere in the left of that ridge.
Then it was more time for the more softer “therapist”. Also ten weeks ago, after my friend climbed Mt Fuji and I was eating in the village at its foot some pastries, we visited the suicide forest close to Mt Fuji (What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy? and the next day I co-organised this visit to one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan, about which I wrote more in this blogs: Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath.
The weekend after I consulted the mountains, I got paid to give my first forest and nature therapy session ever. This is the nicest paid weekend job I ever did :). I wrote more about this in a blog called Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan.
Late August- The lesson of Mt Fuji – learn to say no and rest
So yes, in the end of August, I thought and told friends and family, it was time to climb Mt Fuji, the last of the three holy mountains.
However, two days before, I decide to cancel, because another friend had to cancel and it gave me the opportunity to reconsider and reflect. Some days earlier I got back tension headaches, because I had still so much tasks at my sleeve – and only 8 days left before I would leave Japan. After Tateyama that let me curse a lot, I felt it was almost a bit too much to go for more “hard therapy”. I had also a bad feeling about climbing Mt Fuji. In addition, the two friends were not fully prepared and real beginners, and I felt also pressure to feel responsible for their safety and comfort. Some friends I hoped to climb with, could not join this time.
After that friend cancelled, the secretary of my supervisor told me that the day before a Russian young woman of my age died because of falling rocks. Too many people on Mt Fuji. My sensei said that landslides caused by (over)tourism was actually getting a bigger problem. I remembered also what my Norwegian friend said: you’ve two kind of famous mountains; the first you climb because they are beautiful; the second kinds are ugly and you just climb them for the prestige. He said Mt Fuji was clearly the second one, and maybe not even worth it. He climbed it off-season, and saw almost nobody, but he would not do it in crowded area. It would annoy him too much.
After talking with some friends, I realised I wanted to climb it for the wrong intention, namely showing off “my physical fitness and mental strength” to others. And I thought… would it not be better to say goodbye to Japan on the summit of Mt Fuji, with some friends I made, and when I have more time and less responsibilities. Last, and most important, to be very honest, I also connected Mt Fuji with my bestie from Norway, and it was difficult to let Mt Fuji go, because it was also about letting go a piece of him. The whole decision was very mental difficult as I confronted myself with some things I still try to hold on, including my pride.
I also talked with two of my close friends, one in Europe and my yoga teacher in Japan, and they also said I should not be ashamed to choose to rest. You could say that Mt Fuji’s therapy nudged me to learn to say no. By actually moving the plan to climb Mt Fuji to my next and last summer in Japan, I was being honest and think less about what other people might think. I feel that was the lesson that Mt Fuji taught me this summer. It is not time yet to climb her. And that is ok. Come back, Fuji told me, when your intentions are right, because I and you deserve this respect. So, that is how I ended my Japanese summer. Not with a big explosion or hero adventure. But with actually time to say proper goodbye to some people I would not see for a long time. That is ok.
We do not always need to grow or show our strength, but also to rest. It was ok that this summer, I only saw Mt Fuji from below and restored from the Hokkaido travel in its shadows. I am happy.