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My Worst Foreigner Moment


True confessions time. I was just reading my fellow blogger Ben’s account of climbing Mt. Fuji (it’s pretty excellent – check it out here) and it occurred to me that, as an exercise in not being That Foreigner (the smug one who thinks she’s the boss of J-culture), I really ought to divulge my most cringeworthy moment in Japan.

Not that there haven’t been plenty of other times I’ve been secretly branded a Crazy Foreigner by phalanxes of nice Japanese people averting their eyes and backing away slowly, but this one is a classic because it involves, yes, Mt. Fuji. It happened about ten years ago, before I learned what a mistake it was to nod and smile and look like I understood those big swadges of utterly opaque Japanese that people were always gifting me with.

The truth is, I’ve never climbed Mt. Fuji. This isn’t unusual, even among Japanese – it’s hella hard. At over 12,000 ft., it’s a lung-scalding, life-sapping, full-day climb, including some Class Four scrambling up rocks near the top. You pretty much need lots of extra lives if you want to survive without a) losing your cookies due to altitude sickness and b) straining body parts you didn’t even know you had, in ways that leave you gimping around and eating Advil for weeks to come. Most people drive to Station Five on the first day, hike up to Station Eight, stay overnight, then rise at 3:00 a.m. to summit in time to snap their selfies at sunrise.

Which is why, when an acquaintance casually invited me to go to Mt. Fuji with him and some friends in his car, I thought that the missing helper verb was “see” not “climb.” So, I dressed for a pleasant summer excursion to view the most-photographed landmark in Japan.

Purse-size camera: check.

Sleeveless sundress: check.

Sunglasses, high-heeled sandals & lovely seasonal handbag: check, check, check.


You see where this is going. And as soon as my acquaintance returned from the Fifth Station souvenir stand toting Official Mt. Fuji Climbing Sticks for all, so did I.

There was nothing to do but gird up my pantyhose, and charge up the trail like, of course this is how everyone equips themselves back in my home country, when a 12,000-foot peak needs scaling.

And honestly, from the fifth station to the sixth, it was perfectly do-able. Perfectly do-able, I tell you. Just like walking up a Tokyo street, if that street happened to be made of gritty, slippery volcanic cinders and pointy lava rocks. We made it to the sixth station (got the brand on my walking stick to prove it!) and climbed halfway to the seventh before the sheer humiliation of traveling with a Crazy Foreigner in high heels who politely greeted every ragged and exhausted Fuji Warrior limping down from the summit with a cheery, “Konnichi wa!” got the better of my companions.

They tried to assure me that I hadn’t cut their enjoyment short in any way, but yeah, I’m pretty sure they were lying.

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon!

“I don’t know when I’ve been more caught up in a story. A masterful achievement.” —Terry Shames, award-winning author of An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Jonelle Patrick View All

Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!

12 thoughts on “My Worst Foreigner Moment Leave a comment

  1. At least they were nice enough to not leave you behind…? Good on you for pushing through as much as you did. When I was coming down the mountain (when she cooommmeeesss) I saw a lot of people heading up dressed like they were ready to shop or hit the bars, guys and gals alike. My fellow Ben and I were worn out and wearing hiking clothes and these people were wearing capris, skirts, etc. These people must have known what they were doing, though. Ignorance is… going up a mountain dressed like you’re going on a picnic. 🙂

    • I know, seriously! Probably everyone who passed me wished they could hit me with a clue stick. And nobody I know (J or foreigner) who actually made it to the top thought this climb was a walk in the park. Nearly everyone I know (especially the ultra-buff ones who expected to jog up and run down and be back in time for lunch) reported at least one bout of losing their lunch, and they all totally agreed with the proverb that a wise man climbs Fuji-san once, but only a fool climbs it twice.

  2. Ah, Jonelle, I actually laughed out loud whilst reading this.

    I have no concept of the difficulty of the climb but I imagine there have been Aussies who attempt it wearing thongs (Flip flop footwear kind – not little string undies kind)..

    Thanks for the giggle and I will remember to admire Fuji-san from afar.

    (I entertained some Japanese tourists today by being upended by a young male dolphin who swam between my legs in thigh high water while I was giving my ‘endangered species’ chat…. all composure and dignity lost…again….)


    • OMG, that made ME laugh out loud! But wait, how did you find yourself in that, er, position? You work or volunteer in a place where dolphins are just SWIMMING AROUND? (*_*) (Trying to suppress SQUEEE and failing!)

  3. Lol, squeee factor is very high for me every morning when I pop on my dolphin handlers uniform and go play with wild dolphins who choose to visit my town.
    We need to control tourists, of course, so stand in formation in the water and the dolphins come and lay beside us when they feel comfortable. We then give conservation chats blah blah blah. The dolphins are same pod everyday so they know us very well and trust we won’t let any harm come to them.
    However, they have a sense of humor and will spit on tourists, splash tourists or upend a handler for fun.
    Yes dolphins laugh.
    I could go on for hours about what they do and how frigging amazing they are.
    There is a strict no touch the dolphins policy but they touch us, they will on occasion give full body wraps which I’m not articulate enough to describe how incredible that feels.
    Yep, it rocks.
    Yep I’m super lucky.
    Yep they are completely wild and swim off when they wish.
    So, are you jealous yet….lol..😊🐬

  4. Haha… well, we all have our cringe memories, and to be fair this could have happened anywhere in the world, not just in Japan. (^-^;) Your mates were probably happy that you provided them with a good excuse to give up. Like you I have never actually been up it and my enthusiasm at the prospect grows dimmer every year.

    Still, about 6-8 people die on the mountain every year in rock falls and avalanches, other disappear forever after getting lost. Most famous being the Slovakian and the American who disappeared in 2012. Not to mention the thousands of injuries.

    • Yikes, I had no idea that many people still die climbing Mt. Fuji every year! That’s terrible. And the season is only two months long! Most people I know said the worst injuries they got were bruised egos from being passed by hardy grannies on the way up. I didn’t realize there’s still danger of rockfalls and such. I’m definitely going to stay on the safe side of the shinkansen window from now on!

      • Haha… There is a hilarious account of two American young men in the 1880s who climb the mountain and then spend three days on their way down after getting lost. They only barely survived and their description of the first Japanese they meet after descending is very funny, on account of them having never met anyone coming down from Mount Fuji on the wrong side! Wish I could find the text. It was in some very old book I read years ago.

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