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.
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.
Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo