The Friendly Skies

I flipped through the airline magazine as other passengers boarded the craft. Skimming its glossy pages, which boasted luxury hotels and decadent restaurants that I would probably never experience, I silently rejoiced in the fact that the seat next to mine remained empty. The Boeing 763 has 187 seats in economy class; I guesstimated that this flight, enroute to Canada from Japan, would be three-quarters full. It seemed I would get to stretch out. A lucky break for someone trapped in such a confined space for over 9 hours. 

But I jumped the gun. 

"Is this the right seat?"

He appeared to be about my age. His eyes indicated he was either tired or spent too much time (and money) in a Narita lounge. 

"Yes, I'm by the window", I replied. Before I had time to curse my situation, my new flight companion threw his rather large carry-on bag beneath the seats in front of us. It barely fit. After sitting down and making himself comfortable, he quickly went to sleep. Not before extending his limbs into my own leg space though. "Fuck", I thought to myself. 

Flying is easily one of the most stressful things one can partake in. Airports are stressful. Boarding and departing is stressful. Eating the disgusting food and wondering how you are going to digest it is stressful. This guy – this sleepy, possibly inebriated, feeble, inconsiderate man – was now stressing me out. I started to feel claustrophobic. The vastness of the ocean below couldn't cure it.

I "accidentally" bumped my elbow into his arm, which now also occupied the armrest between us. He didn't budge. Fuck. I tried making a lot of noise while rifling through my purse and clearing my throat repeatedly. It appeared to act as a lullaby, soothing him into deeper slumber. Fuck. Nine hours. Nine more hours of this hell. I then started to wonder how I would make it to the washroom. This guy was't moving for anything. 

"Something to drink, miss?"

My saving grace. My angel in an Air Canada uniform. After handing me a glass of water, the stewardess did the unthinkable – she shook the shoulder of my sleepy, possibly inebriated, feeble, inconsiderate neighbour, asked if he desired a beverage and then informed him that if he wanted a window seat, there was an empty one a few rows up. He took her up on the offer, grabbing his giant carry-on and leaving my life, armrest and leg space forever. I was so thankful. So relieved. Sigh. So comfortable. 

I spent the remainder of the flight stretched out across both seats, living large economy-style. 


I had never seen or heard of this character before, but it is EVERYWHERE in Japan. You cannot escape it. Created by the same company that made Hello Kitty a world-famous brand, "Gudetama" is an egg that appears to take sloth to a whole 'nether level. From toys to textiles to office supplies to a café offering customers the chance to eat the poor thing as it looks on horrified, Gudetama has become one of my favourite things. 

The Onsen Experience

It wasn't part of the tour description when I booked, but after our Fuji climb, we all visited a local onsen. It was a pleasant surprise. I had never been before and wasn't sure what to expect other than being self-conscious by the mandatory nudity. There is nothing like this in North America; guests disrobe completely, leaving their clothing in a locker, before taking a public shower and then enjoying the various therapeutic hot springs (indoor, outdoor and at varying temperatures). After washing the sopping sweat off my body, I immediately went outdoors and found my own tub with a view of the mountain I had just climbed.

There are few times in my life where I have been that relaxed. I believe it was aided by being in the shadow of Fuji. It didn't look like much from that vantage point. It's near-perfect conical shape is rather non-threatening, especially without all of the snow covering it. The Canadian Rockies, the range I am most familiar with, are much darker and jagged and oblique. But I knew better. I sat there in the pool trying hard to disguise my glee that I just accomplished something bigger than I ever thought I would. Despite thousands of people doing it every year, it was something monumental for me and I felt like Superwoman. Assured that I could do anything if I put my mind (and heart) to it. 

"Is there room in here?"

I looked up as Epic Snorer entered the tub with me, the still waters now cascading over the edge. My momentary illusion of peace and "privacy" dissipated as the reality of a near-stranger about to share my personal space entered the frame. A near-stranger that kept me from getting any sleep the night prior. "But, but...there are empty baths!", I thought to myself. 

The zen was strong though and I do believe that you can learn something from everyone. Even this encounter proved insightful. Epic Snorer talked with me about travel, life and loss. I mentioned that India was probably next on my list and she shared her own experience visiting it, including bringing her mother's ashes to Varanasi to perform the same ritual that I had hoped to do for my father. 

The dots in my life always seem to connect. 

The next day, I decided to relive the experience by visiting Oedo Onsen Monogatari Hot Springs in Tokyo. This is basically an onsen theme park with even more hot springs to choose from, in addition to a full spa, amusements and large dining area all designed to look like historic Edo. At this point, being naked in front of complete strangers did not bother me. In fact, I found it empowering. I spent an hour or so alternating between the coldest and hottest bath, and then indulged in the full spa treatment: a 90 minute massage, facial and pedicure where garra rufa fish eat away at the dead skin on one's feet. They had plenty to feast on at this point; Fuji killed my soles. Afterwards, I dined on bulgogi at a Korean restaurant within the establishment. It was the most indulgent day possible without being the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. 

So chill was I that I got on the wrong train heading back to my hotel and ended up in Yokohama. 

The Descent

Descending Mount Fuji was just as difficult as hiking up. It takes a different trail from the ascent; one that initially seems easier, but soon becomes torturous in its own way. Again, the path is littered with deep ash in which the feet sink. I had to empty the contents of my shoes every hundred metres or so and also fell down several times when I lost balance. It wasn't embarrassing though, as I finally acquired the smug aplomb of someone who just climbed a motherfuckin' mountain. Yeah! My personal issue with the descent was that it seemed endless. Everytime I turned a corner, I anticipated that the tree line would be near … but it wasn't. Mount Fuji teases. And if you foolishly don't wear sunscreen – like I did – it also burns. 

I continued bonding with Alaska. I've often daydreamed about connecting with someone during my travels. Not necessarily in a romantic sense, but moreso by just meeting someone in a foreign land who makes you feel less alone in the universe. An unbiased person who can provide answers to questions that have been troublesome. An ear to rest one's deepest thoughts and feelings, ideations we often don't share with loved ones for fear of judgement or rejection. Or perhaps just an individual to share extended periods of silence with, while feeling comfort in the sense of belonging to something bigger. It's the 'Lost in Translation' effect. Our conversation was deep and varied. When we finally returned to the fifth station, our meeting point for return to Tokyo, a part of me was saddened that I would probably never see this new friend again, although I was happy for the time that we shared as it were. It was brief, but life-altering. 

Out of a group of ten people, two quit on the way up … and two quit on the way down, hiring the tractor that brings supplies up to the various stations. This came at a cost to them of 30,000 Yen (or roughly $300.00 U.S. a piece). It is discouraged and often used only in medical emergencies but money talks. When I heard this, I felt for them. Climbing Mount Fuji is not easy, despite what people say. It requires not only physical strength but also the mental fortitude to make it through.

I am proud that I did it. 

But I am never climbing a mountain again. 

Climbing Mount Fuji (Part II)

I could barely lift the spoon to my mouth. Part of me marvelled that I was even given this utensil, as chopsticks were the norm during my travels. It was a pleasant surprise as I am completely inept at eating with the latter. The dinner, consisting of rice and beef curry, was delicious but I was too exhausted to enjoy it. After brief socialization, I excused myself and went straight to my sleeping bag to catch some zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz's. 

When I initially entered the mountain hut at the eighth station, I was kinda excited to see semi-private bunks. "This won't be so bad", I thought to myself. This was short-lived as I quickly realized that we would, in fact, be sleeping on the floor in a massive room with about 50 other people. I was situated between one of the remaining women from Singapore and the Alaskan. By the time they went to bed, I was already knocked out. 

I slept SOLIDLY for two hours before my bladder woke me up. I checked the time on my iPhone. It was only 11:05pm. We were scheduled to depart at 2:00am. I would really need those extra few hours of sleep for the next portion of the ascent but I could hear rustling, tossing and turning in the room and the reason behind it: some of the loudest, guttural snoring I have ever heard in my life. I tried to figure out who it was but it was so thunderous that it seemed to envelope the entire space. I put on my slippers and braved the cold to reach the solitude (and silence) of the washroom. 

Japanese toilets are legendary. They are so advanced, I wouldn't be surprised if there were models that can accurately predict remaining lifespan. Even on Mount Fuji, even at 3,100m above sea level, the toilets are awesome. You have to pay to use them (200 Yen) but when your body is starting to enter a deep-freeze, nothing feels better than to sit down on one of their warmed seats. This was an extensive topic of conversation and consensus amongst our group during the day. It was a really long hike. This, and occasional karaoke, provided much needed entertainment. 

While outside, I stopped to take in the scenery. Down below, I could see the mass of Tokyo glittering. It was a beautiful sight. This was the first time I felt I was doing something more momentous than a hike. I was pushing myself out of my element in a massive way. In a year of giving myself numerous distractions in avoidance (and denial) of depression following my father's death, this was a shift in outlook that I needed. I needed to keep evolving. This experience would bring me from relatively lazy connoisseur of Doritos to someone who truly feels like they can take on the world and conquer it. I now believe nothing less. 

Returning to the shared sleeping space, I noticed a lot of people were awake. The snoring was just too much. I climbed back into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes in an attempt to trick my body into dozing off. It didn't work. In time, I felt I could actually hear the subtle nuance as the exhalation reverberated through the perpetrator's individual nose hairs; a symphony of weird, bodily functions. 

"Fuckin' HELL!" I heard a British accent proclaim in frustration from across the room. 

"At least someone is sleeping", I thought to myself. "Tomorrow is going to be a loooonnnngggg day."

To be continued...