National Geographic : 2002 Aug
For soldiers of the Japan Self-Defense Force, who train at the foot of Fuji (right), the moun tain is the peak of national pride. For laborers preparing red-dyed, sun-dried shrimp in Kam bara (bottom), it's the famous neighbor. And though it helps shape the Japanese diet inspiring truncated triangular sponge cakes, rice crackers, rock candy, and jellied bean paste snacks (far right)-Fuji's familiarity does little to weaken its magnetic, almost oracular, power. In the words of poet Shinpei Kusano: "I'd like to see Fuji speak one word. In the language of human beings." AN ETERNAL PRESENCE "Really tough," chimed in Yoko Nomo, 27, who survived a brain tumor, "but Fuji-san is the number one mountain in Japan!" When I told Omata how event sponsors had tried to keep me, a reporter, from joining her, she smiled wearily. "We need the media," she said. "When young people get cancer in Japan, everybody thinks they're going to die." Families are overprotective. Companies won't hire. Potential mates pass them by. "Many survive," said Omata, "and people need to know that." "You should have seen us on the bus ride up," Nomo broke in, her face glowing in the hut's dim light. When they slipped above the clouds and Fuji revealed itself, it was such a thrill, she said, "Everybody started clapping!" "Till then nobody knew what climbing a mountain meant," said Fumiko Ikeda, a social worker and chaperone. I understood. But gaz ing at the canny faces around the table, I also knew that each of these women was a seasoned veteran in treading the uphill path. Today Fuji san, the culture's malleable old symbol, had simply confirmed that fact for them. And that got me to thinking. Maybe it was time to retool that old proverb about Fuji and fools, the first part of which says the man who climbs but once is wise indeed. Lucky enough to get a second go, I realized how many people grew just a little taller in spirit from any opportunity to measure themselves against Japan's inev itable mountain. ] Interested in climbing Mount Fuji yourself? Get travel tips in our Online Extra and find related websites at national geographic.com/ngm/0208.