Part 1 of 4 – Getting there.
Sometimes, I’m about as spontaneous as a tranquilized elephant chained to a rock, so when I get a call out of the blue from my good friend, photographer and artist Levi Rinker, to get ready for a hitchhike down to the suicide forest on Mount Fuji, within the next hour, my elephantine spontaneity rolls over onto its back, smacks its lips a few times, cracks an eye slightly open, and then sighs back to sleep.
If my spontaneity had fingers it would be scratching lazily at its belly like a sumo wrestler sweating in the shade of a paper umbrella. I have plans already! Yeah – uh – plans – I’ve got some work to do like degrease the cooker and re-tile the roof – arrange socks… not necessarily my socks but… yeah… um…
The excuses come thick and fast but I take a deep breath and tell him I’ll call him back. An hour later, after wearing a deep groove into my kitchen floor, I summon enough backbone to call him and arrange a time to meet the next morning.
The elephant flicks one eye open stares me up and down briefly and resumes a somewhat lighter slumber because surprise, surprise the beast has been stirred, and in preparation it slips nonchalantly out of the chain like a cheerleader out of her panties, and begins to stretch itself around, yawning and still smacking its lips lazily all the while.
Well that was easy.
The last time I went hitching a ride (and the first time I might add) was through the Engedi desert past the Dead Sea. I was with my pal Kevin and we landed a ride with a crazy Palestinian Jew piloting a mammoth flat bed salt truck down south and breaking just about every known law just by thinking about stopping to pick us up. We were herded “back seat” and told to lay low, and then held onto more than just the seats as we hurtled through the desert. He wore a stetson, claimed dominion of Las Vegas and was blasting country tunes the likes of which if you played them backwards the poor bastards singing would get everything in their lives back. Suffice to say, hitching began and ended with a not too impressive first impression, and I must admit it was buses all the way back on that trip.
But this is Japan and things are different here.
It’s eight am or there about and the elephant’s unease has evaporated with the morning mist—or morning pollution depending on your cynicism levels at this time of the day. We have made our cardboard signs, written on them are Kanji lifted from Levi’s phone that apparently indicate that our desired destination is the Kawaguchiko Interchange and/or Route 139. Kawaguchiko is a lake near Mt Fuji and he knows someone who owns a café and campsite down there, so it’s sounding good already. Levi has done this before so I leave it in his capable hands. We are, he tells me, in the prime spot for getting onto the Chuo Express Highway which, in theory, directly connects Fuji Mountain to Tokyo and should we snag a ride onto this asphalt artery we’ll be at the heart of Japan before the sun can tan the tips of our thumbs.
Our first ride however could best be described as minor bypass surgery because if there is anything the Japanese do well its helping without really helping at all. It’s four college students in a funky Jeep like vehicle. These guys mean well, but as it turns out they are not going anywhere near Kawaguchiko, they are headed in the general direction of Mt Fuji (by that they mean west) and they thought they would help out. By the time we ascertain this however our plans of hopping on the expressway have suffered a massive coronary and we resign ourselves to the fact that we are now somewhere in the nether regions of greater Tokyo and we have only just begun. Surprisingly, however, we do not have to wait long or look far for another ride. Shortly after we are picked up a by a surfer on his way home from a date with his Romanian girlfriend (she is not in the car but he shows us a picture) and before dropping us off at another main artery he leaves us, two complete strangers (and foreigners to boot) in his car with the engine running while he goes off somewhere to fetch his surfboard. Gotta love Japan. Levi and I are just grinning from ear to ear and don’t stop until we see two other hitchhikers at the spot where we are getting out. They are Japanese, heading to Osaka, and Levi is genuinely surprised. He tells me it is his first time to see or bump into other hikers in Japan. Because we are gentleman and because we have to hunt down some more cardboard to make our new signs (we are way off track and now need to get to the Gotemba Interchange and then Kawguchiko) we tell them to go on ahead of us and we duck around the corner looking for a convenience store to get some cardboard.
Convenience stores dot the Japanese urban landscape like neon pimples on an ashen face but of course when you actually need one….
By the time we get back with our signs ready and our thumbs out, the other two Hitchhikers are gone and this boosts our spirits because it bodes well. We have been gone less than 10 minutes and if they are already gone it means them fishes must be biting good today.
Hope we catch a big one.
As a South African, it is quite a powerful experience for me to stand at an intersection begging for a lift with a cardboard sign. Back home, where unemployment stats are double figures and roughly half the population lives on a dollar or less a day it is common to see people of all creeds and colors populating major intersections with cardboard signs begging for food, work, money and combinations thereof.
It gives me pause to appreciate how fortunate I am to be here begging for no more than a lift somewhere, and the gravitas is not lost on me.
Levi is occupied with other things. He is charming passing motorists with peace signs and salutations. We smile and point non-threateningly at our second sign on which is written, in Japanese, “Nihongo wa daijobou” (Japanese is okay!) but we meet with little success. Soon the incessant stream of chrome, steel, and rubber becomes tiresome and we begin to muck about. The moment we actually stop trying to flag anyone down a beamer (1995 BMW 5 series) pulls to the side of the road and a young friendly gentleman hops out and makes space in his boot for our backpacks.
If you are impressed by my car spotting abilities, don’t be. We are off down some highway in the back seat of a luxury car chatting away with Hayato san and his wife. He just happens to speak English fluently enough for us to have a decent and entertaining conversation. Part of it veers onto the value of the car we are in because Hayato san is thinking of selling it. Maintaining a car in Tokyo is hellish expensive, he pays 300 dollars a month on parking alone. Not to mention the jaw dropping fact that this beautiful machine`s resale value is lower than my two year old laptop computer at home. He was, he claims, offered a measly ¥100 000 (a thousand dollars) by a second hand dealer for his car. It only has 75000kms on the dial.
Halfway and an Obligatory Short Hike in the Sun.
It’s a pleasant ride and in no time at all we arrive at the Gotemba Crossing meaning we are roughly over halfway. Hayato wants to take us a little further, but it is obviously out of his way and it is no easy task to convince him to drop us off, but he eventually concedes. He does, after all, have a wedding to attend with his wife. As we watch him turn into and way from the crossing, we survey our new location and immediately run into an unexpected snag; no decent spot from which to hitch a ride. We are also not too sure which way to go because there is an on ramp to a highway (we don’t know which), a few lanes going every which way but obvious and a lack of any intelligible signage. The only cars coming and going are driven by locals running errands and shoppers from out of town aiming for the big outlet store that is Gotemba’s claim to fame. Truth is by this stage of the journey any ride to Fuji would at this very moment be hurtling down the Chuo expressway, and alas we missed that vein way back when. Its also noonish so where we are standing is also adding to the difficulty. We are out on the curb just off a mid-size intersection catching the eye of three streams of traffic going in, what we think is the correct direction. However behind us is an overpass with dark enough shade beneath to make it a really silly place for any car to stop and after the shade there is a barrier hedge and a curve so no one is stopping for obvious safety reasons. Its time for a bit of a hike, besides I am getting peckish and we are in no rush really.
It’s a beautiful day and not too hot at all.
After about a kilometre hike and a quick snack, we are off in a car with four friends from high school. They are on a reunion picnic and we determine that the average age of the occupants is 20 years and we suddenly feel kinda old, although by Japanese standards pushing 29 years of age is still wet behind the ears. The kids are from Yokohama just wandering around and we convince them to wander over in the direction we intend to go, the Solar Café on Route 139, and they oblige.
We arrive with Fuji-san enrobed in an opaque kimono of precipitation on our left and the funky and hospitable Solar Café on our right. Introductions are made, Levi is familiar with the owner Jake, our gracious ride with four friends inside is pointed up a nearby trail to what I am told is a fantastic spot to view one of the most deadly mountains in the world and soon we are sitting down to a meal of organic onion soup, organic tomato and basil pasta and an organic pizza aptly named Eden (a garden even Eve would think twice of jeopardizing).
Speaking of treacherous ladies, around about this time Fuji-san decides to join us, throws off her cloudy kimono and turns her face to the sun. It feels as if she is showing off just for us. Her sides are still streaked with winter snow, like make-up from the night before, and in the back of my mind a tiny warning bell starts ringing. She’s a dark one. The kind of woman your own dad warns you about and then flirts with behind your back—the kind of woman you would not be surprised to discover had an eleven hundred cc motorcycle under a tarp in her back yard and no crash helmets in sight. Okay so I am being a tad melodramatic, but I wasn’t kidding about the deadliness, Fuji-san has certainly taken her fair share of lives – she can be real cold sometimes.
So we sit outside The Solar Cafe gazing at Fuji disrobing, eating our delicious food and strike up a conversation with a young Japanese man and his wife, Taka(yuki) and Mamiko, who are out here camping at a different location further down Route 139. It`s between sips of beer and sweet moments of syrupy silence that the topic turns to why Levi and I have journeyed all the way down to this side of the mountain.
We are here, we tell them quite seriously, to venture into the forbidden forest—at night—to camp there and, if possible, sneak into the two caves that yawn from the floor of The Sea of Blue Foliage, Aokigahara Jukai, the suicide forest.
It’s Levis wicked sense of humor at play, his way of cheering me up because life is throwing me some lemons these days and he wants to make lemonade. Sour, disturbed lemonade, but lemonade nonetheless.
Our explanation is met with shock and outright disbelief, they think we are joking but we aren’t, and the meal is finished in an awkward silence.