Over Mount Fuji (19)

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July 10 —
The Sunday evening before the Mount Fuji expedition, Wulfstein meandered up a hill south of Sakura. Earlier in the year, he had XiaoLun to walk with, but now he felt lonely, and the absence of his companion kept those moments even more memorable. Yet, he was glad Nobuko had more time to spend with the Pekinese.

Shaking his head, he tried to forget his ordeal and concentrate on a series of tremors that struck in the early hours that morning. He feared more to come. The television showed cracks in city roads and chaos in buildings and supermarkets. How would the public react to his prediction of an earthquake hitting the Izu Peninsula? How would the world react to seeing Japan in a series of calderas exploding?

Sweat dripped from his face, and the high temperature made him feel like a washed-up fish on a hot rock. Tokyo’s summer heat at its zenith had broken all records and a general malaise enveloped the city. In addition, the stench from piles of rubbish left by a garbage strike made him gag.

Ravens circled below the jagged clouds, their cries hanging in the humid air. Wulfstein persisted but stopped in a valley where water flowed over a cobbled bed. Up the hill, life teemed—humming dragonflies, trilling cicadas, croaking frogs and chattering birds—all filling the woods with their calls.

hakata-oshima-bridgeDespite the scorching heat, he strolled on and found an anthill. He dug at the mound by using a stick, but found the ants had fled deep inside.

Along a narrow path, Wulfstein’s footsteps disturbed a creature coiled around a tree with gnarled branches: a purplish snake emitting a chilling hiss. He stopped, but the snake slithered down the trunk and disappeared into the bush. The wind whistled through the leaves and branches, making haunting musical tones.

Back in Sakura in the evening, he showered and sat under a cooling fan, contemplating the significance of an undersea eruption off Sagama Bay.

Near dusk, Byron emerged from the doorway. Wulfstein poured two glasses of chilled lemonade and handed one to his student.

“What does this eruption mean?” Byron asked. “Is a major plate interaction on its way?”

“Plate movement is normal around Oshima. The sudden jerk indicates there’s a major release of stress. Is this the proof you’re looking for?”

“Surely this supports my thesis that the diving plate could move abruptly.”

“Certainly, Byron. These tremors might seem insignificant, but I’m worried they are just forerunners.”

“A precursor then; this is adding more credence to my dissertation.”

“The latest reports say it has lifted the Izu peninsula by a meter,” Wulfstein said, gesturing. “This may be a forerunner to something big. I mean really BIG.”

“The public is already panicking.”

“They have more reason to panic,” Wulfstein said, his eyes emitting sorrows. “But damn it, there’s not much we can do other than issue a warning that a series of quakes is imminent.”

“A series of quakes? Do you mean this isn’t the Big One you predicted?”

“Sorry, I mean a series of Big Quakes.”

For a long time, Wulfstein didn’t say any more. He remembered the carnage at Rockdale—Byron’s ordeal after being pulled out from the rubble. He shook his head and stiffened at his sense of helplessness recalling and seeing the pain of the survivors who all struggled to stay alive in the same hospital. And now, a series of Big Quakes he feared would soon strike.

Then turning to his student, he said, “You need a good rest, Byron. We’ll need all our strength tomorrow going up Mt Fuji. I’ve been particularly troubled by the high level of electromagnetic emission around the volcano.”

“We shouldn’t be too worried since we have sensors all over the place.”

“We do, but we need to be there to breathe in all the details,” he said on parting.

Wulfstein went in his room, but restlessness troubled him. Mount Fuji had been rumbling for more than three months. Considered sacred by the locals, the volcano had last blown its top in 1707 and covered streets as far away as Edo, modern-day Tokyo. But, lately, the rumbling had stopped.

Tossing in bed, he wondered whether it would explode again; and if so, at what magnitude? For another long hour, he seemed unable to get away from making more hypotheses. He tried to sleep, but something troubled him. Finally, switching on the bedside lamp, he struggled to read an article in Scientific American, hoping this might help him settle down. It did. So before he became too drowsy, he tossed the magazine aside and switched off the light.

THE MORNING ARRIVED with a cool breeze and Byron was excited over the trip to the top of Mount Fuji. Yamaichi, the guide and driver, came with Yoshino who joined Wulfstein and Byron for the trip. Eileen O’Neill met them on the road that led to a quaint village near the mountain base.

Byron knew that to time their dawn arrival at the summit, they had two options: start their trip in the afternoon, camp overnight on the mountain, then continue early the next morning; or make the whole journey in one day, which he preferred. But with two older scientists, Yamaichi decided the team should take two days.

At the mountain base, the weather started fine and mild, but when the Land Cruiser drove further up, the sun vanished behind gray clouds and a cold drizzle set in.

“I have been a tour guide for over twenty years,” Yamaichi said. “But this is the thickest fogs I’ve experienced. It has swallowed the whole mountainside.”

“That’s incredible!” Byron said. “Where is the sun?”

“The sun is well hidden,” Yamaichi said. “Just enjoy a celestial the trip up.”

Byron turned silent, absorbing the scenery for the rest of the journey. In a country where such landscapes had a great aesthetic impact on its people, he could now understand why the mystical cone of Mount Fuji had stood the test of time as Japan’s most famous symbol.

He marveled at how the huge volcano could just disappear. It reminded him of the smog hiding the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles, but Mount Fuji was not a molehill near Pasadena.

Yamaichi turned out to be a proficient driver. He anticipated bad patches, twists and bumps, slowed where necessary and picked up speed whenever clear stretches of road lay ahead. After an hour, rain fell, but Yamaichi drove on without a hitch.

“I am an Ainu,” Yamaichi said at one stage. “I’m a member of a tribe known as ‘Earth Spiders’.”

“So you’re not Japanese?” Byron asked.

“I’m Japanese, well, not quite. We’re just different,” Yamaichi rumbled on as he droved, stating that although the Koreans, Chinese and Malayans intermarried and became ‘Japanese,’ the Ainu community would never suffer such a loss of identity by living apart from the invaders. And here, it suited him to offer himself serving as a tourist guide.

Soon Byron began to feel dizzy. Mount Fuji’s heights appeared more rugged. By the time they drove up the spiraling road to the Kawaguchi-ko Fifth Station at 2300 meters, mist shrouded the valley.

The four-wheel-drive vehicle stopped at a tourist spot. Rain ceased as quickly as it’d begun. Everyone hefted their belongings onto their backs and set off on foot, each member carried a piece of equipment and followed Yamaichi.

The temperature had cooled, the air perfumed with moisture from the rain. Byron remained silent, hearing only their footfalls and the hooting of owls.

After scaling the first hundred meters, he looked over the horizon. The mist rolled up and down, making him feel insignificant in the midst of such vastness. He could understand the pilgrims’ experience. And here, Wulfstein and Eileen were strolling along as if they were in mid-heaven.

When the sun’s rays filtered through the clouds, Yoshino’s face lit up. “I’m getting closer to kamisama, closer to the gods.” He stretched out his hands as though reaching for his final destination. “Never have I felt so close to nature—to the mountains and valley. Here I am, feeling a renewal of life.”

This weather is so changeable, Byron thought the moment the surroundings shifted from warm to chilly. “Is this how kami inspired you?”

Kami inspires us the way Mother Nature does,” Yoshino said. “A tree, rock, plant or a painting is a kami, and a person is equally a kami.”

Byron shook his head. “On any mountain, its height and the erratic weather would contribute to a climber’s vulnerability to mysticism.”

“It is here on a mountain that you can experience a spirit, or a soul if you like,” Yoshino said. “Tonight is like death, tomorrow we’ll rise again.”

Byron thought back to California’s legendary Mount Shasta, which American Indians regarded as sacred. It soared above other mountains in solitary splendor, and at times it seemed to float on clouds. Many visited Mount Shasta for its spiritual presence. But here on Mount Fuji, he had the opportunity to experience the atmosphere for himself.

Listening to his own steps, Byron followed Yamaichi. But as a leg-cramp started, he began to limp.

Night fell and a chilly wind greeted them at the 2590 meters marker. The team donned woolen gloves and sweaters. Although glad to have new batteries for their flashlights, Byron still stumbled whenever the terrain became steep. He stood and marveled at the beauty of the heavenly cryptograms that filled the sky, allowing him a thoughtful moment.

A few feet away, a horde of rodents scrambled in the undergrowth, disturbed by the beams of lights. Byron took a few steps forward to watch.

“Rats are normally found in the lowlands,” Yamaichi said. “But during the last week, they have moved high up the mountain?”

“Even these rats can sense impending danger,” Wulfstein said. “And these have taken precautions.”

The rodents flicked their tails and chattered.

Yamaichi waved his hands and shouted, “Bah!” but they stayed put.

He looked around, picked up a rock and threw it at them. “Bah! Bah! Bah!” The rats fled down the mountainside.

The higher they climbed, the thinner the air, making the ascent more difficult. At random intervals, they stopped, gasping for oxygen. While Byron admired the scenery, Yoshino rested. Eileen helped Wulfstein unpack cases of his instruments and lay them out on the ground.

Wulfstein frowned. “Electromagnetic reading is on the rise.”

“What does that mean?” Eileen asked.

“Something gigantic is going to happen,” Wulfstein said.

A pungent odor battered Byron’s nostrils as the atmosphere grew eerily quiet except for the whooshing sound of the winds. Despite the cold air, he perspired profusely from the physical exertion and the heat radiating from the ground. They continued through darkness, tremors, and occasional thunder and lightning. But high winds finally slowed their pace.

At midnight, Byron sighed with great relief as he rested along with the other climbers in a hideaway at 3600 meters. Hungry, they ate a few biscuits before tucking themselves into their sleeping bags.

Yamaichi woke them shortly after two a.m. and they resumed their journey.

In some places, they had to skirt cliffs that angled at forty-five degrees. A steep incline and a tramp through snow added to their difficulties. A trying adventure but Wulfstein showed resilience on the ascent as Eileen panted like a robin.

Although limping in the semidarkness, Byron murmured words of encouragement to the Sensei and grasped the old man’s arm. A jerk on the ground, as though a giant rumbled, prompted Byron to tighten his grip.

“A volcano mimics a woman’s reproductive cycle,” Yamaichi said. “She’s just experiencing labor pain.”

Byron could only imagine the lava bubbling at extreme temperature inside the crater. He knew magma and gas bubbles expanded and contracted in response to changes in pressure. He felt paralyzed as the pain in his right leg worsened. To prevent dislocation of his hip, he trod along carefully. “What the hell are we doing here?”

“Get going, Byron.” Wulfstein gazed at him. “We have to collect data at its birth.”

Byron struggled to remain composed. In his mind, the old man had been transmuted into a taskmaster. With a sharp wrench of his gut, he managed to return the Professor’s stare, wanting to shake him and restrain his ego. “Mt Fuji could blast anytime,” he said. “And we’ll all be dead.”

“This is just a wee burp,” Wulfstein said. “It will blast in its own time. Are you going to chicken out in our moment of triumph?”

Confronted by the Professor’s display of machismo, Byron squirmed. His uncle had died in an earthquake. Why could they be so reckless in this Fuji hunt? He felt like hauling the old man off the mountain, but it wouldn’t serve any purpose. Frustrated, he sat on a rock, left foot tucked under the injured right leg as he massaged the sore points on his right foot.

“I’m not telling you to abandon this adventure,” Byron said. “But the way up could be dangerous. I wish—”

“You wish what? If you want to catch the monkey, you have to climb the tree.”

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