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Oyler: Navigating Fuji a great adventure on Fourth of July 60 years ago

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Sixty years ago I spent the Fourth of July weekend climbing Mount Fuji with a group of GI's from the 64th Engineer Battalion, Base Topographic. We were stationed in a compound in the northern suburbs of Tokyo and were busy producing maps for the various U.S. military and naval forces in the western Pacific, as well as for our French allies who were attempting to put down a rebellion in their colony, French Indo-China.

My friends and I had been in Japan since mid-April and were filled with stories of Fujiyama, although during the 10 weeks we had been there the mystical mountain had never been visible, always obscured by clouds.

Someone suggested we apply for weekend passes and take a trip to Hakone so we could demonstrate our virility by climbing Fuji.

Eight of us set out on a Saturday morning, catching a train at Oji station. The train took us to the main railroad station in downtown Tokyo. From there we caught a train to Hakone, the traditional jumping off point for an ascent of Fuji.

I was accompanied by my two best friends, Sam Farha and Don Wise. Both of them had been with me through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Cartographic Drafting training at the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, Va.

We quickly found the entrance point for climbing Fuji, a large gate called a torii. It consisted of two large cylindrical timber posts supporting an equally large horizontal timber, with a smaller horizontal timber tying the two posts together just below their tops. All we could see in the distance was a road gently sloping upward.

Almost immediately we were accosted by a Japanese gentleman who explained to us that it was necessary that we purchase a climbing stick from him; otherwise we would be defying tradition. We quickly conceded, purchasing an octagonal stick about five feet long with the corners smoothed off as a handle near the top.

Not too much farther along the trail we encountered another Japanese entrepreneur. He advised us that we had reached “ichiban station,” which he explained was the first of 10 stations along the climbing route. For a pittance we had “ichiban” branded onto our climbing sticks.

Much too soon we encountered another man with a charcoal fire and a branding iron, and then another, and another. By now we were exuberant. We had only been hiking for half an hour and already we had passed the fourth station.

Reality set in when the next man we met declared that we had now reached “niban station” (number two) and that the previous three brands we got were alternates for number one.

As we continued, the road became steeper and the going more difficult, but still nothing like our perception of mountain climbing. After four or five hours we found ourselves well above the timber line with evening approaching rapidly. We found a barn-like building located at a place where one would be happy to spend the night, and, for a small fee, arranged to bed down there.

When we awoke the next morning we found ourselves above one layer of clouds with at least several layers above us. From this point the going got a lot tougher. The slope steeper and the footing was difficult, mostly gravel-sized pieces of solidified lava.

We reached the summit by midday. Our pride at accomplishing this great achievement was greatly diminished when we realized that numerous Japanese citizens had climbed with us, including old women and young children. For them, this was something one does on a summer day, not a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Making it even more mundane was the fact that there were Japanese concession stands at the summit, selling souvenirs and snacks.

The trip back down was faster, more sliding than walking. After we exited under the torii, we hitched a ride to the train station on an open truck. Just then, for the first time in months, the clouds parted and we were able to see Fuji clearly, looming high in the sky above us.

A magnificent sight, probably unequalled anywhere else.

Sixty years later, I still consider this to be a great adventure, and remember it fondly each year when the Fourth of July arrives.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or joylerpa@icloud.com.

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