I woke up abruptly to screaming from the floor above me.
“Oh my God! There it is”
The window in the basement room that I shared with my friend Jenny was tiny so I couldn’t tell if it was morning or night. A few seconds later, when I became more conscious, I realized who was screaming and why. I quickly got dressed, woke up Jenny, and ran upstairs. The top level of the house had floor to ceiling windows so I was able to get a good look as soon as I reached the top of the stairs. Nonetheless, I wanted my first look to be the best one. I ran to the patio door, stepped out and looked up. Mt. Fuji appeared so close that I felt I could reach out and tickle the summit.
It was October and when we left Jeju Island for Tokyo a few days before, it was hot summer weather. Tokyo was also very warm. Getting off the bus at Lake Kawaguchiko, about an hour and a half west of Tokyo, was like disembarking in a different country. It was pouring rain and around 15 degrees colder than Tokyo. We were planning on being in the area for two days.
“Not sure we’ll get to see much of Mt. Fuji in this weather” I said to Jenny, searching the horizon for the iconic snow tipped peak.
I pulled my rain jacket and wool hat out from the bottom of my bag and quietly chided myself for not packing my rain pants. We planned to meet a few other friends, who had taken an earlier bus, at the villa where we were staying for two nights. After a meal of Hoto noodles, a miso based soup with thick wheat noodles served in an iron pot, we took a taxi to our accommodations. We chose this place because the pictures on the website featured an extraordinary view of Mt. Fuji from the patio. Despite the clouds and rain, we both hoped that we would miraculously be able to see Mt. Fuji once we arrived at the villa. As though the mountain was a guaranteed feature that came with the apartment like a soaker tub or fully equipped kitchen. Sadly, the impressive giant did not make an appearance that day, nor the next. We tried to make the best of our time in the area even though it was raining and cold. We walked around the lake, which is one of the settings featured in the famous series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. We planned to leave fairly early on our last day. I think our plans changed the moment we heard our friend scream at the sight of Mt. Fuji that morning and realized that it was a clear and sunny day.
“Let’s go for a hike and catch a later bus to Tokyo” Jenny said.
“Yes!” I responded.
Jenny arrived on Jeju a week before we left for Tokyo. I was grateful that a friend from Canada was able to visit me since I was feeling a little lonely in my new Korean home. We had been having fun exploring the island and hiking some of the volcanic cones. We hoped that we would be able to do some hiking in Japan so we were excited when the weather cleared long enough for us to be outside. We decided to take a gondola up one of the mountains and hike for a couple of hours at the top. As we boarded the gondola, Jenny noticed a sign stapled to the wall in Japanese and English that read “Beware of Monkey”. We laughed out loud.
“Don’t monkeys travel in groups?” Jenny asked.
“Maybe some monkeys were lost in translation” I snickered.
“I think it’s a joke. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of monkeys living in Japan” I added.
The view at the top was of the lake, the village, the surrounding forest and Mt. Fuji at the centre.
After a few hours of exploring the trails in the area, it was time to head back down the gondola and make our way to the bus station.
“I need to go to the washroom, can I meet you at that bench in a bit?” I said to Jenny as I pointed to a bench under a big tree.
“Sure! See you in a bit” she said.
As I walked towards the bench to meet Jenny I felt something crash against my legs. The impact was so hard and sudden that I almost tumbled over. My first thought was that someone was happy to see me since the crash turned into a tight embrace. Was it a friend from Canada and the shock of running into me in Japan made them attack, enthusiastically, from behind? It would have to be a very short person since I was only feeling the hug on my legs, a child maybe? I looked down behind me and saw tufts of beige hair, a dog? In the course of a few seconds I came to the realization that it wasn’t a child, or a dog, but a monkey! I heard my friend scream, I heard my own scream, then I heard the monkey scream. All of us, very confused. Once the monkey realized that I wasn’t a furry friend, he let go of my legs and ran into the woods, scratching one of my arms and hand in the process. The area was crowded with people. Some of which had seen what happened. The rest only turned around when they heard my screams and by that time the monkey had disappeared so all they saw was a woman standing in the middle of a walkway screaming loudly.
We now understood that the sign we saw on the gondola was neither a joke nor a bad translation. There was a lonely monkey marauding the area and we should very much beware.
I spent the bus ride to Tokyo researching the probability of rabies transmission from monkeys to humans from scratches. At that moment I regretted not splurging on the rabies vaccination before I left Canada and I remembered all the horrible rabies stories I had heard in my life. Luckily, I never experienced any foaming at the mouth, though I kept looking for signs weeks after we left Japan.