To be perfectly honest climbing Mt. Fuji wasn’t something I had really thought about, not when I lived in Japan back in the late 90’s or even just 6 months ago for that matter. I had just enjoyed looking at Japan’s sacred national symbol from afar, from camping grounds to lakeside, driving past it at sea level and from the air. But when I was planning to return to Tokyo for a visa run this summer, Mt. Fuji (or in Japanese 富士山 Fujisan) popped into my head. Maybe it’s because hiking seems to be a theme to my travels this year, starting with the Cradle Mountain trip in Tasmania to the unforgettable tramping getaway in New Zealand… On a side note, my visa runs have been all fantastically fun- Argentina -> Uruguay for less than 12 hours; Australia -> New Zealand for Milford & Routeburn track (I haven’t even gone through those photos yet!).
Well, back in April I just happened to mention to Tomo & John that I was thinking about going to Mt. Fuji when I came back to Japan this summer. To my surprise they said they’d go with me. I thought it was a bit nutty of them since they already attempted this climb two years in a row. The first time it took them 12 hours to get to the peak, too late to watch the sunrise. Last year they had to turn back within the first hour of climbing due to inclement weather. There is a saying in Japan that goes something like, “everyone should climb Fujisan once but only a fool does it twice.”
Fujisan is by no means a technical climb (and for me it was one of the easiest I’ve done to date), but it surely is imposing, dangerous, and should not be thought of lightly. A recent NY Times article I read quoted 25 people having died last year while trying. Maybe it was a good thing that I saw this article AFTER I came back or that I didn’t let my friends’ warnings change my mind. More than half of my friends actively tried to discourage me from making the climb, telling me that 1) it was too dangerous, 2) too popular and busy this year due to it being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June, 3) it was just crazy that anyone would want to do it. Why volunteer to suffer the pain and agony of an all-night climb with thousands of other people? Considering the altitude (3,776 meters = 12,388 feet) it’s not surprising that many climbers succumb to altitude sickness and that, was also my main concern.
With all the objections I was given I had some doubts and was a bit nervous, but I prepared the best I could and joined my friends last Saturday to take a shinkansen (bullet train) ride down to 三島 Mishima in Shizuoka. When T, J, C (J’s work colleague & friend from Sweden), and I boarded the train we were immediately greeted by the other members of our climbing group. They were all T’s old work colleagues and their friends/family, led by H-san, who is a mountain lover and is one of those “fools” who have climbed Fujisan multiple times.
Rather than taking the most popular “Yoshida Trail” where estimated 200,000+ people crowd the path each summer (T & J’s first attempt was there, a nightmarish 12 hour climb where at times they had to stand still for up to 10 minutes to wait for those ahead of them to move), the group decided to take the “Fujinomiya Trail” and approach the mountain from the south side. Yoshida trail is easier to get to from Tokyo but I’m really glad that we took the Fujinomiya trail, even with the added hassle of transfers and extra time it took to get there. I think it afforded us a better start (Fujinomiya’s 5th station where you begin the climb is at higher elevations than the other trails) and we didn’t have so many people to contend with.
When we arrived in Mishima at 14:53 (we took the Kodama line from Tokyo Station at 13:56 so a quick ride) we had over an hour before having to take the bus to the start of the trail. So after purchasing the necessary bus tickets our 13-member group took a bit of time to get in a circle and introduced ourselves. Little did I know that we had a 10 year old boy with us (our ages ranged from 10 to 49, but we later on saw kids as young as 5 and people in their 60s and 70s). There were 2 heavy smokers in our group and a few people who had never done any hiking or trekking before in their lives! They sure picked a helluva mountain for their first hiking experience…
H-san handed us the itinerary he put together, which was just incredible. He had broken up the big group into 3 smaller teams so that we could better pace ourselves. T was the leader for our “team S” (I didn’t ask but assumed it was due to her last name?) but I called us the gaijin (foreigner) team. I think team S should have been for 素晴らしい subarashii (great) though. T was a fabulous team captain and was in constant contact with H-san for the next 24 hours.
Here is T, at the 5th station putting on a bit of lip gloss before we start our all-night climb. Adorable, I know.
H-san noted for us all the rest stops, estimated time to reach each stop, how long we should rest, what time we should arrive at the peak, what time the sunrise was, which bus to take when we came down from the mountain with its frequency and duration, a hot springs spa in Gotenba to relax and recharge afterwards, various transportation options for returning to Tokyo, etc). I loved it, of course. It was like I was looking at my twin. Well maybe not a twin but a tall Japanese guy version of me. It’s the kind of thing I used to do when planning a trip for my family (and for myself & friends) in color coded Excel spreadsheets. I felt instantly at ease and knew that I was in good hands.
H-san advised us that dinner options were limited at the start of the trail so we went to Family Mart for food and snacks. Convenience and the need to carry out all of our rubbish pointed us in the direction of onigiri (Japanese rice balls).
Part of my dinner… umeboshi onigiri and this stick of imitation crab meat that had Chinese mustard in it. It looked so weirdly interesting that T & I thought we’d try it. I didn’t think it was spicy (it didn’t taste that bad either), but one of the other ladies who also bought it was in tears and had to eat it with lots of rice.
As soon as the sun went down, it turned pitch black and we all had to turn on our headlights. Time to start our long journey upward! When we took a commemorative photo at the start we had no idea that in a few hours we’d be separated from the rest of the group…
Only 20 minutes to the 6th station? No problem whatsoever. 10 minutes of rest then onto 60 minutes of steady climbing to the 7th station for another 10 minutes of rest. But what now? There are 2 different 7th stations? It took us an hour to reach the NEW 7th station and then another hour or so to get to the OLD 7th station. We were feeling pretty fresh then, and J and I hummed a little tune along the way to keep our spirits up. T knew the Fujisan song but we didn’t. So the best we could do was none other than “Climb every mountain, search high and low…” peppered with a bit yodeling on my part “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo…”
Somewhere between the two 7th stations I felt a dull ache behind my right eyeball. Was this the first sign of altitude sickness? I knew what it could be, having experienced this debilitating condition a few times in my life. I’d been sipping water all throughout the day and into the evening. But it would be absolutely miserable if I got sick, so I guzzled down almost a third of my water supply and had more snacks.
We arrived at the 8th station a little past 11:10PM, about 3.5 hours after we started and incredibly at the exact time H-san estimated that we would. It was definitely colder up there so we all decide to put on another layer, which for me was everything I’d taken with me. If it got colder up top, I would just have to grin and bear it. But I was much better off than this American guy I saw, who was wearing a pair of shorts and was trying to bundle himself up in a T-shirt. What was he thinking?
We were ahead of everyone else in the group but H-san told our team to stick to the schedule, so we went up to the 9th station without waiting for the others to catch up. At 12:20AM we reached the 9th station where the air was thinner and I could feel the chilly air settle in my bones. Whether it was the extra snacks or the water, I felt no fatigue or even a hint of altitude sickness. J and C, on the other hand, looked a bit worse for wear. J took a hit of oxygen and ended up buying an oxygen canister himself shortly thereafter.
Because we arrived at the 9th station 10 minutes earlier than scheduled, we rested for 30 minutes (instead of 20) before moving on to the 9.5th station (what’s with these station names!). But before setting off, we made sure we got a chance to greet the rest of our group as they arrived. When we smiled and encouraged each other there, we knew little how much difficulty most of us would face from that point on… It was also the last time the entire group was together.
Below is a photo of T taking a mini break on the way to the 9.5th station.
The experience of climbing up Mt. Fuji in complete darkness with all those millions of stars in the sky is something I will never forget. In the black of the night we just disappeared. All I could see were the twinkling lights from the stars and the fellow climbers’ headlights. At times I felt as if I was just floating, peacefully surrounded by a trail of lights before me, brilliant stars above me, and an endless stream of lights behind me. I could see the misty breath as I exhaled, but it wasn’t labored or painful. I felt so calm yet elated that I honestly thought I could run up the mountain.
3:10AM: we finally reached the summit (right on schedule, if I may add). We saw a lot more climbers and tour groups clogging up the route in the last two hours but we were never once delayed by them. I was finally feeling a bit tired and sleepy, but when I found a little spot to lie down for a quick nap I couldn’t bear to close my eyes. The night sky was too beautiful. And to my utter delight and surprise, I began to see shooting stars! When I returned to Tokyo I heard on the news that the annual Perseid meteor shower peaked on August 11; I was a day early… maybe what I saw was a small part of it? So instead of a much needed shuteye I kept my gaze upon the sky, marveling at each streak of light that came crisscrossed the sky.
Our rest was short though. We learned that the rest of our group was hours behind and had no chance of greeting the new day with us. Our team decided to make for the highest point, a place where you can look down at the famed crater at altitude 3,776 meters and watch the sun rise.
Another 20 minutes later (it turned out that the “summit” wasn’t exactly the summit, we had to climb up a bit higher still) we found an amazing spot to settle down, literally in front of the stone marker noting Mt. Fuji’s highest point.
4:13AM: Our long night slowly came to an end as the sky began to lighten.