Before coming to Japan, one of the Things I Wanted To Do In Japan was to climb Mount Fuji. I don't know... it just sounded like a Thing To Do In Japan. It's the highest and best known mountain in Japan, so, well, it's just asking to be climbed, right?
After coming here, I found out that Fuji is not the best mountain to climb in Japan. Many other mountains are more scenic and more fun. "Fuji is for looking at, not climbing," the Japanese people would say. However, I was not dissuaded. The Japanese have a proverb: "you're crazy if you never climb Fuji, and you're crazy if you climb it twice." After taking the challenge, I am inclined to agree.
We were particularly foolhearty in that we decided to climb the entire mountain. Most people, in fact, almost all people take a bus part way up to the "fifth station" and climb from there. We had heard that it was good to go right from the rail station in a nearby town and stop at a shrine at the base of the moutain. If one started early enough, one could make it to eighth station by 11 pm, catch a few hours of sleep and continue up to catch the sunrise. The sunrise is not only quite beautiful, but also one of the few times that Fuji is not covered by clouds, so being at the top by 5 am is a key part of any climbing plan.
So we set off with great enthusiasm, leaving Tokyo at 6:30 am on Saturday morning, and arriving at Fuji Yoshida station a couple of hours later. After a false start in the wrong direction we found our way to the shrine. It was pretty nice, with a massive toori entrance and surrounded by forest.
(In case you're wondering how we could go in the wrong direction while standing beneath the tallest thing in all of Japan, let me explain that most of the time Mount Fuji is covered by clouds. I'm not talking about a few fluffy things here and there, I'm saying it just ain't visible. You look around, you see a few hills, but no Fuji. It's a meteorlogical wonder.)
From there we set off to find the Yoshida mountain trail. We walked along the side of a road for quite some time, and then the path ended. On the way back, we encountered an elderly Japanese couple who informed us that we could get to the trail this way by walking along the edge of the road. So we took off again, and eventually arrived at the foot of the trail, where we got some noodles for lunch. As it turned out, we were supposed to take a different path that ran parallel to the road, but we were on track now.
And so we headed up a dirt trail in search of the "first station" that would signify that we were on the right track. Also, some of us had bought some exorbitantly priced walking sticks at the shrine, which we could supposedly get stamped with a woodburn at each station as a souvenir. After some time, we did in fact reach the first station, although it was little more than a dilapidated and quite thoroughly abandoned shack. So there were no stamps to be had. Shortly after this time, one of our team had been reduced quite literally to his knees and had to turn back. But the rest of us persevered.
The second through fourth stations we similarly non-existent. By five pm, we reached the fifth station. Keep in mind that this is where most people start, and we had already been going since 9 am. What were we thinking? At the station we got our first stamp and also some noodles for dinner. We were above the clouds now, and we could see down to the ground through some of the thinner patches. However, we were a bit put off by the fact that the people at the fifth station kept informing us that the top of the mountain was full. Never mind that we had made reservations, they insisted that it was full. However, we had come this far and would not be put off.
Shortly after the fifth station, all traces of vegetation disappeared. The top part of Fuji is barren rock, with endless switchbacks leading upwards. We continued in this manner into the night. Although the moutain itself was not very pretty, we had a truly magnificent view of the stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible, which some of my city-slickin' friends had never seen. We could also see some lights of the cities below, and, miraculously, fireworks. They were just tiny puffs of light far below us; I have never seen fireworks from above before. But even more amazing than that was the lightning. Off in the distance was a huge cloud, with lightning constantly arcing throughout it. We heard later that Tokyo had had a huge deluge that night, while we watched the show from the mountain.
By this point we were becoming quite thoroughly exausted. We had a nice collection of stamps on our staffs, but we still were not near our hotel. By 11:30 we were still forty minutes away and the whole trail had become a massive lineup of people, kilometers in length, bending back and forth up the mountain. Every now and then someone would cry out an encouraging gambette and everyone would chorus hai.
By 12:30 at night we made it and fortunately they honoured our reservations because it was darned cold outside. We forked over our CND$60 overnight fee and wedge ourselves into a line of sleeping people. I had not quite enough space to lie down on my back, but it didn't matter because I was tired. I was woken up 45 minutes later by many people leaving to get to the top, and by 2:30 am we were on our way as well.
My exhaustion at this point cannot adequately be expressed by words. We had hiked for 13 hours, slept for less than 2, and were now clambering up rocks in an enormous queue of people. I was hungry and thirsty. I was feeling somewhat sick, possibly due to the altitude. I was cold -- I had foolishly neglected to bring gloves and since I was holding a climbing stick my fingers became frostbitten. Somehow, the phrases "we've come this far," and "we're only going to do this once," kept me going.
When it started to become light, I somehow gained new energy. By the time the sun started to rise, we were right at the top, and got some good pictures (see my Mt Fuji Photos page). The thrill of having actually made it kept me from collapsing and we went into one of packed food stalls and got some noodles for breakfast. We walked around the crater for a while and phoned home from some payphones at the top. And of course we got our "Top of Mount Fuji" stamps.
After while, we decided to head back down. We went by the Gotemba trail on the other side of the mountain. It starts off as a monotonous series of switchbacks down the montotonous landscape of volcanic rock. Eventually this turned into a vast desert of ashes and gravel, which spread as far as the eye could see. With the whisps of fog blowing across (the clouds were coming up as we came down), it was positively surreal. The best part was, by letting your feet slide through the gravel, one can take great loping strides down the slope. We could go pretty fast, kicking up clouds of dust, with frequent stops to empty the gravel out of our shoes.
The trail ended at the fifth station on the other side, where we took a cab to the train station. We went to a nearby restaurant, where we could get free water (it was as much as CND$8.50 per bottle near the top) and food that wasn't noodles! Then we took the train back to civilisation, showers, and sleep.
All in all I would say that this hike was one of the best and one of the worst of my life. It was hell to get there, but there were some points -- like the night view and the sunrise -- that made it worthwhile. However, I would recommend to anyone who plans to do the climb that you start at the 5th station and not hike the whole way like us. If I was going to do it again (thus asserting my own insanity), I'd go that way for sure. But hey, if you're a maniacal masochistic mountaineer, with a predilection for physical pain, then go for the whole thing!
Further advice would be: bring warm clothes (especially gloves) and bring water. Also, bring lots of money so you can buy food and water. If you want to get a climbing stick and all of the stamps, bring lots and lots of money. You would thinking moutain climbing would not involve major consumerism, but this is Japan. If you're climbing at night, one of those headlamps is nice. Aside from that, all I can say is have fun and gambette ne!
More pages about Mount Fuji: