Climbing Mt Fuji

Saturday, August 3, 1996

Sunrise On Mt Fuji

I think part of me will be glad to leave Asia. Because I don’t speak much Japanese or Chinese the amount of time I’ve wasted along the way just organising things is horrendous. Today was a good example – I was told that if I wanted to stay in a hut on Mt Fuji I should book a place beforehand. After two hours I finally tracked down the telephone number to call for reservations, and after half an hour it was finally free. The guy at the other end then said ‘No English’ and hung up. Well, with most of the museums and other tourist sights here closing around 4pm that pretty much wasted one day.

So anyway, I’m now doing exactly what the guidebook said and heading up the mountain at night. I’ll be getting there at 10pm and hoping to reach the summit around 4:30am for sunrise at about 5:00am. I would still much rather have paid the extra money to climb up during the day when I could at least see where I was going, then stay overnight. But I guess I’ve saved $70 this way. Hmm, this is the first time that I’m regretting saving money.

Another reason for wanting to get to some Western country or other is that I’m starting to get a craving for hot fudge sundaes, and margaritas at a price I can afford; I sure hope I can get them in Australia! I am intending to take a crash-course in Chinese and Japanese and come back out here whenever I can get the time to do so.

One Of The Huts, Probably Around The Eighth Station

After booking the tickets I was looking through my guidebook when I spotted another place that I’d marked when I first visited Tokyo. There’s a bar called One Lucky just down the road from me in Ikebukoro, hidden away in what looks like a residential street. Without the neon sign outside you’d think it was just another house.

The interior is similar to a number of places I’ve visited in Florida, with lots of souvenirs provided by visiting gaijin (banknotes, posters, etc, etc). The food is very good and cheap (set meals at ¥700 for dinner), and the owner is very friendly. Only four people were in that night so we chatted for a bit and he gave me a newspaper to catch up on the olympic results. I wasn’t surprised to see Britain ranked below Ethiopia, but was upset to discover that the DC-XA rocket crashed and burned in the latest set of tests. Oh well…

I finally got to try some sake there, having found it at a reasonable price. It’s served hot in a small jug with a very small cup to drink from. That’s probably good as it seemed rather stronger than I remembered, particularly on an empty stomach. I do like it though.

There’s one very unusual thing about this bar. The owner has been running it for eighteen years, and takes a photograph of every customer. He has a large part of one wall covered with shelves holding photo albums for the last ten years, so I was able to see who’d been visiting nine years to the day before I did. Next time I’m in Japan I’ll go back to see how my picture turned out!

The drinking continued on my return to Marui House, where I spent most of the night chatting with a Scottish guy and his Turkish friend, who’d been travelling across Asia to Japan. Starting in Bangladesh he’d certainly seen some sights on his trip and it must have been a big contrast to Scotland. He also talked about sleeping rough and felt that the best place was on top of a tall building. That might have been useful the next day as the two of them were using another guy’s room while he was away and the owner threw them out…

Taking A Break (On The Way Down)

Another couple of Australians had arrived, a girl who had a job as a hostess and a guy who was working for another bar recruiting girls for the job. She returned not too sober as she gets paid a fee for every drink that the customer buys her. Hostessing seems to be quite a risky job, as the next night she came back covered in bruises after falling over a few times from drinking far too many cocktails…

The morning before the trip I did yet more organising and packing. John very kindly lent me his rucksack and wet weather gear (which he’d bought on the mountain when he climbed it, paying lots of money), and I stocked up on food, batteries, drinks, and anything else I could think of. In the afternoon I went along to the National Museum near Ueno.

Ueno station is quite strange, with a fishtank perched on one of the ticket machines and seemingly dozens of stalls selling Japanese comics. In the Park I discovered the homeless people who I’d earlier missed in Tokyo. A number were sleeping on benches under the trees to keep out of the sun. Others were living in a village of squatters’ huts built from cardboard, trolleys, multicolored plastic sheets and anything else they could find. A lot of them had washing hung out to dry and some were sitting on collapsible chairs watching the world go by.

The museum is nice but I’d had too little sleep and had too little time to really appreciate it. There’s also another Japanese innovation just outside the doors – locking umbrella stands. I zoomed through the main gallery and then went back home. A quick shower and change of clothes and I was ready to head off for the mountain.

Red Skies

According to my guidebook, Shinjuku station is generally regarded as the most confusing in the world, and I could agree with that! Another group of people have made it their home with cardboard shacks inside the main entrance. Being Japan, they’re all spotless, of course. This seems strange to me but really there’s no reason why they shouldn’t live there if they’re not causing any grief.

I found the bus station and took the same queue that another foreign guy was in. He was taken to one side and left while I worked my way to the front. I’d written down the details of the reservation on a piece of paper and handed that over, which seemed to work. The ticket appeared and I just had an hour to kill before the bus arrived. I said hello to the other guy, whose name was Mike. He came from North Carolina and was working as a teacher in Japan for a year. He was also planning to be climbing Fuji tonight but wasn’t having as much luck – the reservation seemed to have been lost. I wasn’t too surprised as mine was booked under a name that wasn’t exactly close to mine. Goant seems to be the closest anyone’s come when I’ve made reservations by telephone.

Luckily that was soon sorted out and we stocked up on more munchies and noodles before we left. Mike had done a lot of hiking in America and walked part of the Appalachian Trail over a number of mountains, so Fuji would be quite a small one for him. It would certainly be a big one for me – the highest I’d been before was 10,600 feet in New Mexico, where I ran up a flight of stairs and rapidly regretted it due to the lack of air. Fuji is about 2000 feet taller.

Eventually we found the bus stop, or rather a bus stop with lots of people waiting with rucksacks. Our fellow climbers seemed to range in age from two to ninety, and I was a little relieved by this. If these were the people I’d be climbing with I’d probably be able to get to the top without too much trouble. They didn’t look like professional mountaineers.

Buses began to queue up at the stop and I found mine. Ten would be leaving that night, most of them close to full. An average of about 3000 people climb the mountain every night through July and August, and about 500 would be leaving from Shinjuku that night. Getting everyone to and from the mountain must be a big operation.

The bus was like an airliner inside, except that the ‘fasten seatbelts’ signs (but not the belts) were missing and the colouring looked like something out of Doom. As it pulled away I was glad that I’d decided to do this, but wasn’t sure if I’d feel the same way the next day. Tokyo really did look a lot like America as we rolled along the Expressway.

Sunrise

We passed several people sleeping in cars at the side of the road and picked up a few stragglers from the stops along the route. After an hour and a half on the road we passed an illuminated Ferris Wheel and roller-coaster, then stopped briefly at the last stop before the mountain. A stall was selling walking sticks with bells and Japanese flags attached, along with water and other supplies.

Back in the old days, when this was more of a pilgrimage than a tourist attraction, climbers would start at the base of the mountain and stop at some shrines on the way up. Today we don’t have the time or energy, so we start at the ‘Fifth Station’ about 2300 meters up. The mountain is divided into ten ‘stations’, most of which have some huts to stay in or to sell you food and drinks. If you have a walking stick they will also burn a stamp onto it to show that you reached that station. Of course, you have to pay ¥200 for the priviledge, or ¥300 at the summit!

The mountain road was surprisingly good, but started suddenly. One moment I was dozing in my seat, the next the bus was on a steep incline and the curtain was bashing me in the face. I could see little outside except the occasional crash barrier lit by the orange and white lights on the bus, and from the look of the corners I was quite glad. The 2300 meter climb would take us another hour, during which I wondered if I was really planning to climb this mountain that night…

At the fifth station I’d expected to find a few wooden huts. In fact there were several large shops, a whole bunch of restaurants, burger joints, bars, and even a fire station. The place was chaotic as buses pulled in from all around the area and dropped off their passengers. As I climbed down from the bus I realised that for the first time in Japan I was cold…

A Peoplejam

The mountain was just visible as a black triangle against the dark blue sky, and looked tiny. If that was all I had to climb I’d easily be up there before dawn. Reassured, I went on a hunt for a walking stick, and as the only choice of flags was Japanese or American I went for Japanese. I thought it would make a cute souvenir of Japan, but wondered how soon I’d become tired of the bells and take them off.

I looked for Mike as the people around me changed from their street clothes into serious cold-weather outfits and climbing boots. Camera flashes illuminated the area and I wished I had a head-mounted light like many of the others, rather than just my little Maglite. As I wandered around the site I was surprised to find that the prices were only about 50% more than Tokyo, even with the captive market. A large palette of supplies stood outside one shop, and I presumed it wasn’t one person’s baggage. Alongside it two guys were doing warmup exercises. I wondered if I should join them, and hoped that I had enough warm clothes with me. All I had were my trenchcoat and three T-shirts, and it wasn’t yet cold enough to even wear the coat.

Mike’s bus arrived, and we joined the perpetual flow of people passing by the red flashing lights of the car which marked the beginning of the trail. I would have been a little happier if it didn’t start going down within a few yards. The moon was full, and we walked through the forest along the side of the mountain just above the clouds. The sight reminded me of Glastonbury Tor in England, which is often surrounded by clouds like this.

A Weird Cloud

The sixth station (2390m) soon appeared, and we were handed a safety leaflet as we arrived. We then made good time as we followed the winding track up to the seventh station (2700m), which was closer to my expectations. Despite the telephone booth and restaurant, it was at least built from wooden huts perched on a ledge!

The temperature was now low enough that I decided to put on my trenchcoat. I was very glad that all we had was cold weather and no rain. Mike mentioned that the Japanese TV weather shows include a forecast for Fuji at this time of year and the daytime temperature at the summit had been 10°C. Tonight would be 4°C or less, with a strong cold wind. Yeek.

Continuing upwards we began to slow down. The thin air was beginning to affect me and we had gone from a path to clambering over lava flows. Above us the illuminated huts marked out a cross on the mountain. The clouds were moving upwards as the night drew on, and we could now see a few town lights through the layer below us. Looking more carefully we could make out a snake of people above and below, marked by the glow of their torches.

By the hut at 2900m we were just about on time, but looked to get further and further behind. Lots of people were sitting here to recover their breath, and as we waited and drank water a rather fat and middle-aged Japanese guy wearing a bandana gasped into view. We both hoped he’d make the summit. Personally I hoped that I would too, I was starting to have some doubts.

We continued on just ahead of an American family. The young daughter was very unhappy and wanted to go back down, the father was convinced that they were going to the top and would have no argument. I was starting to stop for regular breaks, and suggested that Mike go on ahead as he was used to altitude and could travel faster. After that I made the last 180m to the eighth station (3100m) in only thirty minutes, twice as fast as the leaflet estimated. Now I was starting to feel like I’d get to the top after all. At least I’d stopped sweating, though I’d already drunk a liter of water and the back of my T-shirt was soaked from carrying the rucksack. Any time I took off the coat to cool down my back froze.

I had my stick stamped, and then continued on. I passed many resting people, then got stuck behind a very slow bunch. I thought I must have been becoming accustomed now, because many other people were moving slower than me. The wind was getting stronger and at the next hut I finally removed the bells and flag to prevent them being blown away. I also changed the Maglite batteries, and was surprised by the difference. No wonder I’d had so much trouble seeing at times 8-)! I was higher now than ever before, and wondered if this was the world’s only bar at 11,000 feet. Now ready to finish the trip to the ninth station…

The Last Few Steps

The path was easy, reverting to a gravel track from lava flows, but following it was hard. I was now between two thick cloud layers with a strong wind, and glad of the second T-shirt. Signs along the way warned people not to fall off the mountain, but I’d already worked that one out for myself. I had to stop every thirty meters or so to recover my breath, and was exhausted but very happy. According to my calculations if I could maintain this speed I would be at the summit by dawn to see the sunrise.

At the next hut I bought a $6 Cup Noodle to warm myself up, and that was the first time I ever remember being glad to eat one. I was feeling a little light-headed but was OK when stationary, or even when walking along a flat surface. Only climbing was the problem, and climbing steps the worst of all. You have little choice there about how slowly you can move, as you have to go up in large jumps. That may sound surprising, but my target speed by this point was only three meters vertically per minute, and I was having trouble maintaining that. I was glad for all the Tai Chi breathing exercises I’d done last summer so that I was breathing better now.

The wind blew straight through my coat and clothes and chilled me to the bone as I continued onwards to the summit. I concentrated on keeping one foot moving in front of the other and slowing down to a speed which I could sustain for long periods, shuffling along with the stick for support. I reached the summit, only to discover that it was actually the ninth station and the real summit had been hidden behind it. Disaster! – I was 300m lower than expected, and would almost certainly not get to the top on time.

The Shops At The Summit

I put on the third shirt and the gloves that Stef bought for me in Singapore when we went ice-skating, which seemed like years ago rather than weeks. Beside me a guy started up a paraffin stove to cook breakfast. Wish I’d brought one along with me. I wondered if I should buy one of the oxygen canisters that were for sale at the hut. I’d seen a few people puffing on them on the way here.

Above the ninth station I slowed even further. The path zigzagged up to the summit, marked by the torch lights of those in front, and each time I began walking I’d be frozen by the wind. Soon I was stopping more because of the cold than lack of air, and was reluctant to step out again into the wind. Many people were sleeping along the side of the track, some under space blankets. I thought about wrapping mine around myself under the coat, but could find nowhere sheltered enough to do so without losing it. What exactly was I doing up at the top of a mountain at 4:30am? Somehow the reason escaped me now…

The sky was turning red in the distance, and I stopped at 3550m to watch the sunrise, only 200m below the summit. The view was very pretty, with the sun appearing between two layers of clouds, illuminating them with a beautiful orange glow for a few moments. Along with the others who’d stopped nearby I took some photos, and a couple of American guys videotaped themselves admiring the sunrise. I wished I had my video camera with me, but carrying it up would have been a lot of hassle. I would have regretted bringing it if the rain had appeared.

Sure Is Crowded Up Above The Clouds!

The wind dropped rapidly after dawn, and I shuffled slowly on towards the top. I was probably down to not much over 1m per minute now, but at least I could see a Japanese flag which presumably marked the summit. Unfortunately I could also see the long line of people leading up to it. Those in the distance were tiny, and I considered giving up and heading back down. Even though I only had about 150m to go, it would be a real effort.

Somehow I kept going, even when stuck in a peoplejam as all those who’d stopped below the summit to watch the sunrise began moving again. Climbing over more lava flows we slowed even more. I was really glad I had my stick to lean on or I probably would have given up at this point. I would also have been too embarassed to go back down without the summit stamp.

I zigzagged onwards, trying not to look up because the number of zigs still to zag would only depress me. One time I did look up I spotted a cloud shaped like a traditional UFO poking out past the mountain, which was cute. I snapped a photo and continued trudging.

Finally I turned the last corner and passed the 3700m sign. Ahead were just a few steps and a torii. The last set of steps up from the torii to the shops on the summit was the worst part of the trip. The air was thinner than ever before, I was exhausted, and my body was just about ready to collapse. Somehow I climbed them and sat down at the top. I breathed deeply for a while, then took a look around.

I Did It!

The sun was shining brightly now, strong enough that I wished I’d brought my sunglasses; I’d expected rain. I stopped at one of the souvenir shops to get my stick stamped, and was extremely happy to have made it all the way up. The American guys followed, adding a 1996 stamp to those from their previous trip in 1994. Geez, some people really are dedicated.

I sat down for a rest near the real summit, about fifty meters higher. It’s just a mound topped with another torii. I was amazed when I realised that Mike was sitting across from me. He’d failed to reach the summit for sunrise as well, watching it from about 100m higher than me. Alongside me a Japanese girl was applying sunscreen, and I wished I had some. That was the one thing which noone had suggested I bring!

We climbed all the way up to the summit to take some photos, and I collected a few stones as souvenirs. At 3776m this was the highest I’d ever been while still connected to the ground. Mt Fuji is a volcano, so on top is a large crater, and a strange building which looks to be either a radar station, tracking center or listening post. I have no idea of which it might be.

Prices were still surprisingly reasonable, at ¥500 for a cold can from the vending machine. Not that I think ¥500 is reasonable, but there’s no other way you’ll get something to drink that high up the mountain. I wondered how they got all these things up there, but then a helicopter flew over and I guessed that explained it. The buildings looked like the sort I’d expect to find at an Arctic research station, presumably because they’re closed up and snow-covered for much of the year.

The Crater

After a brief look around the crater it was time to head down. This follows a seperate route with crushed lava tracks zigzagging right down the side of the mountain. Luckily even at 3700m descending is easy and I was able to make good time. I left the summit at 8am and was at the sixth station by 10:30.

Being somewhat scared of heights I was now glad that I hadn’t been able to see much other than the path on the way up. The steep drop down the mountain was very scenic, but a little scary. I stayed away from it on the other side of the path. From the top the green forest we’d started from looked very far away (OK, it was at least a km below), and didn’t seem to get much closer.

Trudging Back Down

I soon removed the trenchcoat and shirts, and at the emergency hut between the seventh and eighth stations I had to stop to cool down. Until then I’d been travelling fairly slowly on the slippery path, but was so tired and desperate to get home that I decided to rush the rest of it. Soon I was overtaking everyone else who was heading down.

As I reached the edge of the forest I passed a number of horses who were giving rides, and passed more on the way to the sixth station. After a brief chat with an American woman on her way up who had as little idea of what lay ahead as I had the previous day, I was off to back to the start. More horses walked through the woods and someone was selling cart-rides, presumably to the other weary climbers.

I picked up the ticket I’d reserved and sat on the steps near the bus stop, hallucinating from exhaustion. I would have slept, but didn’t want to miss the bus. I did sleep on most of the trip back, and was very glad to get home to bed. Sadly I only had time for a couple of hours sleep before I had to be off for laundry-duty and to collect some money as I was by now almost out. I finished the day off with a celebratory visit to the noodle shop nearby, where I tried to follow the plot of the Japanese action show on the TV.

Phew. The most common question I’ve been asked since I did this is ‘Was it fun?’. I’m really not sure how to answer that. It was a lot of fun until the ninth station, after which continuing to the top was a real effort. I was also ecstatic when I got up there. Coming back down was just a pain in comparison. Surprisingly I didn’t have much trouble walking the next day, which I’d expected.

I’m certainly glad that I did it when I had the chance and would recommend it to other visitors, but if you do decide to try it I think I’ll stay at the bottom and wave you off. I think I now understand the somewhat ambivalent comments that I received from some of the other people who’d climbed the mountain before me. It really has to be experienced, it cannot be adequately described.

Other Fuji Links

A number of other people on the Net have climbed Mt Fuji and written about their experiences. There are also some information sites on the Web, one of which even allows you to view the mountain in realtime.

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