Fujisan – That eponymous symbol of Japan. A perfectly shaped cone, almost artfully topped with snow, towering over Shizuoka and Yamanashi; visible in all its glory from Tokyo when the haze abates. Since ages past it has held a special place in the Japanese psyche, a sacred mountain oft depicted in artwork and literature. It’s no wonder that it’s almost certain to become a UNESCO World Heritage site later this month.
Every year, thousands of people climb to the summit in the summer months of July and August. Climbing overnight and arriving at the top in time to watch the sunrise is touted as the way to tackle this most active of Japanese experiences. I’ve seen the pictures and it looks magical, and I don’t doubt it can be a truly memorable experience.
Mine was rather different.
I completely understand the appeal of climbing Mt. Fuji. Experiencing the ~est of something in any country will always be an attractive proposition. As the highest mountain in Japan, and not only that, but also readily accessible and climb-able with relatively little kit, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to try and tackle. With a uni friend living in Kanto and another one coming to visit, Fuji seemed a perfect place for us to meet-up. A few other friends joined the party, and on a weekend in early July a few years ago, the five of us rendezvoused at Shin-Fuji station. We knew we could take a bus from there to the 5th station and start out climb. The skies were clear and our spirits were high.
Things didn’t get off to the best of starts. Before we’d reached the 6th station, one of my friends (who is by no means unfit) found himself throwing up at the side of the path. Thinking that it might be altitude related, we took a break. Things not improving too much, 3 of us headed on, with promises made to meet at the top (hopefully) or after we’d come down again the following morning (if necessary).
Our ascent had started under the stars, but soon the clouds started to set in. It got colder and damper, visibility dropping to meters at best. It was also about this time that 2 of our torches gave out, leaving the three of us largely scrambling in the dark. On the moronic side for not being better prepared? Definitely.
Things got worse as it got windier and 100円 ponchos proved to not be quite as useful for keeping warm as we’d hoped. Shoes were giving out and being held together with duct tape (we brought that at least ><). Even with better shoes the surface you’re walking on is basically gravel and not in the least bit pleasant to traverse.
We were not in a happy place. Not at all. We tried stopping and sheltering from the wind when it got too biting, but such locations were few and far between. There are huts dotted along the trails where (more plan-conscious) people can book some floor space and sleep. After a few hours rest, they head to the summit for the sunrise. Having decided beforehand that accommodation would be a waste of money, we hadn’t done this. No, we went into a few, got chucked out of them all, and continued our fight with the elements.
As the organizer of the trip I felt awful for having put my friends through this. I tried my best to keep spirits up but it wasn’t easy. Constant checking of times and knowing how long it should take between each station was all that kept us going. I don’t think that the timings ended up being accurate in our case. Time just seemed to stretch as we forced our tired bodies onwards. We were determined to see this mountain conquered though, and we kept going. The lure of the sunrise from above the clouds pulled us on and up.
I can barely remember arriving at the top. We hadn’t left the clouds and so everything remained damp and misty. People were trying to shelter in the temple at the top, the small shokudo-type establishment that was offering ramen and hot drinks, and in the wind shadows of said buildings if they could. We went inside for some of the time, but as more people arrived and it became progressively more packed, we headed back out and huddled together for warmth by one of the buildings.
By this time, our hopes of seeing the sunrise, as you may have surmised, had been dashed. We hadn’t come through the clouds as we’d been hoping, and despite the wind, they were not dispersing. ‘Sunrise’ was a lightening of the grey around us. Not spectacular, not breathtaking, just really, really depressing.
And down again
Things didn’t even improve on the way down. We hadn’t managed to meet up with our friends and weren’t even sure if they would have made it to the top. Intending to go down the ‘fun’ Gotemba trail, we gave up on that idea when the wind refused to let us get to the trailhead. Instead we went down the way we’d come up. I’d heard about queues of people on the mountain and had thought it was an exaggeration. Apparently not. It felt like it took nearly as long to get down as it had taken to go up…
But when we finally arrived back at the 5th station, it was to find our abandoned companions waiting for us. They’d made it up to the top, apparently having passed us at some point (probably when we were briefly hiding inside somewhere). They’d also managed to take the Gotemba trail down, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
We had planned to go to Yokohama together for the day, but that was completely out of the question by this point. All I wanted was a bed, and my other Kansai friend was of the same mindset. So with muscles aching and eyes barely able to stay open, we went our separate ways. I’m pretty certain I slept the entire way back.
An Experience – that’s for sure
Now we weren’t that well prepared, and no doubt the climb would have been better if we had been. That said, the gravel would still have been there. The clouds, the wind, the rain, the crowds would still have been there. Better equipment wouldn’t have made the sunrise more than a creeping lightening of the fog. We would probably have been warmer, maybe a little drier (and therefore happier), but we wouldn’t have had the Fuji experience that I, and I would assume most people, crave. I grimace when someone tells me about their Fuji plans. I don’t want to, but I can’t help myself. I know people who have had the perfect Fuji trip – I know it does happen! But I cannot in good conscience say that I don’t regret doing it. As one of my teachers said to me before I ventured forth, “Fuji is a fantastic mountain to look at, but others are much, much better to climb.”
For those of you NOT put off by this, there’s plenty of information out there on how to do the climb properly. I’m not going to give any links because I don’t want to encourage you.