Aug 27th, 2000, 7pm
Preparing and climbing
It’s about 7pm and I’ve just gotten out of bed. I was up all night and morning climbing Mt. Fuji – Japan’s highest and most symbolic peak. Got home about 2pm feeling tired, my a little sore and smelling pretty awful. The evening began with a bus ride from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko Station, a quick transfer, then another bus up to climbing station No. 5 at around 2300 meters, which is a common starting point for novices and tourists. More experienced hikers often start their ascent from station No. 1 at about 1400m.
On exiting the bus, I came across quite a large information center including a store selling hiking and mountaineering supplies. I picked up plenty of water, a hiking stick complete with bells, and a headband night light and set off dead on 10pm. At first, the climb itself was far from eventful. Hiking alone isn’t recommended in most guide books, but here it was no hindrance. On the lower, wider trails, there was plenty of space to step off course to take a break, stopping to drink, eat or take photos. Then just after station No.7 I met some other young teachers from a NOVA in Ginza. They asked me to join their group, and I obliged.
Ascending higher, we came across slower traffic as the trails narrowed. As climbing Mt. Fuji is not so difficult as it is long, the journey is suitable for any level (and age) of mountaineering enthusiast. That said, finding senior citizens hiking alongside their children and young grandchildren on family pilgrimages was certainly surprising. Near station number 9 I got a little headache, but it passed after a short break and some rehydration.
Reaching the summit
The last section was extremely slow-going, both narrow and steep. A few hundred meters from the peak, I turned and saw a snake-shaped pattern of torch lights which resembled a sidewinder slithering down a Saharan sandhill. Only then did I realize how many people, Japanese and foreign, undertake this challenge each summer night. And unfortunately, how many of them don’t reach the top before sunrise.
On arriving at the summit just after 4:15am, I changed out of my sweaty clothes (taking spare clothes is a must), took on some fluids and had some chocolate as we waited for the sun to appear. In all honesty, it’s not a true sunrise given the altitude of the surrounding areas and the blanket of cloud that hovered in the sky at about 3000 meters. However, as it slowly rose through the cloud, a kaleidoscope of colors appeared unlike any I had ever seen. Despite the sound of the odd camera shutter, it was a tranquil, surreal moment.
It’s easy to feel a sense of accomplishment, completion and deepened spirituality. Surprisingly, a lot of Japanese climbers, old and young alike, picked up their packs and headed for the exits. We, on the other hand, decided to hang around a little longer. We had a bowl of hot ramen, and mailed some postcards from Japan’s highest postbox. I highly recommend the ramen, but neither for the taste nor the price. It is the best way to warm up and replenish your tired body. It wasn’t exactly freezing at the top, but you can’t be too careful at about 5°C. The postcards, which include a special postage stamp, are just a gimmick. But when in Rome… .
Taking a peek and a tough descent
After a short respite, a few of us circumnavigated the crown of the volcano, including a stop at the highest point of 3,776 meters. It took just over an hour and was both breathtaking and terrifying. The shades of rock were so beautiful and varied, colors you could only imagine. The views of the heavens both during the night and after sunrise were amazing. All in all, mother nature had revealed her truly tremendous powers to us.
“Tough” is the surely the best way to describe the descent. The downward trails were similarly steep, loose-rocked and dusty as the upward ones yet much more difficult to navigate. Some adrenalin junkies practically ran down, while others like me took it steady, patiently finding the most solid-looking course. I had a couple of minor slips, probably caused mostly by exhaustion or poor balance. When I arrived at station no. 5, I jumped on the first bus to Shinjuku I could find and shut my eyes. Hope I didn’t snore.
Finally, and apologies for the negativity. The little bells attached to the climbing poles or sticks were so annoying. I can understand they might help to warn off an aggressive Japanese macaque or even a brown bear in a forest. But when hiking up a sacred mountain with little vegetation above 2,500 meters and expecting some peace and tranquility – no thanks. Mine drove me crazy in only 20 minutes, so I ripped them off. On a more positive note, let me leave with this. Climbing Mt. Fuji was well worth the ensuing leg pain, the minor bout of altitude sickness, the sweat, and the tiredness, and then some.
(C) Paul Johnson and Johnson English Service – 2021