As the grand finale to our whirlwind tour of (some of) Japan, Brooke and I decided to scale the highest mountain in the country – Mt. Fuji – also called Fuji-san here in Japan. Though it is possible to hike up the whole mountain, it is not advisable and I am extremely glad that we didn’t try to do it. Most people, Brooke and I included, start hiking from a point called the 5th station, which is roughly halfway up the mountain. You take the bus up to that point, do a little shopping for last minute supplies, get acclimated to the elevation, and pick up a wooden hiking staff which you can get branded by each of the mountain huts on the way up. It makes for a unique souvenir.
At around 5:30 in the afternoon, Brooke and I finally headed up the hill. The first hour or so was a tiring due to the incline, but nothing unmanageable. We stopped frequently to rest, drink water, and take scenic photos of the mountain trails from the decks of the various rest huts. Then, shortly before sundown, the terrain changed on us quite a bit. Instead of some graded steps and a sandy uphill with small stones, the trail became mainly large rocks that had to be clambered over using your staff and well placed chains to hoist yourself up. Climbing after dark wasn’t all that bad. The terrain is so rough that you really can only tackle what is immediately in front of you, and wearing the recommended head lamp makes that nearly as doable as in the daytime. As night fell and we headed higher, more rest stops were required. To dig out sweatshirts, beanies, or a jacket; to pay 200 yen to use a ripe smelling hole-in-the ground style toilet; to take pictures of people in their funny headlamps. Probably we spent the bulk of our time not climbing, but rather taking off our backpacks, taking everything out while rummaging around, and then trying to re-situate them to get going again. Backpacks are a wonderful invention, and they make carrying lots of stuff so much easier, but they are not great when it comes to accessibility. In a perfect world, Brooke and I should probably have each carried the other person’s belongings. That way, you can just get behind your companion and reach in to the other person’s bag to get what you need – no removal necessary.
Earlier I said that the hut offers “a place to sleep,” but “a place to sort of lay there uncomfortably and listen to other people snore/moan/rustle around/talk in their sleep while trying not to turn in such a way that you are face to face with the stranger sleeping next to you” is a more accurate description, I think. After dinner, we were shown up to a sort of attic area where there were at least 40-50 people laying side by side along the walls of the room, each fully clothed (or at least I would hope so) and snuggled under a blanket with a thin pillow under their heads, and various backpacks and hiking gear hanging from ceiling hooks above them. We lay there sort of in and out of a light nap for a couple of hours, until one of the hut staff members came and woke us all up at 1am so that we would have enough time to reach the summit before sunrise.
Even with this suuuuper early morning (nay, previous night) wake up call, we still didn’t quite make it to the top in time. The mountain was capital ‘C’ CROWDED! There were so many people that bottlenecks were very frequent and we often found ourselves shuffling only a step or two, and then waiting for several minutes to be able to take another step forward. It was like being on a train at rush hour, except you are actually outside, and instead of holding a hand strap and trying to keep from falling out of the doors of the car, you are within a rope-bordered trail trying not to fall off the side of a mountain. Oh, and you are wearing a silly looking head lamp. Around 4:30, we began to see the faintest streaks of color splitting across the night sky. At the rate we were going, it would have taken another solid hour to make it the remaining 300 meters or so to the actual summit, so Brooke and I found a nice rock to sit on by the side of the trail and watched the sun rise from there.
It was amazing. We had such great weather. No rain, a full moon at night to climb by, and very low clouds so that we could see the sun rise up over them from the top of the mountain.
After the show, we continued up to the top, where we were met with a virtual circus. Though you may have done something physically challenging that not many people do, you can bet that someone else has gotten there ahead of you to sell you a memento of your journey when you arrive. And to charge you 300 yen to use a stinky bathroom. (It DID at least have western style toilets this time, but really, you’re still in a foul-smelling shack on the top of a mountain, who’s going to sit down?). We roamed around the top for a bit, admired the crater, enjoyed a boiling hot green tea, and got our “top of the mountain” brands put on our wooden climbing staffs. Then we took some scenic pictures and checked out the crowd.
Down in the city, the Japanese people are an ocean of neutrals. You see nothing but black suits, white shirts, and cream colored dresses. You may on occasion see dark navies and browns, or pastels sprinkled in. But here on the mountain, the Japanese come to hike decked out in rainbow colored finery. Everyone seems to be wearing the latest hiking gear – crisp and brightly hued, as though the tags just came off that morning. There are people in lime colored matching rain/wind suits that are coordinated with their chartreuse hiking boots and hat. I’ve seen hot pink hiking boots. Baby blue ones. Purple even. On guys as well as girls. Almost always with matching or coordinated jackets, backpacks, rain guards, hats and wind suits. It’s incredible. The people up here look like walking pieces of candy. The foreigners, of course, are a little less vibrant, and often looking much less like we went shopping yesterday especially for this hike. And, you can count on the white American male to be the only one wearing only cargo shorts and a t-shirt with no tights or wind pants in the 40-something degree weather.
Conversely, there were several people from a variety of backgrounds who seemed not to have done any preparations for the hike at all, as if they felt hiking up the biggest mountain in Japan was “no biggie.” We saw several people in jeans and street clothes. Many wearing retro Nikes or other types of sneakers that are generally for looks rather than performance. We spotted one presumably European girl near the summit was wearing hi-top Converse. I honestly don’t know how she made it so far with so little traction. But clearly she hated those shoes and never wanted to wear them again, because they were going to be destroyed by the mountain. In addition to interesting style choices, this was an unusual hike in terms of behavior as well. At several of the huts on the way up, we were amused to see people talking on their cell phones. You cannot make a call from parts of one of the busiest freeways in LA, yet you apparently CAN have a conversation from 3,776 meters in the sky. AT&T, I hope you are taking notes.
Also, this is the first hike I have ever been on where people could actually be seen taking naps at many points along the trail. There were sunbathers at the top, stretched out in their wind-suits like high-elevation beach-goers, but then at the corners of many of the switchbacks going down the mountain there were people not only sitting or resting, but actually curled up on the ground and sleeping. I was tempted to make some generalization about the incredible ease with which Japanese sleep in public (it’s a very common sight on the trains, for instance), but I do realize that this is the only hike I’ve ever been on where people actually hiked not only all day, but overnight, and were up with the sun as well. It’s pretty hard to draw any scientific conclusions from a sample that includes only one event.
Getting down the mountain was by far the worst part of the whole ordeal. Yes, climbing up was hard, and climbing at night was hard and cold, and I only got 2 hours of poor, interrupted sleep, and there was way too much traffic on the trails, yada, yada, yada…BUT, all of that was part of the challenge of making it to the top and seeing the sunrise. Going down was just awful for no real reason, and there was no glory to be achieved – just the bare necessity of having no choice but to do it. The trail to go down was not nearly so steep or rocky as the way up, but it was still way too steep to go down comfortably. The trail was composed of loose volcanic soil and pebbles, so you are sort of leaned back, half shuffling, half jogging to keep yourself from full-on sliding down the mountain. It is brutal on your knees. By hour 2 my joints had had it, but we still had another 3-4 hours to go. Then, of course, we had a hot, humid, sweaty, dusty, hadn’t-showered-in-the-last-24-hours, 4 hour long, bus and train trip to get back to my apartment. Upon arriving home, we took off all our filthy things in the hallway, showered, and didn’t leave my place for the next day and a half.
Pictures in the next post!