Mount Fuji

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Between the clouds, on Mount Fuji

I climbed Mount Fuji!  It was fun.  It was hard.  It was difficult.  It was exhausting.  And it was awesome.  Prior to coming to Japan I would not have believed it was possible for me.   I am not an overly athletic person but living in this beautiful country has made me more fond of outdoor sports and activities.  After several successful hiking trips, including multiple long-term hikes, I decided to set a goal to conquer Fuji-san.    The trip took several months of planning including acquiring the appropriate gear, international shipping, and regular cardio.  By the end of May the plans were set, two terrific friends were committed, and we set out on the adventure together.

Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain.   At 3,776 meters tall, it’s actually quite a small mountain in comparison to other famous alpine peaks.  Fuji-san is also an active volcano, although the most recent eruptions occurred more than 300 years ago.  The mountain top is covered in snow for most of the year, so the official hiking season is limited to July and August.  It’s a short time frame which overlaps with school vacation.   I’ve heard that the trails get very crowded and there are even stories of people waiting in line to reach the summit.  The mountain has four main trails which are maintained by park rangers.  The trails range in difficulty, total time, terrain, and incline.

We chose to hike up the Yoshida Trail, the easiest and also longest trail up the west side of the mountain in Yamanashi-ken (Fuji-san straddles two prefectures, Yamanashi and Shizuoka).  The Yoshida Trail is the most popular and also has the largest number of mountain huts.  These huts are fairly simple structures built along the path where hikers can pause during their journey, grab a hot bowl of soup, use the restroom, and in some cases snooze on a futon for a few hours.  We booked three futons at Ganso-muro, the sixth hut from the summit.

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The beginning!

The plan was to begin hiking from the Fifth Station of the Yoshida Trail around noon.  We would reach our mountain hut before sundown.  At the hut we would eat dinner and hopefully catch a few hours sleep before resuming our hike to the summit around midnight.  If all went well, we would reach the top of Mount Fuji just as the sun was rising.  Fuji-san has nine stations (nine is the summit) and a random 8.5 station just before the top.

We set off from the Fuji Subaru Line 5th station around noon after a simple lunch of udon soup. This station is the most popular starting point for the ascent, located at 2,305 meters above sea level.  We took a bus from Tokyo to the station early in the morning, arriving around 10 am.  We purposely hung around for two hours to acclimate ourselves to the altitude.  Altitude sickness is one of the biggest threats for hikers.  High altitude was a new experience for me.  I was shocked at how lightheaded I felt just getting off the bus.  The air was definitely thinner and also clearer.  Thankfully, the change in altitude also meant a change in climate.  Gone was the oppressive heat and humidity of Japanese summer.  It was fun to wander through the quaint mountain-lodge style buildings built around a small square.  The atmosphere was exciting with lots of hikers in bright colored clothing getting ready for a crazy adventure.

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Getting my hiking stick stamped

Before starting off, I purchased a hiking stick, a tall octagonal pole with a ribbon and a bear bell. The tradition is to brand the stick at the different stations as you scale the mountain. Each mountain hut has a brand that they will burn into the hiking stick. The hiking stick was a very useful purchase and it was fun to slowly decorate the stick with brands throughout the hike, a visual representation of the ground I covered.

The trail started out pleasantly.  The path was wide and lined with trees and alpine flowers.  The crowd was fairly light and the terrain was mostly smooth.  We reached the sixth station much sooner than expected.  There was nothing remarkable at this site beyond a few smelly toilets.  I do remembering being surprised at how quickly my breathing changed.  Even very slight inclines required much more labored breathing, due to the altitude.

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It’s a long way up

The stretch from the 6th station to the 7th station was also unremarkable.  The trees thinned out and then disappeared leaving a rocky, barren brown trail with a cloudy, obscured view in the distance.  To be honest, up-close and personal, Fuji-san is not pretty.  There were parts of the trail where the incline increased sharply and random large boulders in various shades of mud sat precariously on the sloped ground.  It reminded me of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.

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Close up of the ground on Fuji-san

We continued on to the seventh station.  At this point, the mountain huts appeared. These buildings all sold the same snacks – crackers, instant ramen, and for whatever reason Snickers bars – with increasing prices. The bathrooms were a bit dismal. Understandably, Fuji-san uses composting toilets. Unfortunately, toilet paper is not provided and, when used, has to be thrown into a cardboard box in the corner of the stall. What’s more, hikers are expected to pay the equivalent of $2 to use the toilets, on the honor system. Since this is Japan, everyone pays.

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Hard to believe that I’m not taking this picture from the window of a plane!
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Hiking above the clouds

Despite the facilities, our hike got more interesting as we broke through the cloud cover. It was absolutely incredible. I remember looking below me, seeing the switchback trails I had just climbed, and watching a cloud pass slowly through my vision. The higher we got, the thicker the clouds became. I could still see clouds above as well, making it seem like I was sandwiched in between two halves of never ending, fluffy mist with layers of clear blue sky shining through.  At certain angles, I could look down and see the hats of other hikers poking through the clouds, while looking up provided the same view as lying on the grass on a sunny day.

At one of the mountain huts we paused for a break and watched as a group of monks, clad in traditional attire with the occasional winter hat or scarf, gathered themselves to continue their ascent. Their bright colored robes and traditional chanting loomed ahead of us for the rest of the climb until we reached our mountain hut.

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The sleeping quarters in our mountain hut

The rest at the mountain hut was pretty fitful. We paid for three sleeping bags on the floor of a giant room, along with fifty other people. It was impossible to move without touching the person next to me, whom I did not know. Everyone was uncomfortable together. Despite the discomfort, I did pop outside for a bit to see the sunset. The colors and the sheer expanse of the sky were gorgeous. It was a peaceful moment to end the first leg of our hike. The hut keepers shut the lights off around 8 pm. We all tossed and turned for three hours or so before getting up slowly and readying ourselves for the last leg of our ascent in complete darkness.

The monks led the way and their chanting and soothing rhythmic sounds, including a conch shell, added an extra layer to the otherworldly experience. This part of the climb was the most difficult, not because of terrain or lack of light but because I was so exhausted and had not slept for nearly twenty-four hours. As the sky began to lighten we pulled off the path, just below the summit and perched on a rock to wait for the sun. The other hikers were quiet and the overall feeling was one of calm anticipation. Slowly but surely, the sun broke over the horizon and I witnessed one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen.

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Here comes the sun!
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There it is! Sunrise from Mount Fuji
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The sun against the side of the mountain, warming the hikers

The orange rays stretched and stretched in perfectly straight lines, unhindered by trees or buildings or hills or any other obstruction. The sun itself was a perfect sphere, slowly rising from the flat horizon. There were no clouds for the light to reflect off of and in comparison to some sunrise pictures, it might have looked rather plain. But it wasn’t, the vastness of the sky – so large and so empty that it seemed very possible for me to fall right into the giant abyss – demanded awe as I gazed out at nothing. Nothing but air and light. No smoke. No buildings. No planes. Nothing but space. And me, standing on the side of a giant barren mountain, a speck on the face of the earth.

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Land!!!! I mean – the top!

We snapped our photos, oohed and awed, then continue the last few meters to the ninth station. At the top of Fuji-san is a temple, another hut, and a few small souvenir shops. I bought a keychain and the shopkeeper carved the date into the back. Hikers can spend an hour walking around the volcano crater at the top of the mountain. We skipped this hike and spread ourselves on a bench in the sun. It was quite cold at this altitude and I was glad that I had packed winter gear, even if the extra weight was cumbersome on the mountain.

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Summit of Mount Fuji
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The monks made it!

It was a memorable moment, sitting there and looking down into a swirling pool of clouds, with nothing behind, above or beside me but more clouds. I remember being more tired than I’ve ever been and feeling quite sick at that point, mostly from lack of sleep. I would have been perfectly content to find a flat rock and pass out, if the cold was not harsh enough to keep me conscious. Still, even through the haze of sleep deprivation I felt an immense sense of accomplishment. I was on top of the world – or at least on top of Japan.

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Just going to slide down the mountain…

We enjoyed an extended rest and wandered a bit around the summit before starting our descent. Hikers on the Yoshida Trail hike up and down two separate paths, to avoid collisions and congestion. The path down was a series of never-ending switchbacks along very dusty gravel. Every step kicked up puffs of dust (by the time we reached the bottom, every inch of me was a dull shade of brown). I rather enjoyed the descent. The decline was sharp enough and the gravel was loose and granular – I skidded down the entire way, with barely any effort. Some friends have told me that going down is always harder; I was glad this wasn’t the case for me.

Once the decline leveled out, we had a flat trek back to the fifth station, which was quite far. We arrived back at our starting point around 10 am. We ate a hot lunch and spent time dozing while waiting for a bus to our hotel in Kawaguchiko.   Once we arrived at the hostel and took our showers, we dragged ourselves to an early dinner then went to bed around 7pm. I slept for more than twelve hours.  It was glorious.

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I did it!

The whole experience was very powerful, in both physical and emotional ways. Ancient Japanese people believed that Fuji-san was sacred, a god in its own right. There was definitely a presence on the mountain and a feeling of respect that seemed to hum among the human presence, like a single chord ceaselessly vibrating in the background. It was overall an individual experience, even though I hiked with friends, because I spent so much time in my own head, finding the strength and the will to finish climb and reflecting on the uniqueness of the experience.  Fuji-san was not an easy hike. It was long and it was exhausting and it definitely challenged me. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

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