Our schools were closed yesterday and Richard took a yukyu (personal leave day) on Wednesday, which was already my regular day off. That gave us another two day break together which we used to climb Japan’s highest and most famous mountain. Most of the pictures that you see of Mt. Fuji are taken during the winter when it’s covered with snow and truly majestic looking. During the official climbing season, which lasts from July 1 to August 31, there are only small patches of snow. Even so, it’s a challenging climb.
From base to summit, the mountain is divided into 10 stations. These days all but the most die hard climbers start their ascent at one of the four 5th stations which can be reached by road. We arrived at the Kawaguchiko 5th station on the north side of Fuji by bus from Tokyo early Wednesday evening. Traditionally, Fuji is climbed at night. The climber’s goal is to reach the summit at dawn both to see the sunrise from the top and because the views are best early in the morning when the mountain is less likely to be shrouded in clouds. Climbing a mountain in the dark may seem a very strange thing to do but for me, it was perfect. Because all I could see was the part of the mountain that was illuminated by my flashlight, my fear of heights didn’t kick in and dampen my enthusiasm. Had I been able to look down and see what was below me, I’m not sure I could have done it! Instead, I was able to enjoy the stars overhead and when the full moon peaked over the edge of the mountain, I was thrilled.
Mt. Fuji rises 3776 meters (12 388 feet) above sea level. Kawaguchiko 5th station is located just below the tree line at an elevation of 2305 meters. From there, the climb seemed to be made up of three sections. The first was much like a steep but wide gravel driveway switchbacking up the hillside. Next came the serious climbing looking for the best footholds as we made our way up the rock. The route was very clearly marked. In fact, most of the way, it was chained off on both sides so that it would have been very difficult to stray too far in the wrong direction. The last part of the climb was mostly a loose gravel pathway again switchbacking back and forth. Lots of slipping back made upward progress slow.
Timing is important because you don’t want to reach the mountaintop much before sunrise as it’s usually very cold and windy. Even at this time of year, the temperature hovers around the freezing point at night. As on any mountain, the weather can be very changeable so it’s important to be well prepared. Though we had rain capes with us, we were fortunate not to need them. We took plenty of layers of clothing though and were happy to have them when we reached the top. The latter half of the climb was done in a pretty stiff wind. It didn’t bother us too much while we were climbing but we got chilly very quickly when we stopped to rest. The mountain is also high enough for altitude sickness to be a problem. We knew that cans of oxygen were available at the various huts scattered up the mountainside so we didn’t take any with us. Though we did see several people sucking back on oxygen, we decided that the best way to combat the effects of altitude was probably to give ourselves lots of time and to rest often along the way. That seemed to work well. We definitely noticed the shortness of breath as our elevation increased and at one point near the top, I had to stop for a few minutes when I noticed that my heart was racing.
We actually left the 5th station and began our climb earlier than we had originally planned. My research told me that there are several restaurants at the 5th station so we had planned on having a good supper before beginning our ascent. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that the restaurants were all closed! We were carrying food but didn’t want to break into it just yet so we set off right away and climbed to the first hut where we were able to purchase noodles, chocolate bars and pop. Perhaps not the most nutritious supper but we rationalized that the sugar would give us the energy we needed for climbing!
The climb was definitely more strenuous than we had anticipated after reading in our Lonely Planet guidebook that children and grandparents regularly reach the summit. We would probably have found it considerably easier 25 or 30 years ago! It was fortunate that we started climbing earlier than we had originally planned as Richard’s right hip began to hurt early in the climb and he had to take it pretty slow. With dogged determination, he just kept on going though. He wore his knee brace, of course, and his bad knee didn’t bother him at all. I must admit that about three quarters of the way into the climb, I could feel myself wearing out and I did begin to wonder if we’d make it but on we went.
When you’ve gone without hours of sleep and expended a great deal more energy than usual, your mind starts doing strange things. About 2 o’clock in the morning, as I stopped to wait for Richard as he plodded up the path behind me, I began to wonder what would happen if he had a heart attack on the mountainside! It was shortly after that that my own heart started racing so I guess it wasn’t him I should have been worrying about!
Climbing midweek early in the season, the mountain wasn’t overly crowded but we were never alone. Many languages and nationalities were represented amongst the climbers and regardless of whether or not we could understand one another, a sense of camaraderie quickly developed as we passed and greeted one another along the way. We did much of the climb with Blue who is stationed in Okinawa with the American military. We met him on the bus from Tokyo.
We reached the edge of the mountaintop crater just a while before the sky began to lighten and watched the lights of those on the path below us snaking toward the top. Sitting with so many others who had just made the same trek and watching the sun rise above the clouds far below us was absolutely amazing! As soon as the sun was fully up, someone came out of one of the huts and made a loud announcement, in Japanese, of course. I’m assuming that he was greeting the sun. I only recognized subarashi (wonderful, beautiful) and Ohayo gozaimasu (Good morning) which became a cheer rising from all of us, Japanese and non Japanese alike. It is a beautiful memory that will stay with me for a long time.
The actual summit or highest point of the mountain was located on the far side of the crater. Reaching it would have involved another hour of hiking before beginning our descent. We knew that our bodies didn’t have that in them, so like most others, we chose not to take that final step. It was only a few meters higher than the spot where we were standing and we had seen what we came to see.
When you’ve climbed to the top of a mountain, you’ve made a very serious commitment. Regardless of how tired and sore you are, you have to climb down again! For most of the way, there is a separate trail for descending Fuji. While it looks much easier, I’m not sure that it is. For me, the first challenge was overcoming my fear of heights. For most of the way, we descended on a wide gravel pathway. In my head, I knew that there was no way that I could fall off the mountainside from such a trail but the fear riding on my shoulder didn’t listen to reason and for the first while I was unable to enjoy the splendor laid out before us as the morning cloud cover burned off. After awhile though, I was able to shake it off and enjoy the sight. The descending trail was made up of a loose red gravel that reminded me of popcorn. It was very slippery and steep enough that keeping your footing and not landing on your behind was at times difficult. We found descending hard on the knees and I also began to experience cramping in my thigh muscles. It was also very dusty. Our eyes were pretty sore last night both from the lack of sleep and the grime. In spite of these difficulties, the descent still took less than half the time that the climb had taken.
When we got home, we cleaned up and walked over to our local hospital just a few blocks away. Fortunately, our visit had nothing to do with the climb nor was either one of us sick or injured. Before leaving Canada, we decided to have the immunizations that are recommended before traveling to some of the Asian countries that we hope to visit while we’re on this side of the globe. In Canada, the hepatitis A and B vaccine is given in three doses. We were able to have the first two before leaving the country but the third is given several months later so we planned to have it here. We’ve learned, however, that Japan only gives two doses. The doctor here decided to check our blood for the antibodies then decide whether or not we need more of the vaccine so we went to the hospital yesterday for the blood tests.
After supper at a nearby restaurant that we’ve been wanting to try, we fell into bed earlier than usual last night and both enjoyed a long, deep sleep. In spite of somewhat stiff and achy leg muscles and joints, we’re upright and walking fairly normally today and are definitely enjoying the fact that we’ve accomplished yet another long term goal!