I survived Mt. Fuji….!
As a person of Japanese descent, I felt it was my obligation to make the pilgrimage to the top of Japan’s highest mountain. Not really–I just wanted bragging rights, and I’ve heard it’s a pretty doable feat (many of my students said they climbed it when they were 10 years old). It also seemed like a fitting way to end my time in Shizuoka Prefecture and Japan.
The most popular route is to take a bus to the 5th station and begin the ascent from there. Perhaps this is cheating, but oh well. I also decided to take the highly unrecommended (but highly popular) so-called ‘bullet-climbing’ option: you hike overnight in the dark to reach the summit in time to watch the sunrise.
The ascent started off horribly for me. It was a lot harder than I had envisioned. Some people I’ve talked to said that it was basically just a hike, but that is a terribly inaccurate description. This was not just a simple hike. The path up the mountain is a trail through volcanic ash/rocks. It took a lot of effort to get through the trails without sliding or sinking in the sand/rocks. I would not have made it all the way up without my (overpriced) walking stick that I bought at the 5th station. For most of the way, I was hanging on to the ropes/poles that line the trail to help pull myself up.
I also falsely imagined the mountain huts (stations) to be adequately equipped with places to sit, get warm, or get food. There’s a reason you have to pay upwards of 5,000 yen ($50) to stay in a hut. It’s because they basically shut down at night. There’s light, but there’s no real store or restaurant open at nighttime. You can attempt to buy some (again, highly overpriced) items from a night worker, but you can’t stay inside for long without being shooed out. The only places to sit are the few benches available–most of them on the side where you aren’t shielded from the strong, chilly winds.
Several sites I read recommended bringing your own instant ramen so you don’t end up paying the high costs of the mountain huts’ instant ramen. Following that advice, I packed two big bowls of instant hot ramen and udon, assuming that the huts would have hot water available. This ended up being the biggest mistake I made. There was no hot water available for purchase at the huts–which meant I went hungry and wasted precious space in my backpack. There are also no trash cans, so you have to take everything you brought back with you, meaning I was stuck with the stupid noodles mocking me every step of the way. I guess I could have attempted to eat the dehydrated noodles, but luckily, I never reached that point of starvation.
We started from the 5th station around 7:00 pm and got to the 9th station by 11:30 pm. I read that the trek from the 8th station to the summit can take the longest only because you could be waiting in a long line going up the trail. We decided to try and sleep for a couple hours and head to the summit at 1:30 am. Sleeping was impossible at the hut. It gets super cold when you’re not crawling up a trail and the rain spitting on your face adds to the coldness. Not to mention, people aren’t quiet when they reach a mountain hut.
The climb from the 9th station to the summit was the easiest part for me. There was a long line to the top, but it was moving at a good, easy pace. It was definitely incredible to see the trail of lights up and down the mountain. Gileseyboy, on the other hand, was having quite a rough time. The altitude got to him, and he was really struggling to breathe. You can buy cans of oxygen at the stations, but we foolishly avoided paying 1,500 yen ($15) several huts down (the cost of items only go up as you get higher) when we had the chance. We only had about 200 meters to go (which is a lot farther than you think when you’re climbing a mountain) when he had to drop out of line to sit down. He was on the brink of passing out. It was impossible for me to carry him, and the only choice was to make the long trek back down, or keep going up to the summit. Luckily, there were some other people who were struggling and dropped out of line, and one woman nearby was using her oxygen tank. I climbed up to her and offered her money in exchange for her to let Giles use her oxygen. She, in a very Japanese manner, tried to refuse the money and handed me the can. I managed to shove several 100 yen coins in her hand and then got the can to Giles so he could take a few puffs. I wish I had a chance to thank the woman properly in the light now. I wouldn’t have known what to do if I didn’t hear her using her tank.
All seriousness aside, Giles recovered after the oxygen and was able to continue on. However, since we had to stop for quite a while until his recovery, my bladder had ample time to fill up. At about 150 meters left in the trail, I was getting desperate. At this point, the line wasn’t moving fast enough for me to make it to the top without an….shall we say, accident. I finally had to make the decision to break away from the trail and take care of business behind a volcanic rock. Being female has its difficulties sometimes. I hope Japan enjoyed a view of the full moon (!) at Mt. Fuji. And I hope Fuji-san enjoyed my little gift back to nature.
We made it to the summit around 3:15 am. Sunrise was at 4:39, so we had to wait quite a bit in the cold. It was a good thing I didn’t try to climb up to the summit earlier to buy oxygen and go back down. We found out the store at the summit doesn’t open until 5:00 am.
The views at the top were breathtaking (quite possibly because of the lack of air, har har). It was a bit cloudy for the sunrise, but the lighting on the rest of Japan below was indescribable and I couldn’t do the actual sights justice with my photographs.
We almost blew off the top of Mt. Fuji several times. I’ve never experienced winds that strong–strong enough to knock me down. It was incredibly scary trying to take pictures.
After taking pictures, eating over-priced ramen (I’m still very angry that the huts refuse to sell you hot water and you’re basically forced to buy their instant noodles. Giles even happened to bring the exact same noodles the huts were selling), making phone calls to family (yes, you can get cell reception up there), and sending a few postcards (yes, there’s a post office at the summit!), we started our journey back down Fuji-san. Little did I know, this would be the major testing period for me.
Descending a few stations, the euphoria of reaching the top was still there. I was being friendly and greeting people along the way, chatting with some kids who were also making their way down. But then the sleep deprivation, tired muscles and hunger started to set in. Definitely not ideal conditions for going down. The climb down from the 9th station was the worst. I was slipping every tenth step on the dry sand and rocks and every mountain hut seemed to be getting farther and farther away.
By the 7.5th station (the new 7th station), I wanted to give up. I just wanted to sleep forever.
We somehow made it back to the 5th station (not without me cursing and complaining the whole way down) and discovered we had been sunburned during the descent. The journey wasn’t over: we still had a two-hour bus ride down the mountain, plus a two-hour train ride back to Hamamatsu.
I haven’t been this sore since I went wakeboarding for the first time a few years back (yes, life is just so difficult). I can’t even move in bed without crying out in pain (wah).
So was all this worth the bragging rights and the snapshots I got at the top? I’m not so sure. We were lucky to only have a relatively dry climb versus the typical, extremely wet climb. It did feel worth it when I was experiencing the few moments of glory at the summit. But altogether, it was not a pleasant experience, and I never want to climb another mountain in my life (especially one that charges so much for every basic commodity–including using restrooms). I’m just glad it’s over and hope that I gained whatever positive reward you’re supposed to get when you summit a mountain.