Letters From Japan ~ Vol XIV ~ Mount Fuji Ascent


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

Fuji the official report...

Well, we finally made it to the summit of the venerable Mt. Fuji. It was only Shinji, myself and our friend, Chikako. We took the 7:30pm bus from Shinjuku, Tokyo which dropped us off at the so-called 5th station around 10pm at an altitude of 2200m (7200 ft). The temperature was surprisingly but refreshingly cool compared to the muggy Tokyo weather so we changed into our jackets and hiking gear.

Not wanting to go against tradition, we bought Mt. Fuji walking sticks available in the shops near the trailhead. It's simply a walking stick, maybe 2.5 inches in diameter, with little bells attached to the top. The stick is plain but people are expected to buy brands along the way at each stopping point showing the point you've reached. We also bought some oxygen in cylinders about the size of spray paint although I vowed not to use any of it.

I was kind of pissed off to find that they didn't have any garbage cans up there. Here we bought their stupid Fuji sticks and they can't even let us throw out any garbage. I should have left out my extra water bottle on the bus. This is Japan so you have to expect the unexpected such as rows of vending machines with signs nearby telling you not to throw anything out.

We started up around 10:15 at an altitude of 2000m (6560 ft). Shinji led the way to the 6th station and we arrived around 10:45 at an altitude of 2500m (8202 ft.) We had our sticks branded for Y200 each. There was a full moon and whispy clouds, the temperature was pleasantly cool with a nice breeze. We headed on up after I deposited my empty water bottle into a cardboard box next to the hut. There was no way I wanted to carry that stupid thing up the mountain and back.

We arrived to one of the 7th level huts at 11:30 at an altitude of 2700m (8860 ft). While getting our brands, some kids in the hut forced me to tell them where I was from and what I thought of Japan; it was for homework they said. I gave the usual answer, "crowded, expensive, nice people," and left it at that. After a bit of water and trail food we kept going.

A little while later, we arrived at another 7th level hut, up a ways from the first one. It was crowded so we didn't stop although I paused to take some video. I caught up with Chikako and we saw that Shinji was nowhere to be seen so we headed up, assuming he was ahead of us.

The trail started getting crowded with people going up almost single file even though the trail (very rocky and about as steep as a stairway) was a couple meters wide in most places. Wide enough to pass people when desired so it wasn't too bad. At 12:55 Chikako and I arrived at the first 8th level station at an altitude of 3100m (10170 ft).

Shinji was nowhere to be seen. I was sure he wouldn't abandon us so we thought that he must have gotten behind us somehow. While waiting we checked out the night view. We could see city lights and lightning in the distance. We could hear nothing but the sounds of nature and diesel generators. After waiting 45 minutes during which most of the crowds passed us, we determined that Shinji _did_ abandon us! So we headed on up at 1:25am.

After the 8th station is when things got tough, for me anyway. I start moving slower and by the time we hit the 8.5 mark, I was feeling less and less energetic. I started getting a headache and felt a little sick to my stomach -- pretty clear symptoms of altitude sickness. I hadn't expected to get altitude sickness since I'd had no problem in Colorado at higher altitudes. Going directly from sea level to this altitude in such a short time was probably the reason. Since we had the oxygen anyway, I threw away my pride and we both took a couple of hits. I admit I probably needed it more than Chikako. How much it actually helped is hard to say, it seemed to give temporary relief but I'm sure there was a placebo effect involved as well.

Between the 8.5 and past the 9th station, we hit a major people jam. Everybody else must have thought like us -- Thursday is a weekday and the mountain won't be crowded. Wrong!

It was quite slow going but, honestly, I was in no mood to run up the mountain anyway. You'll find this period suspiciously missing from the video tape -- I was in no mood to run around filming things either. In fact, around 2 or 3am my body was telling me things like "What the hell are you doing climbing a mountain now? You should be in bed!" I said, "Yes, I know, but it's too late now."

The sun peeked up around 4:30 am. Chikako and I were maybe 200m just below the summit at that point so we didn't really miss the view. After the sun came up, we continued our ascent finally arriving to the 3700m (12,000 ft) summit around 5:30 am. Fortunately we met right up with Shinji who'd been waiting around since 3:30am. He'd slipped up ahead of most of the traffic. So it took Shinji about 5 hours and Chikako and I about 7. Shinji was Mr. Energy. Climbing those 14 flights of NTT Data stairs a day certainly paid off.

The top was windy and cold with a wind chill definitely below freezing, not much of a problem for a person from the great white U.S. north. Plus the the bright sun helped out. We got our "choujo" (summit) stamps, had a bowl of Y800 udon, walked around a bit, unanimously decided not to hike the hour around to the true 3776m (12,388 ft) peak where the weather station is on the other side of the caldera, and headed back down.

We could see inside the caldera to the bottom maybe 200m down. It didn't look so interesting but I imagine when it was erupting just about a century ago, it was a different story. On the sides in the caldera were dirty snow fields, the only snow we saw on the mountain.

At 7:00 am we started down. We took the gravel slide route and made it down to 2300m (7550 ft) in about 3 hours. The weather held up, partly cloudy but entirely sunny where we were even though fluffy clouds were hanging around nearby. The route we took was okay going down but going up would have been a killer because for every step you took up, your feet would probably slide back halfway. During the daytime we could see the mountain up close. It was quite barren but really not ugly in my opinion, although I'd heard differently. The ground was covered with volcanic rock, gravel and dust, -- pumice I think -- all of which was either charcoal black or a rusty red. The wind and our steps kicked up Fuji dust, reminding me a little of Utah. It was no problem except a bit painful to the eyes and I got worried about my camera so I put it away in my pack when I wasn't using it.

We finally got down to the parking lot and hopped on the next bus to Gotemba. We secured accommodations and took a taxi to a nearby onsen (hot spring) to get cleaned up. They had a room for resting there and many other people had crashed on the tatami mat floor even though it was only around noon. I assumed they were late night hikers too. I felt the same way. After a couple hours there, we went back to town, ate some dinner and took another taxi to our ryokan. It was the cheapest accommodation we could find at Y7,500 ($80) per person. Even the YMCA cost more. It was nice, though, I was too tired to care much. They called it a "business hotel" which explained the porno movies provided free of charge next to the coin-operated vcr.

The next morning was Saturday. We woke to a great day and were sure glad we didn't have to work that day or the next either. We rode the Odakyu Romance Car back to Shinjuku, my first trip in one. It's just about as nice as the shinkansen (bullet train) but isn't as fast and operates as an express on the regular tracks. We made it back to Shinjuku in only about two hours and called it a wrap.

All in all a good trip and worth the effort because now we can all say we're in the Fuji Stud Club.

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: August 25, 1995
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005