When we arrived back home two days later, every muscle in our body ached, our feet had blisters, and our toes were bruised, but it was all worth the adventure of climbing Japan’s most sacred mountain. We had pushed ourselves until we finally made it to the summit.
Why did we do it? It wasn’t just “because it was there,” as the famous saying goes. It was much more than that; to us it presented an exciting chance to experience Japan in a more personal, active way.
‘Fuji-san’ is so revered in Japan, and is well known to those overseas studying Japanese and/or about Japan. It’s a kind of pilgrimage for those interested in Japan, Japanese culture or even Japanese history. Yet most people only go so far as to buy a postcard, or see it with their own eyes from a distance. We wanted to touch it and feel it, and climb it.
It’s been there for thousands of years and is currently a dormant volcano, last erupting in 1707, when it covered the streets of Tokyo in volcanic ash. My wife and I first read about Fuji-san when we were just friends studying Japanese together at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, in Australia.
We never thought then that we’d ever actually set foot on its sacred slopes, but we talked about seeing it with our own eyes during a trip to Japan. Four years later, we lived and worked in the small town of Ohito, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Fuji-san was relatively close to our town, and every morning we would get up and sit on our front doorstep with a cup of coffee in hand, and stare out at its majestic snow-covered slopes, always entranced by how it dominated the surrounding landscape.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Fuji-san, it is 3,776 meters high (12,389 feet), with a circular base and a typical volcanic cone shape; the gradient of the mountain slope is about forty-five degrees. It is an enormous, regal-looking mountain that can be seen over one hundred kilometers away in Tokyo on a fine, clear day.
We returned to Australia in 1994, but after living in that small town and gazing at Mt Fuji on a daily basis for six months, the idea of returning to Japan and climbing its iconic mountain began to grow deep inside of us. We just couldn’t let it go. There were other goals that we still wanted to achieve in Japan as well, such as seeing a Sumo tournament (live), going to a baseball game, participating in a traditional tea ceremony, and so on.
Hence, four years later, we flew back to Japan, with a list of goals to accomplish, the first and foremost being to climb to the top of Fuji-san. However, it turned out to be the final and most challenging goal of them all, and also the most rewarding.
For amateurs, it is only safe to climb Fuji-san in the summer months of July and August, although experienced mountaineers can get permission to climb it anytime in the year, although obviously it is exceedingly dangerous in winter due to the ice, wind and snow.
The day we had chosen was August 12, a Thursday, never stopping to think that we would be making our final ascent to the summit on the morning of Friday 13th! Once we realized this, we couldn’t change it, as we had already organized those ‘days off’ from our jobs with our company bosses. Normally we’re not superstitious, but when you set off to climb a mountain, you want to make sure that everything is in your favor.
For the three months prior to climbing Mt Fuji, we went to the city gym two nights a week and trained, focusing mainly on fitness and aerobic strength. It was something that we both really needed to do, especially me. I was very happy with the progress I made. I even gave up beer for the week leading up to our climb, which was a challenge in itself.
Suddenly it was the night before the climb, and we were extremely excited. All our bags were packed and ready to go. Mandy and I joked around, singing ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from the musical, “Sound of Music”. We almost couldn’t sleep that night, but we are very glad that we finally managed to do so. As it turned out, we needed every bit of energy we could muster.
We got up at 5:30 am the next morning, had a cooked breakfast, showered, got dressed and caught the local train into Gifu city. At Gifu station, we transferred to another train that took us to Nagoya city, arriving there at 7:30 am. In Nagoya, we met our friend, Kyoko, and the three of us enjoyed a cup of coffee at a city café, before walking to the bus station. We were all very excited as we took our seats on the bus.
It was a four-hour ride on the bus from Nagoya city to the pretty little town of Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi). There are half a dozen routes up Fuji-san, but we decided on the Kawaguchi route, as it was the most accessible from Nagoya city. Once we were out of Nagoya city, the scenery on the way was quite beautiful. Visible from our bus window were mountains, forests, farms, and large open areas of green countryside.
Upon arriving at Kawaguchi-ko, we alighted and had lunch at a quaint little restaurant, before strolling around and looking at some of the local souvenir shops. All too soon, we had to hop onto the ‘mountain bus’, which took us on the one-hour trip up to Mt Fuji’s fifth station. The mountain is divided into levels, and at each level there is a ‘station’, some of which have out-door toilets and so on. There are nine stations in total.
The fifth station is quite big, as it is the last station accessible by motor vehicles, and so is very popular with tourists who want to visit Fuji-san but don’t wish to climb it. Hence there are many souvenir shops, as well as restaurants, bars and even a small hotel. After the fifth station, there are no places to buy souvenirs, or necessary supplies. A lot of Japanese climbers will drive up until this point, park their car, and then climb to the top. Some ‘dedicated climbers’ and ‘purists’ prefer to start at the very base of the mountain.
On the day we arrived at the fifth station, it was immersed in low-lying cloud! The whole level seemed to be surrounded by fog, creating an eerie environment in which to walk around. The fifth station sits at 2,306 meters (7,565 feet), just 1,470 meters from the top! What surprised us was how cool it was, but at this altitude, a drop in temperature was to be expected. We had been warned that even in the middle of a hot summer, it would be freezing at the peak, and so we brought adequate clothing for cold and wet weather.
After some afternoon tea at one of the coffee shops, we walked over to the observatory, but it was engulfed in a sea of white mist, and so nothing was visible. Apparently, on a clear and sunny day, one can see as far as Tokyo using the special mounted binoculars provided. But for us, just being in a cloud was beautiful, and to see the surrounding trees and mountain base through the mist was breathtaking. We joked about being on cloud nine, and walking with our heads in the clouds.
We checked our supplies (clothing, food, water, etc), and then began our ascent from the fifth station at 4:30 pm that afternoon, an hour after having arrived there. It was a charming hike at first; tidy dirt tracks, with forest on both sides and white mist all around. However after about half an hour, it became more challenging. The mist had become thicker, and the terrain quite rocky. The forest had thinned out to mostly small trees, together with shrubs and plants, and the path had also become much steeper.
We were only half way to the sixth station, and the girls were already feeling tired, (and to tell the truth, so was I). Then a man leading a mountain horse offered the girls a ride up to the sixth station, which they gladly accepted. Mandy loves horses, and Kyoko had never been on a horse before, so I was quite happy to continue hiking up the mountain path, as they continued on horseback. As it turned out, we arrived at the sixth station at the same time; we learned that horses aren’t any faster than we are on uphill rocky terrain while carrying two people, but it sure makes for easier traveling.
Before leaving the fifth station, we had each bought a ‘mountain pole’ (walking sticks about the same height as ourselves), to help us up the mountain, and they sure were useful. In addition to using them for support, they became great souvenirs as well, as each time we arrived at a station, a kind of stamp was burned into them with what looked like a hot branding iron, stating the station number and current height. According to the sixth station’s stamp, we were now at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet), and we felt exhausted!
It was 5:30 pm when we left the sixth station, and together we struggled up onto the seventh station, but little were we to know that the climb to the sixth and seventh stations were just easy warm-ups compared to those higher up the mountain! The seventh station stamp proclaimed the current height to be 2,750 meters (9,020 feet), and we were already out of breath. We weren’t having second thoughts, but we were starting to wonder if we had bitten off more than we could chew so to speak, as we sat there huffing and puffing.
We had ascended to a point above the clouds, and at 7:00 pm we sat and watched the sun sink below the clouds beneath us. It was an amazing sight. However, we couldn’t rest for too long, because as fatigued as we were, we had a booking at the ‘yama-goya’ (mountain hut) just above the eighth station that we couldn’t be late for. So after a ten minute breather, and a toilet break, we continued on our way up the red, stony mountain.
There seemed to be a lot more people now, all very friendly, Japanese and foreign alike, all sharing the same pilgrimage as us. Some of them were old enough to be retired. Watching them all walk up the mountain, both below and above us, was perhaps like watching Moses lead his people up the mountain in Africa; it really looked like some kind of scene from the bible – an exodus of some sort, and this image was enhanced by the rays of sunlight extending out over the clouds that we were looking down upon.
Gradually the path had gone from a walking track to a rocky slope, up which we sometimes had to ascend by pulling on a chain threaded through old metal poles, hammered into the stony, volcanic surface. Our hearts were pounding, our faces red, and we were constantly out of breath, wondering aloud just how much farther we could go! It was at least rather encouraging to see how far we had come; we were so high up, and we kept looking back down on the gorgeous sight of the clouds and the setting sun below.
The exciting adventure continues in Part II… COMING SOON!
© Chris Ryall