So instead of just enjoying this iconic and sacred mountain from a distance, 400, 000 people each year attempt to conquer it by foot. And this year I was one of them. We were told by older JETs it was a great thing to do and it was little more than a ‘walk in the park that grandmothers do’. This would be true if every park included a 4000m volcano and all grannies were Olympic athletes!
Yet myself, Steven and about 14 other unsuspecting newbies signed up for the trip organised by Fukui JETs. It took about nine hours to get there in a coach and we drove through horrendous thunder and lightning storms. Thankfully by the time we arrived it was fine weather to attempt the climb. The previous year, JETs climbed Fuji in a typhoon and many of them were still mentally scarred from this event, and after climbing it, I could see why!
To get to the 5th station we went over the famous musical road which hums a tune as tyres drive over it. This is meant to wake up passengers up who are preparing to climb the mountain. The tradition of trekking in darkness comes from pilgrims wanting to reach the sacred Shinto shrine on the top and then watch the red sun rising from the East. We were lucky enough to experience it and that made the whole trip worthwhile, but not without bearing some hardships!
The climb starts at 2300m and begins with a mile of gently sloping paths through a forest. Without seeing a route-map this would be a very misleading way to begin the climb which quickly turns in to an uphill slog with no level plains at all. The most popular route criss-crosses the volcano, changing between naturally rocky boulders to gravelly paths with sheer drops to one side. As it is dark you can hardly see the steepness of the mountain and this is probably a good thing! I might have turned back if I could see what was to come!
Climbing at night was a new experience for me and had more perks than I’d expected. It was a new moon and a clear night so the sky was filled was millions of stars. Just looking up for a minute was long enough to see a shooting star or two, an added bonus to our trip! Then there was the neon lit city below which looked fantastic from such a height. And most memorable was the long line of head torches slowing moving up the mountain behind us. I climbed it mainly without a head torch and let my eyes naturally adjust to the dark. Being surefooted, I could find my way reasonably easily but I would’ve benefitted from a walking stick on the way down!
The Japanese people are in general much quieter than us Westerners. So apart from the occasional Westerner, usually American, we’d hear chatting or cursing away in the distance, it was eerily quiet for the thousands of people on the path. Yes, thousands! It was the end of Obon week, which is a national festival for remembering ancestors, and so this weekend was probably the most popular for going up Fuji. Thus frustratingly, our journey up the mountain was interspersed with queuing. Not really what you want, or what you expect, when going up a mountain! But as it is only warm enough to climb the mountain in August and September it is nearly always teeming with people climbing it like colourful ants marching up an unusually high ant hill!
Steve and I climbed the majority of the mountain with an American girl from Texas named Erin. We had a lot of fun going up together but she started suffering from altitude sickness quite soon on and we had to go at a slow pace with very regular intervals. This meant we hadn’t reached the summit by sunrise at 5am, even though we’d been walking for seven hours. Yet as a orange hue rose on the horizon, we nestled together and sat against the volcanic rocks to watch the sunrise. As the dawn lit up our surroundings we became aware just how far above the cloud line we’d trekked and how steep the volcano was! I hadn’t even noticed the rock was red either! Other trekkers stopped and waited for the sun to emerge from beneath the clouds and there was an expectant energy among all the tired and weary walkers. Some Japanese had bought mini stoves and were willing them on to make a cup of something hot. Others had bought thermal blankets and roll mats to try to get a nap before the descent. We only had our fleeces and coats, and they weren’t enough to buffer the cold.
When the sun rose, we realised what all the fuss was about. Suddenly we forgot we were sitting freezing and sleep-deprived 3000m up a volcano. Photos couldn’t capture the sun melting through the clouds and giving a watery mirage of its shape. It was magical. We celebrated with yet another sugary snack and our spirits were high.
Yet in hindsight, our spirits were maybe too high. As although the summit was insight there was a long zig-zag line of colourful coats waiting patiently to walk through the final Shinto gate to the top. As we started walking again Erin’s altitude sickness became noticeably worse and we had to stop regularly to give her oxygen and water. I became more and more worried as she was obviously lacking energy and was feeling faint. At one point in the queue she actually fell backwards and I had to support her. This was when I realised we were in a really bad situation and there was no easy way out. The sheer number of people lining the path behind us, as well as the rocky boulders she would need to climb down meant it was more difficult to go down than reach the top and take the gentle path down. So we continued, stopping whilst people walked past us in the queue. I used my new phone to contact the JETs in charge and they waited for us at the top to take Erin down. We should have got a photo at the top of all three of us but that wasn’t top of our priorities then!
So the summit experience was not the highlight of the trip but we did see the crater and got a couple of quick photos from the top. I would’ve loved to post my postcards from the highest post-office in the world but we needed to get down as our bus was meant to leave in three hours! So we started the descent down, long gravelly zig-zags for about 10 km. As well as being incredibly monotonous and seemingly never-ending it was also painful on your knees which take all the impact. I’ve never wanted to get off a mountain more quickly. But it took another six hours to finally reach our coach at the bottom. We made it down with a larger group of JETs, including Erin, who was a lot better since we’d descended from the altitude.
Unsurprisingly, the bus journey home was quieter than the one there. Many people vowed never to do it again and I’m one of them. The saying goes ‘A wise man climbs Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice.’ But saying that it was a totally amazing experience and I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad I could help Erin and we all reached the summit together. We’ll definitely never forget that night!