The adventure-minded in Japan will find Fuji a worthy challenge
August 6, 2006
If hardship makes for great mountain tales, I was guaranteed a whopper with Mount Fuji.
Japan’s iconic snow-tipped volcano — and tallest landform at 12,388 feet — prompts rapturous sighs from a distance, and groans out of anyone I talked to who has tried climbing it.
“Never again,” they say. Then came the stories, which almost always involved rain, pain, injury, sunburn or a $200 taxi ride to get back to the Morale, Welfare and Recreation bus after coming down the wrong trail.
Like a broken record, they’d launch into the stamina-squelching Japanese proverb: “A wise man climbs Fuji once, a fool climbs Fuji twice.”
The prophecies of doom didn’t come just from grousing individuals — MWR’s mandatory pre-Fuji briefing likewise rang of the apocalypse. So I was fairly confident, before trying to climb myself, that I’d come back with a story of epic proportions.
But Saturday morning made a mockery of my plans for misadventure, breaking clear and cool as the bus pulled into Station 5 at the Kawaguchi-ko trailhead. The air was frustratingly fragrant. Phantasm clouds swept over us as we started up, clearing away a second later for incredible views of mountain peaks below us.
Great, I thought. How was going I to make this interesting?
Starting outI didn’t have to worry.
Fuji was hard, even on a beautiful day on the most touristed and civilized route. I went in a group of 33 people from Yokosuka Naval Base, joining the throngs of people from around the world who tromp up Fuji. We were on MWR’s day hike: you board the bus at 2 a.m., ride to Fuji, hike up from 5 a.m. to 12:59 p.m. and head down at 1 p.m. to be back on the bus at 6 p.m. Many others hike at night so they can reach the top in time to catch the sunrise.
Most climb the Kawaguchi-ko trail (there are alternate routes at Fujinomiya, Subashiri, and Gotemba) and most go during the official climbing season of July-August.
An average of about 2,000 people a day climb Fuji. Yokosuka MWR alone takes about 20 trips a season, about 1,200 people, said MWR Yokosuka Outdoor Recreation Planner Jude DesNoyer.
“From my perspective, it’s the biggest and best tourist attraction in Japan,” DesNoyer said. My trip was his sixth up the mountain as a guide. “Every one is different,” DesNoyer said. “It all depends on the people.”
Most of us aren’t prepared for Mount Fuji — that’s why the stories are so harrowing, he said. “People have a ‘just-show-up’ mentality or come expecting a walk in the park,” DesNoyer said. “You start out with a happy and giddy outlook, then 20 minutes later, you’re asking yourself why you signed up.”
The climbKawaguchi-ko starts innocently as a wide, winding path in a misty forest above the clouds. A public address system breaks through the birdsong.
“Do not attempt to reach the summit if you only have summer attire,” it barks. “Temperatures at the summit average 40 degrees and frequently dip to 20-30 degrees.”
“Impossible,” you think. “It’s warm summer day! And it’s such a nice stroll!” That ends abruptly 10 minutes later, when the real slog begins. On this trail, you gain about 4,400 feet, most of it crunching straight up on lava rocks. The legs start working and the arms start pumping. The blisters start forming in your rented hiking boots. The groups we set out with fell away as everyone found their pace. I was climbing with my friend Carol, who was racing to beat one of her employees to the top. We stopped at the first station, winded, walking sticks in hand.
Several Japanese were taking pulls off mini-oxygen tanks. A man jogged by me with a Pekingese pup on a leash. That was humiliating. A creature with three-inch legs was making better time than me.
Then we hit the first Fuji-jam — a Japanese tour group had the trail at a standstill. Most Japanese groups climb only as fast as their slowest person, but everyone gets up the mountain. Americans on MWR trips climb alone. Only 60 percent make it to the top, Desnoyer said.
I’m convinced that it was the stamping stations that got me there. Spaced out as you go, the temporary shelters are stocked with noodles, water and hospitality for the footsore hiker. You catch your breath and recharge in the time it takes for you to get your 200-yen ($2) stamp on your walking stick. But shelter shopping isn’t cheap. Water is 500 yen ($5). A friend of mine paid 700 yen ($7) for a Snickers bar. Even doing your business in a unisex toilet will run you 100-200 yen.
The stations do give you a nice break, however. Then it’s back to work. The last 500 feet are a steep push and you pick your way through rocks strewn with resting people. Take four steps, rest. Four steps, rest. Pant. Pant. Pant. Press on.
The topThe summit — reached after five hours and 15 minutes — is more mountaintop mini-mart than silent sanctuary. We got our last stamp for our walking sticks, and there’s a post office and a temple dedicated to the Goddess Fuji. While the top of Mount Fuji isn’t the best place to commune with nature, it’s a great spot to crack open a celebratory beer.
Oh, we discussed going to the true summit, which you find during the hourlong walk around the crater’s rim, but we opted for noodles and a nap instead.
The down sideGoing down is dirty — no two ways about it. Every step shakes loose a puff of lava dust in the soft scrabble on the steep switchbacks. Dust clouds followed the many folk who were running it in zigzag style.
An irrational fear of falling and breaking my teeth set me a slower pace and I found myself alone. The sun felt warm on my neck and I loved the cloud-washes that would sweep up over me, cool and damp. The mountain was dry and red, but the sky was blue and the earth below was fresh and green.
I reached the MWR bus three hours later, sore, sunburned and with stamped stick.
And then it was time to head home.
Fool clubDays later, I’m taking stock. The blisters are healing, the sunburn is peeling and my legs don’t feel like overcooked noodles anymore. Fuji is creeping into my thoughts and I wonder what sunrise looks like up there.
If I go again, I’ll be in the elite “Fool Club” — the 1-2 percent of people who buck the proverb and climb Fuji twice.