Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Which I Climb Mt. Fuji And Learn A Lesson. (2)

I never, ever had any intentions of climbing Mt. Fuji.

Before moving to Japan, I would always give a resounding no to anyone who asked if I was going to try. I hate hiking.  I hate dirt.  I hate sweat.  I hate being miserable.  I hate ugly hiking boots.  It's just not my thing! When I want to enjoy nature, I find the closest forest and spread out a blanket. Contemplating a traditional Japanese garden is also nice. So is viewing Mt. Fuji.  I didn't want a miserable hike ruining my future, Fuji-gazing experiences.

But my fourteen year old (and youngest) brother wanted to climb it.  As I thought about it, I realized that, any second, he's going to realize how lame his big sister is.  I had to seize the last bonding experience we'll have until he turns twenty-five (Which is when he will realize that he's just as lame as me).  And there's the fact that he suffered through Hello Kitty Land with us.  I owed him big time for that one.

So I reluctantly agree to climb Mt. Fuji with my brother.

When my sister-in-law did her climb last year, she left my apartment at 5am to catch the first train.  I hadn't sat down and timed our train connections, but I figured that it probably took her twice as long to take public transport as it would me (she had only been in Japan for four or five days when she summited).  So if she had to leave at five, we could leave at 6 am and be just fine!

Oh, foolish me.

On the appointed day- a weekday, of course, to avoid the climbing hordes- we left the apartment at 6:20 am (someone's little brother didn't wake up with his alarm).  We were outfitted in our proper, water-wicking gear and carried our proper, well-stocked backpacks. I had this handy-dandy little booklet, from the base's Outdoor Recreation center, that had detailed train and bus directions (definitely pick one of these up if you plan on taking the train).  We could have driven, but I really enjoy the additional layers of experience that trains and buses give me.  If we had taken a car, we would have missed out the mountain trains that are covered with cheerful Mt. Fujis!

We made all our train connections just fine.  I loved watching the Kanto Plain disappear and the cool, forested mountains surround us.  Intensely green rice paddies, cheerful flower and vegetable gardens, incense-wreathed shrines, and icy mountain streams zipped past us as our train climbed higher and higher.  Between forested peaks, we could see Mt. Fuji, moving ever closer.  Yikes.

We decided to climb the base-recommended route (and also the most popular), which requires a train to Kawaguchiko and then a bus to Kawaguchiko 5th Station.  We arrived at Kawaguchiko Station just after nine am and headed to the ticket counter to purchase our bus tickets for the hour-long ride to 5th Station.

I squinted at the bus timetables.  Wait...does that actually say that the next bus isn't until 10:30?  Do we really have to wait over an hour?  The ticket lady confirmed that yes, for this 2012 climbing season there is no bus that runs between 8:30 am and 10:30 am.  I started to worriedly do the math.  Ok, so if the bus ride is about an hour long, we won't get to 5th Station until 11:30-ish.  That means we're missing about three hours of climbing time.  &*%@!  

My eyes then just happened to wander to the return bus timetable.  Wait...does that say the last two buses off the mountain are at 8 and 10 pm?!  Hmmmmm. If we catch that last, 10 pm bus, we aren't getting back to Kawaguchiko Station until 11 pm.  The Tokyo trains will stop running before we can get home.  We'll have to sleep somewhere and head back home in the morning.  *@#%! I REALLY don't want to do that.  We have to catch that 8 pm bus!

Since there was absolutely nothing to do but wait for the 10:30 am bus, we decided to lighten our backpacks and store our clean changes of clothes in the station's coin lockers. Spotting a souvenir shop across the parking lot, we wandered over to take a look.  The shop sold Fuji Sticks (more on those farther down), so to save a little more time, we purchased our sticks there.

With all this time to twiddle our thumbs, I started to calculate our remaining time.  Ok, so we're getting to Mt. Fuji at 11:30 am, at the absolute earliest.  We'll probably have to use the bathroom and take a few photos before heading up.  That means we'll probably start climbing right before noon.  A quick Google search says that the average time needed to complete a Mt. Fuji climb, for a person in good shape, is five hours to summit and three hours to return.  That's a total of eight hours.  Hmmmm.  Am I in good shape?  I like to think I am!  But I don't hike. Am I in good enough hiking shape?  Well, I have to be.  If we get started at noon, we have to be back at 8 pm. We have to make that 8 pm bus.  That's an eight hour climb, exactly.  &*#%! No choice!  Ok, so if it takes us five hours to summit, that puts us as heading back down at 5 pm. If sunset usually around 6:30 pm, that means we'll be returning in the... dark.  &#%*!  Does that souvenir shop sell flashlights?!

The souvenir shop, did indeed, sell flashlights.  Good thing we picked one up, as it turned out later.

Our bus finally arrived and delivered us to 5th Station.  At 5th Station, there are plenty of restaurants, souvenirs shops selling Fuji Sticks, and even a post office, none of which we looked at. We made a beeline for the bathroom, took a couple photos, checked our map to make sure we were on the right trail, and took off!  Sure enough, it was just before 12 noon.

Exhausted school kids.  They probably climbed the night before and enjoyed a glorious sunrise from the summit.
Don't feel like climbing the whole thing?  Take a horse part-way up!  This is cheating, of course,  
This pretty much sums up how each of us felt about climbing Mt. Fuji.
And here I thought I was thoroughly prepared. Our fellow Japanese climbers looked like climbing professionals!  Most were wearing those...gaiters?  Is that what they're called?  Basically, they were nylon tubes that tie just under the knee and then strap under a hiking boot's instep.  They kept dirt and sand from getting inside shoes.  Pretty genius, and when climbing down, I really wished I had some.
A spectacular view, not far from our starting point.  An English-speaking
climber pointed out an ancient temple on the jutting rock below.  

And then the pretty views were lost in the swirling clouds and we left the verdant tree line behind, only to stare a chunky, red rocks for the next seven hours.

Climbers take a break before tackling the next switchback.

Notice all the sticks in the above photo.  Those are the afore-mentioned Fuji Sticks!  If you climb Mt. Fuji, definitely pick one of these up (they cost roughly 1000 to 1500 yen).  Not only is a Fuji Stick a pretty cool souvenir, but it was an invaluable hiking aid.  Mine was a great tool to lean on as I hauled myself up the jagged rocks, and then saved my knees on the soft, rocky dirt that we trudged through on the descent.

The climbing route is dotted with small huts.  These huts are where you can use the bathroom, purchase snacks, water, and oxygen (I hear the oxygen is useless.  If you get sick, just turn around. Reaching the summit probably won't happen for you), and then get your Fuji Stick stamped.  Each hut has its own, unique stamp.  The stamp costs between 200-300 yen.

Our sticks get their stamps.

If you need to stop and take a break, the huts have outdoor benches and sell bowls of hot (and expensive) noodles.  If the weather is bad and you want to sit inside, be prepared to pay a lot of money.  Since we were desperate to finish our climb in 8 hours, we only stopped at each station to shovel some trail mix in our mouths while we waited for our sticks to get stamped, and use the bathroom.

It's not a Japanese point of interest without souvenirs! Snag a souvenir, skip the oxygen.
Prince Shotoku's climb.

About three hours into the climb, panting and exhausted, we came upon a hut that is adjacent to a small shrine.  This sign informed us that the shrine was dedicated to Prince Shotoku, who climbed Mt. Fuji on the back of his Black Horse.  This irrationally enraged me (I was in pain).  Prince Shotoku didn't climb Mt. Fuji.  He rode Mt. Fuji.  Cheater.

Most of our climb was boring. My fourteen year old mountain goat of a brother scampered ahead of me the whole time.  My legs hurt. The blustery wind blew dirt in my face.  I had to literally drag myself over rock faces for a good section of the climb.  The switchbacks went on forever.  Thank God, though, that it didn't rain!

When you reach this point, you'll know you're almost there!

Four hours and fifty-three minutes later, we summited Mt. Fuji!  Hooray!  We posed for a photo and excitedly looked for our last stamp station.  Could. Not. Find. It.  The men stationed at the last hut kept gesturing towards the crater.  Huh?  We didn't have time to wander around looking for this stupid stamp station!  8 pm was looming every closer! In stumbling Japanese, I asked a fellow climber (he looked like he'd done this before) where to find the stamp station.  He poked his head inside the hut, and hollered for someone.  

The next thing we knew, we were being presented with the set of ink stamps that climbers, who summit in time to see the sunrise, press onto their stick's flags.  We only used the first two stamps. The last stamp was the proud, sunrise stamp.  After stamping our flags and quickly peeking inside the crater of Mt. Fuji, we bowed and thanked the helpful climber and the hut employees, before making a dash for the return trail.  We may not have seen the sunrise, but we were definitely about to see the sunset!

We did it!
The final torii gate.  Don't forget, Mt. Fuji is revered as the first of Japan's Three Holy Mountains.

We raced down the trail, in firmer sections flat-out running.  Climbing down Mt. Fuji takes a ridiculously long time, and we had that 8 pm bus to catch.  There are no huts on the return path, and I didn't remember seeing any sleeping accommodations at 5th Station (maybe there are?).  Sleeping in the 5th Station parking lot sounded pretty miserable, so on we sped.

The sun set about two-thirds of our way down. Thank-goodness we purchased that flashlight, earlier, because the return trail was completely un-illuminated!  My brother and I linked arms and carefully (but quickly) picked our way through the dark.

We made it to the bus stop with a total climbing time of seven hours and forty-two minutes.  The 8pm bus pulled up and we collapsed, exhausted, inside.  WE MADE IT.  Of course, the adventure wasn't over, yet. When we pulled up at Kawaguchiko Station, the station attendants yelled that the train was being held for our bus!  We sprinted for the storage lockers, unlocked our clean clothes (No time to change!  Sorry for our stinkiness, fellow commuters!), and sprinted back to the waiting train.  Once inside, we gleefully high-fived each other.  Not only did we climb Mt. Fuji, but we didn't have to spend the night in the parking lot.  A resounding success!

Note To Self:  When planning a new activity (you know, like climbing a mountain), be my usual, control-freak self and have everything figured out beforehand!

Please, when planning a Mt. Fuji climb, pay attention to all transportation details.  I should have looked at all appropriate timetables well before setting out for our climb.  Of course, we could have spent the night on the mountain in one of the huts; frankly, I didn't want to spend the money.  

This is not an activity to approach in a casual manner!  We saw people (all foreigners) climbing in sandals, jeans, and tank tops. Even though the climb is doable, people still get injured.  Wear proper gear and pack enough food and water.  Don't forget a rain jacket. Hypothermia is still a concern, even in August.  Pay attention to return routes.  The trail that we took off the mountain splits into two directions.  Picking the wrong direction will cost you hundreds of dollars in taxi fares back around the mountain.  The base-sponsored safety brief recommended bringing 30,000 yen a person in emergency funds, which can cover extra transportation, hotels or a last-minute, top of Mt. Fuji sleepover.  

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!


  1. yatta! nice work! I am super impressed.

  2. Ha ha ha....your blog is great entertainment. You get the big sister award for 2012!!!