Published: October 5th 2008October 3rd 2008
(Day 182 on the road)
I arrived at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the town of Kawaguchiko, with the obvious intention of climbing the mountain. Every year, 600.000 people make the ascent, and this year I was going to make it 600.001 climbers. Before battling with the mountain however, I was fighting bad weather. I spent six full days in the hostel as it pretty much rained continuously. I didn't mind too much however as I could do with a rest anyway. I spent the days sleeping, reading my book, talking to other travellers, cooking, watching movies, going to the onsen, and generally just taking it very easy.
Spending the time at the hostel and seeing many people come and go over the week made me realise one thing I had noticed before: I am much more inclined to get involved with other long-term travellers rather than people who are just on the road for a few weeks, maybe on their summer vacation. Many short-term travellers, to put it quite frankly, are more too "difficult" to deal with for an extended period of time. They always tend to ask the same questions ("where are you from", "how long are
you travelling for" etc), and then they are always so stunned and amazed when I tell them about my travels ("wow, I could never do that myself"), which wears me down after a while. I also find many of them to be generally a little less easy-going and relaxed than long-termers. People who are also travelling for longer tend to ask very different questions, and it is much easier and quicker to have decent conversations and rather intense relationships with them, as you are not always exchanging the same kind of information. I have spent extended amount of time with people about whom I knew hardly anything (no names, nationality, travel-plans etc), and those were some of the most rewarding experiences. So without being aware of it, I tend to avoid short-term travellers, rather spending my time with other world-travellers. I am not sure how this comes across on this blog when you are reading these lines, but I hope I do not sound too bad here.
Before I set off for the climb, I got pretty annoyed with the tourist information, who had told me that it was "not possible" to climb the mountain as the climbing season
had ended in August, and that I "could not go". This turned of course out to be 100% incorrect, thank you very much for this very useful advise! I had been given similarly wrong and misleading information at other places on numerous occasions, not only in Japan but also in China, and I was getting angry at them for knowingly giving out false information. It is OK to make people aware of certain dangers when going into the mountains to make sure you know what you are getting into, but scaring unnecessarily and giving out false information is just not right. I am not accepting any responsibility from what I write here, but from my point of view, whatever they say or what the official climbing website tells you, it is far from impossible to climb Mt. Fuji off-season. If you are well-equipped, reasonably fit and don't set off in the middle of a spell of very bad weather or heavy snow, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't climb it just before or after the official climbing season. Despite what they try to tell you (maybe to increase the myth of the mountain?), it is not a difficult
or dangerous climb at all. From the 5th station, there is really only one well-trodden path up the mountain (so it is almost impossible to get lost), and it took me less than 4h to ascent and 2h to descent, making it perfectly suitable for a day trip if you set off early (plus still giving you ample of time at the summit). I would even go as far as to say that 90% of the major peaks I have climbed in the past weeks of camping and hiking in Japan have been more dangerous and difficult to climb.
But back to Mt. Fuji, at 3776m the highest mountain in Japan. Everyone has probably seen pictures of its cone-shaped appearance. On day seven of my forced stay in Kawaguchiko, the sky looked promising, and also the forecast for the next day didn't look too bad, so I decided to give it a shot. The mountain is divided into nine stations, and the last station you can reach by bus is the 5th station at 2300 meters. However, as it was off-season (the official climbing season ends in August), bus services were drastically reduced, and the times the bus were
running made it impossible to climb the mountain in one day as I had initially planned. So once again, I was on the move with my tent, planning to climb halfway on day one, camp the night, finish the ascent on the next morning and then climb down.
I started my climb at 1230h, and by 1500h I came across a nicely sheltered camp-sport just to the right of the trail. Camping is not allowed on Mt. Fuji, but with climbing season finished by over a month now, I don't think anyone checks or even cares at this time. I must have been at 3300 meters by now, leaving about 500 meters for the next morning, a good way to get warm after the cold night on the mountain I was getting myself ready for. All afternoon, I had only seen two other climbers, so I guess us three were spending the night at the highest point in all of Japan. The night was rough and temperatures well below freezing, but not quite as bad as I had expected. Once again, I literally wore everything I had with me inside my sleeping bag (underwear, two T-shirts, one long-sleeved shirt,
my fleece jacket, two pair of socks, two trousers, my rain jacket, my rain pants, hat and gloves). I really need to get a better sleeping bag if I continue to camp at these temperatures! I had to think about the two Japanese guys however: They did not have a tent or sleeping bag, and I don't want to imagine how cold they must have been during the night.
But apart from the cold, the night was near-perfect: Far below me there was a solid cloud-cover, and above me was the clearest possible nights with a million of stars basking the clouds in a mild light. Underneath the clouds, I could not see the actual cities, but I could see bright spots through the clouds were the lights from the towns and villages below shone onto the clouds. It looked as if someone shone a giant torch onto the clouds from below. I was sitting on a rock outside my tent and simply watched until I was so cold I couldn't take it anymore, but it was just too beautiful to miss.
The next morning, I rose at five o'clock, glad that the awful night was finally over and
made some hot tea, waiting for the sun to show its face. It was a perfectly clear morning and the white cloud-cover was still down there, so the world below was completely hidden from view. I especially liked the reverse idea: If I couldn't see them, that meant no one down there could see me, so Mt. Fuji was completely hidden from view from everyone except from the three of us actually on the mountain. The sun broke through the clouds at 0537h, and it was magical. I enjoyed the warmth of its first rays and started my final ascent at six o'clock, leaving my tent and all of my gear behind except some water, food and my first-aid kid. I made good speed, and despite the snow that covered the path about half-way up I reached the summit at just before seven. All in all, it thus took me less than four hours from the fifth station to the top.
The top of Mt. Fuji was partly covered in snow, picture-postcard beautiful and utterly deserted - I had the whole place for myself for the next two hours! It is not actually flat at the top, but being
a volcano it has a pretty big crater in the middle. For a good ten minutes I contemplated going down into the actual crater, which seemed feasible enough, but then decided against it, as the whole surface was very soft and didn't seem too stable. I spent two perfect hours up there circling the crater and sitting at the actual summit for breakfast, not seeing another soul for the whole time. The two Japanese from the day before had also disappeared; I am not sure where they went, maybe down one of the other routes. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being the highest-standing man in Japan. The only thing I somehow regretted was that I didn't pitch my tent right at the top of Mt. Fuji: There were ample of nice and sheltered spots to camp, so if I ever come back to Mt Fuji in off-season I will definitely sleep right up there.
The descent was amazingly quick and I finally encountered some other hikers who had started hiking in the middle of the night. I took a separate descending route down the mountain, which turned out to be covered in loose gravel. After a while I discovered
that the best way down on this slippery route is actually a combination of running and skidding. I stopped briefly to pick up my tent and other gear and stomped down the mountain like a mad bull. It was great fun and I was down the mountain by noon. I caught a bus back to Kawaguchiko, from where I caught another bus to Tokyo and then onwards to Hiroshima.
Next stop: Hiroshima (Western Honshu, Japan). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com