In the year 2000, my wife Mandy and I celebrated the new millennium by climbing Mt Fuji, which straddles the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures in central Japan.
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. Why did we do it? Well, it wasn’t just “because it was there,” as the saying goes. It was much more than that; by climbingFuji-san we could experience Japan in a more personal, active, “hands-on” way, an experience we’d never forget.
To say ‘Fuji-san’ is famous would be a gross understatement. It is a highly venerated mountain in Japan, hence the honorific “~san”. Visiting Mt Fuji is a kind of pilgrimage for those interested in Japanese culture. Yet most people only go so far as to buy a postcard, or see it with their own eyes from afar. We wanted to go there and climb it.
It has existed for tens of thousands of years, possibly more, and is currently a dormant volcano, last ‘blowing its top’ 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 language together at university in Australia.
Three years later, we were living and working in the small town of Ohito, near Mishima, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Fuji-san is relatively close to the 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 landscape.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Fuji-san, it is 3,776 meters high (12,389 feet), with an almost perfect circular base and a typical volcanic cone shape; the gradient of the mountain slope is about 45 degrees. It is an enormous, regal-looking mountain that can be seen over 100 kilometers away in Tokyo on a fine, clear day.
In the year 2000, we were living and working in Gifu city, in Japan, when we met a Japanese friend who also wanted to climb the iconic mountain. Together we planned and made preparations for our trip there in summer. For amateur mountain climbers, such as us, it is only safe to climb Fuji-san in the summer months of July and August.
We awoke at 5:30 am on a mid-August morning, had a hot breakfast high in protein, and then caught the train into 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 café before walking to the bus station. We were all very excited as we took our seats on the bus to Kawaguchi-ko.
The bus ride from Nagoya city to the pretty little town of Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi) takes four hours. Upon arriving at Kawaguchi-ko, we alighted and had lunch at a quaint little restaurant. Soon after, we had to take our seats on the ‘mountain bus’, which took us on the one-hour trip up to Mt Fuji’s fifth station. The mountain is divided into levels, with a ‘rest station’ at each level, and 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. A lot of Japanese climbers drive up until this point, park their car, and then climb to the top, but ‘dedicated climbers’ and ‘purists’ insist on starting 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 area seemed to be surrounded by fog, creating an eerie atmosphere. 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. Even during a hot summer, it would be freezing at the peak, and so we had brought adequate clothing.
After some afternoon tea, we walked over to the observatory, but it was engulfed in white mist, and hence nothing was visible. So we checked our supplies (clothing, food, water, etc), and then began our ascent from the fifth station at 4:30 pm that afternoon. It was a charming hike at first; tidy dirt tracks, with forest on both sides and white fog 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.
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, as they rode slowly on horseback.
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, because each time we arrived at a station, a heated stamp was burned onto them. According to the sixth station’s stamp, we were now at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet).
It was 5:30 pm when we left the sixth station; together we struggled up onto the seventh station, situated at 2,750 meters (9,020 feet), and already we felt exhausted! 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, after a ten minute rest, and a quick 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 akin to watching a mass exodus of some sort, like a scene from the bible or a Hollywood disaster movie.
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 further we could go!
Soon after that, we came to a small shack, just a rest stop really, where we were told it would be another thirty minutes to the eighth station. The light was quickly fading and the mercury on the thermometer read just ten degrees Celsius (fifty degrees Fahrenheit).
We didn’t realize that a mountain with such a gradual incline (from a distance anyway) could be so wearing, but it was like climbing up a steep and endless flight of stairs. It was dark now, and we stopped and rested there, watching as stars began to appear above.
The temperature seemed to be dropping rapidly, and we all removed our long coats from our backpacks and put them on. We got our torches out, too, as it had turned pitch black.
We were now above 10,000 feet, and none of us felt as if we had much energy left. Just then we heard footsteps coming towards us up the gravelly path. It was an elderly man, who appeared to be in his eighties. He smiled kindly and informed us in Japanese that the eighth station was only a few more minutes up the track. This was most encouraging.
As we walked with the old gentleman, he informed us that every year since his wife had died, he climbed Fuji-san. He also told us about the famous old proverb in Japan, saying,
“A wise man climbs Fuji-san once, but only a fool climbs it twice.” He laughed out loud at this and we all felt a bit warmer and stronger in his presence. Soon lights were visible.
We rounded a steep corner and using the last of our energy to climb some stone steps, we arrived at the eighth station. Friendly faces greeted us inside the well-lit interior, and as a man there branded our mountain poles, the elderly fellow bid us farewell and continued on up the mountain! All three of us needed to use the chemical-based ‘eco’ toilets and rest a while before we could go any further. We slumped down on a nearby wooden bench, opened our backpacks, had a long drink of water and devoured some of our food.
We still had to continue on to the ‘Yama-goya’ (mountain hut) before we could stop for the night, but I felt a bit better after having something to eat, as did Mandy and Kyoko.
Psyching ourselves up, we picked up our backpacks, our mountain poles, and walked into the black night, with just our torches to light our way. At 9:45 pm, we crawled up a final rocky incline to ‘Yama-goya’, a large, brightly lit hut, looking not unlike heaven to us.
A man checked our names and led us to a small table on the tatami-mat floor. Despite the large number of people, we didn’t have to wait long before we were served bowls of hot curry-rice and glasses of beer! It seemed too good to be true, and we were beaming.
A sign on the wall declared in bold lettering that we were at 3,450 meters (11,300 feet)! After finishing our meal and changing into some dry, fresh clothes, we felt refreshed.
Before hitting the sack, we decided to go outside and use some of our bottled water to clean our teeth. The three of us sat on an old wooden plank that was built right out on the side of the mountain, with our feet dangling over the edge, brushing our pearly whites.
Suddenly we heard a ‘whoosh’ and were shocked to see our water bottle slide out from under our feet and skim down the mountain! It had toppled over, and then gravity took it from there. There was nothing we could do as we watched it shoot out of sight.
That’s when we realized how precarious our position was, and we inched back off the plank onto level ground. Luckily we still had another full water bottle in our backpack. We walked over and joined some other people lined up along the edge, and together we watched an electrical storm take place in the clouds beneath us. The weather had turned nasty below, but the sky above was totally clear, and millions of stars sparkled brightly.
It was late and we decided to climb into bed. There was a separate room (dormitory) for men and women. Beds consisted of a thin futon on the tatami mat, with a single blanket to throw over oneself; the futons were side by side, with about 30 in total on the floor, plus more placed on second level bunks. I was fatigued and fell asleep in minutes.
Three hours later, at 1:30 am, we were woken up by a soft metallic gong, and got dressed. Altitude sickness had settled in, and in addition to a headache, I felt horribly nauseous. I then noticed that many of the Japanese were carrying small, pressurized cans of oxygen.
Outside, Kyoko and Mandy and I ate the last of our sandwiches, sipped our water, and checked the time. It was 2:00 am and if we wanted to see the dawn from the summit, we had to be leaving. I groaned and stood up shakily. We then joined a slow moving cluster of people and started our final ascent to the summit, as I tried to ignore my nausea.
We saw many shooting stars that night, and for me they were a blessed distraction from my altitude sickness. Slowly but surely my feeling began to change. My body gradually became used to the different altitude, and I could feel my condition improving.
At 3,550 meters (11,647 feet), we reached the last level before the summit – the ninth station! Strangely, all three of us were feeling good then, on our second wind perhaps. We were happily talking to people who were no longer strangers but fellow sojourners. It was then that we saw the first sign of light creeping up over the horizon. Dawn was near!
Kyoko, Mandy and I reached the summit of Mount Fuji at 4:30 am, on Friday the 13th of August, feeling great! We broke away from the long line of fellow hikers, and found a perfect spot over to the side, from which to view “Goraiko” (the first ray of sunlight). We were exhausted, but ecstatic, for we had finally made it to the top in time for sunrise!
Within minutes, the sun started to appear, with loud cheers from all the people assembled to see this first ray of “the rising sun”. The spectacular event was almost like a religious experience – which it was for the Japanese, of course, with their belief in Shinto. Mandy and I found that we had tears of happiness in our eyes, looking upon this heavenly dawn!
We were currently at 3,600 meters (11,810 feet), the lowest and safest part of the summit. How bizarre it felt to be as high as a plane without being in one. We were free, like birds high up in the sky, where eagles soar, and where humans can achieve dreams.
While climbing up the mountain tested one physically, going down the mountain was just as steep and challenging. In order not to lose your balance, and roll all the way down, you had to hold the mountain pole in front of you, digging it and your feet into the stones and gravel as you made your descent. However this method also had the effect of jamming your toes up against the inside of your shoes, and creating blisters on the bottoms of your feet. We could hardly walk the next day! We made it down the mountain in just four hours! Weak, humbled and tired, we finally arrived at the fifth station at about 9:30 am. We enjoyed a large, hot bowl of noodles, bought some souvenirs, and took some final photos, before taking our seats on the ‘mountain bus’.
Once back at Kawaguchi-ko, we transferred to another bus, which was bound for Nagoya city. We quickly fell asleep, and did not wake up until we heard the bus driver announce that we had arrived at Nagoya city. Then we caught a connecting train to Gifu city, where we parted ways with Kyoko, and walked home. It felt wonderful to have a hot shower and collapse into bed, with images of alpine clouds floating lazily through my mind.
Author: Chris Ryall
Chris Ryall is an Australian school teacher, who has lived in Japan for 14 years with his wife, Mandy. He is a novelist, poet and enjoys writing articles about Japan.