Fuji-san: climbing in the dark

September 10-11, 2011

山頂が雲の上にそびえている。 My first view of Fuji-san (富士山, “abundant soldiers”, “without equal”, or “immortal”, depending on what origin you believe) was through the window of Hayashiya-san’s car.  The caldera of the volcano emerged from clouds in the distance, suddenly dominating the view.

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I had a checklist of things to accomplish in Japan, which looked something like:

  • Eat nattō, everyone’s (least) favorite polarizing fermented soybean product.
  • Acquire a yukata, a Japanese cotton kimono worn to summer festivals.
  • Watch fireworks.
  • Eat a ton of fish.
  • Ride the Shinkansen.
  • See the Ghibli Museum.
  • Visit Hiroshima.
  • See ninja and giant salamander in Mie Prefecture.
  • Climb Mt. Fuji.

I ate nattō with frequency and vigor; I bought fabric to sew my own yukata; I sort of watched fireworks from Sumidagawa before hightailing it home through the crowd of a half million onlookers; I ate the freshest fish at Tsukiji; took the Shinkansen a dozen times; enjoyed the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka; viewed the memorials in Hiroshima; saw the ninja capital in Iga as well as big Ōsanshōuo at Akame… those were all easy. Climbing Fuji-san turned into a lot more of a production than I thought it would be.

When my labmates heard I wanted to climb Fuji-san and we’d settled on a date for the climb (or “crime”, as they mispronounced it), the lab deputy, Morita-san, nodded gravely and shuffled off to his lab. Apparently Morita-san hadn’t climbed Fuji-san the summer previous with the lab, and was still determined to reach the summit; however, his enthusiasm didn’t much show at that moment.

A couple of weeks later we were presented with a poster Morita-san had produced, detailing how we’d arrive at Fuji-san, who would join us, how we’d get there. I wasn’t the only one in lab resolved to climb this national symbol. The following week a booklet appeared on the main table in lab, containing even more information on climbing Fuji-san: what to bring, the cost, where we’d stay after hiking, and tons more details that I tried to get the boys in lab to translate. About thirteen of us would converge on Fuji-san around 9 at night and hike until we reached the summit at sunrise. We’d then descend and spend the night at a vacation cabin on the shore of the lake near Fuji-san, where we’d have party #1, party #2, party #3…

When the lab had gone for the BBQ in Okutama, the student assistant for the group had booked us a ryokan, an “inexpensive” hotel several kilometers down the road from the BBQ site. No meals were included in the price, and the entire outing, only an hour or so from JAXA, wound up being on the order of 7,000円, which I thought was way overpriced for only a day. A potluck dinner party at JAXA also resulted in nickel and diming–everyone in the group had to pay for the potluck, even though we all bought food for the event. How could things get so expensive without much to show?

Morita-san presented his cost estimates for the Fuji climbing adventure, much further away than Okutama, and said it’d be 5,000円. It seemed like a bargain for gas, tolls, food, and the vacation cabin. Was this going to be a really cheap expedition? I was optimistic; perhaps the venue would be an improvement over the BBQ accommodations.

We piled into various vans and rental cars on an infernally humid Saturday morning, gathering various equipment from the storage lab at JAXA. I was in a car driven by Hayashiya, Tanitaku, Mio-chan, and two lab alums, Miyamoto Kensuke and Risako Dan. I’d never much interacted with the first three boys, but they were embarrassed about their lack of English, so they mostly spoke amongst themselves. Miyamoto-san, I found out after a few hours, spoke English the best out of anyone in the group and he began teaching me all sorts of slang in Japanese, especially for cute boys and describing food.

Dan-chan was her own brand of awesome. I’d not interacted with many girls near my age in Japan (with the notable exception of the incomparable and brilliant Yuka in Tane), and there were certainly none in the lab at JAXA for most of the summer.   Studying forestry at Tohoku University, Dan-chan’s research took her to the forests of Malaysia. During the summers she worked as a tour guide at Fuji-san, and had climbed the mountain thirteen times (yes, count ‘em, 13[十三]) in one season! (あの人は13回もその山に登頂していたので、私はあの人の成功を確信していた。)  The girls in Tokyo, what with their long acrylic fingernails, flawless complexions, done up hair, high heels, and unwilting outfits, made me feel like a scruffy foreigner sweating to death in my shorts, sandals, and unwieldy curly hair. In Tokyo, no one talks to foreigners on the train, so I was doubly reluctant to try to make friends with one of these sparkling specimens of Tokyo women. Meeting Dan-chan, I felt a lot less intimidated than I did by her city counterparts.

After stopping at a roadside rest stop complex, complete with robots, conveyor belts on the ceiling, and omiyage, all road signs started pointing toward Fuji-san. This was more like one of the larger rest facilities you see along the Massachusetts Turnpike, or along Highway 6 in the Middle East: numerous stores, bathrooms, outdoor markets, a huge indoor food court… not your Highway 5 bathrooms and picnic tables.

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At the base of Fuji-san is Kawaguchi Lake, Kawaguchiko. We drove around it to find a place to eat dinner in the setting sun.

Playing by the lake

Kawaguchiko hashi

We drove to the Kawaguchiko fifth station on the mountain at an altitude of 2,300 meters, parked, and began changing and packing for the climb in the dark.

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Hayashiya, after driving all day, was super amped to climb!

Hayashia-san!

We assembled the gang for a group shot, then trudged off into the dark around 10 pm along the Yoshida Trail.

Intrepid climbers

Back row, from left to right: Dan-chan climber extraordinaire, Ijima-san, Hayashia-san, Tanitaku-san, Tatsuya-san, another alum I don't know, Miyamoto-san. Front: Morita-san, ソンディ-san, and Mio-chan.

I took a few photos of the view down from Fuji to surrounding cities, glowing brightly under the incoming clouds.

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The trail is sheltered along the more open slopes from landslides of scree.

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Initially the trail was easy, winding through forests of fir and birch trees, meandering up and down the gentle slopes of that part of the mountain.  It got steeper and steeper as we climbed in altitude.

A continuous stream of lights wound up the mountain to the summit.

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富士山に登るのに丸一晩かかった。 The climb took about seven hours. During a rest break, I fell asleep standing up—pulling an all-nighter is one thing, spending it climbing is another. About half-way up, I became separated from Miyamoto-san and Tatsuya-san, and was swept up the mountain by an immense sea of hikers picking their way along scree-covered trails and basaltic vertical sections that merited more climbing than hiking.  Once you became part of the collective climbing entity, you could no longer move at your own pace; you moved at the group speed.  You didn’t need to think, you just needed to put one foot in front of another and somehow, you’d move up the mountain.

The sky began to lighten, illuminating torii and guardian lions on the trail.

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The amount of work to build infrastructure on this mountain, over 3,776 meters tall, is amazing. All these rocks were laid by hand!  Who carried the lions up the mountain?

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I reached the summit, still unable to find the boys from JAXA.

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頂上から見る日の出は美しかった。 The sun began to rise, and the world looked warm above the clouds.

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山頂から日の出を見るのは喜びだ。 Hundreds, if not a thousand, climbers began photographing the sunrise.  Some had hiked most of the way up yesterday, then spent the night at various little rest stations along the trail, then awoke early to do the last part of the climb.

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In Tokyo, everyone wears black, white, dark blue, grey, and occasionally you see girls wearing a shade of creamy peach if they’re bold. On Fuji-san, it was a riot of climbing gear color: green, yellow, pink, purple, bright blue, red, orange.

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The caldera began to turn bright red in the rising light. (Looking at this photo later, I realized that Tani-san was right there in the blue coat.)

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The sun emerged from the clouds to the east as soft gasp came forth from the entire crowd. Silence followed as light streamed above the cloud.

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Fuji-san sunrise

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山頂からの日の出は言葉に言い表せないほどの美しさだった。

Walking along the summit path, I found Tatsuya-san, and he gave me the first real smile I’ve ever seen in a photograph of him.

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It was stupidly cold at the summit. Tani, Hayashiya, Tatsuya, and I attempted to stay warm while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. I tried to take a nap but I kept waking up because my legs would start freezing; the temperature was less than 5 ˚C.  We posed for photos while we waited for Morita-san to join us.

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My awesome Copper River Fleece Company hat made it to the summit of Fuji-san!

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Tani wore the hat that Rachel knitted for me since he didn’t have many layers and looked incredibly cold.

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Morita-san wasn’t entirely the happiest of hikers by the end, and promptly turned around to head back down, but despite the low temperatures, the long night, and the difficult path, we all made it to the top!

Photos from arriving at Kawaguchiko; from the ascent; from sunrise

2 thoughts on “Fuji-san: climbing in the dark

  1. Hi!

    I’m going to be hiking Mt. Fuji in August and am nervous about eating gluten free. I’m hoping to make some food in the hostel the night before to bring with us up the summit, but just in case I need more/it doesn’t happen for whatever reason, were you able to buy things along the way?

    Thanks so much for your suggestions and phrases for eating gluten free!

    • Hi Lauren,

      I hope you have a great hike! Most hostels have cooking facilities, and you should be able to find a combini nearby (I enjoyed Family Mart) or a supermarket. Ask at the hostel. I survived off of the Lotte chocolate-covered almonds, brought my own protein powder, and ate a lot of hardboiled eggs from Family Mart. If you buy onigiri, check for the kanji for wheat. You’ll be able to find yogurt and some cured meats as well.

      Ganbarou!

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