Mt Fuji: The Long Climb (Part 1)
It’s impossible to miss Mt Fuji. Stepping off the bus at Kawakuchiko Station, it stands right there to the south, lording over the landscape with absolute dominion, awaiting it’s next round of conquerors and victims. At night, back-lit by city lights, it assumes something of an uneasy presence weighing on your mind just like the ‘shadow in the east’ that troubled Gandalf. Doesn’t help that Fuji-san could double for Mt Doom.
Despite almost seven hours of travelling to get to our jump off point and not the earliest of turn-ins, sleep deserted me beyond 5am the next day. Fuji-san was waiting, freed of its ethereal cloud cloak in the dawn. No one was awake in the early morning beside a dog-walking local who seemed a mite perplexed as to why I was roaming about taking photos at such an early hour. But with such majesty right there, who could sleep? My hiking companions of course.
After snapping away for a while, I hurried back to the hostel for unnecessary repacking brought on by nerves. I’m fitter than the average Joe but, having heard plenty of horror stories about failed attempts to climb Mt Fuji, I wasn’t having tickets on myself reaching the summit. My friends and I had done a practice hike over two molehills in Mie Prefecture that pass for mountains two weeks before and I’d been sore for a week after that. Now I was lining up for a 25km hike carrying a 10kg pack up a 3776m mountain. Praying at the shrine marking the start of the pilgrim trail from the very base of Mt Fuji was mandatory.
A five minute bus ride from Fuji Station, Kitaguchi Hongen Fuji Sengen Jinja, with its colonnade of giant cedar trees, channels the same intimidating natural majesty as Nikko, site of the mausoleum of the shogun who united Japan. This shrine marks the start of the pilgrim trail to the summit. We set out from the shrine to the drumbeats heralding morning prayers. The sound of drums would welcome us to the summit some 20 hours later.
The irony of hiking the old pilgrim route is that you can’t see the mountain at all. The best you can do is look at the old photographs on the tourist signs along the trail that show photos from the 19th and 20th centuries when the trees were far shorter. The first time you get a clear a view of the behemoth you are climbing is when you’re over half way up it at the 5th station.
Right from entering the shrine grounds, the path lead ever upwards. It was subtle at first, but unmistakable. The hike from the shrine to Umagaeshi (the car park just a little way from the first official station on Mt Fuji), was an easy going stroll through open forest that was cloaked in the luminous green that is synonymous with Japanese summer. Yet even that old forest, like so much of Japan’s forests, isn’t ‘natural’. It was planted by decree in the mid 17th century to prevent erosion caused by the melting spring snows.
The sobering fact about Umagaeshi for us was that its elevation was higher than the highest mountain in Mie Prefecture, and it’s not even the 1st Station. Though the trail was easy, it was quite mentally draining hiking to the 1st Station. Something of a ‘never ending story’ before the story had even officially begun. All 8km of it. The upside was that once we reached the 1st Station, the next four followed in rapid succession, being only 20-40 minutes apart.
Gradually edging higher, there were reminders in the forest that kept our minds on the fact that we were climbing an active volcano: The distinctive black slick formed by an old lava flow and a scattering of airy volcanic rocks underfoot (scoria) that had been hurled out in some previous eruption. But it was the sudden beat of chopper blades overhead drove home the fact that we were climbing up a ‘slumbering giant’ in such an isolated place that should something go wrong, you were likely to be airlifted out.
Unlike for most hikers, reaching the 5th Station for us meant reaching a decent spot to have a late lunch break and to celebrate having reached the level where saner minded people begin their ascent. The 5th Station is the first manned station, complete with somewhere to buy food and basic supplies. At 2300 m above sea level, you’re high enough for any vacuum sealed food you’re carrying to start looking fit to pop. Better still, it means you’re well over halfway to the summit.
The majestic forests that cloak Mt Fuji’s flanks quickly began to disappear beyond the 5th Station and all greenery aside from hardy little alpine shrubs had vanished by the 6th Station. The trail zigzagged through a dusty grey volcanic wasteland, hugging the man-made rusted steel and stone retaining walls that had been cut into the mountain. As the trees vanished, the human crowds replaced them. On the Yoshidaguchi Trail, the crowds began from the 6th station where the trail coming across from the 5th Station bus stop joins in. This is also where you’ll start to see people having issues with the altitude.
As we closed in on the 7th Station and caught sight of the first mountain huts, the wide graded trail gave way to a narrow mountain goat trail over rocks. Though the terrain was easier underfoot than the sea of loose unstable pebbles on the wider section, the bottleneck transition left us queuing single-file strung out across the black hillside towards our mountain hut, where we’d spend the night. The current fashion trend among Japanese hikers for almost fluoro hiking made it feel less like we were on a serious hike and more like we’d gone back to primary school on no uniform day. At least the view of the sun retreating behind Fuji-san’s impossibly steep flanks as we stood waiting to take each step was stunning. It was beautifully surreal to witness as sunset from so high up whilst still on the ground. At that stage, the coming darkness held no terror, only beauty and the promise of our adventure’s next chapter.
Our group was pretty glad to stop, refuel and rest at our mountain hut at the 7th Station. We’d been hiking for 9 hours by then. But the worry over being so far down the mountain (at the 7th Station instead of the 8th Station as initially intended) and our night hike promising to be much longer than we’d hoped, meant that sleep was a fickle friend. Cue three hours of ‘resting our eyes’, squeezed in like burritos into one giant lower bunk bed in a stuffy hut as Mother Nature started whipping up something special for us.
Continued in: Why not to climb Mt Fuji on a weekend.