Mount Fuji, for real

15Aug12

Nick and Lisa at the 5th station prior to climbing Mount Fuji.

Go ahead, climb Mount Fuji if you want to.

We did it. We survived.

It is something most people in Japan do at one time or another. After all, it is the most climbed mountain in the world, with about 100,000 people making the trek each year.

Fuji-san (as it is called in Japan) is possibly the most sacred site in the country and many pilgrims make this spiritual journey.

We just wanted to climb the bastard.

Beginning the ascent.

Our party was a total of three – myself, my wife Lisa and her brother Yuichi. Lisa and Yuichi tried to hike Mount Fuji about five years ago and had to turn back 50 meters from the top. Lisa had debilitating altitude sickness and the weather was atrocious.

They wanted to redeem themselves. This time we were a little more prepared.

Most people climb Mount Fuji in order to see sunrise at the peak. This is the only time there is an actual view. For most of the day Fuji-san is covered in clouds. They usually leave the day before and stay at one of the hovels at the 7th or 8th station, where they can rest and eat – for a steep price. Then they leave around 3 a.m. to reach the summit by sunrise. Others just hike straight through the night.

We didn’t want to do either of these options. First – we really didn’t want to stay in one of the Mount Fuji ‘hotels.’ You have to bring your own sleeping bag and sleep on a mattress shared by countless other sweaty, greasy hikers. Also, the toilets are nasty and the food is way overpriced. Secondly, we really didn’t want to hike at night.

This was just way to ambitious for us.

Yuichi taking a break near the 6th station.

So instead, we took the bus from Shinjuku station Friday evening, arriving at Kawaguchiko Station at 6:15 p.m. The English link for the Highway bus can be found here.

We stayed at a local business hotel. It was a 15 minute walk from the station and while not the best hotel, it was affordable and did the trick. Here is the link to the homepage, but it is in Japanese.

We had a nice dinner at the restaurant across the street. It specialized in red meat meals – hamburgers steaks, etc. I had the cheese-hamburger and shrimp special. Lisa and her brother had an in depth conversation about Japanese banking and finance. I tried to figure out what kind of cheese they put on my burger patty.

Anyway, we found some cheap beers in a nearby gas station and got tipsy in our hotel room.

The next morning, Saturday, we arose at 6:30. Keep in mind, we made our trip on Aug. 11, which is in the heart of tourist season at Mount Fuji. If you can, visit on a weekday. We didn’t have a choice.

The first bus from the Kawaguchiko Station to the Kawaguchiko Station left at 7:20. The ticket office opened at 6:45, and they only sell tickets on the day of your trip. I wanted to get their the minute they opened, but we didn’t get there until 7:05. It didn’t matter. There were plenty of seats.

I did buy three 2-liter bottles of water prior to leaving. Lisa and I shared these. I divvied them up into one water bladder and three water bottles. I carried the bladder and two bottles, while Lisa carried the third bottle. I paid $4 for all of the water, and it lasted the entire trip, with very little left over.

The trail leading out of the 5th station.

I make a point of this because while you can buy water on the trail, it is very expensive. Above the fifth station, the cost is 500 yen (about $6) for a small bottle of water. Carrying water was a tad heavy, but it got lighter as we went along. Plus, the best way to fight altitude sickness is hydration, so to me, it was worth the extra weight to keep Lisa hydrated.

Anyway, we arrived at Kawaguchiko 5th station at 8:30. There were more people leaving than arriving. These were the people who had made the sunrise hike. We followed the recommendations and stayed at the 5th station for one hour to help acclimate to the altitude.

Mount Fuji is 12,388 feet high. The 5th station is at approximately 7,500 feet. So in one day you are climbing approximately 5,000 feet, nearly one mile straight up.

This is not an easy feat and should not be taken lightly.

We took the Yoshidaguchi climbing trail, which is the easiest route. We started at 9:30 a.m. The first leg to the 6th station was relatively easy and took us under an hour. The sixth station is the last chance for decent bathroom, and the last bathrooms that ask for a 100 yen donation. After the 7th station, it increases to 200 yen donation, and there are turnstiles, so you are required to pay.

There is nowhere to pee without being seen.

There are no trees, not even shrubbery, on Mount Fuji. And the trail is a constant stream of hikers, so there is nowhere to hide if you want to pee off the trail. Don’t even think about it.

Anyway, after the 6th station, there is nowhere to go but straight up. At some points you have to scale rock faces (though challenging, they are not dangerous). At other times you are trudging through loose gravel or climbing steep stairs. None of it is easy (for me at least. Yuichi was having no trouble whatsoever).

This brings me to another point, as we were leaving, multiple people tried to donate their walking sticks to us. Every time we said, “no thanks.” This is a personal thing to me. I like to keep my hands free. I also didn’t want to have to carry a walking stick home with me on the train.

They do make a nice, expensive souvenir. You can get your walking stick branded at all of the stations along the way up, for a nominal fee.

It’s your choice. We chose not too.

Eating Cup O Noodles at the 7th station.

At the 7th station we stopped for Cup O Noodles. We did bring along plenty of snacks so we didn’t have to buy too much overpriced food on the trail. I brought two small bags of beef jerky, one bag of potato sticks, one small bag of pretzels, one bag of hard candy (coffee chocolate), 4 Power Bars, 2 Power gels, one bag of dried mangos and one bag of prunes.

We ate all of it except the prunes.

Actually, I ate the prunes and it was the biggest mistake I made.

Do not, I repeat, do not bring prunes along on the hike.

You would think that is something you don’t have to warn somebody about, but not all of us are as smart as you.

It was like two toads mating in my stomach.

Where was I?

Right. After the 7th station the crowd on the trail thinned out a bit and the incline became even steeper. By the time we reached the 8th station Lisa and I were breathing pretty hard and moving pretty slow. Everybody moves at a different pace. We took the hare approach. We moved at a pretty good clip between stops, passing by most of the other hikers. The Ohkawas are a little more competitive than your average Japanese hiker.

Lisa passing other hikers like a Kenyan competing in Running Man.

Many other hikers took the tortoise approach. Slow and steady. We would speed by these dodderers, who all seemed to be carrying two walking poles, taking one step every 5 seconds. However, they all seemed to catch up with us every time we took a break. And we did stop a lot. The recommendation is to take a break at every rest stop, and we did. Unless you are an experienced hiker, do not blow by the rest stops.

Past the 8th station Lisa was starting to have a pretty hard time, so I told her to take the tortoise approach. It takes more energy to start and stop than it does to keep moving, so I told her to take slower, shorter steps.

It was about 2 p.m. when it started to rain. It wasn’t a downpour, but just an annoying drizzle. It was also getting cold. The summit averages 43 degrees Fahrenheit in August, and it was probably right around there.

For clothes, I wore Under Armour tights and long-sleeved under shirt underneath my hiking shorts and T-shirt. I also brought a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt and my rain jacket and rain pants. This was perfect for me. I wore everything I brought at some point. Don’t forget the gloves.

When we left the 9th station, which was nothing more than a shack on the side of the mountain, we hit a tight bottleneck. The trail disappeared into the rock face, and the step options were quite limited. We had no choice but to wait our turn. The bottleneck delayed us a good 30-45 minutes.

Lisa and I at the 10th station, or summit.

By the time we reached the 10th station, or the summit, Lisa was gassed. Yuichi was not winded one bit, and surprisingly, I was doing okay. It wasn’t that Lisa is out of shape. In fact, she is more fit than the average person, it’s just that the altitude really gets to her.

But she is a trooper. She is a warrior. She conquered Mount Fuji.

It took us seven hours to reach the summit. It was just after 4 p.m. Some people says it takes an average of six hours. Some people say it takes 8-12 hours. I would say we were slightly above average hikers, so take that for what it’s worth.

At the summit, we bought a few souvenirs and ate the best ramen and hot chocolate ever.

A bad picture of the crater at the summit of Fuji-san.

The rain continued, so we didn’t dilly dally. We took 30 seconds to check out the crater and we began our descent at 5 p.m.

The hike down is a steep decline, but the trail is wide and well manicured. There are no stairs or rocks to climb. Many people run down, which is what we did. We wanted to catch the 7 p.m. bus back to Kawaguchiko station.

Depending on who you ask, it takes either 3-5 or 4-6 hours to make it back to the 5th station. It took us 2 hours.

And we made the 7 o’clock bus.

We finally had a view on the way down.

Now here is where we made our only real mistake (besides eating the prunes). We left our excess luggage at the hotel, because we weren’t 100 percent certain about the location of storage lockers. It so happens they have storage lockers at both the Kawaguchiko Station and the Kawaguchiko 5th station. My advice would be to get a locker at the 5th station and leave your stuff there, because there is a bus that goes directly from the 5th station back to Shinjuku.

Instead, we had to take a bus back to Kawaguchiko Station and make the 15 minute walk to the hotel. We missed the bus back to Shinjuku so we had to take the train. Correction, we had to take three trains. The trip home was nearly three hours.

Our hike up Mount Fuji was five days ago, and my body finally feels like it is returning to normal. Perhaps I would do it again, depending on who was making the trek.

It is an easy trip for the experienced hiker, a challenging/rewarding trip for the casual hiker and it would be living hell for those who don’t hike at all.

Would I try to make the sunrise trip? Probably not, but I can usually be talked into just about anything.

Yuichi, Nick and Lisa at the summit of Fuji-san.

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2 Responses to “Mount Fuji, for real”

  1. 1 jeff lischin

    nick,
    im glad you made it, the previous post about getting hammered before each of your hiking trips was hilarious. but not such a good idea this time.
    keep up the good work, it is great following along with your journey. as i read your posts, i can almost hear your voice speaking the part, with that steven wright/ben stien dead pan. and the subtle comments that would be exactly as you said them in our last conversation.
    great to see your enjoying your adventures, keep sharing buddy, and ill keep reading
    thanx jeff


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