JR Vs. The Volcano

Originally, my Japanese itinerary didn’t include Mount Fuji. Fortunately I made South African friends on the Kumano Kodo who convinced me to take on the volcano.

After a week in Tokyo I took the overnight bus to Fujiyoshida, where I transferred to a bus for Mount Fuji. Even the bus’ climb to the base camp is something to marvel at. The South Africans told me I should try to do it all in one shot, but the lady at the information desk convinced me that the best experience is to watch the sun rise from the peak of the mountain. She helped me make a reservation at one of the mountain houses near the top, The accommodations were among the more expensive I’d made in rural Japan, just over ¥10000 ($100), but it came with dinner.

The starting point, base camp, is full of shops and Torii Gates. It’s easily as crowded as Disney Land, but most of the people do not climb. Just seeing Mount Fuji up close is a blessing for old school Japanese people. I geared up at the shops, picked up snacks, refilled my water, stocked up on Fuji Jelly (a sugary energy jelly) and (most importantly) bought a wooden walking stick to climb the mountain with. I decided to come back down the same way I went up, so I was able to leave my rucksack in one of the lockers at 5th Station. Be careful if you do that, lots of people accidentally take the wrong way down and after conquering Fuji find themselves miles from their gear. Or, so I was told.

Everyone talks about “climbing” Fuji and I have to admit I was foolishly ill impressed with the challenge presented by the first portion. There were challenging pieces, mostly because of slippery rocks. The paths are clearly marked and some of the scrambling isn’t for the faintest of hearts. Funny thing about Fuji is it was the one place in Japan where English speakers were hard to find. The people climbing Fuji were from all over the world and everyone was as friendly as ever. Lots of bowing. The stations on the way up (7-10) have a signature brand for your wooden walking stick. Some of the brands are blessings, others mark the year or the height you’ve climbed to so far. They all sell snacks and all have a strict Leave No Trace policy; take your trash with you. The caretakers of these houses stay for months and re-supply weekly, they don’t need your rubbish. Somewhere between station 7 and 8 is when “climbing Fuji” becomes something you can really brag about. Holy shit.

The sun never came out; the weather skipped between crappy and almost nice. Dinner at the mountain house was a bowl of Japanese rice with curry sauce. A simple dinner I savored every damn morsel of. They offered seconds, I happily scarfed them down too. While it was no Kumano Kodo, it was no cake walk either; my hosts (in broken English) informed me that the mountain hasn’t gotten hard yet. “Real fun, tomorrow” he said with a chuckle that bordered on menacing. Bed time. “Bed,” was a mat in an attic that I shared with around 100 people. The guest house was at maximum capacity and people who needed more privacy (or groups that planned way in advance) got the nicer bunks downstairs. Wake-up calls were at 0430 with a hard check out of 0600, there was a light snack for breakfast and a short but difficult climb to the top.

Day 2 was hard. Very hard. That sunshine never came, the people who manage the guest house advised that we turn back. Several groups listened and went down the way we came, which seemed treacherous in the current conditions. I was stubborn but low-key terrified. I did not want to go first; I didn't want to die in Japan but I did not come all that way to almost climb Fuji. It was wet, windy and foggy. I let some other guy go first. Once he got to a safe distance, I started…. At the next mountain house my walking stick was branded with a congratulatory message for climbing the steepest part of Mount Fuji. It's my prized possession, I earned it.

The further up I got the more people I saw turning back. Against my better judgement I pressed on. The entry to the Buddhist monastery at the top was something out of a samurai movie. Foggy, rainy, mysterious, guarded by mythical lions. I was wet, I was cold, I was hungry. I rested for a bit and basked in an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that's hard to put into words. I just did something I never imagined I 'd do and it felt amazing. No view of sunrise, though. The markings for the walking stick at the top are a blessing from the monks (hammered in, not branded) and a special brand for reaching the summit's 12,395ft of altitude.

Coming down the mountain, gravity at your back, you can lean into it and pick up a nice jog. It’s referred to as “sand running” because you’re in ankle deep volcanic ash and it's virtually effortless. At times I had to slow myself down.

Just over 7 hours of climbing to get up the mountain and about 90 minutes of jogging down.

Back at the base camp, I caught a 2hr bus to the bullet train station. I got a well deserved nap on the bus and woke up just as we pulled in. Waiting on line to buy tickets for the bullet train I realized my phone must’ve fallen out of my pocket and just left with the bus…. There I am, in rural Japan. My main translator, payment method and only chance of calling for help is on its way back to Mount Fuji! This gaijin? Okasa reta! But, that’s another story….