The month of September began at an unparalleled height – literally. I ticked off one thing off my bucket list that I didn’t see happening so soon nor really thought was part of my list to begin with?! Well, you’ve already guessed it from the title of this blog but I CLIMBED MOUNT FUJI.
To be honest, I never sincerely toyed with the idea of climbing Mt. Fuji – I mean it is the tallest mountain in Japan, standing at 3,776 meters and is also classified as an active volcano, so y’know. I’m far from one who enjoys hiking but when I was told about the plan, I thought why not give this a shot. Now that I think of it, I must have been carried away by my friend’s hyper enthusiasm.
In all these years I have lived in Japan, I have always enjoyed seeing this national beauty from afar. I vividly remember being in primary school and viewing Mt.Fuji from our classroom window on a pretty much daily basis. Till date spotting Mt. Fuji gets any foreigner or local for that matter excited. The mountain is a prominent hallmark to Japan’s physical, cultural and spiritual geography.
For the past few months I had started going to the gym regularly, simply to instill some physical activity into my rather mundane routine. By no means was I training for Mt. Fuji but in hindsight I am glad those workout days got me #FitForFuji, well somewhat. Having said that, people claim that you do not have to be a professional hiker to climb Fuji, so I thought I would be able to wing it, or climb it, as you will.
The hiking trails are only open from early July to early September. So we climbed up the mountain less than two weeks before the trail would have closed until next year. The exceptionally symmetrical beauty of this mountain that is snow-capped for 5 to 6 months of the year looked nothing like most of the images we see online. Without the snow, Fuji-san looked incognito.
So we left Tokyo early morning on Saturday unsure of the weather hurdles ahead of us. It was a fairly sunny day but we knew rain was in forecast. It took us around 2 and a half hours and it was only when we drove closer to the 5th station that I started to second-guess what I committed myself to. I was panting from the first steps of the hike – there went all those workouts and feeling fit for this adventure.
There are 4 trails to climb Mt. Fuji;
Yoshida Trail – best for sunrise but also the most popular and crowded amongst all
Fujinomiya Trail – shortest trail in distance and you would ascend and descend the same way
Subashiri Trail – meets the Yoshida trail eventually but is overall less crowded
Gotemba Trail – the longest trail and also the least developed
Can you guess which trail we decided to take? (Actually, we really didn’t have an option to begin with but..)
We took the GOTEMBA TRAIL.
We reached the Gotemba 5th station, which is by far the lowest of the 5th stations at only 1400 meters above sea level. So this was going to be a LONG hike to say the very least. We were advised to acclimate before starting the hike, so that our body was accustomed to the new climate conditions that were forthcoming.
We began this escapade at 12PM. Ideally, the Gotemba trail takes around seven to ten hours to reach the summit. Our goal was to reach our lodge at the 7.5th station between 6pm-6:30pm, where we would be staying overnight. The first hour into the hike went all right. It was only after that the trail got harder and harder because of the featureless terrain that was made up of fields of lava rocks. If you are taking the Gotemba trail, keep in mind there are no mountain huts, amenities or protection however spectacular scenic views of Shizuoka and Tokyo city to compensate. As we soared higher and higher in altitude the temperature was also getting cooler, so it was very important to layer. Starting from 32 degrees to 2 degrees was quite the drastic temperature change we went through.
It took us 6 and a half hours to reach 7.5th station where our Sunabashirikan hut was reserved. From starting at 1400 meters above sea level to reaching 3100 meters was the hardest and most strenuous activity I have ever done. I also never thought how happy seeing a lodge in the middle of nowhere could make you feel! As we reached just in time for sunset, standing 3100 meters high was a surreal moment (and a very cold one too).
As the plan was to take shelter at the hut before climbing the remaining bit to the summit for sunrise, we quickly ate dinner and got comfortable in our futons. We had decided to be ready by 1AM to leave for the summit but around 11:30PM typhoon and heavy rainfall had crept on us. At this point, I was extremely scared of these weather calamities that were hindering our chance to reach the summit. We kept checking the weather online and it wasn’t looking too good. (Oh yes, there’s full signal at Mt. Fuji and even Wi-Fi at the lodge we stayed at!) We eventually went out of our hut to see the weather conditions and we could literally see nothing. The winds were dangerously strong and it was also brutally cold. At this point, we made the decision to go back to sleep and check up on the weather every hour to see if there was any improvement.
Things weren’t looking good even at 5AM. There was a lot of noise and movement in the lodge. We were advised to not go up to the summit as the weather perils were not to be shunned. It was very disappointing that we couldn’t make it to the top but it was the wisest decision we had to make.
We gathered all our belongings, bundled up for the harsh weather and started our descend right after the sunrise so we had some natural light to guide our way. While the ascend took 6 and a half hours, the descend took only a little over 2 and a half hours! This is the best part of the Gotemba trail as a section of the trail is known as “Osunabashiri” that literally translates to “great sand run.” The ascend is one long straight path covered in loose lava gravel where you can literally run down. The same terrain that was brutal while ascending becomes an advantage during the descent. I thoroughly enjoyed taking large leaps down amidst the downpour and overcast weather conditions.
In all humbleness I am very proud of myself for climbing Mt.Fuji as much as we could, despite the unforeseeable weather conditions. A plan made rather spontaneously turned out to be the most rewarding and valuable memory I will cherish. On many instances I wanted to give-up and go back because I think I definitely underestimated how frazzling and challenging this was. However, overall this has been an enlightening journey. As cliché and naive as it may sound but I feel like I discovered myself. I am more aware of my capabilities and extremities I as a person can undergo; physically, mentally and emotionally.
Special shoutout to these guys for being so patient, caring and empathizing throughout the way!
Mt. Fuji thrives on this Japanese proverb that states, “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice” so I am not sure whether I’d be doing this again or not.