The Hike Up Mount Fuji

Trip Start Apr 27, 2011
Trip End Aug 09, 2011

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Mount Fuji

Flag of Japan  , Shizuoka,
Monday, August 1, 2011

Sunday (July 31)

After getting a not-so-good night's sleep (I will describe our interactions with the hostel at a later point) the next day we went to Harajuku. We heard if you go on a Sunday then you could see young people dress up in costumes, but when we walked to the place where they were supposed to be standing, we did not see them anywhere.  Disappointed, Kelcey and I instead walked through the entrance of the shopping area where we found ourselves, once again, squished in with a bunch of Japanese people.  As we were walking, we noticed some people were in fact dressed a little, ahem, strangely.  One older gentleman was dressed in a kimono with a large, extravagant hat with fishbowl earrings.  With real goldfish swimming around!  Another person was completely covered in this pink, cat like costume- complete with puppets covering his hand and facepaint.  After shopping around for a bit, Kelcey and I decided to get a Japanese-style crepe which are DELICIOUS.  Mine was covered in whipped cream, chocolate, strawberries, and ice-cream.  I would have taken a picture of it but I gobbled it up too quickly.  As I was eating, Kelcey witnessed a full-grown man in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform- complete with a braid made out of his chin hair topped off with a little bow at the end.  This country shocks me so much that nothing I see seems to be a surprise anymore.  I also learned how important bands are to the culture here in Japan- there are many boy and girl bands composed of tons of people (some looked like they had 15-20 members in their group!) and obsessed fans to go to special poster places to get their favorite singer on a fan or keychain.  Not my cup of tea, especially because-to me- they all sing in this high-pitched voice (which way more annoying than appealing). 

Later in the day, Kelcey and I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where we could ride the elevator to the very top floor and see Tokyo stretch as far as the eye can see.  The best part?  This site is free!  It was really amazing to see what Tokyo looked like from a birds-eye view and one can see the different areas which make up Tokyo very clearly from a height like the one we were at.  After taking way too many photos at the top of the building, we made it back to Shibuya where we did a little window shopping, exploring the area by night.  I was happy/surprised to see my favorite Italian gelato chain (Grom) expanded to Tokyo.  While I refrained from getting any ice-cream, I did drool from the pane of glass separating me from the most pure, refreshing treat that I have ever had in my life.

Monday (August 1)

A few months prior when Kelcey and I decided to go to Tokyo together, we agreed to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  To the summit of Mount Fuji.  Japan’s highest mountain.  3,776 meters (or 12,388 feet) above sea level.  The last time it erupted was in 1708 (oh, and you had better believe I looked up all of these vital facts before agreeing to do this crazy stunt!)  For some educational history, I have copy-and-pasted some paragraphs to better prepare my readers with an unbiased opinion about Mt. Fuji:  Unlike some sacred mountains, it is not considered sacrilegious to climb Mt. Fuji - in fact, to ascend to the summit is an important pilgrimage. The mountain is home to many Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and torii gates. The official climbing season is only two months long (July and August), during which time most of the snow has melted and thousands of pilgrims and hikers make the climb to the top.  The climb is no walk in the park - it is very steep and takes about 8 hours - but for many it is an experience of a lifetime. It is estimated that up to a third of the climbers are foreign tourists, making for an atmosphere that is at once quintessentially Japanese and international.

Back to the story, Kelcey and I really wanted to avoid getting altitude sickness so we went to a 7-11 and stocked up on various foods and a huge liter bottle of water each.  Since we decided to do this after leaving the United States, we had to rely on the clothes we packed to make due for hiking up a mountain.  One thing: I have never hiked up a mountain before, so I had no idea what to pack/wear.  Kelcey, luckily, is from Tennessee and hikes mountains often so she came to my rescue with her expert advice.  There were some interesting guys we met in the Hiroshima hostel which give us some words of wisdom: they said it was really cold and you want to stop but you can’t because otherwise, you will just freeze.  They also said climbing down is close to impossible and that we would be emptying our shoes of rocks for days.  Their advice kind of scared me, but I tried to remind myself that this was just one perception of the journey.  The morning of, we woke up refreshed and ready to go.  We made sure to eat a hearty breakfast and relax before having to leave for the bus station that would be taking us up to the fifth station.  At 2,300 meters, this is the highest point where transportation can occur and beyond that, the only way up is foot.  When we arrived to the area where the bus would be departing from, we made sure to stop by somewhere to eat a big lunch (Starbucks, of course) so that way it would have time to settle in our stomachs during the one and a half hour journey to the Fifth station.  Our ascent was pretty foggy; we could not see the mountain from the highway and by the time I realized we were ascending the mountain there was nothing to see but trees everywhere.  …Which brings me to my next piece of interesting information.  There is a place located on the side of Mt. Fuji known by the Japanese as Aokigahara, or the Sea of Trees.  The forest is associated with demons according to Japanese mythology, but is also a popular place for committing suicide.  It is the world’s second most popular suicide location after the San Francisco bridge.  I had no idea where this forest was located and found myself wondering if I would see dead bodies littering the forest at some point (but thankfully, I didn’t).  When our bus finally arrived to the fifth station at 7:30 on Monday evening, Kelcey and I stepped outside, excited to conqueror the mountain peak that was looming above us.  However, the exercise shorts and shirt that we were wearing at the time did nothing to help block the surprising cold.  We had packed warmer clothes for later on in our journey, but we made the executive decision to change into our jeans and long-sleeve shirts right then instead.  The view from the side of the mountain was spectacular; even though we were not at the summit yet, I felt like we were floating at the top of the world.  After changing, Kelcey and I started our ascent up the Yoshida trail.  As the sun was setting, one thought came up in both of our minds- how were we going to see as we were hiking up the mountain?  It slipped our minds that it would in fact be dark (our plan was to hike through the night and arrive at the summit in time to see the sun rise), and therefore neither of us thought to buy a flashlight.  Doh!  We managed the first 30 minutes without any light but then tailed along with random people wearing headlights in order to see where we were stepping.  The first uphill climb we had to do made us gasp for breath by the time we were at the top which frankly, scared me to death.  I hoped to goodness that it wouldn’t be that difficult the entire way up!  I later learned I should be careful what I wished for.

After an hour or so of hiking by following other people’s lights, we realized we had a problem.  At one point after climbing up a steep incline, we stopped near the edge to discuss what to do next (and to catch a breather).  Not a minute passed before a Japanese guy with his headlight passed us, backed up, shouted "Gambatte!" (Do your best, or come on!) and moved forward again.  There was a pretty big language barrier between us as we were walking with him- he did not know any English and while Kelcey could communicate in Japanese if she had to, we both kind of had other things on our mind (such as surviving and focusing on our never-ending muscle strains) as we were hiking.  We mostly just continued hiking in silence; every now and again we would look up at the beautiful blanket of stars above us.  I have never felt so stimulated as I did as I was climbing up Mont Fuji.  It was such an exhilarating adventure with such amazing views that there are just no other words to describe them.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t really take photos looking down the mountain in the middle of the night; the ones I did get are just a messy blur of light.  The view I saw was completely different- as we climbed higher and higher, when I looked below you could see a trail of headlights and flashlights moving slowly up.  Beyond that (for the first few hours of hiking, anyways) you could see a nearby city’s lights.  Also, I should mention there are 9 stations in which people can stop, rest, eat, use the bathroom, or sleep if they need to.  Don’t let the nine-number fool you though; there are a few stations that have the same number so after you pass station 8, the next stop you reach might be another 8th station.  It was a little confusing because I used the number of the stations that we passed as our measuring tool on how close we were to reaching the summit. 

The hike, while doable, was extremely tiring.  The slopes are not kind to the body and they only get worse as you get higher and higher.  After passing through station 7, I began to get light-headed and nauseous but I assumed it was just from looking down (I am afraid of heights).  I tried focusing my attention on the path ahead but found that as I climbed higher, my breath got shorter, I was getting dizzy, and was beginning to develop a headache.  Kelcey and our Japanese friend (bless their hearts) would wait on me as I made frequent stops, but at the next resting point Kelcey told me she thought I was a victim of altitude sickness.  I knew she was right but I did not want to admit that to myself because I came to Mt. Fuji on a mission and I am not one that quits very easily.  Sitting there talking with her though I denied it but being the good friend she was, she saw right past through me and told me she thinks I should get a hut for the evening to rest.  I did not want to do that because a) the huts were very expensive to sleep in, b) I didn’t want to separate from her, and c) I wanted to complete my goal of climbing up Mt. Fuji.  While I was going through all of the pros and cons in my head, I found that we were all beginning to shiver.  The mountain was cold enough at the 5th station (our starting point) but of course by the 7th station and the fact it was midnight the air was much colder and although it was nice to take a breather, it wasn’t good to stay in one place too long because you lose all the warmth gained through hiking.  I made the executive decision to continue; our Japanese friend gave us each one glove for extra warmth as well as a heat pad to put in our jacket pockets, and like that we were off again!  At some point once we passed Station 7, the steep slopes turned into straight up rocks and hiking turned into rock climbing.  I have never done this before either; and while rock climbing was kind of fun, it was also a bit challenging/dangerous because there was no light (we bought a wimpy overpriced flashlight at one of the stations but it was quickly losing battery life) and I was getting sicker with altitude sickness.  By this point, I had a full-blown headache, I kept coughing, had NO appetite (and anyone that knows me knows that I eat a lot, all of the time) and I felt like I was going to pass out.  Kelcey was trying to get me to stop at every point but each time I told her no and we continued on. 

Another thing worth mentioning is all of the different people that were hiking up along with us.  Older people were walking up (and passing us-probably lapping us at the rate they were going) as well as a lot of young children.  I saw a few instances of grandfathers hiking up with their young grandsons which I have to say were touching sights to watch.  There were also many international people.  At one point an Australian joined our “group” and along the way I overheard British accents, German, Italian, Chinese, and the like. 

By the time we reached one of the later 8th stations, I was in pretty bad shape.  It was mostly rock climbing at this point and the air was very thin as we got closer to our final destination.  The last station before the summit passed by, and I kept feeling like I was going to get sick or pass out.  At the same time, the paths became narrower but eager/more experienced hikers kept finding creative ways to pass us on their race to the top in order to watch the sunrise on time.  It really scared me because at one point, I was almost pushed down as someone was passing me.  All of the people, equipment, and accessories that everyone had made for a very crowded trail and I recognized that the situation could turn very dangerous if people weren’t careful.  Also as we got closer to the top, tour groups became more and more prevalent.  This annoyed both Kelcey and me because they tended to clog up the pathways so we couldn’t pass by very easily in a safe way.  We reached a stopping point to rest, made the executive decision to go inside for some hot chocolate, and with it gained 15 minutes of warmth.  That’s right, they only let us stay in there for 15 minutes.  I did not even care how much that cup of hot chocolate was or the fact that it was probably the worst I have tasted; at that point it tasted like heaven and warmed my body up instantly.  Kelcey and I, taking full advantage of the precious 15 minutes we had, propped our heads up with our hands and dozed off, even getting by with an extra 10 minutes before one of the servers yelled at us saying that our time was up.  The Japanese guy that had been accompanying us all this way came in as we were leaving and he told us (we think) to go on ahead and that he would catch up later.  So then it became just me and her. 

The last hour and a half I was really pushing it in terms of consciousness and health.  However, I still wanted to make it to the top and I did not want to make Kelcey miss the sun rise due to my circumstance (and I knew she wouldn’t leave me, even though I told her to do so on multiple occasions).  We took multiple breaks and Kelcey’s encouraging words really are what made me continue moving.  She would be ahead of me, climb up the rocks, and then stick her hand out to help me up, as I was a lot weaker than when I began the journey.  I didn’t look up or down, but instead looked straight ahead and kept asking Kelcey “how long until we reach the top?”  She kept saying, “It’s right above us!  I can see the top!  We are almost there!”  and only later realized she was saying that for my sake rather than basing her words on facts.  The sky began to get lighter as the sun was about to rise and right when I thought we wouldn’t make it, we did.  We passed a Torii Gate, went up one more stair set, and then situated ourselves against a rail, preparing for the sun to rise.  It was to my relief that we finally made it to the top but in the back of my mind I was wondering how on earth we would be able to climb back down.  As the sun rose though, all of my worries got pushed aside and I saw the most amazing view ever.  We were up with the clouds and yet at the very edge of the Earth (it seemed) a small bright circle was slowly coming up.  Even though it was freezing at the summit, we stood around for a good 20 minutes just admiring the beauty that surrounded us.  There were some British people that were goofing off behind us and between them and the fact that the sun rose for the day, my attitude improved and I got a burst of energy to finish what we started.  Kelcey and I went into a hut for some warmth (we bought a drink of hot tea with no intention of drinking it, but rather took turns holding it with our hands so they may defrost).  We wanted to go exploring and see what the crater looked like but as we walked around, the clouds turned a little gray and a mist began setting in.  The crater was FREEZING cold and our original plans of walking around the perimeter quickly faded as we both began shivering uncontrollably.  I just do not understand how something so hot can come from an area that is so cold!  After Kelcey and I walked around for a bit, we decided to begin our journey back down to civilization (aka the 5th station).  We were surprised/grateful to learn that there was a separate Yoshida trail to go down and that it was flat; however it was at around a 30 degree angle for of the time it takes to go down.  As we started off, we began slipping and sliding everywhere.  The path is composed of millions of tiny volcanic rocks and ash which makes walking down very difficult since you are at an angle as well.  Falling down is inevitable; I found myself wishing we had a walking stick for the way down to help us maintain our balance.  We got very easily frustrated- it is impossible to walk quickly down due to the danger of slipping on the rocks and falling off the mountain (it was a very curvy path) but walking slowly began to wear our kneecaps.  About an hour into our decent, I began to feel better (altitude sickness wise) but I still felt like I could be sick to my stomach and to add to my long list of problems, my knees made me begin to limp and walk at a snail’s pace.  At one point when we were resting (I was trying to force something down in terms of food for energy) then a couple that we had passed on the way up passed by us, congratulated us for making it to the top (they thought we’d never make it since we did not have a flashlight yet at that point) and the girl offered me some medication to make me feel better.  She called it Gravel but after I took it, my stomach felt better and I was able to climb with one less symptom bothering me.  We were both so tired from climbing through the night that on another one of our breaks, we sat down just to close our eyes and accidentally fell asleep- on the side of Mt. Fuji!  I’m sure we looked a sight to those passing us by.  Four hours later, we finally make it back to the fifth station.  Our bus reservation was for 11am and it was 9 when we made it down and as a result had a few hours to kill.  The best way to describe how we were feeling at that point was zombie-like.  My ears were ringing, my eyes were droopy, and Kelcey and I were both grumpy because we missed a night of sleep.  We walked through the gift shop and then decided to get something to eat.  After almost falling asleep in our food (and paying 10x more for the same thing we could have gotten back in the city) we decided to sit on a staircase inside (since it was full-out raining and we did not want to go back in the cold) and fell asleep.  That’s right, we fell asleep on a staircase.  Looking back, it’s pretty funny but at that point, we did what we had to do.  Plus, we weren’t the only ones.  On the bus ride back, we were sleeping and when we got back to our hostel, we slept until the early evening.  When we woke up, we made the executive decision to get some Dominoes and ordered a large cheese pizza, devouring it within minutes of receiving it. 
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