Climbing Mount Fuji

Not a Task for Wimps

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O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

(Haiku by Kobayashi Issa).

There’s a well-known Japanese proverb that says, “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.” I have just returned from climbing Mount Fuji for the second time. Why did I do it again? Mainly to get photos for this website. Here’s the story; first a little background (the next two paragraphs below are taken direct from my book ‘Fukushima and the coming Tokyo Earthquake: and what it will mean for a fragile world economy’). Buy it and learn lots, grasshopper.

Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji remains a sacred site for practitioners of the indigenous Shinto faith. The highest mountain in Japan, it is its most instantly recognisable cultural symbol, a World Heritage site, inspiration for thousands of poems going back at least to the eighth century, and the attraction most visited by foreign tourists. Created long ago in a vast upheaval of magma, it sits near a triple junction of tectonic activity, between the Amurain/Eurasian plate, the Okhotsk plate (linked to the North American plate) and the Philippine Sea plate. Volcanologists have speculated for a number of years that Fuji-san is overdue an eruption.

Following the 2011 quake, pressure inside the magma chamber is now higher than it was in 1707, the last time the mountain erupted. It is nearly sixteen times the minimum amount necessary to trigger an eruption. Inactive for over three hundred years, Mount Fuji lies just 100 kms (70 miles) southwest of the capital. A major eruption would shower areas up to 1,000 kms away with volcanic ash, blanket Tokyo and suburbs, and disrupt transportation services.

Me at the base sign near the 5th station

The climbing season, when mountain huts, first aid stations and small shops are open, is fairly short – July 11th to September 14th. There are four routes up and they converge near the summit. The ideal way to do Fuji is to climb to a point nearish the summit, sleep in a mountain hut booked in advance (basic but warm and it includes two simple meals). Next, get up at 3.00am, climb the rest of the way using a flashlight/torch, and reach the summit just before dawn. That way, if you are lucky, you will see the sunrise. The last time I went it was just a pink smudge on the horizon. This time, in the immediate aftermath of two typhoons that had swept across Japan and cleared the sky of clouds, the sunrise was perfect, as you will see in the photos. This is fairly unusual.

Buses and cars go as far as the 5th station

Most people take a bus from Tokyo to the 5th (climbing) station, buy a walking stick, and then start climbing. At first you walk into cloud, but if you are lucky, it should be clear above that. The 5th to 6th station is an easy walk, after that it gets tougher: the 7th to 8th station section is very steep, and needs hands as well as feet to make it over the volcanic rock. On the way the wind gets stronger. By the time you get to the 8th station you are extremely tired and out of breathe due to the lack of oxygen. One guy I met there was so sick and had such a headache because of altitude sickness that it is unlikely he went any further.

Early part of the climb. The two guys in shorts were Ozzies

Apart from the amazing views that occasionally open through the clouds, the shared experience of climbing Fuji means that everyone is in a great mood (well… initially anyhow) and you meet people from many countries. Some Japanese climb in one go from the 5th station at night, and as we prepared to climb the last section at 3.00 am you could look down and see their lights advancing zigzag up the mountain. You could also see the lights of two cities far below, as that night the view was quite clear.

Sign near the 5th station. Looks easy as depicted there!!

The final section – 8th station to the summit in the dark – takes above 2.5 hours and is really tough. Needs lots of breaks as you struggle to regain your breathe. At this stage you are gasping for air. The route up gets very crowded near the top, as all four trails plus the nightime climbers converge there. As the sunrise occurred, everyone cheered the first rays of sun. Later, here and there, mountains in the far distance peaked through the clouds.

Even here near the 5th Station the power of the wind is sufficient to bend trees

It was bitterly cold at the summit with a strong breeze, and my fingers were soon going numb despite wearing gloves – probably 4 or 5 degrees C but colder due to the wind chill factor. It’s not surprising at 3,776 metres in height. It’s possible to walk right around the crater, but as I’d seen it before I didn’t bother. Too damned cold. It takes up to 1.5 hours to circumnavigate.

Sunbleached Tree Roots

Amazingly – or not, this being Japan – they have Wi-Fi on the summit: select Welcome_to_Fujisan_Summit, chose settings and start your browser. You’ve been given as user ID and password at the 5th station which is valid for three days!!

Scene about two hours after leaving the 5th Station

Although I had prepared well with snacks, fruit, and plenty of warm clothes, I had forgotten to bring suncream (didn’t need it the last time I climbed). This was a serious mistake, doubly so as I ran out of water on the way down and had to make a detour across trails to buy more, wasting time and failing energy. There is no shade whatsoever on the return route and the sun beams down. Add to that UV light and wind. This combination is really bad for skin.

Heading through the cloud to the 6th station. The 5th to the 6th Station section is the easiest part of the trek

Unlike the way up which has lots of shops, the way down has very few – it’s basically a zigzag down the mountain over sand and small rocks. That might sound easy but its not: your leg muscles are already in pain, and the ground slips away under your feet very easily. Correcting that tendency to slide for many hours is very tough on hips, toes and the muscles at backs of your legs. On both ascent and descent you need to stay constantly focused on where you place your feet. Having a walking stick helps break the slide a bit. It takes every ounce of your mental and physical energy to make it back to the 5th station.

Between the major stations en route, there are small shops like this one

As I write this I am still badly sunburned, my hands have swollen up, and many of my toenails are grey because of subcutaneous bleeding. So… was it worth it? Well, I’m pleased with most of the photos and I lost 2.5 kilos in weight, which I wanted. Would I do it again? No fucking way José. The Japanese proverb I quoted at the top is correct: only a fool climbs twice. Fuji may look beautiful from a distance but it deserves major respect up close. As the Japanese say “owate shimaimashita”(completely finished) as in “finished and I’ll never do that again”. EVER.

These rocks are deliberately placed on the roofs of buildings to stop the roofs being blown off when the wind is very strong

This is on the way up, possibly before the 7th station, as there is a still lot of greenery below the climbers

This was somewhere near or beyond the 7th Station

The route gets steeper above the 7th Station

Occasionally the clouds opened a bit. As you can see in places red earth can be seen instead of grey volcanic rock

Halfway up and the mountain is now much steeper

This sign was at one of the stations on the way up

Red Torii gate, somewhere before the 8th Station

This is near the top, well beyond the height at which any plants can grow

A sign for food and oxygen: Not as crazy as its sounds: the further up Fuji you climb, the more oxygen deprived the air is

The stone torii (a Shinto religious gate) is the entrance point to the summit of Fuji

Scene at the top of the mountain. What you see here is now already covered in snow in October

Me in my Burmese poncho at the top. Despite wearing five layers of clothes it was freezing and there is no place to get out of the wind

First Sunrise

The beginning of the descent. We had had 2 typhoons just before this time, and this was the last weekend when it was possible to climb

Beginning of the descent: You can see from the climbers clothing that’s its cold despite the sun having risen

Having a pole or a walking stick is a good idea. It’s very helpful for the way down. Mine has map of the route on it

You can get a stamp of each station burned onto your Mt Fuji pole

Although the manmade route down form the 9th station looks easy to negotiate it’s actually very hard on your legs and feet

This badge shows that you have paid your compulsory 1,000 yen contribution to keeping Fuji and its toilets clean

This is what my right hand looked like two days after I returned from Fuji! That was probably 2nd degree burns

Don’t forget the suncream if you decide to climb Mount Fuji!

As I write this Mount Aso, the biggest volcano in Kyushu (southern Japan) has just erupted. Will Fuji? Someday yes for, though dormant, it is still an active volcano. As mentioned above, the pressure within the mountain is sixteen times the minimum amount that triggered the last Fuji eruption. Just as with earthquakes, it’s impossible to say exactly when this will happen.

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About The Author
Tony Smyth

Tony Smyth is Irish and has lived in Japan 30 years. He has two Japan-related websites: tokyotales365.com and the promotion site for this new book fukushimatokyoquake.com. This book is about the coming Tokyo earthquake, nuclear power, global warming and the importance of Japans technologies to the world economy.

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