Warning! Dear reader of the English version of this blog, please keep in mind that English is not my native language and forgive me for the poor grammar/style of my English writing. If you speak French, I strongly recommend you read the French version that is available here.
There is an old Japanese proverb saying that: “Anybody would be a fool not to climb Mount Fuji once, and an even bigger fool to do so twice!” Truth is … I’ve always been a fool. But a bus ride followed by a 4 hours hike on a crowded trail did not sound foolish enough to me. So I decided to attempt climbing Mount Fuji (or Fuji-san, as it should be called), starting from the sea level to the summit without the help of any motorized vehicle. Here is the story of this crazy journey.
General information about climbing Mount Fuji (altitude: 3776m/12,388 feet)
There are 4 main climbing routes (Yoshida, Subashiri, Fujinomiya and Gotemba trails), each of them divided in 10 stations with the paved road ending at the 5th station (and it’s hard to find information about the stations below the 5th ones). However, the altitude of the 5th stations varies greatly: from 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) on the Gotemba trail to 2400 meters (7,874 feet) on the Fujinomiya trail. With more than 2300 meters (7,546 feet) of altitude gain and very few mountain huts on the way, the Gotemba trail is by far the most challenging and the less popular one. This is great if you don’t like crowded trails (remember: ~300,000 people climb Mount Fuji every year and an average day in July/August can easily see 3,000 people reach the summit). In addition, the Gotemba trail is covered by loose lava gravel known as Osunabashiri (“great sand run”). This makes the climbing up a bit more difficult but allows you to literally run on the way down, which is really fun and allows you to go down from the summit to the 5th station in less than 2 hours if you are in a hurry. Most people climb the Fuji at night (or stay in a hut near the summit) to be at the summit for sunrise. I’ll do the same: climbing overnight to enjoy the sunrise from the summit. At the summit, the path runs all around the crater so that, with a little bit of extra effort, you can enjoy the view from all sides of the mountain.
If you want to know more about the different trails, I suggest this website: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6901.html
Before the climb
Numazu, August 1st 2011. The bullet train takes me from Hiroshima to Numazu and I arrive exactly at the time announced on the time table (2.07 pm). The punctuality of trains in Japan is impressive (see the Wikipedia page here). There seems to be some sort of festival going on in the streets of the city but I’m obsessed with my goal for the day: find a bike for rent. Thanks to a blog by an Australian guy living in Numazu, I know that there is a bike shop next to my hotel and that the owner speaks English. But I keep thinking: “What if they are closed? What if they are out of bikes for rental?”. Considering the fact that I don’t speak Japanese at all, my chances of finding a bike if it does not work with the “My ring bicycle shop” are quite low, and it seriously worries me. Goods news: “My ring bicycle shop” is open, the owner speaks perfect English and is very friendly. Bad news: there are no road bikes for rental, only women’s city bikes with 3 gears. You know, the kind of bike with a basket on the front … ideal to go grocery shopping in the city but not exactly the kind of bike you want for a 90 Km (60 miles) round trip with a 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) elevation gain. In addition, the bike is way too small for me and kind of heavy.
Well, I guess it will make the entire thing even more challenging! I agree to rent the bike for 2 days. The shop will be closed on Wednesday but it’s not a problem, I will leave the bike on the sidewalk, lock it and leave the keys in the mailbox. Now I’m ready for the Fuji, and it’s time for me to go to the beach for my first swim in the Pacific Ocean! Biking on the left side of the road is a bit disturbing but I manage to reach the beach without any problem and I can enjoy -for the first time in my life- swimming in the Pacific.
No word can describe how happy I am, being there, contemplating the sunset over the Pacific.
Back at the hotel, I can enjoy walking in the crowd of people going out for the festival and latter on some amazing fireworks from the terrace of the hotel, right in front of the site from where the fireworks were shot. If you want to get an idea about these fireworks, I suggest you to look at this video (not by me) on youtube: here.
By 10.30 pm the festival is over; everyone goes home, and I’m very happy with that since I want to have a full night of sleep before climbing Fuji. My bag is ready (ooops, I realize I forgot the gloves that I promised to Holly … but you will see on the pictures that I had a special backup) and it’s time to sleep. In the middle of the night I’m suddenly awakened by an earthquake. It already happened to me a week earlier while I was in Tokyo but this time the quake is much stronger! The entire building is shaking and I’m seriously freaking out. That’s when I realize how terrifying these events can be. I feel so powerless, waiting for the quake to end and keeping my fingers crossed for the building to stand. How long did it last? I have no idea. Maybe 10 seconds, maybe 2 minutes. The clock says 12:00 and I think for a second that it just rebooted because of some power outage. But no, it was indeed midnight. Looking through the window I see people at work cleaning the streets from after the festival, no sign of panic. This was just another earthquake, the kind that happens several times every year in Japan but it was largely enough to scare me, especially since the epicenter was very close from Numazu. After some time I manage to back to sleep: I need some rest because tomorrow is a big day!
More information about this earthquake here: http://earthquake-report.com/2011/08/01/quake-flash-report-very-strong-shallow-earthquake-with-epicenter-in-the-middle-of-the-suruga-bay-japan/
On the road to the Gotemba new 5th station
August 2nd / 8 am / altitude ~ 10m (~30 feet). After the breakfast, I leave one of my two bags at the hotel and head for the beach again. But there will be no swimming this time. I just want to touch the Pacific Ocean to officially start my climbing. On the beach, the altimeter indicates minus 17 meters (minus 55 feet) which I interpret as a sign of high atmospheric pressures and therefore the promise of good weather…
It’s almost 9 am and this is it, I’m on my way to Gotemba: first step of my journey to the summit of Fuji-san. The traffic is quite heavy and I have to bike on the sidewalks, which is not ideal but at least it’s safe.
After about 2 hours of biking next to this heavy traffic of cars and trucks I arrive to Gotemba and I make sure to find the start of road 23 “Fuji skyline” (the road that goes to the 5th station) before searching for a restaurant to have lunch.
11am / Gotemba / altitude ~500m (~ 1,640 feet). I’m having lunch in a Chinese restaurant: gyozas and cold spaghetti. The old dude seated next to me at the bar asks the waitress to explain me how I should eat the spaghetti. OK, I understand, the gestures: I’m supposed to dip the spaghetti in the sauce before eating them. The sauce is not very good, but I don’t want to offend that old guy so I just smile and eat my spaghetti according to what is “the correct way”. Hopefully, the gyozas were excellent and at least the spaghetti should give me some energy for the climb. Now it’s time to get back on the bike and hit the road again. But before that I have to fix a problem with the bike handles: they are so bad that after only two hours I’m starting to have blisters at both hands! I decide to cover them with a pair of spare socks … and believe it or not: that did the trick. I had no blister at the end of the day.
(Latter on, the same socks were successfully used as gloves…)
The road from Gotemba city to the Gotemba new 5th station has much less traffic, which I enjoy a lot, but it is increasingly steep. It is so step (or maybe is it that my bike is so bad?) that I have to stop and push my bike more and more frequently. The road follows a US marines military camp and from time to time a military jeep passes me. I can also hear in the distance machinegun fire: marines training… After a last effort, I reach the Gotemba new 5th station sometime before 3pm and I’m already exhausted. It’s really quiet and I’m welcomed by the tourist guide, a lady who speaks perfect English and gives some information about the climb and a precise map of the trails. I tell her about my project, that I come from Numazu on this bike and of course she thinks I’m crazy. She invites me to have coffee and biscuit in the tiny site hut that serves as tourist’s information center. I usually don’t drink coffee but this time I made an exception. I guess the altitude rule of food and drinks (see below for the explanation) starts to apply. After that, I go get some rest at the bus stop, waiting for Holly (a friend that I meet at the SMBE conference and who will be climbing with me) who should arrive with the last bus at 5 pm. While I was lying on the bench I see a bus approaching through the really dense fog. Magical vision of a bus, upside down that seemed to be driving on a sea of clouds… No words can describe that.
5 pm, it is drizzling when the last bus arrives. The bus stops but I see no one going off! Going down to the information center, the tourist guide that I previously met reassures me: “your friend has arrived”. It’s just that the bus driver was so worried to see an American tourist in short and t-shirt that he stopped at the information center to tell the tourist guide she should warn Holly not to climb with just a short and t-shirt! I guess the bus driver is used to see stupid people who think climbing Fuji overnight is the same as taking a walk alongside the beach after dinner. Of course, Holly had all the necessary gear in her backpack. Still, when we are ready to go, the tourist guide is kind of worried because we don’t have any fancy rain clothes (except for my 11 years old gore-tex jacket). Well, let’s just hope the weather does not get worse and by 6pm it is time to start the hike
The hike: From the Gotemba 5th station to the summit
Following the advice of the tourist guide, we make a first stop after 10 minutes at the first hut (Oishi-Chaya) to have dinner. We brought a lot of food in our backpacks but it’s nice to have a real warm dinner (udon if I correctly recall) inside the hut. A group of 6 Japanese arrives at the hut shortly after us. At least we will not be alone on the trail. After dinner, we leave the hut and go back on the trail. It’s really foggy, which produces a very special light as night falls. Looking back we can see the lights from the headlamps of the group behind us, appearing and disappearing as fog gets more or less dense.
From time to time we can also spot some stars in the sky. I must say the trail is kind of boring, but at least it’s easy to find and even with this fog there is no way to get lost. Looking at the altimeter I realize we are going up very fast and we should reach the summit by midnight if we keep going at this rate! No surprise my legs already feel tired trying to keep up with Holly at that speed. So I encourage Holly to go more slowly, partly because I don’t want to arrive at the summit too early and wait 4 hours for the sunrise, partly because I’m afraid she will hit the wall if she keeps going that fast and partly (or mostly?) because my legs are tired. (Of course I prefer to say it’s just because we should not arrive too early at the summit!) There are a couple of abandoned huts on the side of the trail, and at the altitude of 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) we reach the new 6th station. Sounds like a good place to have a break and eat some of the food we are carrying. After some hesitation we enter the hut. There’s no one sleeping here but the owners are not very happy to see us using this place as a picnic hut. The communication in Japanese is not very easy (hopefully, Holly speaks a little bit Japanese) but it quickly becomes clear that we have either to pay the charges for the night or to take off. At least, for 200 yens we can use the warm bathroom (the price of bathroom increases with altitude: free at the 5th station, 100 yens and the first hut, 200 yens at the new 6th station and 300 yens at the summit …). We decide to keep going, and see if there is a picnic room at the 7th station. Unfortunately, picnic will be outside but the chocolate helps to keep smiling and the weather is not that bad. We are now at more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level, feeling good and ready for the last hours of effort before the summit.
From time to time the fog disappears and we can see the stars in some portions of the sky. Let’s hope we will be above the clouds at the summit. A couple of hours after the picnic break, we see a big hut, a Torii (traditional Japanese gate, very common in shrines) and the path becomes flat. Is this the summit? According to the altimeter, we are at about 3,700 meters (12,139 feet) …. looks like we’re arrived. It’s 2 am and the sunrise is scheduled for 4.52 am so we have plenty of time. We decide to start walking around the crater, in the direction of the main summit station. The sky is now clear and the Milky Way runs all across the sky in this moonless night. We try to take pictures of the stars, but without a tripod it’s not very easy (but look, we can see the Andromeda galaxy on the blurry picture!).
At the main summit station, a couple of dozens of climbers are waiting for the sunrise, fighting the cold. Most of them wear brand new fancy mountain gear (Gore-Tex jackets, Nepal Top Extreme shoes, etc) and I must say that at this point I wished I had my warm mountain pant. But don’t forget it’s Japan, which means you are never far away from a vending machine, and the summit of Fuji is no exception to this rule. Believe it or not, on the top of Mount Fuji, at this station that looks like a small village you will find vending machines serving both cold and hot drinks! For 500 yens, you can have the most delicious canned hot chocolate ever.
Why is it so good? Well, simply because of the altitude rule. This rule is very simple: the higher in altitude you are, the better the food will taste. And this is amplified by the cold, the rain, and plenty of other factors. Therefore, the canned hot chocolate that you would probably have spit in disgust in the streets of Tokyo (actually, don’t spit in the streets of Tokyo … keep the city as clean as it is!) will taste like the best hot chocolate ever when you approach 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level (there’s even a legend saying that I can eat any kind of cheese above 4,000 meters in altitude … those who know me well will understand). OK, the hot chocolate is good and warms up my body but not for long. I was trying to keep warm, using my $1 poncho as a blanket when Holly found the ultimate solution: squatting the entrance of the bathroom’s building. There is enough room to fit five or six people, it’s warm and the smell is not too strong … sounds like paradise to me. To pass the time, I try to regulate the line of people waiting for a bathroom to be available and finely start to dance the Macarena (which amused a lot the other people who were also squatting the place) to warm because even in this shelter the temperature is not that high. After sometime, we got kicked out by a ‘guide’ (nothing like a mountain guide, more a guy guiding a group of retired Japanese …). It’s the second time we are kicked out from a shelter on this mountain… It’s past 3 am and I realized that while I was dancing in the bathroom, the area got really crowded. Hundreds of climbers had reached the summit and the line for the bathroom ran for more than 20 meters. Some of the shops of station are now opened and we decide to enter one of them to have hot food but also to enjoy the warm atmosphere inside
It’s so crowded that after maybe 30 minutes I still did not have a chance to order my food, so we decide to leave and go around the crater now that the first lights of the day are there (what’s the point of walking around the crater if it’s night and you can’t see anything?). The first part is very quiet and we quickly reach the Kengamine peak (the actual summit), exactly at the opposite side of the crater. After taking a couple of pictures we keep going to reach the east edge of the crater, so that we can have the best view possible at the sunrise.
Unfortunately, the path gets really crowded which slows down the process. There are some clouds on the horizon, so we will have to wait a couple of minutes after 4.52 am to see the sun. It’s really impressive to see all these people waiting for the sunrise.
We finally find a good spot and the sun appears from behind the clouds. Try to picture hundreds of people on the final slopes of the mountain, looking in the same direction and taking pictures (pretty much everyone is using a camera at that time) of the sunrise. That’s the summit of Mount Fuji at about 5 am in August!
Back to the sunrise: the colors change quickly in the clouds, from dark red to pink and there is now enough light to enjoy the contrast between the green of the valley and the gray/maroon of the volcanic slopes behind our feet. The view is amazing and it’s hard to waste any second of that view to take pictures.
After a couple of minutes the sunrise is over, it’s time to go back. I realize I forgot to send the postcards that I promised I would send from the summit of the Fuji (yes, there is a post-office at the summit of Mount Fuji … nothing surprising after the vending machines). I’m just assuming the post office is at the main station which is just 5 minutes walking from here. It was SO crowded that it took me maybe 15 minutes to go from one side to the other of the station and I couldn’t find the post office. After asking someone, I realize it is actually at the smaller station, next to the arrival of the Gotemba trail! I just wasted 30 minutes but it gave me the opportunity to see the crowd leaving the summit on the Yoshida trail: hundreds of people heading to the Kawaguchiko 5th station 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) below.
After I finally found the post office and sent my postcards it’s time to go down for us too.
Hopefully, the Gotemba trail is much less crowded than the Yoshida trail and we can enjoy running in the volcanic sands (see for example this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwOWXJ1GVhE to get an idea of what it is like). At about 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level we have the last views on the summit before entering the fog again and record some videos of us running in the volcanic sand.
By 8 am we are back at the Gotemba 5th station. The temperature quickly rises and this time it’s not a hot chocolate but a cold coke that I will enjoy from the vending machine (of course there is a vending machine at the Gotemba 5th station! What were you expecting?). 9 am: it’s time for Holly to go in the first bus of the day going back to Gotemba city, and time for me to go back on my bike.
Back to reality…
Going downhill is sooooo much easier and in less than 2 hours I’m back in Numazu. After a first stop to leave the bike on the sidewalk next to the “my ring bicycle shop” I go back to the hotel to get the back that I left there. I use the bathroom at the hotel to change clothes and go to the train station. Next stop: Haneda airport (after 3 train connections …). For 800 yens, you can have a shower (30 minutes maximum, 800 yens for an extra 30 minutes) at the airport. Needles to say that I could have paid several thousand yens for this shower, I needed it so much! I spent the rest of the afternoon getting food at the airport and trying to dry my wet clothes on the benches of the airport. Quickly I’m so tired that I feel asleep on the bench (my plan was to sleep in the airport anyways) and when I wake up around midnight I realize that more than a dozen other people are sleeping there too. The night at the airport was quiet and the bench quite comfy. Finally, at about 5.30 am it’s time to get up and go check in for a ~12 hours flight back to the US. I will leave Japan with my head full of good memories and ready to come back for some more adventures!