The Shadow of Fuji


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By way of a final post for the year I offer you all another of my emails home from our time in Japan. This was an event that left a lasting impression on me and from which I learnt a great deal.

I’ve never been a thrill seeker in the extreme sports mould but occasionally I set myself challenges and push myself a little. Three weeks ago I set myself three fairly big ones.

  1. Climb Mt Fuji
  2. Survive for four and a half days on nothing but Japanese
  3. Do it on my own

J and I have had a long standing plan to return to Tokyo and visit our friend Yuri T and her family. While there T san (Yuri’s Dad, a mad keen mountain climber) and I would climb Fuji san (Mt Fuji) while J and Yuri would take time out to shop and relax.

Unfortunately, the only time we could schedule it was during Obon (the peak travelling season) which, when combined with this summer’s horrendous heat left us very worried about J travelling this far into the pregnancy.

J persuaded me that I should still go and she’d enjoy a few days of solitude (probably the last she’ll have for about 30 years).

Yuri studied in Ballarat for years and is completely fluent but her family have very little English so, since I’d be the only native English speaker in the house, I was hoping to put my Japanese to an acid test.

August 16th Friday morning, resplendent in our hiking gear and carrying bloody heavy backpacks we set off down the road from home, through suburban Tokyo to the subway.

I had planned to climb the mountain in a pair of Iconic Australian elastic sided Blundstone boots but T san took one look at them and politely advised me not to be an utter fool.

The oddity of the sight turned more than a few heads as we went. We “trekked” through the subway, a swanky Department store, the swanky store’s swanky deli where we bought our obento (packed lunch) and onto a bus that leaves from Shinjuku station in central Tokyo for Mt Fuji.

This is how we ‘rough it’ in Japan.

While we had been walking to the subway I had felt the need to strike up conversation that went beyond the usual single sentence question and answer pattern. I felt the longer I put off conversing in Japanese the harder it would get and I didn’t want to spend the whole trip in awkward silence. To this end I told him how Australia’s Uluru was of similar significance to Aussies but that climbing it was a little impolite these days and that souveniring pieces of it very bad. I asked him if he thought souveniring rocks from Fuji was similarly sacrilegious. I knew that the question was absurd and I’m sure he did too but he played along with it and we stumbled through my first rambling conversation in Japanese pretty well. It bode well for the trip I thought.

The Mountain is divided into 10 stations and the fifth (2500 meters above sea level) is as far as you can go by car. In order to climb safely, people climb to about the 8th station and sleep overnight in the huts there. This way a person’s body can acclimatise better to the thin air and avoid altitude sickness. It also means that people can make it to the top in time for the sunrise. It is possible but unusual to start a climb from the first station at the very bottom of the mountain because it can be a long days hike and isn’t advisable unless some serious training has been done beforehand.

We set off from the fifth station at 2 pm and as we went up, we came across the last of the previous days climbers returning. Some of them looked like shell-shocked troops returning from the front. Since I was already worried about my ability to cope with altitude sickness it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, I soon found that my frequent trips to our sports centre for a spin on the exercise bike had put me in good stead and we made solid progress.

The first hour was basic bush walking but at about 2,900 meters above sea level we reached old molten lava flows that make for a steep rocky ascent. It was at this point we ran into a number of tour groups that were slowly making their way up the path of least resistance. These groups were threatening to break my rhythm so I moved across to one side, put my long legs to good use, and did a kind of steady scramble up the larger rocks. This was actually a bit of an energy saver but to everyone else it looked like I was racing and T san had to say on more than one occasion to slow down and take it easy.

At the 3,100 metre mark the steep rocks give way to a loose dirt path that zig-zags its way up a pretty steady 10 degree incline. The weather would change quickly at this height as clouds rolled by so there were times visibility was about 10 meters and others when it was bright enough to get sun burnt. Fortunately though we didn’t get any rain.

To my surprise T san took this opportunity to whip out his mobile phone and ring J and then hand it to me. I think he did this to stop me long enough for him to get a decent rest.

It is at this point in the climb bi-lingual signs begin to appear that give helpful climbing tips. My favourite one said, quite sensibly, in Japanese that you should stick to the path and not attempt a direct ascent. The English translation simply said

“DO NOT CLIMB STRAIGHT.”

With no English speaking companion to share this, and no breath left with which to laugh, I took a picture of it and kept going.

Soon enough we reached the eighth station where one will find the Fuji san Hotel which would be our base camp.

The Fuji san hotel is a hut that can house about 300 people. It does this by giving you a space of mattress 200 x 50 cm for you and your pack. It’s as basic as it gets but it does the trick. We set up our little burner outside and proceeded to eat some of the weight out of our packs.

I don’t know whether it was the thin air, the fatigue, or both but food has never tasted sweeter and water never more satisfying. It is around this height that people can begin to feel headaches from lack of oxygen. However, for about 1000 yen ($10AUS) you can obtain oxygen cans that will help you achieve equilibrium. Most of the old dears were buying these cans and taking long satisfying breaths until the can was finished.

After that they usually pulled out their smokes and had a fag or two.

As night fell we watched a thunderstorm, at eye level rage, over far away Tokyo. It was magnificent.

All these feelings of satisfaction were to quickly fade when it was time to get some sleep. I found that a thin atmosphere had two interesting effects when trying to sleep. The first was my resting heartbeat, which floated around 80 beats per minute and made relaxing difficult. The second was that anyone in the room with a propensity to snore was letting rip with full force. Fuji could have erupted that night and I wouldn’t have heard it over the din.

I think I managed to get about an hours sleep before 2 am when we rose en masse to cover the last 400 meters to the top. What surprised me most about this stage of the climb was the sheer press of people. We found out later that there were over 4,608 climbers that day and I think we were starting that day’s climb in the middle of the pack.

Because of the traffic, the air, the dark, and the lack of sleep, the climbing was slow so those last 400 meters took about 2 hours. Nevertheless, we did reach the top with about 40 minutes to spare before sunrise and that gave us just enough time to relax, make a cup of tea (again I’ve never tasted anything as delicious) and find a good vantage point to set up the camera.

I suppose I’m becoming more of a naturalised citizen these days because I have to say the foreigners around me were really getting on my nerves. We were about to watch the sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji after climbing to an altitude of 3,778 meters above sea level and, instead of enjoying the moment, everyone was yapping away over banalities. They just couldn’t shut up about other pretty mountains in their countries (which they hadn’t climbed but were told that the view was beautiful there too) or the nearest Starbucks cafe to their work. However, the gaggling gaijin did eventually put a sock in it when the sun broke through. The Japanese population applauded and cheered. Tokyo was still covered in cloud so the effect was a sea like landscape with the lakes and towns at the foot of the mountain clearly visible.

Once the sun was up T san suggested that we walk around the crown of (what in daylight suddenly becomes quite clearly) the volcano.

What isn’t very well known is that the highest point of the mountain is on the western side far away from the sunrise viewing area. Since the gaggle of foreigners had no interest in anything over there I thought this was a great idea.

The crater at the top of the volcano is impressive. It’s about the size of the playing surface of the MCG (160 meter diameter) and dips about 80 meters down to the centre. Even in summer there are sections still covered in ice and all sorts of instrumentation to measure volcanic activity.

The words “volcanic activity” take on a more menacing significance when you move away from the eastern edge with its souvenir shops, rest stations and hoards of tourists. From the bottom the mountain looks permanent but from here it looks all too fragile.

By the time we reached the highest point on the western edge it was about 6am and we discovered something very special. To the west of Fuji lies the lush green and relatively flat Shizuoka prefecture that, unlike Tokyo, was experiencing a pleasantly cloudless morning. We therefore were lucky enough to see the perfectly triangular shadow of Fuji stretching for miles. In many ways I think the photo I took of this is better than the sunrise.

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After breakfast we made our way down again and discovered the decent to be far harder than the climb. Again the track zigzags down the side with each “zig” about 80 meters long and the gradient between 10 and 15 degrees. The ground is loose volcanic dirt and stone that my feet sank into quite deeply (thank god it wasn’t a wet day!) and there are decent (read ankle spraining) sized rocks everywhere that you have to avoid. I’d say it’s about an 8 km walk back to the fifth station and by the end of it my shoulders felt bruised from the weight of my pack pounding them with each step. I could now see why the previous day’s stragglers had looked so weary.

Nevertheless, I’d done it. Not only had I done it, but T san and I had been chatting away happily for two days in Japanese while climbing and I hadn’t even noticed. It was a very satisfying moment.

When we finally returned to T san’s house. Just before we did though, T san … Eiji … handed me a rock he’d picked up from the top of Fuji. He said he didn’t think they’d miss it.

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I’ve kept that rock on my desk at work ever since.

Happy New Year folks.

S

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2 thoughts on “The Shadow of Fuji

  1. I can identify with so much of your experience…the stress of speaking a language, the realization you have been speaking effortlessly, the frustration with “tourists” even though you are one as well. Thanks for sharing your journey, the struggle of the climb, the mountaintop realizations, the souvenirs.

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