Mount Fuji Ascent

Tokyo Region, Japan

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

The word “Iconic” is a depressing modern cliché, but it is truly apt for Mount Fuji: object of veneration, place of worship, subject of endless paintings, prints and photographs and symbol of Japan to the world.

It is the world’s best-known image of a volcano, snowy cone gazing serenely over the coastal plain as you roar by on the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. While it looks a perfect cone, it is in fact not symmetrical on close examination.

Japan’s highest mountain (at 3,776 metres, 12,338 ft.) is surprisingly young, a series of cones thrown up on top of each other within the last million years. It is currently dormant, having last erupted in 1707, when it covered Tokyo 150km away in ash.

People have been climbing Fuji-san for well over 1,100 years, but until quire recently it was only devotees of Shinto and Buddhism who made their way to the shrines at the top.

The Japanese say that it is wise to climb Fuji-San once, but only a fool climbs it twice. There is no arguing with this: while Fuji is stunning from many angles, particularly the famous Fuji Go-ko Fuji Five Lakes, it is a long, dreary slog on crowded paths which zigzag up monotonous slopes of charmless volcanic clinker and when you reach the top, it is likely to be cloudy, cold and often wet. As dawn is the best time to catch a view, you are likely to make the climb in the dark, possibly, as I did, in driving rain. Even the dawn, that mountain climbing cliché, when the sun suddenly bursts out of the clouds which cover the plain way below, is better elsewhere - Huangshan in China, say, or Mr. Kinabalu in Malaysia or Mount Meru in Tanzania – partly because the summit is so far above the surrounding landscape that it will be dim and indistinct. Despite these complaints, it must be climbed, “because it is there”, and will leave you self-satisfied as you caress your blisters at the bottom.

I climbed Mt. Fuji, along with sacred Omine-san further west, during a visit to Japan for the World Cup in June, 2002. It was in many ways a bit of a disaster. The bus from Tokyo to the “fifth station” starting point was not running (out of season), so I took a bus to Kawaguchi-ko, at the foot of the mountain, hoping to get a bus from there. I arrived too late, of course, and the road to the trailhead was now closed. I was sitting, depressed, in the bus station, facing a long night on a bench and missing the dawn up top, when a group of fellow Brits arrived, complete with a football and Paul from Abingdon, who also wanted to climb the mountain.

Intricate no-Japanese-no-English negotiations with taxis were conducted, which resulted in us setting off at 11:30 p.m. to the relatively remote Subashiri 5th station, at a cost of ¥12,300 (then something like US$125 – some things still weren’t cheap in post-bubble Japan). The huts and tea-houses at the Station were deserted as we set off, after midnight, at 2,000 m. (6,600 ft) into a cool, clear night.

Whichever angle you come from, climbing Fuji is relentless and painful. We started up long flights of steps beneath trees which looked sinister and skeletal in our torchlight. I was glad of Paul’s company. We chatted at first, but soon lapsed into grim slogging.

Paul was here on a half-whim, so hadn’t come prepared. His trainers slipped on the hard, steep snowdrifts we had to negotiate. The torch which I lent him ran low. He was tough, though; he started the 6,000 ft. climb with blisters, and hardly complained about them.

The climb was an endless miserable struggle up steep paths on way-beyond-exhausted legs; even if we were fit, which we weren’t, it would have been a horror. The forest, varying in thickness and harbouring patches of bare loose stone, would have had some interest in daylight, but not in the small hours. We were sweating hard and had to strip down, then add several layers when we stopped.

The climb in the thinning air was exhausting. We scarcely noticed the sets of torii gates we passed through. We saw no-one at all during our ascent. The huts we passed were firmly closed. Below us, the lights of the villages winked back at us. Far away, clouds lit by the lights of Tokyo silhouetted the mountain ranges between us and the great metropolis.

As we emerged from the tree line, the wind came up, followed at 3 a.m. by lashing, horizontal rain. We were in the edge of a typhoon.

We donned our waterproofs, and trudged on through the gale, finally finding shelter behind an outcrop. Paul, who had no waterproof trouser bottoms, was getting cold and I lent him my thermal underwear and subsequently my hat.

We carried on, aiming for a hut at the junction of our path with the main tracks. Both soaked, cold and tired, we now pushed ourselves on by aiming for the next minor landmark a few yards ahead, pausing for breath and repeating the exercise. At 4 a.m. the arrival of dim light signalled a dawn of sorts. Our bursts of walking were getting shorter, we were getting wetter, and Paul was beginning to feel a bit fuzzy. It was the nastiest walking I have ever done and was now getting dangerous: Paul was at real risk of hypothermia. This could become the true graveyard hour.

At 4.15, we turned round, depressed - it was the first I have failed to reach the top of a mountain - but also relieved.

The walk back seemed quick, probably because we were half asleep, but was hard on the knees and blisters. We hardly noticed the dripping scenery – ironically, the worst of the storm was now over, but it was still a wet and misty morning.

We met a couple of Swedes who had taken shelter in the out-house of a hut way below us, the only people we saw on the whole route, who turned back and came down with us.

At 6am we reached the now-open tea-house at the roadhead, where we fell with delight on bowls of piping hot soup-noodles, then all shared a taxi back to Kawaguchi-ko. We had been through a lot: I could hardly believe that it was less than 8 hours since we had left; Paul’s friends were still kicking their football when we fell out of the taxi.

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