Overseas Walks: Climbing Mt Fuji - an iconic experience
Japan’s annual Mountain Day, on August 11, was established last year. It is intended to encourage the Japanese to get into the outdoors more and especially to honour their sacred mountain - Mt Fuji.
When that date comes along, I will also be honouring Mt Fuji. Climbing that mountain is one of my most special memories. Not only for the achievement and the actual experience but for the sweetness and consideration of my three companions on the climb.
It had all started in Australia when I met Michiko Suzuki, a Japanese journalist. She had reasonable English but was glad of the help I gave her with some interviews she was doing. (Translating Australian colloquialisms mostly). As a thankyou, she said she would like to help me on my coming trip to Japan. She probably got the worst of the bargain when I said that I wanted to climb Mt Fuji while I was there!
So here we were – Mich as she calls herself, Yoko a secretary for a Russian company in Tokyo, Kimiyo an editor of English publications and myself. Mich had decided that Fujiyoshida Trail, the shortest, would be best for us. She had worked out the transport (bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, mountain bus from Lake Kawaguchi). She discovered that we didn’t need to book the mountain hut as we were just before the Japanese school holidays when the mountain gets even more crowded.
They had planned meticulously what to bring. I was given woollen spencer, long johns, extra sox, gloves and waterproof overpants to add to the trousers, parka, jersey and jogging shoes I had already brought with me. Mt Fuji might look like Mt Egmont/ Taranaki but it’s a little bit higher than Mt Cook in fact. Its status as a sacred mountain is underlined by its division into stations – like the Stations of the Cross. We started at Fifth Station (about 2000 metres) at Lake Kawaguchi.
Mich bought us all staffs, mine with little bells on top and a Japanese flag. So jingled like a Swiss cow lost in an Alpine mist. And it certainly was misty. It swirled around us, only clearing for a few seconds to reveal the upward trail and, briefly, the lakes and green countryside below.
“We must go slowly to adjust to altitude,” said Yoko who had done some trekking in Japanese mountain country, though not Fuji before. We walked steeply up on wide zig-zag traverses, the sparse vegetation slowly disappearing. The volcanic scoria on the surface later turned into large lava rocks that we clambered over.
Mt Fuji is a dormant volcano. It last erupted in the 17th century. Not beautiful at close quarters, it resembles the stark scoria slopes of Mt Tongariro. The pictures of serene Mt Fuji reflected in still waters are taken from Lake Kawaguchi in the winter when the mountain is snow-capped.
Kitsch cartoons along the trail warned us of falling rocks, sliding scree and the importance of keeping to the trail. At the Sixth Station, we met our first mountain hut. It was a low spreadeagled building of wood and stone, clinging to the hillside. Enormous stones weighted down its tin roof.
Inside were tatami mats with a pit in the centre where a fire boiled the water in a giant copper teapot strung from the ceiling. Communal bunks lined one wall, curtained off from the eating area. Everything spic and span.
Outside was a different story -- old planks and tins were scattered around the huts. Drink cans, plastic bags, bottles and metal rings from cans of drink were frequently seen beside the trail.
After passing another two huts (there are some 20 on this trail) Yoko boiled up the little canister on her primus stove and we stopped for tea. Mich hands round Vitamin C sweets later as we trudged on, sometimes stopping for a drink from Kimiyo’s water flask or just pausing for breath. There were drink dispensers outside many huts but prices seem to rise about as steeply as
the mountain. There is no natural water available on the slopes. As we reached each hut, their proprietor extolled the virtues of staying there. These huts are open for July and August – the official season for climbing Mt Fuji.
The Seventh Station seemed to go on forever – they are very unequal in length, these stations of Mt Fuji. Finally we succumbed to the blandishments of the owner of the Tokyokan Hut after a long discussion between Mich, Yoko and Kimiyo. We sat round the fire pit, our shoeless feet warmed by the embers of the fire, cradling a cup of hot green tea. What relief!
This hut had two rooms separate from the communal bunkrooms and we ensconced ourselves in one. The outdoor loo was a cross between the usual Japanese squat hole and the good old Kiwi bush longdrop.
Dinner was soup, noodles, pickles, rice, fish and masses of tea – at a low table with floor cushions. Strangely, no washing facilities. We make do with tissues and astringent lotion before settling on the floor with futons and little hard pillows.
I later replace this with my rolled-up parka but still don’t sleep much. Kimiyo and Mich lie either side of me, straight as a die on their backs.
We got up at 4am to see the famous sunrise, in a wind that would do Wellington proud. A line of cameras in front of the hut searched for it too. Finally a few faint strands of pink announced that the sun must have arisen somewhere.
We set off later, against the wind, with a breakfast box in our packs. After a couple of hours Yoko boiled her primus for tea and we ate our sticky rice wrapped in seaweed with biscuits, cheese and fruit. As we climbed on beyond the Eight Station, an oxygen aerosol materialised from one of the packs – every contingency has been foreseen by this considerate trio. We took a puff and had another swig of water.
By mid-morning the moutain is getting crowded (by New Zealand standards) but it’s nothing to school-holiday crowds apparently. The wind had now blown the mist away and three of the five lakes at Fuji’s base were revealed plus fold upon fold of mountains. A small group of Americans passed us – attacking the mountain the way we Westerners do.
Mich handed round more Vitamin C sweets as we rested and Yoko shared the last drops in her flask. We set off again, ever upwards, past occasional streaks of snow as we got higher. This mountain is relentless and I’m seriously flagging.
Soon the Shinto archway announced that the summit was near. We climbed up a staircase of rock guarded by two stone lions, passed under the Shinto archway (you must have the honour of being first, Mich said to me). We’re there.
In the Shinto shrine there’s a golden altar and religious bits and pieces for sale. There are more souvenirs in other buildings where you can rest and eat. We looked at the crater of the volcano, fighting the howling wind to stand on its edge. Snow lay on the shaded walls here.
We stretched out on the tatami mats of one of the summit huts and rest for an hour. Yoko presented me with some Miso soup and Kimiyo bought us some oshiruko, a delicious sweet Japanese cocoa. The way down is separate from the upward track we’d used – my first oneway mountain – and soon we started off on the rough scoria track. I was thankful for the staff to stop sliding.
On the Internet, many companies offer guided climbs of Mt Fuji, but I am so touched and privileged to have done the climb the Japanese way -- as a pilgrimage. The memory will stay with me forever.
Below left: Downhill in a landscape of scoria. Below right: The mountain huts on the trail.
Above: Mt Fuji as we saw the mountain that summer.