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.

Walking New Zealand - - Contents - By Ju­dith Doyle

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.

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