Thursday, August 16, 2007

Journey To The Top Of Japan and Back Pt.2 - Mt. Fuji

After two days in Tokyo, Andre and I jumped on a bus and took the two and a half hour trip to the fifth station of Mt. Fuji. There are two ways to look at climbing the benevolent, Fuji-san. First, you can say to yourself that Mt. Fuji isn't really that big of a mountain and it isn't when compared to most other popular mountains. But, it IS still a mountain. Second, you can look at the gentle slope of the mountain and say to yourself, "Wow, this is just like walking up a medium incline, easy." Which would be a true statement if the mountain were a paved sidewalk and not loose volcanic rock. Not that it is much of a benchmark for athletics but climbing Mt. Fuji was definitely the most physical thing I have ever done.

The climb was a great experience but one that I don't think I would ever do again. While the trek has once again urged me to be more athletic, my idea of a good time doesn't include a two day march to the top of a volcano and then back down again, slipping and falling on loose gravel and inhaling who knows how much dust. I think I will trying to go hiking more when I come back to the US and I would like to try another mountain as well just to have something to compare Fuji to. I have to say though, seeing the sun rise while crouching on a ledge at the top of the mountain has to be one of the coolest things I have ever done. I was so drained and tired but when you see the yellow orb burst through the blanket of clouds and rise into the sky above Tokyo many miles away, it truly is an amazing and beautiful thing. I haven't been that happy and grateful feeling in a long time. It was simply amazing.

But, to get to the amazing part, you have to zig zag your way up a big hill. You have to stumble over loose rocks that are too small to climb over but big enough to trip you up. You have to hop from one small ledge to another and pick you footing out of all of the niches in the rocks. You may not need climbing gear for Mt. Fuji but a walking stick sure doesn't hurt. I bought a walking stick at the starting point and was glad I did. The other cool thing about the walking sticks is that at each station on the mountain you can pay them a couple of dollars to brand a stamp into the wood so that by the time you reach the summit, you have a really cool souvenir of your progress up the tallest mountain in Japan.

The one thing that annoys me about Fuji and this is very true about Japan as a whole, was the amount of people that were trying to make a buck off of the tourists and climbers. Fuji is an expensive mountain to climb. Ramen = $7, Small Cup of Coffee = $5, Pepsi = $5, Water = $5, a place to sleep for five hours = $55 and that gets you a mat in a room that is crowded with other weary travelers. Fuji is spendy because the Japanese are crazy about exploiting their big attractions.

My fellow climbers were a lot of fun to hike with. I found one friend who I nicknamed, Pacino because he looked like Al Pacino if he were Japanese and let himself go a little bit. He and I had similar climbing speeds and we also took frequent breaks so we kept up with each other. When one of us would get tired the other would urge him on and this was the pattern until we hit the seventh station on the mountain when my athleticism and climbing prowess became too much for Pacino and somehow, we got separated and never found each other again. Last time I saw him, it looked like he was about ready to keel over so hopefully he made it to wherever he was going safely. Everyone climbing the mountain was very encouraging. When you walked into one of the stations, you were greeted with congratulations from total strangers. When you looked worn out, you were encouraged by the people passing you. When you looked like you needed help, people were there to give you a hand. Even when struggling up a mountain, there was a sense of community between all of the climbers because we were all struggling together. At one point we were even singing "Hey, Jude" together. The Japanese make you feel welcome, even when you are almost two miles above the rest of the country.

The weather was very nice for the climb. It had been cloudy and almost rainy at the start of the trail but after climbing for a few hours, the clouds started to break up and areas that were once shrouded in white fluffiness, opened up for us and we could see the green hills and forests of the land below us. As the sun set, it turned the horizon red and it really felt like God was performing for you, trying to show you that there are still wondrous things left in the world. When it became dark, some of the climbers above me started to yell and cheer and when I turned to where they were looking, I saw fireworks being set off from all of the cities below us. It was the Obon holiday and everyone was celebrating. At one point there were fireworks going off in four or five different places below me and I got to see them all at the same time.

By about 10pm, I had met up again with Andre and we decided it was too cold and windy to make the last of the hour and a half of trek to the top of the mountain. I negotiated us rates to stay in a hut for about four hours and we took shelter there. These huts that are spread out along the climbing route are funny. You go in and pay the owner, who then leads you to a mat and a blanket in a room crammed with bunk beds and other people. For the amount it costs to stay in one of these places, you aren't treated to much more than you mat and your blanket but hey, it's better than freezing your butt off on the side of a mountain. At 2am, everyone started waking up and the final push to the summit was on.

Andre decided to ditch me in favor of trying to beat the pack to the summit and I was lift with the other Japanese climbers which was just fine. As I said, everyone was very cool and made the experience just a little bit better. Since it was the busiest day of the busiest week of climbing season, I was not alone. The final scurry to the top turned into more a crawl and that got tiresome very quickly. Basically, it was like waiting in line at Disney Land for a bit more than two hours. When I reached the summit, I turned around and could see thousands of flashlights and headlamps winding down the mountain, trudging toward me. It was about 4am, I was exhausted but I had reached the top. The sun crept into the sky about half an hour later and I was given a once in a lifetime glimpse at Japan from a place I would have never thought I would ever get to visit. Life is funny that way.

This is where Mt. Fuji really sticks it to you. You make the climb and get to the top. You are tired and dirty and ready to call it a 5am. But are you finished? No, you have to climb back down. And in order to climb back down you have to either go back the way you came,against traffic or you have to climb to the highest peak at the top of the mountain and the go down a path off from it. Just when you thought the uphill stuff was over. Beh. For me, climbing down was hard than climbing up. It seemed like the paths were more cluttered with rocks and there were fewer obvious routes to take. It could have also been that I was dead tired and ready to be done.Andre again decided to go ahead of me and so I hiked by myself for the last three hours of the journey. Not talking to anyone made this part of the hike go by very slowly for me and I have to say, when I reached the bottom I was finished and not in the best of moods. I think I fell three or four times on the way down and I was sick of being dirty and tired. I think I would have moved a little faster had I not had my camera with me but I was trying to be extra careful as not to damage my precious Nikon that was in my backpack.

When I hit the base station to get back home, Andre was waiting for me. Why he was waiting for me is beyond me because I hadn't seen him in several hours and figured he would have gone home since he hadn't stuck around for the rest of the trip. But either way he was there and this is what started the third part of the journey, the quest for my red duffel bag. When I was packing for the trip, I knew I was going to be in Tokyo for a couple of days prior to the climb so I needed to bring clothing and toiletries, I also knew I was not lugging my laptop up the mountain, therefore, I needed my red duffel. I love the word "duffel"...anywho, back to the story.

So when we went to the mountain, I put my red duffel in a locker at the fifth station starting point, figuring I would be back down to fetch it the following day because Andre said that is where we had to head back to in order to catch the bus back to Tokyo.Through the course of the climb, it became apparent that it would be complete pain to come back the way we came because of the amount of people struggling up the path. We knew there were buses at the other side of the mountain and we figured that they would wrap around back to the fifth station. We were wrong.

Andre said that he had talked to the cab drivers and they told him that to drive me back to the fifth station was going to be $165. This was not going to work. I asked him if he had looked to see if a bus went there and for some reason he had not and so I went to the ticket station to ask how much it would be to take the bus. When I got to the ticket station,I got good news and bad news. The good news is that the price of a bus back to where I needed to go was nowhere close to Andre's taxi estimate. The bad news is that the bus I needed to take was leaving in about three minutes. I had to make a decision; get on the bus and do what I needed to do in order to get home or go back and tell Andre what I had found. I chose to jump on the bus. I felt mildly bad about leaving him there like that but I didn't have enough time to go back and tell him and he doesn't have a cell phone so I didn't feel like I was left with much of a choice in the matter.

Thus concludes this chapter of the Mt. Fuji journey. I left the mountain a worn out and dirty person but happy to have left with an experience that definitely added to my life as a whole.


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