The title is a famous saying about the Sacred Mountain. My blog is about climbing it it on a third occasion. What does that say about me?
Climbing Mount Fuji (3776 meters), Japan’s highest and most prominent mountain, can make for lifelong memories. The mountain itself may look more attractive from afar than from close up, but the views on clear days and the experience of climbing through the early morning hours among hundreds of equally minded hikers from across the world.
In the 1950s I was lucky enough to circumnavigate the world twice on my first trip, when I was an apprentice deck officer on a cargo boat. Both times were at different ports on the Japanese island of Honshu. The first visit we were in the port of Yokkaichi and I’ve written before about experiencing a Tsunami.
At this time after WWII the nation was under the control of Australia. Australian soldiers were patrolling the streets. As we sort of spoke a similar language, we quickly made friends and I was lucky enough to accompany them on several social coach trips. I’ve written before about my trip to Hiroshima and man’s inhumanity to man.
However I jumped at the chance to go on an organised trip with the “Diggers”, to climb Mount Fuji and then to see the famous bathing monkeys in the hot springs nearby. N.B. It was at this time I learned my wrong interpretation of Digger being Aussies who carried a shovel to dig for gold or opals. I have first hand information that they carry a shovel in the outback to “dig ourselves a dunny” ( a hole to poop in).
This was an unforgettable four day trip and the start of my lifetime addiction to mountain climbing. The second time round we were unloading in Yokohama and again sought out the company of my Australian Army friends. This time I’d swotted up about the Sacred Mountain and had bee in my bonnet about doing a nighttime climb that would get us to the summit in time to experience the famous sunrise. ( “first time wise man, second time crazy man.”). This time the organised coach trip was much smaller and like a drug addict I had hooked five equally crazies.
The famous five joined a locally organised group of around 25 night climbers of mainly Japanese men, three females and us. All crazy, with the sunrise in our sights.
On my circumnavigations I must have had this trip at the back of my mind because I had purchased a pair of very expensive walking boots and had worn them regularly so they were now very comfortable. Perfect for hiking up Mount Fuji.
I should note that ‘bullet’ climbing (hiking up and down without sufficient rest) is not advised, and visitors are strongly encouraged to rest at one of the mountain stations to reduce the risk of altitude sickness. Despite Mt Fuji being easily accessible for beginners, the hike should not be taken lightly and without adequate preparation. My first step was to research hiking guides on the official Mount Fuji Climbing website (in English). The summit can be reached by several trails, but, as a novice hiker, I opted for the Yoshida trail which is the best-served by mountain huts. This is the route that our group had chosen.
Apart from my posh hiking boots I bought a head torch, boot covers and packed clothing for both warm and cool weather. My famous five had done the same and without doubt were far better prepared than the rest of the group.
We arrived at the Fuji Subaru 5th station by bus, roughly the halfway point of the Yoshida Trail, at the height of the hiking season. A large number of people surrounded us, including other hikers or those who had arrived by organized coaches to get a better view of Mt Fuji.
Shops and restaurants at the base of the trail allow you to buy last-minute provisions. In my opinion, the ultimate souvenir is a walking stick you can purchase at the shop. Not only is the stick an invaluable aid to get over the rocky parts, but it’s a great memory of the hike.
While there’s no cost to hike Mount Fuji, climbers were asked to contribute100 yen per person at stations along the ascent. At that time it was 10 yen to the pound and dock workers were paid just 10 yen a day. ( well they had lost the war).
We set off on our ascent at around 18:00, when the afternoon light began to soften.
Driven by a mixture of excited energy and apprehension, we reached the 6th station in good time. The other hikers we met en route were a friendly group of people, from novice to seasoned hikers alike, all with an apparent excitement to reach our shared goal:
As the sun set, the stunning landscape that stretched out below us slowly evaporated out of view. The temperature sharply dropped as the warmth of the sun disappeared.
While resting at the 7th station, I looked down at the lights of the cities far below. This was probably when my fascination with mountains began.
As I looked into the distance, a thunderstorm was happening below us. Being at eye level with the magnificent storm on the horizon gave me a unique sense of connection and intimacy with nature.
After we reached the 8th station, the temperature dropped further. Chilled, I put on every piece of clothing that I had packed to stay warm. The mountain rest huts (which we were avoiding due to its fee) looked more alluring as the night wore on.
However after an hour’s rest, the five of us set off again towards the summit. As I looked back down the trail, I was taken aback by the sight of hundreds of hiker’s lights snaking up behind us. It was clear we had set off unintentionally early and had missed the crowds who slowly followed behind
As we started the final ascent to the summit, the trail narrowed, and everyone was forced into a slow, single file. I was surprised to see workers dressed in high visibility clothing directing the pace and flow of the hikers. They looked grossly out of place, waving their illuminated rods and would have looked more at home directing the street traffic thousands of feet below us.
In Darkness at the Summit of Mt Fuji
The summit of Mount Fuji can be crowded with hikers awaiting the sunrise. Finally, we reached the summit, and I entered a world of darkness and weary faces, which made me wonder if it had all been worth it. Finding a suitable spot to rest, we set down our padded foil blanket to await the sunrise. A sea of darkness surrounded us, lit only by moonlight and the occasional torch. Looking up, I got lost in a galaxy of thousands of clear, glittering stars.
In the daylight, an alien-like atmosphere was created by the volcanic landscape. The thinness of the air affected the way sounds travelled, and I felt like I was no longer on earth. As my adrenaline waned, fatigue began to fill my body. The mountain huts sold food, and there was even a post office to post a letter from the summit. After a rest and some rehydration, we began our hike down.
The way down was very long and arduous. It felt like a never-ending descent, zig-zagging on uneven, slippery rocks. The 4 hours it took to reach the 5th station felt like a lifetime. Thankfully, the boot covers I had purchased prevented the majority of the small volcanic stones from getting into my boots. As we descended, the cold fresh air of the summit was replaced by the thick muggy climate of summer in Japan.
I had drunk all my water early in the descent and had grossly underestimated the hike down. We reached the 5th station around 9 am, tired and thirsty, but with a swell of pride and a great sense of achievement. I had just accomplished the highest point in Japan, and I knew I would never look at the mountain in the same way again.
my first two ascents were before my 17th birthday. Later in life I had become a travel journalist. Mostly being contacted by a magazine or newspaper and being dispatched to a destination of their choice that would highlight one of their advertisers. Sometimes meaning my spending hours on an airplane, a couple of days getting a feel for a place and taking photos and lots of notes, followed by another day sitting on a plane making for home. Sometimes I would get lucky with a short flight and a more leisurely stay.
During very slow time I had this brilliant idea. I had been this crazy man who climbed Fuji twice but had been so smitten that forty years later I needed to return to Japan and climb a third time. This was around the time of the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Japan had shown the world that they had rebuilt and were now a peaceful partner in the world. I managed to sell the idea to a popular magazine and gained the interest of a broadsheet and a couple of red tops. Success, expenses covered and a leisurely visit on the books.
what a different country Japan is! At least a quarter of the population speak better English than me. Three-quarters of the population wear spectacles, even the Geisha girls, OK I was getting a feel of the country so a visit to a bathhouse was a must!
Usually when I go climbing my kit is stuffed into my backpack. This time apart from plenty of warm clothes all I had was my favourite Gucci hiking boots that I’d bought in Tokyo in the fifties. The fact that they’re still in great condition having accompanied me up eleven Munro’s in Scotland, Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, every hill in Snowdon, the Black Mountains and Brecon and still in great condition after thirty years, proves their provenance.
by this time a much travelled journalist on expenses I was tempted to go on an organised private tour by chartered vehicle when my driver would collect me from my hotel and deliver me to Mount Fuji’s 5th station and arrange to collect me when I had completed my hike to the summit and back, delivering me back to my hotel.
You mustn’t forget that I’m one of Mount Fuji’s Crazy Men. I did want to add to my experiences to relay to my readers. So I decided to travel, not by the usual train but by the Bullet Train. This doesn’t go all the way but I just had to experience the famous train one-way at least. A ticket cost about 25,00 yen that’s about £20. However I discovered the a 7 days Japan Rail Pass, costs 35,00 yen (£25). No contest. I can now travel for free on any train within a 100 km radius of Tokyo.
I may have mentioned that I once travelled by train from Portsmouth, looked out of the train window and got a piece of clinker in my eye. I have avoided travelling by train in Britain ever since.
I took a taxi from my hotel to the station on an early start and was totally gobsmacked by the Bullet train. Even in 2021 we have nothing to compare with the Japanese Bullet Train in the 1970s.
Not only was the Bullet Train fabulous but it passes some of the best views of the mountain. I left train at Tokaido, waved my JR Pass together with my passport and boarded the recommended train to Odawara Station and began my climb, accompanied by a small group of five or six fellow climbers all Japanese and we began our climb. As we progressed we noticed that we were being followed by a group led by a guide. They followed some 100 metres behind up. That was when the icing fell off our cake and we found our way forward being interfered with by dozens of orange overalled people highlighted by hi-viz yellow waistcoats. The clothes were an offence to the eye. It was …… “Go there, Stand there, Wait there, Take photo there. These people lined the path as far as we could go. The actual summit is now fenced off with PRIVATE LAND NO ENTRY signs. It is now under private ownership.
This Crazy Man was now a very passed off man. Our whole seven man group had stayed together and were all disappointed. I was the only one who had climbed before and I couldn’t resist relating how brilliant my two previous climbs had been.
We began our descent through the same Hi-viz pipeline, still issuing orders, which I ignored when I could. The grass path was very slippery and the only highlight was when three of our party slipped over on to their backsides, slid downhill and took out two of the Orange Hi-viz men with them. Being me I had to have a little rant about Health and Safety and they would be better employed gritting the dangerous path, rather than issuing orders like “Stand there, stop there, and where to take photos. I was quite chuffed that someone, possibly the Hi-viz foreman began bowing and actually saying “velly solly “!
I left my group at the5th Station and returned on the regular Fujihyu line using my JR Pass. I left the train at Shinjuku Station and took a taxi to my hotel.
I was left disappointed by my third Fuji climb, it’s suddenly become automated. Mind you I’m led to believe that Mount Everest had become even worse I suppose it had to happen as it’s become more and more popular.
I’m now far too old to return to Japan but if I should discover than 80 is the new 50, I would spend my time with a JR Pass touring by train I bet none of my family will believe what I just written knowing my aversion to trains!
Now what subject shall I write about for my next blog? See you again soon!