By 5am, we were off to Mount Fuji, traveling 400miles by car, train and bus. Kochi drove us to the train station were we hoped on the express train to Shin-Osaka Station, where we picked up the Shinkansen ("bullet train"). Three hours later we pull into Shin-Fuji Station. As we were getting closer to Shin-Fuji, I kept looking out the window trying to see Fuji-san, but never ended up being able to. I complain to Doug and he tells me the Lonely Planet book calls Fuji a "shy mountain" since the summit hides behind a bank of clouds most of the time, and today was no exception, even though it was sunny everywhere else.
Once off the train we headed on over to the bus station and bought our tickets to 5th Station, the furthest point the road travels up Mount Fuji. On the bus, we were two of a total of four people, guess not many people are planning on climbing Fuji this late in the season.
As the bus drove around the perimeter to the north side of the mountain, the snow-less summit finally popped out of the clouds and later the whole mountain exposed itself, a perfectly shaped cone. Three hours later on the bus, we come to the end of the road, 5th Station. 5th Station is more of a cluster of restaurants and gift shops that wait for the bus loads of tourist, than a trailhead for the summit.
We grab our packs and step off the bus where we're blasted with the cold dry air outside. I think we must of been around 6000feet. Not so high, but high enough to made a huge difference in temperature from sea level. We put on our jackets and walk over to a noodle stand and order some yaki-soba (Japanese fried noodles) for a late lunch.
After filling up with food we start our short hike to Sato-goya (Sato Hut), I wouldn't even call it a hike, but rather a short walk. It's the only hut that's open this late in the season. When we walk up to Sato-goya, there were two guy working on it, looks as if they were restoration it. I try to talk to one of them and he doesn't understand any english, so he heads inside and gets the man running it. Long story short he lets us stay even though it looks as if the place was closed, he even offer us dinner on the house.
We walk in the hut, it may be called a hut, but it's more like a nice cabin, where it was toasty warm. Cedar lined the walls and ceiling and bamboo tatami mats lined the floor. An indoor fire pit with a giant tea kettle hanging over it with pillows situated on the floor around it was in the entry area where the rest was open area for sleeping. The man, offered us some tea and tried to talk to us with his little English. He knew about as much English as I did Japanese, which isn't much! He tried to convince us that it's going to be freezing up on the mountain. Then he set up his high powered binoculars outside at some ice formations way up on the upper slopes of the mountain has us look through them, and says "very cold". We reassured him that we're prepared and still willing to climb.
This guy is so cool, later he makes us a big sukiyaki dinner, complete with salad and shot of sake to follow it up. We tell him we're planning on leaving at 4am, and his eyes widen with surprise.
Its 4am, pitch dark, the windows of the hut are all frosted up. We pack up and put on our jackets, gloves and beanies, say goodbye to the hut warren and head on out. We follow a narrow trail covered in conifers swaying in the wind until we reach the tree line, just about where 6th station is. Just then, the sky starts to lighten up with a dark blue glow. We continue on, following the sandy trail up the mountain. The wind starts to intensify, keeping our heads down. About an hour later we make it to 7th Station in time to see the sunrise; we put down our packs and grab our cameras for the show, but the wind makes it painful. The sky continues to lighten up with reds, oranges and yellows, and for a brief second, the howling wind stops, just long enough for me to yell out "thank god!" and then it starts up again.
We pack up and continue our march to the summit. The freezing wind blows and blows, numbing our faces, all I can hear is its roar in my ears. I pull out a t-shirt and wrap it around my face trying to protect it. The only other people we've seen hiking, a group of three, have already turned around.
We take a pit stop at 8th station, as this is the only place you'll find a restroom open on the entire climb. And then we continue on, climbing up switchback after switchback. At one point the wind was so strong, it almost blew me off my feet, if I didn't grab onto a rock. I look behind and see Doug walking like a drunk, stumbling all over the place from the wind whipping him from side to side.
Not long afterward, I see the last Shinto gate, guarded by two shi-shi dogs on either side of it, marking the end of the trail. I walk through it and find I can't go any higher, I'm at the top. I walk through the abandoned village that sits on the rim of the caldera. All the huts are boarded up for the winter. The roofs are made of corrugated steel with boulders sitting on it, keeping it from blowing away in the wind. God only knows how bad the wind can be when there's a real storm up here.
Doug arrives not long after me, and we walk over to the edge to get a view below. The vast Pacific loomed 12,000 feet below. I comment to Doug that you can forget that you're overseas when you're hiking up a mountain; it makes no difference where you are, it's just as painful. But then you look off to the east and see the mega-opolis of Tokyo, and it reminds you are an ocean away.
We past by three other climbers, ironically they're all from the US as well, Colorado to be specific. We walk painfully over to the edge of the crater, where all the scorched black rock had ice formations hanging from it, some as tall as 15feet. We stop at a Shinto gate on one of the higher peaks to take our photos and then continue about half way around the crater passing a Shinto shrine before starting our way back down the mountain.
They make you go down a different trail from coming up, due to the high traffic in the summer, so you follow a wide sandy steep path all the way down, switchback after switchback after switchback, bypassing all the stations.
We get back to 5th station, the trailhead, around 3pm with sore knees and chapped lips. Our bus, which is the last one of the day, leaves at 4, so we grabbed something to eat and waited at the spot where we were dropped off. No bus, only a bunch of tour buses with herds of school children wearing yellow baseball caps running around, waited longer, still no bus. I look at my watch and its 4:01, and then down the road a see an old small bus, dissimilar to the one we rode up on, leaving, I think to myself, that can't be it, and we wait longer. At quarter past, we get worried. I walk up to the store that sits in front of the bus stop and ask one of the workers there about it. He brushes me off and walks away; I turn around and look at Doug across the street with my hands turned up. Then I ask another guy, still I get no answer, finally I get one out of the third guy, he tells me the last bus off the mountain left at 4 and points at the spot where I saw the old small bus leave from earlier. "fuck!" I think to myself and walk back to Doug to tell him the bad news.
We ended up having to call a taxi to drive the half hour up the road from the nearest town to pick our sorry asses up. Otherwise it would have been sleeping outside in the freezing cold, cause there's no accommodation at 5th station. The only problem with taking the taxi is that it cost us US$120, yes folks,a US$120, that's Japan for you.
After the taxi took us to the town at the bottom of the mountain, we couldn't go back to Shin-Fuji station, as it's a three hour bus ride with no busses running this late, so we bought a train ticket and boarded the next Tokyo bound train.