I awoke very tired Sunday morning at 0630 to catch my 0900 flight to Tokyo. As usual, I was unable to sleep on the plane. I landed in Tokyo at 1500 and got through customs a little more than an hour later. By the time I got to my hotel it was after 1700. The hotel concierge (who strongly cautioned me from going) reserved me a seat on the 1950 bus from Shinjuku bus station to Fuji-san. I got to Shinjuku about 90 minutes early, picked up my one-way ticket, and set out to buy H2O and a bite to eat (nothing since lunch on the flight). I ended up eating sushi at a revolving sushi restaurants. Although this seemed like a good idea at the time (this is Japan!), it soon dawned on me that now was not the time to be eating raw fish (I was about to climb* a mountain!). I will jump ahead and tell you I had no sushi-related problems.
The bus was packed with non-Japanese almost all of whom seemed to work in Japan as Engrishee teachers. I sat on the bus for about 2.5 hours down to Kawaguchiko 5th Station. While most people slept, I spent the trip listening to the two sisters next to me gossip about high school. I learned a lot about them as they didn't shut up the entire time. Interestingly, I met these same girls at the bottom of the mountain saving them from departing in a US$500 cab right back to Tokyo. You'd think four years at West Point would have taught the taller one how to divide 55,000 by 110. You can't get in a cab in Tokyo for under US$6 and Tokyo is 2.5 hours away.
We arrived at the Fuji 5th Station around 2215. I went to the bathroom, stored 3 extra liters of water and a change of clothes (which I left on the counter post-hike by accident), checked out the gift shop where they sell oxygen canisters and wooden staffs, and psyched myself up. I started hiking at 2230. I had so little idea of what I was doing that I literally needed to ask some guy where to start. I was on my own, but ended up entering the trail with about 20 fellow bus riders, me being the only solo hiker. The moon was rather bright as there was a full moon a few days ago, but I had my headlamp from Trailwalker anyway. The hike up begins pretty casually, but turns steep about twenty minutes in. At one point I remember looking up towards the sky and seeing light
far off in the distance. This turned out to be the first of 4 or 5 different stations. I also saw something I've rarely seen in Hong Kong --- stars. At no point can you see the top until you reach it. Interesting, the 5th Station - where almost everyone begins the climb -- is already a couple thousand feet up and above the clouds.
The main climb consists of some 200 switchbacks and, as anyone who's hiked Section 8 of the MacLehose with me knows, I hate switchbacks. There's nothing more annoying than walking an hour only to turn around and realize you've only gone 10ft (3.05 meters for you Brits). Fuji (being a volcano) is incredibly desolate. There was little life on the mountain itself (except for all the people). You've got your lava boulders, rocks, stones, sand, dust, and some snow -- imagine a moonscape. I had considered climbing during the day to enjoy the views, but was glad I did not as there wouldn't have been much to see
(outside of how much further I had to go). In fact, it should be noted that most people climb the mountain at night in order to catch the sunrise at the top which was why I took a bus at 1950.
The hike was definitely tougher than anything the MacLehose can throw at you, but Trailwalker taught me a lot about pacing, endurance, and pain as I was running to catch a train in the morning. The hardest parts were the noticeably thin air, the volcanic rocks -- very slippery in gravel form and dangerously jagged as boulders, the cold towards the top (there was snow in some places and I'm used to 90 degree (32c for you Brits), and the crowds. There were a good 2000+ people (ages ranged from 10-80) trying to reach the summit by 0430. Early on in the hike I met up and paced myself with an male Aussie English teacher (1st attempt) and a British woman (2nd attempt) working in the fashion industry. Interestingly, this girl was wearing oversized sneakers ('trainers' for you Brits) that she borrowed from a friend and was carrying a shopping bag. I have no idea what she was thinking as she looked like a bag lady which I told her in the thin air at the top. We both had a laugh.
The pace they set was rather blistering. We were passed maybe 5 times, but managed to pass all those people again further up the slope. We stopped for probably 10-20 minutes in total. I'm glad I met up with those two as they really pushed me and because the guy had chocolates and was willing to share as all I brought was energy gels. As I mentioned, there were thousands of people, many in tour groups of 15-20, climbing together. There were several times on the way up where you had to physically stop at a bottleneck because the tours stopped to wait for the rest of the group and it was just too narrow to overtake people. Trust me when I say that I was happy for the rest.
Every hour or so we would pass a little hut where you could rest, use the toilets, or buy some food. The three of us would rest at each for two or three minutes and I would put on another layer of clothing. I made it to the summit at 0310 in an impressive 4.5 hours. Every time we stopped I started to freeze and the fact that I had an hour and a half to wait for the sunrise meant that I was going to be VERY cold for a very long time. At this point I was wearing two jackets, a hat, a scarf, a thick rugby shirt from my Seoul National days, and the quick dry shirt that was soaking wait and stupidly failed to remove before
putting on the other layers. I wore two pair of gloves and covered my legs with cargo pants and a pair of sweat pants. I was so cold the chattering of my teeth could be heard back in Tokyo.
At 0430 the sun came through the clouds to a chorus of ooh and ahhs (in Japanese of course). The sunrise was captured by a good 4 million photos (on your camera and cellphone, please), and a couple hundred videos. It was pretty cool and I've got about 4 of my own shots to share. After the sunrise the three of us walked over to the crater where I took another four shots and headed back down.
I was anxious to get back to the 5th Station as soon as possible because, like an idiot, I did not book the return leg of the bus. As buses run on the hour starting at 1100, can fit a limited number of people, and there were thousands of people hiking, I assumed they would either be booked or there'd be a queue waiting for tickets. I literally tore down that mountain. The path (again switchback after switchback) is volcanic powder, pebbles, and stones several inches thick. The process is step, sink four inches, slide six inches, swing
the back leg forward and repeat. Luckily I had two hiking poles and used them for balance and to prevent my two (already bad) knees from getting too injured. I made it down the mountain in about 90 minutes (guidebooks say 3-4 hours) and reached the bus stop around 0800.
Surprise surprise, I was the first one there, but the ticket window was closed and there was no sign on when it would open. I waited and waited. Finally I saw the two chatty sisters getting in a taxi, asked them where they were going and whether or not I could share. I did the math and told them they'd have to split the US$500 bill themselves as it was a bit punchy for my taste. They took their bags out of the trunk (boot for you Brits) and waited at the bus stop behind me.
It turns out two buses go to the 5th Station. One goes all the way back to Shinjuku in Tokyo (leaving at 1100, but probably full) with another one going to some train station at the bottom of Fuji. This second bus arrived a bit after 0900 and about 15 of us got on. The English teachers explained that I could take this train to another train to Tokyo. Since this is already a really long email and you've either stopped reading or are bored already I will just say it took about 3 hours, about US$50, one bus, two trains, and subway for me to get back to the hotel by about 1300. I got back to my room, showered, cleaned my now dusty clothes in the shower, and attempted to gain ground on my lost 30+ hours of sleep. I slept until 1700 and went back to the sushi joint in Shinjuku for some more revolving sushi.
There is a Japanese saying that appears on every website about Mt. Fuji -- "Everyone should climb Mount Fuji once; only a fool would climb it twice." Needless to say, I have asked a couple of my colleagues to go with me again this weekend as I'm in Tokyo over the weekend with nothing to do and would like to spend more time exploring the top, but have found no takers. I think we're going to the electronics mart or something.
*I will use climb and hike interchangeable here. Although you're definitely going uphill, I consider this more a hike than a climb as I used my hands only a couple of times on the way up.