Sunday, August 25, 2013


Before we left Japan for home leave, my friend Quinn and I made plans to hike Mt. Fuji when we returned after the summer.  I intended to spend the summer getting, or at least staying, in shape to be ready for the hike, but of course the reality of summer was that my exercise program was thrown completely off track.  Then, while at Aspen Grove, I tried to do the adult ropes course, but, to make a longish story short, I couldn't do it, and that further shook my confidence in my physical abilities.  That was the first instance I can think of when I actually didn't have the strength to do something that I wanted to do.  In addition, when Mike hiked Fuji a couple of years ago, he got pretty bad altitude sickness.  Even though I was keeping fairly active through the summer and even did a couple of hikes in Utah, these things combined to leave me feeling pretty nervous about climbing the mountain.  I was kind of hoping that when Quinn got home to Japan, she would have changed her mind, but instead she called me a couple of days before all fired up and ready to go.  So, Friday morning I left the house at 5:50 am to catch a train for Mt. Fuji.

Quinn's husband pretty much arranged the entire trip for us, which was very nice of him.  There are four trails that ascend Mt. Fuji, and we planned to hike the one nearest to Kobe.  This still required a two hour Shinkansen ride and a two hour bus ride, but the trip there went off without a hitch and we reached the Fujinomiya trailhead about 12:30.  We each bought a hiking stick that we could have stamped when we got to the top of the mountain and were on our way by 1:00.  There are several stations that you pass through to get up the mountain.  The trail starts at the 5th station, and when you reach the 10th station, you are at the top.  It's a little deceiving, though, because on our trail there was an old 7th station and a new 7th station, plus a 9.5 station.  We needed to reach the 9th station by 8:00 because we had a reservation to sleep in the hut there before completing our hike in the morning.  The popular way to hike Mt. Fuji is to arrive at the top early enough to watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain.

The Fujinomiya trail is the shortest route up Mt. Fuji at 5 km, but that means it is also the steepest.  The trail is mostly rock and gravel and not a whole lot of switchbacks.  It pretty much just goes straight up the mountain!  When we read 5 km, we thought, "Easy!  We can do 5K!"  5K straight up a mountain to 3000 meters when you've just come from sea level is a bit of a different story, though.  Still, we were getting along and making pretty good time.  The weather was lovely for hiking.  It was cloudy and misty, but the temperatures were so much cooler than the sweltering summer heat in Kobe, so we were happy as can be.  Around the 8th station, I think, it started raining, so we put the rain covers on our backpacks and put our rain jackets on, but I was still only wearing my t-shirt underneath and we were pretty comfortable.  The rain started falling a little harder, and just as we reached a sign that said "9th station - 200 meters", it really started coming down.  Not even just rain - it was sleet or hail or something and it was just pelting us.  I had some rain pants in my backpack, but I would have gotten drenched had I stopped to get them out, so we just put our heads down and went into survival mode.  By the time we reached the ninth station, our gloves and pants were soaked, but I was happy that my rain jacket proved itself totally waterproof!  It was so nice to arrive at the hut and know that we had reached our destination for the night and could relax and dry off.  We went inside, paid our 5000 yen, and were shown to our quarters.

We were sort of under the impression that we would have a private space to sleep on tatami mats.  We were quite wrong.  We were taken into a big hall with bunks on either side.  The bunks were each probably about 15 feet across with futons and quilts laying side by side across them and eight pillows lining the back wall.  We were shown to a bunk and assigned pillows 4 and 5.  You might be imagining a regular size standard pillow.  No.  The pillows were about 1 foot long and maybe 8 inches high.  Tiny pillows.  We had about a shoulder's width of sleeping space apiece.  We kind of looked at each other and were like, wow.  We started taking off our wet things and hanging them up on the various hooks around the bunk.  There was no space on the floor, so everything had to be hung.  The hall was rather chaotic, with people everywhere and the floor in between the bunks covered with slippers and backpacks.  "Do you think they separate the bunks by gender?" we wondered.  A few minutes later a man climbed up the ladder into our bunk.  He was with two young women, and on the other side of us were two women, so maybe they sort of separate by gender.  I went down the hall to the bathroom, opened the door, and was facing urinals with men standing in front of them doing their thing.  I quickly backed away.  Had I opened the wrong door?  There was no other door, though.  I saw another woman coming, so I stepped back to see what she would do.  She opened the bathroom door and walked in.  Okay.  I took a breath and followed, walking past the men at the urinals and around the corner to where the stalls were.  This was certainly turning out to be an unusual experience.

I was glad to be in dry clothes now, but I had gotten pretty chilled and was still shivering when I got back to our bunk.  I had been feeling slightly sick to my stomach most of the day - I think the result of drinking some too-sugary syrup with the canned mangoes I had for lunch - and now the altitude was perhaps affecting me a bit because I was feeling a little light-headed as well.  I hadn't been eating or drinking much because of the upset stomach, but I felt that after the hike I needed to eat something for dinner.  We went to the dining area and I forced myself to eat the curry bread I had brought along and a piece of cheese.  We returned to our bunk and I put on my thermals and my ski pants to sleep in.  I had a moment of feeling like there was no way I could sleep in this situation - on the hard floor with a too-thin futon and surrounded by strangers - but then I told myself to relax.  This is Japan, and when in know, do as the Japanese do.  Lights out was at 8:00, and being Japan, everyone was in bed and quieting down by 7:45.  The girl next to me (I mean, right next to me!) was already asleep and snoring.  Quinn and I settled into our tiny sleeping space and spent a few minutes talking and chuckling.  Just like a strange slumber party.  I didn't sleep well, but I did sleep, so it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be.

Lights out was 8:00 pm, and lights on was 2:00 am!  Quinn and I had already decided that the trail was too steep and rocky to climb in the dark, so we gave up on being at the top for the sunrise and slept in until about 4:00.  I expected to wake up with sore muscles from hiking and stiff from sleeping on the ground, but I actually felt fine.  I wasn't a bit sore, and the upset stomach and light-headedness were gone.  We got back on the trail about 5:15.  I kept hoping all the way up that we would get a break as far as the incline of the trail, but the last 2 stretches were probably the steepest of all.  We did a fair amount of scrambling up and over rocks and took lots of breaks to breathe.  At 6:30 we reached to top!  Hooray!

The top of Mt. Fuji is not wilderness, by any means.  There is a post office, a shrine (where we got our hiking sticks stamped), and a hut selling cup noodles, hot drinks, and souvenirs.  We stayed long enough to take some pictures, call our husbands (yeah, you can get cell phone service up there, too!), and have a snack.  Then we headed back down the mountain.

As we climbed toward the top, there were several sections of trail that I thought, "Oh boy, this is going to be fun to go down."  Like, the whole trail from the 9th station.  I was beyond right.  It was brutal.  Quinn and I both agreed that the hike down was 10 times worse than the hike up.  My legs felt like jelly by the time we reached the bottom.  But we had done it!  And, as Quinn described it, we did it with our dignity still intact.  There was no bent over heaving or crying or moments of "I can't do this!"  If my dignity was still intact yesterday, though, today it is lying around me in shreds.  I have never been so sore in my life.  I can hardly walk.  Bear tried to sit on my lap this morning and I shrieked in pain.  And stairs!  Stairs are almost impossible.  I have to cling to the stair rail and lower myself gingerly down one step at a time.  This evening I managed to go up the stairs without touching the rail, but I gasped with pain all the way.  My family is quite amused by it.  Mike took a video so you can witness my anguish.  It seems that in addition to the treadmill, I need to add walking downhill to my exercise regime.

I've heard a saying in Japan that if you don't hike Mt. Fuji once, you are a fool.  And if you hike Mt. Fuji more than once, you are a fool.  It was sometimes awful, but mostly awesome.  It was beautiful in a sort of other-worldly way.  Quinn and I talked about if the views from the top were worth the hike, and it was pretty, but I have certainly seen more spectacular views in my life.  I'm really glad that I did it, though.  It is a truly Japanese experience - hiking with hundreds of people, staying in the mountain hut, and seeing the country from it's highest and most revered peak.  Generally you can't see the mountain in the summer because of the haze, but as we rode the bus back through the valley toward the train station, the clouds parted and we could see Mt. Fuji rising majestically behind us.  I felt a thrill of awe and excitement to see it there, and I drove away exhausted and anxious to get home, but with a smile on my face.                

At the trailhead

Hikers disappearing into the mist

The other-wordly landscape of Mt. Fuji

Made it to the top!

The view from above

And the view from below.  The picture totally does not do justice to how steep the trail was.

Quinn and I


kelsey said...

So cool. That bunking arrangement is both hilarious and nightmarish. I'm glad you took a picture, because it's worse, I mean cozier, than I imagined.

Fran said...

My kid climbed Mt. Fugi!

The Bowman Bunch said...

Congratulations! So awesome!