As a sacred site, a source of inspiration, and the symbol of Japan, Mt. Fuji has welcomed over 300,000 visitors per year and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although it’s common to hear of tourist attempting to climb this “active” volcano, I planned to climb unassisted, unaccompanied, companion-less and, in other words, alone. All my Japanese coworkers thought I was crazy. The look on their faces, as they spat their tea after they heard my plans, made me wonder if I was crazy. The one person who I thought would worry to death, my mother, said I could climb Mount Fuji alone, because she knew I was crazy.
Also, if you are reading this, know that I think your crazy!
The plan was to climb Mt. Fuji during the morning, and stay most of the evening and part of the night at a mountain hut and then continue to the summit and watch the sunrise. Due to limited availability, I reserved the mountain hut before I purchased the flight. Then, I reserved a hostel near Shinjuku and a round-trip bus ticket to Mt. Fuji’s 5th Station. After the logistics, I devised a strict workout regiment, which consisted of a daily 5k with a squat challenge in order to build up my endurance.
In late July, I flew to Tokyo a day before my expected climb and toured the city. The next day, I awoke at the ungodly hours of the morning and made my way to the bus terminal, stopping briefly at a combini (convenience store) to buy two liters of water and some onigiri. The bus terminal was packed with Mount Fuji climbers who were ‘turnt’ in their professional hiking gear, while I stood there in my Uniqlo cargo pants and shirt from Forever 21 – fashionable, but probably not efficient. As I took my seat on the bus, I was in disbelief that I was on my way to Mount Fuji. My excitement eventually waned, and I napped for the remainder of the trip. When I arrived at the 5th station and exited the bus, I almost collided with another Westerner who carried several wooden walking/stamping sticks. He asked if I needed one but when I inquired about the price, he told me it was free and to “have a nice day.”
Mt. Fuji 5th Station was Disney-esque with its crowded stores that sold souvenirs and hiking gear. I quickly purchased a kawaii Mount Fuji towel and a can of oxygen, just in case, and made my way to the Yoshida Trail. I started to climb around 9:30am and watched the exhausted faces of the people who passed me in order to descend. I wondered if I too would look like that during my descent, but I pushed the thoughts away as I began the first portion of the climb. I slowly ascended and silently thanked the 5k/squat gods for the strength in my legs.
The Yoshida Trail was recommended for first-time climbers due to its abundance in huts and first-aid stations. The trail zigzagged up the mountain and, although the trail was mostly gravel, there were parts of the trail that resembled rock climbing. Since I was climbing on a Thursday, the hordes of climbers I was forewarned about were absent; so I enjoyed the perfect weather and peace while I climbed at my own pace. For the majority of the trip, I put away my iPhone and just listened to the lava rocks crunch underneath my feet. My serendipity was cut short around the 6th station because I was harassed by a bug. I couldn’t tell if it was a fly or a bee, but it was attracted to my pink iPhone case (most likely a bee). It annoyingly buzzed around me for four frickin’ hours! It didn’t end well for the bee though, because I stomped it to death around the 8th station.
After seven hours of climbing, I reached the mountain hut where I felt the dull pain of an oncoming headache (altitude sickness). After check-in, a staff member showed me to the sleeping quarters. Actually, the “bedroom” was one large room full of bunk beds. The room was divided by gender, and I was expected to sleep, shoulder to shoulder, in between two elderly Japanese women. Although I was unhappy about the sleeping arrangements, I quickly slathered Vicks Vapor Rub on my forehead and laid down to rest. A couple hours later I was called to dinner, but my headache worsened. Shortly after dinner, the staff announced that they would shut off the lights until 2am. I settled into the genie-lamp-sized bed once more, but this time I was accompanied by the two Japanese women. The combined body heat due to the close proximity felt like Mordor, and I was nauseous (nauseated; for you grammar nazis). I grabbed my can of oxygen and moved into the cool air of the main room. As I inhaled pure oxygen, I noticed that there were a few empty futons. I sneaked into bed and continued to inhale oxygen until a staff member approached and quietly asked me if I was OK. The futons were reserved for late comers, but I explained that I felt ill. He asked me to wait while he set up a separate futon inside the main room where I could sleep in peace. I slept until 2:00am and awoke without a migraine (Yasss, Jesus!)
The night portion of the climb meant that I needed to don warm clothes and a headlamp. I continued up the mountain until I saw what looked like two large lion-dog statues in front of a torii gate. Was this the end? I couldn’t tell, but I kept walking until I saw another hut that served ramen. I continued past the gate and up the hill to look around. I scared myself half to death when I looked down into Mount Fuji’s crater. I frickin’ made it! I had about 45 minutes until sunrise, so I doubled back to the hut in order to keep warm and eat breakfast. The summit was packed with climbers facing the east and at around 4:30am I set up my camera and waited…and waited…and waited. It felt like forever. In my mind, I saw perfect image of the sun peaking from behind the horizon – like a backwards sunset – but what I didn’t expect was a tiny red ball emerging from a sea of clouds.
The trek down the mountain was the worst part. My boots had no traction and I slid the entire way down. My thighs were overworked from trying to keep balance but luckily I never fell. Once I reached the 5th station, I waited for the bus to my hotel, where I showered, dressed and left to the Ghibli Museum. Yep, after climbing up and down Mt. Fuji, I visited the Ghibli Museum. #NoRagrets 😉
If you’re wondering, the next day I had the hardest time walking down the stairs. However, I received smiles from Japanese onlookers as I carried my walking stick onto the subway and to the airport. I kept my walking stick and brought it to the United States as a reminder of my bad-assery.
Overall, it was a great experience. Would I do it again? With the great weather I had, of course!
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