The fates allowed for dad to make another business trip to Asia that included a stop off in Japan. It had only been 4 months since my trip home so I wasn’t yet facing family withdrawal symptoms, but it was looking to be an exciting weekend. After a bit of finagling with the details, we landed at meeting in Osaka on Friday, heading over to Fujinomiya city for Saturday, and then finally climbing Mt. Fuji on Sunday. This was a heftier weekend that most Japanese people would attempt, but this is how I’ve come to do things. So after work on Friday, I drove direct to the bus stop and went over to Osaka Station. Dad was supposed to arrive a bit before me, but as it turns out he doesn’t course through this country at quite the same rate; we essentially arrived together and after a quick refresh went out to enjoy the evening.
Our concierge was able to recommend a local izakaya where we loaded up on a number of Japanese dishes and drinks. This was all the norm for me, but I was able to expand dad’s appreciation of such delicacies as octopus, squid, yakisoba, and both dry & sweet sake. It was certainly a nice time and a good chance to catch up on things. After a couple of hours, it was back to the hotel where the week-end exhaustion let me slip into a comatose state.
The next morning we arose at a respectable hour and jumped on the bullet train to Fujinomiya City. This is one of the larger cities located near the base of the mountain and where we would spend the day walking around before our attempt at Japan’s tallest mountain. Once we arrived at the station we stopped by the tourism desk and were surprised to be the first people of the season to buy our bus tickets to Fuji. We both really expected a lot of people to be around for this weekend as it was the opening of the climbing season. From there we checked into our rather ramshackle hotel, dumped our things, and then hit the road.
Out and about, we purchased some traditional Japanese pajamas and then went on to the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine. This 1,100 year old shrine is the most significant of all 1,300 other Sengen shrines dedicated to mountain deities. It was pretty large and had a number of things happening to commemorate the start of the climbing season. The climbing window opens all across Japan on July 1 and then continues until the end of August. All noteworthy mountains across Japan have ceremonies held by various shrines and are attended by those who venerate the mountains. Many believe that various gods and spirits take up residence on these mountains, though there may be other reasons as well. Fuji of course is the tallest and as such a prominent symbol of Japan is by far the most significant example of this.
All around the shrine were placed hundreds of lanterns made by the local school kids that really enhanced the scene at night. Another interesting fixture was a large hoop that visitors would do a figure 8 though, ultimately passing though three times. I’m sure that this had to do with safety while climbing and other sorts of good luck. We spent a bit of time taking in the beautiful grounds as well. There was a crystalline pond fed by the melting snows of Fuji teeming with trout. I had never seen a river in Japan with fish other than koi, so this was a slight surprise, but the albino one more so.
The other big event that night was the Miss. Fuji Pageant which had a number of local girls in kimonos competing to become the face of the town’s tourism branch, basically. They each did their introductions, followed by their talents and then the question phase. We only really stuck around for the talents, which varied wildly from impressive to downright pathetic. On the lower end of the spectrum were a few girls who actually said they didn’t have any talents, but instead would talk about how much they loved Mt. Fuji and what a great job they would do if selected. Then, there were some speeches in English and other various performances of voice and even baton twirling – my mother would have been so proud. At the end dad and I each selected our winners and runner ups, but were both totally wrong. After the hike back to our hotel, we stopped at another local establishment to enjoy a good another good chinwag before sorting logistics and going to bed.
Not the best photo, but these are this year’s and last year’s winners.
The next day was the same dreary overcast that plagues most days of the rainy season, and while we hadn’t so much as caught a glimpse of the mountain, we had but only today in which to climb it. After a great continental breakfast at the hotel, we boarded our bus in the morning and set off. I unfortunately needed to bring along an absurd number of bulky goodies from my mother: Pop Tarts, coat hangers, a million stickers, and other candy. As grateful as I was to have them, logistics cornered me into bringing them along the hike. En route to the 5th base camp, we stopped at the same shrine as the day before. As the first bus to be heading to the mountain on the opening day of the season, we had a some sort of ceremony and media extravaganza to take part in. Standing at the center of the hubbub was the head Shinto priest in his fantastic uniform. Everyone got off the bus and formed lines in front of him, foreigners in one and Japanese in a number of others. Then the ‘representative’ of each line did something ceremonious with sprigs leaves before finally setting them on a table. After that we all did our Shinto bow complete with two claps to ask for safety in our climb. Just in case that wasn’t enough, the priest flourished a sort of massive brush over us, before continuing on to our bus. With the help of his umbrella brandishing assistant, he made the same waving motion over each side of the bus to assure our protection.
After receiving some gifts from the shrine we were back on the bus and winding our way up to our starting point. One bizarre revelation was that the guy sitting behind us was the son of one of my dad’s fraternity pledge brothers, there on his honeymoon. I’d never been in the presence of such ridiculous coincidence in my life. Once we arrived two hours later at our destination, we took a couple pictures to make the encounter official.
During the course of our ride, we watched the weather get worse and worse so that by the time we arrived at the the 5th station it was nothing but wet and wind. I was fortunately able to pay the lodge to hold my massive bag and also bought myself a poncho. Despite the weather, how could I possibly let myself be discouraged! Finally at about 11am we were heading up this mountain at last. Now, many people will take their time, stay overnight at a mountain inn, acclimate to the altitude, and then catch the sunrise. We as busy working adults had no time for any of that and instead chose to get up and down as fast as possible. We pushed hard, because with absolutely no visibility it was hard to know how much lay before us. I would talk to people along the way, but none of them offered much in the way of good news either. However, despite the soaking of my pants, we were still gung-ho about getting to the top.
The view was simply immense!
After about an hour, we reached the 6th station beyond which the rest of the mountain was closed to any inexperienced climbers on account of the snow that was still on the ground. Obviously the two of us in ponchos and tennis shoes were nothing short of professionals so on we went. Having already been in the Himlayas sort of dwarfed the scale of the climb, so I wasn’t any bit worried.
Nearing the three hour mark, we were being pelted by icy cold wind and rain, with snow all over the place. At this point we were not having much fun, nope, none at all. Each of our extremities was dripping with sweat and rain. The nearly flawless shape of the volcanic dome leaves almost no shelter for the climber, so it was just a brutal overexposure to the elements. Still though, with an obvious goal in mind we had all the drive necessary to keep going. We soon realized that we had prepped nothing to eat or drink aside from some free hotel peanuts and snacks that dad snagged in China. And though I supplemented those meager rations by eating a bit of snow along the way, to consume even snacks meant stopping in the dreary misery, so we just carried on. Possibly due to the scant nourishment and our grueling pace, but most likely the altitude, I was occasionally a bit lightheaded throughout the course of our death march.
Smiling started to become difficult at this point…
Oh Joy, the acme at last! Standing in the slush and snow we seriously contemplated turning right around and heading down. Despite our toil, we had not a single thing to enhance our sense of accomplishment. No sunrise, no view, no nothing. I wasn’t expecting warmth, but at least one of the motivations was that we might break through the clouds and see something at the top. Nope, not even close. If anything it was the complete opposite. What wisps of joy that did permeate the utterly palpable fog and harsh elements dissipated as we stood perched atop Japan’s biggest rock in the same sea of white that had been suffocating us for the previous 3.5 hours. Also, the rain had now turned to ice and the chill was settling in. We were able to will ourselves over to the shine where we whipped out the camera and captured the moment before scurrying back.
Dad felling like a strapping young lad again.
Alas, it was time to descend and there was not a single fiber of our being excited about it. We were the last people to the summit and saw not a soul on the descent, which was probably a good thing. Our fatigued limbs struggled to keep us upright on the loose volcanic rock and we both bit it a number of times. The checkpoints flying by, reentry into the treeline, and gradual abatement of the conditions gave us just enough encouragement to carry on. Sometimes I would stop to think about my position, but in the end could only press on. All in all, the round trip took a mere 6 hours to complete.
At long last, we were back at the 5th station and in the restaurant. Actually sitting down along with a hot dish of curry rice and a change of dry clothes was absolute heaven. We commiserated in our sad sack state for just a bit longer and then boarded the bus again. That 2 hour return ride was to be the last of our time together. We would be parting ways with dad flying out of Tokyo the next day and myself needing to catch an overnight bus from Nagoya. I made sure to spell out exactly what dad would need to do the next day to avoid bonus time in Japan. Then after our goodbyes I made it to the bullet train, caught my bus transfer, and then arrived back in Takamatsu around 5:30am, with work in another 3 hours.
Despite every negative facet of the Fuji climb, I was very glad dad could serve as the impetus for me to do it. Getting to Fuji from where I live is generally inconvenient and its hard to say when else it would have happened otherwise. I think that a lot of people look at Fuji as a right of passage for the long term resident, and getting that taken care definitely felt good. Japan does have a saying that states ‘A wise man climbs Fuji, but a fool climbs it twice.’ It would be a true struggle to get excited about surmounting it again, but part of me can’t help but imagine what a pleasure the view on a nice day might be like. I guess I’ll just have to see what the future holds.