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Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter

Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter

 

By Nick Hall

 

Shakespir Edition | Copyright 2016 Nick Hall

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes: This free ebook may be copied, distributed, reposted, reprinted and shared, provided it appears in its entirety without alteration, the author is credited, and the reader is not charged to access it.

 

Version: This free ebook is modified from a longer standalone chapter taken from the forthcoming book Hall Stories: My Offbeat World Travel Experiences by Nick Hall, due out later in 2016.

 

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MY MT FUJI NIGHT CLIMB

 

My Mt Fuji climbing experience began early one July evening in a convenience store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. I was there with my mate Dan and a large sports bag, which we proceeded to fill with essential supplies: 10 litres of bottled water, a six pack of beer (to consume as a reward at the top) and a pile of onigiri (triangular rice balls with assorted fillings, wrapped in seaweed). I say ‘essential supplies’, but in reality their selection was merely based on shared speculation about what was required, since neither of us had done any research, planning or preparation for the climb.

Had we been sensible enough to do so, we would’ve been aware that this was no walk in the park, and would have equipped ourselves with various additional items recommended when making such an arduous mountain ascent: hiking boots with gaiters to keep the pebbles out; hats and gloves; headlamps and batteries; sunglasses and sunscreen; oxygen canisters and a first aid kit; and maybe a pair of trekking poles each. But in the absence of this knowledge we just took our coats, laced up our trainers and jumped on a bus bound for Mt Fuji.

 

Holy Mountain

 

At 3776.24 m (12,389 ft) above sea level Mt Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain or, more accurately, active stratovolcano – although one that fortunately hasn’t erupted since 1707. It’s so large that it can sometimes be seen from Tokyo, despite being located 95km (59mi) away.

Mt Fuji is the most sacred mountain in a country where the indigenous religion of Shinto involves the worship of nature, natural objects and geographic features. The mountain’s conical shape has a beautiful symmetry that understandably led to its deification and has for centuries attracted worshippers.

It’s also inspired lots of artists and poets through the ages (you might be familiar with Hokusai’s famous woodblock carving ‘The Wave’, for example, which is essentially the Mona Lisa of Japanese art). Mt Fuji has accordingly been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural, rather than natural, significance.

Along with cherry blossoms, the bullet train and Hello Kitty, it’s one of the country’s most recognisable icons, which perhaps explains why so many people want to climb it. It was certainly the reason why Dan and I wanted to climb it, anyway.

 

Arrival

 

Our bus from Tokyo arrived at the mountain’s Kawaguchiko 5th station around 7pm, just as the last bit of daylight was beginning to fade. From Mt Fuji’s base there are four main trails leading up to the summit, each one punctuated by ten of these ‘stations’ – basically rest stops for climbers offering toilet and shop facilities selling assorted climbing equipment and souvenirs, the price of these conveniences increasing more and more the nearer you get to the summit.

The mountain’s four 5th stations are all located about halfway up Mt Fuji and are large and well equipped, since the majority of climbers begin their climb at one of these points. The one we popped into was selling wooden hiking sticks, a practical and popular souvenir available for ¥1,000 – around £5 / $9. These could then be branded with a unique, numbered station insignia (a surprisingly popular badge of honour) by staff at the subsequent stations for ¥200 (£1 / $1.80).

Some of the higher stations above the 5th ones also offer accommodation in mountain huts. There, climbers are massively overcharged for the privilege of being packed into communal sleeping areas like sardines, attempting to get a few hours’ shuteye before continuing their climb.

 

Halfway There

 

By setting off from the 5th station we were pleased to be able to shave a few hours off a climb that would already take us at least seven hours to ascend overnight, and four hours to descend in the morning.

Leaving the station when we did was well timed to ensure we reached the summit around 4am, completing the night climb in one continuous push. The timing and manageable distance meant we wouldn’t have to take a break from our ascent by staying in one of the aforementioned mountain huts.

Crucially, it also meant we’d arrive at the top in time to experience one of the quintessential Japan experiences – witnessing the goraiko (honourable arrival of light) above the unkai (sea of clouds) at sunrise, atop the country’s highest and most sacred mountain.

 

On The Up

 

By the time we set off from the 5th station it was already dark, although there was just enough light from the moon for us to be able to follow the trail up the mountain. Which is just as well, bearing in mind we didn’t have any headlamps to illuminate the ground in front of us.

Our ascent started off leisurely enough, with the combination of cool air and manageable gradient making for a pleasant hike. But it wasn’t long before the terrain became more challenging, hiking turning into climbing, with some sections so steep we had to haul ourselves up using chains fixed to the rock face. Additionally, the ground became increasingly difficult to walk on because of the rounded, volcanic cinders underfoot that were the size of marbles.

As the climb became more and more gruelling, I felt like I was walking through treacle, with little progress evident in the darkness. When I looked up above me, all I could see was a faint line of headlamps bobbing up and down into the distance. Occasional injections of motivation were offered by glimpses of the next station glowing invitingly far above us, only for it to disappear again behind a rocky outcrop like a mirage.

 

On And On

 

The monotonous ascent was also characterised by a tranquility that was periodically interrupted by the sound of thunder claps behind us. These were accompanied by beautiful, strange ball lightning far away that stretched horizontally across the sky above the cloud cover that surrounded the base of the mountain.

Other than the thunder, the only other sounds were those of people losing their footing and the occasional hiss of an oxygen canister being discharged, Dan, myself and our fellow climbers all preferring to save our breath for the strenuous physical activity at hand rather than waste it on chit chat.

We were able to break up the monotony of the climb periodically by snacking on onigiri rice balls and pausing to take swigs of water to rehydrate; we also occasionally arrived at a new station, which was always preceded by the stench of the toilets wafting quite a way down the slope.

However, as we were already taking regular rest breaks, plus had no desire to buy extortionately priced goods, we just kept on moving, eager to make it up to the top as quickly as possible. We even stingily avoided using the toilets, priced at ¥200 (£1 / $1.80), preferring to answer the call of nature elsewhere on the trail under the cover of darkness.

This proved more difficult than you might imagine since the mountain was actually quite crowded (more than 250,000 people climb it every year, an estimated 30% of them non-Japanese). Finding an isolated stretch was never straightforward as the trail was marked by an almost continuous procession of climbers, and in some especially steep or narrow spots we even had to queue up to proceed.

 

Sprightly Senior Citizens

 

I noted with interest that a great many of our fellow climbers were Japanese senior citizens. Wearing garish mountain climbing suits in case they needed to be spotted by mountain rescue, they resembled slim Teletubbies, lit up by their headlamps.

That there were so many of them shouldn’t have surprised me. Japan’s life expectancy is the highest in the world, at 80 years old for men and 87 for women, according to the World Health Organization in 2015. The reasons for this are numerous: the nation’s diet, its high standard of living, the social aspect of its group-centric culture, a good healthcare system, people’s health consciousness and cultural attitudes towards hygiene and cleanliness, and the active lifestyles the country’s elderly lead.

This latter factor is perhaps no more evident than on Mt Fuji during climbing season, as Dan and I discovered when we were repeatedly overtaken by sprightly senior citizens on our way up!

Something else worth mentioning about the ascent is the altitude sickness, which is brought on by the lack of oxygen towards the top of Mt Fuji and affects many climbers. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and headaches, and it was the latter that knocked Dan and me for six.

Had we brought oxygen canisters with us we may have been able to temporarily alleviate our headaches, although the reality is that descent to a lower altitude is the only real cure for altitude sickness. Persevering despite our banging headaches, we also experienced a less well documented side effect of climbing Mt Fuji – almost constant yawning, again brought on by the lack of oxygen.

 

Summit To Remember

 

Arriving at the summit shortly before sunrise, we promptly found a comfortable spot to await the ‘honourable arrival of light’ and cracked open a can of Kirin Lager each to give ourselves a pat on the back for making it to the top. As the sunlight broke through the clouds, a chorus of “kirei!” (beautiful) began from the horde of climbers that had assembled around us, accompanied by the shutter sounds of everyone’s digital cameras as they snapped away.

As we took in the spectacular view comprising sunshine above us and clouds, land and lakes below, the sense of awe was overwhelming. It was one of those unique shared moments spent appreciating the beauty of nature, made even better by the fact that everyone there had earned the right to see it after their long hard slog to the top. And, of course, further enhanced for Dan and I by the fact each of us had a beer in our hand.

After the beer ran out, Dan and I began to notice the cold (it’s an average of 5°C at the top during climbing season, although the winds up there make it feel much colder) so we got up and left our viewing spot. We set off on the obligatory walk around the rim of the volcano’s crater, or caldera, to use the correct terminology for this geological feature.

The walk, known as ohachi meguri (to go around the bowl), took just over an hour and allowed us to take in views of the surrounding countryside facing in different directions. As mentioned earlier, Mt Fuji can sometimes be seen from Tokyo on a clear day, but we couldn’t see where the Japanese capital was from the summit that morning as there was too much cloud cover.

 

On Top Of The World

 

We encountered several points of interest at the summit: Japan’s highest weather station, which was previously a manned facility, but from 2004 had been full of automated electronic measuring equipment only; Japan’s highest torii, a distinctive form of gateway that serves as a Shinto religious symbol, and was a reminder of the mountain’s sacredness; and Japan’s highest post office.

Outside the building a long queue of climbers was waiting patiently to send postcards with a unique Mt Fuji postmark to friends, family and coworkers, who would no doubt have been impressed by the novelty factor of what they received.

We also saw the mountain’s 10th stations, with their ‘top-of-the-mountain-surcharges’. These included Japan’s highest and most over-priced soft drink vending machines full of soft drink cans for ¥500 (£2.50 / $4.50), when the regular price in the rest of the country was ¥150 (£0.75 / $1.35). Drinks in Japanese vending machines always cost exactly the same price wherever they are in the country, so the overcharging here was all the more conspicuous.

Having completed the circuit, it was time to pop into one of the 10th station tourist traps and refuel with a bowl of ramen (Chinese style noodles in soup) in their restaurant before our descent. Disappointingly, the ramen turned out to be the kind of instant noodles available in supermarkets for ¥100 (£0.50 / $0.90), sold on Mt Fuji at the highly inflated price of ¥1,000 (£5 / $9). Nonetheless, the restaurant provided a welcome opportunity for us to take a rest and get warmed up in preparation for the long climb hike back down.

 

Not So Good Morning

 

If the trip up the mountain was gruelling, the trip back down was unexpectedly even more brutal. When you’ve never climbed a mountain before – as Dan and I hadn’t – you have no idea that the descent requires the use of a different set of leg muscles, ones that you don’t usually use in everyday activity. The result was constant pain, as muscles were stretched and strained to the limit.

Our discomfort was further increased by the rising temperature the higher the sun rose in the sky, although despite the heat I noticed a number of large ice patches that remained clinging to the side of the mountain. We were also frustrated by the deceptive illusion of distance on our descent. Winding our way downwards we could see the exact location of each station. However, unlike on our ascent the night before, this actually made matters worse as the amount of time it took to make our way down the snaking pathway to the next station was always much longer than we’d anticipated.

The experience of conquering Mt Fuji is supposed to foster a sense of unity among climbers, and this was manifested in everyone we passed making their way up the mountain (again, mostly geriatric) greeting us with a cheerful “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) – the only example I ever witnessed in five years of living in Japan of strangers saying hello to me without them being drunk.

 

Light Relief

 

Our descent was also notable for a handful of amusing incidents that broke the monotonous journey back down.The first of these occurred at the 8th station, where I was forced to use the toilet, since daylight and the absence of any cover prevented me from answering the call of nature anywhere else on the trail.

Most toilets on Mt Fuji use an ‘honesty box’ payment system, but this toilet consisted of a series of cubicles in a hut, each with an automatic device on it that required 2 × ¥100 coins to open the door. After using one of these cubicles, I left the door propped open as I figured Dan might like to use it after me without paying. Leaving the hut, I found my assumption was correct and off he went to use it. I wandered down the slope a bit to find a comfortable spot to sit waiting, and five minutes went by. Then another five minutes. And then another.

I was beginning to wonder what had happened to him, when he finally emerged laughing. Apparently the cubicle door mechanism could only be activated from the inside if ¥200 had been inserted, so Dan had found himself trapped in there when he closed it behind him. As I was too far away from the hut to hear his shouts for help, he had to wriggle up to the top of his cubicle and crawl out over the top of the other cubicles, all the while convinced he was going to get caught and accused of being some sort of Spider-Man pervert!

As mentioned elsewhere in my forthcoming Hall Stories: My Offbeat World Travel Experiences book, the visitor to Japan is guaranteed to witness bizarre sights and incidents, and even on Mt Fuji this proved to be true. At the 7th station we spotted a Golden Labrador on which someone had drawn big, black, comedy eyebrows with a marker pen, making it look like a cartoon character. Shortly afterwards, further amusement and bizarreness was provided by a group of young men we encountered dressed as doctors, who were making their ascent with blow up dolls under their arms.

 

Rock Bottom

 

It was just as well we’d had a bit of comic relief on the way down Mt Fuji as we were about to have the smiles wiped off our faces when we arrived at the 5th station. The first bus of the morning had been cancelled and we would have to wait three hours until the next one – not the kind of news you want to hear when you’re suffering from sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, are hot and sweaty and dirty, and have no sunscreen to protect you from the morning sunshine that was already blazing by then.

Still, at least Dan and I had time to reflect on our achievement of conquering Japan’s highest mountain and our opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the country’s most famous icons. A great many tourists see Mt Fuji from the window of a bullet train as they speed between Kyoto and Tokyo, but it’s only when you’ve climbed it and seen the sunrise from the summit that you can truly appreciate the scale and significance of the mountain.

Having said that, as the Japanese proverb goes, and as I can most definitely testify after my experience, “A wise man climbs Mt Fuji once. Only a fool climbs it twice.” I know I certainly won’t be climbing it again!

 

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About The Author

 

I’m originally from a small village 30 minutes’ drive from Newcastle in the north east of England. My parents thought that drive was an epic journey, so we never usually travelled much farther afield. Consequently I discovered the world through my passion for film instead.

When I took a gap year in Australia I was introduced to the joys of independent travel as a backpacker. Travel allowed me to see amazing new places and meet interesting people for real, and I well and truly caught the travel bug.

Following my gap year I took a job teaching English in Japan, where I started writing about my travels and had a number of magazine articles published. I then lived in London, before moving back to Australia to make Sydney my home. In the interceding years I’ve gone out of my way, quite literally, to see as much of the world as I can.

On my travels I’ve sought out the most unusual travel destinations, festivals and activities, and in doing so have become a collector of offbeat experiences that make great stories; in Hall Stories: My Offbeat World Travel Experiences I’m going to be sharing some of the best ones with you.

 

Get In Touch

 

Did you enjoy this Mt Fuji chapter? Let me know what you think on Twitter (@HallStories) or use the hashtag #HallStories. If you’ve been up Mt Fuji yourself I’d love to hear about your experience of the climb.

You can also find me on Instagram (@HallStories) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/HallStories), where you can see photos of my Mt Fuji climbing experience and some of my other trips.

 

Leave A Review

 

If you enjoyed reading this chapter, please consider leaving a 5-star review on the website where you downloaded it to help me spread the word.

 

Read The Rest Of The Book

 

An extended version of this Mt Fuji chapter will appear in my forthcoming book Hall Stories: My Offbeat World Travel Experiences, due out as an ebook later in 2016. It features stories about my experiences:

 

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Going wild in the Gobi Desert

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Partying at the world’s largest and most violent street party

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Questioning reality in North Korea

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Struggling to reach my destination in Albania

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Witnessing extreme drunkenness in a Japanese capsule hotel

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Shooting with a gun nut in Las Vegas

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Overcoming challenges on Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Visiting a country that doesn’t exist

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Getting naked in Japan and being shocked

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Discovering ‘hostel alchemy’ in Sydney

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Uncovering contradictions and hypocrisy in Dubai

 

If you’re tired of reading accounts of travellers visiting the same old places and having predictable experiences there, Hall Stories will offer something different.

 

Join My Mailing List

 

If you’d like to stay updated about the book’s release please email me [+ [email protected]+] and I’ll add you to my mailing list (if you change your mind you can unsubscribe at any time.) I’ll let you know when the book is published and you may even get some exclusive content like another free chapter.

 

Tell Your Friends

 

If you enjoyed this chapter please help me spread the word on social media using the hashtag #HallStories.

 

Thanks!

 

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Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter

Mt Fuji, Japan’s highest and most sacred mountain. Along with cherry blossoms, the bullet train and Hello Kitty, it’s one of the country’s most recognisable icons. Yet while a great many tourists see Mt Fuji from a train window as they speed between Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s only when you’ve climbed it and seen the spectacular sunrise from its summit that you can truly appreciate the scale and significance of the mountain. In this standalone version of a chapter from his forthcoming book, Hall Stories: My Offbeat World Travel Experiences, join Nick Hall as he attempts to conquer Mt Fuji. Woefully ill equipped to make such an arduous ascent, with his physical fitness put to shame by the sprightly Japanese senior citizens who keep overtaking him, the challenge is on to make it to the top before daybreak. This being Japan, though, it turns out to be no ordinary night climb, and Nick encounters various oddities you wouldn’t expect to find on a mountain. Seen through the eyes of a seasoned traveller, and full of little known facts about Mt Fuji and Japan, Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter is an offbeat look at one of the quintessential Japan tourist experiences.

  • Author: Nick Hall
  • Published: 2016-04-01 13:05:07
  • Words: 3512
Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter Hall Stories: My Mt Fuji Night Climb Chapter