There is a saying in Japan: “It is a wise man who climbs Fuji san once. It is a fool who climbs it twice.”
That ubiquitous icon of Japan, and the tallest mountain in the country was at the top of my Japanese bucket list, and last weekend I ticked it off.
On Wednesday night, I took a Shinkansen up to Tokyo and met Bex, Phil and Laura who had flown in a few days previously, as well as Dan, an American they had found in the hostel.
The next morning, we packed backpacks with mountain climbing essentials, and left the rest of our luggage in storage at the hostel. We spent the morning in the city doing a bit of sightseeing, and stocking up on essentials (bus tickets, chocolate and peanuts) before taking the 4.50 bus to the mountain.
On the bus we added Johnny from England to our group, and the six of us got off at the Kawaguchiko fifth station, rugged up and ready to take on Fuji san.
Around 8, we set off into the dark, headlights blazing, and despite our enthusiasm, it took a little while to get used to the very unusual feeling of climbing a mountain in the dark.
I was falling behind a little bit in the beginning, but by the time it got rockier and steeper, I had found my stride and was really enjoying the challenge of the climb. In parts we weren’t even really walking, more like scrambling over rocks and pulling ourselves up and the combination of the difficult terrain and the complete darkness of everything outside my headlamp beam kept it interesting as well as difficult.
It was unlike any mountain I had ever climbed before, partly because it was in the dark and partly because the path was dotted with tiny huts and shops where we stopped to rest with other exhausted walkers. Some people had booked space in these huts so they could rest or sleep for a few hours, but, being a little budget conscious, we just sat on the benches outside and snacked on our onigiri and energy bars.
We had started off in teeshirts, but the later it got and the higher we climbed, the colder it got and we were adding more and more layers, including gloves, hats and scarves. By the time we got to the ninth station, it was so cold that when we stopped to rest we just formed a big human huddle and pulled my tarpaulin over the whole pile of us.
We had been warned about altitude sickness, but for the most part we did okay. Bex got a little sick, and I got dizzy around the 8th station, but we had given ourselves enough time to rest often and take it slowly so we didn’t have any major problems.
The closer to the top we got, the more climbers we encountered, so that by the final stretch, we were actually climbing in a line of people. This was also around the time oxygen deprivation and exhaustion got the better of us and we cracked out our glowsticks and waved them around while singing, to the concern of the people nearby.
We reached the top around 3.30am and I nearly fell asleep in the toilet hut, where it was a little warmer, and Bex, Laura and Johnny fell asleep huddled together beside a wall.
In desperate need of hot sustanence, Dan, Phil and I bought the most expensive bowls of ramen ever, and we all jammed into the very basic tatami room, which was warmer by the virtue of the hundred other people sheltering there.
We had just closed our eyes for a five minute rest, when Bex yelled “SUNRISE!” and we all sprinted to put our shoes back on and raced to the edge of the mountain.
From the top we had the most incredible view. Directly below us was the long trail of people who were too late to make it to the summit for sunrise, stretching down the path further than we could see. In front of us was the cloud bank, an array of weird and amazing clouds dotting the sky-scape.
And far out in the distance, the earliest tinges of what was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.
The beauty was indescribable, and the photos I took don’t capture it at all. We literally felt like we were on top of the world; with nothing between us and the horizon, we could see the whole sky slowly light up with colours I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a sky before.
This sunrise also somehow justified the many hours of climbing through the cold and dark, and pushing through aching muscles, dizziness and fatigue.
We took a thousand photos at the top, and walked all the way around the crater to see the full 360 of the mountain and around 8am, with the elation of our success giving way to our sleep deprivation, we headed down.
The next two hours are ones I choose to forget. The path which had looked so easy from the top was steep, gravelly and ugly, and desperate to be done with it, I raced on ahead.
The others found me at the end of the worst of it, sitting under a sign smiling like an idiot, so exhausted that I couldn’t even be irate at the terrible terrain.
From there it was a pleasant walk, despite our aching feet and legs, but I have never been so happy to see an overpriced souvenir shop as I was when we made it back to the fifth station.
I believe I slept for most of the two and a half hour bus ride back to Shinjuku, and took the longest, scrubbiest shower of my life at Bex’s hostel (despite which, I am still finding dirt in my ears, days later).
I was exhausted, sore, dirty, smelly, wind-chapped, bruised and dehydrated, but Fuji was absolutely worth it. I am so proud of the six of us for taking on Japan’s tallest, and winning.
But for now, I think I will heed the warning and stay a wise man.