Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mount Fuji I: It May Want to Kill You

This is the first in a series of posts about Mount Fuji.

Climbing Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji as viewed from Hakone

"Climbing Mount Fuji" was never on my bucket list. I was pretty content to keep to my temples and gardens and electronics when it came to sightseeing in Japan. However, I have a friend named Drew who loves a challenge, and requested on his second visit to Japan that we climb Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, to watch the sunrise on his birthday.

Wedding bed
Congratulations!
Now put on those hiking boots
Now, for a bit of back story, Drew's birthday was on July 29th (therefore we would be climbing on July 28th), and I was standing as maid of honour at a wedding in Los Angeles on July 26th. The honeymooning couple were coming back to Japan with me and staying in my apartment. They were interested in climbing the mountain, too. I was not entirely convinced that this was a great idea. Still, when I told Drew I didn't think the 28th was feasible, he seemed so broken-hearted that I immediately gave in.

That was how I came to be rolling off an airplane in Tokyo at four P.M., fresh from a nine-hour trans-Pacific flight, with the intention of climbing the venerable mountain that very night.

I was so caught up in the wedding that I had neglected to actually plan the mountain part, save for bringing a parka and sneakers in my luggage, and looking up the info on how to get there. I suppose I thought we'd figure it out when we got there. Much much later, I would look up a list of Fuji preparations and cautions one should take. Here they are, courtesy of mountfujiguide.com:


Notes for Climbing Mount Fuji

Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. Please climb with enough care.
Do not include a climb as part of a busy travel schedule.
  • Make sure to check the weather forecast in advance, and bring proper clothing to protect from rain and cold. Snacks are also helpful.
  • To prevent altitude sickness, you should stay at the 5th station for a while to acclimatize yourself to the high altitude before you start climbing.
  • The atmospheric pressure of Mt. Fuji is approximately two-thirds of the ground. Ascend as slowly as possible. You may suffer from altitude sickness if you climb quickly.
  • Climb at your own pace depending on your physical strength and condition.
    (You may get tired if you try to keep up with others or rest too long.)
  • Use only the official routes.
  • Take a break if you feel tired. You should also drink water or have snacks to replace lost salt and sugar.
  • If you feel ill, give up your climbing and descend the mountain as soon as possible.
  • When climbing in a group, be sure to agree on the meeting place. Wait for others if you arrive at the place first.
  • The temperature drops about 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.1 degrees Fahrenheit) for every 100 m (328 ft) of ascending. The weather is very changeable, too. Bring rain gear, warm clothing, and spare clothes.
  • If thunder approaches and you feel dangerous, take refuge in the nearest mountain hut.
  • When climbing in a group, you have a chance of being separated. Try not to lose sight of your companions.
  • If you climb at night, you should have a flashlight or a headlight.
  • Mountain huts are not open for 24 hours. Please stay quiet when passing by the huts as some people may be resting for the following day's climbing.
  • Toilets in the huts and on the summit may be out of service due to overuse or weather conditions.
  • Never kick stones. It may cause falling rocks.
  • The signposts on each trail are classified by color. When descending, check the color to take the correct trail.
  • Travelers checks and credit cards are not accepted at mountain huts. Bring enough cash to cover the expenses of food, lodging, toilets, etc.
  • You are not allowed to pitch a tent on the mountain. It is extremely dangerous to sleep outside, too. Always use the mountain huts for sleeping.
  • If you are hurt, sick, or in trouble, contact Safety Guidance Centers, First-Aid Stations, or any mountain hut.

....Oh.

Just so you all are aware of what we were getting into.

I should be clear on this before I start the story proper - don't ever attempt climbing Mount Fuji using our methods. This is going to be one of those entries that will make my mother despair every time I go travelling somewhere. Stop reading, Mom! It's not worth it.

Chiba Prefecture
The best hotel in Chiba
On the fated day, Drew and I met in Narita Airport and I had my suitcases whisked off by the amazing KuroNeko courier service. (More on that in another post.) Drew had arrived the day before me and spent the night sleeping by a marsh somewhere in Chiba Prefecture. The honeymooning couple, Gwen and Alec, had also arrived the day before. We planned to head to the Kawaguchiko Trail of the mountain as soon as we met the others and start climbing by nine-thirty, to give us plenty of time to reach the peak before sunrise.

In Shinjuku Station, after the 90-minute ride from the airport, we used Drew's laptop and my mobile Internet stick to look up the bus schedule for our journey...only to find that the last bus of the night left at 7:35. I glanced at the clock to see that it was 7:45. We were in trouble.

I started looking up alternate plans, but finally I had to conclude that there was no way we'd be able to get there that night, disappointing as it was. Tokyo was more than 2 hours from Yamanashi. At this point I looked at my phone to call Alec and realized "Huh? It's only 7:30." Turned out Drew's computer clock was still on Newfoundland Standard Time and so it had been showing me 7:45 AM, when it was still just 7:15 PM in Japan. So we missed our second shot at the highway bus. We had to leave the station to meet the honeymooners with all of Drew's luggage in tow.

Meeting them at Starbucks on the Shinjuku Southern Terrace, Alec informed us that Fuji ought to be accessible by the Fujikyu train line, because they had taken it on their last trip to Japan to go to Fujikyu Highland. Drew was looking pretty despondent by this point, so we all agreed to the questionable plan, tossed the luggage in some coin lockers and set out.

Japanese vending machine bunny loves Mount Fuji
Vending machine bunny doesn't give us a choice anymore

To get to the Fujikyu, we had to take the Chuo Line almost all the way to its western terminus, and went to a supermarket there while waiting to change trains. It was a fortunate choice, since this would be the last store we saw for over 12 hours. (I hadn't eaten since the night before I'd boarded that plane.) Stocked up on...sashimi. Foolishly, we thought we'd be able to grab dinner at one of the shops near the station, but when we arrived it was already past midnight and everything around was closed. Thinking the mountain shops would be open late-night (since everyone starts at the fifth station and many people climb through or return through the night), we hailed a taxi and asked him to drive us to the mountain's base. The grooves on the side of the road played the "Fuji Theme Song" as we drove over them.

It began to rain. Eventually I asked our taxi driver (who was charging us over ¥10,000/$100 to go the thirty minutes to the mountain base) if we could hit a convenience store to pick up rain gear. He replied that the only convenience store was the 7-11 we'd passed twenty minutes before.

There was a pregnant pause, and then he had to confirm, "You didn't bring any rain gear?"

Of course we hadn't, but we had no idea yet how woefully unprepared we were, whereas this guy had probably lived in Yamanashi all his life, and offered to turn around and drive us back, before offering us some umbrellas he had in the trunk. Okay. Mountain climbing with umbrellas, great. Drew and I had heard that everyone from grandmas to elementary schoolers could climb Fuji, though, so I thought maybe it'd be all right.

At the base of the mountain we were deposited, and the taxi driver stood nervously by as the rest of us suited up and Drew dessed down in his t-shirt, khakis and bandanna. We laughed because our driver was so obviously concerned about us. (With, apparantly, good reason.) He offered to drive us back to Kawaguchiko Station for free, but we politely declined. Eventually he turned and got back in his cab, against his better judgement, and we began our high-spirited hike through torrential rain!

Climbing Mount Fuji - Drew's Photo
We were so naïve at this moment.

...I guarantee you that man read the newspapers carefully for the next week. expecting to see something about four foreigners dying from exposure on the mountainside.

... Continued in Part II: How Not To Climb Fuji, Or Any Mountain, Really