Conquering Japan’s Highest

MtFuji.001Mt. Fuji, Japan’s most prominent mountain, is best viewed and looks more majestic from a distance on a clear and cloudless morning. Although this iconic mountain attracts hundreds of thousands of climbers each year, I didn’t see the appeal of scaling its summit. I was never the sporty kind of girl and I never had the courage for extreme adventures.

UNESCO’s selection of Mt. Fuji as a Cultural World Heritage Site in May 2013 was the compelling reason that drove me to venture the volcanic peak. And after browsing through Willer Travel’s summer campaign ads, I came to a resolute decision. It was an opportunity I mustn’t miss. Or it will certainly fall into a bucket list of regrets when I’m old-and-gray. So I signed up for the English climbing tour to the mountain’s 3,776-meter peak.

The tour teed off at Willer Travel’s Shinjuku Terminal. As I had expected, we were a group of international participants of graduate students, professionals, and tourists. One thing I find satisfying in joining a tour group is the opportunity to mingle with people of differing cultural backgrounds. Thus, with our bilingual Guide heading the pack, and ably steering everyone into the right track, we formed an interesting community of first-time Fuji climbers throughout the two-day adventure.

The climb commenced with a brief orientation and a stretching exercise at the Sky Palace, otherwise called the 5th Station. It is 2000 meters above sea level, the end point of all vehicles and the beginning of the actual climbing experience.  We walked on dirt roads and graveled footpaths, scaled rocky slopes and steep stairways. The ascent advanced in an unhurried pace and allowed for a 5-minute break every 20-30minute walking interval. But it became unbearably difficult as soon as I started to feel the effects of altitude change. I took extra time to rest, thus continued to lag behind the group. The Guide assigned at the end of our trail was patient enough to wait for me. And after his several attempts of trying to boost my will-power by his “Ganbare” chants, he kindly advised me to remain at the 7th station if I find it too hard to continue. I was challenged! I didn’t sign up for this just to spend the night alone in a hut! I don’t want to miss all the fun! No way! And so I mustered all the strength I had and kept a slow but steady pace, breathing in as much oxygen as I could. During the longer rest periods, I took in the panoramic view around me with much amazement. I was standing eye-level with the clouds (and even higher!) admiring a scene I only normally see aboard an aircraft. It was extremely breathtaking!

At the 8th station, my head was pounding from lack of oxygen. Yup, I was losing a bit of the determination I had earlier and seriously considered stopping at this point. But images of the grandeur at the summit flashed through my mind. That was enough to keep me going. I carried on at an even slower pace, conscious of my breathing to normalize before advancing. And by then, I was no longer alone in my dilemma. A Vietnamese in our group was in a worse condition. His girlfriend was by his side, and the Guide was behind me should we need immediate assistance. The Indonesian seatmate I had befriended earlier in the bus was way ahead of us, amongst the majority of the group. So I took consolation from the words our Lead Guide uttered during orientation: “This climbing tour is not a race. So listen to your body and take it easy. We will wait for everyone.”

After a long and arduous 5-hour climb, I finally arrived at our accommodation. And when I stepped into the hut, I felt an initial sense of victory. “I made it this far there’s no reason I can’t make it to the peak” was my silent monologue. Such was my resolve – unrelenting and bordering on stubborn foolishness, especially that my head, too, was persistently throbbing. I had lost any appetite for dinner but I knew it was my only meal before breakfast the following day. And I needed to store up energy for the midnight climb. So I forced myself to swallow the curry rice the staff served and hit the bed. But sleep didn’t come too quickly, or it never came as it seemed. Sleeping bag slumber was a struggle (too hot inside but too cold outside of it). In the end, I lay half-naked, tossing and turning to the endless snores of my bunk-mates ‘til the early morning call time.

Despite a sleepless bivouac, I felt invigorated and my body completely acclimatized. We assembled for the final leg of the ascent an hour and a half past midnight. There was a steady trail of flashlight glowing from stations below all the way up to the top like dragonflies on parade. Climbers swarmed the narrow tracks and embankments buzzing around in friendly chitchats and indefatigable excitement. In that part of the world where the moon reflects a tiny beam of the sun’s light to the earth, and at that particular moment when everyone else lay asleep, there was a calm and buoyant hustle and bustle of life.

There was a heavy flow of human traffic as we climbed further up to steeper slopes and crowded footpaths. But everyone behaved remarkably well. And the slow movement allowed more frequent short stops for us to catch our breaths. It was before twilight when we finally reached the highest point. Thus, we had ample time to queue for toilet use, grab a hot drink and scan the shops.

This climbing tour offered an optional walk around the crater for an additional minimal fee. Unfortunately but reasonably though, it had to be cancelled due to strong gusts and blusters. So we were left to ourselves to stroll around and look for a good viewing spot. We waited with eager anticipation for the sunrise. The wind and clouds have partly blocked the sun’s glorious fullness from showing forth. But their interplay with light and shade created a sheer spectacle of color. The firmament was a blazing panorama of beauty and wonder.

We flitted back to the cottage in less than an hour and devoured every morsel of the breakfast bento that awaited us. By 9 o’clock, we were kicking up our heels on our merry way down toward the 5th Station. If the climb up was an arduous feat, the descent was doubly challenging as it required tons of control and balance.  With one careless misstep, you can fall hard on your bottoms or go rolling down the slopes. And each time I slipped, I felt a glint of regret for not buying that signature Fuji climbing stick which would have been perfect for support. Anyhow, I experimented on a backward sliding movement and found it to be surprisingly helpful and fun. And it achieved the same goal! So I glided down the mountain in an alternate forward-backward fashion.

Upon entering the 5th Station, we stopped by a few stores to shop for souvenirs and headed to the designated meeting place thereafter. By then, my lower extremities were achingly stiff from muscular hypercontraction brought on by the 2hour-long descent. I could hardly make it up the stairs of Fujikyo Center to the washroom. The whole Sky Palace was packed just as it was when we came in 24hours ago: people bobbled on the streets, buses parked at the bay area, and an inflow of vehicles loaded with tourists who just arrived, and others like us, looking totally spent  but victorious and ready to depart.

Our tour culminated with a trip to one of Lake Kawaguchi’s Onsen. The relaxing hot spring bath soothed our tired and sore muscles. It was the perfect way to cap a cultural adventure with Fuji-san. And everyone dozed off throughout the ride back to Tokyo carrying a lifelong memory.

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So while you’re young, and as long as your physical health is not in any way compromised, dare yourself to take on the challenge of conquering heights, or any adventure for that matter. There is a whole lot of opportunities out there just waiting for our brave spirits to explore.

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Posted in Japan, Stories on the Road

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"The beauty of the truth is that it need not be proclaimed or believed. It skips from soul to soul, changing form each time it touches, but it is what it is."— Mark Helprin