Several weekends ago, I fulfilled my New Year's resolution to hike Mount Fuji! Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, is the highest mountain in Japan at 3776 m (12,388 ft) and is still an active volcano, although the last eruption occurred a comfortable 300 years ago. For most of Japanese history, Fuji-san was considered a sacred mountain; until the late nineteenth century, climbing Fuji-san was an act of pilgrimage forbidden to women. Now, around 200,000 people climb Fuji every year during the short official season that runs from July 1st through August 31st (the summit is covered with snow for the other 10 months of the year), and most people climb through the night in order to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. What used to be a sacred ceremony has become a heavily commercialized adventure, but still a highlight of any stay in Japan.
My volunteer friends and I had been talking about climbing Fuji since last winter, so, as the climbing season approached, we set aside a weekend in July for an expedition to the holy mountain. The seven of us (three Americans, two Germans, and two Japanese) left ARI on a stormy Saturday afternoon in a tiny rental car filled to bursting with backpacks, hiking gear, iPods, and hiking snacks for a very squished ride to Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo. We reached the foot of the mountain around 7 pm, grabbed a quick dinner at one of Japan's ubiquitous 7-11's, and started driving up to the 5th hiking station, which, at 7,900 ft, is where the paved road ends and where most people start climbing. The forest at the base of Fuji is infamous as a popular suicide spot, and as we started driving through the tall, dense cedars, I began to understand why - the cedars formed black walls on either side of the winding mountain road, and a thick, low fog played with the shapes of the trees. Finally, just before the 5th station, we drove out of the fog into a clear night, and, when we got out of the car at the 5th station, I was surprised by the cool air that greeted us - it felt like somehow stepping from a humid August day in Virginia into a crisp September evening in Hanover. We threw on some layers, enjoyed our convenience store sushi dinners, and walked around the souvenir shops (where you can buy Fuji-shaped stuffed toys, Fuji lollipops, Fuji-emblazoned plates, Fuji chopsticks...) as we let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. Finally, around 9:30 pm, we started climbing.
This was my first experience in a low-oxygen environment, and I was shocked by how hard it was to hike those first few minutes. The path was not very steep, but just five minutes of walking left me as tired as running a mile. I started to get a little worried about the remaining 3 miles to the summit, and I quickly adopted the "zombie method" of the Japanese hikers around us, who shuffled slowly over the ground in order to conserve energy. But the mountain was beautiful in the starlight - black rock cutting into the blue-black sky, pale silver stars lighting the trail. I felt strangely suspended above the mountains and valleys below us, as if I could just step off the sharp edge of the black volcano and into the misty darkness below.
As we continued up Fuji, my body gradually adjusted to the thinner mountain air and the hiking became easier. We also took long acclimation breaks at the regularly-spaced rest stations, which were fully outfitted with mini-restaurants, souvenir shops, and vending machines - modern Japanese convenience at exorbitant prices. At the 5th station, I had thought such niceties were superfluous, but by the time we reached the penultimate 9th station in the windy predawn cold, I was very happy for a warm cup of oshiruko (sweet red bean soup). Sometimes it's hard to deny Japanese uber-convenience.
Around 3:30 am, we started the final ascent to the summit, hoping to arrive just before sunrise at 4:30. We shuffled slowly up the mountain, leaning against a cold wind that was sometimes strong enough to knock us off balance. At this point, we had been awake for almost 24 hours and were a little loopy from exhaustion - I certainly felt as if I were in a dream state, somehow separated from the person climbing up the slopes of loose volcanic rock and ash. As we approached the summit, the trail became very congested with hundreds of other sunrise climbers. Looking both up and down the mountain, you could see a bright line of stationary headlamps winding up the trail. Frustrated, impatient, I asked my Japanese friend if it was impolite to hike past the people standing in front of us using the narrow margins of the trail. "Hmm, maybe okay," he said - which means, I think, that passing is impolite, but we can go ahead since our group is mostly foreigners, and foreigners aren't always expected to follow the same rules as the Japanese (which can be very liberating). So we practically sprinted the remaining distance, reaching the summit tori just as the sky started to lighten.
The summit was spectacular. A deep, snow-lined crater is surrounded by many-layered peaks of rock, which rear up against the pre-dawn sky with an alien redness. Here and there, small wooden tori gates mark the summit as sacred ground. Looking down, you see all of Japan spread out before you - mountains, hilly tea fields, and wide rice paddies, stretching all the way to the silver Pacific. And everywhere, clouds. As the sun slowly rose over the Pacific, it touched the clouds with purple red orange pink in the most beautiful display of color and light I have ever seen.
Dawn over Japan
The crater at the summit
The crater at the summit
After the exhilarating sunrise, we then hiked back down the mountain - or, rather, stumbled down, so sleep-deprived that I was worried that some of our group would literally fall asleep while walking - and drove back to our little corner of Japan in Nishinasuno. A wonderful weekend adventure, and definitely a high point of my time in Japan.