(Mount) Fuji on Fuji (Film)
I came to climb Mount Fuji relatively early in my hiking-life. Although it commands the throne of the highest peak in Japan, its broad conical shape, which has been venerated for centuries, allows for some relatively straightforward trails. I'm not saying it is easy, but with its choice of trails, its profusion of huts and facilities, and well-serviced trailheads, it is accessible to a much wider spectrum of mountain enthusiasts that almost any of the twenty-one other 3000ers in Japan.
Having garnered an interest in mountains since moving to Japan, the prospect of climbing Fuji occupied an exciting but daunting, shadowy space somewhere in my hindbrain. When a friend, who was leaving Japan last summer, started talking about climbing it before she left, something sparked into life. I told her, almost not believing it myself, that I wanted to join her. Had I asked myself if I wanted to climb it, I probably would have answered evasively; that it would be great, that perhaps I could aim for it the following year. Thanks to my friend's confidence and motivation, I realised that I didn't need to wait, that I already had the ability, fitness, and drive to do it, and do it well.
Of the mountain's four trails, our group, through either research or deference, chose the Subashiri Trail. You can find the finer details of each trail on the comprehensive Official Website for Mount Fuji Climbing. We chose a trail less travelled first and foremost to avoid the crowds. A cursory glance at the numbers recorded for last season show that the overwhelmingly popular choice is Yoshida, with 62% of the 248,461 climbers. We were five of just 20,996 climbers to opt for Subashiri in the summer of 2016.
One the last day of July, after an epic 450km, six-hour drive from Yamagata, we made it to the base of the mountain around lunchtime, raring to stretch the legs and get going. With all packs present and correct, we boarded the shuttle bus and ascended to the fifth station, which sits at a cool 2000m altitude. We loitered here for a while, acclimatizing, applying sunscreen and insect repellent, and retying our shoelaces.
The best part of Subashiri was the ascent. Approaching the peak from due east, the lower part of the course is pleasantly tree-covered, occasionally opening out on broad vistas of the land below, and the towering sight of the distant peak above. Once above the treeline, scattered shrubs give way to rocky moonscapes and the switchbacks cross back and forth to scale the slope. The stations - the next often just visible from the last - offered tangible short-term motivations, and good opportunities to rest the legs and layer up as we ascended.
We reached our evening goal as the light was fading and the clouds drew in around us. With little-to-no visibility, the slog was starting to get the better of us, so we were glad to suddenly come upon the seventh station, at 3200m. Miharashikan (見晴館), a huddle of stone-stacked huts, was our lodging for the evening, and we gladly shed our packs and coats and sat down among the other guests. It was at this point that I started feeling the onset of some altitude sickness. I had scarcely scaled 2000m before, let alone 3000m, and my body was somewhat rejecting the conditions. All in all, dividing our climb with this proper rest, not only ensured our energy levels, but allowed me time to further acclimatize. By the time we were rousing ourselves at 1:30 am, the waves of nausea had eased, and the excitement of ascending to the peak brought a welcome wave of adrenaline.
It was a much needed boost, as we packed up and layered up for the rain which had decided to wait for this the coldest, darkest moment of the climb to descend. The pitch-dark scramble from 7th to 8th station, was a blur of misty rain and gravel underfoot, interspersed with splashes of white marking the trail and flashes of my companions heels in the small circle of light from my headlamp. The relative calm of our ascent, however, was shattered upon reaching the 8th station. Here, as expected, our trail joined the busy Yoshida route, and compared to the stations we had encountered before, it felt like arriving into a small village. The cluster of buildings buzzed with the hundreds of climbers milling around and jockeying to continue the trail.
So, alongside groups with shouting guides, older or less fit climbers clutching small oxygen canisters, and trendily outfitted hobby-hikers, we joined the continuing trail in what could only be described as a queue. Although we knew we would eventually merge with the busiest course, after enjoying such excellent pace the previous day, we weren't quite ready for such human traffic. On the narrow, switchback path, there was little that could be done but wait, occasionally taking a step. This was definitely the worst aspect of the Subashiri, although as the rain stopped and the darkness faded, we could enjoy the setting of the moon, and the sky's pre-dawn cinematics.
Comparing our pace the previous day with this arrhythmic shuffle, I would estimate that we could have reached the summit in less than half the time it took us in the throng. However frustrating it was, like a weight being lifted, none of it mattered in the ecstasy of reaching the summit. The sky was just beginning to glow, and a glorious hazy sunrise broke above the sea-of-clouds horizon as we hugged and grinned and clapped one another on the back.
Although I can't overplay the glory of that sunrise, the other memorable aspects were that it was very cold, and very busy. The shrine (because of course there is a shrine) was teeming with people offering prayers thankful for their successful ascent or commending their wishes to the not-so-far-away heavens. The low line of buildings were abuzz with the purveyance of hot food and drinks. The most privileged vending machines in the country, ensconced in stone surrounds, were stocked with water and sports drinks.
Clouds enveloped us and passed by with exhausting speed; one moment we could clearly see the vast crater laid out before us and moments later lose all orientation. We spent almost two hours wending our way around the crater, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the breathtaking views when the magnificent geography was visible, comparing the various toilet facilities, and standing deep in the volcanic crater considering our own mortality. We also snapped the de rigueur group photo at the mountain's absolute highest point, and I enjoyed the novelty of mailing postcards at the peak's very own post office.
The sun was climbing hot and bright in the sky when we decided to start our ascent, peeling off the insulation and rain layers we had needed for the earlier arctic temperatures. Our triumphant descent on tired legs was buoyed up by the sunny conditions and the glorious views, however, the descent was a very close contender for the designation of "worst aspect of the Subashiri" (which I earlier awarded to its confluence with the upper reaches of the Yoshida trail). What the descent lacks in ease, it makes up for in speed; a notion which, admittedly, may either attract or horrify. Suffice it to say I didn't love it; the majority of the vertical descent is traversed down a very steep sand run, so even if you are equipped with poles, gaiters, masks and other helpful accessories, it is a demanding and furious experience.
Although your eyes, ears, nose, shoes, pockets and wits will be uncomfortably full of sand, the Subashiri's descent gets you down the mountain in a surprisingly short time. After a further jaunt through the tree-shaded lower reaches, we made it back to the fifth station, our hearts beating on the joy of achievement and sheer adrenaline. After one more commemorative snapshot, we were ready to head for the most satisfying bath of our lives.
A well-known Japanese saying suggests that a wise person climbs Mt. Fuji once in their lifetime, but only a fool would climb it twice. Do I see myself climbing it again? I can't say a definite no, but I'm certainly in no rush. There are so many beautiful mountains and trails all over Japan that it would be a long time before I'd consider a re-run. If you want to climb Mount Fuji for yourself, now is the time to start reading, planning, and preparing for the 2017 season. Pro-tip; pick up a cheap'n'cheerful disposable camera for saturated snapshots and minimum worries on the mountain. All photos in this article were taken on a Fujifilm disposable with flash.