Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Conquering Mt Fuji

At 3,776 m, Mt Fuji or Fuji-san as it is known locally, is Japan’s highest peak. 

The perfect cone shaped mountain is Japan’s most popular symbol. So popular is the mountain that it has been immortalized in art over the centuries. Images of Mt Fuji are most popular on souvenirs. Most visitors to Japan tend to return home with a memoir of their stay in Japan and most often the memoir will have an image on Mt Fuji on it.


No trip to Japan is regarded complete without catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji. Most foreigners catch their first glimpse of Mt Fuji right from their flight. In most international flights arriving at Narita during daylight hours, the pilot’s voice is heard announcing that Japan’s highest peak would be visible shortly. This then leads to a frenzy among first time visitors to Japan hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed mountain.

Mt Fuji is a dormant volcano which last erupted in 1708. The mountain stands at the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures and is easily accessible from Tokyo. It can be seen as far as Tokyo or Yokohama or even Ibaraki prefecture on clear sunny days. Clouds and fog often block the view of Mount Fuji and it is often difficult to get a clear view of the mountain. Many of Tokyo’s attractions boast of offering a good view of the mountain on clear days. For instance, Tokyo Tower, Odaiba’s Fuji Television observatory, Bunkyo civic centre observatory are good places to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji especially in winter when visibility is better. Early morning and late evening around sunset are good times when visibility is more clear. One particularly interesting view is from the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto or Nagoya or the train on the Tokaido line between Osaka and Tokyo. 


During the summer months, Mt Fuji attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. At times it is so crowded that there is hardly any place to walk. July and August in particular are peak months for climbing Mt Fuji. It is the official climbing season when the mountain slopes are clear of snow, the weather is mild, offcourse the summit still having freezing temperatures.


Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations- First station being the foot of the mountain while the summit is the 10th station. Motorable roads provide access to the 5th station from where climbers begin their ascent to the summit. There are actually four 5th stations on the various trails leading upto the summit – Kawaguchiko station, Gotemba station, Fujinomiya station and Subashiri station. While Kawaguchiko is the most popular and most accessible, Gotemba is the lowest making the ascent from here the longest. Fujinomiya is the closest to the summit making the ascent smaller. The Subashiri and Yoshida trails meet somewhere near the 8th station.
The Kawaguchiko 5th station is the most popular of the 5th stations and is reached by the Yoshida trail which is the best developed and easiest to access. Parking lots, coin lockers, restaurants and shops selling climbing gear and supplies are available here and this is the last place to stock up these items as the prices are still reasonable. There are shops selling things along the trail but the prices are high. 


Early in August this year, my husband embarked on a trip of Mt Fuji. He was accompanied by 5 of his colleagues. The group comprised of 4 Japanese and 2 foreigners (incl my husband). Around 7 am in the morning the group assembled at Tokyo’s Shinagawa station and then took the metro to Shinjuku. They took the Fujikyu company’s tour bus from Shinjuku at around 8 am. The expressway was packed with tour buses going to Mt Fuji. In summer all roads lead to Fuji. They reached the 5th station at Kawaguchiko around noon. After a quick lunch, they began their ascent.

 From here they walked the scenic Subaru line. 

The trail was so crowded that at places it didn’t feel like a mountain trail and looked like a busy road in a city. 

Horse carriage ride is available from the 5th to 7th station. 

Few stretches of the trail can be rocky and steep.

The view is breathtaking and at places it feels that one is up in the clouds.

It was a long trek( about 5 hours) up to the 8th station to the mountain hut ( the hut was on the 8.5 level)  where they rested for a few hours before they began their remaining trek upto the summit. The mountain huts are cramped and are good enough to catch a quick nap. 


They went up there to watch the rising sun, which is pretty early in the day, they were up trekking again at 1.30 am and reached the summit at about 4.00 am.  Sunrise was about 4.52 am. The images below were captured between 4.50 am to 4.55 am. 










The best view of the sunrise is from "Kengamine" the highest point on the summit.
The trek from the 8th to 10th station is tough, especially with the tiredness of the previous trek and the altitude. 


The total time taken for the ascent is between 5-8 hours while the descent takes about 3-6 hours.

A small Torii at the summit is one of the places popular to be photographed at. At the centre of the mountain is the dormant crater. 
A full circuit of the crater takes around one hour.



In Japan, the vending machine country, vending machines can be found even atop the summit of Mt Fuji. A post office is also available and people send postcards to their friends and family from here, as testimony of their climb. What better souvenir than a postcard stamped from the countries highest post office. 
   
To descend the mountain back to Kawaguchiko station, there is a separate path.
The group began the descent around 7 am reaching the kawaguchiko 5th station around noon. They boarded the bus from Kawaguchiko 5th station around 1 pm and reached Shinjuku around 6 pm that evening, after an Onsen stopover on the way back. 

Fuji-san climbing tours are available from many cities in Japan, with many originating in Tokyo. These trips are expensive but worth the price as everything is well organized. The tours include round trip bus fare, climbing guide, accommodation at mountain hut at the 8th station, Dinner, Breakfast ( usually packed boxes) and visit to a hot spring after descending the mountain. Cost is usually around 20,000-30,000 yen per person depending on the inclusions. My husband and his group took a similar trip originating in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Guided tours are also available upto the 5th station for people who do not have the time to climb or do not prefer to climb the mountain.  

It is a good idea to spend a day or two touring the Fuji Five Lakes area which also offers some spectacular views of the mountain especially in Spring and Autumn.

Sharing some important tips for climbers, (courtesy my husband’s experience and the tips he got before he went on his trip) :

  1. Avoid the O-bon holidays in August as that is the peak climbing period when people even need to wait in queues at certain stretches.
  2. Stock ample supplies of snacks, water, oxygen pills, etc as these are expensive along the trails.
  3. Reserve a mountain hut if possible before hand as last minute reservation is practically impossible.
  4. Taking a guided package climbing tour is a preferred option especially for newbies and foreigners if you are not climbing with a group of professional local climbers.
  5. Dress adequately and carry warm clothing as the summit is cold even in summer. Gloves are also recommended to be carried.
  6. Wear sturdy hiking boots
  7. Carry rain proof jackets as it might rain occasionally and the climb may become slippery at stretches.
  8. If you intend to climb a few parts during night, a flashlight and spare batteries would be essential.
  9. Carry toilet paper and adequate amount of 100 yen coins – for the pay toilets along the trail.
  10. Carry plastic bags to carry your own garbage.
  11. Definitely do not forget your camera. You wouldn’t want to miss out capturing your memories of the climb.
  12. Do not attempt to veer off the trail as it is dangerous due to the high occurrence of landslides.
  13. Do not attempt to climb in the off season when it could be dangerous
  14. Private car parking and access may not be allowed during the peak period when shuttle buses are available upto the 5th station. Please check in advance.
  15. Be careful of altitude sickness and do not ascend further if you feel any symptoms of altitude sickness.
  16. It would be a good idea to prepare for the climb by walking a few kms each day , weeks before you intend to climb Mt Fuji.

Though the climb is difficult and popular, the climb does tend to get monotonous at few patches when all around you see barren earth.

 Sharing an old Japanese saying  “ A wise man climbs Fuji once and a fool twice”. Nevertheless, the climb is worth an attempt atleast once in a lifetime. 

Some of the pictures in this blog were clicked by "K-san"  ,my husband's friend and co-climber. Arigatou Gozaimasu, "K-san". 


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