Sunday, January 19, 2014

Memories of Japan: Fuji Fool 富士愚か者

Fuji tozan means "climbing Mt. Fuji"  Photo: Aaron Williamson
Today is Sunday , January 19, 2014.

At 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and may be the most heavily climbed mountain in the world.  It's a dormant volcano, but still considered "active," with the most recent eruption in 1707.  Experts say the eruptions probably occur every 300 to 500 years, but there is no way to tell when the next one will happen.  

By the way, although the word for mountain is yama in Japanese, the correct way to refer to the mountain is Fuji-san, and not "Fujiyama" as some people do.  It's like saying "Fuji mountain" instead of Mt. Fuji.  The use of -san at the end of a mountain's name is not the same as the -san used at the end of a person's name.  In fact, -san is the character for mountain ( 山 ), which is why some people mistakenly say yama.  The two characters that make up the name Fuji mean "wealth" and "warrior," respectively, but the characters were chosen for their sound (reading) that they had in Chinese when they were borrowed, rather than for their meaning.  

Mt. Fuji from the town of Fujiyoshida.
During Japan's feudal period, according to a code of restrictions called nyonin kinsei, women were not allowed to climb Mt. Fuji.  In 1832, a 25-year-old woman tamed Tatsu and some of her female companions decided to climb the mountain anyway.  (There was at least one man in the party, as well.)  They climbed dangerously late in the season, probably to avoid meeting other climbers, who might have insisted that they turn back.  Reading about her trek to the top, I was amazed that Tatsu made it to the top, considering that the party was dressed in quilted cotton jackets and straw sandals. There was reportedly a foot of new snow on the trail, as well.  Later, in 1869 or thereabouts (I saw a couple of different years written in different sources), Lady Fanny Parkes, the wife of British ambassador Sir Harry Parkes, was the first non-Japanese woman to climb Mount Fuji. 

I heard a lot about climbing Mt. Fuji while I was in Japan, and one summer while living in Tokyo, I even had a chance to go with some people who were making the climb.  I chickened out at the last minute, oddly enough, because I didn't think I was in good enough shape for the climb.  Now that I am really out of shape, that excuse seems laughable, since at that time I was in the best shape of my life!  However, if you do the least bit of research into climbing Mt. Fuji, you will understand why I decided not to go.  

The Japanese have a saying about Mt. Fuji that gets translated a bunch of different ways, but the upshot is that a wise man climbs Mt. Fuji at least once, but if he climbs it twice, he is a fool.  A few people who actually made the climb told me they were "Fuji fools" (Fuji okoramono  富士愚か者).  You don't actually have to have any climbing experience, nor do you have to be in fantastic shape to climb this mountain, as long as you 1) climb only during the official open climbing season, 2) come prepared for the climb and 3) don't rush, or don't try the climb with a limited amount of time.  Many people will tell you that they had a fantastic experience on Mt. Fuji, but most will definitely not do it again.  People of all ages make the climb, and one couple that I know of brought their little dog with them.  Here's a ten-minute video to prove it.  Thousands of people climb Mt. Fuji every year, and yet one blogger wrote that fewer than 1% of Japanese have ever climbed the mountain.  I certainly didn't meet that many people who had done it, and I was there for ten years!

By the way, here is a live web cam site where you can see what it looks like on Mt. Fuji right now.  Remember to look at it at night here in the USA because it's on the other side of the earth from us.  In the green box just under the cam, it gives your local time, then in slightly smaller print, it gives the local time in Japan.  You can click on the numbers to get different views.  If you click on the Japanese writing just below the cam but above the numbers, you will get a larger view. 

If you climb from the very base of the mountain, there are 10 "stations" to the top.  I actually was thinking of trying the climb from the bottom, and that might have been an interesting trip, although it would have had to be done in two or even three days.  The roads are paved up to the Fifth Station, and that's where most people start the climb, having taken a bus from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.  It takes only about 2 hours for the bus to get there.  If you go during open season, however, be prepared to share the experience with hundreds of others who are climbing the same day. 

Some people only go as far as the Fifth Station and just take in the tourist places before heading back on the bus.  This is an important option if you are not really fit for the climb.  

The slopes can be deceptive. When you get to the top,
there is more mountain to climb. 
Photo credit: Aaron Williamson
The Japanese are ones for following rules, mostly.  The official climbing season is July and August.  Before and after that, most of the service huts are closed, which means you have to be even more prepared with your own food and other essentials.  Some people do climb in June and September to avoid the crowds, but climbing between October and May is strongly discouraged, as the weather can be very severe and it can worsen rapidly.  Lots of snow, gale-force winds, and temperatures to -40˚F or worse.  The winds in winter are strong enough to blow climbers off the mountain.  Every year there are a few deaths on Mt. Fuji, the vast majority of them in months when climbing is discouraged. 

There are several climbing trails, some more popular than others.  The more popular trails have more services available.  There are "huts" to stay in at the various stations on the trail, but you have to share a futon (sleeping mat) with one other person, either a friend or a stranger.  First come, first served.  There is hot food at some of the stations, too, but it is incredibly expensive.  (There are separate trails for heavy-duty vehicles to bring merchandise up to the stations; these are closed to climbers because the vehicles are so wide that they take up the whole trail.  The vendors, by the way, live on the mountain for weeks at a time during the climbing season.)  The toilets are "rustic," not that well maintained, and unisex. 

Most people climb during the night, try to sleep in one of the huts for a few hours, and try to get to the very top to catch the sunrise.  Because of this, there can be severe gridlock on the trail, and you end up moving at a snail's pace on a very steep part of the trail.  If you elect to make the climb a little earlier than others, you may end up having to wait for sunrise in a very cold and windy place.  

Some of the most interesting stories are told by those who made mistakes because they were ignorant of the actual climbing conditions, or because they underestimated how their bodies would react to the thin air at the higher elevations.  (They do sell canned oxygen up there, but it's expensive!)  Some of the climbers didn't bring enough money with them, while others didn't plan to spend enough time.  

A lot of climbers actually make the ascent in the dark
and the wind can be fierce.  These climbers brought
emergency blankets.  Photo credit: Aaron Williamson
First of all, it's important to dress for the weather.  Long pants, not short, are preferred, and for rain, you need rain pants as well as a rain poncho.  Sturdy leather hiking boots are preferred.  More than one person who went up with sneakers said that their shoes were completely ruined by the time they got back.  Even leather shoes, especially if they are worn, will take quite a beating on the trails of volcanic ash.  A light but warm jacket is a must, one that can be easily carried when it's warm.  For the climb, sturdy gloves are a must, either heavy-duty gardening gloves or leather gloves are good, especially when you have to use the chains at the side of the steep trail.  For the summit, a stocking cap or hood is important.  Whether you are going up or down during daylight hours, you will need sunscreen, as the UV rays are extremely potent at this altitude. (More than one climber came back with an angry sunburn from the descent during daylight hours!)  A number of hikers suggested putting a change of clothing in a locker at the Fifth Station, because you will be hot, sweaty and dirty when you get there, and it's a good idea to clean up before the train or bus ride back to the city. 

It's important to know before you go exactly what kind of weather is expected.  If sunny or clear weather isn't predicted, I would suggest you think very carefully about going.   If you plan to see the sunrise or sunset on the top of the mountain, I would suggest that you know the exact time it is predicted to occur, so as to time your ascent and descent correctly.   

The climb from Fifth Station can take anywhere from 4 to 9 hours, depending on your energy level and general state of fitness, the number of other climbers on the trail (gridlock can be a problem!) and how much rest or sleep you need along the way.  Many people suggest that you spend a couple of hours at the very least at the Fifth Station to acclimatize yourself to the thin atmosphere.  If you climb too fast, altitude sickness sets in, with nausea, shortness of breath, and headaches or dizziness.  A few hardy individuals have made light of this on the web, but having had problems breathing a couple of summers ago on Mount Rushmore here in South Dakota, I can tell you that it is very real for people who are not used to the thin air and whose lungs are in poor condition. Rushmore is only 5,725 feet. Fuji is over 12,000 feet!)

Snacks do weigh something, but it's better to bring your own unless you are prepared to pay through the nose for something to eat.  I would also suggest taking plenty of cash with you for food, a place to sleep, and any souvenirs you plan to buy.  Everything will be more expensive than you expected.  You will also want to send a postcard to someone – at the very least, yourself – from the post office at the summit.  You will want to get a walking stick at the fifth station and have it stamped at each station along the way, or if you are sure of getting to the top, you can buy the stick with all the stamps.  (The sticks aren't really that good for walking, they say; they're really for show, to prove you made it up and back.)

You need at least a liter of water with you.  Bottled water is horrendously expensive, and they do not have any running water to fill a canteen.  I would also suggest tissues to use in the toilet if necessary and a small handkerchief.  A flashlight with extra batteries is also useful, since you will most likely be ascending or descending at night.  A good digital camera is a must, as well.  You will need a day pack or large fanny pack to carry things.

There is a white torii gate at the top.  There's also a
Shinto shrine.
When you get to the top and look down into the crater, you will see... a lot of trash!  At the top of the trail, you may have to walk around to the other side of the crater to get to the actual highest point, depending on which trail you use.  You will most likely have to stand in line to have your walking stick stamped and to get in to the little post office to mail your postcard. 

Cell phones are just about useless on the mountain, as the air is too thin to carry a phone signal.  Chances are that your phone will run out of battery power before you are back down the mountain, anyway, and there's no place to re-charge your phone.  
I heard that going down is even harder then going up, since it's especially hard on the knees and ankles.  Climbers have also mentioned the dust from volcanic ash on the way down.  It takes at the very least 2 hours to go down, and may take as much as six.  Care has to be taken to make the descent slowly enough for the body to take in the altitude changes, just as when climbing up, depending on the state of your knees and ankles and your lungs.  There are various trails going down, and it is possible to end up at a different "Fifth Station" from where you started.  If you have left your things in a locker, it will be a very expensive taxi ride to the correct station to retrieve them. 

So there you have it, and now you know why I decided not to climb Mt. Fuji.  I'm no "Fuji fool."   :-)

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