Friday, July 25, 2008

7/25/08 Mt. Fuji: Getting to the Hard Part

We hopped on our first bus of the day across from Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku and napped until we reached Kawaguchiko. I didn't stray too far from the visitor center's bus stop, so I can't comment much about the area. I already felt like the air was cleaner, but it very well could have been my imagination. I sat and wrote a few postcards while I waited for the next bus to come.

The map in the visitor area. I was amused at the little dot indicating where we were, versus the giant black hole at the bottom of the map, indicating where Fuji was waiting.

The many moods of Fuji painted on the side of a train. Please be the happy face, please be the happy face.

The next bus ride up to the mountain was a nice little time to think. Most people sat in silence, no doubt considering the journey to come. I thought over what I had packed in my bag, having already realized earlier that I had forgotten my rain gear. Bummer. I would estimate that the bus's population was 90% percent non-Japanese. Wikipedia states that a full third of the people that climb Fuji are foreign(though it doesn't seem to have a source for that figure). Hurray outsiders! One notable sight was a “Our Lady of Mt. Fuji” sign on the side of the road. That Mary really gets around it seems. Each time we passed a checkpoint, the bus played a little explanation in about 4 languages. Altitude among other unimportant facts “I'm thinkin' over here! Zip it!” As the bus sawed back and forth up the mountain my ears started to pop. I got the same feeling I have on the upside of a roller coaster-a tense calm before the storm. Almost to our destination, we passed an ambulance coming down, sirens blaring. Pretty amusing icing on the black omen cake.

We left the bus at gogomei, or the fifth station. There are a few different paths up the mountain, each with their own little stops marked on the way up. This is the most popular starting point because it has a large parking lot and there is a decent amount of facilities for travelers. Plenty of restaurants and gift shops. The bathrooms, though, are quite sparse despite the development, and the cheapest one that we could find cost about 50 cents to use. Rip off!

One of the most unique offerings were these cans of oxygen, apparently useful for fighting the effects of altitude sickness. I saw them in use on several occasions during the climb. Luckily I never felt bad enough to need one myself. Here they cost a little under 10.50USD, but the price rose as we did.

I was having a bit of Europe deja vu in this area. The buildings had a bit of a German mountain lodge style to them, and the air was clear. It felt quite a bit cooler than before, despite the same bright sun. Rain gear was available in the shops, but it was so unfortunately priced that I felt prepared to do without it completely. Could have been a decisive mistake, that.

Just a moment before we started our hike.

After some time in Europe and a quick bathroom break, we were off. We actually started off in a downward direction, and after a time we started to worry that we had taken the wrong path. We asked a ragged looking man walking the opposite direction, and he confirmed that we were on the right path. The path to Fuji's summit. We started referring to it as Mt. Doom and making Lord of the Rings references. We are nerds.

Earlier in the gift shops, Mike and I were discussing whether or not we should buy the expensive rain gear. Mike's logic, which sounded good at the time, was that we were going to be above the clouds, which made rain impossible. Not long after we started walking, though, we saw clouds begin to roll up the side of the mountain. This is us inside one of them. Rain suddenly became a threat once again.

An amusing warning sign. "We are not responsible for your life and what you do"

We took a little break for a nice photo shoot.

The first part of the trip was quite pleasant. Hiking with my friends, fair weather. As the sun started to sink the stars began sneaking out. Once a respectable darkness had fallen the view really started to get good. More stars than I have probably ever seen in Japan competed with the lights from a patchwork of cities. The lights on the ground were more plentiful, but those above were awe inspiring anyway. I started to get the sense that we were quite high up. The view from a glass plane.

Soon enough, we hit the next “station”. Stations are like little rest points, but they varied widely. Some were simply a sad little hut or two, some were light drenched clusters of several buildings. Whether they were big or small, lively or practically deserted, one thing was sure: I was unwelcome.

The people working in those huts on Mt. Fuji are most definitely the rudest people that I have yet encountered in this country. The first little hut that I came upon had no one outside, or anyone at the little snack bar window. So, I walked in the sliding door and to inquire about services with the few gentleman sitting inside. I hadn't even opened my mouth when they began shouting “outside! outside!” in their crap English, crossing their arms at me in a big “X”. Wow, ok. Not long afterwards a nice little Japanese lady went in and asked them the same damn question I wanted to, with a much nicer response.

My soul purchase at the 5th station was a long walking stick with a bell tied to it with a ribbon. Every station offers to burn a little stamp into the wood as you pass. For about 2 dollars, they make a nice little mark, some with pictures, some say how high you are. A nice little souvenir in addition to being useful for keeping my balance.

So when jerko was done helping the Japanese people I popped my head in again to hand them my stick without any additional incident.

One of the non-grumpy guys doing the wood burning.

I'm not usually a big geology enthusiast, but I developed a pretty close relationship with the rocks on that mountain, and I was surprised at how many times everything seemed to change. The rock type, size, and color would be constant for a time, and then change completely. I assume that has to do with several different eruptions from the same volcano, but I can't be sure.

This must have been the first rocky bit we came upon. The next hundred or so weren't as exciting.

The climb got progressively colder as we rose, but not extremely so. I simply slipped on one of the few thicker clothing items I had packed and continued on. Somewhere along the way, the wind started. This was when things started to turn from pleasant to a test of endurance. Everything became steeper and rockier, and it became necessary to use my hands to climb. The wind cut right though my multiple layers of clothing and chilled me, and it added a bit of an additional trickiness to keeping my balance on the rocks.

During a very cold rest, I pulled my hat over my face to keep the heat in.

Will John and his merry band make it to the top of Fuji in time for sunrise? Or will they be frozen, trampled by tour groups and eaten by Fuji tigers, with only their bones rolling back to the base of the mountain? Stay tuned for more of John Milito's Amazing Adventures.

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