Monday, July 10, 2006

A Mt Fuji Weekend

The weekend started out well. My colleague, N, and I left work Friday afternoon headed for Kawaguchiko, which is near where we would start our hike of Mount Fuji. We lucked out and miraculously managed not to take any wrong exits while driving across Tokyo’s highway maze. I had made reservations at a place called Earth Embassy for us to spend the night so we wouldn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to leave home Saturday morning to ensure a reasonably early start up the mountain. An organic farm and café located near one of the towns at the bottom of Mount Fuji, Earth Embassy sounded like it might be alright.

The doors had no locks. We were right next to the kitchen. The wall between our room and the next room wasn’t a wall but sliding doors with frosted glass that did nothing to shield us from the glaring light of the fluorescent overhead lamp that barreled in while the guy next to us changed his clothes. After being woken up by light and noise, I put in my earplugs and got up to move my futon into a corner where I could hide my head from the light, and there was a knock at the door.

The guy from the room next door poked his head in. He wanted us to pay before we went to bed so we could be free to leave at whatever time we wanted to in the morning without worrying about trying to settle the bill for the room. I nearly threw my 10000 yen note at him, saying nothing and avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t hear what N said to him, but after he brought me back my change he hung a blanket on his side of the sliding door and I promptly fell asleep. I was lucky because I had ear plugs, but banging from the kitchen kept N up for quite a while. However, she, too, did eventually manage to sleep.

The rooster woke me at 4:30. I rolled out of bed around 7am, repacked my backpack, drank a cup of coffee, and we left about an hour later to go find breakfast. We decided to go to Skylark, a Japanese coffee shop (similar to Denny’s). I had been hoping we’d end up at some place where I could have ham and eggs, but I ordered salmon, rice, and miso soup. N went for the western-style breakfast: two wieners, eggs, salad, and cold hotcakes that tasted like sugary cardboard. Somewhat full and ready to get our hike started, we went to the train station to pick up the other two who were joining us on our little hiking expedition.

With a full car we started the drive up to “gogome,” the fifth station. Mount Fuji is divided into nine stations. The station at the bottom is one and the station at the top is nine. At each station there is usually a place you can buy something to eat and drink and a place you can pay to go inside and rest. Most of the stations have benches outside, too, for people to sit on for free.

Gogome is up around 7000 feet. It took about an hour to drive up, park the car, and walk to the beginning of the trail. At Gogome there are several shops, vending machines, and oodles of bus parking. We checked to make sure we didn’t need any last minute supplies (N and I had purchased cans of oxygen at a 7-11 the night before) and we were off.

The hike up Mount Fuji took us about 7 hours. The trail is mostly lava rock and it goes, in the fashion of most other Japanese trails I’ve been on, pretty much straight up. We spent the day hiking up 5000 feet, stopping to rest every now and again. I made it to the top at 5 o’clock. The air was noticeably thinner: I felt a little spacey but not ill from the high elevation.

Once you ascend Mount Fuji on the route we took, the Yoshidaguchi trail, you get dumped out in what looks like a little town (see photo from previous entry). It was empty when I arrived but was packed at 4:30am Sunday morning (I didn’t get a photo of this because it was raining). We checked into the hut we were staying at and ate the best curry rice I think I’ve ever had. After dinner we took a brief walk around outside (there is a trail that goes the entire way around the caldera…Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano) and were back in the hut in time for the 7pm bedtime.

The lights stayed on all night and none of us were able to get much sleep. I discovered that my toque (beanie, watch cap, toboggan, whatever you call it) has a handy dark stripe around the edge that provides me with some darkness when I pull it down over my eyes. I slept fully clothes with my hat pulled down as far over my face as I could get it to go, tossing fitfully while unbeknownst to me, the other three were having problems breathing and feeling dizzy at times throughout the night.

At 4am everybody seemed to wake up at once (the hut had about 40 other people in it), we grabbed our stuff, and went outside to watch the sunrise. A lot of people hike Fuji at night and time it so they arrive at the top just in time to see the sun peek up over the horizon. I had no interest in hiking during the night, which is why we decided to spend the night up on the top and wake up early to see the sun come up. About 100 people were crowded in front of our hut. It being too early for me to want to deal with crowds, I decided to walk about half way around the caldera to go up to the highest point on Fuji. I told the others I’d meet back at 5:30am and off I went.

The sunrise itself wasn’t very spectacular. It was too cloudy, I think, but hundreds of hikers lined the trail jostling for the best view. I kept walking. I made it up to the peak, took a picture, and it began to rain. I put all my rain gear on and started heading back to our meeting point. It seemed like I passed all those hundreds of people waiting for the sun to rise again as they formed small groups and began walking up to the same point I was just retreating from.

I met my group and we started down the mountain. It was crowded. There were several tour groups of hikers being led down the trail. I weaved in and out of the crowds, trying to maintain that perfect balance between speed and gentleness I always try to attain in order to keep my knees from killing me. It took us about three hours to descent. 5000 feet in three hours left me quite wobbly at the bottom, but I must have paced myself nearly perfectly because there was no pain or tension in my knees by the time I was finished.

At the bottom I bought a can of café au lait from a vending machine, changed into a pair of shorts, and then we beelined for the car because we knew what our next destination would be: onsen. An onsen is a cross between a public bath and hot springs. This one was fantastic. There were seven different pools ranging from hot to cold water, my favorite was sitting in a cool pool of water while the air around me was like that of a sauna. I nearly fell asleep.

The drive back to Tokyo was uneventful. Again, we were lucky not to take a wrong exit while navigating through the muddled Tokyo highway system. After I was dropped off, I did a load of laundry and collapsed into bed. They say that you should climb Fuji once but are a fool to climb it twice. I’m already contemplating going back in September.

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