Gaijin vs. the Volcano

We slept in as late as possible on Saturday morning in preparation for the trek up the big mountain. We’d decided to aim for the traditional goal of seeing sunrise from the summit, and we knew very well we wouldn’t be getting any sleep that night.


We bought two litres of liquid each, consolidated our required baggage, dumped the rest—including, sadly, my Big Purple bag—in a locker hidden in the bowels of Shinjuku station, and unfortunately got caught in the two-hour gap between buses from 5:50 to 7:50 p.m.


We got on one of six full buses leaving at 7:50, and after two and a half hours of futile attempts at sleep, we arrived at the fifth station on the northern Kawaguchi-ko side of Mt. Fuji.

Gaijin vs. the Volcano

You can approach Mt. Fuji from four different directions, and on each side there are ten “stations,” with station one at the base and station ten at the peak. Most people start at the fifth station, from which the climb is officially clocked around five hours with a three-hour descent. Although it was the height of summer, it was already chilly enough at that altitude for me to pull on my jacket. A bunch of Japanese guys in green helmets and military uniforms were stretching in the square between the shops. 10:20 p.m.: just five hours and fifteen hundred metres to go.


The standard souvenir for the climb is the Fuji Walking Stick, an octagonal length of wood cut to suit the height of the climber. You’re supposed to get them stamped at each station, and many of them had flags and little bells attached that jangled around us in the darkness. Big Sis and I decided they’d only get in our way, so we just pulled out one of the 100-yen flashlights I never used at Fuji Rock and began our odyssey up to the 3776-metre summit.


Oddly, we started out going downhill.


We could see nothing but the darkness of what we assumed to be an uncomfortable plummet off to our left, but the sky above was clear and filled with an array of stars that my glasses weren’t strong enough to allow me to see. Clouds gathered around the perimeter of the mountain, and while we never heard any thunder, lightning flashed intermittently throughout the night. Every hour or so we would look up and see the lights of the next station above, all zig-zagging lines of smoky white, ethereal in the darkness.


The dank reek of pay toilets heralded the approach of each station. The stations also sold limited food and drinks, raising the prices with the altitude. The last time I checked, it was 500 yen for a bottle of water you could normally get from a vending machine for about 130 yen. The higher stations offered bedding—or rather, floor space—by the hour. We wondered how the staff got to work every day. Each station was broken up into several sub-stations, so every time we thought we might have achieved the next one, it turned out we were only really at the fourth permutation of the same number we’d been lamenting for an hour.


The ascent was more of a walk than a climb. At the most interesting points, we had to pull on chains and use our hands to clamber up outcroppings of volcanic rock, and in those areas we moved quickly and gained a lot of altitude. But we spent most of our time trudging endless switchbacks filled with charcoal-like pebbles that slid us back several inches for every step we took forward—assuming the larger chunks of rock didn’t trip us first. It was a slow, arduous slog.


Somehow, my legs never really felt tired, but Big Sis wasn’t doing as well. As we ascended, she progressively cursed everyone who’d ever told her anything good about the climb. 


We each stuck to our separate afflictions for the night: Big Sis was physically exhausted; I was cold and sleepy. I remember thinking around midnight that there was no way I could possibly stay awake until sunrise at 4:30. I kept adding and removing layers of clothing depending on the temperature and how hard I’d been pushing, but Big Sis only pulled on a super-thick MEC fleecy around station 8(d) and she was good for the night. I had a Gore-Tex rain jacket over my Costco fleecy, and the latter just wasn’t holding up to its end of the Insulation Agreement.


As the air got thinner, the little bursts of energy needed to pass other climbers started to come with obligatory breathing stops. We occasionally saw people at the side of the path taking gasps from what looked like oxygen tanks. The general sentiment from all the gaijin we passed was: “I’ll never… smoke… again.”


We replaced the first flashlight halfway up when it suddenly conked out and wouldn’t come back on again.


We chatted with a few people as we went. Someone came up to us from behind and asked in garbled Japanese where we were from, and we introduced ourselves to a guy wearing a Queen’s track jacket who turned out to be from Etobicoke of all places. We even figured out that we now worked for the same company and he’d been at my training in Tokyo. We overtook and fell behind one another several times over the course of the night.


It was around 4:00 a.m. when we reached the last leg of the climb and hit a bottleneck of people. You’re not allowed to travel off the path, and since everybody was tired it was a matter of waiting thirty seconds to take three steps as everyone moved a bit, rested, and moved a bit more. It was agonizing. We were still stuck in this mess when the sun rose at 4:30.


It wasn’t that big a deal, though. You couldn’t see it through the clouds anyway.


When we finally got to the top, some guy with a hand-held clock read out our official time: 5:40 a.m. Big Sis called her friends in Akita, partially in retribution for when they’d done the same to her months before, and partially to take advantage of the fact that her phone company (DoCoMo) is the only one that works on top of Mt. Fuji. But her batteries soon depleted in the cold, rendering her phone nearly as useless as mine.


Big Sis grabbed one of the exorbitantly-overpriced charms from the summit shrine before I convinced her to clamber over to the crater in the middle and head up the last few metres to the actual top.


The centre of mount Fuji is essentially a gigantic pit, hundreds of metres deep and as many across, varying in shades of orange, grey and black, and precipitously steep. You have the sense that you could simply plummet right in before you knew it; there’s no distinct edge or border.


The highest point, at least on our side, was a relatively brief scramble away up a charcoal hill. There was a little torii gate at the top, and we took pictures by the edge of the peak with the clouds far below and the sun nearly parallel in the sky.


Some people take an hour and walk around the crater when they get to the top. We wondered why on earth anyone would be such a masochist. Admittedly, the actual “summit” was on the other side, but it wasn’t like we really cared by that point. It was bloody windy and cold up there.


We huddled on a bench long enough to eat some muffins we’d bought in Tokyo, then stepped onto the long road back down. We worried for a moment that there was a horrendous line waiting to descend as well, but that turned out to be the queue for the bathroom.


The descending path was composed of still deeper charcoal pebbles than the ascent, and even using each other for support, we went no more than a dozen paces between each slip and near-fall. Big Sis’s knees were getting battered by our jarring steps, and it was a struggle to limit our speed. I wanted to run down. Some people did.


The switchbacks just went on and on, and we had to rest after every four lengths or so. Now visible, the upper part of the mountain was all black, covered in charcoal-coloured debris that was marked with vividly green lettuce-like heads of vegetation. It got warm again very quickly.


It had taken us about seven hours to get up, but even with a half-hour line at the lone washroom on the descent, it only took three and a half hours to get down. We got to the fifth station village at 10:00 only to have to wait until 1:00 for the first bus with available seats. If you want to purchase return tickets ahead of time, you have to pay for both ways a day in advance.


Big Sis seemed to be doing all right, but it was a struggle for me just to keep myself awake. My mouth had somehow spontaneously generated toxic morning breath and I hadn’t even slept. When the bus arrived, I was unconscious as soon as I sat down.


In retrospect, I don’t specifically remember anything that branded the trip as unfortunate or ill-advised, but I recall that Big Sis and I agreed that we would never, ever, ever, ever consider doing that again. It’s said that only a fool climbs Fuji twice. I think I’ll trust my judgement at the time.


When I told Socks about our trip, he said we’d gone up the hard side.


Smelly and tired and just generally sick of all things related to keeping ourselves upright, we got back to our locker in Shinjuku station and found that the key wouldn’t turn. The attendant seemed very pleased to inform us that, if we’d used it for over 24 hours, we had to stick another 400 yen into it to get our stuff out. I was too tired to even be cynical.


We changed clothes in the small station washrooms, much to the confusion a few innocent bystanders, and I still felt disgusting after the change.


[For photos of Mt. Fuji, check out Mountains in the Photography section - Ed.]

The Way Back

The train we caught to Tokyo station looked like something out of Total Recall. There were TV screens perpetually displaying ads and transit updates above the doors.


I had to leave pretty much immediately if I wanted to catch the last bus The Vilage at 7:20. I’d been hoping to stay with Big Sis a little longer, but that was it. She left to find a Starbucks while I tried to find my train.


Like Big Sis’s, my phone's battery had died in the cold, so I’d just turned it off and forgotten about it. When I got home and plugged it in, I was a little surprised to find that I had a message from Bishop.


Apparently, he and Socks had missed their flight to Thailand.


This is worse than you may think, because from what I’d heard, it was now impossible to get tickets to Thailand for the month of August. He was calling from a pay phone—neither he nor Socks had cell phones any more—and he wanted The Toronto Girl’s number because they needed a place to stay in Tokyo.


He called back around 9:00 and I gave him the info he needed; I wouldn’t find out what happened to them until I returned from my trip to Canada two weeks later.


I’d been up for about 36 hours by the time I fell into bed at 9:30. Big Sis called at 10:00, which wasn’t so bad, but when my mom called at 11:00 I was barely able to mumble that it was really a bad time to call. I think I had enough presence of mind to tell her I’d received tickets and would be coming in on Tuesday, though.


So I had Monday to pack and prepare, and then I needed to be back in Tokyo to pick up my tickets at the airport at 2:20 on Tuesday afternoon. I was getting to know the 7:50 a.m. bus out of The Village very, very well.


I determined that when I left, I would allow myself a lot of time to be absolutely sure I wouldn’t miss my flight.


Next >

September 2002