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Mount Fuji (Japan)

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Country: Japan / World Region: Asia

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      08.04.2011 06:14
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      A great Japan experience.

      Mt Fuji, a dormant volcano, sticks 3776m up out of the ground a 100km or so west of Tokyo. When the peak is covered in snow it is picture postcard perfect, and is one of the great symbols of Japan.

      I climbed Fuji on Sunday October 10th, at the second attempt, having turned back at about 3000m the previous year when my climbing mate started to get sick. Here I will describe my experiences and thoughts on climbing this famous mountain.

      Mount Fuji is divided into 10 "stations", or levels. While it is possible to climb from the very bottom, the vast majority of people choose to climb from one of the four 5th stations, at Kawaguchiko, Subashiri, Fujinomiya and Gotemba. The first three all start at an elevation of between 2200m and 2400m, while Gotemba is by far the hardest with a starting elevation of 1400m.

      The "official" climbing season for Mount Fuji is between 1st July and 31st August. Outside of these times most of the facilites will be closed but it is still possible to climb the mountain itself, although telling a Japanese person that you plan to climb Fuji in the off season will be met with a look of surprise or even shock. There is a lot of scaremongering on the web, particularly on Japanese English-language websites that warn of the dangers of climbing Fuji outside the official climbing season, but in truth, as long as you are well prepared, have some experience, check the weather and - most importantly - are prepared to cut your losses and head down at the first sign of any problems, then you should be fine. Yes, so four or five people die on the mountain every year, but when there are half a million climbers this makes climbing Fuji statistically safer than driving a car.

      Saying that, I would never suggest that someone attempt it without knowing what they're doing. If you have no experience climbing in snow, for example, don't try it. And if it starts to snow while you're halfway up, give up and head down. I just think that someone with a good amount of relevant experience would have no trouble. Just a disclaimer!

      Having turned back at about 3000m last year while attempting the Gotemba route, this year my friend and I tackled Fujinomiya. During the offical season the road to the 5th station is closed to public transport but in the off season you can drive right up to the carpark at the foot of the trail at 2380m.

      To make the climb, we wore thermal underclothes with ski trousers and jackets, woolly hats, scarves, ski googles and gloves. I wore hiking boots and my friend wore sneakers. We both had headlamps with spare batteries, and I also had a little LED lantern. We had a big meal before we left Fuji City for the trailhead, so had just a few chocolate bars, a couple of cakes and some rice balls. We also took around four litres of water each (not including a small can of beer for the summit!). Other sundries included a toilet roll, a rain jacket, and a cigarette lighter (never go up any mountain without a source of fire). I really wanted to take a flask of hot tea, but I forgot it. At the top, with the wind billowing and the beer I had brought really unappetising (I couldn't stomach more than a couple of sips) at 5.30am, hot tea or even soup would have been wonderful.

      We started climbing at 10.30pm. There was barely a quarter moon, but the sky was completely clear and the views even from the start were amazing. We could see the edge of Tokyo around the mountain, and several cities including Fuij, Fujinomiya and Shizuoka glittering below us at the edge of the dark ocean.

      The trail, however, was a little more difficult to see and we were limited to the circles in our headlamps. The sign at the trailhead claimed it would take four hours and twenty minutes to the summit, so I was a little concerned that we were leaving too early and would end up on top several hours before sunrise since all the huts were supposed to be shut. But, after my friend got sick the year before, I figured that slow and steady would win the race. So we plodded on.

      We actually made pretty good time, getting to each Station within the estimated times. Every hut was shut up, but at the 8th Station we found a small emergency hut just to the left of the path as you come up on to the plateau that the main hut is built on. I've never seen it mentioned anywhere on the web and wouldn't have noticed it but for the voices I heard inside, but as it was the only emergency hut on that route it proved a godsend as we sat inside for a while and talked to a small group of other hikers, some European, some Japanese, who advised that we all head for the summit around 3am in order to make it for the sunrise.

      The top of the mountain is, in true Japanese style, a terrible mess. Some council somewhere obviously decided that the best way to adorn the top of such a sacred mountain was to build a pig-ugly weather station right on top of the highest point, so that the highest reachable point would actually be the roof of said station. There is also a cluster of souvenir shops, restaurants and vending machines, all of which were shut up tight when we made it. Saying all that, the sunrise was beautiful, and the views were amazing. It was freezing cold, even after the sun had come up, and very windy, but it was worth it.

      Coming back down, I could only surmise that coming up in the dark is better, because when you can see the route ahead of you it looks awfully steep and awfully far. Considering we were out of the climbing season by six weeks, I was surprised by the number of people attempting the climb by the more pleasant day temperatures. In our three hour descent we probably passed 200 people, including two joggers(!) and three guys carrying up mountain bikes.

      The big difference between the two routes I've tried, Gotemba and this time Fujinomiya, is that Gotemba is mostly sand, making the ascent a terrible slog, two steps forward, one back, while Fujinomiya is far more rocky and easy underfoot. The Gotemba route is also poorly marked (we easily lost the trail last year) and has very few huts (when we gave up last year we had yet to make the 6th Station at about 3000m), while we were reaching a hut almost every 30mins on the well-marked (ropes and arrows painted on the rocks) Fujinomiya trail, something that gave us a lot of confidence to keep going. The Kawaguchiko trail apparently has even more.

      On the other hand, this meant that coming down Fujinomiya was barely faster than going up, whereas on the Gotemba route you can come down in a fraction of the time via the Sunabashiri, or "sand run". Last year we gave up after seven hours of climbing, but it took barely an hour to run down to the carpark.

      I would recommend climbing Fuji to anyone coming to Japan. Don't take it lightly though - be well prepared (we saw a few people climbing at night in jeans and sweatshirts, all of whom eventually passed us as they hurried back down), be aware of the weather conditions (www.snow-forecast.com is the site I use) and be prepared to admit defeat if things go wrong. If you show respect to the moutain you'll likely be fine, and the sunrise and the views are among the best I've ever seen.

      There various ways to access Mt. Fuji. This site

      http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6901.html

      has all the information you need and a detailed guide of each route.

      Also on ciao under headofwords.

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