Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Ron Virmani - Experiencing Majestic Mount Fuji

In July 2009, I signed up for a two-week Japan trip with GAP adventures.  I wanted to see the land of the rising sun and the country of Shinkansen (bullet trains).  I had trained for high-altitude climbing and climbed Mt. Elbert (14,400 feet) in Colorado in early July and wanted to use this training to climb Mt. Fuji as well!

I landed in the Shinagawa suburb of Tokyo on July 20.  There were a total of 14 of us, a couple from Germany, a couple from Canada, a few from U.K., a lady from Belgium and another lady from Australia.  By and large, we all and our guide spoke English.  For about 11 days, we toured Takayama, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Himeji and Kyoto.  On July 30, we headed 62 miles west of Tokyo by train to Kawaguchiko, at the foot of Mt. Fuji.

Fujisan (san=mountain) is Japan’s highest mountain, rising to 12,388 feet.  It is a stunningly impressive cone of almost perfectly symmetrical proportions.  Poets and pilgrims have revered it since ancient times.  Painters and photographers, including me, have been mesmerized by it.  It is the icon and pride of Japan.

Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano.  Geologists estimate that it was created 600,000 years ago in Pleistocene era.  It last erupted in 1707.  The mountain was sacred to Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan.  It is also sacred in Shinto (religion in Japan before Buddhism) and Buddhist religions.  The mountain is named after Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi.  The shrine of Shinto goddess Sengen-Sama is found on top of the mountain.

Surrounded by five lakes, the spectacular mountain is impressive in its dimensions.  Not only does it rise more than two miles into the sky, but also it is 25-30 miles in diameter, topped with a crater spanning 1600 feet in diameter.  As a rare occurrence, the mountain may be visible on a clear winter day from 100 miles away.  In general, Fuji-san is shrouded in clouds.

When I was able to get some clear pictures of the awesome mountain from our hotel in Kawaguchiko., I knew that I was one of the lucky ones.

Ron Virmani - Experiencing Majestic Mount Fuji


Even though it is the holiest of the 3 holy mountains in Japan, it is not considered sacrilegious to climb it.   Japanese have climbed it forever, but women were considered impure and not allowed to climb it until 1871.  How they became pure after that, beats me.
However, the official climbing season lasts only two months, July and August.  In other months, snow cover and weather conditions make for a hazardous and even perilous climb and people have died on the mountain.

Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations.  The first station being at the foot of the mountain and the tenth being the summit.  Paved roads go as far as the fifth station, after that, you are on your own!
On July 31, we took a bus from Kawaguchiko station to the fifth station in the morning and got there at about 11 AM.  We were at 2300 meters altitude now.  It was a foggy morning with drizzle, temperature around 70 degrees.  We were facing a climb of 1470 meters or about 4800 feet, approximately a vertical mile!

A mother daughter pair said they were not going to climb, so the twelve of us joined the throngs of people starting off on Yoshidaguchi trail.  The trails are like I have never seen before.  Because 3000 people, including children and grandmothers, climb every day, the trails are very wide.  They narrow to some degree as ascent continues.

It started raining.  The possibility was that this could be a miserable hike.  One of the girls turned back after an hour and decided to visit Tokyo.  The rest of us pressed on.  Fortunately, the rain was not terribly heavy or sustained.  There were periods of clearing between rains.

The terrain was firm to start and then became full of gravel.  There were stretches of volcanic rocky climbs.  There were a seemingly infinite number of switchbacks.  As we climbed up, the air got thinner.  Some faces became pale, some people started having headaches and nausea.  Some vomited.  Some lay by the wayside clutching their oxygen tanks.  Surely, it was altitude sickness.
Many mountain huts have been constructed along the way to the top.  As we passed each one by, we hoped that one would be ours.  Finally, we made it our hut Tomoe Kan at 3400 meters.  I got to this hut around 4 PM, having hiked for four and a half hours.  Boy, that was a hard hike!

Some made it to this hut before me, some after.  In the two storey hut, there were several rooms or small halls.  In each hall, there were futons on the floor and blankets.  The hut accommodates, which is not the right word,  about 250 people.  We were packed like sardines in a can.

Some of us were quite finished by this point.  The holy mountain had taken its toll and drained them.  I do not think that they had realized the seriousness of the climb before they undertook it.  Anyway, the supper came at about 5 PM.  Rice is always a part of every meal in Japan.  In addition, there was Miso (soy) soup and a hamburger patty.  Buying a coke could set you back 500 yens (five and a half dollars)

The view from the hut was spectacular.  The sun was setting.  Darkness and mercury were falling rapidly.  Going to the outside primitive toilets was an act of bravery because of narrow passage and cold weather.  The use of toilet cost 100 yens   We could see a constant stream of hikers making their way both below and above the hut on the switchbacks of the mountain.  Their headlamps and flashlights made for a captivating sight.

We lay down, hoping to get rest, maybe sleep.  But sleep was hard to come by.  I am sure that CO2 level was high from having so many people in such a small enclosed space.

We got up around 2 AM.  The plan was to be at the top of Mt Fuji to witness the sunrise!  The temperature was freezing by now.  Six of us started up, the rest were going to go back down.  I had five layers of clothes on.

It was a thrilling and unique experience to join hundreds of hikers climbing up the volcanic rock in the middle of night.  We were packed on the trail 5 or 6 hikers abreast.  It was like being in a crowded state fair with some amount of pushing and shoving to make room to the next step up.  The going was slow.  Many times, we came to a complete stop from congestion.  Trail was steep and challenging.  I managed to make headway by maneuvering through and around the crowded pack.

Reaching near the summit, I saw the Torii gate.  It is a traditional religious gate in front of Shinto and Buddhist shrines.  By 4 AM, I was on top of Mt. Fuji, about an hour before the sunrise and first one from our group.  It was not only freezing on top but also very windy.   I would say the wind chill was about zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Thousands of people were at the top, dozens more pouring every minute, all awaiting the big spectacle of sunrise.  The clouds were below us, the east was aglow and the sky was getting lighter with time!

A few minutes before 5 AM, the first rays of sun reached us.  The miracle was happening.  Just then, clouds rolled in to partially block the sun.  Fortunately for us, they cleared up in a couple of minutes.  We were now witnessing the breathtaking sunrise we came to see!  I had long dreamt about this moment!  It came true on that day, August 1!  We savored the sunrise to our heart’s content.  Not many people are lucky enough to see a clear sunrise because of the ever encroaching clouds.

We saw the crater on top of Mt. Fuji.  One could hike the perimeter in about 90 minutes.  There are eight peaks surrounding the crater, the highest being Kengamine.  This truly is the highest point (3776 meters) in Japan.  But the collective will of the tired group was bereft of any desire to hike the perimeter in bitter cold and howling winds.

We started back down around 5:30AM.  Again, treacherous trails of volcanic ash greeted our feet and made short work of our shoes.  Some of us fell but did not get hurt.  Sun, clouds and rain kept us guessing about the kind of weather we were going to have for the next 5 minues.

Libby, the British girl and I were the first ones to get down by 8 AM.  It was beginning to rain.  But that did nothing to hide the glow on our faces of conquering the highest mountain in Japan!
Would I do it again?  As they say in Japan, one is a fool not to climb Mt. Fuji once, but a fool climbs it twice!  However, only 1% of Japanese people actually climb Mt. Fuji.


After the Japan trip, I took a short trip to S Korea.  On August 5, I climbed the beautiful mountain Buckansan.  This is a steep unrelenting climb of 2700 feet straight up, culminating in steps and cables to get to the very top of a huge granite rock.  Very challenging but very fun and rewarding too.  The total hike was 5 hours.

Having completed both of these hikes (and the one in Colorado in July!) set the stage for me to have a very enjoyable birthday on August 6!  I rewarded myself by taking a trip to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea.  I saw the country of North Korea from the border.  I saw its 160 meter high flagpole, which is the tallest flagpole in the world.  I hoped that one day with world peace, I would be able to hike in North Korea!  Until then, I will treasure and cherish my memories from trip to the amazing Fareast!

No comments:

Post a Comment