Minggu, 13 Februari 2011

Mounting Fuji

fuji.jpgThere are few symbols that represent Japan as clearly as does Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san in Japanese. Its near perfect conical shape makes it a much sought after photo opportunity for foreign tourists and Japanese nationals alike. The only thing better than snapping that wonderful photo of the mountain, is climbing it. Making the trek to the top of Fuji always seems like a great idea when on the ground, far away from the mountain with friends over a few beers, and while extremely rewarding, it is a long and tiring journey.

You don't actually climb from the bottom to the top of Fuji. The highway approaches Fuji and winds up the base to an area with some shops, restaurants and a hotel designated as station five. From here is where the hike begins. Its best to bring food and drink with you up the mountain rather than buying them at the stations you will encounter as you ascend. I've found that rice balls, trail mix, jerky, lots of water and a small thermos of hot green tea make for the best set of provisions. One thing that is a must for all climbers that can be obtained at station five is a walking stick. These octagonal sticks made of what appears to be pine run about 1500 to 2000 yen and have a little bell attached to the top by a red ribbon. Lose the bell. The constant noise will fast become an irritation after the eight hour hike to the top. You may not think you care for a walking stick but it will become the best souvenir that you will descend Fuji with. At each station they have metal brands, warming in a fire that can be used to burn a small picture into your stick as you make your way to the top. Each will have the altitude of the station your at and some nifty Japanese Kanji characters on it. By the time you reach the top and get the much coveted final brand, your stick will be covered in unique Japanese pictures and messages that really make your stick a very personal part your Fuji experience. For the next long, tiring eight hours, this stick will be with you the entire way.

The goal of most climbers at Fuji is to see the sunrise the following day. Since the climb takes around eight hours to complete, the easiest way to accomplish this is by a night climb. By starting between eight and nine in the evening, you're pretty much guaranteed to be at the top by sunrise, which is always around 4 to 5 in the morning in Japan. Climbing at night like this is a truly unique experience, especially if there is a full moon out and no cloud cover. A flashlight is very helpful for a night hike like this. The other way to climb Fuji is to reserve a spot at one of the lodges far up the mountain. This allows a climb to start earlier in the day, even before noon. It takes about four or five hours to reach the first of these lodges. You can find nice package deals at most Japanese tourist agencies which will include a light meal with your stay. This way is also very fun and you still get to see the sunrise, just after a few hours of sleep and a hot meal. I've done both trips and can honestly say there's no shame in taking a nap in one of these little lodges on the side of Mt. Fuji. One last suggestion is to bring warm clothing. A thick sweater and any jacket that will break the wind along with a wool cap or beanie will do nicely. It's cold at the top, and even though Fuji is only open for climbing in July and August, and you start your climb in warm summer weather, due to the altitude at the top, the last part of the climb will be chilly.

The first part of the trail is a little unremarkable. Most of the mountain is not visible at this time and the scenery at this point is not particularly thrilling. One of your first sights will be a set of toilets about 30 minutes from station five. As you make your way up to the mountain, the different stations are spaced at a good interval apart to take breaks and get your walking sticks branded. At each station you'll find a couple of young people manning the lodges. They're usually huddled around the fire they keep burning inside with a pot of soup or tea swinging over it. To mark your stick costs between 100 and 300 yen as you go up the mountain. It's a way to generate revenue for the park and employees and can easily cost twenty to thirty dollars by the time you get to the top. You don't need to get one done at every station, but seven or eight of them along with the "I climbed Fuji and all I got was this lousy stamp" that you get at the top of the mountain is a good amount to adorn your stick.

The views of the surrounding countryside as you climb are just amazing. While the view is fantastic, the climb will get a little tiring. There's only so much purple mountain majesty that can keep you bubbly after five hours of constant switchbacks up the mountain. An interesting aspect of the climb up is how enormous the mountain actually is. The higher you get, it's very easy to comprehend just how small you are in comparison to your surroundings. The trails aren't too difficult to climb, with only a small part of the hiking actually done over uneven, rocky terrain. There's little else to say about the actual climb itself. It just goes, and goes, on and on for hours. The last hour is pretty congested with other climbers making the hike. Regardless of the speed at which different people make the ascent, the narrow, steep portion of the trail just before the summit is slow going due to the large volume of people there.

Once at the top a truly rewarding feeling washes over you. The incredible view coupled with the knowledge that you literally just scaled a mountain make for a wonderful memory. Watching the sunrise from the top is breathtaking. Surrounded by hundreds of other climbers waiting in anticipation for the first rays of the sun creates a collective feeling of joy and accomplishment. It's not uncommon to hear large groups of Japanese shouting the classic "Bonsai!' three times, and just adds to the moment. The top is dotted with several buildings literally covered with large, lava rocks that are stacked all around, probably to negate the high winds that prevail at this part of the mountain. It further adds to the sense of the harshness of the environment at the top and the sense of achievement of your successful climb. There is hot coffee, cocoa or soup to be had here, though for a price. There are toilets to be found as well as open heated buildings to warm up in before the next part of the journey.

Though it may sound obvious when explained, the realization that making it to the top is only half of the experience soon sets in. It quickly becomes apparent that going down the mountain is just as arduous a task as was climbing up. Again, there's not much to say about this part. There are no stations on the way down to rest or buy food or drinks, just dozens of other tired climbers making the descent. About an hour before you reach the bottom there's a bathroom that you will smell before you see, but that is it. The view during this time is still amazing. The mix of crisp morning air and the warming temperatures as you descend will help to negate the tedium of the seemingly endless switchbacks that characterize the trip down. The trail downward is separate from the one going up, but they meet up right around the first toilet you saw as you begun. Its fun when you arrive at this point, because you will run into the people making the climb up. Even though it has only been one night since that fresh, laughing person you see hiking up was you, you feel like you know something that he or she doesn't. It's a small comfort to ponder that you will soon be on the way home to a shower and a warm bed, while these people passing you going the opposite direction have a long night ahead of them.

Source: http://sightseeing.in-japan.jp/

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