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Back from Mt. Fuji unscathed

I’ve returned safely from Mt. Fuji this afternoon. I’m pretty tired, but nowhere near as tired as I thought I’d be.

We booked a tour with a company called, quite appropriately, “Fuji Tours,” which included one night’s accommodation, two meals and a bath at a hot spring on the way home.

We had to leave early and be outside Shinjuku station by 8am. But even though we arrived on time, we couldn’t find our bus, and for a while, nor could the attendant who we found waiting at a corner.

The bus was already waiting for us and by the time we boarded it we were five minutes late.

A couple of hours later, we were in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. Although, to call them foothills is misleading. We were already twice as high as Mt. Takao we’d climbed yesterday.

Mt. Fuji has a diameter of over 50 kilometres, so to really climb the whole of Mt. Fuji from the foot is a seriously long trek. And being a volcano of traditional volcano shape, the bottom one third is quite flat and ultimately just a very, very long walk in any case. Fuji has 10 levels, separated by between two to four hundred metres. On each level, there are way points with clusters of small “yados” or inns. Each cluster is numbered; the lowest is called Ichi-go or first way point, the second Ni-go, the third San-go and so on. The final, ninth way point is Kyu-go and the tenth level is Chojo or summit.

Our bus took us directly to the amusingly named Go-go or fifth way point, which is approximately half-way up the mountain. You could say we cheated, but as I said before, the bottom half is really just a two day walk rather than a real climb.The plan was to climb up to Hachi-go, the eighth way point, and sleep there for a few hours. We’d wake up before dawn, and prepare for the final climb to the summit. So, without further ado, we set off from Go-go at about 12.30

One interesting thing was that we were walking through a layer of low cloud, which rolled across our path occasionally, like a scene from a war movie. And there were times that, looking over the side of the path, we could see absolutely nothing at all!

The climb from Go-go to Roku-go, the sixth way point was a quite benign affair and went smoothly enough once we’d cleared the first cloud layer. Our guide set a gentle pace and stopped for frequent rests. I was surprised at the sheer number of people climbing, there were three groups and our group was no exception: we numbered about 40! Also, there were other, smaller groups and individuals climbing, too, which brought the total number of pilgrims to over 200.

Beyond Roku-go came Nana-go, the seventh way point, and here the slope got much steeper. Within two hours, the temperature had dropped considerably, a quick check on a fellow trekker’s thermometer said 22 degrees. We’d dropped 13 degrees from the ground level 33 degrees. The wind was also picking up and the sky above was as white with cloud as the sky below. It was time to put on another layer.

I didn’t have a good feeling about the weather and I couldn’t imagine us being able to see the sunrise with all this cloud cover. Anyway, on we went to Hachi-go, where our “yado” and a warm meal was waiting for us. The surrounding vegetation changed suddenly after Nana-go. Gone were the evergreens, replaced by a dense cover of low bushes.

We arrived an hour before sunset and the weather was not looking too good. It was down to less than 10 degrees and the wind was cold and clammy. Our yado was called “Haku’un-So” or White Cloud Lodge and was large and reasonably furnished. I’d heard terrible things about the accommodation of Mt. Fuji, such as people climbing over each other to get in and out and so on, but this lodge was a little more upmarket, with enough bunk-beds for everyone, albeit a little tight here and there.

Our yado had a small shop, selling basic goods at appropriately sky-high prices. Our meal was a minimal but welcome curry and rice and I went out after dinner, to find that the temperature was less than five degrees. I’d been hoping to catch a glimpse of the city from up here, but alas, the clouds were so thick that it was pitch black. Travellers were still arriving at Hachi-go and a lot of them were looking worse for wear. It was just starting to rain, too, which was not a good sign this high up on a mountain. This was unfortunately the last photo I could take until we were on the way down. Finally we settled in for a few hours rest before our 1.30AM morning call.

We woke up before the call and things were not well with the weather. The intermittent sound of rain hammering on the roof meant that we were in for a wet trek to the top. We kitted up with the warmest and most waterproof clothes we’d packed such as nylon over-trousers and jacket over several layers of thick thermals. I also wrapped up my wallet, phone and camera in plastic bags to to be sure. It could even be snowing at the top of the mountain!

On leaving the building, we were confronted by cold, blustery winds and rain that was floating rather than falling. There was no sign of lightning, which would have brought all mountain climbing to a standstill immediately.

Instead, it was only an hour or so later, as the conditions got gradually worse and worse did we realise that we might not make it to the top. And we didn’t. Upon arriving at Kyu-Go -the penultimate way point- half an hour later, the guides were phoning each other and warning of the harsh conditions at the summit. The rain was getting heavier and the fog was closing in. It was time to call it a day.

We wondered why so many people were sitting outside in the cold, when there was a warm, and seemingly quite empty yado nearby. We were getting cold anyway so we went into the yado to sit down.

The manager quickly told us that they charged 1000 yen per person per hour just to sit down. We calculated that it wasn’t worth 50 pounds to sit on a narrow bench only have to pay 5 pounds for a glass of water, so we decided to retreat to our yado which we’d left almost two hours ago.

It only took us 30 minutes to walk back down to Haku’un-So and there were intrepid travellers still climbing, oblivious to the conditions awaiting them at the top of the “hill”.

We returned to an empty yado as most people had not yet got back and were still sitting outside the one we’d been at 30 minutes earlier and went straight to the warm, inviting bunks where we slept immediately.

We woke early for the descent, not wanting to be late for the bus. It was a rapid descent, sliding more than walking. The decent was really straightforward, travelling down a different path to the way up. It was composed of loosely packed gravel which would have made an arduous ascent. The view was excellent and I mamaged to get a few snapshots in on the way down.

We arrived with an hour to spare and went to get a bite to eat. In the car park, waiting for the bus, tired climbers were congregating. We overheard a few people looking worse-for-wear who were talking about having climbed to the top. They said the weather had been appalling, and of course, it was totally impossible to see the sunrise for the clouds, fog, rain and tears in their frozen eyes. I think we made the right decision to turn around.

On the way home, the bus stopped at an onsen where everyone had a well deserved hot bath.

Maybe next time we’ll have better luck with the weather.

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