Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tokyo - Days 4 and 5

We did it. We climbed Mt. Fuji. Wow, what an incredible experience! If you ever have the opportunity to do this, you must. Words simply cannot do justice to the majesty and beauty of Fuji.

Our adventure began at 6:30am on Tuesday, July 22nd. We woke, showered and had another great breakfast at the New Sanno Hotel before beginning our trek to the 5th Station of Mt. Fuji. We would have to take two trains and a bus to get there. We left the New Sanno at 7:45am and arrived at the 5th Station at 11:10am.

The 5th Station is the traditional place for Mt. Fuji climbers to begin. It is located at 2300 meters (7500 feet), so climbers are already well up the mountain before they begin their ascent. There are several stores and restaurants at the 5th Station to help climbers prepare for their hike.

One must-have is a climbing stick, which is made of wood and is about 4 feet long. The sticks come with a flag and bells, but most people remove these to keep from becoming annoyed by the constant ringing and flapping.

As climbers ascend the mountain, they purchase stamps for their climbing sticks at 200 yen each (2 dollars) at each mountain hut they pass. The stamps are actually brands burned into the wood with hot irons that serve as a way of memorializing the climb. The goal, of course, it to collect all of the stamps by reaching the summit. Each stamp has a unique design, but most include the name and altitude of the hut.

Another good-to-have item is a can of oxygen. At high altitudes, where the air becomes thin, some people can experience altitude sickness. A quick snort of oxygen can help relieve the symptoms.

So, with climbing sticks in hand and bottles of oxygen stuffed in our back packs, we began our climb at about 12:35pm. The first part of the climb is relatively flat, leading clockwise around the mountain to the ascending trail on the far side. In a way, it lures you into a false sense of optimism. You begin to believe that this is going to be easier than you thought. Then you the reach the 6th station where the ascent begins, and reality sets in.

The second part of the climb is a series of zig zags, or switch-backs, that wind their way up the mountain. The path ascends at a steep angle for 100 yards or so, then turns 180 degrees and ascends again. At first we could knock out three or four of these legs before resting, but as we climbed higher in altitude and became more tired, we slowed to only two, or even one, before stopping.

Then it became harder.

The legs turned to rock climbing, making the ascent far more difficult and much slower. Still, we kept making forward progress and were in good spirits. I have to say I have never been prouder of both my children. They were real troopers and didn't complain about anything. In fact, I had a hard time keeping Drew from leaving us all behind and practically racing up the hill.

We reached the 7th Station (around 2700 meters, or 8900 feet) around 3:30pm or so and stopped for a rest at one of the mountain huts. We bought our first stamp and then had some water and hot chocolate. We also talked briefly with a high school student who was working in the hut as a summer job. Very nice young man who spoke excellent english. After a 30 minute rest, we once again began to ascend.

The rock climbing became more difficult, further slowing our climb. We passed several huts on the ascent, purchasing stamps at each one. We didn't reach the 8th Station (3100 meters, or 10,170 feet) until 5:30pm. Five hours of constant climbing had taken their toll, so we decided to stop for the night and sleep in one of the mountain huts there. We had hoped to get farther on the first day because we would have less to climb to the summit on the second day, but the sun was setting and we didn't want to get caught on the side of the mountain in the dark.

The hut was much like a youth hostel, with open-bay sleeping quarters and communal dining. For dinner, we had a traditional Japenese dinner, complete with obscure vegetables and and an odd-smelling, oily type of fish. The sleeping area was a room with wall-to-wall futons and sleeping bags with buckwheat pillows (read uncomfortable rockiness) side-by-side. Our four were against the far wall. At around 8:30pm we turned in for the night. Unfortunately, Anna, Mary and I didn't get much sleep. Other climbers were continuously entering or leaving the room, and some of those sleeping were snoring. Then there was the unfortunate young child, about Drew's age, who developed some sort of respiratory problem and was wheezing practically all night. But then there was Drew. He went to sleep immediately at 8:30pm and didn't wake up until 5:00am the next morning.

So, it was around 5:00am when we all got up and prepared to resume the climb. But first, we gathered with the rest of the inn guests (about 50 or so) out front for sunrise. This was the moment we had been waiting for, one of the most beautiful sights we may ever see. Sunrise on Mt. Fuji, above the clouds, at 10,000 feet. Before the moment the sun began to rise above the clouds, there was much excitement among all the guests. All were sharing their climbing stories and excitedly pacing about. Then the sun peaked over the distant horizon and everyone became silent. No one wanted to disturb the incredible experience we were all sharing. After a few moments, cameras began to click as each guest sought to record the sunrise, as if anyone would ever need to a picture to remember that awe-inspiring sight. The crowd remained hushed until the sun cleared the horizon. Then a Japanese tour guide stepped out in front of the guests, said a few words, and everyone began to cheer. We had witnessed sunrise on the side of Mt. Fuji. That moment, that exhileration, that once-in-a-lifetime experience was worth all the hard work it took us to get there. We will never forget it.

We began our next leg with the other inn residents, but didn't get far before Anna began to get sick. Drew had earlier experienced some nausea as well. It appeared they may have been suffering from altitude sickness, so we decided to begin our descent instead of trying for the summit.

The trail down was nearly as difficult as the climb up, but in a different way. The slope was significant enough that we had to be careful not to slip and fall as we practically slid down the mountain. We were on our heels for most of the way down, holding hands to help each other balance. After about and hour or so, the trail leveled off and circled back counter-clockwise around the mountain to the 5th Station. We finally arrived at there around 7:30am.

Unfortunately, the first bus didn't leave for the train station until 8:30am, so we had to wait. We were not alone, though, as many others were finishing their adventure as well. When we finally started to enter the bus, the driver began to speak in Japanese and was saying something I couldn't understand. I was afraid were not going to be able to board. Then, from behind me, the young Japanese man we had met earlier at the mountain hut stepped forward and began to translate for us. What luck! Turns out the driver was saying he could not accept large bills, so all I had to do was get some smaller ones. We boarded the bus and settled in for the 50 minute ride down the mountain to the Kawaguchiko train station. From there, it was another two hours or so by train and taxi to our hotel.

At last, around 12:30pm, we stumbled into our hotel and collapsed in our room. One by one we showered to clean the lava dust off, then took a deep breath and congratulated ourselves on our accomplishment.