Friday, August 6, 2010


The only thing I really, really wanted to do when I knew we were coming to Japan was climb Mount Fuji. Anita had done it when she was on the army base in Zama back in 2007. She had made it up and back in 6 hours, so I figured it wouldn't be too bad. Boy was I wrong.

It turns out there are 5 different routes up and each starts at a different level on the mountain. Apparently the one army dropped her group off the first time was the easiest one. The one we did yesterday was the second hardest. If that was the second hardest, I don't even want to know what the hardest one is like!

It was an ordeal deciding when to go because our half brothers told us it was hard and we'd need a lot of time, so we settled on leaving Thursday night at 7:30PM from the Shinjuku bus station. Hiro asked me when we would want to come back, so we booked the bus coming back at 12 noon the next day. I figured we'd make it up for sunrise (by 4:30AM), maybe walk around the top in 90 minutes and head on our merry way back down by 6:45-7AM. That did not happen.

After taking mom and dad to the cemetery, Hiro picked us up at the hotel and we headed off to the bus station. We ate before he came so we were able to get right on the bus when it got there. It was super confusing to find the right stop! There were so many buses, even Hiro had to call the bus line and ask where we needed to go. Anita and I definitely wouldn't have been able to find it since we can't speak Japanese. We planned on sleeping on the bus, but that didn't happen. I wasn't tired at all yet as it was only 7:30PM and I often stay up talking to Nathan on skype well past midnight since it's day time for him (13 hour time difference). So we ended up talking and then took a brief "nap" for an hour... in which I didn't sleep at all, I just tried to sleep but failed miserably.

We arrived at the 5th station a little after 10PM, we went to buy our sticks, we got the shorter ones with flags on them for 1200 Yen. A guy found nubs of the sticks and we asked if we could have them and the guys at the counter shook their heads "no" and took them from us. (They were probably a foot long and had the 5th station brand on them, I figured if we could get "top" brands on those and our long sticks, we'd for sure be able to get our branded sticks or stick nubs home somehow on the plane!) Oh, well. We sat on the rock seats that were outlining a rocky patch and ate some of our rice triangles and drank some water before we began our accent at 10:18PM. I had to go potty but I didn't really want to pay 50 Yen at the bottom in the store where we got our sticks, so I waited until we found some trees on the side of the trail and went there when there were no people passing by. It was much easier in the dark because as long as no one was shining a flash light on you, no one could see you as it was pitch black. Later I found out all of the restrooms on the trail were 200 Yen, so 50 Yen at the bottom didn't seem like much!

There was a cement tunnel-like structure with a speaker that said in Japanese and English that we should be prepared for a strenuous activity and that if we were wearing summer clothes, we should turn back now. It reminded me of the warnings on the rides at Disneyland... Luckily Anita had said it was colder at the top so I was prepared wearing my North Face snow pants and brought my North Face jacket with fleece liner. I was San Leandro'ed out, reppin' the North Face! Ha, ha. I almost bought a new Recon while I was at Sports Authority... if I hadn't needed new running socks, I totally would have since I had that $25 gift card. I'll have to get the Recon again when its on sale or there is a coupon again from REI. It's pretty much best backpack I ever owned, but my old one's zipper broke. :( I was hoping to get a new one, but they just gave me money back and said I'd have to buy a new one... I've been putting it off because they're about $100 bucks. Anyway, I should get back to the Mt. Fuji journey...

Shortly there after we arrived at the guide station where we received a map for the trail. It's pretty straight forward to get up... you just take all the trails upward. It's down that is more confusing, but I'll get into that later. There were no stamps at the guide station, but after a few more twists and turns we reached the 6th station where we received our first stamp! I was pretty excited and handed over my money willingly. Whoever thought of the stick with branding idea was brilliant, branding is super easy/very low cost and the sticks are way useful when climbing up a volcano with slippery rocks and loose dirt.

I have been saying "climbing" rather than "hiking" because we were literally climbing up rocks at least 1/3 of the time. It was quite difficult to do with a hand held flash light and I longed for my headlamp I had packed into my Arizona stuff! I vowed never to leave home without one again (I always keep one in my car too, just in case I need a light!). In case you're wondering, I didn't bring it because we were planning on hiking in the day time-getting there in the morning and then coming back that late afternoon or evening.

I was carrying an exorbitant amount of water and food as well as a change of clothes and my flip flops. We each brought 2-2 liter bottles of water, a small bottle of vitamin water, and a small (16 oz) bottle of water. I carried 3 of the 2 liter bottles along with my vitamin water and small bottle of water. In all I was carrying almost 2 gallons of water which is nearly 17 pounds of water. Along with that I had an extra shirt and pants in my bag, my fleece for when we got to the top since there was always snow at the top, tons of food including snacks, rice triangles, bagels, pocky, chips, chocolate, etc. We didn't want to buy the crazy high priced food in the mountains so we packed a lot.

We arrived at the 7th station and were quite tired. Literally every time I began to ascend I felt winded. When we were walking on flat ground through the station I felt fine... so of course I wanted to keep going. I knew we needed to keep going in order to make it to the top before sunrise. When we began at the 5th station, we were still beneath the clouds, but the rocky slope was steep and we were able to see the tops of the clouds. The view was breath taking. We continued gamely on with our massive amounts of water and over abundance of gear.

We reached the 8th station and had over an hour to make it to the top, we weren't that far so I thought we could make it. I began stumbling up the side of the mountain. The altitude was getting to us. I closed my eyes and trudged up the path. It was dark anyway, everyone had lights. Anita thought there were more buildings above us, but the white, blue and red lights turned out to be a huge line of people waiting to get to the top. We joined the line shortly and still had 45 minutes to make it the last 900 meters to the top.

The line barely moved. I became a little concerned. Even though I really didn't mind the slow pace since the altitude was killer (when you get less oxygen than you need to your brain and legs, it really puts a damper on things), I was worried we wouldn't make it to the top in time for sunrise! It took 10 minutes to move 20 meters! I tried cutting through people but the path was only big enough for two people and the line was already two across as people marched two-by-two up the path.

It was soon 4:20AM and we still had about 10 turns to go, if we were only doing 2 turns every 10 minutes, we weren't going to make it before the sun rose at 4:57AM! We decided to step off the path and watch the sunrise from 12,370 or so feet instead of waiting to get to the top (not even the highest point, we had to hike around to that after we hit what most consider to be the "top"). I pulled out the video camera (oh, yeah, that was another 4 pounds on top of the 17 or so pounds of water along with all the other gear and food I brought) and tried to set it up. It said the card was formatted incorrectly. I was getting frustrated. I didn't carry it all that way to have it not work while the sun was rising!! I pulled out the battery and put it back in, but that didn't work. I pulled out the memory card and put it back in. It's easier said than done because at this point I was literally freezing and my fingers and hands weren't functioning properly. It was hard to smile because my face was so cold and my teeth were chattering. I couldn't wait for the sun to come up!

After I put the memory card back in, it worked! I was SO glad and set it up on a rock facing the sun. It took a decent picture, but it was definitely not the same as sitting there watching the sunrise. There are so many words that can attempt to describe the beauty, but nothing is even close. The clouds look like fluffy pillows with a red gleam far off on the horizon. As the sun rises higher, the light breaks into gold, yellow and red in the distance. The great reddish orange ball of light continues up into the sky flooding light over everything in sight. Like I said, nothing can describe what we saw that Friday morning on August 6, 2010 on Mount Fuji at over 12,000 feet. It was even more gorgeous than the sunrise Anita and I saw back in 2002 on Haleakala (the world's largest dormant volcano on Maui in Hawai'i) at over 10,000 foot elevation. I never thought I'd see a more beautiful sunrise.

I think the pain and headache (literally) of climbing that high that fast made it even more beautiful. My head was pounding and I could barely move from the cold, but the view was breath taking (literally with the limited amount of oxygen available).

After the sun fully rose we packed up the video camera and headed up the trail toward the 'gate' at the top. A man who worked in Japan, but was from the U.S. told us what it was, I think he said it was a Torro? I forget, my brain was just hurting and it was all I could do to smile for a picture beneath it.

I had to hit the bathroom. I can say without a doubt that climbing Mount Fuji at a bad time of month for me was the toughest thing I have ever done as a woman. I stood in line for the bathroom at the top. It smelled wretched. And it cost 300 Yen. I used wet naps to clean up a little and waited while Anita stood in line. We looked for the "top/sunrise" stamps but we couldn't find them. I began walking toward the highest point. It didn't look that far. The path we chose started out downhill. That was easy, I was feeling better! Of course, what goes down... and is trying to get to the highest point... must go up! As soon as my foot stepped on the upward slope, I was not happy with my decision. I knew I was an idiot for attempting to get around when the bus was leaving at noon. We trudged along anyway since we had already come this far. I was figuring if we were able to get back around and start down by 8 (that'd be four hours) we would be fine. There was a line to take pictures at the highest point. It took about half an hour to get through that. It was ridiculous how many lines there were on top of a volcano!!

Once we had taken pictures at the highest point, we climbed up a ladder to the look out... which was a sucky view and my backpack was so big it was difficult to fit through the small opening in the metal that you had to get through to see it. I squished through anyway and was disappointed and wanted to go back down. We finished the circle as quickly as we could, we found the post office on the way, went to the 'gate' to the left of the "village" or shops on the top when you first climb up the Yoshida Trail... I was disappointed. It didn't look as awesome from close up and there wasn't much space to take a jumping picture! Boo.

We hurried back to the shops to find the brand we wanted. It was right in front of our faces by the Coca-Cola umbrella out in the open! We stood in line for a short while and got all 4 for 300 Yen a pair, so for both of us, it was 1200 Yen. Totally worth it and we hurried to begin our decent at 8:38AM. We had 3 hours and 22 minutes to make it down. We half ran/half walked. I could make it down more quickly, but my shoes were horrid and kept getting rocks in the bottom. That's definitely the last time I wear sandals (I was wearing Keens) to climb mountains. They weren't very comfy on the Half Dome hike either (that was actually a hike, this was definitely a climb). Note to self: don't climb mountains with Keens when there is a possibility of there being loose dirt and pebbles!!! They are fine/great even when there is not loose dirt or pebbles.

I kept checking the signs to make sure we were on the right path while Anita kept on trekking downward. Her knees were hurting so I took the rest of the water and her jacket to make her load a little lighter. We drank another 2 liter bottle of water on the way down but still had another two liter and a small 16 oz bottle of water in my backpack when we finished. We saw horses on the way back, the people there rented horses out to people to carry them to the end of the trail head. They think of everything here! As soon as it was flat enough, there were horses for tired, weary travelers who just wanted to get back to the bus station.

I started us down the Yoshida Trail toward the Yoshida-guchi 5th station, but one of the guides yelled down to us to come back up. Another guy said Kawaguchi was the other way when I asked him. We came back up and were soon on the right path. I'm glad that was the only place I got a little turned around on directions! (I tried to remember everything but things look completely different from night to day! ... especially since it was literally the difference of night and day when we hiked up and down.) When we hit 1000 meters to the finish (I believe it was Izumigataki where the road broke off and you could get to Sato-goya following the other path) there was a group of people there taking surveys. They said it was about 15 minutes from the end and Anita was tired so she continued on. They offered a 16 oz bottle of water if you completed the survey... which I didn't need since we still had more than a half gallon, but I did it anyway. We still had nearly 50 minutes to make it to the end before our bus departed the station. The survey just asked how I heard about Mt. Fuji, if I had been to Japan before, who I was traveling with, if I had come with a tour group, why I was visiting the country, what they could do to improve (i.e. a visitor center since there wasn't one, more information about the area, religious, history), etc. I said more bathrooms at the top cuz that 20 minute or so line was ridiculous when you're on that time and need to go! I got my bottle of water and hurried along the trail back up to the bus station. I caught up with Anita along the way and we made it to the starting gate in less than 3 hours! We still had 30 minutes to spare. I was stoaked. We walked over to the bus stop through the now crowded circle filled with people laying down and those new comers coming in to climb. I'm definitely glad we left at night because it was more crowded during the day than it was at night and I thought there were quite a few people at night. It's probably because it's popular as it's the highest point in Japan and it's only open to most people 1.5 months out of the year due to weather (snow, sleet, etc) making it unsafe.

I asked to make sure we were at the correct bus stop and then we took turns hitting the bathroom. I made it back as people were loading the bus and after we got on, we passed out. We hadn't slept since Thursday morning because we weren't able to take naps during the day Thursday or on the bus. That was the longest I had ever stayed up in my life (over 26 hours)! (I pulled an all nighter once in my life before during college but I was only awake for 24 hours and then I went straight to sleep after I turned in my homework.) I don't sleep a whole lot or haven't since I started grad school while working full time, but I always take naps and sleep at night. I would always put off homework or studying and choose sleeping over any of that. (I barely studied in school anyway.)

Needless to say, it was amazing to see the sunrise up over the clouds in brilliant fiery reds and oranges. My head hurt like nobody's business. I'm a tad bit sore, but not much, it was really the lack of oxygen and not the actually physical difficulty of the climb that made it difficult. According to the Yoshida Trail map you start a little below 2,390 meters, hike down a few hundred feet and then up to 3776 meters. So I figure we went from almost zero elevation/sea level in Tokyo to 7,841 feet and then climbed up to 12,395 feet. It looks like we climbed over 4,500 feet on foot and the bus took us to about 7,800. Either way, I think we both got altitude sickness since we live at or around sea level 365.25 days out of the year. You literally climb up rocks and trudge your way up switch backs up the side of a volcano. It took us 7 hours including our stop to watch the sunrise to get to the top and less than 3 hours to get down. The fastest person ever to run up did it in 3 hours. I'm sure that was without waiting in lines for other people! It was super hard, it'd take a miracle for me to want to do it like that again. I want to climb more mountains, but I think I'd want to acclimate a little more to altitudes before I go running around up mountains and volcanoes any time in the near future... so I should probably train a whole lot more for the Mount Lemmon marathon I signed Nathan and I up for this October...

- run for life

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