Monday, July 25, 2011

The seven things I hate about Fu(ji)

Or, 'Fuji-la'.

As I write this - on paper - I am sitting queuing for a bus on a misty morning halfway up Mt Fuji, or Fujiyama as it is known to morons. That's right, I've just tackled Japan's highest peak. However, I think I made a number of blunders in my methodology, and I feel it is important to discuss these.

I had planned to come with a friend, an ALT who is about to end her tenure and is consequently going on a mad Japanese sightseeing binge. However, we left the planning rather late, so she moved for a last-minute postponement. I'd already booked my day off to recover, and because of this combined with my general bloody-mindedness, I declared that I was going with or without her. As it turned out, it was without her.

So, on friday evening I boarded the dreaded night bus to Tokyo. As many of you know, I have issues with sleeping. Specifically, I often have difficulty getting to sleep, especially when under pressure to do so, and I worry a lot about my ability to function on insufficient sleep. All things considered, I did rather better than I might have expected on the bus, but it's still pretty much impossible to get a night's sleep that could be described as 'good'. So, I rolled into Shinjuku at 5am already feeling quite sub-optimal. Incidentally, Shinjuku at 5am is a weird place. There were still loads of people around, who I can only assume were a mix of hardcore partiers and super-keen salarymen/women. It wasn't always obvious who belonged to which group.

Then followed a tedious three trains and a bus to get to Fuji. There is a bus direct from Shinjuku, but tickets were sold out - that's what happens when you don't plan trips until the night before. Anyway, on the final, busular leg of my epic voyage, I was nodding off - something that I almost never do on public transport (usually, I have enough trouble falling asleep in bed), and thus a worrying indication of my pre-Fuji fatigue.

Mountains in Japan (and quite possibly elsewhere; I don't know) have ten stations marking your progress towards the summit (10th station). For Fuji, starting at the 5th is considered legit. So, I began my hike at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station (2305m), the base of the Fujiyoshida ascent. As the last point with electricity and running water, it represents a kind of final outpost of civilization, and an opportunity to get only mildly ripped off when buying supplies. I carb-loaded with a quick yakisoba, then set out at 11am.

(That's as far as I wrote in my jotter; I back at my laptop now, with the benefit of a proper night's sleep.)

You see, the traditional way to do Fuji is to ascend by night and take in the sunrise from the summit. It doesn't get any more Japanese than the rising sun on top of Fuji-san. But, as suggested by Wikitravel, I decided to avoid the crowds by bucking the trend and viewing the sunset from the peak. As I started my hike, the weather was perfect: blue sky, no wind, and - thanks to my already considerable altitude - not too hot. The first half hour or so was very pleasant, gently ascending through a leafy forest. But by the time I got to 6th station, the terrain had turned into the barren Martian landscape of jagged volcanic rock that would continue all the way up. The sixth station was also the first indication of the fleecing gauntlet that I was about to run, with nasty portaloos asking a 200yen contribution for their use.

And so I continued upward. There really isn't much natural beauty to be had when climbing Fuji; it is just a steep rocky cone with endlessly zigzagging paths very artificially carved into it. From the 7th station onwards, there was a squalid little mountain hut every few switchbacks, selling extortionately overpriced food and drink. I appreciate that they must have some serious overheads up there, but come on, 500yen for a bottle of water (that normally retails for 110)? You're having a laugh, aintcha?

Even though I wasn't feeling too tired, I made a point of stopping frequently to rest, eat some of the provisions I had brought, and do a quick altitude check on the GPS. I got into a rhythm, and before I knew it I had smashed through the 3000m barrier. I also invented the fun game of saving myself 200yen by urinating on the mountainside. This was harder than it sounds, as even during the quiet afternoon period there were still loads of people around, and there are no trees to hide behind. Talking of fluids, my water supplies weren't holding up quite as well as my food, so you can imagine my excitement when I found a bottle of what appeared to be water on the path. I took a tentative sip, and found it to be disgustingly vinegary. I'm hoping it was just very off sake, or possibly onsen water, and not something altogether more unsavoury.

It was only once I got past the 9th station and reached about 3600m that the altitude started to cause me problems. I found myself getting out of breath very quickly, and having to rest on almost every switchback. I was also stating starting to see weird patterns when I blinked, which probably isn't a good sign. I was simultaneously envious and contemptuous of the people I saw whipping out oxygen inhalers. But lest you think that climbing Fuji is too hardcore, I should point out that I saw plenty of people over the age of 60, and under the age of 10, taking on the mountain.

Finally, I passed through a torii, saw the Hi no maru flying, and that was it. I'd made it to the 10th station, just after 4pm. That's quite a respectable pace, if I say so myself. The top of the mountain was no less ugly than its sides; a bleak scree-filled crater with some filthy snow still clinging to its inner face. What was beautiful was the view from the crater's rim, looking down on distant clouds under a blue sky.

But something was bothering me. I knew that although I had reached the 10th station, the true peak of the mountain was a rocky outcrop with a decommissioned weather station, on the opposite side of the crater. Since I had at least a couple of hours to kill until sunset, I decided to do what few people bother to, and circle the crater. Thus, I got the satisfaction of standing on the actual highest point of Japan, 3776m above sea level. To someone as anal as me, this was very important. I then found a nice spot (as much as spot on top of Fuji can be called 'nice') to sit and wait for sunset. It was spectacular, and as I photographed it obsessively, it struck me that there was something poetically apt about a gaijin looking west from the tip of Fuji.

I considered just having a sleep right there on the mountain-top, but thankfully I thought better of that; once the sun went down, it got cold very quickly. As the light faded, so did my common sense, and in my exhastion I think I started to make some quite poor decisions.

For a start, there are separate trails for ascending and descending, a point which all the maps and signposts made very clear. But I'd somehow got it into my tiredness-addled head that the paths were the same for the top section of the mountain. After descending maybe 100m, I realised my mistake, and felt very sheepish. I am a man who prides himself on his ability to read a map, so to make this kind of error was galling indeed.

By this point it was dark. In one's normal day-to-day life darkness is never really a problem, but at times like this I am always surprised by how primally threatening and unsettling the night is. Thankfully, I had a head torch. I love wearing a head torch. It makes real life feel like a first-person shooter. Even better, my headtorch is so ludicrously bright that you can almost feel a recoil when you turn it on. The downside of this was that I had to constantly worry about dazzling oncoming climbers, whose path I shouldn't have been on in the first place, of course.

Thankfully, I found a place where I could cut across to the correct trail. This was very quiet; it seems no-one descends Fuji by night. Consequently, there are very few mountain huts. Around the 8th station was a kind of point-of-no-return: the last hut on the downward trail. Clearly, I should have spent the night there. But I decided I wasn't too bothered about catching sunrise, and I thought it would be best just to get off the mountain as quickly as possible, and spend the night back at 5th, where presumably the facilities would be better and cheaper. So I pressed on.

At this point I started to worry about my torch batteries running out. I foolishly hadn't brought spares, and although LEDs are efficient, the blinding illumination issuing from my forehead must have been eating up power. I encountered a few people slowly picking their way down without the aid of a torch (probably temporarily blinding them in the process), and it did not look like fun. So it was with an uneasy sense of urgency that I descended, my tired legs frequently slipping on the loose gravel. At times, fog was rolling in, making the whole business even more unnerving.

The descent seemed to go on forever. I'm pretty sure the downward path was actually considerably longer, but less steep. Sometime after 10pm, a good three hours after leaving the summit, the trail finally rejoined the upward one, where I was greeted by hordes of keen hikers just starting their ascent. My crowd-avoiding strategy had been sound, at least. What had been a pleasant stroll through the woods 12 hours previously was now an agonising slog, but at 11pm I finally rolled in to the bright, non-generator-powered lights of 5th station.

After a moment of euphoria and a celebratory Pocari Sweat (only 200yen!), I set about finding a place to stay for the night. I asked an official-looking man, who informed me that there was nowhere of the sort, but pointed me in the direction of some park benches and asked whether I had a warm coat. This was not good. Now, looking at the map in the cold light of day, I can clearly see that the mountain huts I was banking on using are situated at a different fifth station. (There are several possible routes up Fuji.) But what can I say, I really wasn't on top of my game by this point. So, I had no choice but to sleep rough for the first time in my life. I managed to find a very small amount (a quantum?) of solace in the fact that there were a few other unfortunate souls in the same position as me.

I decided to make a picnic table my bed for the night. I donned every item of clothing that I had, with the exception of my cagoule which I used as a pillow. Remember, although this is Japan in July, I was still at 2305m, so it was a bit parky. In what may have been quite a poor idea, I took a Nytol with a few big gulps of whisky from my trusty hip-flask to help send me off to sleep. But I was still shivering, so I decided to hit a shop that was thankfully still open, in search of more insulation. I was imagining those silver emergency blankets or similar, but I couldn't see any of those, so I ended up shelling out 4500yen for a Mt Fuji hoodie. Incidentally, this is not the first time I've panic-bought overpriced clothes out of fear of hypothermia; I still have a rather natty checked shirt from a time when I badly misjudged the conditions on Cairngorm. Having thus far avoided being fleeced by Fuji so well, it was crushing to fall at the final hurdle like this, but I'm pretty sure I'd have spent more sleeping in a mountain hut. And at least I have a hoodie to show for it.

Maybe it is worth describing my outfit, for the benefit of any would-be mountain bums who are reading. From toes to head:

Hiking boots, which I really wanted to take off, but needed the warmth.
Hiking socks (ladies, with hearts on them, but that's a story for another time)
Regular socks
Cargo pants (tucked into outer socks)
Cargo shorts
Long-sleeved T-shirt
Short-sleeved T-shirt
New hoodie
Snowboard gloves (outer only)
Mini towel, worn as a scarf
Bandana, worn as an eye-mask
Bucket hat

Still feeling a little chilly, I abandoned my picnic table, reasoning that it was too exposed and I was radiating heat in all directions. I relocated to a more classic vagrant spot up against the wall of a building. Thankfully, I did not die of exposure, and actually managed to have a not entirely terrible night's sleep. Feeling surprisingly refreshed come the morning, I shed some clothes, breakfasted on my remaining rations, brushed my teeth (how many tramps would bother with that, I ask you), bought some omiyage for my colleagues, and queued up nice and early to ensure I got on the first bus out of there, which is where we came in.

There is a Japanese saying: you're a fool not to climb Fuji once, but a fool to do it twice. Amen to that.