Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On climbing Mt Fuji and being both under-prepared and under-skilled in the local language

My two-year stay in Japan saw me based in Osaka and Nara, rather than the more common Tokyo area, and that meant the magnificent Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) was not quite round the corner. But it was so often present in discussions and very early on I decided that I wanted to climb it before I left Japan. I heard about this traditional proverb from students with slightly disturbing regularity:
Everyone should climb Fuji-san once - only a fool would do it twice.
Mt Fuji in winter, from the train
Nobody would quite explain why they said this, and I sensed they were all prepared to leave me to find out on my own.

It was my second August in Japan when I got my chance. August, I had learnt, was the preferred month to climb Mount Fuji and due to weather conditions there were actually only a couple of months a year when it was considered "sensible" to attempt the climb.

I had a tip from a colleague that the most cost-effective way to climb Mount Fuji was to join a bus tour leaving from Osaka on a Saturday afternoon. We got to Fuji-san in time for an early dinner, then started climbing in our group. The guide spoke only Japanese, but I was with three other friends and one of them spoke excellent Japanese. (If only I had strapped myself to her side.)

Like so much of Japan, there were things to giggle about on our solemn trek up Mount Fuji. For both the locals and me it felt like something of a pilgrimage, something a bit spiritual even, but there was a bit of a traffic jam. A people-jam, in fact, because there were so many people trying to ascend the mountain together. As it got dark, the smart locals turned on their caving lights strapped around their heads. I had a torch (so, semi-prepared) but there were many parts of the climb (which really was just a walk, don't worry) where two hands made it easier to pull yourself up a rockier part.

Shivering on top of Mount Fuji
The smart locals had also understood that although it was the middle of summer, it would get very cold towards the top of Mount Fuji. I was woefully under-prepared for that as you can see from the long-sleeved shirt (not even a jumper!), flimsy scarf, weird hat and gloves that I had thrown in because I'd heard it could get a bit chilly. (In my defence, though, this was early days in my learning about cold weather and clothes.)

Around midnight, our guide let us stop climbing and we piled in to a sardine tin of a wooden hut, sleeping toe to head, for a couple of hours' rest. I wasn't that successful at getting any shut-eye and I soon found my friends had similar difficulties so we waited around in the entrance room until the guide gave us the go ahead to keep going. The timing was crucial, you see, because it was everybody's goal to be at the summit just before sunrise.

And from here my under-preparedness got worse. I was totally unfit! Climbing Mount Fuji isn't exactly a strenuous pursuit, but once it got colder, and once I was climbing on nearly no sleep, then it got really, really hard! I still remember the Japanese guide trying to encourage me to keep going when I wanted to have a rest. Obviously missing sunrise was a Very Bad Thing.


In the end, I was close to the top when the sun peeped up from beneath the clouds (yes, we were above the clouds by now - so beautiful!). At this moment everybody stopped wherever they were and turned to watch. This man in the right of the photo kept raising his arms and shouting "Banzai!" - I was able to get a picture because his friend was also trying to get a good shot of him and kept asking him to repeat it. Yay for the Japanese love of capturing the moment, even back before smartphones.

After all this excitement, our guide gave us instructions for getting back down and what time we should meet at the bottom and then abandoned us. I wandered around up the top of the mountain for a while (thoroughly amused to find vending machines at the top, and wondered how they got there) and then with my boyfriend of the time, we set off down the hill. We'd lost our other two friends (including, crucially, our Japanese-speaking friend) but felt confident we knew where to go (a different route to the way we came up).

Alas, we did not. After injuring our ankles permanently racing down the lava-style sand (sinking, sinking), madly watching the clock because it seemed to be taking much longer than the guide had suggested (apparently), we found that the bus was not waiting at the bottom. Other people were there, and a small shop, and eventually a nice man telephoned our tour company for us. We had, as you may have guessed, somehow come down the wrong side of Mount Fuji, and the rest of the people on our bus were enjoying a well-earned hot spa treatment while we stressed. They drove back to pick us up after they'd finished there and we shamefully boarded the bus, still really dirty and kind of stinky, while they were all in fresh clothes and had taken long, warm baths.

But it was wonderful, and I'm glad I did it, even though I think I got the proverb slightly mixed up. My version:
Some people are fools even the first time they climb Fuji-san.
I might do it twice. I can't get much more foolish about it than I already have.

This post was brought to you by My Adventure Store - they have lots of great Japan tours to check out.

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