I Think I'm Turning Japanese
"A wise man climbs Fuji. Only a fool climbs it twice."

I paraphrased a very popular saying here in Japan. I know people who have climbed it more than once, and they are indeed foolish. Climbing Mt. Fuji was probably the hardest physical thing I've ever put myself through. The worst part? I did it willingly. There was no one holding a gun to my head, no one bribing me with millions of yen. Nope, I was just chatting with my friends at the Sogo Beer Garden last weekend and the question, "Want to climb Mount Fuji next week?" popped up. And I said yes. I blame the Chu-Hi.

Don't get me wrong, the climb up that mountain, taxing and arduous as it was, ended up being rewarding. But, as I have related to many people since finishing the climb, I think it is a lot like childbirth. During all the pain and agony and the "Why, God, WHY?" moments, all you can think about is the end. And then, once you've reached the end, this magical cloud is lifted and it is beautiful, and somehow your mind is able to erase all the horrifying pain you just inflicted upon your mind and body. However, to get to that point of clarity and appreciation, it takes a bit of recovery, and I don't think I'm quite there yet.

We started our journey at 6am on Saturday morning. Natalie, Cherrelle, Latoyaa, and I were going to take the subway to Shin-Kobe station to catch the bullet train (shinkansen) to Shizuoka. That is where Cherrelle's friend Ashley from Tokyo orientation was living, and where we would take the bus to the 5th station of Fuji. The bullet train is SWEET. When it passes through the station, the force of it knocks you back a little. We had reserved seats, and the first few minutes were spent in awe at how quickly houses and telephone poles wooshed past. We watched as the city center quickly gave way to greener countryside. However, this beautiful view was cut off when more passengers boarded and the local Japanese, unfased by the familiar passing landscape, pulled the shades down. I took that opporunity to try and catch some sleep. The bullet train only took about 2 hours from Kobe to Shizuoka, which is just before Tokyo. Even though it's pricey, it was so worth it!

Once we got to Shizuoka, we met with Ashley and Krystal. It was still pretty early at this point, so we tried to find the only Mexican place in the area, El Pollito. Unfortunately, it was closed (HUGE disappointment), so we settled for trying some Mos Burger. Not quite In n Out, but it did its job of filling my tummy! We then headed back to Ashley's flat to take a nap and rest.

Being at Ashley's made me evermore grateful for my placement in Kobe. Though it was a good little neighborhood, her building was far older and her predecessors (both male) had left her with a bit of a dusty and run down situation. Even though the apartment was huge, about twice the size of mine, there was only AC in one room. The other girls crammed into the AC room to take a nap, and I settled for sweating it out on the tatami floor. After the nap we wandered around downtown Shizuoka for a little bit. I ended up doing something that would later teach me (and my bowels) a great lesson: I ate a beef bowl before climbing Mt. Fuji. I don't want to talk about it.

Then it was time to board the bus to Fujisan. It was a long bus ride, about 2 hours, and I got a bit car sick on the way. Imagine being on a crammed bus that is winding its way quite quickly up a mountain. I had to trade seats with Cherrelle to stick my head out the window. The air felt so amazing! I miss fresh, non-humid mountain air. It was nice and cold, since it was about 8:00 PM at this point. It was a good preview for the chilly weather to come.

We got to the 5th station (about 2400 meters up) and had to wait around about an hour to let our bodies adjust to the altitude. Then we were off. We took the Fujinomiya trail, which I later found out was the "quickest" but steepest route. Sally, the girl on the bus who had organized the trip, had said that the average person made it to the summit in 5 hours. Now, coming from a girl who admitted she never made it to the top and quit at station 7.5, I somehow believed her. I now know that Sally is a liar.

From 5th station to 6th station was a piece of cake. How deceiving. We were high fiving each other and still very genki, not bothering to really take a break. We just collected our stamps for our walking sticks which indicated how high we were climbing. Then we were on our way to 7th station.

Between 6th and 7th station is where I started getting the inkling that this was going to suck. We got to the new 7th station, which was all boarded up. No vending machines, no friendly man to stamp your stick. I plopped down for a minute, took in some of my canned oxygen, whined internally, and then dragged myself up and headed to station 7.5, the old weather station. Along the way the hill got steeper, and the rocks got tricker to climb. You might be wondering how the heck thousands of us were climbing in the dark. It was part head lamp, part blind instinct, and part trusting the complete stranger in front of you to lead you in the right direction. When I finally made it to station 7.5, I had lost 4 of my original companions but picked up 2 more, Kellen and Rebecca. There was a strong sense of comraderie, not only because we were climbing together, but also because they spoke English and it was reassuring for me to know that if I died, they would be able to tell my family. (No, really, that thought crossed my mind.)

Station 7.5 is where things started to break down. I was originally just in my sweat wicking T-shirt and running pants, but now I had on my long sleeve shirt and was debating putting on my fleece. I was experiencing bouts of dizziness and was hitting my oxygen often, maybe too often that what was necessary. I was hoping I didn't break down and cry, or worse, not finish the climb to the 10th station. Everyone got a bit more whiny and my water was starting to run low. But I knew I had to keep going!

The next stretch from 7.5 to 8 was a blur. I think I lost my friends at one point, and started singing a lot of Bon Jovi in my head. Then suddenly I looked up and saw the lights of the 8th station not too far ahead. Better yet, I could smell the bathrooms. Who knew the stench of rotting human waste would be so welcoming? It meant that there was someplace warm and flat for me to sit for a moment. I got to the 8th station and everyone had to be very quiet because that is where people were allowed to buy a spot to sleep. If I had been given more time, I would have gladly bought one of those spots in the warm hut, but, alas, we had to be back down at the bus by 12 noon the next day, and I was still far from the top. I sent a text to Natalie (thank god for cell reception at the stations), finished my water, left Latoyaa in the fetal position, and then headed up to 9th station. Alone.

A few hundred meters past 8th station, I had to pull on Dan's trusty Foothill Water Polo pants. I think these saved me, since my legs had begun shivering. I couldn't tell if it was because of muscle fatigue or cold, but after the pants came on, I was as happy as I could be at that point. Somewhere along the trudging, I stopped and saw in the distance bright orange flashes in the sky. It turns out we were far above the clouds, and I was looking down at a thunderstorm somewhere over Shizuoka. It was amazing! I stood with the Japanese guys next to me, them exclaiming "Sugoi! Sugoi! Sore wa! Sugoi!" and me going "Holy sh*t, that's awesome!" But, back to business. I kept on trudging, trading Bon Jovi for John Mayer's "Who Says," particularly the line that says "Plan a trip to Japan alone." Cuz that was where I was at that point. Alone, on Mt. Fuji. Weird.

It must have been about 3:30Am when I looked to my right and saw the faintest orange on the horizon. Crap, the sun was coming up, and I could see the 9th station about 100 meters away. Which, in Mt.-Fuji-vs.-Erica speak, was about 10 minutes. I hauled as fast as I could, passing some little old lady who wasn't moving and I hoped hadn't died, and made it to the 9th station with a few minutes to spare. I sat myself on the retaining wall, which scared a woman who thought I was going to fall off. I got a thorough Japanese lecture from her, while I kept saying, "Demo, so desu ne! Ee desu! Ee desu!" Man, I wish I spoke better Japanese.

The sunrise was beautiful. It rivaled Haleakala, and I wish my SD card reader hadn't pooped out on me so I could have used my real camera. Instead I relied on my Flip and my iPhone, which took okay shots, but didn't capture how amazing it was to be 3400 meters above the earth and looking down at clouds and villages below. I was so exhausted at this point that as soon as the sun was completely above the horizon, I scurried into the little hut, bought some hot water for my dehydrated ramen bowl, and sat and ate leisurely. I thought for sure I had enough time to make it to the 10th station and back. I started heading to station 10 at around 5:45 AM.

About 15 minutes into my climb, weird things started happening. The Japanese people behind me suddenly started speaking German. I turned around, but they still looked Japanese. I shook it off and kept climbing. But then I started having a crazy thought. Oh my God, they are Germans disguised as Japanese people. And then I started getting really paranoid. Why were they following me? Why wouldn't they pass? What were they saying? It was at that point that I realized Iwas getting dilirious, and that, after nearly 8 hours of straight climbing, I was going crazy and needed to sleep. The sun was starting to heat up the mountain very quickly, so I found a nice "soft" bed of lava rocks, took off my fleece, and laid down. I set my alarm for 10 minutes. 10 minutes would surely give me enough energy and sanity to make it to station 10?

I awoke to the sounds of booming. It sounded familiar. I've heard that before. It was the sound of the blasts detonated when ski patrol was doing avalanche checks in Tahoe. Was it possible they were doing blasts to loosen rocks on Mt. Fuji? No way they would be doing this with so many people! (It turns out it was a weapons test site a few kilometers from the base of the mountain.) In my paranoia, I jumped up, and checked my clock to realize I had slept over 40 minutes. Crap! There might not be time to make it to 10th station if I wanted to start heading back by 7:00.

I could see the 10th station not too far away. Or, what I thought was the 10th station. Turns out, it was station 9.5. I got to the point where the trail narrowed to next to nothing, and everyone was literally at a standstill. There was no way I would be able to make it to the top (or what I thought was the top), get my stamp, and be able to run down the mountain. I'd heard this line could take over an hour. 

I made the decision at 6:45 to turn around. Sad face. I wanted that 10th station stamp so badly! But I knew it wasn't worth getting abandoned on Mt. Fuji, so I started down.

Nobody told me the descent would be so horrible. It was so much worse than going up. If I had known that making my way down the trail would hurt so badly, I would have traded it in for climbing up for twice the distance that I already covered! My toes were constantly jamming into the ends of my hiking boots, and my bad knee started to buckle at parts. Plus, my body was so tired that I would plant my stick, lose my footing, and stumble down a bunch of rocks before I was able to re plant my stick. 

It was awful. I don't want to have to relive it.

Almost to station 7.5, I met up with Krystal and Natalie. They had made it up to the top, but they didn't look too happy. In fact, non of the gaijin faces I saw looked happy. 

The rest of the climb down was a long torturous journey. My mind chooses to blank it out because of how horrible it was!

In the end, I made it back to 5th station by 11:20. Plenty of time to stretch and buy omiyage. I had wished I waited in that line to get to that next station, but when I was told that wasn't even the top, I realized at this point I could have no regrets.

Once we got on the bus, I almost immediately passed out. It was a dreamless sleep, and I probably could have slept for 12 hours if we didn't have to disembark to switch to the shinkansen. I was filthy, tired, and sore, and the only thing I could think about was my bed in Kobe. Which was still almost 3 hours away!

So, I would recommend climbing Mt. Fuji to anyone who wants a good story to tell, anyone who likes to earn bragging rights, and those masochists out there who think it's fun to push your body's limits. However, if you just want to see the sunrise, I recommend sitting on the beach with a morning beer and dig your toes into the sand. That being said, I am probably a fool for already considering going again. This time, though, I would stop at the 7th station to rest and I would pack much more water. I would also make sure a bus isn't going to leave me stranded if I want to reach the summit.

You got me, Fuji. You got me.


8/30/2010 02:20:00 pm

This is a great post! I love reading your writing - you've always had a gift.

What an amazing story. This is surely be something you will never forget, and will impress your grandchildren beyond belief. :) You have a big heart and a lot of courage, my friend. I heart you!

- Jos

8/30/2010 02:38:46 pm

You're a rockstar!

8/30/2010 04:54:58 pm

Well, I have a new appreciation for how gutsy and courageous you are - and that's no lie!!!
Haleakala's view is as fabulous as Mt. Fuji's but we reach the top by automobile not on foot...is there such a thing as "road" to the top of Fujiyama?
Well done Erica-san, you certainly earned your stamps on your stick and more. Kudos!


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