Saturday, November 25, 2006

Atop the Land of the Rising Sun

by Erin Veneziano

Photo of Ashigara Pass and Mount Fuji by Shawn Thir

^To climb Fuji-San once is wisdom; to climb her twice isfoolishness. ̄-Japanese Proverb

Even though most reports claim a severely mundane experience, Fuji-San is still the most trekked mountain in theworld. She is not for those who do not seek wonder and adventure in everyday life. After crossing her timberline there is nothing but a moonscape of barren land and an ostensibly weeping crust of sand and rock.

Most hikers solemnly begrudge her beauty as they drag themselves (as well as their spirits) up her angular trails. Isuppose not too many calculate the sheer absurdity of theiradventure; climbing a dormant (albeit overdue) volcano. This aloneis a source of introspection, doubt, and insecurity.

Looking earthward is not the challenge; but gazing upwardat her looming presence reminds one that the journey is a long wayfrom its conclusion. Her obverse shadow hovers along the cityscapebelow; an ever-present reminder of her majesty and dominance. Eachpassing step falls on a tireless treadmill of self-doubt as long andas varied as kaiten sushi (the conveyor belt kind). ^I am not aperfect mother. ̄ ^I haven¨t donated enough money this year. ̄^I am breathing too much air and someone in Sudan is starving. ̄Of course this list is concluded by, ^I simply know that I cannotfinish. ̄ To conquer Fuji (and all 3,776 meters of her) is to revelin a new birth.

My journey began as a challenge to peak this mountainstarting from the ocean located only meters from my front door. Asthe week progressed and battle plans contrived, the quest waslooking dismal. I would have to leave from work at 10pm, reachGotemba station by one or two in the wee-early hours of the morning,and then sleep like a salary-man (who had one too many) on theconcrete platform and await the rest of my entourage. Needless tosay, this plan was dropped like 7th period French class. Instead wewould start together, at Go-Gome (the 5th station) of the Subashiriroute.The team consisted of two women and myself; a truly mottledgroup of experience and fitness, but certainly unified by the degreeof determination and perseverance possessed. I had been harassingKeiko since the second week of my arrival in Japan, `You have livedhere for 38 years {her entire life} STARING at Fuji-San and haveNEVER climbed up? `. I suppose this was more than a little reminderof her great fortune and luck to be able to see this symbol of Japaneveryday the sky is not opaque with clouds or humidity. Yoshiie onthe other hand had attempted Fuji a fortnight before Keiko hadapproached her, but the mountain denied her access to her hallowedpeak. This time she hadn¨t a doubt in her mind that success wouldbe hers.

^挫並徴謹し ̄^Koji ma Oshi. ̄    ^Good things, many devils. ̄

Fuji-1 Man-0

Upon arriving via bus at Go-Gome we were faced with a decision. Thetyphoon scheduled to have already left Honshu was still whirringaround the central island relentlessly drenching the countryside aswell as anything below 3,000 meters. This included two thirds ofFuji-San. After much deliberation over mushroom tea and someassurance from the mountain staff, we decided to attempt an ascent.If the weather became unbearable (or all out dangerous) we wouldgladly return to shelter below. Others had already re-entered thehut after retreating in all sorts of makeshift rain gear, adultshaving wrapped their boots in duct tape and their children inplastic bags. Our send off was as far from encouraging as one would have hoped.

Photos of Mount Fuji by Fuji Film staff

The sun displayed the trail sparingly, and after a brief stop to pay homage to the Kami (spirits similar to those of the American Indians which are found in everything living and dead) the journey was officially underway. Over the next six hours, we watched the lush green of a highly nourished forest dwindle itself down to smallshrubs; those too eventually acquiescing to rock, sand, and altitude. It was, truly, an insentient and grave sight. An angry wind threw rain as daggers and cut lines of fervor into our faces and any other skin that was exposed to its thrashing. The passing of clouds and windswept debris would often obscure our vision. Time was no longer measured by seconds or minutes (as these were too painful to count), but rather by each successful foot step upward. My companions had fallen silent as they pushed through my wake, and for the first time I had felt alone. I was isolated with my childhood pixies as well as my aging demons.

^鈍・び伊硫き ̄^Nana korobi, ya oki. ̄^To fall seven times, to rise eight times ̄Fuji-2 Man-1

Reaching Hachi-Gome han (Station 8 1/2) was to enter into what fewwould have referred to (audaciously) as a haven, had it not been true that their minds and bodies were reduced to the basic functions of survival. Hotel Fuji can be likened to a beggar¨s corrugated Shangri-la. The roof was held down by basalt boulders (a kind gift from the mountain herself), and the fire inside burned atop tired coals in the small basin-like stove. Our bodies too cold and our stomachs too empty, we sat huddled amongst the other wary travelers hoping to gain heat from the proximity of our bodies. The hut had electricity and (0 coffee to waken our spirits that had been dyingslowly along with the last glowing embers of fire. Here we shed the layers of clothing weighted with sweat and rain and feasted on the heat of our food. Around 8 pm (once the laughter faded to soft and gentle murmurs) we decided to settle into the bunks. Shelves of people lined the room, and sleep evaded all but the old snoringmen. The wake up call was in five hours, and here I lay cramped next to two strangers and trying to share the only warmth I had feltin hours. The only comfort was in knowing that my body was acclimatizing to the altitude and I would have less chance of falling victim to sickness.

^互Xの雑 ̄^Takane no hana ̄^Flower on a high peak ̄Fuji-2 Man-3

She is a wondrous arcane. A temptress. She seduces with a promise of rebirth. To see the sunrise atop her peak is baptism, a weld with the ideal holy. She is her own altar, and the encircling few,are her nimbus. ^Ohayo gozaimasu ̄, a soft summon from our boutswith slumber. It is 1am, and the limp bodies of climbers begin tostir. The amalgamate of roof-rattling wind and creaking bodies forebode more hardship. This time we battle our compatriots for the privilege of the peak at sun break. Gathering our bags, gear and ambition, Yoshiie and I realize we are missing one. Keiko has aslight bout of dehydration, and her head begs for an extra hour ofsleep. There is no argument here. Yoshiie and I wait, drink re-hydrated coffee and babble in each other¨s foreign language. I takea bold step outside and peer at a most perplexing sight. Climbersare lined up, buzzing like anxious fireflies, headlamps poised. Wewill be part of this river of LED lights flowing against the vertical of the climb. I am on the tallest mountain in Japan, and still just one in this mass populace.The drove walked as one; shaking Fuji-san to her molten core. The altitude would halt the crowd and the air would wheeze in and thenoff the mountain. The top was an hour and a half away, and sunrisecreeping ever closer to that estimate. Sorry travelers that hadbeen going since early night would break formation and stumble aside. Some, more obvious than others, were suffering the effects of altitude. Occasionally you could hear the huffing of canned oxygen over the crushing of cinder.I made the decision. We would stop at a rocky outcropping and await the moment we had been working so hard to achieve. The typhoon left a still evening in its wake. This was the magic of lore, a crystalline sky gleaming with stars whispering the history of theuniverse in their shimmer. My grin occupied the void where words were meaningless to the sight at hand. The city below and hergentle intermittent glow were partially covered like a sleepingchild in a blanket of pillowed clouds. Fuji was dimpling the patchwork of night with her cumbrous silhouette; and I was still.The schism between reality and dream dissipated into ephemeral euphoria.

The battle with cold had not yet abated and our perch gave the voracious morning gusts (at this height the wind is almost always agust or in constant gales) exposed flesh upon which to feast. We huddled our bodies to keep warm and chatted our thoughts to feed ourown appetitive excitement. As typical Japanese clockwork, the sundid not make us wait past her due. We were witness to the emptyhorizon filling with deep chartreuse, warming itself into gentle ocher before giving way to the day¨s first rays and the emerging ocean of blues. To say there was a standing ovation would bediscrediting. Fuji-san was awoken from her slumber with the brazencries of, ^BANZAI!!!! ̄ She was alive, and we too, were breathingin a new day.

^No spot in this world can be more horrible, more atrociouslydismal, than the cindered tip of the Lotus as you stand upon it. ̄-Lafcadio HernFuji Б 3 Man-4

There is nothing more abrading than an overly enthusiastic tourguide harping, `The top is only 20 steps away, GAMBATTE (keepfighting)!`. I can see the Torii Gate, a simple earthen entrance made of senescent lumber; a distinctly humble welcome for those whohave endured. Keiko and Yoshiie are standing a few steps behind me and I wait to cross the threshold beside, and with them. I cannothelp but kiss the wrinkled gates as I pass through, pushed by the heaving mass behind me. Glory, like clement weather, is short lived here. The gales, unabated, fiercely grip all and for most (ourselvesincluded) the peak is enjoyed not as one would a vintage wine, butrather as a can of coke taken from one of the many vending machines that environ the crater. Our stay is brief.

We take a few moments to enjoy our breakfast of energy gels,granola, onigiri (rice balls) and of course a celebratory 4-ouncecan of Asahi Super dry. Keiko proclaimed this to be the mostexpensive beer she had ever had (thus I tried to charge her for it),and Yoshiie called it a gift from the Gods. We had balcony seats towatch the lives of hundreds of thousands play out before us on a seemingly miniature scale. For once, the three of us were bigger than the insensate lives we so commonly lead. Along the crater rim there is a path cut from the circumambulation of many ascetics. Fuji-san has inspired an entire religion; other than the throngs of the awe inspired. Juxtapose to where we sitthere is the weather station defiant and opposing atop Fuji`s truepeak. To reach this we must add another 2 hours of wear to ourdusted boots, but the soles have already been thinned. My groupdecides only to visit the shrine, already laden with bells toappease the capricious spirits. Yoshiie adds one more chime to theamassed pile, and all three of us append prayers to the opulent Torii. A few triumphant pictures and hurriedly past the touristtraps (including a post office) and the descent begins. They callit a ^sand slide ̄ , in no way a misnomer of the mirage we standbefore. .

^彭凛寄蕉 ̄^Chakugan taikyoku ̄^To see and understand the great situation. ̄

Fuji Б4 Man-4

With declines hovering around 45%, the descent was a challenge all unto itself. If ever there was a chance to believe in zero gravity whilst being earthbound, this was it. A single step, a bound, could carry you down slope 3 meters. An astronaut; a snowboarder; a diver; a water walker; my imagination afloat on the crescendo of sand below my feet. I couldn¨t help but leave my partners behind in my over zealous jaunt. I should have been wearing a helmet toward off the occasionally boulder, protruding bravely and fighting for its integrity or maybe an ounce of sun. I believe I was playinga game of tag that had already been deemed finished (and decidedlyso). The mountain eventually took the wind from my sails, and my knees fell like the mast of my imagination. I wanted down. Keikoand Yoshiie wanted down. Five hours of meandering down the oxbowtrails and we finished. Having stripped ourselves of the fustianouter layers and all inane conversation, we sat quieted by theimplausible value of our labor. Fuji had taken us through thespectrum of emotion, emblazoning the prism within our memories andhearts.

You never conquer her. Rather, Fuji-san always conquers you. Thereis death atop Fuji. As falling leaves, doubt and fear desiccate anddrop away. The colors of the human spirit change, and for this Fuji-san is in perpetual fall.

Discover Mount Fuji - Views from the Top of Japan

by Hige Sori

Mount Fuji, or as the Japanese call it - Fujisan, is a dormant volcano and the highest peak in Japan. Sometimes referred to incorrectly in the West as Fujiyama, Mount Fuji is Japan's most famous mountain and a cultural icon. Throughout Japanese history Mt Fuji features heavily and one of the most famous depictions of the almost sacred mountain is the "36 Views of Mount Fuji" series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

Some quick facts about Mt Fuji include that it is 3776 metres (12290 feet) high, approximately 161km (100 miles) south-west of Tokyo and that the last eruption of Mount Fuji was about 300 years ago, in 1707.

The busiest time to visit the mountain is July, when with Japanese schools have their holidays, however about a third of all climbers are foreigners. The snow capped pinnacle can quite treacherous outside of these months with freezing temperatures, avalanches and strong winds. When the snow melts in warmer weather it more resembles a lunar landscape covered with black volcanic rock.

Although many people have seen the well known photograph of Mount Fuji with the shinkansen bullet train barrelling through the fields in the foreground, perhaps the easiest and best way to get to Mt Fuji from Tokyo is by bus which only takes a few hours. The highway bus departs from Shinjuku station, however you may need to change buses at Kawaguchiko station. The official climbing season runs from July to August and crowds of young and old make the ascent each day. During this period there are around 15 buses each day leaving from Shinjuku in Tokyo. At other times transport can be limited and climbing Mt Fuji is not recommended anyway.

Even in the summer high season it is important you prepare for climbing Mt Fuji properly. Climbing experience is not required and you will see many small children and elderly folk along the way. Good study shoes, some water and energy snacks are a must, along with a raincoat, torch, hat and warm clothing if you intend to hike at night. Even in the warmer months the temperatures at the top can drop to around 6°C (43°F). If you are unsure about heights you may want to consider picking up some altitude sickness tablets and even some 'canned' oxygen which is available for purchase on the mountain or beforehand from stores in Tokyo like Shinjuku's Tokyu Hands.

The way up is divided into 10 stations or checkpoints. Generally visitors elect to start climbing about halfway up Mount Fuji on the Kawaguchiko trail at station 5. They arrive by bus or car and the climb takes around 7 hours to reach the summit and then another 4 to get back down again. The round trip can be completed in a very long day. Many people choose to begin their trek at nightfall and time it so they and arrive at the peak at dawn.

During July and August there are huts, toilet facilities and food stops open on the mountain in case you need to rest or take some time-out. But be warned, they can be rather pricy and a bit primitive so make sure to take a bit of cash with you too.

There is a famous Japanese saying that goes -- "You are a fool if you don't climb Mount Fuji, you are also a fool if you climb it twice."

On a clear day seeing the sunrise from this highest point in Japan is quite a breath taking spectacle and is sure to be the highlight of your sightseeing in Japan. It's definitely a worthy side trip from Tokyo and the view from the top of Mount Fuji will be forever be etched in you mind. This is one experience that you do not want to miss on your visit to the land of the Rising Sun.

About the Author

Hige Sori is the editor of Tokyo, Japan... Tokyo! Want to learn more to help you live in, work in or travel Japan? Read more now at --

Tokyo, Japan...Tokyo!

Learn more about living and working in Japan at our Japan Living Forum.

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