July 11-12, 2016
Monica and I are sitting on the Shinkansen bullet train, speeding along at 180 mph toward Kyoto. Japan is truly a country that sits comfortably between the future (fast trains, anime, teen pop culture, etc.) and the past (with its refined ceremony, like the onsen, sumo, tea, etc.). This dichotomy has been ever present on our trip to Japan.
Old Tea House
Before getting on the bullet train we had just departed Hakone, where this morning for breakfast we discovered an old tea house once used for travelers along the medieval Tokaido Road. From the 1600s to the 1800s, the Tokaido connected the imperial capital of Kyoto with that of Edo (modern day Tokyo), where the de facto rulers, the Tokugawa Shogun, once lived. (To get a better picture of this time period think The Magnificent 7 that was influenced by The 7 Samurai or The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise.)
Anyways, the tea house is on the old Takaido footpath in the woods. The floor was dirt, the roof was thatched and in the center of the room was an open fire pit–making the room smell like a campfire. They served up mochi (sticky rice cake) and amazake (a sweet, non-alcoholic fermented rice drink). The old man who served us was gruff and stoic, only adding to the authenticity.
The experience was like jumping back in time. If we had more time to spend in Hakone we would have hiked the few kilometers left of the Tokaido from our hotel to the tea house, but I think we got enough hiking in the day before…
We woke up the day before at 4 am to drive an hour away. We had set out to climb Mt. Fuji, at 12,389 ft, the tallest peak in Japan. It was nice driving so early, because the roads were empty of other drivers, making driving less intimidating. The countryside around Hakone is beautiful, with Mt. Fuji towering above making it even more enchanting. The skies were clear enough today to get some good views of the mountain. The classic snow-capped image of Fuji burned into my brain was no-where to be seen. During the summer the snows melts. Of course, the almost-perfect cone shape remained.
We had rented the car in Hakone in order to make getting to Mt. Fuji simple and efficient. When we first began doing research to get to the mountain, we realized it would take several hours of traveling by train and bus to get to the base and taxis would cost even more. The rental was a good call. With some research on various websites (thank you Google translate), I found that we could park our car at the Mizugazuka parking lot near the Fujinomiya trail. (There are 4 trails you can hike up the mountain. The Fujinomiya is the steepest, but fastest way up. It’s also the 2nd most popular route… 300,000 people climbed the mountain in 2009.)
We made it to the parking lot just in time for the 6 am shuttle to the 5th station. (All the trails are split up into “stations” or resting points where hikers can buy goods, use a toilet and even sleep at some of the higher up stations. Most hikers start at the 5th station. The “10th station” is the summit.) The Fujinomiya 5th station trail starts at 2400 meters, which is already high up.
After a few minutes collecting ourselves, we started up the trail. Not long after, we stumbled upon the “new” 6th station. Although the station was made from the surrounding lava rock and wood, it was surprisingly developed: benches for resting, pay for toilets, a shop inside with food and souvenirs–even vending machines. We hydrated, talked to an Australian man for a few minutes and continued on up. The slog up to the “new” 7th station was our first real test. It was a long haul up the hill. The trail varied between lava rock, wood steps and loose sand and gravel. For each person descending (many people spend the night on the mountain to see the sunrise), we were pleasantly greeted with a “konichiwa“.
We made it to the “old” 7th station, then to the 8th station. It was at the 9th and 9.5 stations that we really started to feel the elevation. Our heads ached and became dizzy. Breathing wasn’t easy. We tried to keep ourselves hydrated and eat our snacks for energy. Unfortunately, the snacks we brought weren’t the best for sustaining ourselves on the climb. We had brought a mishmash of 7/11 (Japan has the most 7/11s in the world) snacks and dried, salted fish and squid. Nevertheless, the water and food fueled us to the top in under 5 hours.
At the top there were several torii gates (used in the Shinto religion) and a small temple. There was a small store for food and a post office to mail postcards. The crater in the middle was big and deep. Climbers were hiking around the rim. We decided to get going down the mountain soon after taking a few pictures, because the clouds were starting to roll in and our headaches were getting worse from the elevation and dehydration.
Going down was rough… The lava rock and gravel was precarious to walk on. We had run out of food and water and we refused to pay the exorbitant prices at the stations. As the clouds rolled in, bringing in warm, foggy air from the valleys below, it felt like we had the mountain to ourselves. Eventually, though, the “sunrise” climbers began to venture up from the 5th station in large groups. It made the going even slower as we had to share the trail and stop for the downhill climbers to pass. Monica and I were so thankful to finally get to the 6th station after what seemed like forever. I bought a Fanta Grape at a much cheaper price than the top and chugged it down.
The 5th station wasn’t long after and we tiredly boarded the shuttle back to our car–glad to have hiked the mountain, but exhausted. We stopped at the first McDonald’s we passed. We stumbled into the restaurant and ate more McD’s than we had ever eaten back home in the States. I’m sure we lived up to the stereotypical, hamburger-eating Americans the for the employees there.
Check out the video I made about our climb:
Climbing Season: July 1-mid-September (In 2016 the Fujinomiya trail opened July 10th.)
Costs to Climb:
Parking at Mizugazuka – ¥1000/day
Round trip from parking to the Fujinomiya trail 5th station – ¥1800
Average toilet fee – ¥200
Top Ramen/Cup of Noodles at the summit – ¥800
Bottle of water or soda at 6th station – ¥250-300
Bottle of water or soda at 9th station – ¥500-600
“Supplemental” oxygen canister – ¥1000
Helpful Website: www.garyjwolff.com/climbing-mt-fuji
Funny Video on Mt. Fuji