Recollections from my First Hyakumeizan
It’s been 19 years since I first climbed Japan’s highest landmark so this Mountain Day I thought it fitting to wind back the clock and revisit my first Nihon Hyakumeizan or 100 Famous Japanese Mountain.
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Commemorative group shot before starting the climb.
“Do we need a torch?”. Called out George my Australian flatmate whom I had been sharing an apartment with for the past few months. “Yes”. I replied hastily given that we were after all going to be climbing through the night. Speaking of which at the time I only owned one of those 9-volt battery torches which was spent about half way up the mountain. A tad annoying, as I forked out 500 yen for the battery at a convenience store en route, a tidy sum back in the day.
Let’s just say George was bit of a hiking novice though this would also be my first big hike in Japan. I think the most outdoorsy clothes he owned was an adidas tracksuit, a flannie (flannelette shirt) along with a pair of sneakers. Also joining us was his girlfriend ‘Marie’ (can’t recall her name) who was visiting from Australia. Like George, Marie only packed a pair of runners and similarly hadn’t given much thought to wet weather gear or warm clothing for that matter.
Intrepid trio from left David, ‘Marie’ and George.
It was nearing the end of June and George and I were making final preparations for our Mt. Fuji climb. At the time we were both working part time for the first iteration of the now defunct NOVA eikaiwa school in Amagasaki City just outside of Osaka. Requesting a day off at NOVA was nigh impossible so in order to leave on a Friday we had to swap shifts with other teachers and work their weekend at some later date. Hence the reason for its moniker – NO VAcation.
To give George his dues, he was the one that organised the climbing tour as frankly I wouldn’t have had a clue how to go about it. See this was the year 2000, the internet was still in its infancy, and in those days, most travel arrangements entailed fronting up to a travel agent and booking face to face. Without at least a rudimentary grasp of Japanese or a local to drag along even simple like booking short trips were insanely more difficult.
The travel itinerary seemed pretty straight forward if not a little hectic. Perhaps best summed up by this email I dispatched shortly after the hike. “Well it’s hard to describe but climbing Mt Fuji was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For a start on Friday morning (June 30th) we got up at 5:30 am and arrived at the start of the hike at 4:30 pm, we started walking at 6:00 pm to be at the top around sunrise … so basically, it took about 10 hours to reach the summit including a bit of a stopover”. The email also mentions that we didn’t arrive back in Osaka until 9:00 pm Saturday night and were ‘awake’ for about 40 hours!
Taking a breather on the way up.
The 500 km bus trip to Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station seemed to take forever. The monotony only punctuated by the occasional michi-no-eki “roadside rest area”. Each time we pulled up at one of these 24-hour public service areas we had to confirm (usually in the form of hand gesturing) how long the break would be, it wasted a minute or two and probably drove the driver nuts. Apart from us three, the tour group was mostly Japanese however it was friendly atmosphere especially after gathering for the obligatory group photo with Fuji san in the backdrop.
Arriving at the Yoshida Trail parking lot I felt pretty pumped until I realised, we had to sit tight for 90 minutes before we could start climbing. Even though it was a day shy of the official climbing season the place was bustling. The restaurants were chockfull and the shops doing a roaring business with climbers stocking up on supplies before they headed out. I brought a 2-litre bottle of water along with me and had plenty of snacks, so I felt set.
Without much ado we were off. The first thing that struck me was the pace. In the beginning it wasn’t too bad but from the 6th Station onwards it became excruciatingly slow. With everyone walking lockstep up the zigzag trail it resembled a gigantic conga line. There was no way to slip ahead nor much chance to pause but at least the weather was cooperating though by the time we reached the 8th Station around 3,100 metres the night time chill was apparent.
Permafrost near summit of Mt. Fuji.
After about five hours of solid albeit sluggish climbing and countless ganbatte’s we finally arrived at our rest hut sometime before midnight. If I recall correctly, we scoffed down a quick meal, formed a long line for the toilet and made our way to our sleeping quarters. I don’t think before or since I’ve had such a tormented sleep. The first challenge was the interlocking head-foot / foot-head layout with two people assigned to each tatami mat. Half turn and your feet ploughed into your bed fellow’s head and vice versa. Second was a throng of snorers loud enough wake the dead. All I could do was pray silently for the nightmare to end. George got a smidgen of zzz and I didn’t get one iota.
Around 4:00 am with the rest of our crew seemingly reinvigorated we were again on the move. Luckily from the 8th Station to the summit takes less than 90 minutes however this is the most congested and slowest part as the Yoshida and Subashiri trails converge. Racing against the clock we hoped to be at the summit to catch the sunrise. There was one small hitch, the mountain had become cloaked in pea soup fog. Not only that Marie’s pace had slowed somewhat, and grumbles could be heard about her and George’s now damp clothing and dwindling water reserves.
The summit was genuinely cold so after attempting to take a few quick snaps Marie and I headed for the warm confines of the one of eateries, laughing about the crazy drink prices was one fond memory. Meanwhile George decided to wander off and checkout Mt. Fuji’s main crater, later claiming that he went close to toppling in. So, after some shenanigans it was time for the trio to start the descent.
Descent via the Yoshida Trail.
This for me it was the most enjoyable part of the hike. Skating down the volcanic scree in my hiking shoes was a blast and soon left the other two in my wake. Apparently, their sneakers didn’t fare so well, and it was much later George and Marie turned up at the 5th Station parking lot. The nice part was once we dropped down a few hundred metres the view cleared up providing a wonderful panorama. It was here it struck me how high we had actually climbed – literally a feeling of being on top of the world.
Wrapping things up, having at that point only been a Japan a short while, I couldn’t quite get my head around the summertime onsen thing. The thought of taking a steaming hot bath on what was already a stifling day seemed bizarre to say the least so after taking a quick shower, I made my way to the restaurant for a bite to eat before psyching myself up for another long road trip. I don’t recall much of the drive back to Osaka needless to say I was more than slightly buggered and slept most of the next day.
The climb wasn’t bad by any means it was just we were a bit luckless with the weather. If the question is would I climb Fuji san again? Quite possibly but I would definitely steer towards one of the less crowded routes such as the Gotemba Trail.