We live within view of one of the most recognizable volcanoes in the world.  Catching a glimpse of Mt. Fuji on clear days from our home or work elicits childish squeals as if we have never seen a mountain before.  Tourist books for Japan say the locals consider it the most beautiful mountain in the world, and while pretty it is more ominous and menacing to me, considering that in the last eruption in the 1700s flaming boulders landed in the Kanto Plain where we now live.  While the volcano looms ominously over our home, being adventurous people we saw the mountain and said we would climb it.  Angela and I have always enjoyed hiking and did some research.  Apparently Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, so high altitude hiking would be a first for us. Also, climbing season is only in July and August as those are the only snow free months at the summit, and it is generally too dangerous to hike at any other time.  Foolishly thinking it would be a rewarding and memorable trip, we set out in our first summer to conquer the mountain.

We signed up for a trip from base that would drive us in the early morning to the Fifth Station of the Kawaguchi  trail (most popular due a direct transportation link with Tokyo) and drive us back to base in the early evening.  There are four main trails up Mt. Fuji and you traditionally start at the 5th station, about half way up.  One bright, sunny August day we found ourselves at the large store at the 5th Station early in the morning staring at a variety of goods.  To prepare we brought with us some basics for a day hike, mainly water and snacks so thought we had it covered.  Forgetting sunscreen we purchased some cheap Japanese brand at the station store. Before we really began we had to buy wooden hiking sticks, about 5 feet of soft wood with flags, fabric, or bells (for pilgrims) adorning the top.  At each station as you ascend you pay a small fee and have a stamp burned into the stick to prove that you made it to that point on the mountain. A great way to get tourists to spend, but those sticks are now dear reminders for us and will be prominently displayed in our homes forever, lest we forget.

Finally thinking we were ready we started hiking.  We passed the treeline and found ourselves stepping into a red, dusty world with breathtaking views above the clouds.  Soon we noticed scores of joyous hikers descending who had hiked to the summit in the dark night to view sunrise from the summit… supposedly a cathartic experience.  They seemed really happy and we fed off the energy thinking the hike would be a lovely experience.  We also noticed we were not in fashion, as Japanese love to wear neon colored hiking gear.  It seemed like we were in a late 80s movie.

After passing the 6th station and getting our first stamps we felt great! Then we looked up… and the trail went from switch backs to nearly strait up.  So we started slugging it out.  Sure it was hard, but the hike can’t take too long, right? Tired, we crashed at the 7th station to pay for our stamps and to utilize the “bathrooms” (200yen for a squatting toilet!).  At some point we started getting light-headed from the altitude, but it wasn’t so bad.  It is odd though that we kept hiking to reach the 7th station.  I swear we reached the “old” 7th Station, then the “New” 7th Station then the “actual” 7th Station.  As if being able to see the summit WAY up in the distance wasn’t enough, we weren’t going very up in the numbers of stations… small victories.

After slugging along and setting ourselves up nicely for a great sunburn (so there is less atmosphere to soak up UV rays at higher altitude apparently…) we took a good break after the third 8th Station.  We could literally look up and see the summit past the 9th station (which turns out to be a wooden Torii Gate for you to put some yen in).  And yet SOMEHOW the summit was not getting any closer…

Once past the last 8th station there is no going back.  The trails descending the volcano are behind you and the trail becomes crowded with large boulders and a high number of people trying to push up the mountain.  It quickly bogged down to what I can only describe as an epic war movie scene.  The high altitude and 4+hours of calorie burning join forces with an even steeper ascent to force everyone to walk a few steps then take a break consisting of lying down, sometimes in the trail (NOTE OF CAUTION: if you go off the trail you might fall off the mountain).  Seriously.  I was starting to get really lightheaded dizzying headaches if I didn’t pause every few steps.  It took us a VERY long time to finally reach the summit.

At the final push to the large stone Torii Gate marking the summit there are stone steps to finally ease the hiking.  As we finally made the steps we were met with applause and cheers of “Gunbatte!” (Go for it!) from those at the top.  A final rush of adrenaline and WE MADE IT!.

The summit is a little strange in that there is a little town along the rim, populated by summer hikers and a Shinto temple.  You can even mail a post card from there, and until recently a manned weather station was in operation as well.  We paid an exorbitant fee to use the primitive bathroom and rested inside a hut serving ramen noodles and beer.  Not feeling like drinking we had some ramen and took a ten minute nap.  We were feeling good, exactly like we thought we would.  It had taken us a little over 5 hours to get up, but had to start heading down to catch our bus (the base tour guides were rushing people, and we did NOT want to try to take mass transit after that long of a day).  We took some pictures of the crater, which was still full of ice, some obligatory pictures of us in Hokie Shirts, and prepared for the descent, which, you know will be faster and easier, naturally. WRONG.

Descending trails are separate from the ones ascending, but do not have many amenities.  No bathrooms, water, food, until you get to the 6th station.  Apparently you are supposed to get the heck off of Fuji-san after conquering her.  So we headed down along sweeping cut-backs with volcanic dust flying around. We tied bandanas around our faces but soon had trouble not falling.  The trail was not rocky like the way up, but very sandy and steep.  And if you fell off the trail, you would likely die, so it became really stressful.  Then the downward pressure started to kill Angela’s knees.  While trying to use her hiking stick as a oar against a dusty volcanic current she fell, and gave up, sitting in the middle of the trail.  She stopped taking pictures or smiling… though the views of the surrounding clouds and mountains were stunning.  I don’t think she talked at all for an hour, while we had trouble standing hoards of elder Japanese women plow through us and knock us over in a humiliating spectacle.  Slowly we made our way… limping into the fifth station sweaty and dusty.  We made it down in three hours, and had 15 minutes to spare before the bus left when we realized how ineffective the sunscreen we had used was.  I was tired from the hiking and had an interesting sunburn for the next week.  We felt and looked horrible.  After a silent bus ride home we sought comfort food in the form of Big Mac’s and McDonalds, which probably made us feel worse, but they were delicious.  Casualties included several of Angela’s toenails, which had bruised and fell off within a few weeks and lines across my face from some great UV exposure. Angela and I were eventually proud we had accomplished such a feat, but would not be hiking that volcano again, no way. No one could convince us to climb again as we always would have that memory.