At some point from August 2010 to August 2011 Angela and I were convinced to revisit the summit of Fuji-san.  We had several legit reasons for going back, including getting our newly acquired shrine book stamped at the summit by a Shinto priest calligrapher, taking several Japanese friends on their own first hike up it, and since the great Tohoku earthquake we wanted to experience MORE of Japan.  Only this time we would hike the mountain at night by moonlight to experience the sunrise from the summit.  Not sure how we were convinced, or maybe we thought we were more prepared with experienced knowledge.  Looking over our pictures from the first hike we somehow forgot how awful we felt and had not enjoyed the scenery from our miserable existence.

Being the nerd I am I spent hours researching which of the four trails to climb at night.  I settled on the Subashiri route, as it is less crowded (fewer Tokyo tourists) and the trail is supposedly less steep. We organized the trip, eventually taking a group of 7 American and Japanese friends on a rental van from base to drive ourselves in order to not feel rushed and take our time.  Angela and I figured we could outsmart Fuji-san by purchasing hiking poles for greater stability (these turned out to be worth their weight in gold, small victory) and floppy hats to avoid the morning sun.  We purchased extra camel backs for water, head lamps for the night climb, and SPF 70 sunscreen. Again, I am not kidding how awful that sun was in 2010. Apparently that is all I remembered being horrid.

With little difficulty we drove the two hours to a parking field around on a sweaty August evening. We paid for round trip bus tickets to the fifth station and said good bye to the rental van… and caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji laughing at us in the pink sky of sunset. The Fifth station on the Subashiri route is much smaller than the main one we visited in 2010, similar to a small hut.  We all bought hiking sticks and ice cream and adjusted to the altitude for an hour by taking pictures with other hikers (a group of Malaysians were carrying patriotic flags to the top and loved Americans!). The place was starting to fill up with other night hikers so we decided to start off sometime around 2000, thinking we had plenty of time for a leisurely ascent to catch the sunrise at 0440 the next morning.  Angela had found packs of emergency car glow sticks that were all different colors, so we hung them from our back packs.  These were genius (another small victory!), as we could see everyone in our group as they walked up the mountain in the dark ahead.

After a few minutes we made it out of the treeline and into a moonlit, moonlike world.  The hiking was good as the temperature was much cooler than muggy sea-level and we all made good time to the 7th station, get stamps on our sticks and staying together. At this point unit cohesiveness began to breakdown.  The altitude was hitting me already much harder than the previous August.  I felt very nauseous, but overcame it just as Angela came down with it.  We broke down and bought compressed, canned air at the 7th station and pretended it helped (might be mental, I don’t know).   We let a few from the group keep going as we could not keep up, and started the longest stretch of the night.  One of our Japanese friends became REALLY sick from the altitude and could barely keep going.

Amazing to me that Angela and I had ascended the mountain in only five hours the year before, but the night started to drag on and hours went by.  And it started getting busy in the mad rush to get to the summit for sunrise.  Angela, me, and two Japanese girls ended up huddling at the third 8th Station (how many 8 stations can possibly exist?) in the cold pre-dawn sipping on Miso-soup waiting for the sunrise.  We had made it pretty far, but there was no way we would make the summit.  The other three in our group made a mad dash to the summit in waves and waves of Japanese.

The cool of dawn at high altitude began to fade away as amazing colors started appearing to the East.  In the Land of the Rising Sun we saw the rising sun above the clouds and the Kanto Plain containing the largest metropolis in the world.  It was sublime.

After sunrise we were feeling adventuresome and for some reason decided to make for the summit as we had come that far.  Someone was smart enough to bring portable radios, so I called to our group at the summit to wait for us.  The ascent from the 8th station to the summit was what I recalled from the previous year… war scene. You look up and everyone is lying down, exhausted and questioning their sanity.

I ran ahead and assembled our tiny band along the Torii Gate at the summit. We cheered heartily for our three women who made the trek to the summit, and got exuberant group photos taken.  Angela and I had a mission at the summit to get our shrine book stamped, so paid homage to Fuji-san himself.  Then we paid homage to our alma-mater and unfurled a Virginia Tech banner from the summit of Mt. Fuji for all the world to see, and take a picture. Tech Triumph.

Our stay at the summit was brief, but got the all-important “Sunrise from Mt. Fuji” stamp on our hiking sticks followed by expensive curry rice/ramen noodles and bathroom break.  Remembering our horrible trek down the mountain last year Angela and I pulled our trekking poles and tried to ski down.  We were slow and three members of our group raced down seeking to best the average time of 2 hours down.

This method worked for us stragglers until we reached the 7th station down on the Subashiri trail.  This trail, while apparently less steep, is also known for a “sandy” descent.  I had failed to notice this bit of news in my research on the trail… adventurous people use this route (personal FAIL).  We learned that a “sand” descent involved the trail abandoning switch backs and heading straight down an old lava flow that had been smoothed out.  Thus, one can run down the mountain bouncing on a foot of volcanic sand, taking a foot or two for each step.  This sounds like fun right?  Except there are still boulders in and under the sand, and our knees were about ready to die as it was.

So… we kind of slid on our backsides getting thoroughly dusty.  At one rest point we sat and watched other hikers slipping and hitting the sand at a fast rate. Very entertaining.  We even started making friends with other who were as miserable as we were. Once past the “sand luge from hell” we followed makeshift signs for the fifth station and the waiting bus to the parking lot.  In the night we had missed the fact that the trail was literally a dry creek bed/lava flow and it never seemed to end.  Dragging ourselves into the fifth station we slurped down some mushroom tea a nice lady gave us, feeling we had survived a battle.  To add insult to injuries (Angela’s toenails were not going to make it again!) to get to the shuttle bus we were forced to walk up a hill… again.
We spent over 20 hours on that mountain this year, as opposed to 8 the year before.  Yes the sunrise was breathtaking, but so are sunrises from beaches. Remember that. So, let it be known, please do not try to convince us to hike Fuji-san again.  The mountain wins, let it.