Fuji love

September 7, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

If Mount Fuji didn’t exist, the Japanese would build it anyway. I’ll leave it at that.

This stratovolcano juts out of the western edge of the Kanto plain, asserting itself as the highest peak in the Japanese archipelago. And for reasons lost in the mists of a climb up Mt Daisen, we have come here to climb and renew our vows on the tenth anniversary of our wedding.

The north side of the mountain is divided into nine stages, one every six or seven hundred feet vertical. The masses disgorge from their cars and buses at the 5th station on the north side, having taken the Fuji Subaru Line highway up to 7500 feet. Few care that they stand at what was the summit of Fuji’s precursor, Mt Komitake, which was active 100,000 years ago. Then 25,000 years ago Mt Kofuji erupted from Komitake’s southern flank, to form a double-cratered mountain. Mt Shinfuji, the present mountain, erupted around 10,000 years ago. It stood on the shoulders of its parents and engulfed the pair. Young Fuji is an ambitious upstart.

We plan to climb from the bottom.The traffic noise closes behind us as we walk through the tall cedars that line the entrance to Asama shrine. The gods appeased, we make our way along the road through the jukai, the sea of trees, which lay thick on Fuji’s lower slopes. The forest looks peaceful and lush; it hides its reputation as the suicide capital of Japan, and the old legends of tortured spirits which await those that set so much as a foot inside it.

The sun is low in the sky as we reach the first stage of the mountain, marked by a shinto tori and guarded by two stone monkeys, who crouch on their plinths with palms pressed piously together and watch us pass with doleful eyes. This is the old route up Fuji, the one which served for generations before the highway was built. The path cuts up through the forest, eroded so deeply by the feet of passing pilgrims over the centuries that it lies a good six feet below the forest floor. The old paving survives in parts, flat stones pressed elegantly together. The sky darkens, and the forest closes in. Presently our world collapses to the beam of our headlamps. If Yuka is nervous, she doesn’t show it. She’s keeping pace; I’ve loaded 15kg into my pack to slow me down, and it seems to be working.

By 9pm we are at the sixth stage, and we see the first signs of other life on the mountain. A steady trickle of headlamps are making their way up from the fifth stage at the end of the highway. Officially it’s closed season on Fuji, but the huts stay open until mid September anyway; the volume of climbers is many times less than high season as a result.

The sky is clear and a soft wind blows from the south-west. The lights of Yoshino and Kawaguchi town flicker far below us now as we take a short break. Shooting stars flit through the blackness, and I can feel Fuji’s mass looming over us in the blackness. On through the night we climb, more climbers pressing onto the trail as they arrive at the fifth station, or turn out of the huts along the mountain where they have been catching some sleep. The trail switches back and forth, and each turn looks like a battlefield. The dying lie motionless at the edge of the track, some doubled over trying to catch their breath in the thinning air. Up, up we climb, and I am racing over the rocks trying to circumvent the traffic jams caused by slow moving groups. Yuka has fallen behind; I stop and wait. She won’t let me carry her pack. “I brought it, I’ll carry it”, she says.

By 3am we are in sight of the summit. Yuka is spent. No amount of energy gel or chocolate covered almond bribery is going to help. It’s between her and the mountain. She hasn’t slept in 22 hours and is beginning to cough with the altitude.

“Does anywhere hurt?”, I ask.

“My soul”, she replies. And yet she puts foot in front of foot, and somehow, as the sky lightens before dawn, she makes the summit of Fuji. I’m very proud.

I wrap her in the sleeping back I’ve carried up, and make her a giant cup of konbu tea. As dawn finally breaks we exchange our vows once again and watch the sun come up through the sea of clouds which lie across the Kanto plain. Ten years has passed so quickly. I look at my wedding photographs and wonder who I was then. But Yuka just gets more beautiful by the day.

A few hours later we start the long descent, an interminably slippery switchback to the fifth stage where we look with envy at those heading back to their cars and buses. Our path still has many miles to go, and once again we are alone on the mountain. We pass the sad, dilapidated huts which once served the traffic from the first to the fifth stage, some little more than a pile of rotting timbers now. Such a contrast to the modern huts above with their solar powered lighting and chemical toilets. Within the space of a few hundred meters we have travelled back several hundred years.

At 1pm, we reach the car, almost 24 hours after setting out. At the nearest hot spring we bathe life back into ourselves and fall into a black sleep before starting the drive back to Tokyo.

“You owe me one, Mister. You’d better write about how well I did, and how much you love me.”

And she’s out the door. On her way to a three day meditation retreat, less than 24 hours after coming off the mountain. Do I need to say more?


24 Responses to “Fuji love”

  1. Kirt Cathey on September 7th, 2008 10:35 pm

    Congratulations! On our 14th this year. Nice photos. Is the second photo of the trail HDR? Nice post processing – the greens are great!

  2. Julian on September 8th, 2008 1:53 am

    Congratulations on your tenth anniversary. It’s a major milestone. Monday morning has been brightened up by not only the breathtaking photographs as usual, but also the love that lies between the lines.

  3. wes on September 8th, 2008 4:43 am

    Congrats and inspirational! I’ll have to bring my wife to the summit one day. We always go hiking on her birthday, which is the end of December – it’ll be rough to summit at the end of the year, but worth a try if the weather is good and winds aren’t too strong.

    Let’s hope for good weather this weekend!

  4. Tornadoes28 on September 8th, 2008 2:36 pm

    Great story and pictures as usual.

    Have you done much climbing outside of Japan? Have you ever been to or climbed in California? Some great hiking and climbing here. If you ever have a chance, you should come here and climb Mt. Whitney. It is not a technical climb but it is a good hike up to 14,500 feet, the tallest peak in the US outside of Alaska.

  5. Ted T on September 9th, 2008 1:24 am

    The forest photos are amazing. You can almost see the spirits dancing. I too climbed Fuji from the bottom, starting from the station, paying respects to the goddess at the Shrine, getting bad curry and worse sleep at the 8th stage, then finishing for sunrise. I think that the best parts were the haunted forests and ruined shrines below the 5th stage. Descending the Gotemba route was a blast though, a three hour gravity-assisted run straight down, across a post-apocalyptic landscape straight out of Mad Max. Good stuff.

    Congrats on 10 years!

  6. cjw on September 9th, 2008 1:15 pm

    Kirt – yes, it’s my first attempt at HDR. I never really used to like the effect much until I saw the work you’ve been doing. I think I need more practice though.

    Julian – glad you enjoyed the post. It was a long climb, but well worth it.

    Wes – there’ll be snow and ice in December. It’s definitely possible to climb, but just make sure your wife is handy with crampons & can self arrest!

    Tornadoes – I’ve been to California, but never climbed there. I’d love to spend some time on the West Coast and all those great mountains you have there. My wife really wants to see Shasta, so maybe one day..

    Ted – I’m with you on the best part being below the 5th stage. It’s straight out of a Tokugawa-era ghost story. It was pretty eerie climbing up through that as dusk fell..

    And thank you all for your kind congratulations!

  7. Jasper, Yukiko & Veryan on September 10th, 2008 12:48 pm

    Congratulations Chris and Yuka!!

    LOVED the photos as always Chris!!

    Yuka-san, can’t wait to hear YOUR version of the Fuji love story.

    Huge hugs and kisses for us all.

  8. cjw on September 11th, 2008 2:08 am

    Thanks J, Y & V! Let’s try to get together soon, and Yuka can tell you the truth… :-)

  9. Dan R on September 12th, 2008 12:17 am

    I was never that interested in climbing Fuji – always struck me it would be a bit like Snowdon in summer, only busier – but this really makes me want to tick it the next time I’m back.

  10. cjw on September 12th, 2008 1:43 am

    Dan – I’m really, really pleased to hear that.

    I’d recommend, if you can, going after the official end of the climbing season (Aug 27th or thereabouts). Up to the 10th September the huts are still open, but the volume of people is exponentially less than high season. And even after that, you should be good for a few weeks so long as you go prepared and keep a careful weather eye open..

  11. Martin Rye on September 12th, 2008 10:55 pm

    Your photos are wonderful. I like your blog a lot. As for the mountains and Fuji…It is an iconic image, and a majestic sight I’m sure.

  12. cjw on September 15th, 2008 2:40 pm

    Thanks Martin. Fuji is a bit like a butterfly – most beautiful when viewed from a distance. But you’re right, it’s such an icon, and worthy of its status.

    Some great things on your blog too. I hope you don’t mind, but I added you to my links below.

  13. Jason Collin on September 22nd, 2008 5:01 pm

    The story was as good as the photos.

    I recently bought a Nikon D80 and plan to go through more posts and see what the camera is capable of.

  14. cjw on September 23rd, 2008 4:55 am

    Thanks Jason – the D80 is great (I see you have the 18-200 VR lens too). My one complaint would be that the exposure meter is a bit off, and sometimes over-exposes. I generally shoot 0.3-0.7 EV below neutral – I’d prefer something too dark which I can lighten later to something where the highlights are blown out and lost forever.

  15. billywest on September 29th, 2008 3:56 pm

    I didn’t get a chance to climb Fuji this summer like I’d planned so I’m glad to have this post to motivate me to get up there next summer.

  16. Melanie on October 21st, 2008 6:46 am

    Such a beautiful piece! I felt like I was there with you. Please tell Yuka that I am so proud of her for carrying on. On my trek in Vietnam, I got to that point of exhaustion (and pain) and know how hard it was to continue.

  17. kimberly stein on December 28th, 2009 6:25 am

    Hi CHRIS!

    how are you! such a beautiful website and I love your photos! wow! Chris , quick question, I want to hike mt fuji with a guide. do you recommend anyone i can contact? I am a single woman traveling alone and I dont want to spend HUGE money on a HUGE tour full of people! do you know any young guides who can use the money? i just went hiking in NEPAL for 3 days with a private guide! only 300 dollars! and i fully trusted him! and i rock climbed in spain and greece (with only one guide) ……..yes i love having only one guide. please let me know if you have any experienced friends or small companies you can recommend. i am planning on going to japan july or august 2010 (this summer)! thank you so much, kimberly stein (kimjstein@yahoo.com)

  18. kimberly stein on December 28th, 2009 6:27 am

    Chris, i anguishly and excitedly wait your reply! thank you SO MUCH! any tour guides you recommend would be so helpful! Please, if you know any one-man companies or super small companies, please let me know! thanks a million!

  19. kimberly stein on December 28th, 2009 6:29 am

    oh, chris, i highly recommend for you to climb mt whitney in california . its over 14,000 feet. i climbed it 2 yrs ago in august and its SO FUN! tons of climbers were hiking also! we started at 4am and hiked to the summit, we arrived at 1pm at the summit …….than signed the book at the top! than we hiked down, we arrived at the bottom at 8pm, just in time for the visitors shop to buy suveniors! please try this mountain!

  20. CJW on January 4th, 2010 12:31 pm

    Hi Kimberly – these guys come well recommended from a buddy of mine: http://www.fujiyamaguides.com/. I’ll send you an email as well.

  21. Stiofan on March 11th, 2010 12:08 am

    Looking for a website indicating the snow amounts still on Fuji. Any suggestions?

    Great 08 & 10 info!

  22. CJW on March 11th, 2010 10:57 am

    Hi Stiofan – right now on Fuji, there’s quite a bit of snow – storms earlier this week put down quite a lot of fresh. I heard a team made it to the summit last week on skis from the Gotemba side, and said conditions were nice at that point. The Yoshida side is a better climb in winter if you’re not on skis. I would think there’d be maybe 1-2m at the 5th stage, and then above that the winds get high enough to scour the powder and leave it pretty consolidated. Watch out for those winds, they are nasty.

  23. ben on August 28th, 2012 1:42 pm

    hi! I’ve been doing all kinds of research on climbing Fuji, and came across your site(as said by others previously, great story and pics… captivating. I’m looking to go the first week of October due to that being the only real time off I have(Chuseok-Harvest Festival here in S.Korea). Wanted to get your advice, and, or, direction on agencies to contact to find out about shelters that are potentially open(I realize most close mid-Sept) and public transportation. Thank in advance for any and help!!! Much appreciated! I look forward to hearing from you!

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