August 12-13, 2016: Conquering Fujisan

Today is the day! Or the days actually, which I didn’t fully realize until the day came. This was the only day left on the calendar that we could summit Mt. Fuji. And we were determined to do the night hike to catch the sunrise. I knew that I wouldn’t be sleeping Friday night, but I was inadequately prepared, only getting 6 hours of sleep the previous night. I was too busy packing and figuring out what to wear. Among other things, I packed a battery pack, a big camera, my GoPro, lots of napkins, Brian’s flashlight, 2 liters of water, 1 liter of Pocari Sweat for electrolytes, a pair of thermal underwear, two extra pairs of socks, a windbreaker, two sweaters, and an assortment of snacks I picked up at the konbini (energy bars, two onigiris, three gel pouches, a pack of beef jerky, and some Snickers bars). Needless to say, my backpack was really heavy.

Of course, we also still had work in the daytime. I didn’t bring my textbook or any of my class materials. But you don’t really need anything on Fridays, because the whole day is spent working on life mission presentations, for which I do not need my book. We just have to work on the presentations with the kids to correct their grammar and work on their diction and presentation style. And my students were all excellent to start with. One of them was even inspired by Monica’s presentation to study education.

Our bus wasn’t until 6:30, so we had a little bit of time to grab something to eat first, because who knew when our next substantial meal would be? I had my last meal at the place across the street from the Toshin building. I never made it to 10 visits, so never got my free dish. I handed my card off to Mandy since she would still be in Shinjuku the final week and maybe she could use it.

I’m very glad we had the meal, but then we also almost missed our bus. It was stressing me out unnecessarily. We lost half of our group and then had difficulty finding the bus, and then realized we weren’t looking for the bus but the counter to pick up our reserved tickets. Luckily, we made it just in time. It was a 2 hour bus ride to Kawagukicho, so I took a much needed nap.

Little did we know, Kawagukicho wasn’t our final destination. No, it actually wasn’t even close. But we didn’t know that when we bought the tickets, because we didn’t adequately do our research before buying our bus tickets. Turns out, there exists a bus direct from Shinjuku to the Mt. Fuji 5th station. But we didn’t buy those. And by the time we got to Kawagukicho, the busses to Mt. Fuji 5th station actually stopped running. Or at least that’s what the cabbie told us. He might’ve been trying to scam us, but we really didn’t have much other choice. Might be the shadiest character we met in Japan, a generally safe un-shady country. The taxi was our only was to get to the mountain. Thank god David was with us to speak Japanese. He was the one that figured out where we were supposed to get off the bus. Anywho, we were forced to split into two taxis and we specifically asked if we could use credit card and he said yes.

Now the ride was almost another full hour. We went through a toll, which we were responsible for paying. The car climbed up the mountain over a section of road where the tires made music: the Fuji Melody. The tires run over sections of the road that are chopped up ostensibly to wake up sleepy drivers but it makes music. So I guess it was worth taking the cab.

Now when we got to the 5th Station, the credit card machine magically wasn’t working. Scam? Big surprise. But we were insistent that we would pay with credit card and didn’t have enough yen on us for an hour-long cab ride. So we made him keep trying. He went to the other cabbie for help. And they tried and eventually gave up. They handed me a receipt with an error on it and I signed it and walked away. Serves ’em right.

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We actually started our ascent around 9:30pm after using the bathroom, which costed 100yen at the base. It would only get more expensive as we got higher up the mountain. At the top, I believe it was 300 yen. And I guess if you think about it, where can the sewage go? The cost of the bathroom goes to maintaining the bathroom and transporting the sewage. Some of the stations didn’t have guards demanding money, just a place to deposit your donation. And when you go inside, there is a PA system that constantly reminds you to 1) pay the donation and 2) not to sleep in the stall because everyone is exhausted. They smell terrible but are slightly cleaner than you’d expect. The bathroom at the top had no flush on the toilets, so you had to spray water using a hose. And then other times, you would just be stuck between stations really needing to pee. And so I did pee off of Mt. Fuji once. It’s a rite of passage of sorts.

It just so happened that the Perseid Meteor Shower was that night. And so as we climbed in the dark, meteors flashed in the night sky above us. If you stopped to look up for long enough in the right place, you’d see a streak of light go by. It was majestic. What a coincidence! And what luck. I’ve never seen a meteor before, but I saw several that night. I kept missing a lot of them when Blaire would turn around but I did see some.

We took lots of breaks during our ascent. We split into two groups. Lucia, Blaire, Harry and I were ahead and then Kavita, David, Jasmin and Melina were behind us. We would get to a station and stop there and wait for a while, and then they’d catch up to us. We just walked a little faster and stopped less in between stations. You really have to pace yourself though because it is a hell of a long walk. There is a path and going up is actually not as bad as I thought. You see pretty old people doing the climb, as well as a little girl who couldn’t have been older than 10. Her short legs made it up those giant rocks. And she wasn’t even complaining. Also, thank god I bought stretchy joggers.

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There are some people that start earlier in the night, and then sleep at one of the stations before finishing the ascent. This is the smart, but very expensive thing to do. The hardest thing about the hike is simply not sleeping. There are also very few places to sleep, so you have to book way in advance. There was no chance we were getting a bed. You even need to pay a hefty sum just for shelter from the cold. Even though it’s the summer, as you get high up, it gets very windy. And you look into the window and see people enjoying the warmth of the shelter, while you shiver outside. And it really is brutally cold.

You can also buy snacks at these stations. You see some people eating cup noodles, or drinking tea, or buying gel pouches and Snickers bars. But there are no garbage cans. You have to carry all your garbage with you and dump it when you get back down. This becomes particularly problematic for liquids. Even when you finish your 2 liters, you have to keep the enormous bottle. They also brand your walking sticks at each of these stations for 500 yen. We kind of laughed at these people spending $5 at a time to get a brand on a stick that you don’t really need, but we were sorry that we didn’t have walking sticks on the descent.

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Climbing up the mounting at night, it is completely dark. We kind of rely on the other climbers with headlights, but I thankfully had Brian’s flashlight that he gave me on my last night in New York. I put it to good use that night. The person at the back of the pack held the flashlight to shine it for everyone. If you looked up and down the mountain, you’d see lots of lights in the midst of the infinite darkness. You could also see how far away you are from the next break point, which was very demoralizing because it was always so far away. The further up you got, the further apart they got. Though it is pretty incredible on its own that these stations exist. Someone had to carry up the material to build these things. And the people that work there have to do the same climb that we do. They must work in long multi-day shifts.

So we sort of misjudged how long it would take us to summit. The times they estimated on the signs were accurate in terms of distance but inaccurate in terms of time because the day we went was super congested. There’s  bottleneck at the top. It is a very popular day to climb, on a clear August night. so as we neared the top, we found ourselves queuing at a standstill. We had to maneuver our way around people or else simply wait. It was really annoying, and in fact, we missed the sunrise. We should’ve just stopped climbing, picked a place to camp out and sat down to watch the sunrise. But instead, we were insistent on getting to the top. So as the sun peaked over the clouds behind us we faced the other way. Of course, we saw the intoxicating colors of the dawn above the cloud line (which is an incredible sight in and of itself) but I didn’t stop to take any pictures. It is one of those things that will just have to live on in my memory. Lots of people were stopping to take pictures and that’s why no one was moving. It’s one of those things where just everybody loses.

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The problem was by the time I got to the top around 5am (sunrise was at 4:50), the sun was up and I couldn’t get a good picture because of the back light. Also, in my attempt to climb around people, I lost my friends. I thought I was way ahead of them, but they actually managed to cut a whole bunch of people (not without getting yelled at for straying from the path) and ended up ahead of me. And then I made a right, when they made a left, and I found myself alone at the top of Mt. Fuji for about twenty minutes. There is miraculously cell service at the top. So I was able to eventually find them. They sell all sorts of souvenirs and noodles at the top, but I wasn’t about to buy anything that I’d have to subsequently bring down the mountain. I was there for pictures and memories and experience.

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I also kind of forgot that Mt. Fuji was a volcano. So when you get to the top, you can also look into the caldera of the volcano, which is very deep. We stayed at the top for about an hour, hour and a half before starting the descent, which was so much worse than climbing up the mountain. For one, the sun is out beating down on you, but it’s still windy so you’re wearing all these layers that you’re literally tearing off by the time you get down. But the descent time just takes forever, about 4 hours of just nothing. There’s nothing to see really. It’s expansive, but it’s really just barren volcanic rock. There are no trees or anything, just nothingness. You are doing these never ending switchbacks, which are very steep. And going down without a walking stick is near impossible. My sneakers had no traction in the loose dirt. So you slide down the whole way dangerously. And everyone kicks up so much dust, it gets all over the place and sticks to your skin and clothes. My black shoes didn’t have an inch of black left on them. My glasses were gross, and my face needed a good washing. It’s also really bad on your ankles and calves. As I write this a month later, my middle toe is still black underneath the nail. I can remember the acute pain of shuffling down sideways or hopping down without reservation, applying pressure to that toe, which was probably bleeding underneath two layers of socks. I just hope that I avoided getting an infection with all that dirt getting in my socks. There were several times I just wanted to give up, but there’s only one way down. Every time we got to a sign, it would decrease by ten minutes or so, even though it felt like at least half an hour.

Going down, I ended up in the second group, which was a very different experience. Yes, the hike itself was more difficult going down, so the large amount of complaining was warranted. But it’s different climbing with these people who were miserable as compared to the experienced hikers Blaire, Lucia and Harry who enjoy the outdoors.  It was quite literally like night and day. But we were so tired and miserable we were in so much pain. We were just so sick of Fuji. Why don’t they sell “Fuck Fuji” shirts at the bottom of the mountain? I bet you people would buy that. By the time they’re done with the hike, they’re just so angry at this beast of a mountain. But no, I wasn’t even in any mood to look at souvenirs after this hike.

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Eventually, we got to a section that we had climbed the previous night, and we realized how terrible it is going down because you have this fear of falling that you ignore when you’re climbing up. And it’s a lot harder to go down rocks than to go up them. We finally got down around 10:30 and we’d left the top around 6:30 or 7. We stopped at the restaurant to get some breakfast/lunch and everyone except me was surprisingly awake. I just sat at the table in utter silence dozing off. There was a big high school brass band performing Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” right outside for some reason. It took them forever to set up, but they were sitting out in the hot sun in their heavy school uniforms playing the same song over and over again. What is with Japan and making students do useless schoolwork on Saturdays?

We caught a bus back to Kawagukicho, because the bus that went straight back to Shinjuku was sold out and because we hadn’t done our research. Our bus back to Shinjuku was not until 2:40 and 3:40pm. First, we had a long discussion about who would take the later bus. No one wanted to do it, but no one wanted to make other people do it either. I was happy to do it if we could go to the Hakone onsen beneath the shadow of Fuji in the meantime, but we couldn’t get a group together to go to the onsen. It was a 20 minute walk and people were sick of walking, understandably. Plus, we didn’t have the right ratio of boys/girls, so if David and I went to the onsen, a girl would have to take the third and final ticket on the late bus and go soak by herself. So in the end, we just hung out at the bus station for several hours. It felt like forever, because all we wanted to do was sleep.

I was with Blaire and Harry until 3:40pm, just sitting and chatting and eating ice cream. We met this Japanese couple with 2 kids, and the kid came up to Harry and introduced himself in English. It was adorable and his English was surprisingly good after teaching Japanese high schoolers English for a month. It was very impressive and he was not shy at all. Harry is also just very approachable with his beard, but we had a nice conversation with them.

We finally boarded the bus, and we immediately hit traffic. It delayed our bus by about an hour. The earlier bus had the same problem. But I konked out on the bus. I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. By the time we got back to Tokyo, it was 7 o’clock and I was all the way in Shinjuku. It would’ve cost us double the price to change our ticket to a station closer to my home (like Tokyo or Shinagawa or Shibuya), because we’d have to cancel the ticket we bought in advance rashly and then buy another ticket. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let us just change our ticket, because the timing would’ve also been better for us. In the end, the moral of the story is we didn’t do our research, so we overspent on busses. Anywho, I got back to Omori and went straight to KFC to buy myself some dinner. Teddy was raving about the KFC here. They’re everywhere, but the original recipe tastes better in America. Maybe it’s the grease, but it just wasn’t quite the same, though it was an experience I had to have.

Back at home, I threw all my clothes in the laundry, threw away my disgusting socks, and took a long shower. It took a long time to get all the dirt off. I also washed my backpack and sneakers because they were all just covered in dirt. I tried to use my computer but it had to do a big update to the OS, and so I plugged it in and it ran updates throughout the night. I just wanted to quickly do my thing and go to sleep, but I’d have to skip the internet and just settle for sleep, which was OK too. There was at least 5 hours it was unusable. So I passed out (on the floor, of course) in the meantime for a solid 12, 13 hours. I really needed it.

 

 

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