I’ve promised myself I won’t leave Japan with any lingering bitterness. And after last year’s excruciating 8-hour Fuji-san climb through hail for a cloudy sunrise, I couldn’t look at a Mt. Fuji postcard without flashbacks of misery and disappointment. Thus, this year I forced myself to re-climb it.
Difficulty breathing through the night and a pain through the legs, up the ass for days is still, an understatement of how painful the Mount Fuji climb is (quoted by experienced climber friend) Nonetheless, between July and August, thousands of individuals from all over the world compete to reach the summit by sunrise. The sunrise on Fuji-san’s summit is truly, a sensational hit/miss- unpredictably cloudy/clear. Furthermore, after you celebrate whatever glory and that victory ramen breakfast on this summit, you realize, “F- I’m only halfway done, I still have to shuffle all the way back 4-5 hours down the steepest trail with dead ankles.”
This explains the Japanese proverb: A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt. Fuji twice.
After being teased for my second attempt, I still agreed to re-conquer it in July with my work-out partner / Swedish friend, Carl-Ray. And yes, after compromising on this safe and efficient strategy, we killed the memory of my first bitter experience with this sensational victory.
1) Physically prepare: We built up cardio by hiking together and regularly running several kilometers together at night (I ran at least 120 km each month) 24 hrs prior to the climb, don’t drink / smoke/ run, but sleep as much as possible.
2) Choose your partner/team wisely: We agreed to climb as a pair because we were comfortable with each other’s schedule and pace; A bigger team/joining a tour would stall us (more bathroom breaks, more wasted time, etc) There are plenty of opportunities to befriend other awesome individual climbers, so we climbed parts with them as well.
3) Coordinate in packing: Both of us carried waterproof backpacks and bags, proper clothes, and several 100 yen coins for bathroom/water/emergency food. I carried our oxygen can, extra headlamp/batteries, heat packs, clif bars, medication for altitude sickness, and skincare while he carried our space blanket, gauze, 2L water, energy drinks, and my DSLR. (I highly recommend each individual to carry their own space blanket and oxygen can)
4) Regularly check the weather and NOT go during heavy rain/typhoon: Climbing during rain/hail last year was not only difficult and miserable, but extremely dangerous. This time, we regularly checked the Fuji live cam for the weather at http://www.fujigoko.tv/
5) Plan for emergencies: Fill out safety forms and emergency contact information; both of us brought our ID cards and 2 cell phones. We also promised to not leave each other behind, no matter how anxious we are to reach the summit by sunrise.
6) Organize transportation: I reserved and purchased bus tickets online @ http://highway-buses.jp/fuji/ to leave Shinjuku station by 3:30 PM and arrive Mount Fuji’s 5th station by 5:30-6:30PM. (If you plan to rest halfway at a hut, you should leave Shinjuku station by 10 AM and start climbing by noon-1 PM) Carl-Ray purchased our return tickets to Shinjuku station at the central bus ticket booth after we finished our climb.
7) Plan a climbing schedule: Our plan was to climb to the summit from Friday 9:30 P.M to Saturday 4:20 A.M to avoid the heaviest crowds along Yoshida trail. Since 8-9th station takes significantly longer, and the 9th station-summit sometimes requires 3 seconds for one step, we quickened our pace to beat the crowds to make it by sunrise. From 6:30 AM to 10:00 AM, we descended back to 5th station.
Because of unpredictable crowds and our anxiety to successfully reach the summit before sunrise, we began climbing up earlier than intended: 6:30 PM. By 8 PM, my head began pounding with a headache/altitude sickness and I fell behind in the dark, so Carl-Ray took my backpack. After I took some extra strength ibuprofen, I healed and we continued up as quickly as possible with few breaks.
Climbing Fuji-san was generally pleasant underneath millions of quiet stars, until we climbed from the 8th to 9th station by around midnight. This is not only the longest stretch, steepest, with thinner air, but by then we were really fatigued. Since we struggled through it impatiently and deliriously, we slightly cut the trail and lineup of climbers to the 9th station, and semi-unconsciously entered through the white torii gate as we reached the summit at a whopping record: 2:30 AM (2 hours early)
Reaching the summit was our Titanic moment. It was dark, freezing, windy, and only 4 other seemingly dead climbers were at the summit – completely silent, mummified tightly in space blankets. Carl-Ray and I collapsed at the front/edge of the cliff and desperately covered ourselves in as many clothes we could find (literally boxers on his head and socks on his ears, heattech and hats down my bra, all heat packs madly ripped apart against our bodies..no pictures, hah) We huddled ourselves in one space blanket while uncontrollably shaking and confessing to each other that we might not be conscious by sunrise…As I curled up in fetal position on a wooden plank, I even plead last words that I want all my friends back home to know I love them terribly. We fell into a state of delirium… and woke up at around 4:15 AM with the sound of paparazzi of at least 100 climbers behind us with cameras.
And then this happened:
We gazed out to the distance, breathless in silence. It feels unreal to stand at the very edge of a 3776m high cliff. It’s like you’re floating in the middle of a beautiful 360 painting that’s changing in hues and saturation… a panoramic of several famous Japanese sansui paintings.
I’m sure that as the sun rose, several individuals also visualized a new dream they wanted to fulfill in life. After Carl-Ray asked me where Tokyo was, I realized my dream was to find out where my home was. I actually felt lonely and confused with scattered Holden Caulfield thoughts. I’m tempted to say my home is LA because I terribly miss my friends and want to cook, bake, and photograph in an actual kitchen for them. Yet I fear that if I call LA my home, I’ll struggle with major reverse culture shock and my friends will move on to other states. After being so distant from my remaining family, I actually also don’t feel that I have a family to go back to anymore; it tears me that family members discourage me from returning to them because they believe I’m meant to do “greater things” afar… and after listening to the heartbreaking cries of my over-worked/under-compensated Japanese friends, my heart also sinks at the idea of leaving them.
But I also fear that if I call Tokyo my home, I’ll never finish this cookbook, forget how to hug, and die as an exhausted, unmarried, child-less woman. As my European friends here also ask me to move on to Europe with them, I fear that if I call Europe my home, Vienna’s Opera House won’t be worth drawing in my sketchbook anymore and a galette won’t be heartwarming to bake anymore.
I hugged Carl-Ray and realized that I should stop being such an anxious ‘what if’ / control freak and simply cherish my present moments. Carl-Ray is returning to his home in Sweden soon… I’ll eventually find my way to my home…wherever that beautiful place is. Although I struggle with this loneliness and distance, I’m incredibly thankful to be able to communicate with friends abroad- I love these opportunities of exchanging postcards, paintings, cookies, and films with friends wherever I’m at – may it be the summit of Mount Fuji, for the second time.