Mount Fuji


By: Burt Falk

JAPAN'S HIGHEST By Burton "Grandpa-san" Falk

The seed, I'm sure, was planted way back in the late 1940s when my parents gave me a copy of Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels for my 12th birthday. The book, a description of the author's 1920s and 30s adventures, including his 70' plunge into the "Well of Death" at Chichen Itza, his climb of Popocatapetl, his swim through the Panama Canal, where he was charged on tonnage basis as the S.S. Halliburton, and his daring winter ascent of Mt. Fuji, was fascinating. I grew up dreaming of doing all those things and more.

Well, this past summer (2004), I was successful in the second of those ventures (I had climbed Popo back in 1980). And although not a winter ascent, my two oldest grandchildren, Hayley (14), and Nathan (12), cousins, and! bagged Mt. Fuji, an excellent experience if there ever was one.

Indeed, after lying fallow for 56 years- proving either that I have a long memory or that I could have used more fertilizer-the idea for a Mt. Fuji climb didn't finally take root until the summer of 2003, when my wife, Jo, and I were scheduled to take Hayley and Nathan to the Big Island of Hawaii to observe the lava then flowing in Volcanoes National Park and to swim with the dolphins at Waikoloa. Unfortunately, just a week prior to that adventure, I found myself in Honolulu undergoing a double bypass operation, thus scrubbing the plan. Bummed though I was about missing the trip (and a season of Sierra peakbagging, as well) I did have plenty of time to ponder plans for a make-good trip during the summer of 2004, and, if! do say so myself,! came up with a good one. Yep, thanks to good old R. Halliburton, I thought of Mt. Fuji.

That, however, was the easy part. Considering the way young peoples' lives are scheduled nowadays it soon became apparent that setting a date for the adventure would be the big problem. Hayley, for instance, who lives in La Canada, was signed up for an invitational soccer tournament to be held in Sweden in mid-July, while Nathan made the Lafayette (CA) All-Star Little League team, and needed to be in town for the July Bay Area playoffs. In addition, the two cousins-best of friends-were scheduled to take part in an annual family Sierra backpack during the last week of July.

After a careful inspection of calendars, it was fmally decided that the grandkids would fly together to Honolulu on the morning of Sat. Aug. 7, where Jo and I would meet them (we would come over from Maui, where we usually hole up for the summers). The plan was to spend the first night on Oahu, a move that we hoped would cut down on the kids' jet-lag upon their arrival in Japan, and which would also give us a chance to take them to Pearl Harbor on that first afternoon as a prelude for our visit to Hiroshima.

And so it was that on Monday afternoon, Aug. 9, after losing a day crossing the International Date Line, we arrived in Japan. The following morning, still a bit groggy, we took a morning tour of Tokyo, after which we walked around the city's fabled Ginza district, where, in addition to scoring an excellent sushi lunch, the kids discovered the Sony Building, where they had a "cool" time with hands-on trials of many of that company's latest, some as yet unreleased, products. Still later that afternoon, we descended into the vast, bustling Tokyo underground, where by guess and by gosh we made our way, via subway, to the temple and adjoining market at Asakusa-and then, by subway and train, back to our hotel in Shinagawa. Whew! We dined at a noodle shop at the train station that evening, a meal which would have been perfect were it not for the fact that the Japanese are still allowed to smoke in their restaurants. The following morning we left Tokyo by bus for a visit to the Kawaguchi-go 5th Station on Mt. Fuji, followed by an afternoon boat ride on Lake Ashi and an ascent by tram of Mt. Komagatake in the nearby Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.

Which brings us to the highpoint of Japan, Mt. Fuji. The peak, 12,385' (3,776m) in elevation, is a dormant volcano which, when it last erupted in 1707, covered the streets of Tokyo with ash. Its picture-perfect cone-arguably the nation's most familiar symbol-lies 35 miles WSW of the metropolis of 8.1 million, but because of the usual haze it can be seen from the city only on a few clear days in the late fall, winter and early spring.

And because Fuji does lie so close to the densely populated Tokyo/Yokohama! Nagoya area, climbing the peak has become quite a popular endeavor. The Lonely Planet Guide to Japan suggests that some 180,000 climbers make it to the top every season (which officially runs from July 1 to Aug. 31), or, on average, 3,000 each evening. Yeah, that's right-each evening. In order to be on the top for sunrise most Japanese opt to hike to the summit overnight. Frankly, I don't understand this mentality. Why not climb during the day, when it's warmer and you can see where you're going? I guess I shouldn't think of this as a purely Japanese idiosyncrasy, however. On Maui, too, otherwise perfectly sane Americans arise at some insane hour to drive to the top of Haleakala to see the sun peep over the clouds.

There is, in fact, so much traffic on Fuji that four "ascending" trails and three "descending" trails, lead to and from the summit. And, although the ascending trails all begin at 1st Stations along the forested base of the mountain, most hikers begin their treks from 5th Stations (the 10th Stations being located on the crater rim), where the paved roads end. Because it's closest to Tokyo, the Kawaguchi 5th Station, lying at 7,560' (2,305m) on the north side of the mountain, is the most popular trailhead. Another trail, the Subashiri, begins at a 6,560' (2,000m) 5th Station on the east side of the peak, and then joins the Kawaguchi trail at about 10,980'. The Gotemba Trail begins on the ESE side of Fuji at a considerably lower elevation, 4,725', and since there is no road, a 1,600' climb is necessary just in order to reach the Y" Station. the route that 1-layley, Nathan and! chose was the Fujinomiya Trail, not only because it has the loftiest starting point-a 7,870' (2,400m) 5th Station, but also because it was closest to the hotel at which we were staying the night prior to the climb, the Hakone Kowakien, situated in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, about an 1-1/4 hr taxi drive from the trailhead.

At 6 a.m. the next day, Thursday, Aug. 12, Hayley, Nathan and! walked out the front door of the hotel, where we found our previously arranged for taxi awaiting us. Thirty minutes later, upon emerging from the forest near the city of Gotemba (and because the cloud cover of the previous day had disappeared), we beheld our first unimpeded view of the majestically symmetric peak. It sounds trite! know, but the sight was breathtaking.

Arriving at the Fujinomiya 5th Station at 7:15 a.m., the first thing we did was purchase traditional wooden hiking staffs, not only practical for trail use but, because of the wood-burned impressions (at $2 a pop) we had applied at each of the stations leading up to the crater rim, also as fond souvenirs. We started up the moderately steep trail- which begins at timber line-precisely at 7:30 a.m., and we reached the crater rim at 1:15 p.m, i.e., 4,500+ feet of gain in 5-3/4 hours. We could have gone a bit faster, I suppose, but we did take time out for the wood-burning ceremonies at every station. The Lonely Planet Guide considers 4-1/2 hrs. a standard time for the ascent, while the personnel at the Fuji Visitor Center near Kawaguchi-go suggested allowing 6-7 hours for the climb. Since we were keeping pace with most of our fellow climbers, including two American service families vacationing from Okinawa, we thought we were doing just fine.

Following a brief rest at the 10th and final station, we continued up a short but treacherous path to the abandoned weather station on the very highest point of the crater, after which we returned to the 10th Station, where we coughed up $7 each for a cup of ramen. Starting down at 2:15 p.m., we reached the 5th Station trailhead at 5:15 p.m.-a three-hour descent as compared to a Lonely Planet standard of 2-1/2 hours. Because we were passing most folks on the way down, I'd be inclined to take the Lonely Planet standards with a grain of salt.

Our on-the-ball taxi driver was waiting for us at the trailhead (even though we told him we probably wouldn't be back until 6:30 p.m.), so in another hour and a half (there was more traffic in the afternoon) we were back in our hotel luxuriating in hot showers, after which we enjoyed yet another excellent sushi meal.

Should you plan to climb Mt. Fuji, here are a few additional considerations: 1.) Private cars are not allowed up the mountain during the climbing season, so you have to take either a taxi (fare, about $80, which is not bad if you can split it four ways) or a bus (fares around $12) from one of the towns at the base of the mountain. There is also a direct bus which runs from Tokyo's west side Shinjuku Station directly to the Kawaguchi-go 5th Station, a 2-1/2 hr. trip, which will set you back about $26. 2.) Although the official climbing season extends from July 1 to Aug. 31, you can avoid the big crowds by making the ascent either a bit before or after the season. Keep in mind, however, that transportation services may be less frequent off season, and also that some of the station huts may be closed. 3.) We had ideal weather on the day of our climb, so we didn't need the coats or rain gear we had stuffed in our packs. The conditions on the mountain, however, are subject to rapid change. Take along plenty of warm clothing, especially if you're considering an overnight/sunrise climb. 4.) It would be wise to schedule a two or three day window in which to make the climb in case of inclement conditions. Had the weather been uncooperative, which it became shortly after our climb when the area was hit by the fringe of a typhoon, we couldn't have-because of our tight schedule-made our ascent. 5.) The proper name for the mountain in Japanese is either Fuji-san or Fuji-yama (san and yama being Chinese readings of the kanji, or characters, for mountain.) In English, the proper term is Mt. Fuji. San, by the way, is also an honorific used in place of a title such as Mr. or Mrs., e.g., "Falk-san." Another fine example, in my opinion, would be "Most honorable grandpa-san." The next day, Friday, August 13, happy and relieved at having the climb under our belts, we left the Mt. Fuji area via Shinkansen (bullet train), heading west for Kyoto. Shinkansen (which translates as "new trunk line"), by the way, is one of Japan's niftiest features. The trains, which run on welded rails thus eliminating the usual clicketyclack, can reach speeds of 180 m.p.h. They are smooth, comfortable, precisely on time, and you can specify' a non-smoking car, which is always a good idea in Japan.

On Saturday morning, August 14, we toured Kyoto (1.4 million population), once the island nation's capital (794-1868 A.D.), where we visited the Nijo Castle and the Kinkaku (Golden Temple), and that afternoon we continued on to nearby Nara (population 363,000), the country's first capital city (7 10-785 A.D.), where we took in the Todaiji Buddhist temple, considered to be the largest wooden structure in the world, the Scared Deer Park and the Kasuga Shinto Shrine.

On Sunday, we proceeded further west to Miyajima, an island in the Inland Sea, where we dined on out-of-season oysters (the Japanese claim to have a special process which makes this possible), viewed the famous floating toni gate, one of the most photographed sites in the country, and walked around the Shinto Itsukushima shrine, which dates back to the 6th century. That same afternoon, we turned back to Hiroshima (population 1,090,000) where we visited the Peace Memorial Park, a stark reminder of the morning of August 6, 1945, when the city became the target for the first ever offensive atomic weapon, a blast that left an estimated 200,000 dead or dying. Hayley and Nathan, I think, were most moved by the park's Children's Peace Memorial, which was inspired by a 10 year-old leukemia victim, Sadako. The mortally ill young girl believed that if she could fold 1,000 paper (origami) cranes (Japanese symbols of longevity and happiness), she would recover, but she died after completing only 644. Since then, school children from all over Japan have heaped literally millions of paper cranes on the site. In the park, too, is a flame, which, hopefully, is not eternal-it will be extinguished if and when the last nuclear weapon in the world is destroyed.

Monday, August 16th found us visiting a small but well-preserved district in Kurashiki (pop. 435,000), where a number of former black-tiled warehouses have been converted into an eclectic collection of museums and shops. That afternoon we continued on to Okayama (population 593,000), where we strolled through the Koraku-en, an expansive park on an island in the middle of a river, featuring a giant carp pond, a view of nearby Okayama-jo (Crow Castle), a rice paddy, a Yatsuhashi zigzag bridge and clouds of mosquitoes. Take along repellant!

Our last day of touring was spent in Osaka, Japan's third largest city (population 2.48 million), opting first for a morning walk through the Osaka Castle, which, although impressive, is "merely a 1931 concrete reconstruction of the original, which was completed in 1583,"after which we cruised the city's extensive river system on an "Aqua Liner," a long, sleek ship akin to those that ply the Seine in Paris. At mid-day it began to rain hard, so we spent the afternoon and evening exploring a giant department store (Hankyu, I think) across the street from the central train station, where, in the top floor food court, we enjoyed both a sushi lunch (the dishes came trundling past our table on a conveyor and the staff knew what a California roll was) and, later, a dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant, where the cheerful staff helped us with both meal selection and preparation even though they couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Japanese. Indeed, during our entire trip we found the Japanese to be uniformly friendly, helpful and courteous, and we attempted to respond in kind with bows, smiles and many arigatos.

On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 18, we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, transferred to the Narita Express, and that night we flew on to Honolulu, where we arrived, because of the date line, on the morning of Aug. 18 redux.

It was a wonderful trip. The climb of Fuji was a lot of fun, but spending the time with Hayley and Nathan was the best part. Jo and! hope to do something similar next summer, however we intend to include our third (and last, so far) grandchild, Angela, who will turn 10 next year, on that one. And although we won't be jumping into a sacred well in Chichen Itza or swimming the Panama Canal ala Halliburton, you can bet there'll be a mountain involved.

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