There are many things in life that sound like a much better idea than they actually are; having ‘just one more’ beer on a work night; going for that early morning run before work or eating a load of weird shit at a Chinese night market, to name just a few.
I now have something else to add to the list. In the Obon holiday, just a few days after an awesome trip to Kansai, my mates Adam, Conor and I decided to drag ourselves up Mount Fuji – Japan’s biggest mountain. What’s the big deal? I thought. Loads of people do it every year, don’t they? Besides, I like to think I’m a fairly fit guy. If all these old folks can do it, then surely I can too.
With zero training under our belts, and armed with bags full of chocolate, biscuits, calorie bars and crisps (and a bottle of whisky for the particularly tough stints), we hopped on a bus from Shinjuku Expressway station to Mount Fuji’s 5th station. On the way up to the station I remember saying how starting from almost 2000 metres up felt a little bit like cheating, and even went as far as to say that ‘next time’ I’d like to start from the bottom. Aye, more on that later.
Before we started our climb however, there were a few orders of business to take care of. First of all, we all needed a pee. Quite an easy problem to solve, until you realise that 99% of the toilets in the vicinity charged upwards of ¥200 for the privilege of emptying your bladder. Thankfully we managed to find a free toilet (the last we would see for about 24 hours) and we were ready to to begin our ascent…after a beer to get the ball rolling.
Despite leaving Tokyo at around 10.30am we didn’t begin our climb up the mountain until 2/3pm. When you consider the journey from the city to Fuji took us around 2 hours, that’s a hell of a lot of dicking around at the 5th station. Better late than never, mind.
From the get-go it was very clear that climbing Fuji in the Obon holiday – the busiest week of climbing season – was perhaps not the wisest idea. The 5th station was absolutely rammed with everyone from children, to backpackers, to old dears on a pilgrimage of sorts and I was already dreading the crowds when we reached the summit. Anyway, there was still some way to go until that particular milestone and, when you consider that we made our first ‘snack stop’ after about 20 minutes of walking, it didn’t seem like we’d be getting there in a hurry.
After around an hour of walking (which felt like a lot more) we reached the 6th station and felt that was as good a reason as any for a whisky stop. We were booked into the Taishikan mountain hut at the 8th station for a night’s kip (more than that later, too), so to have reached the 6th station in an hour or so felt like good progress. The fact the route from 5th to 6th was quite a gradual incline and we’d not really done much climbing yet seemed to slip our minds and it’s safe to say we were probably a little unprepared for what was to come.
It seemed like pretty much immediately after our 6th station stop things got a little more intense. The ascent was much steeper, the crowds were much bigger, the air was getting thinner and progress was, naturally, much slower.
The hike from the 6th station to the 7th was completely different and at times we were at a complete standstill because of the sheer amount of people also climbing the mountain. By this time the three of us were starting to feel the effects of the thin air and a little downtime to acclimatise wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Adam’s pre-purchased supply of oxygen from the city was already looking like a wise investment; not just because we got so much use out of it, but also because it was about three times more expensive on the mountain! Talk about a captive audience.
That said, it’s easy to be cynical (Me? Complaining? Never!) but I’ve since realised that porters do actually carry all these supplies from the 5th station to mountain huts and shops between there and the very top of the mountain. I suppose a little mark-up is to be expected, however paying ¥500 for a ¥100 bottle of water does take the piss a little, I think!
Somewhere around the 7th station things started to get a little cold and we were all in need of a bit of a rest. Adam – the cyclist amongst us – had come prepared with his thermal tights and went for a change in the toilet whilst Connor and I had a sit down and refilled our lungs with a bit of oxygen. Rather stupidly, we all took the opportunity to down a quick ¥700 beer here too. I guess it’s a ¥100 mark-up per station.
We began our ascent to the 8th station with a new found spring in our step, sort of. With our jumpers on our backs (and tights on our legs, in Adam’s case) we were feeling warmer, we had a bit more oxygen in us and a few crisps to keep us going. We only had one station to go before we could get our heads down. The end of the first leg was in sight.
Much of the same followed as we closed in on our home for the night. Things were a little tougher on the legs and lungs, and we approached every mountain hut living in hope that it would be Taishikan, only to be very disappointed.
Finally, at around 6.30pm our luck came in and I was greeted with the sign I wanted to see. We’d made it to the mountain hut! The names of the guests were all outside on a board, and I was pleased to see the three of us had made our reservations correctly. I was less pleased to see that they’d made the same spelling mistake that almost every single Japanese person makes, as my name was written as ‘Jack Oldman’ instead of ‘Oldham’, but it wasn’t a time for pedantry. Dinner was due shortly, so we were taken to our ‘bed’ for the night and put our feet up.
Now I put ‘bed’ in inverted commas as it wasn’t really a bed, more a very thin mat on a wooden platform which you shared with around 20 other people. We were on the upper level, so I’d hazard a guess at there being around 40 people in our room alone. At just under ¥10,000 for the night it wasn’t a cheap investment but again, there’s that captive audience for you!
Thankfully, dinner and breakfast were included in the price and, at this point, I was just grateful to get something down me and head to bed for the evening. The standard curry rice with fish and a sausage filled a hole (don’t be disgusting) and after a few cups of tea it was time to get our heads down. Whether we’d sleep or not was an entirely different case, and that’s where part two of this post will pick up. For now, please enjoy my expertly filmed and lovingly crafted Go Pro video of part one!