THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

ON THE PEAK OF THE RISING SUN

``He who climbs Fuji-san once is a wise man,
he who climbs it twice is a fool.''

Popular Japanese saying.

And so it was that, some four years later, I took a taxi to the Kyoto Central Station and was soon speeding along at close to 160mph on the shinkansen bound for Fuji City, about 200 miles to the east. The Kodama or limited express (for Japanese trains of various degrees of expressness are given useful identifiers) arrived exactly on time at 10.52am at Shin-Fuji station. There I was met by my friend Yoshi Tsujimoto and one of his students, Masayuki Tanada, who had promised to carry both of us oldies to the summit of Fuji. Or so we teased him; in reality he was the very essence of quiet civility.

From Shin-Fuji station it is an increasingly tortuous drive of some two hours through the town of Fujinomiya and up the lower slopes of Mount Fuji. You start in the typically dense built-up area around Fuji City and Fujinomiya and rise gently through crowded, rolling farmland. Soon, however, this gives way to dense semi-tropical Japanese forest of low trees and a thick ground-covering of bamboo. Higher up this forest begins to change with increasing numbers of larger pine trees and a thinning of the bamboo. Eventually the bamboo disappears completely to leave an attractive highland forest of firs.

Our goal was the highest point reachable by road on the south side of Fuji, namely the mountain station of Shin-go-gome (``new fifth station''), high on the steep sides of the great volcano. By way of background, know that Fuji is a sacred mountain topped by a shrine. Pilgrims who begin at the base of the mountain are aided by ten stations roughly equidistant along the climb to the top. There are several routes up the mountain each with its own chain of ten stations. However, these days most hikers with a less devotional objective, drive as far as they can up the mountain. Roads on the north side and on the south side climb to just over 7500ft where the fifth station, Go-gome, is located. The most popular route is up the Kawaguchi-ko trail from the Go-gome trailhead (7592ft) on the north side of the mountain. We followed the Fujinomiya trail that begins at Shin-go-gome (7874ft), the new fifth station, on the south side.

It was mid-afternoon before we reached the large parking area at Shin-go-gome and managed, somewhat fortuitously, to find a parking space. The weather had been very cloudy and misty as we drove up to this point and we had resigned ourselves to very limited visibility during the climb. But, as we readied our equipment in the parking lot, we began to catch glimpses of blue sky and sunshine above us. Buoyed in spirit we began our climb upwards from the crowded fifth station at about 2.00pm. It is only a short climb up to the sixth station, Roku-gome, the intervals between stations being quite irregular in places. The sixth station also coincides with the tree line so that the terrain from here on was everywhere volcanic rock strewn with ash and geologically recent ejecta. We made steady progress up the rough and worn trail. Soon we were in bright sunshine with an uninterrupted carpet of clouds below us. The famously regular shape of Fuji was evident as the sun cast its shadow on the parchment of the top of the clouds. But the bright sun also meant that we were soon sweltering in the heat. We could see Shichi-gome, the seventh station, above us and it seemed deceptively close. But it took a depressingly long time to get there and we were struggling when we arrived at 10,000ft and Shichi-gome about 4.00pm.

Our plan was to climb some distance during the daylight hours and then to find a place to stay the night so that we could climb the last part before dawn the next day. In doing so we would be following the traditional timetable for climbing Mount Fuji. The idea is to reach the summit in time to enjoy what the Japanese call ``goraiko'', the semi-mystical experience of viewing the sunrise from the summit.

In theory it is possible to stay overnight in one of the many lodges on the mountain; almost all the stations have such a lodge. They consist of three or even four levels of shelves installed in a moderate, single storey hut. Hundreds of hikers are packed in like sardines on these shelves equipped with heavy cover-blankets. As we were climbing toward Shichi-gome, we heard word that many of the lodges were closing or had already closed for the winter. Shichi-gome lodge still seemed open for business. But it was very small, already crowded and a very long way from the summit for a pre-dawn hike. We decided to risk our chances further up the mountain since we still had a couple of hours of daylight.

   
On the slopes of FujiHachigome lodge

And so we pressed on. It was harder going now, both rougher and steeper. We had to pause quite often to get our breath in the rarefied air and so, though the large eighth station did not seem very high above us, it took a long time to reach it. At one rest stop, we had confirmation of the rumors we had heard further down the mountain. The lodge at the eighth station, Hachi-gome, was full; the proprietor could not pack another single soul into his establishment. This was depressing since we also had confirmation that all the higher lodges (mainly those on the summit) were closed for the season. But almost immediately, we had some more encouraging news. Apparently, there was another Hachi-gome lodge just a short distance around the mountain. This was on one of the other, less popular trails; apparently it was still open and even had some space left for the night. And so we pressed on in a somewhat more encouraged mood. Light was already beginning to fade as we reached the large and full Hachi-gome lodge and trudged past onto the cross-mountain trail that would take us about a half-mile to the east. There, at 11,150ft, we found the other Hachigome and, with great relief, purchased three of the last available spaces. The fact that the cost was a highly inflated $60 per person seemed of little consequence compared to the alternative.

And so we checked in to the Akaiwa Hachigome or ``Eighth Stage Red Rock Lodge''. In its literature it advertizes itself in these lyrical terms:

though, of course, in Japanese, not in English. A few of the other inmates, spoke a little English, but otherwise I had to rely almost exclusively on my friend Yoshi.

   
Hachigome lodge entranceIn our sleeping spots

As in all Japanese dwellings, we took off our shoes in the entrance way, in this case a small, sunken open space inside the doorway. Then, in our stocking feet, we stepped up onto the lowest of the carpeted platforms. The last few spaces which we had felt fortunate to claim were on the third and highest platform, with just about three feet of headroom below the wooden roof. To reach our precious space, it was necessary to climb up onto the second platform, carefully choosing our footing to avoid stepping on sleeping bodies and then to crawl over more bodies to the roughly 6ft by 2ft space that each of us had been allotted. But it was warm, comfortable and clean. And there was a sense of camaraderie and of shared adventure that made the atmosphere friendly and hospitable.

After stowing our belongings, we climbed down again to enjoy the evening meal of curry and rice, prepared in two great iron pots bubbling over the stove in the sunken hallway. We washed it down with cups of hot tea and it tasted marvellous after our exertions of the day. Crowded around the three small and low tables set up to serve as a temporary eating area, conversation was inevitable. We met the three young Tokyo women who got the very last places just after us and beside whom we would spend the night. I also had a publicly entertaining conversation with a very old Japanese women who had somehow managed to climb this far despite her arthritis and her bent frame. Later Yoshi related to me what he remembered of the banter over the dinner table. The old lady was from Tokyo and was climbing Fuji to visit a temple in which the mummy of a monk is kept (unfortunately that temple was closed). She was also a vegetarian and claimed that all the confusion in today's Japan came from eating meat. She was the soul of the party and, since I was the first foreigner she had ever talked with, she had a number of observations on me and on the circumstances in which the crowd found great amusement. Though her wry comments were lost on me, I felt I knew her thoughts when she asked for my hand and gently stroked it. In that quite public moment, I had a strange sense of quiet humanity and peaceful compassion. Seconds later the feeling was gone and the amiable chatter resumed. Later, when the conversation ebbed, we retired to our assigned spaces on the shelves to try and get some sleep before our early morning start. But just before the room lights were extinguished, I was moved to glance down to where the old lady was sleeping by the door. There she lay curled up without mattress pad, bed cover or head rest.

Sunrise
We arose about 4.00am and made preparations for a pre-dawn departure. During our brief sleep, I and others had been awakened by the obvious distress of one of the other guests. He was having difficulty breathing and even the oxygen bottle that his friends had brought did not help very much. Eventually, the whole group dressed and left in order to get this man back down the mountain to medical attention. It was dramatic testimony to the effects that altitude (in this case 11,150ft) can have on some people. As we were rising, we discovered that Yoshi was also feeling some of the effects of the altitude including headache and nausea. He decided to remain in the lodge while Tanada and I went to the summit. It was cold and dark as we set out, now following the Gotemba trail. Most of the other guests had a similar plan; while a few left before us, most followed and, looking back, we could see a twinkling line of flashlights wending its way up the mountain. The trail is well travelled and therefore not difficult to follow in the dark; the main problem is the rough and loose footing which can cause an occasional stumble in the dark. It took about 1hr for us to reach the torii gate which marks one's arrival at the crater rim at about 12,000ft. It was lightening fast and so, along with crowds of others, we found a good vantage point from which to await the 6.00am sunrise. And it was quite spectacular though too cold to stand and watch for long. Soon, we were off again, hiking around toward the west side of the crater rim aiming for the 12,385ft summit of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, a most unsightly weather station has been built right on top of the summit; this is not only an eyesore but it also spoils that rich excitement normally experienced in reaching a raw, high peak. Nevertheless, it was a moment of accomplishment for I had been through many adventures since I first dreamed of climbing Mount Fuji. There seemed a rightness to the moment and a sense of completion, of closure. There would be other dreams and other trials but they would be part of later chapters.

In the annals of the vulcanolgists, Fuji is a young volcano whose oldest lava is only 8000 years old. It has been dormant for almost 300 years, the last eruption in 1707 occurring not in the impressive summit crater but much lower down on the southeast side of the mountain. This eruption produced a still-recognizable crater and a side cone known as Hoei-san that we would later pass during our descent. Though dormant recently, Fuji has been very active during the historical period; for example, 18 eruptions were recorded during the period from 781AD to 1707AD. Despite its recent inactivity, the crater at the summit is still an impressive 300ft deep and almost half-a-mile across. Its interior walls are almost everywhere vertical and are highlighted by slashes of the stark volcanic colors, red, yellow and black.

   
On summit of FujisanSummit and crater of Fuji

There are other, less obnoxious buildings on the summit. The ancients clearly had a more refined sense for they built their shrine in a discreet and unobtrusive site on the rim opposite the summit. Indeed, the Japanese records tell of pilgrimages being made to the summit over a thousand years ago. The earliest recorded ascent was in the 870s and shrines were built near the summit in the 1100s. Today the Sengen shrine, where the cherry blossom is worshipped, is a most ecumenical establishment, tending to the needs of climbers from all around the world. Established climbing routes to the summit were first created by monks of the Shugendo sect. Initially, the most popular route was the one that we followed; it starts far below at a shrine in Fujinomiya. The stations and lodges appeared about 1430, first on the Fujinomiya trail and later, in the 1600s, on the most popular route today, namely that on the north side. Until about 100 years ago, only monks and priests climbed Fuji; indeed women were forbidden to do so until 1872. Now, during the official, open season in July and August nearly 200,000 people set off for the summit. On busy weekends, this can mean an almost continous queue of people on the most popular trails.

One of the popular rituals is to purchase a wooden staff or ``kongozue'' and have it branded with the name of each station that you visit. All of the stations feature a brazier and branding irons for this purpose. A long queue of people were waiting at the Sengen Shrine on the summit for that particularly sought-after brand. Despite the queue, the shrine is a dignified and busy place; only the NTT telephone is incongrous.

After circling the crater, we began our descent and made rapid progress down the Gotemba trail by which we had ascended in the pre-dawn hour. Only one incident of note occurred. About 500ft above the Akaiwa Hachi-gome lodge, we encountered the last of the previous night's guests, making very slow but steady progress up the mountain. It was the old lady using two canes to aid her balance on the rough trail. She seemed oblivious to our approach, intent on the effort required to labor up the steep slope in the morning sun. I thought for a moment of breaking into that reverie, but then realized I could not communicate with her at all without Yoshi. And so I just stood to the side as she inched her way slowly and silently by. No special feeling accompanied that moment, only a sense of loneliness and sadness. I stood wondering why she was so determined on climbing Fuji and on doing so alone. In her traditional Japanese clothes and thongs, she seemed to be from a different age and place than the middle-aged, affluent and meticulously-equipped women who were part of many of the groups of hikers we encountered. I still think of that old woman, wishing that I had made more of an effort to understand her, her unquenchable spirit and the feelings she invoked in me.

Back at the Hachi-gome lodge we found Yoshi much revived. This very day the lodge was closing for the season and the owners were busy packing their equipment and installing the shutters that would protect it from the winter storms. After breakfast, we resumed our descent, having decided to take a different route over this last leg. Thus we hiked down to the Shichi-gome lodge on the Gotemba trail and there forked right to circle the Hoei-san crater, now on our right. For the next couple of miles, the steep trail is composed of deep and loose sand/gravel known as ``sunabashiri''. This allows for a quite novel and rapid mode of descent, a cross between skiing and running, in which one can safely take large sliding steps much as one would on a sand-dune. It also provides fascinating views of the Hoei-san crater itself and its interesting combination of vertical striations of solid rock and slopes of sunabashiri. We kept to the right fork at each trail junction and circled down along the inside of the crater, eventually arriving at its base. From here it was a short hike along the cross-mountain trail back to Shin-go-gome and the car. Without much delay, we packed up and drove down the mountain to the Shin-Fuji station where I caught the shinkansen bound for Tokyo and Yoshi and Tanada began the long drive back to Osaka.

As I had imagined, it had not been a particularly difficult or scenic hike. Rather it had been an intriguing cultural experience, highlighted by my brief encounter with an old lady from a very different time and culture. In the days that followed I retained an eerie memory of that encounter and yearned to know what happened to her on the slopes of Fuji. I fervently hope she made it down safely.

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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen