“Bee-beep! Bee-beep!” It didn’t seem right the alarm was blaring in my ear at 2:30 in the morning, but that’s the standard wake-up time for guides on Mt. Fuji.
“You had better get used to it,” I was told by the guide leader. Today was the test climb for the season’s Mt. Fuji guides, my new part time-job at the time.
We were guiding a group of 15 people that included teachers, parents and students from a junior high school in Aichi Prefecture.
“Ginger desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” was all I could muster when I met them at 4:30 a.m.
I immediately looked at everyone’s shoes and wondered if everything was going to be okay. It ran the gamut from brand-new, tightly laced boots to sandals and sneakers barely held together with tape. I couldn’t help thinking, “Today is going to be an interesting day on the mountain.” We broke into two groups and after a round of smiles and “ganbatte,” we were on the trail at 5 a.m. sharp.
From the Fifth Station to the Seventh Station, we moved along slowly but steadily. I focused on keeping a steady pace, as I could see the altitude and gloomy weather wearing on the group. At the Eighth Station, everyone was exhausted (including me), but I had to remind myself I should be used to this by now.
When we passed the Fuji-san Hotel, I glimpsed heaven. A mass of bright yellow futons were draped over a fence drying in the sunshine. There must have been 50 of them, and all I could think about was lying on top of one and hoping the group would forget about me.
At noon, I passed through the torii gate, guarded by shishi dogs, marking the summit of Mt. Fuji. Visibility was minimal on the top, so everyone preferred warmth inside the hut to the freezing temperatures at the top. They devoured soba noodles, took photos and shopped for souvenirs, as I watched a few stragglers 200 meters below.
An hour passed, and the last members of my motley crew, a junior high school boy, his father and a science teacher, sluggishly passed by and collapsed on a bench all at once, as if on cue.
“He has altitude sickness,” said a genki bald-headed guide with crooked teeth, looking jolly in shorts and a tank top. I can’t help but wonder how he isn’t frozen. The boy, miserable and looking clammy, makes no effort to get up and says, “I’m done, it’s over for me.”
We all looked at each other and laughed, as we knew the hike was far from over with four hours left to go down the mountain. Feeling like a Sherpa, I took his bag and his father’s pack and attached both to my own. The boy used his father as a crutch, and slowly we headed down the mountain.
Mountain: Mt. Fuji Difficulty
Level: 4 out of 5
Location: Yamanashi, Nagano and Shizuoka Prefectures
Peak: 3,787 meters
Duration: Day hike
When to go: July to September
How to get there: From Shinjuku Station, take a Keio highway bus directly to Fuji-san Fifth Station (summer only). An alternative route is a direct train from Shinjuku to Kawaguchi-ko and then by bus to the Fifth Station on Mt. Fuji.
Getting There: Shinjuku to Fuji-san Fifth Station (2 hours, 15 minutes, ¥3,400)
Things to bring: Raingear, flashlight, map, camera, sunscreen, water, camera, gloves, sunglasses, warm hat, food supplies.
There are huts at most stations along the trail, but if you would like to stay overnight, you should make a reservation due to the large number of hikers during the climbing season. Even in summer, nights can be very chilly, so bring proper clothing and rain gear. With resting breaks, the climb up and back can easily take more than 12 hours, so take care to pace yourself accordingly.
Finally, bus reservations for the return trip should be made prior to hiking or you may find yourself waiting hours for transportation back to Shinjuku, as the mountain is literally packed with thousands of people in the summer.
Fuji-san Bus Service (Fuji-Yoshida): (0555) 22-7131
Fuji-Yoshida Tourism: (0555) 22-1111
Fuji-san Fifth Station Rest House: (0555) 72-2121, (1 night stay, 2 meals, ¥8,000)
RECOMMENDED HIKING SCHEDULE
6 hours (ascent), 4 hours (descent)