Oniko's Travel Diary:|
The Three Mountains
(August 5-31, 1998)
Friday August 21st, 1998
As I blearily pulled on my boots, I figured out what was happening. I knew that it was supposed to be good luck to see the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji; I didn't know that this meant most climbers started climbing again at 2:30 in the morning to be sure they were at the peak to see it!
I was sent out the door, just behind all the other climbers in the hotel, the proprietor assuring me that I wouldn't need a flashlight despite the darkness. He was right. A great worm of lights snaked up the mountain from below our station, and stretched up the side of the volcano past me, all the way to the top... enough people had flashlights that I could climb safely in the flickering light. So I joined the great mob that pushed up, occasionally helping others over the trickier spots and sometimes waiting for a flashlight to get close enough to show me which way was up. Below us, the occasional lightning bolt painted the clouds pink and blue... it was spectacular.
After two hours of climbing this way, I made it to the shrine & temple complex at the top of the volcano, passing under a small torii gate as I took the last few steps... and still had about an hour to wait until sunrise. This area at the top had two gift shops, two small restaurants, and the shrine/temple's gift shop (where they were also stamping Nokyochos for those climbers that had them... special books for collecting just such sacred stamps). There were also several tables and benches out in front of these small buildings where, later, there would be a wonderful view of the sunrise; but for the moment, everyone was crowded into the various buildings... it was very cold, with fairly strong winds carrying stinging batches of airborn sand. Everybody was hiding from it.
I asked around at the gift shops... there were no batteries available for my camera, so I had to buy a disposable one instead. I climbed this far; I intend to have pictures to show! After that, I watched the priests stamping and painting the stamp books for a while, and generally wasted time, waiting for the sunrise. I discovered that there were two kinds of foreign visitor here (other than me)... there was a large group of German tourists here together, and then there were several small groups of Americans (two to four in a group), most of which had been up Fuji several times before. I was the only person traveling alone, Japanese or foreign.
When the first glimpses of light started to glow over the horizon, there was a mass migration to the tables and benches despite the sandpaper wind, which had gotten stronger. Slowly, the sky got brighter and the clouds thinned out... and, finally, the great yellow globe peeked over the distant hills. I watched for about twenty minutes, snapping pictures like everyone else, but hunger at last got to me; so I went inside and got a bowl of udon noodles, and continued to watch both the sunrise and the other people watching the sunrise, for another half hour.
Now that I could really see the place, I wanted to walk around a bit; but first, I located the man burning the final stamp onto sticks and got mine marked, to prove I'd made it. The buildings I'd been hanging out around for the past few hours were pretty humble looking, with nothing new to offer in the light. I walked down to where a crowd was building, and found it was the trailhead down, not surprisingly. But I wasn't headed that way just yet; I knew there was a permanent weather station on the top of Fuji, and I wanted to see it... so I walked around towards the back of the buildings, not realizing what would be there.
I could see the weather station. It was on the other side of the crator. I had forgotten this was a volcano, though inactive by all accounts. The top is dominated by an incredibly huge crator, with remarkably steep sides -- no one was allowed to try the climb down into it. The weather station was on the other side of the crator from where I was, and would have been a serious hike in and of itself to reach. I didn't try... but not because of the distance.
The reason everyone else was already on their way down was this: the top of Mount Fuji is cold, windy, and that damn painful sandy breeze never stops. Hats off to the monks that live up here... they've got more fortitude than me! So I opted to start back down; besides, the earlier I got back to Gotemba, the earlier I could get back to Tokyo. The next prefecture I'm heading to this trip is back past Tokyo and far to the north, so I want to spend a night in Tokyo rather than in another unknown area while I recover from this climb.
The climb down was harder than the climb up. It's okay to start with; there's roads to follow, which took me back near the station I stayed at the night before... in the daylight, I could now see it sported a sign declaring it the "Fuji Hotel". I continued to follow the road down until I hit the most infamous part of the descent.
It's known as the "Sand Slide"... nearly two miles of a forty-five degree slope with no solid footing; just red sand, and occasional big rocks. It goes all the way back down to the start of the forest line, and it will wear you out, big time; imagine running along a very sandy beach non-stop for two hours, and you might have an idea of how tough this simple climb can be. Everyone seemed to have their own technique to the descent, and everyone seemed to stop for frequent rests... I, one guy, and two women continued to pass each other off and on all through the descent as we each stopped for rests at different times. No one was getting down any faster than anyone else.
When I reached the bottom of the slide, there was a rest stop with cold drinks... and they tasted gooood after the long trek down. I was told that this rest stop was just a short walk away from the bus stop I initially arrived at, but I was in no hurry by this time. I sat and enjoyed the view -- substantially different at this height than the view from the top -- and slowly sipped down an Aquarius (a "sports drink" along the lines of Gatorade, made by the Coca-Cola company and only sold in Japan that I know of. I've been living off these things ever since I got here!).
I slowly walked the remaining pleasant distance down through the forest, just starting to feel the aches that I knew would hit me full force later; said aches are the really painful part of the Sand Slide. Back at "station #5", I was handed a hot tea... all the returning climbers got one, and it was a welcome refreshment. Checking the bus schedule, I found I had half an hour; so I went shopping and I bought my family the cheesiest, corniest, and most crass souvenier items the gift shops had available. I think the winner on this is my younger brother... he gets the Mount Fuji toenail clippers!
The bus came, and I was on my way back to Gotemba. On the bus, a young lady (with her boyfriend) said hello... it turns out that she was working at the building that I declined to stay at last night; she remembered me mainly because I have a ponytail and was wearing tiger-stripes (I stand out among the foreigners somewhat). I explained some of who I was... I learned from her that she works a two-day shift on the mountian about once a week. I suppose it would be impractical to live up there all the time, though I hadn't thought about it before.
Back at Gotemba, I got myself a proper lunch, retrieved my bags -- I had translated correctly, and they were still safely in the locker -- and visited some local stores to get some books to read on the trip back. An American gentleman, who said he's working with a company in Mishima, showed up to catch the bus to Fuji. I pointed out the lockers to him so he'd know they were good for overnight; "no need," he assured me, "my travel guide says I can get to the top and back in one day, if I get there early." What can I say? GOOD LUCK, BUCKAROO.
As for me, I took the trains back to Mishima, then switched back to the Shinkansen to Tokyo. I arrived back in town around three o'clock, and headed back to my favorite place, Ikebukuro ward, and got a room for the night at Hotel I.B.A. . I dropped off most of my stuff, but I wanted to take care of one particular item that I didn't care to carry all the way to my next set of destinations... the walking stick I took up Fuji.
I headed to the small post office that I've been to so much this trip already. They were amused by the walking stick, and what it implied I'd been doing since they saw me two days ago... and it turned into a real challenge for them to figure out how to send it back to America. The postal chief, who had been most active in the past helping me, decide the best way to handle it was to give me my very own EMS identity, complete with card. EMS is the Japanese equivalent to the American UPS... the identity number, and the card that goes with it, is usually only given to residents of Japan because only they will have the opportunity to really use them. I think the chief suspects I'm going to be using it more often than the average visitor -- he's probably right.
The second challenge for the postal team was getting the staff properly wrapped up. I helped a little, by removing the attached bell so they wouldn't have to worry about crushing it (all the Mount Fuji walking sticks had bells). The postal workers finally just cut up a couple of boxes, wrapped them around the stick, and covered the result with packing tape. I thanked them, bought a box to pack the presents for my family in, and moved on.
With that little worry done, I took care of the only other thing I needed to do... I got batteries for my camera. Then I walked around a little, looking for where I wanted to get dinner, and taking it easy for a while. That's when I saw the road construction that was under way.
Click on picture to see
this guy in action!
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