Mt Fuji: You don’t have to be a fool to climb it twice

I am back from my second climb of Mt Fuji. All the 26 members of our hiking group (from age 8 to about 70) made it to the top and back down again. We started from the Fujinomiya 5th stage and also returned via there. My first climb had been about 11 months ago.

On the first day we hiked from 2400 m to 3460 m in about 5 hours. Then around 3:20am the second day we set off from the 9th stage mountain hut, ascending another 300 m of altitude in darkness to reach the peak before sunrise.

After descending back down to the 9th stage we hiked over to Mt Hoei, a crater on the side of Mt Fuji created by the most recent eruption in the 18th century.

I had never seen the eruption site of Mt Hoei from close up and it looked most impressive. Much of the hiking was in what looked like fog but was the clouds that surrounded the mountain. We had lots of views on to a sea of clouds from the top.

A lot of people suffer from altitude sickness on Mt Fuji because there is about 35% less oxygen at the top than at sea level, which in combination with the exercise leads to rapid breathing that can turn the blood alkaline (CO2 depletion). Above 3400 m I too got a headache at times, but unlike my Japanese friends I never used canned oxygen during this hike.

The weather was ideal, but it was still only a cool 12 degrees C in the sunny afternoon at the mountain hut and below freezing at the top before sunrise, with strong wind (I saw frozen puddles). Imagine going from a hot humid summer day in Tokyo to a cold windy February night within just a couple of hours and you have a good idea of the contrasts of a Fuji climb. Winter clothes are definitely needed for a sunrise climb, the warmer the better. Good hiking boots are recommended at any time and don’t forget your camera!

300 km in a day around Mt Fuji on a Bike Friday

In the evening of last Sunday I returned from my first brevet ride, a long distance cycling event. I was sunburnt, exhausted and dead tired. The event was BRM519 NishiTokyo 300 km Fuji, a 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji staged by Audax Japan NishiTokyo. It was quite a mountainous course, with 2800 m (9200 ft) of climbing (see map). Also participating was my friend Jose, but we rode separately for most of the course because he is faster. In preparation for this event I had done three training rides (227 km, 200 km and 235 km) since March that followed at least part of the route, one of them with Jose, whose company and advice has been invaluable.

From Machida in western Tokyo we rode down to Enoshima on the Pacific coast, followed the coast to Odawara and climbed up to Gotemba. From there we rode down to the coast near Numazu, followed the coast to Fujikawa, then headed north on a long climb on the extended slopes on the west side of Mt Fuji. From over 1100 m on the NW of Fuji the road descends to Fujiyoshida and further down to Tsuru. The final stretch follows mountainous R35 to Sagamiko (extremely steep in places but great descents) and climbs over Otarumi Toge on R20 near Mt Takao (which seems trivial after all the previous climbing).

Though the 15 km/h minimum pace implied by the 20 hour time limit may seem modest, it includes all food and sleep breaks and a course with plenty of climbing. The people who design these courses like back roads and hills. Some of the R35 climbs I was crawling up at 6.5 km/h in my granny gear. You go uphill for 2 hours before Gotemba and 4 hours solid at Mt Fuji, which you can never make up on faster downhills from there. The 22:00 start means the first 6 1/2 hours are at night, so not only do you need proper lights, you also lost a night of sleep.

Lack of sleep proved to be much more of a challenge than distance or elevation. If there was one thing I’d do differently next time, it would be to make sure I get a good few hours sleep during daytime before the night time start. I had meant to do that, but instead spent that time running around looking for extra lights, as I found out from Jose that I needed two lights at the front and two at the rear (one of which could be on the helmet). The first rear light I bought didn’t work when I tried it at home, so I returned it and got a another and finally had only napped 20 minutes before I took the train to Machida.

At the brevet reception:

People there were very friendly, though they were quite surprised I wanted to ride the brevet on a small wheeled folding bike. 80 people had signed up for the ride. I received my brevet card and instructions on how to gather receipts at the unmanned checkpoints (PC = point de contrôle).

After a group briefing each bike and rider was checked to make sure we met all the conditions about lights, bells, reflective clothing, etc. Then we were off into the night.

Jose and I were riding together for the first couple of km, but separated soon when I stopped to remove a layer as I was warming up. There were plenty of fellow riders for following a lead rider. With the pace at which we were going towards the coast (except for traffic lights), I was feeling like I was on the Enoshima Express train 🙂 We got there a little before midnight. I got my brevet card signed (this was the only manned checkpoint) and I refilled my water bottles at the public toilet where PC1 was located, then headed off with Jose and another rider after a few minutes. I soon dropped off again and rode by myself until other riders came along around 10 km before Odawara, where PC2 was located.

PC2-PC4 were unmanned, that means they were convenience stores where you buy some food or drink, making sure to keep the receipt to prove when you were there. Nevertheless the ride organisers came by car to join us at each of these stops, to check everyone was doing OK and to offer encouragement.

From Odawara the climb to Gotemba starts very gentle, but continues for 30 km for an altitude gain of 460 m. I was lucky to end up riding in a group of 5 that set a good pace I could keep up with. As the route got steeper though, I had to work harder and harder and drafting made less difference, so I waived the rider behind me to pass and continued on my own. Somewhere along the way I came across Jose, who was just about to lie down and take a nap in a bus shelter. As it got colder during the night I put on my trousers from my rain gear.

Somewhere along the 25 km route from Gotemba to the coast the sun came up and I could see Mt Fuji:

I led another rider at a good speed, but was feeling the lack of sleep as I was cycling along the coast. We crossed Fuji river and headed up inland towards the next unmanned checkpoint (PC3).

A fellow brevet rider at PC3:

Before the longest climb:

The 1100 m climb from sea level, starting at about the halfway point of the 300 km up to the pass above Lake Motosu was the hardest part of the ride. The scenery is beautiful though, with many dairy farms. The smell of cow dung reminded me of my home village 🙂

Lake Motosu from the pass:

During the climb I got so sleepy, I had to find a spot to lie down and catch a nap (a slab of concrete next to a rice paddy, with my rinko bag as a pillow), as I felt it wasn’t safe to continue in my state. The same thing happened again on R35 between Tsuru and Sagamiko. I had been 1 1/2 hours ahead of the minimum pace of 15 km/h at PC2 before Mt Fuji, but after those naps didn’t know if I would still make the time limit until almost the very end, when I fought traffic in Machida to make it back by 18:00.

I was so glad when I got back safely and it was all over. I had done well with my training, with eating and drinking and with navigation, but managing naps is definitely something I’ll need to learn if I am to ride brevets again.

I am also looking forward to trying proper cycling shorts which I’ve got on order. Cotton underwear rubbing against certain parts of the male anatomy did become irritating towards the end of the ride. Also, I’ll need something other than a back pack for my stuff, because my shoulders got itchy from the straps, especially with the sweat in warm weather.

They say any brevet over 200 km isn’t much fun and they’re probably right, unless you’re a bit of a masochist. Riding brevets adds a number of challenges beyond personal long distance rides, such as managing time (including sleeping time). It tests planning and self discipline as much as cycling skills. It does give you an excuse for a bunch of long training rides in the mountains. On the brevet itself you’ll meet some extremely nice people who enjoy cycling very, very much. The brevet was almost as hard as my first climb of Mt Fuji last year and “fun” is maybe not the right word to describe it, yet I would definitely recommend giving it a try at least once if you like long rides at a pace that mere mortals can still train for.

Links:

227 km a day on my Bike Friday

One month after my 155 km bike ride around Miura peninsula, a friend and I got up very early on a Sunday morning and cycled until after sunset. We went from Machida in the west of Tokyo to Mt Fuji and back. My total for the day came to 227 km (see route).

Why this ride? Earlier this month I had signed up for a 300 km brevet ride (randonnée) organised by AJ Nishitokyo for Sat/Sun, May 19/20, 2012. A randonnée is not a race, but individual riders do have to clear certain checkpoints within prescribed time limits. There’s an overall limit of 13 1/2 hours for 200 km rides and 20 hours for 300 km. For more ambitious riders there are also 400 and 600 km events. The most famous randonee is the 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris that takes place every 4 years. I would have started with 200 km, but all events near Tokyo were already closed for signup, so I went for the next one up. Given that 300 km was almost twice the distance of my longest ride until then, I knew I needed some training to prepare.

My plan was to follow the 300 km route as much as possible to familiarize myself with it, but to cut it to a more manageable distance by taking a shortcut. The full route heads south from Machida in Tokyo to the Pacific coast in Enoshima (Kanagawa prefecture), from there west along the coast to Odawara, then up to Gotemba (Shizuoka prefecture) near Mt Fuji. It swings clockwise around the mountain into Yamanashi prefecture, then returns east to Machida via a route across the mountains. I decided to head north at Gotemba, replacing the long loop around Fuji with a much shorter section near Yamanaka-ko (Lake Yamanaka) to the east of the mountain. According to MapMyRide.com the shorter route would come to 213 km.

I would take the first morning train from central Tokyo out to Machida, ride several km from the station to the starting point and then follow the route. My friend Jose, an experienced randonneur (brevet rider) offered to join me and I gladly accepted. It would have been a lot more difficult without his company and experience.

We started at around 06:30, but I first needed to replace the batteries in my bike lights, attach my waterproof cue sheet to the handlebar and sort out some temporary GPS problems, which took more than half an hour. It’s better to encounter such problems on the training run than in the real time-limited ride…

As we rode along the Pacific coast from Enoshima to Odawara on this March 11, we couldn’t help thinking of the disaster that had struck the Tohoku region exactly one year earlier. The coast here is just as exposed. About 500 years ago, a tsunami destroyed a temple housing the Great Buddha of Kamakura (daibutsu) near Enoshima, almost a km from the coast. Only the bronze statue itself was left. We won’t know what will happen during the next Great Kanto Earthquake until it strikes.

After Odawara the road started climbing towards Gotemba. From there we climbed all the way to Kagosaka pass (1104 m above sea level), where we crossed into Yamanashi prefecture. It started snowing after Gotemba and persisted until we got to Fujiyoshida. We never really saw Mt Fuji, though we passed right in front of it, because of all the snow clouds. On the pass and around the lake everything but the road was covered in snow. I had to rest several times during the climb. I tried to eat and drink as often as possible in order not to run out of energy or get dehydrated (I was sweating a lot, even though temperatures were anywhere from 0C to 6C).

At the top of the mountain pass I knew we still had about 100 km to go, including two climbs of several 100 m each. I started to seriously doubt if I could really get back to Machida by bike or if I would have to catch a train from somewhere. But then we descended for something like 25 km from Yamanaka-ko and my energy came back as I could take it easy. Jose proposed a different route back to Machida that avoided some of the highest climbs and that’s what we did. There were still many climbs around Uenohara and Sagamiko, but I could manage them. Towards the end we rejoined the original 300 km route and got back to Machida around 20:00, which means I would have been within a 13 1/2 hour overall limit for a 200 km ride.

So what did I learn from this experience?

  • “There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes” Jose told me and he was right. We were dressed appropriately and didn’t have a problem with drizzle or light snow. I was wearing mostly Uniqlo: long sleeved Heattech underwear, Jeans, a light Windbreaker. I also wore a folded handkerchief over my ears under the helmet, old socks with holes cut for the SPD pedal cleats over the Shimano shoes (“Belgian shoe covers”) and ski gloves when it was coldest.
  • I was more tired at the end of my 136 km day than after this 227 km. Eating and drinking often enough are key for long distance. Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty.
  • My butt hurt more on my previous saddle towards the end of the 156 km ride than the Brooks B17 towards the end of the 227 km. The Brooks is great!
  • I had some pain in my left shoulder joint, maybe from the cold and my Achilles tendons felt a bit sore the next day. I probably should have hydrated more before the ride and kept my shoulders warmer.
  • Navigating with the brevet cue sheet was more difficult than I had expected. I needed to edit the printout with bigger fonts and some translation from Japanese.
  • I logged the entire ride with the Strava Android app, with the phone connected to my dynamo hub USB charger via a Li-polymer buffer battery. The phone remained fully charged throughout and at the end the buffer battery charge state was 4 out of 5 LEDs, just like at the beginning. I could ride for days without running out of mobile power.
  • As I already learnt on my 136 km Miura ride (Feb 5, 2012), if you want to go far, start early in the morning and keep going as much as you can. You’ll be amazed how many km you can do in a day if you try!

Links:

Mount Daibosatsu (大菩薩岳) in January

Last weekend I did my first real winter hike, up Mount Daibosatsu (2057 m) near Enzan in Yamanashi prefecture, Japan.

Last year I did two hikes on Daibosatsu with friends, but on Sunday we went back for a mid-winter hike in the snow. It’s a longish train ride from Tokyo to Enzan, where we caught a 30 minute bus ride to the foot of the mountain. In winter many of the mountain roads may be closed due to snow, so we had to hike two hours just to get to a hut which in autumn served as a bus stop for our hike then.

Because it had been raining or snowing for two days, I was wearing rain gear on top of several layers instead of the usual trousers and winter jackets. I bought a pair of crampons (Evernew EBY015 L, 6 pin, L size) as recommended by a friend, which worked really well on the snowed in mountain. There were about 30 cm of snow in the higher regions.

We left Tokyo by Odakyu line before 05:00 and got off the bus near the mountain around 08:00. After about half an hour on roads above the village we put on the crampons for the snowed in trails and forest roads. Around noon we got to the ridge (Daibosatsu-toge, 大菩薩峠) and had lunch, then headed on through the deep snow to the top to enjoy the view and take pictures. Tellingly, the only other hiker we encountered up there was wearing snow shoes. With everything covered in snow and no other sounds except for some wind, the echoes from the mountains were amazing.

Mount Daibosatsu was one of my favourite hikes last year because of its views, but this last hike was very special. Fog was sitting in many of the lower valleys all around us while all the trees were covered in thick white snow that everything had a January calendar picture feel to it, but the best was Mt Fuji. I told my friends, I would have hiked the whole 18 km for the views of Mt Fuji alone. Somehow it seemed bigger or closer than ever and the light that surrounded it was magical.

Descending was much easier than climbing, as the snow acted as a friction brake. We descended in 2 1/2 hours versus 4 hours for the climb. We enjoyed food and drinks at a restaurant at the bus stop in the company of two other hikers. I am sure this won’t have been my last hike to Mt Daibosatsu.

(All pictures taken with Canon PowerShot S95)

Cycling on Mount Fuji Subaru line

I love Mount Fuji since my first trip to Japan in 1990. I have enjoyed numerous views of it from near and far and several times drove up to the fifth station (go-gome, also named “fifth step”) of the Kawaguchiko hiking trail. This is as high as you can go by car before walking to the top.

All Fuji hiking trails are numbered from first to tenth station. The first station is the starting point where pilgrims on foot used to start their journey in the old days. The tenth station is the crater rim, where a Shinto shrine is located.

The Kawaguchiko fifth station at over 2300 metre is the second highest station accessible by car or bus. It lies just above the tree line. The hiking trail from there winds up the exposed volcanic cone above the station.

Fuji Subaru line

Access to the fifth station is by a toll road (2000 yen = about US$27 by car, 200 yen = US$2.70 by bicycle), called the “Fuji Subaru line”. I’m not sure, but I always assumed its name was connected to Fuji Heavy Industries (富士重工業株式会社), the makers of Subaru cars. Officially the road is named after the Japanese name of the Pleiades star constellation (a.k.a. the “Seven Sisters”), but those are also the stars you see in the Subaru car logo, as it is also named after the constellation. The road was built in 1964, so maybe nobody really knows these days. I was passed by 2 or 3 Subaru Impreza WRX on the way up, so regardless of its origin perhaps the name does attract Subaru drivers 😉

Despite running up the highest mountain in Japan, the Subaru line is not quite the highest Japanese road accessible by car, but it doesn’t miss that record by much.

As a staging post for hikers, the fifth station offers car parks, toilets, souvenir shops, a shrine and shops that sell anything a hiker might need who would hit the trail to the peak at 3776 metres. The station offers great views of the “five lakes”, the Southern Alps and many other mountains in the distance, that make it well worth a visit even if you’re not going to climb to the peak. Often you will find yourself above the clouds, like in an airplane. On the other hand, the higher regions of Fuji may be shrouded in clouds even when elsewhere the sky is clear. This makes clear views of Fuji and from Fuji even more precious.

During the peak season in early to mid August, private cars are banned from the road because of insufficient parking space up there. Only buses and taxis can use the road then. In the summer you sometimes have to wait in line for parking. Only when enough cars come down the mountain can you advance further up. Earlier or later in the year the upper sections of the road may sometimes be closed due to snow, but in principle the road is open all year round, with daily opening hours varying by the season.

Going by bike

During my earlier visits I had seen quite a few cyclists on that road. Invariably they were on light-weight road bikes, wearing bike shorts and bike jerseys and they would not have looked out of place in the Tour de France. Somehow, if you get a road bike in Japan, there seems to be an unwritten rule that you must wear the whole kit to look like a pro… Anyway, I felt the greatest respect for these cyclists because I knew how long and steep the road was, even in my car that did all the hard work for me. It’s about 29 km from Fujiyoshida down at the base to the end of the road up there.

In August 2011 I finally fullfilled a long held dream and climbed Mount Fuji. I made it to the top and back down again. Three weeks ago I got my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, a road bike that folds. Earlier this year my son Shintaro had suggested we should try the Mount Fuji Hill Climb, a bike race every year in June that starts at Mount Fuji Hokuroku Park near the Subaru line toll gate and finishes at the fifth stage. It’s 24 km in total, with a 5% average, 7.8% maximum incline.

After two rides of 48 and 55 km on weekends on my new bike I thought I might give Mount Fuji a try, but was more concerned about getting down again than making it up there: If I got too exhausted, I could always turn around at any point, but if the long descent turned out to be too hard on the bike’s brakes, wouldn’t I be in trouble?

I did some research online and after some valuable advice from members of the Tokyo Cycling Club forum, I decided to give it a try because 5% is still quite manageable. Shintaro was keen to join me. The weather forecast for Saturday was excellent: Clear skies, sunny, with 19C at the bottom, but I knew it was going to be much colder at the top, especially on the way down again, when my leg muscles weren’t going to supply much heat.

After breakfast we packed our two bikes into the back of the Prius and drove to Fuji. With Saturday traffic the 100 km from Setagaya/Tokyo to Fujiyoshida interchange took us 3 hours, so we only got there around noon. After setting up the bikes in the car park of the Mount Fuji visitor center we did some food shopping and ate lunch outside a convenience store near the interchange and the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park. The visitor centre was not too busy this time of the year, but there is also a large car park nearby for the summer season (1000 yen per day), for park and ride with buses. From Fujiyoshida IC it’s about 4 km uphill to the toll gate.

I tracked our ride using the free iMapMyRide application. It runs on my Google Nexus S Android phone, mounted on the handle bar using a Minoura iH-100-S smartphone holder. I used about half the battery charge for the roughly 4 1/2 hour climb, with the phone set to airplane mode because there wasn’t going to be any cellphone reception anyway. When we got back to the car, I reenabled the network and uploaded the data to the TrackMyRide.com website, which does a good job of mapping rides and displaying information such as average speeds for each kilometer of the trip, kcals burnt, altitude profile and gain, etc. My only minor problem with the app and website is that it doesn’t deal properly with time zones, so some rides show up one day off in the calendar and the start and end times are not from your local time zone.

My climbing speed was moderate but steady, mostly between 8 and 11 km/h and I was mostly in the 2nd or 3rd lowest gear. I drank about 1.5 litres of water and stopped several times for some carbohydrates.

On the way up I did a radiation check with my Ecotest Terra-P MKS-05 geiger counter at the edge of the forest surrounding the road and the number was no higher than back in Tokyo where we lived.

Pictures from the ride

Here we were taking a break on the way up at the first stage rest area.

Here we’re just over half way to the top, already enjoying splendid views.

Autumn colours everywhere:

Looks like a thistle:

We’re 80% there: about 6 km and 300 metres of altitude to go.

I loved these views.

Yeah! We made it! 🙂

After 29 km and almost 1500 altitude metres, we’re at the fifth stage.

Entrance to the small shrine between souvenir shops.

The new moon rising over Mount Fuji. Time to head down again before it gets completely dark!

Descending from Mount Fuji

We changed into our warmest clothes and set off for the one hour descent. I mostly coasted at 35-40 km/h, applying the brakes only before curves. I wish I had warmer gloves and a stronger headlight (or even better, more daylight), but we made it down OK.

At 18:00 the visitor centre car park with our car inside was already closed with a chain, but fortunately it wasn’t padlocked. We packed the bikes back into the car, went for some sushi and then headed back to Tokyo.

It was a great experience. Thinking about the Mount Fuji Hill Climb in June, I loved doing Subaru line at my own pace, with time to take pictures. If you do the race, maybe you also want to come back some other time to simply enjoy the great views on this majestic mountain, without 5000 other cyclists around you…

I survived Mount Fuji

In Japan there’s a saying that you’re a fool if you never climb Mt Fuji and that you’re also a fool if you climb it more than once. As an old admirer of Mt Fuji who has just climbed it for the first time, I can now also understand the second half of the saying. I thought I was reasonably fit, but hiking up there with my level of training was one of the most foolish things I have ever done. Never before in my live had I felt so exhausted as during the last kilometers on the way down to the bus stop at the Subashiri 5th stage.

Since first coming to Japan as a visitor more than two decades ago, I have always loved the majestic views that Mt. Fuji offers, especially how its often snow-capped cone shape pops up unexpected, often from far away. Its views are particularly clear during the dry winter season. The furthest I’ve seen it from was from a bus on the expressway near Narita airport, about 160 km east of the mountain. My favourite views are from around Izu peninsula in Shizuoka. I’d been up on the 5th stage several time, the highest you go by car or bus (or bicycle).

My friend Tom did a double traversal of the Grand Canyon (South rim – bottom – North Rim – bottom – South rim) with several friends on his 40th birthday and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m) the year he turned 50. That impressed me so much that I promised myself I would climb Mt Fuji the summer of the year I turned 40. That didn’t happen. But 10 years later I was determined to make it up there as a 50 year old. Last weekend I finally did it.

My preparation included one hike of a few hours with my family along the coast near Izu Kogen and a 2 hour hike up a mountain in Saitama prefecture with my son, es well as some bike rides for general fitness. It was nowhere near enough. My legs were not used to descending much and my maximum distance was far too short. It was like trying to run a marathon after only ever having run a maximum of 5 km.

I wore my hiking boots and dressed in enough layers appropriate for temperatures a little above freezing. Temperatures at the peak are roughly 20C (36F) lower than at sea level. I brought a wool cap, gloves and a headlamp for nighttime hiking. I took food and a several liters of water in my backpack. I probably would have managed with 2 liters, but took more, which ended up being on the heavy side.

We took a highway bus from Tokyo Shinjuku to Gotemba and from there shared a cab to the Fujinomiya 5th stage on the south side of the mountain. We had breakfast there and put on our rain gear, taking our time to give the body a chance to acclimatize a bit to the altude (~2400m / 8000 ft = 24% less oxygen). The hike up to the 9th stage mountain hut was mostly in fog and drizzle, unfortunately. As you climb up higher, the vegetation gets more and more sparse until it feels like you’re on another planet. Some of the volcanic rock is very colourful.

Along the trail from the 5th stage parking lot to the peak there are four mountain huts, the 6th trough 9th stages (roku-go-me through kyu-go-me in Japanese). They provide food, toilets and accommodations during the climbing season. Most seem to run diesel generators to generate their own power, as they are not connected to the grid. If you’re an NTT docomo customer you can also get mobile reception there.

We had reservations at the 9th stage hut, which is one of the largest, but this being the last weekend of the annual climbing season, as many hikers as possible were crammed into the tiny rooms. We were seven guys in one 5 m2 (54 sqft) room (1.8 m by 2.7 m / 6 ft by 9 ft, three tatami mat size). A small light bulb stayed on all night and there were people snoring loudly all over. The rooms were on two levels, with ladders to the top ones, all separated from the corridor by a curtain. The air at 3460m above sea level already has 34% less oxygen, but the large number of hikers in a small space must have dropped it even further, resulting all of our group having headaches, a symptom of altitude sickness.

It is very common for Fuji hikers to carry oxygen cans (5l for about 500 yen) to inhale when they feel weak. Like many gaijin (foreigners) I first laughed about this, but when not feeling well I gave it a try. I can’t say it really made that much difference for me. I think the act of stopping to get out the can, fit the inhaler, take a couple of breaths and stash it away again provided as much rest that it was hard to tell if one feels better because of the rest or because of the short term oxygen boost. Himalaya climbers on oxygen breathe it for extended periods, so its effects are not really comparable.

There were people hiking past the hut all night. You could see a line of what looked like fireflies in the distance slowly moving up the huge dark cone of the mountain towards us, and up above us, towards the peak. In the afternoon the sky had cleared up and we could enjoy the views of clouds below us, like from an airplane. At night the sky was full of stars, like in my village at home but unlike the big cities in Japan, where the glare of street lights all but obscures the nighttime sky and where people never see the Milky Way.

The mountain hut gradually got busy after midnight, as hikers got ready to set off for the peak to experience the sunrise from the top. Lacking in sleep, we rested longer and left around 5 am, seeing the sunrise to the East from the Southern slope about 1 km from the peak.

The last few hundred meters below the tori (Shinto shrine gate) that marks the entrance to the crater rim were mostly spent waiting in a queue, for hundreds of ascending and descending hikers to pass each other on the narrow trail. As we got closer we could also smell the public toilets. At the top there was the shrine and next to it Japan’s highest Post office for sending cards with a Mt Fuji post mark to your friends.

By the time we were at the peak, I had pretty much run out of gas, probably not helped by the lack of sleep under cramped conditions the night before. The hike around the crater rim, up to the weather station located on the highest point (3776m / 12388 ft) and over to the opposite side was difficult already.The crater was very deep and huge. You saw many layers of rock exposed and could only marvel at the force of the explosions that dug it into the top of the mountain. Both inside the crater and at some spots along the slope outside we still found white snow in August.

Our return route was via the Subashiri trail, which is famous for very loose sandy slopes that some people find convenient for sliding down almost like skiing, supposedly making it a very fast return route. For me this was the hardest part of the trip, already lacking the muscle strength to have the kind of control to master sliding. I ended up walking most of it, with the effect of hardly being able to walk down any stairs when I got home. I recovered after three days.

The 5th stage on the Subashiri trail lies lower (about 2000m) than the other trails. The last part of the trail is through forest. That makes it more interesting to hike when you ascend there. It’s less steep but longer than other trails.

Call me a fool (as per the Japanese saying I quoted at the start), but I definitely want to go back to Mt Fuji next year. I want to climb it again, but with better training upfront and I’ll have nice experiences to add to the strong memories from the first climb. I am also interested into climbing up to the 5th stage by bicycle, as I am just getting myself a Bike Friday Pocket Rocket for trips into the countryside.