Climbing the Fujinomiya Trail of Mt. Fuji

By Charles Wetzel

Me at the Summit of Mt. Fuji, 3,776 Meters Above Sea Level

Note: This essay was originally written on two pieces of paper as the events were unfolding, or right after they had unfolded. Therefore, one part of the document might use past tense, and another part of the document might use present tense. Please excuse the disjointedness, and understand the reason for this.

As this is my second year in Japan and I have a five-day vacation thanks to Obon (お盆), I have decided to put two calendar days of my vacation to good use. I'm going to climb Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san [富士山], not Fuji-yama, which is an incorrect reading). I have decided on the Fujinomiya (富士宮) trail, because it is the shortest and most accessible from W. Japan. Doing this trip in just two days will allow me to conserve most of my valuable Seishun 18 Rail Pass (青春十八) for later use (perhaps a trip to Kyōto [京都] and another trip to take an exam in another city). Here is my basic itinerary:

    Ⅰ. 6:26 PM (8/13): Set out from Yokkaichi (四日市) for Iriyamase Station (入山瀬駅). Then walk or take a taxi to a youth hostel.

    Ⅱ. 11:55 PM (8/13): Check in to the youth hostel. At the youth hostel, fill up my water, cook some rice for tomorrow, etc. Go to bed at 12:30; try to get 4.5 hours of sleep.

    Ⅲ. 5:00 AM (8/14): Wake up. Immediately go outside and photograph Mt. Fuji as the sun comes up (5:03 AM). Make my way to Fujinomiya Station, Fuji Station, Shin-Fuji (新富士) Station, or Mishima Station, with Fujinomiya being the optimal one, the Fuji/Shin-Fuji ones being okay, and Mishima being sub-optimal.

    Ⅳ. 6:00 AM (8/14): Take a bus to Mt. Fuji. Sleep on various forms of public transportation to get a total of seven hours' sleep before hitting the mountain.

    Ⅴ. 8:00 AM (8/14): Climb the mountain. Skip the detour to Hoeizan, but still try to photograph Hoeizan from the peak.

    Ⅵ. 6:00 PM (8/14): Board the bus. ← Note that as soon as I arrived at Fujinomiya 5th Station, I adjusted my itinerary to catching the 4:30 bus, since it is the last bus to Fujinomiya [Train] Station until 8:00 PM.

    Ⅶ. Take the train back to Yokkaichi, arriving at about 11:39 PM.

  • [COMPLETE] Climb Mt. Fuji
  • [COMPLETE] Spend no unnecessary money, eat only the food I brought along (though I may buy a bottle [or two cans] of makgeolli). ← Basically, I did this. However, since I couldn't get to the hostel, I couldn't cook the rice I had brought with me and had to buy pre-cooked rice in plastic trays at the convenience store.
  • [COMPLETE] Write out a whole photo essay (on this sheet of paper).

Part Ⅰ: Getting to Iriyamase and the Youth Hostel

I found a cheap youth hostel. It's called Fumoto No Ie Hostel and is only ¥2,500 a night. In order to get there, I am taking the following sequence of trains: Yokkaichi → Nagoya (名古屋) → Toyohashi (豊橋) → Hamamatsu (浜松) → Shizuoka (静岡) → Fuji → Iriyamase. I'm taking this circuitous route because the ultra-cheap Seishun 18 rail pass only lets me take regular JR/kaisoku (快速) JR trains. I'm currently headed for Fuji Station. I hope the hostel is a good place, but I guess it doesn't really matter since I'm only going to spend ~5 hours there, most of that asleep.

Part Ⅱ: Not Finding Fumoto No Ie Hostel

The map on their Web site is wildly inaccurate and vague. It is marked with things like "Liquor Store" and "Gasoline Stand" that are vague. To top it off, I followed the main road that they specified and ended up one hour away from the hostel; the location of Hachiman Shrine is totally wrong. Screw that. I'll just sleep in the train station. Thanks a lot, Mr. and Mrs. Fumoto. Well, at least I saved ¥2,500. But since I couldn't cook, I had to buy packaged rice for ¥405. So I'm really only ¥2,095 ahead. I'll stay at Iriyamase train station and use my bag as a pillow, and sleep on a bench.

Rather than Fumoto No Ie Hostel, this train station and its lovely bench ended up being my "hostel" for the night.

Part Ⅲ: Trying to Photograph the Mt. Fuji Sunrise

Of course, there was no way that I was going to climb the mountain at night and photograph/observe the sunrise at 5:03 AM, as is the Japanese custom. So I set a 5:00 alarm, and at 5:00 AM, woke up on a bench in the train station. I went out and waited, but due to the sky being overcast, couldn't see the sun. Nor was I quite sure which mountain was even Mt. Fuji. None of the mountains in Iriyamase even vaguely resembled the popular image of Mt. Fuji, so I just snapped a picture of the tallest one I could find. [Then, after going back to sleep on my bench for an hour or so] I took the 7:02 train to Fujinomiya Station.

A view of the mountains from Iriyamase Station at 5:09 AM (probably Mt. Fuji, but not 100% certain). Even though the sun had risen, it was not visible due to the cloud cover. The small bright objects are not the sun and the moon, they are droplets of water on the lens (it was raining).

Part Ⅳ, Ⅴ, and Ⅵ: Getting There and Climbing Mt. Fuji, then Getting Back on the Bus

You'd think there'd be a train station at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, Japan's (and one of the world's) most famous mountain(s). But no! The closest station is Fujinomiya, which is a one-hour-20-minute bus ride away from Mt. Fuji. I suspect this is for the same reason that an umbrella there costs ¥700, a bottle of Aquarius Zero [sports drink] ¥300, and why the times between the hiking stations in the mountains are grossly understated so as to cause the hiker to buy more overpriced food/drink and also to force him or her to buy a new bus ticket when he/she is inevitably late back to the bus station — to support the Fuji-san industrial complex! I have come to believe that the companies that operate the Mt. Fuji tourism industry have gotten together and greased some palms and gotten some corrupt politicians to grant them a monopoly on the mountain!

Fujinomiya 5th Station, Located at 2,000 Meters

Plaque Showing the Entrance to Mt. Fuji

↑ I spent quite a while trying to figure out what this is (actual size; I saw it at Fujinomiya 5th Station [富士宮五合目]). At first, due to it being black, I thought it was some kind of terrestrial leech, so I searched for that on Google. It turns out that yes, Japan does have a terrestrial leech called the Japanese mountain leech (yama-biru, or 山蛭), but they are fatter than this and have different coloration. This is just an earthworm. However, it is worth noting that Japan has at least one species of giant earthworm that has been documented as growing to be multiple feet long. Perhaps this earthworm belongs to that species. I'm not sure.

The climbing itself was grueling. I'm an Eagle Scout and have climbed many mountains from Halla-san (South Korea) to Guryong Pokpo (North Korea) to Chaishan and Shoushan (Taiwan) and countless others. However, I don't think I've ever dealt with oxygen deprivation quite like I experienced above 3,000 m. on Fuji-san. Some people brought oxygen bottles, but I didn't — which rendered me a hiker with the speed of a yak going up a mountain.

Rather than chronicle every single event in these paragraphs, I will simply upload many pictures and tell the stories through the pictures and the captions:

Fujinomiya 7th Station

View from One of the Stations

This is a torii (鳥居, lit.: bird dwelling), or Shintō (神道) gate on Mt. Fuji. To the left is a clothed statue with offerings.

Occasionally, there were posts with coins shoved in the cracks, probably for good luck, but I'm not sure why.

A Vast Snow Field (taken August 14, 2012)
Note that in the foreground, the reddish volcanic rocks that are all over Mt. Fuji are also visible.

Fuji-san Hongū (main shrine) of Sengen-Taisha-Okunomiya Shintō Shrine (almost at the peak)
Note: the orange post office box that can be seen to the left of the torii is the highest post office box in Japan.

The Shrine's Bell

Three Shintō Monks (shinshoku, 神職) Beating Tatami (畳) Mats with a Broom to Clean Them

Eventually, I reached Mt. Fuji Automated Weather Station (the peak, 3,776 m. high). I located a group of young men and offered them a free can of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) if they'd let me film them in front of the 3,776 m. marker extolling the virtues of makgeolli in Japanese (I need this video for a video I am making on makgeolli for a contest; the contest is to make a pro-makgeolli YouTube video; it is sponsored by the Korean government and the prize is 3,000,000 won and a trip to Korea as a makgeolli V.I.P. at a makgeolli trade show). Given the chance for international fame and a free can, Ryota, 21, a curry factory worker, happily obliged.

The Highest Point in Japan

This is the main crater. There is also Hoeizan Crater, formed in the 1700s (not shown).
Note: Mt. Fuji is not an extinct volcano; it has been showing signs of erupting again soon!

A Sea of Clouds (I could hear thunderstorms going on down there at one point, but I was high and dry)

Some Kind of Yellow Flower that Grows All Over Mt. Fuji

Back at Fujinomiya 5th Station, I snapped this picture up Mt. Fuji.

The hike down took much longer than claimed by the tourist pamphlet. My time down (no significant breaks, nearly-reckless speed, passing everyone who was also descending) was roughly three hours and 20 minutes. The tourist pamphlet claims two hours and 20 minutes, which is obviously horse hockey designed to fool tourists into being late for their monopoly-controlled buses and having to buy a shuttle ticket. I got away with not buying a shuttle ticket, but had to pay an extra ¥1,570 to get a bus that would leave in a timely manner.

Part Ⅶ: Coming Home on the Train

Now, I have finally sorted out the train problem. I had originally intended to be back at Fujinomiya 5th Station by 4:30 PM, but the climb was significantly longer than stated in the tourist literature, even taking very few breaks and going at nearly-reckless speed. I came back at almost 5:30 and realized that the next bus for Fujinomiya would be at 8:00 PM, which would obviously be too late for my 6:39 PM train ride. So I realized that if I wanted to get back to my home prefecture before midnight, I would have to skip Fujinomiya and race the train to Shizuoka Station, rendezvousing with the train there. That should allow me to get back to Mie-ken (三重県) by the end of the day before the trains shut down.

While I was just writing this essay by hand, an elderly woman approached me and exclaimed:
「文字がちっちゃい!ハハハハハ!」 The letters [that you are writing on your paper] are small! Hahahahaha!
「鉛筆が凄く短い!可愛い!ハハハハハ!」 [And] your pencil is so short! Cute! Hahahahaha!
Well, that helped brighten my day. Overall, this "vacation" has been made stressful/logistically difficult by just plain wrong tourist literature. However, at least I've climbed Mt. Fuji, collected a few mildly amusing/interesting photos/stories, and done it for less than ¥20,000 in less than 31 hours. I've sure utilized my past 31 hours to the darned-near-fullest. I won't look back at Obon Vacation 2012 as another holiday squandered on Dave's ESL Cafe, oh no. And as the train moves west, Yokkaichi draws closer and closer.

And just now, just when I thought the interesting part was over, two hippies on the train approached me. One was named Keita. He is in a psychedelic band and has been to Goa. He is the man in the picture below playing the didgeridoo:

His girlfriend, Banji, told me about several upcoming hippie festivals in the Kansai Region (関西) region in which I live: the Iga Rock Festival, the Yamauto hippie festival, and the Inochi no Matsuri ("Festival of Life"). Sounds like good material for my next photo essay, this one a bit more off the beaten path.

...and right after talking to them, a strange, possibly drunk man (not affiliated with the aforementioned hippies) approached me and randomly asked me to come stay at his house. Even though I have never been inside a Japanese home in my one year, four months here, I declined.