I spent nearly 4 months in Japan in Summer 1999. Most of the time was spent in Tokyo, where my brother lived. Unfortunately the photos from that time are (hopefully not for ever) lost in his storage. This was my first lesson to learn and understand that some people do not have the organisational, some might say obsessive compulsive, ability as others. Despite losing the film rolls, most of them never actually developed as I remember, the trip was the first of many highlights of my years in Asia and I still have many memories of that time. However, as they say a picture paints a thousand words and I would like to have memories jogged of the times and places I visited way back then. Journeys to Izu Hanto, Niijima and Shikinejime, then travelling on the ju hachi kippu trains west across Honshū to Hikone, the dunes of Tottori, then to Osaka, Oshima, to many places in between I would need to find my diaries to remember, sleeping in beautiful ryokans, or sometimes alone in parks, using the local onsen or preferably a rotenburo to wash away the travels and enjoying yen gardens and temples along the way. Eating saba, invariably cooked over a small fire on the beach. Or eating soba in the small kitchens by train stations. Wandering lost, and carefree.
Finally arriving in the beautiful island of Kyūshū, with the kind people and soft Kyushu-ben accents and my work colleagues from Amsterdam. Here my memories are more vivid, with good times spent in my friend’s restaurant in Fukuoka, dawn drinking sessions on the railway tracks with his fun and frivolous friends. By then I was hitching around the country, those rides are another story, and made a somewhat fast descent down the east coast to Miyazaki and to the sand baths nearby. I remember some fun times in the countryside of Kakoshima and in the city of Kumamoto, but perhaps most of all being driven around Nakasagi in a BL Mini by a teacher who loved anything English!
And then finishing off in Shimonoseki, where I left Japan on the ferry to Qingdao, China. even the last ride from Tokyo to Shimonoseki was one of my ever lasting memories, with such a generous elderly couple of Kyushu.
Instead of those times, we are left with my last weekend in Japan and my only surviving film roll, which includes an overnight hike up fuji-san, starting from the closed east path at Gotenba and quickly losing the path, but finding ourselves just short of the summit at a beautiful sunrise.
“July and August are the official climbing season. During these two months the mountain is usually free of snow, the weather is relatively mild, access by public transportation is easy and the mountain huts are open. Everybody without much hiking experience is strongly advised to tackle the mountain during the official climbing season.”
Hmm, I had been in Japan for the whole of July and August and hadn’t yet climbed Fuji-san. I would soon be leaving Japan, and on a weekend trip to Gunma, we talked about climbing Mount Fuji. Despite having no climbing experience we put the cogs in motion for my last weekend in Japan. That would be Saturday 2nd October. Of course we didn’t know about the official climbing season and dangers of climbing off season. A friend had climbed the week or two earlier and almost died of hypothermia, so in that case we were at least notified, if not prepared. We arrived in Gotemba to be told the access road was closed, but perhaps if you go to the next prefecture the road will be open. A typical case of not in my back yard, the responsibility isn’t ours if you kill yourself in Sunto. This was my last weekend, so we hired a car and drove around the foot of Mount Fuji to find a way up. We eventually arrived at a car park in the foot hills. Starting off much later than planned and after missing dinner, we attached back packs and started walking through the crumbling lava rocks. In the dark, with too many winter layers, scared of the hypothermia, and without a clue where we were going or how long it would take. Foolhardy some might say. Indeed.
After 10 minutes we were sweating and I wanted to sacrifice the extra socks, throw away the jumpers, abandon the anoraks and jetison the gin, ha, I wish. We soon lost the zig-zag path and so the lava become deep, and for every foot we stepped, we would slide back half a foot. And still, the only direction we knew was up!
At some point after our trying and tiring slog, we found a rope, which we actually needed to use to pull ourselves along, through the loose and deep terrain. There were no other lights on the mountain, apart from one distant glow, which we hoped was a go-ya (mountain hut) and so we slowly made our way towards that. It must be said, the mountain is quite boring up close, very flat and without any noticeable growth or outcrops – especially in the pitch black (the full moon was 7 days earlier). And no paths where we were! We egged each other on with promises of a famous Japanese beer vending machine at the top, a bar selling gin and tonic, and the promise of beautiful views and the summit to ourselves. We couldn’t make it, and not far from the mysterious and ever distant lodge light, we huddled down, exhausted, fell asleep.
An hour or so later, the first rays of the morning eastern sun broke over the horizon and we had our first look around. The orange glow reflected off the desolate moonscape and the colours were electrifying. The clouds broke away and the distant towns on the plains 3,000m below came into view.
Now we could see! We were awake and alive. We prepared some instant soup, which took ages to boil on our camping gas (yes, we really had a huge pack of provisions) and were warmed by the new morning. We decided to make the last slog to the top. We stashed our back packs and headed onwards and upwards. About 10 minutes later we could hear people; perhaps we had we started hallucinating, through lack of oxygen. The murmur rose and the path suddenly became flat and as we nosed around the corner, we realised we had given up about 400 metres from the summit, and that promised gin and tonic! Oh what an excellent decision we had made, to see the sun’s first rays to ourselves, against the nature of the mountain rather than sharing it with a hundred old grannies who had seemingly effortlessly hiked up from the normal and open path and a backdrop of meteorological out-buildings.
The sun was shining, we were wearing shorts and tees and crashed out on some benches in the shade of a souvenir shop. Alas, the beer vending machine was never to be.
And then we had to return back down the mountain… choosing not necessarily by design, like others, the descent in the scree (“lava gravel”) option….you can come down really fast.. stopping every other minute to take the gravel out of your boots. And then relax in a beautiful rutenburo at the bottom to soothe the aches away.
And here is a post from Turner (ターナー), who seems to have been just a little more prepared than us.
Photos from Mount Fuji. Have a look at the gallery page for more photos of Japan,