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MASTERING MT. FUJI

So you really want to scale that slag heap? That summed up the reaction of a British friend and longtime Japan hand upon hearing that I planned to climb Mt. Fuji. He had a point. Japan's highest peak, with its perfectly symmetrical cone, is undeniably spellbinding from afar. Up close, though, this 12,385-foot dormant volcano is basically a collection of lava rocks and cinder-covered slopes. During the peak summer season, climbers must contend with the garbage on the slopes and such tourist kitsch as cone-shaped Fuji palm cakes with white frosting on top.

Yet what the Japanese affectionately call Fuji-san continues to draw 150,000 to 200,000 climbers annually from all walks of life. True, this isn't Mt. Everest. There are no death-defying thrills or sprawling base camps. Still, muscling and grunting your way up to the summit is something of a personal challenge for amateur climbers. The views at the summit, whether of the nearby rugged mountain ranges of central Japan or the Pacific coastline, can be devastatingly beautiful even when clouds at lower altitudes obscure the mountaintop from below.

For foreign travelers not sure what to make of the normally decorous Japanese, Mt. Fuji is a pleasant surprise in another way. People seem to loosen up. Don't be surprised if a stranger offers warm sake or advice about what to expect at various rest stops along the way up. You may also see Japanese climbers singing, screaming, or sobbing that they managed to scale their holiest peak.

Mt. Fuji has always held a strong, sometimes bizarre, influence over the Japanese psyche. Prior to the Meiji era (1868-1912), most considered the volcano the dwelling of Japan's animist Shinto gods. Even in a more secular Japan, numerous Buddhist sects, including the powerful Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), have set up headquarters nearby. The notorious Aum Shinrikio (Supreme Truth) cult prepared nerve gas at its Fuji-area base to launch a deadly 1995 attack at a subway station in Tokyo.

AVOID THE CROWD. Given all this, my wife, Yuki, and I wanted to check out Mt. Fuji's mysterious pull ourselves. The climbing season runs from mid-June to mid-September, before bad weather and snow keep pilgrims away. But to avoid the usual throng, we decided to make a night climb, with the hope of catching the mount's peak sunrise view at about 5 a.m. We took a bus ($40 round trip) from Shinjuku in central Tokyo at 7:30 p.m. The 2 1/2-hour journey took us halfway up the volcano's north slope to Gogome, or station five. You can also arrange package tours to the mountain through your hotel or the English-speaking international office of the Japan Travel Bureau (Tel.: 813-5620-9500).

Although die-hard enthusiasts start at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, most begin the five- to six-hour climb to the top from Gogome or a similar spot on the south side. But an added attraction of the northern slope is Fuji-Goko, a cluster of quaint lakeside villages offering vistas, water sports, traditional Japanese restaurants, and shopping. Many folks head there to unwind after the climb, staying at hot spring resorts in nearby Hakone and Izu.

When we set off for Mt. Fuji, the weather forecast suggested a clear night. But it's always wise to bring protective rain gear (since the weather can turn on a dime), at least two flashlights with extra batteries, and layers of clothing to let you adjust to the changing climes at higher altitudes. Sturdy hiking boots are a must, and you should be in reasonably good physical shape. Tote water and high-carbohydrate energy food. Rest stations along the way and at the summit sell snacks and drinks. But they're expensive. You can pick up English-language trail maps at Gogome, where you can also buy another essential--a $10 wooden staff to help you keep your balance in rocky stretches. At rest stops, you can have characters branded on the pole to mark your progress.

DIZZY. We pretty much breezed up gentle dirt slopes to the 7,000-foot-high station seven, a mile and a half up from station five. Then the heavy trudging began in earnest as the terrain turned steep and rocky. Our pace slowed considerably and Yuki started feeling dizzy from altitude sickness. A climber suggested picking up an oxygen canister at the next rest stop for $10. Taking an occasional whiff did the trick. We then spent 3 1/2 hours struggling to station eight.

From there to the summit, things turned a little hairy, at least for novices like us. The temperature plummeted and some high winds kicked in. Just about everybody looked like the walking wounded, and lots of encouraging shouts of ''gambatte,'' or ''hang in there,'' were thrown our way. Yet, there was a payoff. As we leaned on some big rocks to catch our breath, we saw a shimmering sea of stars that would have been impossible to make out in smog-filled Tokyo. And down below, moonbeams reflected eerily off lakes.

This didn't make us any less exhausted, but it dispelled thoughts about turning back. The pastel-colored outlines of a sunrise were appearing on the horizon an hour later, just as we passed by the historic lion-dog stone sculptures that guard the sacred grounds of the summit. Although most were bleary-eyed and the temperature was freezing, that didn't stop folks from celebrating. When the sun finally showed itself, the Japanese national anthem piped over a loudspeaker, and one matronly climber held up her staff triumphantly.

Walking around the summit's crater takes about an hour. On a clear day, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Honshu, Japan's primary island. But don't expect to see lava or smoke: Fuji last blew its top back in the early 1700s and has been inactive ever since.

Of course, the trip back is less taxing, but it's hardly a joyride. The main route down is a steep, zig-zagging journey over loose gravel and rocks big enough to trip up the most nimble-footed. Those too eager to race back down often bang themselves up as the terrain slips under their feet. Yuki decided to make the final phase of our descent on horseback for about $40, a service provided by a corral operator to help get climbers between stations five and seven.

We finally made it back to Gogome at about 10 a.m. and slept on the bus most of the return trip to Tokyo. So, was it worth all the trouble? There's a Japanese saying that anybody would be a fool not to climb Mt. Fuji once--but a fool to do so twice.

Yet, based on all the repeat offenders we met during our trip, I'm not sure that's the case. You can call me a buffoon, but I'm going back someday.

By Brian Bremner
EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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