For the past two weeks my old friend Giuliano and I have been blazing trails across Korea and Japan. I’ll undoubtedly spill a lot of ink about our various adventures and misadventures before it’s all said and done, but there’s one story in particular that a lot of people are waiting for: the Mount Fuji story. It’s a story with a lot of parts, so I’ve broken it down into a series of bite-sized pieces for easy digestion. Hope you enjoy it, dear readers. More from me soon.
The Mount Fuji Story
* On the morning of Thursday, August 1st, Giuliano and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel to Mount Fuji a full day ahead of schedule.
* After talking to our hotel concierge and travel reps, we headed off to Shinjuku Station. Got tickets for the 1:30 pm bus.
* The bus ride lasted somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours. I slept most of the way but woke up just in time to see the trees and foothills along the road to the 5th Station.
* The 5th Station is the starting point for (almost) everyone who climbs the mountain.
* We spent our first hour or so taking pictures and buying supplies from this guy.
* At 5:50 pm Giuliano casually suggested that we go ahead and get started up the mountain. Like we were just moving furniture into an apartment or something.
* As we walked along the trail I began to see mountain climbing as a real-life video game (no small coincidence that Nintendo comes from Japan). Each section has its own challenges. First you climb up a steep path. Then you climb over rocks. Then you have to hold a chain and walk along a narrow ledge. Then you work your way down a path covered in small rocks that roll out from under your feet when you step on them…
* Most Mount Fuji literature suggests that the whole thing takes about 8 hours (“5 going up, 3 coming down”). The sign at the 5th Station says the summit is 6 km away. But four and a half hours later (10:20 pm) we were standing outside a hut at the 7th station, still 3.1 km from the summit.
* Giuliano, totally reeling from the thrill of it all, was determined that we should hike through the night and watch the sunrise from the summit. But looking up the mountain, I couldn’t see any more huts (rest areas) and I was afraid my night-blindness would make the trip too risky. Plus, my stomach was starting to give me a little trouble.
* After several minutes of deliberation we decided to part ways. Giuliano would climb through the night. I would stay in the hut, wake up early, climb to the top, and meet him sometime in the morning.
* At 1:15 am the Japanese hiking group I shared my sleeping space with got up to climb the rest of the mountain. I thought about tagging along with them, but I felt like I was running a fever (maybe altitude sickness) so I stuck around for a few more hours of sleep.
* Three hours later – 4:15 am – the staff of the 7th station hut woke everyone up to see the sunrise. Wow. The indescribable moments of your life.
* After the sunrise I started climbing again, stopping frequently to take pictures and enjoy the view. Finally reached the summit sometime shortly after 10 am — later than I had hoped, but surely not too late to meet up with Giuliano.
* Two or three hours passed. I had an early lunch –
made several trips through the rest area –
and even explored the area around the volcanic crater –
* Couldn’t find Giuliano anywhere.
*Shortly after 1:00 pm I remembered that we were scheduled to leave Mount Fuji on a 4:00 bus. Maybe he’ll be waiting for me at the bus stop. Hated to come down, but I finally relented and started down the descending path.
* Mount Fuji is kind of like a water slide: the trail going up is long, steep, treacherous, and (at times) a little boring. But the trail going down is a fun, fast, zig-zaggy network of roads that have been bulldozed into the mountain. I actually saw a lot of people running down.
* When I made it down to the middle of the 7th station I realized I wouldn’t be on time for the 4:00 bus. Borrowed a phone from some other Americans and tried to give Giuliano a call. No dice.
* One of the Americans I borrowed the phone from then politely informed me that there was a $200 fine if I went down the wrong path. “You have to go down the same way you came up,” he said.
* Obviously this made no sense to me and I asked all the right questions: How do they know which path I took? How could they possibly keep track of everyone? Why didn’t they tell us this at the beginning? And why does it even matter? But, not wanting to risk any money in an expensive place like Japan, I went ahead, cut across, and starting heading back down the path I’d climbed on my way up.
* For three and a half hours I climbed down the mountain, swimming against an unrelenting tide of confused-looking Japanese climbers who clearly wanted to know just what the hell I was doing. Slowly it began to dawn on me that no one else was climbing down on this side.
* When I reached the next hut, completely exhausted and frustrated, I asked one of the Japanese climbers where I was supposed to climb down. “The way you came up,” he said. And I would have believed him if I hadn’t seen two other people in his group start giggling. I’ve played enough practical jokes to know what that means. This whole “go back the way you came” story was clearly a well-rehearsed joke to play on foreigners.
* It was now 6:00 pm. Stepping into the hut, I told a member of the Mount Fuji staff that I had an emergency. Before I could say anything else, he said, “Are you Jason?”
“Ahh…you need to hurry down to the 5th Station. Many people are looking for you.”
Evidently, Giuliano had made it down the mountain and told someone that he couldn’t find me.
“Okay,” I said, “but I think I’ve been going the wrong way. Where am I supposed to climb down?”
“The same way you were going,” he told me.
Please note: this was the third time someone had told me this. So now, convinced that these people were just messing with me, and remembering how long it had taken me to get this far, and looking outside the window and noticing the rain that had just started, I looked this guy in the face and spoke some English that everyone understands. “You want me to climb back over those rocks in the rain? F*CK. THAT. I’m not going. Why do the people on the other side get to walk down the easy road, but I have to climb all the way down?”
I had made my point. “One second, please,” he said.
*A phone call was made to the 5th station. Giuliano and the mountain authorities were notified that I had been found in good health.
*Because of the rain, it was decided that I would once again stay overnight on the mountain. Giuliano would take the bus back to Tokyo, and I would wake up early the next morning, climb down, get a bus ticket, and meet up with him in the afternoon. Done.
* Right on schedule, I woke up early (6 am) and was told that I’d be walking down the mountain with a hiking group. For some reason – and I have several suspicions about this – it was now okay for me to walk down the fun, zig-zaggy part of the mountain instead of climbing down the ascending path like I’d done for three and a half hours the previous day.
* Trying to make light of things, I thought to myself, well, J, at least you got to see two Mount Fuji sunrises. The group moved quickly and I began to feel a lot better about everything.
* And then it happened. About 90 minutes into my descent I was approached by two men: one in a blue uniform and the other carrying a video camera.
* “Are you Jason?” asked the man in the blue uniform.
“Oh, I am so happy to find you. Many people are worried about your safety.”
The guy with the video camera suddenly slung it on top of his shoulder and began filming me.
“Am I on TV?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Tokyo Television 6.”
“Oh my god, are you shitting me?”
“No. Many people were worried there was an American lost on the mountain.”
“But I wasn’t lost. Everyone knew where I was. We called the 5th Station last night.”
“Yes, but many people worry about you.”
* I laughed for two solid minutes. On camera.
* Fourteen hours before, I had been more angry and annoyed than I’ve been in years. Now I was a leading news story: one of those idiot lost hikers you always hear about. What great ridiculous fun.
* Even though I was clearly okay, the guy in the in the blue uniform (a police officer, it turns out) and the camera guy insisted on staying with me for the last 75 minutes of my walk. Every second of it was filmed.
* A few fun facts about being followed down Mount Fuji by a cop and a camera man: (1) it makes some people think you’re a celebrity. Just for laughs, I put my hand over the guy’s camera lens at one point and said, “Can’t I go anywhere without you paparazzi following me??”; (2) it makes you look like an international criminal. When I made eye contact with another white guy heading up the trail I said, “Man, you think the statute of limitations is up on this shit and then they bust you on Mount Fuji!”; (3) the Hawthorne Effect is real. You do behave differently when you know you’re being watched. The people in Tokyo probably think I have any number of weird facial tics.
* When we finally arrived at the 5th Station I was asked to give two interviews about “the rescue.” I wish I could have displayed more tact and hospitality, but I was so tired and the situation was so surreal that I couldn’t really focus. I just kept laughing and trying to stress the fact that I wasn’t lost, I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t in danger, I had money, I had food and water, and I really just couldn’t believe this shit. “I wasn’t ‘rescued,’ dude. I was followed down the mountain.”
* After my interviews I bought a bus ticket and left Mount Fuji at 10 am.
* When I met up with Giuliano a few hours later he told me that he’d been worried about me at first, but then he calmed down. “Because I knew you would get some kind of story out of this. I didn’t know what it would be, but I knew it would be something. You’re one of those people that things just happen to when you travel.”
* So true, so true.
* The End.