Hiking Mt. Fuji – Bullet climbing from the base

Important facts:
Hiker bio: 27 year old, active, male with good hiking shoes
Date hiked: 7/28/15 – 7/29/15
Route: Yoshida trail
Weather: Overcast, humid like you wouldn’t believe and occasional rain showers and drizzle
Home base: Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture
Temperature at summit: About 40 degrees Fahrenheit per the forecast
Gear: Pants, long sleeve shirt, ultralight down jacket, thin rain-proof jacket, cereal, cup-o-noodles, water, freaking Pocari Sweat, camera, headlamp, gloves, scarf (unused)

The story:
From what I had read on the internet “the thing to do” when hiking Mt. Fuji was grab a bus to the fifth station in the afternoon, hike to the eighth station, sleep a few hours, and rise to make the summit in time for sunrise. But a night’s stay at the seventh station and above would have set me back $70. Screw that. I did things a little differently.

You can attack the 12,388 ft mountain starting from a lot of different places, including Tokyo, but I bussed it to Fujiyoshida to set up shop (also home to Fuji-Q Highland amusement park which hosts a number of record-setting roller coasters). I was hoping to outsmart the weather forecast; maybe spending a few days there and striking when there was a break in the rain and clouds. During the ride from Tokyo I chatted with the only other Westerner on the bus who planned to hike the mountain from the base that night and grab the bus out the following morning. Hiking from the base… now that wasn’t on any itinerary I had read. More on that later.

I got a fitful night’s sleep (probably because I essentially paid someone to sleep on their floor) and the following day I checked the weather, putzed around on the computer, and did a little more research into other people’s Fuji experience. “Maybe I’ll sleep at the 5th station to save some money and hike a little more during the night than most. Maybe I’ll start at sunrise and hike through the day to see sunset and avoid the crowds.” In either case I decided, given the weather forecast, the following day might be the best time to attack. I nonchalantly asked the owner of my guesthouse if I could stay an extra night and he sheepishly denied me. Fully booked. In a town that, as far as I could tell, was also fully booked. [Traveling without a schedule and “going wherever the wind takes you” is a fantastic and romantic way to travel that opens up infinite possibilities. It also leaves you homeless in the rain.]

I guess it was kind of a blessing because frankly I was tired of weighing my options for the best way to climb. This settled it: I’d wait around the guesthouse until late afternoon, leave my large bag with them to be picked up the following day and begin bullet climbing through the night. [Bullet climbing is a term “they” use to describe people who make the entire ascent and descent of Mt. Fuji in one go. It also aids the story when picking up girls in bars.]

Sengen Shrine

Nifty way to start the hike: the Sengen Shrine at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Side note: I have an unofficial travel rule that if a location is no more than a 30-40 minute walk away, I walk it. It saves me a little coin and often times leads to a lot of sights and photo opportunities I’d otherwise miss. It’s also good for the glutes. It was 45 from my guesthouse to the Sengen Shrine, a traditional starting point for the trek. Was it wise to add 45 minutes to what was supposed to be about a 12 hour hike? No. But given that I had only slept a few hours the night prior and didn’t have three square meals that day, the whole thing was already asinine to begin with. What more harm could it do?

I can't read Japanese but I'm assuming this sign does NOT say "No bears here".

I can’t read Japanese but I’m assuming this sign does NOT say “No bears here”.

I left the Sengen Shrine around 17:40 with an overcast sky and an infrequent light drizzle. What I knew to expect was about a four hour hike to the 5th station, five hours to summit, and three to four hours to descend. It’s important to note that because most people don’t start at the base I was alone. Like… completely alone. And because it isn’t as popular the signage is exclusively in Japanese if there’s any at all. Given that fact that I was able to navigate it implies no one should get lost but it’s still a little unnerving; especially when you see a sign with a picture of a bear on it. The lack of other hikers and any real mile-markers or checkpoints meant I had no context for my progress except for the knowledge that I should arrive at the fifth station around 21:40. Every time I thought I had been hiking for an hour I looked at the clock to discover it was only 15 – 30 minutes. It was seriously mentally grueling.

And then it got dark.

Because of the humidity I was completely drenched in sweat and any time I removed my glasses they returned fogged up. I was ripe for horror movie fodder. My head lamp illuminated enough of the trail to get me where I needed to go… until the rain came. The extra water made no difference to me since I was already dripping from places I’ll have to ask my doctor about later. But the rain and the humidity mixed to create this wonderfully creepy fog. Multiply that by the steam the poured from my body like an NFL lineman’s head at a Green Bay game in January and my visibility was six feet in front of me at best. It was monotonous and strenuous and–again–really mentally taxing. I did a lot of talking to myself, cursing, and singing Bruce Springsteen songs in my head. I don’t even like Springsteen and barely understand him so I’m not entirely sure how I was able to recreate any of his lyrics to begin with.

Yoshida trail

The beginning of the Yoshida trail before it got dark and spooky.

Because I’m so smart I made sure to purchase an extra liter of water before the hike so I could hydrate my precious body. Did it occur to me that “Pocari Sweat” was a weird name for water and that water usually doesn’t look quite so milky? Yeah, maybe for a second, but it was just the perfect size for my bag and so cheap! Pocari Sweat is not water. It’s water-flavored Jolly Rancher juice. Sure, I was replenishing electrolytes my body probably never had in the first place but each sip just made me thirstier which made me drink more which left me with less to hydrate with. And when the rain stopped I couldn’t even contemplate the useless idea of trying to catch water drops in my bottle.

Somehow I survived the woods and arrived at the 5th Station ahead of schedule; popped my head into the first “hut” I came across. [It should be noted that this was not “THE” Fuji Subaru 5th Station, which is actually a bit of a diversion from the trail.] The proprietor cut me a deal and let me lie in bed for an hour for 1,000¥ (originally 1,200¥ for the first hour and then something like 5,000¥ for anything longer than that). If I slept at all it was only for a few minutes but it was nice to lie down with a blanket and a pillow and slowly dry out (again I was drenched with rain and sweat–Pocari’s and mine). I got some hot water for my cup-o-noodles and the woman even gave me some warmed up sweet rice pouches for free. She was a complete sweetheart so please give her your business if you ever plan to hike the trail (again, it’s the first hut on the Yoshida trail from the Sengen Shrine). I was also able to fill up my water bottle with the liquid it was meant to carry.

Humans! People rest at the seventh station.

Humans! People rest at the seventh station.

Line of traffic along Mt. Fuji Yoshida trail

An utterly horrendous picture of the Yoshida trail line of traffic.

The remaining hike proved exponentially easier, at least mentally. The terrain became steeper and more technical but there were stations all along the way with water and snacks and places to sit and the presence of other hikers and frequent checkpoints meant allowed for physical signs of progress.

The trail started to get a little crowded around the seventh station and slowly became more and more congested as the summit grew near until around Station 8.5 it was just a line of people. Looking backwards you could see the zigzag of LED fireflies bouncing their way up behind you. While it would have been physically possible to pass people (albeit difficult given the narrow trail) it wasn’t necessary since there was no rush.

I guess I could literally be anywhere. You'll just have to trust me it's the top.

I guess I could literally be anywhere. You’ll just have to trust me it’s the top.

I’m from Southern California and am a pansy when it comes to the cold (the price of living in the best part of America) so I found the top cold but bearable. Cloud cover rolled in and prevented any viewing of the sunrise at all. Because of the weather I still have yet to see Fuji except for internet photos. Oh well. If you had told me what I was getting into and once completing the task would not be rewarded with a spectacular view or a photo opportunity would I have still done it? Yeah. It was a challenge and a challenge is good.

But I just spent a dozen paragraphs illustrating I’m stupid so what the hell do I know.

17:42 – Left Sengen Shrine
21:00 – Arrive at Station 5
23:30 – Depart Station 5
04:05 – Summit
04:50 – Sunrise
05:35 – Begin descent
07:50 – Arrive Fuji Subaru 5th Station
08:00 – Bus departs for Fuji-san station (1,540¥)

Useful websites:
http://www.garyjwolff.com/climbing-mt-fuji.html (most comprehensive, up-to-date site I found)

It'd be unfair to say there was no view. The clouds broke for literally a few seconds to reveal a sweet reminder of how high we were.

It’d be unfair to say there was no view. The clouds broke for literally a few seconds to reveal a sweet reminder of how high we were.


Beer wall

Just a fraction of the Belgian beers and their respective glasses.

Belgium. Home of beer, waffles, beer, chocolate, beer, fries, and beer. Did I mention Flemish? Sorry, beer, I meant, did I mention beer? There’s a bar in Brussels that has over 3,000 beers. And most beers have their own glass with its own little imperfection that’s supposed to best bring out the flavor. Sometimes the difference between one glass and another is just the name on it, but that’s still a remarkable commitment to something I would just as soon drink straight from the bottle. There’s a “lambic” beer in Brussels that is made via “spontaneous fermentation” and the bacteria you can only find floating in the Brussels air. It tasted like vomit but, you know… when in Rome.

Manneken Pis

The illustrious Manneken Pis.

The mascot of Brussels is an utterly unimpressive, 24 inch tall statute of a little boy taking a piss: Manneken Pis. The whole lack of grandeur is kind of the point. There are a number of cute stories as to the statue’s significance: a child prince who rallied his troops by peeing on the enemy; the promise to build a monument showing whatever a noble’s son was doing when they found the lost boy… the truth is more likely that statues like this were used to show poor people where they could sell urine to leather tanners. What makes this one special is that it has stood for hundreds of years, through bombings and occupations and rebuilding as a cheeky sign of the people’s indomitable spirit.

View of Bruges from the Belfry

The view from the iconic Belfry in Bruges.

Bruges, every bit the fairy tale place it’s supposed to be, supposedly has a law that requires at least 58 swans to live inside the “city center” at all times. Not for tourist reasons, but because a former King cursed Bruges as retaliation for killing 58 of soldiers, including his favorite, Pieter Lanchals (“long neck”). Less than 58 swans and the canal water would rise and drown the city. I couldn’t find any evidence of such a law existing (other than this legend of Pieter Lanchals’ death) so be wary of the information you get from free walking tours. I guess they’re a bit like airport restaurants: they can feed you crap and never see you again.

As a side note: the drinking age in Belgium is an ancient 16 years old. Just food for thought if, out of sympathy for a girl whose bike was stolen, you buy her a 1€ beer and discover she’s 17 when she clearly looks at least 21. It happened… to a friend of mine. Just food for thought. Food for thought.

Another side note: French fries are not French. They are Belgian. They are Belgian fries. American soldiers (and British… they were ignorant too) in World War II were served the now-famous fried potato slices and, hearing French, assumed they were in France. Proper Belgian fries are fried once and then a second time once the customer orders. For those taking notes, North of Brussels is the region known as Flanders where Dutch and Flemish is mostly spoken. In Brussels and the region south of it–Wallonia–you are more likely to hear French and the occasional German. And nearly everyone speaks at least rudimentary English. There are a bunch of people walking around here speaking at least English, Dutch, and French like it’s no big deal and I can barely speak English.

A third, more personal side note: As a stunning example of my boundless intelligence, I find that whenever I’m confronted with a French-speaker who doesn’t understand English my instinct is to speak slowly and with a French accent. I’m still speaking English… just… with a French accent. Because that’s how you cross the language barrier. With stupidity. I have thankfully stopped myself before the idea reaches my lips but it’s still my instinct every, single, time. Then I angrily storm off asking myself what the hell is wrong with me. That’s me: showing the world how great American travelers are one person at a time.

Antwerp train station

Bonus: 30 minutes in Antwerp. Voted most beautiful train station in the world (and apparently built with the blood of the Congolese people! Yay!)

Seven days in Reykjavík

Icelandair offers a “free stopover” of up to seven days in Iceland. Instead of paying cumulatively more for a flight from New York to Reykjavík and another from Reykjavík to Glasgow, I paid for one flight with the longest, best layover of my life (sorry Chicago).

Downtown Reykjavík

Downtown Reykjavík

The downside: I’m doing it in the dead of winter. Iceland. Land of ice. In winter. The upside? Most people are more intelligent than I am and travel during the summer (when the population of the island practically doubles), sparing me the headache of a horde of touristy goons. Another upside? Iceland is freaking beautiful in the winter. With only 4.5 hours of daylight in January it’s one of the best times to see a little thing called THE NORTHERN LIGHTS.

Iceland has seen an uptick in tourism thanks to two weird events: the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (say it with me now, A-yah-fyah-tla-yo-cutl) which put the little country on TV screens across the world, and the 2008 financial crash, which sunk the value of the Icelandic króna and made traveling more affordable.

“Affordable” is just relative, though. I asked the hostel receptionist where a cheap place to eat is and he literally laughed at me. Even though the US dollar is about 130 króna, the cheapest beer you’ll find is 1000kr (almost $8)… and that’s for Viking… the Bud Light of Scandinavia. Despite trying to keep costs down by cooking for myself in the hostel kitchen I did try mink whale, which was tender and salty and I happily devoured the remaining steak my friend chose not to finish. I didn’t get a chance to try any puffin meat, meaning the cutest animal I’ve eaten too date is still rabbit. Next time…

Getting a little ice climbing in on Sólheimajökull

Getting a little ice climbing in on Sólheimajökull

Iceland’s culture is pretty interesting, notably because they have had little immigration since the 9th century when Norwegian Vikings came ashore. It means the language of the roughly 325,000 residents remains remarkably similar to those who first spoke the tongue. Imagine us speaking in Old English. It also means there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the most scarcely populated country in Europe. Single Icelanders have a phone app that taps into the country’s genetics archive and warns the user if he or she is grinding a little too close to a relative on the dance floor (which, by the way, stays open until at least 4:30; people are literally starting their nights when–in LA–I’m used to finishing mine). It looks a little desperate to whip out the app at the bar, so many will follow through with the trist and do their research the following morning (or, you know, technically… later that day) to decide if a second encounter is a wise decision. #whitepeopleproblems

The weather can change from beautiful and sunny to a blizzard in the blink of an eye, and vice versa. Their saying goes: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.” Thanks to a decent forecast I completed two bucket list items: spotted the Northern Lights and hiked the Sólheimajökull glacier. The Northern Lights are self explanatory so let me just say the glacier was unreal.

Hiking down Sólheimajökull as the sun sets around 3:30pm.

Hiking down Sólheimajökull as the sun sets around 3:30pm.

Our guide, Thor (yeah… Thor), led with his moulin-finding stick. Moulins are holes in the ice from which you do not return and naturally, they’re all covered by beautiful fluffy snow. Our instructions were to snake directly behind him, single file, no exceptions. Everyone once in a while I’d hear the low, bassy, snap of ice cracking beneath my feet. Oh, by the way, Thor says, “the volcano near hear is about 16 years overdue for an eruption… we could get as little as two hours warning before it blows”. Awesome. Out of about 130 days of travel, that was just day six.