At 12,388 feet (3,776 m) Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, claims the prize of “tallest mountain in Japan”.
And I'm going to poop on it.
Most people are familiar with images of the symmetrical, snow-capped stratovolcano set behind some perfectly reflective lake (or superimposed behind a shot of the Tokyo skyline), but I need to discover it for myself (because remember, trust no one, except me).
The reality of Fuji proves to be a far cry from the dreamscape fed to us by the picturesque propaganda machine.
My education follows.
Myself and around thirty other “teachers of the English” will be attempting our Fuji summit together (alongside hundreds (thousands?) of others I would soon learn).
It's a six-hour bus ride from Fukui to Mount Fuji, but it's also a surprisingly expensive train ride, and so I have opted for inexpensive transportation (if my mind is blown, I can always return for a solo expedition (winter climb?)).
All the cool kids climb Fuji at night and then sit on the summit waiting in the freezing temperatures for the sunrise, and so not wanting to be left out, I have opted to do the same; by the time we reach Fuji's “Fifth Station”, the sun has already been down for a few hours.
What is Fuji's fifth station?
It is a place you can drive to, 2,300 meters (7,545 feet) up the mountain, that has shops and restaurants, and that has become the default starting point for many people climbing Fuji.
It's a place that has no business existing.
It saddens me that I will only be climbing five miles to the summit from said “station”, but to climb the entirety of Fuji would come at a great financial cost (for what I expect will be a disappointing undertaking).
Why the pessimism?
Good question. Fuji is Japan's highest peak, and the entire way up there are “stations” selling water, snacks, and even canisters of oxygen. The trail is guided by ropes, chains, and concrete embankments that have inexplicably been installed the entire way to the summit.
To consider climbing Fuji an exercise in experiencing the outdoors, or even getting out into nature would constitute a gross misunderstanding of either activity.
But gripes aside, Japan's tallest peak must be bagged (pooped on).
Standing in the parking lot, our only light emanating from our bus's headlights, a thick, dirt-infused mist falls over our party.
Previous hikers of Fuji have recounted to me horror stories of waiting in a queue of hikers for two or more hours as the trail bottlenecks towards the summit.
I am not going to allow myself to encounter a similar situation (bloodshed would undoubtedly ensue). Deciding not to waste any time and get moving.
Sure, sunrise wasn't until 4:30 (that's nine hours), and sure, it was only 5 miles of hiking (and 4,843 vertical feet / 1,476 m), but I am not going to risk standing in the dreaded summit hiker line.
After snapping a few photos I began my hike alongside a small group of fellow Fuji-trekkers.
To the top we go.
It isn't long before I find myself separated from my group.
It's not that I don't enjoy the company of my fellow hikers (I don't enjoy the company of anyone), but rather that maintaining a group, especially whilst traveling uphill, is not a fun thing to attempt.
Even less fun? Zigzagging through the endless tour groups who have collectively decided to occupy the entirety of the trail and remain oblivious to anyone behind or beside them (these are the same people responsible for traffic all over the world – it's called the fast lane for a reason).
Looks like this is going to be the longest five mile hike I've ever been on.
As I press up the barren mountainside, the hikers above me continue to stir up dust which mixes with the moisture in the air and creates an endless fog of freezing mist that I can swear was just dirt.
The dampness borders on rain and I keep my pack cover on just in case the weather decides to take a sudden turn (my relationship with weather is forever broken).
It may appear obvious when you look at it, but it wasn't something I thought about ahead of time: this mountain is barren. Everywhere you go there's the same dirt path with the same boring expression – no trees, no plants, no vegetation. Thirty minutes beyond the fifth station and you have only clouds to keep you company (at least clouds are nice – when you're not in them).
Eventually I decide it's time for a breather (however, I know that lingering for long will put me at risk of being passed by a large, slow moving mass). Staring up into the mist I can see the lights from the next station. And the one after that. And at least two more beyond. It's an awful sight.
The rest of my climb up is really just more of the same: neatly groomed switchbacks crammed with hikers sprinkled with the occasional narrowing of the trail to get over some rocky outcrops.
Once I make it past the eighth station I find myself relatively alone. I suspect that many hikers are taking their time below and attempting to time their summit with the sunrise (hence the giant queue of people who don't actually make the summit in time).
Caught up talking to an unexpectedly discovered Brazilian friend, two of my crew catch me and we make a push for the summit together.
Soon I am standing atop the highest point in Japan. And there are vending machines. The fuck is going on here?
We check the time. Only four hours until sunrise. Huzaa!
At least I beat the crowds.
We find only a dozen or so others scattered about the summit as we survey the area and decide to do with the rest of our night. The wind picks up as our bodies cool down and we realize that our time spent waiting for the Earth to turn around and face that fiery ball we're floating around (that will one day destroy us) will not pass easily.
Layering up we discover that none of us have enough clothing to keep properly warm – and so we huddle. Pressed together on the porch of what I will later discover is a restaurant, we close our eyes and attempt to catch some sleep as the nearby vending machines blast us with light.
As the icy fingers hypothermia reach into my jacket, I can't help but continue to wonder why in the hell there are vending machines up here.