Chigasaki, Fireworks, and Existential Beach Pondering

Last weekend I took a quick trip down to Chigasaki, a beach town about an hour from Tokyo. It was an odd weekend. I haven’t really done the sleepover thing since middle school, and we stayed at my friend’s friend’s house, an old and eclectic two-story, Japanese-style house only a few minutes from the beach. Other than the friend I went with, everyone I met and hung around with was a stranger, and they were a fun and funnily curious bunch. Combine that with the beach-and-fireworks outings, the pretty serious medical news I heard from a family member just hours before I caught the train to the festivities, and my friend’s own recent life upheavals, and I was in sort of an existential pondering mood.

Calamitous life events feel weird. They feel like too much. They feel like, is this a thing that happens to real people? To people who aren’t in a Lifetime Original Movie? But of course they do. It’s just so much less dramatic and so much more random.

Life makes for bad stories because it isn’t built like one.

Mount Fuji: The Sequel to the Sequel

When my dad and I hiked Mount Fuji this summer, the crowd was pretty sparse. For hours and hours it was only us and a handful of other hikers. Our numbers bred a certain amount of camaraderie I guess, or the people we were hiking with that day were just particularly social. Two hikers came up to us about halfway up the mountain and introduced themselves. They were from China, and one of them had apparently been snapping photos–of the mountain, you know, but coincidentally of us as well as we hiked ahead of them, and asked for our email so he could send the photos later. This did get a bit of an eyebrow raise from me, but as I didn’t see how this could be a scam unless I replied to any following requests from deposed princes for money transfers, I gave him my spam email and forgot about it.

And then lo, pictures! Without a single virus attached.

And finally, my favorite, wherein I emerge from Hell:

And yes, that is my personal “Deal With It” pose.

Deal with it

Mount Fuji: The Sequel

Fuji Summit

The timeline goes a little something like this.

Summer 2012:

Me: Wow, I just hiked Mount Fuji. That was super hard and I haven’t been able to walk right for a week and I’m never doing that again.

My Dad: Hiking Mount Fuji sounds really great!

Me: Wait, which part sounds great?

My Dad: I want to go when I visit you next summer.

Me: Nooooooo.

My Dad: Please?

Me: Okay fine.

Summer 2013:

Me: I appear to be at the top of Mount Fuji. Again.

So that’s how that happened. To be honest, the combo of a daytime hike and unseasonably warm weather made Mount Fuji: The Sequel a lot easier than my first hike. I also knew better from last year, and brought 1) more food, especially carbohydrates, 2) an extra 2 liters of water, going from 4 to 6, and 3) HIKING POLES I cannot even express how much easier this made the otherwise totally miserable, slippery, ankle-twisty descent.

So for those of you who want to hike Mount Fuji, here’s the deal.

First, it’s too late to hike this year. The climbing season, ie when Fuji is accessible via minimal hoop-jumping and emergency services are actually available should something befall you on the mountain, is really just July and August.

Second, if you are someone who engages in regular physical activity, you will be fine. More than anything the Fuji hike is long, and a bit of a strain on the lungs at higher altitudes, but no significant stretch of it is incredibly demanding.

Third, if you’re my size (~100lbs ~5feet), pack about 4-6 liters of water, with maybe 1-2 liters of that being electrolyte-replenishing drink, and 2,000 calories, with probably 2/3 quick burning carbs and 1/3 fat and protein (trail mixes heavy on dried fruit and chocolate; rice balls; and chocolate covered almonds were my go to).

Next, if you hike during the day, wear a t-shirt, long pants with some insulation and wind resistance (I wore quick-dry exterior and fleece interior pants from Uniqlo), a big floppy hat, and hiking boots, with a long-sleeve t-shirt and a fleece or down jacket and a windbreaker, and all the sunscreen. I’m not kidding. All. The. Sunscreen. Also, pack a million times that in sunscreen. I reapplied twice on the way up and once on the way down and still got burned to hell at the summit, because oh yeah, you’re closer to the sun up there.

If you hike at night that’s about what you need to bring, too, you’ll just find yourself wanting to put on the layers at the base of the mountain instead of once you’re near the summit.

Bring a hiking pole, or some kind of pole, something so you are not making your descent with just your two frail mortal legs. The way down is dusty and slippery and the worst, and I made it in 2 fewer hours (from 5 to 3) , 1 fewer ankle twists (from 1 to 0), and 2 fewer falls on my butt (from 3 to 1) this year, with a hiking pole borrowed from my dad, than I did last year, with no hiking poles.

Finally, though no official site recommends it and I can only personally speak for myself and my very spry 67-year-old dad, it is possible for a human being to hike Fuji in a day. My dad and I started hiking around 8am (the earliest the bus could get us there) and descended in time to catch the 8pm bus (we missed the 6pm bus by about half an hour, and the last bus was at 9pm). We took a little less than 10 hours to do the whole hike, 7 up and 3 down, but no offense dad I could have done the hike up in 5 (okay, he has asthma, the altitude is pretty killer, I’m a bad daughter I know). So 8 hours if you’re a young whippersnapper like me who is pretty good on the cardio, 10 if you’re a 67-year-old who regularly goes backpacking, mileage may vary for all others.

After that, and I suppose “don’t do anything absurd and dangerous,” there’s really not much to it. Fuji-san was declared a World Heritage Site this year, so I have no doubt the already fairly accessible and well-mapped mountain will become more so in the future. Do it at least once, it’s worth it.

But maybe not twice. A wise woman climbs Fuji once, a fool twice.

I guess I need to go a third time to become whatever the next option is…


Fuji summit at sunrise

Two weeks ago my friend Makiko and I climbed Mount Fuji. One week ago I finally stopped feeling like my legs were about to fall off. Today, I have overcome my eternal foe, laziness, to write about the adventure.

If you’re looking for practical tips on hiking Fujisan, I’ll be making a post in about a week.

We went to Fujisan through a tour company. This, however, was an “expert hiker” tour, so our package, for 4950 yen each, included: roundtrip bus ride, emergency contact info should something horrible befall us on the mountain, and access to an onsen for an hour and a half after we descended.

4950 yen is cheaper than the price roundtrip bus tickets I found online, so we figured, why not get more for less? And as it turned out, the requirement that one be an “expert” climber to sign up was only because the tour included no guide. We were dropped off and left to our own devices, and expected to return by a certain time.

I’m not sure what “expert” climbing abilities would include in the case of Fujisan, anyway. Certainly the ability to not pass out delirious, and to be able to complete the hike in 14 hours (we were dropped off at 10pm and the bus left at 12pm the next day). Other than that I suppose it was just the ability to hike without anyone holding your hand. It was a very quiet and personal trip for both of us, so I’m glad we didn’t have a guide waving a little flag in front of us the whole time.

So, after leaving from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, we arrived at one of the Fujisan 5th Stations. There are four in all, and these are a few thousand feet up the mountain already. (Coming back down, the difference between “5th Station” and “the actual base of the mountain” made a big difference – and I was sooo glad when I realized, in my delirium, yes, we were going to the 5th Station, NOT hiking for three more hours…) Fujisan is high elevation in the dead of night, so cold, right? But when I stepped off the bus, all geared up, I said to Makiko, “Hey, it’s not SO bad.”

Then ten minutes went by while we ate our onigiri.

Then I said, “Okay, it’s cold.”

It was about 40F at most at the 5th Station. It got colder. But I also got more tired and out of it the higher we got, so it all worked out.

There were lights for the first twenty minutes of the trail, which was also an access road for the trucks that supply the rest stops along the mountain. Then it got pitch. Black. I had the stronger headlamp between us, but outside the that beacon of light, I couldn’t see worth a damn.

That second one is a red torii gate, about in the center of the crossbeam. My camera is a little bit to blame for this, because I could make out the vague outline of the rest. It. was. dark.

But so high up, in such utter blackness, I’d never seen starts like that. I wish that was something I could have captured, because the image is long gone from my mind, and all I have is the feeling of seeing them.

The hike up the Yoshida trail, one of the four trails to the Fuji summit, took us about six hours. We arrived right around 4am to see the sun creeping up the horizon. Traffic backed up on the trail for the last ten minutes of the climb, so rather than hike through the sunrise, Makiko and I sat on the side of the trail and watched this.

In all our just-hiked-six-hours-through-the-night-and-slightly-out-of-it glory, we were sure to get a photo.

I didn’t even notice that Makiko blinked until the next day.

The summit, like the rest stops on the way to the top of Fujisan, is extremely developed. I marveled at the size of the buildings, the fanciness – I use this word in a very relative sense – of the restaurant and public amenities, and the care with which the place was kept despite the huge amount of foot traffic that went through every day. Imagine having to hike up carrying building supplies! Food! Having to carry down trash!

And then I saw the service road winding its way all the way down the mountain. This was, actually, how we hiked down.

Well, that was a lot more practical.

We bought charms at the temple at the top of the mountain. There was no choice: we came all this way, there was no where else in the world we could buy these charms, of course we had to get some. I bought a little yellow one for 1500 yen for making dreams come true. It seemed appropriate, at the top of the tallest mountain in a country I’d spent five years trying to get back to.

Afterwards we ate the best bowls of ramen I ever have eaten and ever will eat in my life. The “restaurant” was a glorified shack, wooden walls with a tall roof and three long benches down the length of it, two on each wall and one down the center. There were no tables, you sat facing out the packed dirt walkway between the benches. The menu hung from the ceiling in pieces of paper. Pork miso, regular miso, a few kinds of ramen, udon, soda, and curry rice; also cocoa, tea, and coffee. There was also no counter to order. One of the proprieters would yell out: who wants Cup Noodles? and people would raise their hands. Then she would shout: who has another order? and we’d raise our hands. Then she’d point and say: what do you want? We said: two shoyu (soy sauce) ramens! And when the ramen was ready, someone else would come out with a tray and shout: who got the Cup Noodles? and people would raise their hands. Who got the shoyu ramen? and we would raise our hands. It was efficient. It was all in Japanese. We saw a few confused foreigners, but they wouldn’t be the first or the last, and they seemed to muddle through.

After our much-deserved meal, we began our climb down. This wasn’t down the trail we came up, which was steep, narrow, and at times required climbing single file and using both hands. Instead it was down the previously mentioned service road, which wove from base to summit in an ever-lengthening zigzag. Despite being well traveled, the dirt was thick, loose, and dry. I slipped a lot, fell twice, and was covered in volcanic ash when we finally made it down five hours later.

So please, excuse the accidental blackface. After about twelve hours on the mountain in all, Makiko and I took one last photo where we began.


Preparing for Fuji

As friends and family know, I’m preparing to hike Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, tomorrow. My friend Makiko and I will take a bus from Shinjuku Station around 7pm, arrive at the mountain around 9pm, and start our hike up in the dead of night to catch the sunrise at the summit.

We’re hiking the Yoshida trail, which starts at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station, and is one of the two trails most easily accessible from Tokyo (the other is the Fujinomiya trail). The nice thing about the Yoshida trail is that it’s on the “right” side of the mountain, so even if you aren’t at the summit when the sun comes up you can still see the sunrise. The Fujinomiya trail, though shorter, is on the opposite side of the mountain, so you can’t see the sunrise until you’re at the summit.

It’s about 40F at Fuji right now, according to the internet. Really not that chilly for outdoor physical activity. 35F is usually my floor for outdoor running (if it gets any colder, my nose runs AND my snot hardens up, so…).

The hike time to the summit on the Yoshida trail is 5-7 hours, and the hike down is 3-5 hours. I’m in pretty good shape so I’m hoping to be at the lower end of those numbers, but I’m knocking on wood every time I say that, trust me. The one thing I don’t do is a lot of high altitude exercise, so we’ll see how my lungs do.

For those who’re interested in hiking Fuji, there are a lot of first hand accounts of the trip out there, which, honestly, are what I find the most helpful. Read the general guides and advice, but when it comes down to it someone’s account of what they personally encountered, what was useful/not useful, and what the experience was like are more helpful to planning ahead for your own trip.

That in mind, here is what I’m packing and wearing, pre-Fuji:

Change of clothes to leave in coin locker at the base of the mountain (underwear, shirt, sweatpants, slip on shoes, socks, lotion)
Hiking shoes
Socks (2 pair – 1 thick 1 thin)
Tights (Heat Tech)
Long sleeve shirts (1 cotton and 1 heat tech)
Jacket (zip-up running jacket)
Hat (ear cover + knit cap)

Water (3-4 liters is plenty)
Sports drinks (1 liter)
Dried fruit and nuts
Energy/food bars
Chocolate (my dad recommends chocolate pieces, shredded coconut, and a little salt)
Onigiri (rice balls)

Camera (very important!)
iPod with podcasts and audiobooks (I get bored easily)
Moleskine and pencil (especially if you’re a writer, a journal keeper, etc)

Money (some bills and some 100 yen coins – for the lockers, and I’ve heard the toilets are pay toilets, 100-200 yen)
Toilet paper (I’ve also heard it’s Bring Your Own TP – better safe than sorry)
Painkillers (Ibuprofen, for headaches related to altitude change, soreness because you’re hiking a crazy tall mountain, etc)
Hand towel (you can keep it tied around your neck, use it to wipe away sweat, and put it over your mouth on the way down when it gets dusty)

This of course is not a comprehensive list. It’s just MY list, which will be tested in a few days. I’ll report back and tell you how it went!