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OK, so here’s a short summary of the five days that have elapsed since my last update:
1) Attended the Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka
2) Attended a goodbye party for YHM
3,4) Stayed awake for 40 hours during which I traveled to Tokyo and back, and climbed Mount Fuji
5) Slept. A lot.
I guess I should start from the beginning. After a bit of idle web-surfing, I uncovered the following information:
Held on 24-26 July, Tenjin Matsuri is one of the three main festivals held annually in Japan.(Incidentally, the other two main festivals are the Gion Matsuri and the Tokushima Dance Festival. I’ll be attending the latter in a couple of weeks). Originating from a purification ceremony, the highlight of this centuries-old religious and cultural event is a two-kilometer procession from Tenmangu Shrine to Tenjin Bridge, followed by a fluvial procession comprising some 100 ornately decorated boats from the Dojima River to the Okawa River. Performances of sacred music, court dances, folk theater and other forms of traditional Japanese arts entertain the lively crowds from a boat stage gaily festooned with lanterns.
The matsuri itself was similar to Gion; huge crowds, thousands of kimono, vendor stalls, an all-around fun spirit, plus the added bonus of fireworks over the river. From this festival, I learned a very important lesson: DO NOT CARRY MY TRIPOD OVER LONG DISTANCES. Originally I was planning on taking it with me during my upcoming whirlwind travel tour, but even after a day of walking the weight was noticeable, and I couldn’t even use it once because of the dense crowds. But don’t worry, I still took plenty of video!
Since I spent a fair amount of time talking about the similar Gion matsuri in a recent post, I just wanted to glance over that one…and move on to the week’s real adventure. Starting on Wednesday July 27th, myself, Dylan, Harrison, Keir, Lori, Jay, Stuart, and Suzuki got up and left I-House 2 at roughly 7:15am to catch the first of the ten train transfers and twelve hours that would bring us to the foot of Mount Fuji. To get there as cheaply as possible, the group traveled by Seishun Jyuuhachi Kippu – one day of “go anywhere on any JR train except for shinkansen for 2300 yen.” And while we could’ve reached one of Fuji’s other climbing trails in half the time, we opted to take the more famous northern trail instead. The problem is, to reach this northern trail we had to go all the way up to Tokyo to catch a train that could take us far enough west to arrive on the far side of the mountain. To TOKYO!
But we made it, and only 19 minutes behind schedule. Next it was a 1-hour bus ride up to the Kawaguchiko 5th station, the actual start of our ascent. And the instant we stepped out of the bus it was obvious how high we had already come – the air smelled entirely different, and the almost unbearable heat and humidity had been replaced by the instant desire for long pants and jackets. Straight ahead of us at eye level was a huge, bright orange half-moon, and above were more stars than I’ve seen since I arrived in this country. At 10:45pm we started our climb, the path illuminated only by moonlight.
It started incredibly easy, a well-marked walking trail sparsely populated by other hikers. We might as well have just been walking up a dirt back-road in Kyoto. But soon it started to get steep – really steep. Hands-and-feet-climbing steep. By the time we passed the 8th station there were no flat areas left at all and the air was noteicably thinner. It wasn’t long before the first member started falling victim to altitude sickness. Although Jay’s symptoms were far from severe we decided to slow down the pace and take more frequent rests.
We were well over 10,000 feet when the sky started to light up and for the first time we could clearly see our surroundings. The ordinary dirt had turned to bright red volcanic rock, and we were now well above the cloud layer that obscured the city below. The sight reminded me of looking out of an airplane window, but the fact that we were standing on solid ground and had a perfect 360 degree view made it all the more stunning. The weather forecast had warned us of the possibility of a typhoon, but I could not have asked for a more perfect day atop the mountain. We decided to stop where we were and enjoy the sunrise, our reason for conducting the hike in the dark rather than the daylight.
After a few minutes, someone exclaimed “Look! You can see the reflection of the sun in the distance!” We all turned our heads, realizing that what we were seeing wasn’t a reflection but the sun itself – dimmed enough by the clouds that we could look directly at its full form. At that moment it was still night for us, but daytime for the city below. I have to say, among all of the amazing things I’ve seen since coming to Japan this one ranked right up there at the top. We were awe-struck.
We sat there watching the sun come up and congratulated Jay on his 21st birthday, spent atop the highest mountain in Japan, before continuing the climb. But it wasn’t long before our second teammate – Harrison – came down with altitude sickness, only this time the symptoms were much more severe.
He was shaking violently, hardly able to keep his balance while sitting, and suffering a severe headache. We helped him to sit down and use as much oxygen and water as we had available. Thankfully we were already within sight of the summit, and were therefore able to send three others up to buy more supplies. Thirty minutes later we had him talking normally again, and decided that we had no choice but to move on.
The problem was that our tight budget and schedule required that we not only make it to the summit, but that we do so without any significant rests. If we were to make it back to Kyoto on the second day we had to come down the back of the mountain and be on a train no later than 2:15pm. Otherwise we wouldn’t make it back by the time the trains stopped, and would be stranded.
Worse, our significantly slowed pace due to Jay’s sickness made us even more short on time. But we were close, and figured that if we could just reach the top we could immediately start descending, returning Harrison to the oxygen-rich air that he needed.
But Harrison couldn’t walk on his own, so we took turns “carrying” him injured-football-player-style, a few feet at a time. The air was really thin, and even without the additional load most of us were starting to get winded after only a few paces. The progress was slow, but eventually we reached the top. And man, was it ever worth it. Looking down into that crater really makes you appreciate the power of nature. Not to mention the fact that the wind became SO intense at the edge of the crater that it would support your weight almost entirely if you leaned forwards into it. After a few snapshots and videos around the area we began heading down towards the Gotenba fifth station.
Yet his condition did not improve, it seemed to worsen. After sitting down, Harrison told us that he could no longer move his legs. We started to get scared because the slope was still too steep to carry him on our backs. We eventually resorted to holding him up from under his shoulders, allowing him to partially move his feet, dragging him down.
But finally, at last, he started to come to. More and more of the walking strength came from his own legs, and eventually he was doing it with nothing more than a held hand. It appeared as though we had made it. But time was short. According to our maps, we were exactly on schedule to make it down by 2:15…to the minute. We moved on as best as we could until our surroundings started to change once again.
The rocky path became increasingly covered with ash until it seemed like we were walking down a sloped, black-colored beach. Our small and careful steps gradually increased to huge leaps down the mountain – the ash was so soft that it would absorb virtually all of the impact of our downward steps. We were soon able to literally sprint downwards, leaping off of one foot and then the other. It was great fun – we were flying, sometimes out of control, but it didn’t matter because there was nothing in front of us but more ash.
Yet there were two slight problems even with this seemingly ideal section of the climb: first, our eyes. Every time a little gust of wind came our eyes would fill painfully with ash. Second, Jake was wearing open-toed shoes, and although the ground was soft there were still small stones and pebbles every here and there. It wasn’t long before he had bled through the socks that we lent him.
But like the troopers that they are, both he and Harrison kept up fantastically. Before long we were passing through the cloud layer and looking on the base of the mountain.
A 3-minute video of this whole mess, from arrival to departure, can be viewed here.
After having been awake since 6am the day before, we at last made it to the train back to Kyoto – with thirty minutes to spare. Nearly all of us passed out during each of the 1-hour rides between station transfers, covered in ash and severely sunburned from being exposed without protection under such a thin layer of atmosphere. At this moment I am carefully looking straight forward at my computer screen, making sure not to turn my head at all to either side. The skin on my neck is too burnt.
That being said, I have only one recommendation to anyone considering a climb up Mount Fuji.