Originally created 12/08/96

Climbing Mount Fuji

ATOP MOUNT FUJI, Japan - The sun peeks over the horizon, sending bright red rays up like the spokes of a flaming wheel into the frigid blue air.

Stars still shimmer in the west. The tops of a cloud bank glow with the light of the moon. All is calm, timeless - until you look down.

There, in an unbroken zigzag of flashlight beams, thousands of climbers are snaking their way up the steep, black slope of Mount Fuji. On the summit, there are hundreds more, laughing, drinking, praying.

Even shopping.

And in the center of it all, at the bottom of the crater of the tallest peak in Japan, there is a message, one of dozens, written in beige, fist-sized stones: "Fumi Loves Ken."

Isao Kasai, a stout, graying man who lives near the base of the mountain, has climbed Fuji a dozen or so times and never tires of it.

He has been at the top in the middle of a storm, has seen the mountain cast its huge shadow on a sea of clouds in the valleys below, has skidded down its cinder-covered slopes.

"This mountain is special," he says. "This is the heart of Japan."

Though 85 percent of Japan is covered by mountains, Fuji does indeed stand alone. Its peak is Japan's highest ground - at 12,385 feet above sea level. Rising in an almost perfectly symmetrical cone, Fuji is universally regarded as Japan's most beautiful summit.

But for all its size and grandeur, Fuji is an easy climb.

He has been at the top in the middle of a storm, has seen the mountain cast its huge shadow on a sea of clouds in the valleys below, has skidded down its cinder-covered slopes.

During the official climbing season, from July through August, 150,000 to 200,000 people reach the summit.

Most go up at night to view the next day's sunrise. Tour buses from Tokyo and Osaka - Japan's two biggest cities - bring in droves of climbers each afternoon and take them out, exhausted, the next morning.

When the lodges and shops close for the season, the tourists taper off. And before the first snows of autumn begin to fall, Mr. Kasai, a member of the Keep Fuji Clean Society, and thousands of other volunteers scour the slopes of cigarette butts, beer cans, candy wrappers.

For the next nine months, Fuji will sleep.

Traditional "torii" gates at the summit, guarded by statues of snarling lion-dogs, mark Fuji's sacred ground. On opposite sides of the mountain's deep brown crater stand two concrete Shinto shrines.

Glittering amulets and little tin bells deposited for luck by climbers young and old are piled around each shrine. Coins are stuck into cracks in the weather-beaten gray wood of the gates.

Throughout most of Japan's history, Fuji was revered as the resting place of spirits, the dwelling place of gods.

Pilgrims carrying sticks and bells would climb to its peak to purify themselves or to perform a more public service - keeping divine wrath from befalling their community.

Shrines to the goddess of the mountain, Konohana no Sakuyahime, which means something like Princess of the Blossoming Tree Flower, were built all over the country. Miniature Fujis were erected in the gardens of the well-to-do.

Fuji worship cooled in fervor at the turn of the century, when Japan raced to modernize, and Westernize, its culture. To most climbers today, the ascent is a been-there, done-that sort of excursion. Prayers at the shrines are more of an afterthought, out of a sense of tradition, than anything else.

But the mountain's mystical appeal has not disappeared.

Several new religious groups have built headquarters at the volcano's base. One is the Soka Gakkai, one of Japan's largest Buddhist sects.

Another is the doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo, whose founder is now on trial on charges of masterminding the deadly nerve gas attack in Tokyo's subways in 1995. At their commune on the edge of the Sea of Trees, dozens of his followers still go about their daily routine.

A THICK, WET FOG covers station No. 5, the point halfway up the mountain where - except for hard-core traditionalists - the climb begins. Here, climbers park their recreational vehicles and cars in huge lots and start off in style.

There are lodges, restaurants, souvenir shops, vending machines selling everything from Mild Seven cigarettes to Boss Coffee. Inside the shops are canned oxygen and lava-rock candy, in pink or bluish-gray.

Most of the people at station No. 5 are picnickers, day-trippers who go no farther.

For those who do, the walk out begins on pavement, turns quickly to a broad, well-packed trail and gradually winds its way up into a narrow, looser mix of black or deep violet cinder and small rock that continues with just a few craggy basalt interruptions all the way to the peak.

From station No. 5, which is at an altitude of 8,250 feet, the walk to the summit takes five hours.

Most climbers, however, stop for the night at one of more than a dozen lodges, where they try to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, sharing a big blanket with the person next to them, stranger or not. The average rate is about 7,000 yen ($70), which includes a light meal.

Horses can be hired at station No. 5 for 12,000 yen ($120). But even they stop at station No. 7, at the 8,900-foot level. After that, all climbers must two-leg it to the top.

The grade at first is gentle. But near the peak the main trails steepen into rocky stairways cluttered with sweaty climbers stopping to catch their breath before making the final assault.

The year-round population at the crater is five.

All are scientists who rotate in and out for three-week shifts at the squat government observatory that monitors both the weather and the volcano's inner rumblings.

Japan, whose islands arc along the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire," was born in the spewing lava and seismic spasms of volcanoes like Mount Fuji. Many still transform its landscape.

Though officially dormant, Fuji has had 17 major eruptions in historical times. The last was in 1707, less than two months after a severe earthquake killed nearly 5,000 people. Ash from the eruption blanketed Tokyo, 60 miles to the northeast.

Today, even at the bottom of the quarter-mile-wide crater, there is hardly a hint of life. There are no sulfur smells, no plumes of steam, no bubbling cauldrons of molten rock.

Even so, most vulcanologists believe Fuji will erupt again. But probably not in the near future.

THE SKY IS a bright azure. A large crowd mills about in front of a brick building housing restrooms. A smaller mob browses at the summit souvenir shop, picking through shelves lined with "Japan's No. 1" pennants, picture post cards, gilded key chains.

Ayaka and Chizuru Ito, 9-year-old twin sisters, sit side-by-side a few yards from the crowds, looking out over a sea of clouds that glow like pearls in the early morning sun.

They have done it. Made it to the top. And with them to share the moment are their parents, their 13-year-old brother, their septuagenarian grandparents, an aunt and an uncle.

How do they feel?

"Happy, I suppose," says Ayaka, weakly sipping from a tin cup full of hot coffee.

"Actually, I'm just tired," says Chizuru.

Then, after a moment of silence, Chizuru offers a shy smile. "I suppose I'm happy, too."


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