Chasing Fuji

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Ever since climbing The Spear two weeks ago, I was itching to get back into the mountains. The summer of 2010 was fast approaching its end and I needed another alpine fix. I pored over a few maps, some hiking blogs and my Lonely Planet guidebook to decide on the Minami Alps–specifically, Mt Kita and Mt Aino (kitadake 北岳 and ainodake 間ノ岳 in Japanese). This called for a two night/three day trip. I was surprised to learn that getting there from Osaka would cost more than it would to get to Tokyo, and take much longer. But I was lured by the prospect of some nice shots of Mt Fuji, since Mt Kita and Mt Aino were nearby. I had always suspected the iconic mountain was better served by admiring it from a distance rather than by climbing it–and I was off to test this theory.

On recent excursions I had been using the Canon G11, but I decided this time to call up the Nikon D80, which hadn’t been used in–gulp–a year or so. My excuses were that it was bulky and a pain to lug around. I never liked carrying it while on dodgy trails either, for fear of trashing it in a sudden fall, like that waterfall incident in Bali which not only wrecked an 18-200 VR lens but also ruined the remaining days of my vacation (made worse by R’s upbraiding of ‘I told you so’). Worried that the D80 would be cumbersome and inconvenient to put away every time I took a shot, I found inspiration in I-cjw’s technique of hooking it to the front straps of the backpack where it would be carried by the chest and shoulders and protected under the arm, without needing to unclasp it every time I took a picture.

An early start got me to the city of Kofu an hour before the two-hour bus at noon to Hirogawara, the trailhead for Mt Kita. I knew I wouldn’t have enough light to reach the mountain hut just below the summit. Instead, my target for the day would be the hut/campsite further down, at Shirane-Oike. The hike started at 1500 metres above sea level, and I had 700 metres of elevation to add to that by sunset.

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The going was steep but the trees were warm and friendly and a few butterflies escorted me while I trudged up the trail. I noted the empty konnichiwas of exhausted hikers who passed by on their descent, but I was in great spirits because of the refreshing air, the rush of being back in an alpine setting, and the anticipation of chasing Fuji. In addition, I was buoyed by my pleasant train ride to Kofu, which was spent reading Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham in between pensive gazes through the window. Maugham had a very calming effect on me–his writing is sharp and inspiring; it cleared my mind of certain distractions and my resolve was fortified–much like the main character in his book, Philip Carey, who was determined to get out of the morass he made for himself after losing everything in the stock market.

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Shirane-Oike is a model hut/campsite. At 2,200 metres above sea level, there is more grass than you would expect, and the camping spots are mostly level and fairly spaced out. The hut itself is spectacular, with the cleanest, most modern toilet facilities I have ever seen. The generator was turned off at 8:00 sharp and, after some boisterous campers had finally shut up, it was a peaceful night. A midnight toilet break got me out of my tent to see a beautiful, starry night and the entire area bathed in luscious moonlight. Ah, this was it. I was getting my fix, even before reaching the summit.

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I am always amazed at how early Japanese hikers get up: the fellows in a tent near mine left camp at 2:30 am. I joined half a dozen others by breaking camp around four o’clock to start the near vertical climb with the moon as our guide.

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It was not long before the sun broke over the ridge behind me.

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I marveled how this climb was not as painful as it was to get up Yari. Maybe it was the adrenalin or the awesome views in pristine weather that helped me ignore all my exertions, but before long I was nearing Kitadake-no-koya, the hut/camp 200 metres below the summit. It was then that I spotted the first hint of Fuji behind a ridge and let out a gasp.

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At the hut I stopped to prepare a meal and chatted with a few hikers from Tokyo before joining at the peak what seemed like a convention for the proliferation of plaid and thermal socks. Dozens of hikers milled about extolling the scenery and swapping stories. I gaped in astonishment at how there could be so many people who have the lungs to get up this far–3,180 metres above sea level, the second highest mountain in Japan–only to smoke a cigarette and try to ruin it for the rest of us. There were stunning views on all sides. To the north, the peaks of Aka, Kaikoma and Senjo were clearly visible. You could even point out distant Yari and Ontake.

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But most attention was on Fuji, in all her glory, standing all alone and backed by a sky streaked with clouds. Collecting myself, I screwed the D80 to a mini tripod, perched this on a flat boulder and started shooting in bursts of three–auto bracketing in anticipation of HDR tweaking once I got back home.

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Beyond Mt Kita there is an ‘interesting’ descent down to the col which had the next rest site, Kitadake-Sanso, where I was to stay the night.

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I was followed by some new friends–about a dozen elderly women who liked to repeat the same questions: “Where are you from? How long in Japan? Do you like sushi?” My replies evoked too much giggling and high pitched jabbering for me to bear at any altitude, so I made my way to the front of the line in an attempt to escape them. As the distance between us grew and their pace slowed along some tricky parts of the descent, I heard someone in the group shout out to their guide that someone had fallen. I later looked up and saw the guide doing first aid. It reminded me to be cautious but the incident apparently wasn’t serious, as a few hours later, while sitting in my tent with the tent fly open and rummaging through my backpack for lunch, I heard familiar voices. They each called out to me as they passed by. “Oh, it is the foreigner! The one from Canada? Yeah, the one who likes salt water eel…. Oh him! …He’s been here for ten years! …Sugoi!…”

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After a brief rest, I left my tent and with a smaller pack followed the ridge to Mt Aino. Along the way I took notice of some interesting mountain flora.

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At the summit of Mt Aino I found an elderly man eating from a lunch box with two dozen flies lounging on his back. He waved his hands frantically while cursing the flies that were fighting him for the food. I left him to his battle and retreated thirty metres to have my lunch. I ate peacefully; not a single fly seemed interested in what I was eating. It was coming on to late afternoon and the clouds were thickening when I decided to return to my tent. On the way back I felt dwarfed by Mt Kita as it loomed before me but, utterly pleased with myself for having covered two more Hyakumeizan mountains, I relished that familiar elation of being on top of the world amid gorgeous views and pristine alpine air–all due to my own effort–and with nothing to worry about.

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Back at my tent, I was relieved there was no more walking for the day and settled onto some rocks nearby to spend the remaining hours of sunlight reading Maugham.

As it grew darker, the clouds moved in and visibility was near zero. Then, all of a sudden, it cleared, prompting gasps of excitement from other hikers. I looked in the direction they were all pointing and spotted the sun hovering above the distant horizon while orange-tinged clouds danced nearby. Excitedly, I pulled out my camera and started shooting, making sure to take a few dozen snaps so that at least two or three could come close to capturing the moment. It ranks as one of the best sunsets I have ever witnessed.

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On the other side of the mountain, Fuji was fading in the twilight.

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As stunning as sunset was, sunrise was even better. Since I had pitched the tent on the very top of the ridge leaving it completely exposed–not like the other campers who set their tents beside the hut and below the ridge line–it was a very gusty and cold night. Still, I slept relatively well, waking with a start by my alarm at 4:40 am. I darted outside with my camera. It seemed promising that I would get some decent shots because there was a cloudless, half-lit sky. Since Fuji was to the east, a nice juxtaposition between it and the sunrise was my goal. More stunning views and plenty of shooting during a magnificent sunrise helped me ignore the fact that my hands were numb from the fiercely cold wind.

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After breakfast it warmed up and I broke camp at eight o’clock for the descent to Hirogawara and the departure home. My return route was via a col that skirted the Mt Kita buttress and then down to the valley floor along a river.

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Again I was reminded that it is far more painful going down a mountain than going up it. This is when everything conspires for the final test of your flirt with a mountain, a tease in which the mountain saves the worst for last: sunburn, fatigue, dehydration, muscle aches, loose rocks, dizzying heights, unrelenting monotony mixed with heart-stopping cringes down ladders and ropes, and the harrowing notion that the knees are sure to buckle at the next downward step, consigning you to certain death a few hundred metres below.

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Exhausted, I finally made it back to the trailhead, a few hundred metres from the bus stop. My head was spinning and the knees were surely wrecked. My mouth was parched. Three days of accumulated sweat made me cringe at my own smell. The backpack felt like it was packing a load of bricks. While descending I hardly seemed to notice the scenery below the tree line: there were glistening waterfalls, colourful flowers, gentle brooks and pockets of interesting trees, but I passed them all without much thought and barely managed to take a few snaps; they were obligatory shots that didn’t have my heart in them. All I wanted was to get off the damn mountain. One fall left me with bruises and scratches on my arm and leg, but fortunately only a bit of dirt on the camera.

Within an hour of resting and devouring a large bowl of rice and shredded beef at a nearby hut, I reflected on what I had experienced and thought to myself: “That was awesome; so which mountain is next?”

For information on climbing Mt Kita and Mt Aino, check out Hiking in Japan. For a fascinating account of a winter ascent of Mt Kita (with stunning pictures), see I-cjw‘s Thief in the Fortress.

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