Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mt. Fuji Running

Mt Fuji-san

Sengen Shrine - Beginning of Yoshida Trail
For some time I have been intrigued with Mount Fuji given it’s historical, cultural and religious significance with the Japanese. I’ve wanted to run the traditional pilgrimage route from the Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shinto shrine at the very base of Mount Fuji to the 12,388 foot summit. This has proved difficult given my past travels to Japan have not coincided with the short climbing season (July – mid September). However, this past week the stars finally aligned and I was able to run Mt. Fuji on the last day of the official climbing season.

Red Pine Forest on the Lower Slopes of Mt. Fuji
While tens of thousands of Japanese make the trek to the top every year, the logistics of getting on a plane in Italy and going straight to the mountain proved to be rather complex. My original detailed plan of trains, buses, taxis and finally running to the trailhead was thrown into flux when my flight into Narita was delayed by several hours. This resulted in getting on unplanned trains and buses with somewhat unknown destinations. In the end, I reached the town of Kawaguchiko at the base of the mountain. The earned reward for 30+ hours of sitting in a variety of seats not engineered for human comfort or health was a late evening Japanese bath overlooking Lake Kawaguchi.

The Trail Starts to Climb
I arose early the next morning knowing I needed to be on the trail starting at first light in order to be able to summit and get to Tokyo for a late afternoon meeting. My plan was to catch a taxi at 4:00 am from the hotel to the train station (where I would put my bag in a locker) and then have the taxi driver take me to the Shizuoka Sengen Jinja (Sengen Shrine) where the original trail begins. A great plan until I learned in the wee hours of the morning that taxis don't operate early on Sunday mornings. My run to the top of Mount Fuji began with a walk to the train station dragging my roller bag and then running to the outskirts of town in search of the Sengen Shrine.

3rd Station Ruins
2nd Station Ruins

Once the shrine was found I went in search of the trailhead. After several attempts of making a walking motion with my fingers and saying Fuji-san to a number of sleepy eyed monks, I was directed to the trailhead. I was excited about the first part of the run given that few people now climb the mountain from the bottom. More than ninety-nine percent of Japanese climbers start at the fifth-station, mid way up the mountain (there are ten stations from the base to the top of the mountain). In particular, I was looking forward to seeing the abandoned stations where in the past travelers drank tea and rested.   

My expectations were met. A trail to myself and interesting ruins to explore. The run from Sengen Shrine to the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station was exceptional.

As I reached the Fifth Station I moved into the clouds and into the billows of people descending from the summit. Most Japanese climb the mountain at night (resting/sleeping in the upper stations) with the goal to summit in time to watch the sunrise.

The Roped Trail
Those of us who run trails have different perceptions of what is difficult, challenging and possible. Yet, we often assume everyone else is like us.  As I power-hiked up the trail I was reminded we are different – the reminder being the faces and bodies of those coming down. The expressions of anguish. The jolting limps. The sighs, ughs and grunts as grim faced trekkers placed one foot in front of the other. And then there were those whose faces I did not see because they were walking down backwards due to quads that had failed them. It felt like the morning of the walking dead. I was also saddened in that the basic fitness of the general population is so poor – the distance from the 5th Station to the summit only being 7km!

The Last Kilometer to the Top
I continued to climb passing stations 6 - 10, most of which were closing for the season, with station staff busy bolting boards across the windows and doors. I finally broke through the clouds and was able to see my destination above me reached by a well established trail marked with ropes that switchbacked up the open and barren volcanic slope. 

On the Summit

I had originally planned to run around the rim of the crater before descending. However, the wind was screaming on top filling my eyes with volcanic dust making it hard and painful to see. Plus, I was cutting it close on time and felt anxious about catching my bus to Tokyo. I descended.

A few hundred feet below the summit the clouds rolled back making it hard to see and leaving me wet and a bit cold from all the moisture. I amused myself of as I modified the words to Twas a Night Before Christmas -  “visions of Japanese baths danced through his head.”  The thought of a long soak and getting the grit out of my eyes made the run down to the Fifth Station go fast.

Looking Down from the Summit

A Good Day at UTMB 2 Weeks Earlier
At the Fifth Station I decided to call it a day and take a bus down to the base. My descending legs were still a bit creaky from UTMB two weeks earlier and I was stressed about missing my bus.  It was a good call in that I had time for a nice curry lunch with a glass of sake in Kawaguchiko before jumping on a bus for Tokyo. All-in-all, an exceptionally good day!

No comments: