Arts and Culture

Japan's summit of ambition

Sean O'Toole

Climbing Mount Fuji is best done in July and August, when you may see more than just blackness and clouds, writes Sean O'Toole.

A week into my cycle meander northeastwards along Japan's densely inhabited Pacific coastline, I parked my bicycle outside a used bookstore, a drab prefabricated building painted yellow and blue.

Across the busy national road I saw a similar structure. It was beige and festooned with publicity photos depicting local produce – melons, tomatoes, mandarin oranges and strawberries – and a view of Mount Fuji.

I chuckled cynically at my first sighting of Fuji. For much of the preceding day, ever since leaving Hamamatsu, an unremarkable interlude city between Tokyo and Osaka, I had been straining to see the snow-capped peak through the low ceiling of early summer rain clouds. Although now only 100km from the superlative mountain – Fuji is also variously described as the "most sacred", "most photographed", "most painted" and "most climbed" mountain in Japan – I was yet to see it for real.

I hung my helmet on my handlebar and entered Book Off, the ubiquitous national chain that has defied growth trends in an otherwise stagnant economy.

Browsing the magazine racks, I came across the March issue of the improbably named but always entertaining men's lifestyle magazine Brutus. Its solitary English coverline especially drew me in: "Slow Journey 2012."

Flipping right to left through the illustration-rich magazine, I encountered men pretty much like me, solitary cyclists who insist on seeing the world at their own pace. Not everyone rode bikes, some preferring dog sleds, others camels, some their feet; nor was all the writing ­incomprehensible.

Makeshift philosophy
I recognised the kanji – imported Chinese characters – elaborating the 1500km circular route one man had walked around the island of Shikoku. An accompanying photo showed his sleeping bag under the eaves of one of the 88 temple sites on this millennium-old pilgrimage route that  I have completed twice, latterly by bicycle during three sweaty summer weeks in 2006.

I needed no more inducement: sold. Exiting the bookstore, I tucked my new purchase – an R11 used ­magazine discussing a makeshift philosophy – into a crammed pannier bag. Slow, I mulled while pedalling. Quite.

Like my unhurried mode of transport, the mountain I was headed towards was similarly slow in revealing itself and this is an enduring complaint.

In 1897, during the humid summer month of August, Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born American reporter who settled in Japan seven years earlier, climbed Fuji.

In a diaristic account of his walking trip up the "mighty volcano", published in 1898, he complains about the "uniformly grey sky" that rendered Fuji "always invisible".

I can relate. In the three days it took me to slowly dawdle up to its northwestern base, I never once saw Fuji without clouds obstructing my view.

Charm of the apparition
By the time I left Japan, after two failed bids to summit the clouded mountain, I still had not experienced the symmetrical "charm of the apparition", as Hearn described Fuji. I would have to settle for a kind of obstructed pedestrian truth instead: Fuji as it is depicted on countless advertising billboards, roadside murals and manhole covers.

Hearn at least put in the hard work to see the "exact truth" of Fuji's symmetrical "curves", walking all the way up from one of the highland towns at its base. Assisted by a group of runners and pull-men – rugged mountain guides known as goriki, the original Toyotas and Mitsubishis of the mountain – it took Hearn a full day to reach an overnight cabin near the summit. Waking early the next day, he still missed the all-important sunrise.

Hearn – who kick-started his career as a journalist in Cincinnati, later moving to New Orleans where he reported on crime and wrote obituaries – made his approach from the town of Gotemba, nearest Tokyo. It is an unpopular route and many modern visitors prefer the northwest approach from Lake Kawaguchi.

A tarred road here winds its way up nearly two-thirds of Fuji's 3776m height. The municipal bus from Lake Kawaguchi, which I used as my base, takes a mere hour to deliver climbers up the winding road to Fuji's fifth climbing station. There are 10 stations – a mix of rudimentary lodgings, eateries and emergency shelters – marking the route from the base to the summit, although these days it is only the final five that truly matter.

It is not solely a matter of convenience that prompts visitors to choose Lake Kawaguchi. The Fuji Subaru Line pierces through Aokigahara, a 35km2 virgin-growth forest affectionately nicknamed the "sea of trees". A brilliant and impenetrable green in summer that turns rust-coloured in autumn, the forest is remarkable for its shallow-rooted trees struggling to anchor themselves in the bedrock of solidified magma. The forest, which has numerous ice caves – former air vents in the flowing magma – has long been a source of legends and folk tales.

Grim reputation
In recent years, this green landscape has acquired an additional, grim reputation: every year 30 to 50 suicides are recorded here, hence its other nickname of "suicide forest".

Hearn famously wrote about Japanese legends and folktales for an enraptured if not always enlightened foreign audience, most famously in Kwaidan (1903), published a year before his death. However, he was not interested in Lake Kawaguchi's goblins and greenery. His sole ambition was to summit the "supreme altar of the sun".

Like the waggish British diplomat who once compared climbing Fuji to scaling a giant ashtray, Hearn was not entirely impressed by what he found. His essay, published in 1898, begins with a Japanese epigraph: "Seen on close approach, the mountain of Fuji does not come up to expectation."

Climbing through "grey wan light", with "no sign whatever of Fuji" – a description that decisively sums up my experience of first scaling, then cycling up the mountain on successive days – Hearn's essay lingers on his shock at Fuji's black volcanic landscape."It is black – charcoal black – a frightful extinct heap of visible ashes and cinders and slaggy lava," he records. "The tremendous black reality – always becoming more sharply, more grimly, more atrociously defined – is a stupefaction, a nightmare …"

He is being a tad too dramatic here. Yes, like the arid alpine desert at the upper reaches of Mount Kilimanjaro, Fuji is rocky and spare, with no vegetation. But with this absence comes a kind of serenity.

As it is, the mountain is really just a staircase for climbers: it is the view that has drawn pilgrims here for millennia. I missed the views. Clouds.

Admittedly, I was climbing a month before the official climbing season – July and August – when this island nation is perpetually rain-soaked. Although not forbidden, out-of-season climbing is strongly discouraged.

Unsafe seasons
Crampons or ice cleats are essential from the eighth station (3m to100m) in the unsafe seasons; during the two-month official climbing period durable walking shoes will suffice. As was conventional at the time, Hearn scaled Fuji wearing straw sandals. Worn with a sock, every pilgrim carried "several pairs" for the journey, discarding them as they wore out. Hearn also tells of a student who climbed to the top of Fuji wearing only geta – heavy wooden sandals or Japanese flip-flops.

Climber bravado and a risk-averse municipal culture have resulted in some curious idiosyncrasies at contemporary Fuji.

Outside climbing season, the large maps and route markers on the mountain are all securely bound, refusing climbers a sense of direction. Municipal buses also start intentionally late and return from the mountain early to frustrate the relatively easy eight-hour return walk to the summit.

Having seen cyclists pedalling the 24km Fuji Subaru Line to the fifth station, I resolved to do the same – hoping to win enough time to try to reach the peak after failing with the bus option. Riding the rain-soaked 7.8% gradient, which every June tempts cycling enthusiasts to participate in a road race up the 24km slope, reminded me of a line from Hearn, something every prospective visitor to Fuji would do well to remember.

"I am perspiring and panting," records Hearn in his diary. "The guide bids me keep my honourable mouth closed and breath only through my honourable nose."

Practise and repeat.

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