Standing on the top of Japan

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As those long winter nights begin to draw in back in the UK, today we hark back to the heady days of this summer when the Inside Japan Tours’ team sweated their way round Japan and, on more than one occasion, up the demanding slopes of Mt. Fuji to stand on the top of Japan.

But why would anyone want to climb Mount Fuji?  It’s an epic slog, up a steep barren unforgiving trail.  The weather is unpredictable and the views limited.  Seating options are usually a toss-up between a rock and a hard place, and the crowds on the trail give you little time for quiet contemplation.

It’s an ordeal that will scar your body and brain for some time after.  On my last climb to the top, our group left the 5th station at 7:30pm and reunited there at 10am the following day. Our longest break during this period was 25 minutes. For many people, that is 3 months of exercise completed in one hit.

Despite the unrelenting fierceness of the popular climb, we had no cheerful volunteers handing us free drinks every kilometre.  We had ungrateful vending machines that sucked up more of our cash the higher we got.

Fortunately the climb had, and has, many rewards.  Walking at night, advisable anyway to avoid the brutal daytime heat, was a fantastic experience.  The pitch black had been quite creepy at the start of the walk, but after a few hours climbing, when the clouds broke, we looked up to see hundreds of stars filling the black carpet above us.  I took their appearance as reassuring, as if renewing acquaintances.

Looking down, the lights of hundreds of head torches slowly snaking they way up the mountain showed us how far we had come.  The views were eerie but breathtaking.  Who needs Disneyland when you can climb a huge volcanic rock and get twice the thrill?

The vending machines at the top are also quite something.  I had always been curious as to how they were stocked.  I had believed huge parties of Japanese schoolchildren, backpacks stuffed full of coke cans, had started each morning with a route march to the peak.  Unfortunately this admirable practice must have come to an end.  We saw a bulldozer packed full of supplies, inching its way up a trail to the summit.

It wouldn't be Japan without vending machines
It wouldn’t be Japan without vending machines

For many walkers, Japanese and foreign alike, reaching the summit is the realisation of a lifelong dream.  There were certainly signs of hysteria amongst the huge crowd when we were there.  When the sun finally showed up it must have got quite a shock.  Hundreds of people had climbed 3776 metres to gawk at it from behind mobile phone cameras.

People photograph the sun almost as if they believe it’s not the same boring old sun that gets wheeled out every day, but some new rival sun making its debut. “It is the same Sun for God’s sake” I wanted to shout.  Anywhere else, if somebody started photographing the sun you would assume they were totally insane.  Stick people on top of a mountain though and it is perfectly acceptable.  I would love to know how many of those sunrise photos are looked back on with pride by the cameraman.  If it is more than one percent I’ll gladly fill my backpack with coke cans and start the climb again.  And I am not writing this just because the 100 photos I took are all crap. Well, not solely anyway.

Standing on the top of Japan – not unlike Shinjuku at rush hour!

Mount Fuji deserves respect.  In a country obsessed with size, it has no rival. When Japanese talk about Fuji-san you feel as if they are talking less about a mountain than a God.  As a national symbol it even gets on the 1000 Yen note. I can’t imagine the UK replacing the picture of the Queen on the 10 Pound note with a picture of Scafell Pike.

I will say, if you do climb it, you will remember the experience for ever.  And part of your-self will forever remain on the mountain – no-one can go 14 hours without at least one toilet break.

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