Japan is the most relaxing country for the independent traveler: reliable public transportation, good value, safe streets and great hygienics. So after a tense two months in China, we got to ease up on our planning rigor.
And then we became reckless:
A: What’s today’s date?
T: September 10th.
A: The Mount Fuji climbing season ended today.
T: Perfect! Just perfect!
That was only the beginning, we gave up on buying regional transportation passes and ended up spending way too much to get to Kawaguchiko, at the base of Mt. Fuji. Then we made several bookings without noticing we were in the wrong month upon arrival to the guesthouse, arrived at museums and attractions after closing hours and so on.
There’s a price for the peace of mind, and it’s usually in cash.
Kawaguchiko and the suicide forest
Bad weather and alarming notices regarding the Mt.Fuji trail deterred us from summiting on our first day in Kawaguchiko.
We opted for renting a bike and explore the surrounding areas. Wikiloc had some routes and we went for all of them together.
We started with a stop at the convenience store to pack some goods for a picnic and continued circumventing the Kawaguchi lake, surrounded by green hills and sprouting watersports life.
Following the road and climbing a steep path and tunnel we arrived at the second and quieter Saiko lake for a lunch break: rice balls again.
By the lake, we met a bizarre image, American kids rowing in what appeared to be a mixed-country summer camp.
Further down the road, we arrived at the Aokigahara Forest a.k.a Suicide Forest. This eerie forest, worthy of a horror movie is the place where hundreds of Japanese, especially young ones, come to end their life.
As I’ve learned from quasi-biographical Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”, suicide is not rare among Japanese youngsters. There is tremendous pressure on the youth to fulfill their parents’ and society’s expectations at their studies, work, and family life. Sadly, not all of them succeed.
The local government is trying to change the situation by installing helpline signs, promoting tourism in adjacent caves, and stopping the publication of suicide numbers in the forest.
It is, after all, a beautiful forest that reflects just another aspect of the Japanese culture.
Climbing Mt.Fuji – Offseason
On our second night, we waited for our Japanese-german neighbors to come back from the mountain to finally decide whether to climb or not. Endless information is online regarding the short two-months season for climbing Mt.Fuji, may warnings and many stories. And nothing was conclusive: the season is over, there are no services in the mountain, rescue, food or even toilets on the trail, and yet there were many stories of climbers, good ones, and bad ones.
When they finally arrived we heard they didn’t make it to the top, but had a great hike. And we would settle for that.
The Japanese really really really don’t want you to climb offseason, on Sept. 10th 24:00 they blocked the trail, covered all the signs, closed the shops and reduced the bus hours to the 5th station, where the trail begins, from 8:40 to 17:40 the last return. Giving us only 8 hours gross to climb the 1620m and return.
Equipped with my favorite GPS app, plenty of snacks, water and way too many warm clothes we started to climb. At the beginning an easy stroll through the forest until we reached the blocked Yoshida trail, we jumped over the fence and very soon we found ourselves inside the clouds climbing steep volcanic rock steps. Passing by hundreds of Japanese volunteers from all ages gathering garbage the dirty tourists left during the season, we reach the 6th and 7th stations, still inside the cloud and meeting a couple of fellow tourists on the way. Some well equipped and eager to summit, others less eager but motivated, including elders (quite unbelievable) and also a bonding father-daughter. All were in good spirits, except a couple of Irish that were on their way down, they climbed yesterday night to see the sunset from the top, overcoming darkness and freezing temperatures. The girl was on the verge of crying about descending the steep steps while there was an unmarked and knee-friendly zigzag path they missed.
It was after three hours that we rose above the clouds and could enjoy the scenery, the lake we visited just yesterday and all the way to the ocean: spectacular.It took us 4 hours to reach the top, barely stopping to breath and eat on the way, uncertain on whether to return through the same way or take the zigzag down as shown in the GPS trail.
We finally reached the top, where the great crater awaited for us and the clear skies showed us all the way down. Breathtaking.
Short on time we followed a Swedish guys advice and expected to walk the perimeter of the crater in 20 minutes. It took us one hour of great views in and out of the volcano.
In a hurry and under pressure to get down in time for the last bus, we didn’t even had time to rest, and before long we started the knee-busting descent together with the father-daughter duo, also running for the bus. Until we reached the junction where the zigzag started, where we took the wrong turn and had to re-climb ten minutes to reach the right path again. 90 minutes, 17 zigzags, and 34 turns later, we reached the bus stop, just 20 minutes before departure, to find out we were one of the last to arrive and that not everyone in the bus made it to the top: Success!!!
Our legs were sore for the coming three days, but we smiled.
*Climbing the Mt.Fuji is no easy feat, and doing it offseason even less. Without proper facilities available and combined with bad weather it can be even deadly. We took a calculated risk doing it just a couple of days after the official season, with good gear, experienced and on a good weather day, and it was so worth it. Under any circumstances do we recommend to try this without evaluating the risks. Just the morning after a typhoon hit the coast of Japan and it rained for two days. One day later, and we couldn’t have done it.