We started our day with breakfast at "Gusto", which reminded me a bit of a Denny's or Friendly's in the U.S.: undistinguished food in a bland setting. But they offered three stellar virtues: they were open at 7, they were a 5-minute walk from the hostel, and they offered bottomless coffee. Hallelujah to the latter! The cups are still too small, but you can have a great many of them. I had a salmon set meal, with a small but tasty slice of broiled salmon and the usual pickles, miso soup, and rice. Nothing to write home about (present missive notwithstanding), but tasty, filling, and economical.
Our goal today was to reach Mount Fuji and do some hiking. The weather dawned a bit hazy, but with bright blue skies—enough so that the summit of Fuji was clearly visible, which is not something to be taken for granted as it's more often concealed by clouds than not. So we carpe'd the diem and rushed to catch the first bus, a little before 10. In theory, you can climb Fuji—if you're young and still have young legs, or old and have spent your life climbing mountains. But in practice, it's nearly 3800 m tall (more than 12 000 feet), and though it starts out as a gentle slope, it rapidly steepens. One map we saw of the trails to the summit zigzagged like the trace from a seismograph. Such switchbacks would be only slightly less painful than the parallel route that climbs straight for the top. Sane folks do the climb in 2 days, with a stopover just below the summit on the first day, rising the next day to catch the sunrise, then descending. I think I'd opt for 3 days.
All of which is to say that we had no plans to summit. Instead, we took a tourist bus to the highest point reachable by road, which is the 5th station. There are 10 stations in total, at roughly equal spacing, so we were at about 5400 feet above sea level. From the 5th station, you can hike for hours at roughly the same elevation, parallel to the contours, or hook up with one of the summit trails. (By September, the summit trails are closed because the weather is too unpredictable and it's routinely too dangerous to use them.) We opted for the Ochuro trail, which runs west for about 2 km, followed by a pause to rest and then a short sashay along the Yoshida trail to the summit, just to say we'd done it.
The tourist centre is huge and sprawling, and designed to separate tourists efficiently from their cash. For example, there's a stand where a young woman was boiling sweet corn—at about $6 for a small cob. And we bought a couple steamed pork buns for about $4 each, roughly twice what I'd expect to pay in any non-tourist town. Even though it was mid-week during the off season, the place was swarming with people. There must have been 30 tour buses parked in the lot nearest to the visitor centre, and more farther downslope, not to mention the city buses that arrive every hour or so. I can't imagine what the place is like during the summer high season. Oddly enough, not a lot of people were on the trails; we only met a couple dozen hikers once we were out of sight of the visitor centre.
The weather was still excellent by the time we'd hit the bathroom and gotten ready to start our walk, with beautiful blue skies, cool but not cold air, and little breeze. Clear views of the peak throughout, which was a special blessing. As noted earlier, the peak is concealed by cloud more often than not.
The Ochuro trail is a lovely hike, starting out in woods filled with Japanese larch, fir, some species of paper birch, alder, willow, and lots of low greenery, including barberry with pretty orange-red berries, moss, and lichens. The trail is paved with crushed lava, with occasional chunks up to baseball size but mostly smaller than a pea or bean, and with flat paving stones (about 12 by 8 inches) running down the centre. I suspect these are present to help keep you on the trial if you're unlucky and a fog or heavy rain descends. Easy walking for the most part, with the lava pebbles relaxing on the feet after much time spent walking on pavement—a bit like walking in sand.
You soon leave the woods and begin catching glimpses of the long, sweeping slopes leading to the summit. (There's a clear demarcation between the forested slope, which extends a bit past our present elevation, and the scree slope above it.) It's awe-inspiring to realize that you're still about 1800 vertical metres (more than a mile) below the summit, and that all of the surrounding mountain ranges, which are impressive enough when seen from ground level, are at or below your height.
But what's really impressive is the scree slope that rises above the trail once you reach and pass the tree line. If you know what to look for, you can see landslide tracks everywhere—and they run the length of the slope in places. We saw slides that had buried the trail (leaving only a few paving stones projecting under a metre or more of scree) or swept away a 10-m-wide (about 30 feet) swath of forest as far as the eye could see. The biggest looked (judged using the distance to the summit as a crude yardstick) to be about half a kilometre wide, and stretched from just below the summit down a couple kilometres (measured along the slope) and well past where we were standing.
At this time of year, hiking on Fuji at our elevation isn't an extreme sport, or they'd close the trails; I suspect most landslides occur in winter, during heavy rains, or during earthquakes. Nonetheless, the folks who manage the site have installed landslide diversion structures—basically, oblong steel-reinforced bunkers that rise 3 metres (10 feet) or more above the surrounding slopes. They're mostly there to protect patches of regenerating forest, since the odds are slim of reaching one of the widely separated shelters if a landscape happens without warning.
When we reached the point where the trail began to descend towards the road, well below the visitor centre, we paused to consume our last pork bun and some trail mix and cookies before heading back. The disadvantage of an out-and-back hike is that you see fewer things than you'd see in a loop; the compensating benefit is that you get to see the same things from both sides, and spot things you'd missed. Both have their merits; I don't regret not doing a loop.
Back at the visitor centre, we stopped for a light lunch, keeping a cautious eye on the weather. Mountain weather is (in)famously changeable, and you need to keep your wits about you. We shared a bowl of roasted pork and cabbage on rice, with a small bowl of miso soup as clouds began to roll in. Pleasantly recharging. We still had an hour and a half before it was time for the bus we wanted to catch, and the clouds weren't looking too menacing, so this time we headed east along the Yoshida trail—only to find that after a couple hundred metres, the part of the trail that ascended towards the summit had been closed for the rest of the year. We debated for a moment about whether to go anyway, but when we spotted another hiker descending the trail, we figured it was worth the small risk. We'd continued to keep an eye on the weather, but as the dark clouds were showing no signs of raining yet, and the forecast had been for no rain, we agreed to walk only until we saw signs of rain—at which point we'd get the hell out of there asap. (There were many large erosion gullies running downslope, and the trail itself showed clear signs of scouring by running water. This wasn't a problem in the areas of packed lava gravel, but some of the steep parts of the trail were rock-covered, and would have been impassable because they'd be too slippery to be safe with water running downhill across the stone.)
We topped out at a landslide diversion structure that was also a shelter; the downhill side was a tunnel with open arches looking downslope, where you could hide to wait out rain or a landslide with some hope of returning home to tell about it.
The weather continued to hold, but we needed to return to catch our bus, so we made our way back. A pleasant, though sleepy, bus ride back to town. We'd been walking for about 4 hours in total, but the air was thin enough at more than a mile above sea level that we both felt a bit breathless during the hike. Reluctantly, we were forced to admit that we were not even close to being in good enough shape to summit, at least not without considerable long-term training. We both exercise as often as we can (usually several days each week), and it's served us well during our hikes, but clearly not enough intensity for such an expedition.
Back to the hostel for a shower*, then off to dinner at a local izakaya called "High Spirits", run by a Japanese chef who had studied in the U.S. and who therefore had excellent English. Like many of the places we'd eaten, a tiny place: three tables with room for 12 people, and a bar that runs alongside the kitchen. Itseated 6, including us. The chef was all alone in the kitchen, and he raced back and forth between his various preparations (frypans, refrigerator, spice racks, bowls of prepared stuff, a dozen or so bottles of various alcohols, etc.) like a martial artist practicing kata. Fun to watch someone really good at their work performing.
* The bathrooms in Japan tend towards the small side. The hostel bathroom was about the size of an airplane bathroom, but with a tub and shower added. The tub is wide enough that my shoulders only touch the wall or the shower curtain (not both) simultaneously, but there's only about 2 inches between my head and the ceiling. I've also noticed that my legs are too long for me to fit in standard bus seats; as a result, I have to sit sideways, with my legs sticking into the aisle. I'm not particularly huge (just 6 feet), so really bug guys beware! Japan is not built for people like us. On the other hand, the Shinkansen trains have ample legroom and headroom; I spotted one Westerner who must have been 7 feet tall who fit comfortably.
The chef did have someone helping out with the dishwashing and food delivery, but the guy was a trainee on his second day, and not yet up to speed. We had "Cajun" pork ribs, which were delicious and tender enough that I could pull them from the bone with chopsticks, but not very spicy, and a side of cold sautéed eggplant, also delicious and nicely al dente. Shoshanna had five pieces of sashimi that she loved, along with real wasabi that packed serious heat (not the diluted stuff we get in the west). We liked it all so much that we ordered an additional main course: lettuce leaves that we used like taco shells, stuffed with savoury roasted ground beef with a delicious oil/spice sauce mixture. Messy to eat, but amazingly good. The evening's alcohol was potato shochu (like sake, but made from potatoes), which was interesting but not nearly as good as sake, and Kirin beer.
Home to bed to prepare for another day of hiking tomorrow.