by Grace Oberst
For one of our weekends in Japan, my roommate and I decided to travel to Hakodate, about a 6.5 hour train ride from Tokyo. While researching places to visit in Hakodate, I learned about an active volcano nearby that was safe to climb. As a fan of safe adventure, I convinced my roommate that going to this volcano, Mt. Esan, would be a good idea. From Hakodate, we hopped on a bus for a two hour ride to Mt. Esan. The bus ride was far from boring; we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the ocean, for which my iPhone 5 camera could do no justice. Moreover, everywhere we passed had jaw-dropping scenery, and the lack of human presence in the more rural parts, especially near Mt. Esan, was breath-taking.
After two hours on the bus, the bus driver finally asked us where we were trying to go. We told him Esan, and while he knew no English, he was able to explain to us by drawing a map that we gotten off at the wrong bus stop. After a half hour of walking alongside the road, still enjoying the ocean view, we finally found a sign we thought was pointing towards Mt. Esan. We only had instructions I obtained from an online blog, which we used to ensure we were passing the right landmarks. Although I took one semester of Japanese before the trip, I didn’t know enough kanji characters to be able to decipher the signs posted along the way.
We eventually found the parking lot which we thought led to the Mt. Esan trail. Naturally, we were thrilled. We started hiking up the trail, which after an hour led to a lookout where we could see Mt. Esan in the distance. However, we had reached the highest point of that trail. As we continued along the trail, which seemed to only lead further from the volcano, we grew more and more confused as to where the real trail was. Eventually, the trail led to a road and we followed that road up and up until we reached a lookout point. The weather that day was extremely foggy, looking around us we could only see white, and as we continued to walk along the road, it only became foggier. Furthermore, the last bus would leave at 5 pm and there was no way to walk back the whole two-hour bus ride. Defeated, we had to begin our descent without having reached our intended destination.
Much to my chagrin, I later realized how close we were to finding the Mt. Esan trail. After returning to the U.S. when the summer was over, I went on Google Maps and traced our path to less than a mile from the parking lot we were trying to find. If the path had been less foggy, we might have seen how close we were. After finding this information, I promised myself that if I had the opportunity to return to Japan, I would visit Hakodate again and finally climb Mt. Esan.
While climbing Mt. Esan was not completely successful, I was not too disappointed since another challenging opportunity arose. The week before we left Japan, my roommate and three of our other GA Tech friends decided to climb Mt. Fuji. We were too late to reserve any of the huts on the mountain, so we decided to use another common method of ascending Fuji: bullet climbing. This method is essentially to hike through the night in order to see the sunrise at the summit. While no easy feat, we had seen pictures of elementary schoolers climbing Fuji, so how difficult could it be? (We did, in fact, see children on Mt. Fuji climbing more skillfully than us).
Several different trains took us from Tokyo all the way to the base of Mt. Fuji, where we purchased bus tickets that would take us to the 5th station, about half way up the mountain, the starting point for most Fuji climbers. Around 9 pm we started hiking, equipped with our headlamps and food. While the path was quite foggy, as soon as we passed the tree line we had an unbelievable view of the stars in the night sky.
The entire ascent was brutal. The elevation increase for just a few hundred feet was staggering, and for several sections of the mountain near the summit the only way to continue was by a mixture of hiking and rock climbing.
When I finally reached the summit it was 6 am, two hours after sunrise. As it turned out, the dense fog of that day prevented everyone from seeing the sunrise. Instead of being disappointed, however, I was just glad to be able to sit down and rest. Climbing Mt. Fuji was much more difficult than I ever imagined (although still not as difficult as having to carry four luggage bags from my apartment to the airport when we left Japan).
However, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to climb Mt. Fuji and this is certainly one of my favorite accomplishments. Mt. Fuji holds religious and spiritual meaning to many Japanese people, and there is actually a more traditional way to climb the mountain, following a path that starts at the base of the mountain and passes the Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine. This route avoids the touristy 5th station where I began the climb, and although I was not prepared on my trip to ascend the entire mountain, I think it would be an incredible challenge for the future.