Monday, October 23, 2006

Kawaguchi-ko, Japan

Friends: After climbing to 3,000 feet this morning to the plateau that Mount Fuji rises from I caught a glimpse of its shoulder through the clouds, taking my breath away. It is a monster. It seemed frighteningly close, poised to take a lunge at me.

Although Fuji is presently obscured by clouds, a ranger at the Mount Fuji Visitor Center in Kawaguchi-ko at the base of the mountain informed me that the upper part of the mountain is in the sun and above the clouds. According to his information I ought to able to see the top of Fuji from the fifth of the nine stations to the summit. It was 15 miles and 4,500 more feet of climbing from the the Visitor Center to the Fifth Station at just below 8,000 feet. The road up Fuji is a toll road. Bicyclists are charged 200 yen. I'll find a place to camp somewhere along the road before it ends some 5,000 feet below the summit, then set out to climb this mother tomorrow, though probably not all the way to its summit, as it is covered in snow.

It is said to take five hours to reach the summit from the end of the road and three to descend. The sprawling visitor center had several videos showing the summer-time mobs trudging up the various routes to the summit. It gets rough towards the top with ropes to hang on to, but much of the way it is a very well-trod thoroughfare with resting houses providing supplies. There is a weather station at the top. If I reach the summit, I could spend an hour hiking around the crater. Fuji last erupted in 1707 and is fully dormant. A 103-year old climbed it and countless children as well, so it shouldn't be too severe. For centuries neither foreigners nor women were allowed to climb Fuji. It was considered too sacred, for any but Japanese men to climb it. It will be very nice to get above the nasty weather I'm engulfed in now--cold and misty. Its the first time I've needed my Gore Tex jacket in over a week.

I'll be looking forward to a sento--bath house--when I return. I visited my second of the trip
after visit with the monkeys. I stumbled upon it by the train station in Yudanaka, a town of 11,000, thinking it was the tourist office. I was seeking information on how to get to the monkeys, just a few miles further. I realized it was a sento and not a tourist office, when I noticed lockers in the lobby and a row of shoes below and down a hallway someone carrying a towel. There was a path of footprints painted on the lobby floor to the entry of the sento that was permissible for shoe-wearers, though I received a small reprimand when I strayed from it. I had planned on taking advantage of the outdoor sento at a small hotel in the park if there had been monkeys hanging out nearby, as can sometimes happen. It was quite a bit more expensive than the train station sento, so with the absence of monkeys, I opted for the cheaper sento.

The sento at the train station was very similar to my baptismal in Hakodate, when I stayed at the Rider House, though I'm still not sure if I correctly followed the proper protocol. I knew enough to thoroughly scrub myself before dipping into the hot baths. The shower room consists of a row of foot high stools each with its own mirror and a nozzle on a cord and a bucket. On each occasion there have been two or three others vigorously washing themselves. I greatly prolonged my shower to match the length of everyone else.

There are three or four pools of hotter and hotter water to soak in. It may have been a mistake to resume riding after soaking in the hot water, as my legs felt like jelly afterward. All my energy had been steamed and soaked out of them. Fortunately my ride began with a 15-mile descent back to the valley floor of Nagano and then flat going for another 15 miles before dark. If it had been the reverse my legs may have collapsed, as they didn't seem to have any more resiliency than a strand of wet noodles.

Now, after two such indulgences, I can understand why John the Bikesmith of Bloomington, Indiana, who has been to Japan seven times, has been so actively encouraging me to take advantage of them. They have been reasonably priced at 400 yen. I've located the local sento here, so I'll have that to look forward to after my time on Fuji. It is so sacred that for a long time neither foreigners nor women were allowed to climb it.

Later, George

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