Climbing symmetry

Climbing symmetry

Climbing symmetry

Recently, I went to Japan on an 'autumn colours'-viewing trip with a bunch of close friends. While autumn was a tad disappointing, the country itself was remarkably beautiful with technology showcasing itself in every walk of life, and the highlight was the gorgeous Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji, also called Fujisan, is considered to be the spiritual home of the Japanese, who believe that the mountain has mystical energy, and worship it. It is at an elevation of 3,776 metres above sea level and is snow-capped for a good part of the year. Over centuries, the sheer beauty of the mountain has inspired a number of artists and poets.

And UNESCO has recognised 25 sites of culture within the Fuji locality, including the mountain and the shrine Fujisan Hong Sengen Taisha. Mount Fuji is a two-hour train ride away from Tokyo and can be accessed from the capital. In fact, on a clear day, it's visible to the south-west of Tokyo.

Mount Fuji is a relatively young volcano, having gained its present shape approximately 10,000 years ago due to multiple accumulations of lava, lapilli and ash from repeated eruptions.

Typical of a composite volcano, the mountain has a smooth shape and a wide base, creating a beautiful skyline as it narrows to its peak. It sits on the 'triple junction' of the Pacific plate, the Philippine plate and the Eurasian plate, all converging beneath the mountain. The last eruption was in December 1707, when volcanic ash fell on Tokyo.

Myth-makers

The creation of Fujisan is a much-told legend. The tale goes that a woodcutter was awoken by a loud noise coming from within the earth and found that the flatland near his home had become a beautiful, majestic mountain, and he named it Fujisan, the immortal mountain. The soaring peak is said to be the home of Konohanasakuya, the Kami of Mount Fuji (Shinto gods are called kami).

According to local myths, Fujisan was first climbed in 663 AD (and has been continuously attempted since then), more as a pilgrimage, tapping the holiness unique to it. An approximate 3,00,000-plus people climb it every year, with the summer months of July and August being the official climbing months. Climbing in other months is strongly discouraged due to severe weather conditions. Surprisingly, women were not allowed to climb till the 1870s.

In fact, my present visit to Fujisan evoked memories of my climb in the summer of August 2002, when I was posted in Japan. In my first summer, I was intrigued by the mountain and convinced two other friends to join me in trying to climb it. We set out with a lot of enthusiasm, a solid food hamper of chutney pudi and dosa, and curds and rice, totally oblivious to the challenges of climbing the mountain.

Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations, with the first station at the foot of the hill and the 10th at the summit. Paved roads go up to the 5th station, from where the climb begins. There are four trails, and in 2002, we were unaware of any such info and blindly followed the crowd, from Gotemba, the 5th station. Apparently, this is by far the lowest of the four trails, starting at 1,400 metres, with another 2,400 metres to go, and consequently, the longest trail. The ascent takes seven to 10 hours and goes along a terrain of lava rocks. Mountain huts and refreshment stops are available at higher levels. The climb is generally after sunset, to protect the climbers from the heat.

Nowadays, one has to submit a hike plan before a climb, but back then, we just followed a group of climbers and were ill-prepared with no climbing shoes, just sneakers, no head torch, just a hand torch, in a salwar kameez (straight from work), with the cold and rain biting into us from the 7th level onwards, and no first aid. Nowadays, climbers are advised to carry oxygen canisters along with altitude-sickness medicine, and stretch the climb over two nights. No 'bullet climb', as they call the one-night climb.

After sunset, we commenced our ascent. The first leg was easy, like a walk in Lal Bagh, the next being a little more testing. From the 7th level onwards, the ascent was steep with big lava rocks to cross, and from 8th onwards, it was not only steep but one had to pull oneself across big lava rocks all the way to the top.

In fact, the trekking pole picked up at the 5th level was a godsend. As the ascent got tough, the food and water that we carried got heavier and we decided to carry them in our tummies instead. While the dosa and curd rice were really welcome, it slowed down our progress and we reached the 8th level hut only by 2 am. The rain gods also worked against us and lashed Typhoon 13, heavy rain with consequent cold. The warmth of the hut at the 8th level was just too tempting and we succumbed to a warm cup of cocoa and a quick two hours of sleep, only to oversleep and miss the dawn.

At the summit, there is a crater of approximately 600 metres and eight peaks, the local lore says that "connecting these eight peaks makes it look like the Buddha sitting on a lotus."

On the other hand, the descent on this Mars-like terrain was relatively easy and we could cover the return in four hours by keeping a good pace and being dependent on the trekking pole for breaking the momentum.

Coming back to 2017, the information available on Fujisan is humongous. Informed decisions can be taken on the timing, routes and equipment to be carried. I'm given to understand that a vending machine is available at the 8th level. Except for flushing toilets, all the facilities of modern-day living can be accessed on the mountain.

Instead itinerary

However, since we were not planning to climb, having gone in the autumn, we enjoyed the lava and bat caves near Lake Saiko, the healing village 'Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nemba', a cruise on Lake Kawaguchi and beautiful Hakone, with its numerous onsens (natural hot springs), and the ethereal views of Fujisan's neighbourhood.

My biggest learning from our present visit was the concern shown for preserving the Fujisan environment. A charter implemented way back in 1998 brought a pledge to preserve and care for the abundant gifts of Fujisan, and to pass on these gifts to future generations.

Our first two days were typhoon-affected (typhoon 22). So the most beautiful view of Fujisan eluded us. But on the day of departure, we were up much before the crack of dawn to get a 'much-prayed-for' view of Fujisan. And hey presto! The cloud curtain lifted and we saw Fujisan from our room. It was a red Fujisan, unbelievably beautiful. And she was gorgeously grand.

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