Hairballing Down Mt. Fuji|
Courtesy of P.Media
Sunday, July 18, 2004
Recently I was given the opportunity to accompany one of Japan’s leading extreme sports teams on some of their adventures – an opportunity that I was certainly not about to refuse. Being the summer season in Japan these adventures mainly consisted of kayaking and mountain biking, along with a crazy "street –riding" night in Tokyo, which will remain in my memory for a long time!
|Photo courtesy of P. Media |
|Shreddin' Mt. Fuji's flanks...|
Outdoor sports are fast becoming the rage in Japan, which initially bemused me. Having the impression that Japan was an overdeveloped and over populated country, I found it hard to believe there would be any outdoor areas left in which to play. I was to be proven wrong; although a rather large amount of people do live in Japan they are to be found predominantly in the cities and flat farming areas along the sides of rivers. The rest of the country has topography similar to that in New Zealand - vast sprawling mountain ranges with no shortage of rivers flowing between them and a labyrinth of tracks/trails suitable for biking or hiking. A paradise for those with an adventurous outdoor spirit.
Team Kaminari, which translates to mean "Lightening & Thunder" certainly had an abundance of this outdoor spirit. The three members that I got to know were Matsu, Seriyu, and Nomu. Matsu, (team name: Daihyou, translating to mean Boss) is without doubt the leader and master of design; it was his brain that continually dreamed up the adventures for which we were to undertake. Seriyu (team name: Tokkou Taichou, meaning Special Attack) continually amazed me with his antics throughout the summer. None more so than on the night of the street mountain biking in Tokyo when I watched in amazement as he rode his mountain bike down a moving escalator at ridiculous speed. Then 10 minutes later he decided to don a full-face helmet and body armor and descend three flights of stairs in a kayak. Gaining incredible speed in the first two flights he completely jumped the third landing flat onto concrete at the bottom. Not too many people get up and walk away from impacts like that – special attack he certainly is!!
Then there was Nomu or ‘Shinei Taichou’ (meaning Captain of Safety) he has to be one of the most visually pleasing freestyle kayakers in Japan. Some of you may remember Nomu as he made it to the quarter finials at the World Championships a few years ago at Full James. He can be found shredding up the waves and holes of Japan with enough ease to give anyone the belief that those tricks are easy. One thing’s for sure, when you’re on adventures with the likes of Matsu and Seiryu a captain of safety is someone you can’t do without.
I was given the team name of ‘Nunpa Taichou’ which if any of you can understand Japanese I know it will make you laugh. I provided plenty of entertainment for the crew due to my crazy grasp of the Japanese language but I know they enjoyed showing a foreigner some of their country’s highlights. For this I must say thanks – Arigato!!
So it was Matsu’s brain that came up with the idea to strap a mountain bike to our backpacks, walk to the top of Mt Fuji and ride down – Wow!! Having never seen Mt Fuji, except from photographs, I had an image in my mind of a beautifully shaped mountain, volcanic in nature and certainly not extinct. The mountain is actually 3776m high (22m higher than Mt Cook) and I was sure, however, that the walk to the top would not be difficult, but riding a mountain bike down evoked some feelings of doubt.
Having previously competed for New Zealand as a track cyclist I was confident I could hold my own on a bike, but I am the first to admit that I haven’t spent much time on the fat wheeled variety.
Editor's Note: This story was first published in New Zealand Adventure magazine
Mt Fuji or Fuji-san to the Japanese is both a pilgrimage site and an area surrounded with mystery and intrigue. It is defiantly Japan’s most well know landmark. As for the pilgrims, Fuji’s summit is shrouded in snow for ten months of the year, however, the snow is gone in July and August and the trekking season is open. Thirty thousand Japanese on average walk to the top and back each year during this time. The season closes on the 30th of August and the Japanese, being incredibly law-abiding citizens, stop at this time, however there is a two-week window of good conditions before the snow arrives, usually mid-September. This time suited us perfectly for a mountain bike trip.
|Photo courtesy of P. Media |
|The gruelling hike up...|
Why the mystery and intrigue? Fuji-san is surrounded by five lakes named ‘Fuji Go-Ko’ these lakes are exceptionally deep. The surprising thing is that all of them have rivers flowing out of them but no rivers in. Also Mt Fuji itself is in complete absence of a river flowing from its slopes. It is believed that the rain and snow that falls onto its slopes during the year seeps through the volcanic rock and underground canyons, eventually spilling through subterranean outlets into any one of the five lakes. It is estimated that this process takes a phenomenal eighty years. There is a particular area around Mt Fuji’s base that is magnetically charged, causing compasses to fail. Over recent years there has been a spate of deaths in the area resulting from trampers becoming lost and rescue attempts proving difficult.
These facts I discovered while bivying with my Team Kaninari friends at 2400m in the car park at the end of the road up. There are ten official checkpoints on Mt Fuji that operate during the season, five along the road and five on the walking track to the top. These checkpoints consist of small stores selling refreshments and memorabilia along with first aid stations. Checkpoint five at the road end is by far the largest, however, on the 3rd of September there were very few people around. We spent the evening packing our backpacks and tying on bikes, striving for good balance while protecting the derailleurs from possible knocks on the way up. I tied on a borrowed bike about two sizes two small for me but rideable and packed a wild-water kayaking helmet for head protection, a set of canyoneering kneepads, and stretchy bandages I planned to use for knee and shin protection on the decent. This prompted laughs and ribbing about my "special kayaking style" along with concerned looks from the captain of safety.
A MSR dinner followed by a cold night outside on the concrete saw us up at 4am, fed and beginning the walk to the top. I had to laugh when shortly after starting we met two girls who asked if we had a spare torch because their light wasn’t bright enough – it turned out to be the light on the screen of a mobile phone. We loaned them a head torch but they wouldn’t have needed it for long as within the hour a beautiful sun had risen above a sea of cloud, a fantastic sight and a great way to start the day.
We fell into the rhythm of a fairly slow but consistent pace, passing the checkpoints every hour or so. By about checkpoint seven the backpack was feeling heavier even though it was actually lighter due to the decrease in carried water. The few people we did see were all amazed to see us carrying bikes, comments that translated to "excellent," "first time I’ve seen that," "looks heavy," and "be careful." A lunch break at check point eight to boil up some bags of rice gave us the chance to absorb the views and catch a breath before the last section to the top. In total it took 6.5 hours to walk from the car park to the summit. It felt great to shed our backpacks and release our backs and legs from the burden of carrying a bicycle. From now on that bicycle would mean only one thing – FUN!!
The descent route was to be different to the route up; we chose to descend the bulldozer road! Yep that’s right, Mt Fuji has a dull dozer road all the way to the top, it’s used for access to one of Japan’s most important weather stations, a building situated on the highest point around Mt Fuji’s crater. Also, during the walking season the bulldozers supply the checkpoints and carry out any evacuations if necessary. From the summit down to checkpoint eight this road is comprised of a series of tight, steep switchbacks. After that it traverses above a massive crater (possibly a slip) and then plummets straight down the backside of the mountain at a nice, even gradient with practically no corners for about 15km.
|Photo courtesy of P. Media |
Bikes were gratefully untied and assembled, we geared up, high fives all round, and more laughs at my safety wear and we were off. The top section proved to be a cautious affair negotiating the switchbacks, avoiding the piles of incredibly loose scree on the corners and staying away from the drops. A short stop again at checkpoint eight and we were into the 15km of straight steep descending. By now I had learned two things; one, it pays not to be at the back - the combination of dropping through the cloud and the three front riders dust makes seeing clearly exceptionally difficult. Two, the volcanic rock crushed into tiny pieces by the year’s bulldozers feels like riding/slipping down a carpet of small ball bearings – nothing like the sensation of a polished wood or concrete veladrome.
I spent the next 30 minutes listening to the Captain of Safety’s screams in front of me. "Oooooh, Arragh, Wooo Hooo." I was constantly thinking weight back, braking if there’s corners, trying to ignore the back wheel sliding from side to side, going as fast as possible and hoping not to crash!! With speeds in the 90 km/hr range being reached by all of us a crash would have really tested the wild-water helmets potential as a MTB hat. A total of 45 minutes was spent on the descent but it’s fair to say that without the stops to shoot video and slides 30 minutes would be possible. 3776 m to 1440 m in 30 minutes, fantastic!!
We arrived at the main road that afternoon feeling dusty and tired but excited. A short ride down the road to the shuttle car and it was another round of high fives for Team Kaminari, We celebrated by going to the local Onsen and soaking our weary but satisfied bodies, watching the sun set on Mt Fuji. "Otskuri Suma Des ta" – Job well done.