Fujikawaguchiko | Aokigahara Forest and Climbing Fuji

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Our second stop in Japan, a small village at the foot of Mount Fuji. We were both excited to get here as although we both loved Toyko, having gone straight there after being in Hong Kong for so long we were both desperate to properly get out of the city and breathe in some fresh countryside air (and of course, to see the infamous Mount Fuji). Here we were staying at K's House, I would really recommend this place. The shared lounge area is huge, comfortable and great for meeting people. As climbing season is over, we didn't really have much expectation for doing activities in Fujikawa. We just planned a break from the city somewhere quiet, and of course we wanted to see Fuji. As it happened, we ended up having an action packed couple of days.

In the morning after our first night, we randomly decided to visit Aokigahara Forest, for no particular reason other than I thought it looked nice in the pictures on the hostel wall. By time we got to the forest the thick cloud that had obscured the sky the day before had cleared up and we got our first glimpse of Fuji. We started by walking along a trail between some of the caves and visited both the wind cave and the ice cave, both of which were nothing special, I wouldn't really recommend paying to go in. The forest itself, however, is spectacular, it has grown over volcanic rock from one of Fuji's last eruptions, hence one of its many nicknames - 'Lava Forest'. I was spellbound by the forest, it's incredibly dense giving it an eerie quietness, blocking off any sound from the outside. The way the ground wavers up and down, it's as though the lava literally froze mid flow. It is a real fairy tale forest.

We ended up walking for a good few hours up one of the mountains alongside the forest. We came across a small house on top of one of the smaller mountains where we paid ¥150 to go up on the rooftop where we were greeted by the most spectacular view of Fuji. By now it was midday and the sky was azure blue, with just a thin layer of cloud in front of Mount Fuji, giving an indication to just how incredibly tall it is. It was quite breathtaking to see the Aokigahara Forest sprawling beneath us - we now understood why it also has the nickname 'The Sea of Trees'.

After this stop we ended up getting quite lost, after some time following one trail we began to think we had taken a wrong turning (all the signs are in Japanese) and figured we were taking one which would lead us over all three mountains. As there had been talk in the hostel that morning of a few of us climbing Fuji the next day, we didn't want to exhaust ourselves too much, so ended up scaling down the side of the mountain. This took us what seemed like a very long time, but eventually we were greeted by the very welcoming sight of Lake Seiko, and very shortly after the bus which took us back to the village.

A couple of days after our visit to the forest, Ben discovered a VICE documentary about Aokigahara which gave us a harrowing insight into the forests third nickname - 'Suicide Forest'. I'm glad that I watched this after we went, as it would probably have ruined the magic I felt walking through it - knowing that most of the signs in Japanese we saw were actually words encouraging those who come to the forest with the intention of committing suicide to reconsider the value of their life. Also, when we got lost instead of thinking of it as a lighthearted adventure, I would probably have been expecting to discover a suicide corpse at every turn. In retrospect, however, the knowledge of this darker side to the forest accentuates that surreal other-worldliness I really could feel walking through it.

That night we met up with the guys we met that morning who were talking about climbing Fuji, we really were going to climb the great mountain! Someone else in the hostel had climbed it that day and said it was perfectly fine. So off we went to buy some extra layers to keep us warm at the top.

The the day of the climb was the most crystal clear day of our entire trip to Japan, the sky was impossibly blue and the ground temperature was warm enough to not wear a jacket. We stocked up on bananas and other snacks to keep our energy levels high, as all the little rest stops and huts closed along with the end of climbing season in mid September and caught the bus up to station five.

The views we saw climbing Fuji were just unbelievable, even from the beginning at station five. The climb itself was hard and towards the top the conditions where nothing less than brutal. Apparently with the wind factored in the real feel at the top was around -35 celsius, I have never been in conditions that cold before (and for the first time I was pining to be back in the Hong Kong heat..) the combination of being so-cold-it-takes-your-breath-away and the air being so thin, made the steep climb up extraordinarily difficult. I definitely had a few 'I'm never going to be able to make it down' moments. I saw a number of people going up wearing shorts.. I don't even know how. I was wearing about five layers and every bone in my body felt like ice. I didn't feel a normal temperature until hours afterwards. When we got to the bottom everyone who had climbed were waiting for the bus in relative silence, the look on everyone's made me feel slightly less pathetic about my own feelings near the top of Fuji - one should not take this climb lightly that's for sure! I imagine during climbing season where it is significantly warmer it would be very pleasant, with all the huts and rest stops open too. If you are going to climb off-season, I wouldn’t recommend doing it too many weeks either side, even when there is no snow yet. That wind chill is ruthless.

This experience certainly taught me why the turn of phrase 'to conquer a mountain' exists.