People used to have to walk up Mt Fuji all the way from the bottom but nowadays, thanks to the automobile, you can catch a bus to a station about half-way up the mountain and start from there. It takes about four or five hours of not-too-difficult walking to get to the top and in the summer months, it’s very popular to climb at night and watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain. Or rather, as close as you can get to the top of the mountain before you have to form an orderly queue behind all the other hundreds of people who want to see the sunrise. Once you’ve seen the sun come up, you can then join the queue for a bowl of hot noodles at the station at the top or to get yourself something from one of the many vending machines on top of Japan’s highest mountain. Historically, there were 10 stations on the route up Fuji-san where you could stop for a rest and something to eat or drink. The one at the top is the 10th station and the one where people start from now is the fifth station. The first, second, third and fourth stations are no longer in use and are in varying states of disrepair. I know this because I once accidentally climbed Mt Fuji from the bottom. I learned my lesson from that unenjoyable experience and the next year caught a bus to the fifth station and had a much better time of it walking from there.
In fact, there are four fifth stations and four ways up Mt Fuji so, thanks to the roads, there are also four ways to cycle to a Mt Fuji fifth station. Two of these roads are used for cycling events. The road to the Kawaguchiko fifth station is used for the Mt Fuji Hill Climb mass cycling event but with a length of 24km and an average gradient of 5.2 per cent and maximum of 7.8 per cent, anyone can get to the top of that. For the truly ambitious, the climb to do is to the Subashiri fifth station. The time trial up this 11.4km road has become a feature of the Tour of Japan cycling race and must be one of the tougher regular time trials around. According to the Climb by Bike website, the profile looks like this:
It claims the maximum gradient is 16 per cent but both Dimitri’s and my GPS’s* recorded at least 22 per cent. For those readers to whom gradients mean nothing, the climb started steep, got rather steep, went back down to steep again and then went up to outrageously steep. I think it went to a little bit less outrageously steep in the last three kilometres or so but I wouldn’t know, as I gave up after about seven-and-a-half kilometres or so (probably closer to eight, but there’s no sense in trying to blow my trumpet here). Dimitri got to the top and did a quick imitation of the pope:
I had recently taken to noting that there is no such thing as a difficult mountain, just people who make it difficult for you by riding up it faster than you can. In the case of Fuji, I’m clearly wrong. It really is a difficult mountain but could be less difficult if ridden on a bike with very low gears. I think I could have got up it on the Trucker but the lowest gear on my Bianchi (39×25) proved to be not low enough. Dimitri and I had already ridden over one group of mountains to get to the base of Mt Fuji and he had already impressed on me that I didn’t have a hope of keeping up with him, so to avoid more loss of face, I pulled over to top up my water bottle from the last of a plastic bottle I had in my back pocket and let Dimitri go up the road. I hadn’t brought enough to drink, which only added to my misery as I had to try and ration sips of water to one every kilometre. Luckily there were markers every 200m on the way up to remind me of how slowly I was going and I managed quite well while the incline was about 10 per cent but after a short (relative) dip of about 7 per cent, it started getting steeper and my cadence slowly dropped to 30. That is, I was turning the pedals a full revolution just once every two seconds. I watched the gradient creep up to 13, 14, 15 then 16 per cent and admitted defeat and got off and started walking. While I was walking, the incline got up to 22 or 23 per cent on my GPS. When it got back down to 15, I hopped on the bike again but found my legs had nothing left to give. I tried riding as far as I could, then walking a little and did this a couple of times until it was clear I couldn’t keep it up and the road ahead was giving no indication of levelling out. Walking was pretty slow going, so in the end I decided just to turn around and head back down the mountain and hope Dimitri didn’t wait very long for me at the top. It turns out he had to do a bit of walking as well over the steeper parts. Here’s a video from his bike camera showing him zig-zagging (or tacking, as we call it in sailing) across the road to try and moderate the gradient. It doesn’t look all that steep on the camera, but you’ll have to trust me on this one. Also, something odd’s happened on the video – forward to about 45 seconds in and it’ll start. I’ve put it on youtube and shortened it to a minute and at least there’s not that big pause at the beginning any more.
* Just a little punctuation footnote from here: We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations: for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Here we also should italicize this “word as word,” but not the ‘s ending that belongs to it. Do not use the apostrophe+s to create the plural of acronyms (pronounceable abbreviations such as laser and IRA and URL*) and other abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym that ends in “S”: “We filed four NOS’s in that folder.”)