Mount Fuji by moonlight

22:50, Jun 16 2013
Mount Fuji
CLIMB BY MOONLIGHT: Mount Fuji post office at the summit.

I'm halfway up Japan's tallest mountain and I'm in trouble.

It's 11pm and the head torch that has been reliably lighting my way for the past four hours is starting to flicker. I steady myself in the darkness, fumbling for a rock to cling to, and turn it back on. An insipid beam of light trickles out for a few seconds and then disappears again. The batteries are dead. Muttering a few choice words, I take some deep breaths to try and calm the rising panic and wonder what on earth to do. I'm halfway up Mount Fuji on my own, in the dark, with no spare batteries. Whoops.

Luckily I'm not the only soul on the mountain. With its iconic status in Japanese folklore, Mount Fuji attracts well over 300,000 climbers annually, many of whom aim to complete the steep ascent in time to watch sunrise from the top.

The conventional approach to engineering this early-morning arrival is to climb much of the mountain in the afternoon and early evening, spend a few hours attempting to sleep on the floor of one of the handful of huts dotting the mountain, then finish the climb in the pre-dawn darkness. But thanks to some questionable planning and a correspondingly late arrival, I have decided in my infinite wisdom to do the climb all in one go through the night. A swarm of dotted lights pinpointing other climbers below me suggests I am not alone in this plan. With some relief, I realise that I could at least wait for these climbers, then follow closely behind until I reach one of the mountain huts.

But as my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and my panic subsides, I realise that there is another option. Mount Fuji is well-known for attracting volatile weather conditions and its summit is frequently shrouded in cloud, but this particular evening the night sky is completely clear. Below me I can see the lights of towns and cities stretching off to the coast, while above me an almost full moon shines brightly. I could climb by moonlight.

I set off again over the volcanic rocks and a few hours later reach the 3776-metre summit to begin the wait for dawn. Despite forgetting spare batteries, I have heeded advice to bring warm clothes. Thermals had seemed ridiculous in the 30-degree late-afternoon heat of Tokyo, but I gratefully put on the entire contents of my backpack - thermals, two sweatshirts, two T-shirts, raincoat, woollen hat and gloves - and then, like an enthusiastic boot-camper, break out a few star jumps in an effort to stay warm. There is a handful of us at the summit, but it is far too cold for small talk beyond grunts of greeting.

As sunrise approaches, the sky morphs from an imperceptibly deep purple to a glorious fiery orange until the sun pops up over the horizon. Before long it is roasting hot and the thermals come off again. After a bout of over-zealous photography, I set off through the volcanic scree on the hour-long walk around the summit's crater. The terrain is barren, with an observation station perched on the highest point and a cluster of huts where climbers are milling about, buying expensive snacks and getting their wooden walking sticks branded.

Unbelievably there's also a tiny post office up here, and I have come armed with postcards to mail. Finally, having exhausted the range of attractions at the summit, I begin the trek back down the mountain.

I arrive at the bottom a few hours later and retrieve my wallet from the depths of my backpack to buy a bus ticket back to Tokyo. As I rifle through the unfamiliar banknotes, I find a receipt with a short list of errands scrawled on the back: "Buy postcards. Buy batteries."

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