House Hunters International: Sold!
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My Cairo Apartment Is…

Thank you for all the comments on Facebook and here on Cascadian Abroad about my house hunt!

And the winner is... House #3!

And the winner is… House #3!

Most of you liked House #3 the best and I guess you could sense my enthusiasm through my words. A few picked House #1 for its spacious kitchen. And no takers for House #2.

So yes, I chose House #3. It was easily my favorite place I saw during the house hunt. Interestingly enough, I was jet lagged and ready to stop for the day before I was convinced to see one more. I’m glad I powered through. Moving is hard. Starting a new job is hard. Doing both in a foreign country is exponentially harder.

I have been moved in now for a couple of days and I’m slowly learning its quirks and character. I really like the size, it’s not too big for one person and I can’t get lost.

Click any photo in the gallery to see a larger version and start a slideshow view

My first night, my landlady offered her driver to take me to the grocery store. I had already mapped out the walk to the store, but I gladly took her up on her offer. The driver helped me carry my bags and liters of water from the store to the car and from the car to my apartment. Thankfully, no stairs to climb!

My landlady is a cosmopolitan woman. She speaks many languages; her English is perfect. She grew up in a multicultural household. If I need anything, she has contacts throughout the city.

Click any photo in the gallery to see a larger version and start a slideshow view

On the weekend (Friday and Saturday here), we went driving through the neighborhoods of Maadi and she pointed out some shops and landmarks. There are many things to see and I’m slowly figuring out where I am. We went out to lunch, where we bumped into some of her family. I’ve heard Cairo is… “where everybody knows your name.”

After lunch, I went walking on the shopping street near my house. I got some school supplies at a stationery store and some bread at The Bakery Shop. There are many American storefronts I recognized: Cold Stone Creamery, The Body Shop, McDonald’s, Circle K, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Coffee Bean, Subway, Gold’s Gym, etc. In addition, there’s more coffee shops, grocery store, fruit stands, a wine/beer store, gelato, sushi, waffles, hamburgers, cupcakes, Egyptian food, etc.

What should I try on my next walkabout? Head to the comments section below to have your say!

House Hunters International: Cairo
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House Hunters International: Cairo

I like to watch House Hunters International, but I have a few problems with the show. I want less “house” and more “international.” Most of the show is spent on repeating the details of house 1, 2 and 3. And most of the buyers are demanding of Western standards and usually have unrealistic expectations of size, location and price. My favorite part is the last two minutes of the show where they reveal the house they “chose” and how they like living in that particular destination.

Despite my skepticism of reality TV, I decided to present three apartments (or “flats”) that I was shown in the search for my Cairo home. I think it’s interesting to see how people all over the world live and that’s probably what makes the show popular.

Most of the newcomers chose to live in the Cairo neighborhood called Maadi because it’s green; the tree-lined streets are a relief from city life. It has a walkable lifestyle, which was my favorite part of living in Japan. And there are many cafes and restaurants around—both Egyptian and foreign. The neighborhood is a haven for expats, but still has the local charms that I am looking for.

My wish list included:

  • 1 or 2 bedrooms
  • any floor
  • clean kitchen
  • budget between 4,000 to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($450 to $675)

Note: All of the apartments we saw are furnished, spacious and have air conditioning units and secure entrances.

For the floor levels below, I am using the American standard. Our bottom floor is called the first floor. Whereas, in most other countries, the bottom floor is the ground floor and the next floor up is considered the first floor. Try explaining that to American middle schoolers studying Spanish…planta baja, primer piso, segundo piso, etc.)

On another note, our real estate agent, Sherif, is the most patient man I have ever met. He juggled so many different likes and dislikes and personalities of our group. He deserves any commission he made—and more. He took us out on multiple days and arranged rental contracts with landlords all over Maadi.

Click any photo in the galleries below to see a larger version and start a slideshow view


House 1—Big on Kitchen & Style

  • 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($562)
  • 3rd floor
  • 2 bed, 1 bath

House 1 made the list because of its giant kitchen and plush living room, including a flat screen TV and two full size couches. It has a lot of decorative items like paintings, figurines and plants on the walls and surfaces. This is both a pro and a con. It made it feel like a place you want to live, but it also felt like you were living in someone else’s house. I prefer a simple style.

It has two bedrooms. The master has wooden floors and a comfortable bed with a large mirrored closet. The guest room has two twin beds for visitors. I would probably never use the second room.

The kitchen is very large with a full size dishwasher, six burner gas stove, microwave, refrigerator and a washing machine. I like the multiple wood cabinets and tile floors. It looks fully functional and ready to go on move-in day. House 1 is right in the middle of my budget.


House 2—Red Couch, Balcony & Vintage Tiles

  • 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($450)
  • 2nd floor
  • 2 bed, 1 bath

This apartment is a little more “shabby chic.” I liked some of its details like the red lantern lamp, red couch and chair. We had a red couch when we moved into our first house. I also like that it has a balcony on the shady side of the building. The two bedrooms were spacious and included a queen and a twin bed, but didn’t include any bedding or pillows. I may want to buy my own anyway!

The downsides were that it is a little dark; the kitchen is hiding in the back of the flat with no windows to let in the light. The living/dining room needs a few rugs to warm up the stark white tile floors. Although the kitchen is tiny, it has cool wall tiles that looked like vintage Arabic advertisements. This complex has a daycare in one of its units, but we were assured that the hours are when we are at school and it doesn’t operate on the weekends. House 2 is the cheapest flat.


House 3—Country Home

  • 5,800 Egyptian pounds ($650)
  • First floor
  • 1 bed, 1 bath

This place is unique because it is not located in an apartment complex. The downstairs of the owner’s house has been converted into an apartment. This place has the ultimate homey feel. You walk into a dining room with warm earth toned tiles and touches of red (my favorite color). It opens to the living room with a TV and floral couches. It has a private entrance as well as two doors that open to the outside patio.

The one bedroom is carpeted and has a king size bed and vanity. The kitchen is adorable (blue and white is another favorite color combination) and contains a refrigerator, microwave, toaster and a “kettle.” The bathroom has a washer and a shower with a door, but no bathtub like the previous two places. House 3 is the most expensive on the list.

I am pleasantly surprised by apartments in Cairo! I’ll report back in a few days with my pick, but in the meantime, do you think I should choose House 1, 2 or 3? Head to the comments section below to have your say!

Felucca Cruise on the Nile River
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Felucca Sail on the Nile River

During the first week of orientation, the school treated new staff to a sunset felucca (sailboat) ride on the Nile River.

From our hotel in Zamalek, we crossed the 6th of October Bridge and followed the east bank of the Nile River, the longest river in the world. We passed the historic Tahrir Square, the place where the 2011 revolution demonstrations were held. Near the square is the American Embassy.

We started the ride during the sunset, which provided gorgeous views. Our group divided between two boats and began a slow float.

The owner of the school pointed out some landmarks to us. On the other side, we could see the narrow Cairo Tower, which was just starting to light up for the evening. Next to it, was the Sofitel Hotel and the Cairo Opera House. Many boats were out because it was the weekend. It seems common to rent a party boat for a wedding or special occasion.

The land on both sides of the Nile is very green and lush, unlike the rest of Egypt. Take a look at Egypt on a satellite map; there’s a green ribbon snaking its way down the desert.

For that reason, farmers and landowners have always relied on the Nile as a source of water, especially during the season when it floods and leaves behind fertile land. In fact, ancient Egyptians thought that the god Hapy and the pharaoh could control the flooding. Additionally, the ancient people believed the river was a path from life to death and thereafter. It’s interesting how many civilizations connected their observations of nature to religion or spirituality.

Now, the river is still one of Egypt’s gems and symbols. Thank you to the school for a relaxing river float and introduction to life in Cairo.

What do you imagine when you think of the Nile? Head to the comments section below to take part in the conversation!


A peek of the pyramids in Giza from the international school.
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First Days in Cairo

Above: A peek of the pyramids in Giza from the international school.

I have a few photos and thoughts to share from this week. I flew in on Wednesday; redeye from PDX to JFK, nine-hour layover then a 10-hour flight to Cairo. At the airport, I met some Cascadians who will be teaching at my school! A teaching couple with two children from Seattle. I also met another teacher from Texas, a recent college grad from Chicago and a businessman from Virginia. On the flight, I talked to a band of brothers from NY who were vacationing in Cairo. Their mother was Egyptian and father was Syrian.

See also: “Why I’m Moving to Cairo by Myself”

We were picked up in Cairo by a representative of the school. The drive into Cairo was fascinating. There are millions of things I want to take a picture of. Wednesday was a mixture of “what the hell did I get myself into?” and “I got this!” Thankfully our travels to India, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia were good preparation.

Walkway along the Nile.

Walkway along the Nile.

People say that the drivers here are crazy, but I’ve yet to see anything shockingly bad. There are mostly cars, taxis and mini buses with a smattering of motorbikes and donkey carts. The honking is noisy.

Some "cool kids" in the streets of Cairo. Most women do not show their shoulders or arms.

Some “cool kids” in the streets of Cairo. Most women do not show their shoulders or arms.

The majority of people out and about are men. It’s a little different to see women so covered up—a mixture of head, body, and/or face. Some are in colorful headscarves (hijab). Some are in black robes with only the eyes showing. Some women don’t cover their head at all.

A mosque in Cairo

A mosque in Cairo

I’ve learned that Egypt is 90 percent Sunni Muslims and 10 percent Coptic Orthodox Christian. This is seen in the skyline; minarets with both crescent/half-moons and crosses, relatively.

Cairo

Cairo

I’m jet lagged so I keep hearing call to prayers at 3:30 or 4 a.m. The first time I heard it, I was a little shocked. It is loud. And unfamiliar. But by day three, I am used to it.

View of the city

View of the city

Cairo is shades of green and gray in the middle of the desert. The buildings outside of town are brick, concrete, brown and every shade of yellow sand. Rows of apartment buildings, many abandoned, with window AC units and satellites line the roads.

 

Fresh produce at a Cairo grocery store. The red fruit in the middle row is fresh dates.

Fresh produce at a Cairo grocery store. The red fruit in the middle row is fresh dates.

All of the fruit is organic; no sprays or pesticides. Agriculture is an important business. Farmers bring it into the city by donkey cart. I saw fresh dates red in color. Fresh dates, who knew such a thing existed. Don’t mind me, I get excited about fresh fruit and produce that tastes like it’s supposed to.

The orientation at my school is really well organized and I feel supported by the teaching and admin staff. There are about 20 new teachers here from New Zealand, all over the UK and the U.S. Everyone is really nice, has taught abroad before and is open minded. No one is scared by the political or religious climate and I’m learning there really isn’t any reason to be. It’s business as usual after the Revolution.

More to come later about the apartment search and the felucca ride on the Nile River!


Pastries at one of the many sweet shops in Cairo

Pastries at one of the many sweet shops in Cairo


A small shop in Cairo

A small shop in Cairo


A felucca boat on the banks of the Nile River

A felucca boat on the banks of the Nile River


An apartment complex in Cairo

An apartment complex in Cairo


Daily life in Cairo

Daily life in Cairo


Two young boys in Cairo

Two young boys in Cairo


The Satellite Transmission Station in Maadi.

The Satellite Transmission Station in Maadi.


One of the ubiquitous street snack stands

One of the ubiquitous street snack stands

Flags of Cascadia and Egypt
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Why I’m Moving to Cairo by Myself

Today I am starting a new leg of a travel and teaching journey. This time, I will be without Robert—my husband, partner in crime and this blog’s master.

“Why am I moving to Cairo by myself?”

Long story short, we both received job offers we couldn’t refuse. Unfortunately, they were on different continents. I received mine first and we were all set to jet off when Robert’s opportunity came along. We did some agonizing and back and forth and landed on this decision.

I will be teaching high school English at an international school in Cairo, Egypt. Robert will be a technology manager for a company in Oregon. We are both really excited to pursue our new ventures and have a chance to “try out” two entirely different lifestyles. We’ll evaluate as we go and decide what works best in the long run… or try something else!

I am cautious, but not scared to move to the most populous Arab country as a white, Western woman. When we told others we were moving to Japan, we received a variety of warnings about the Yakuza (mob), sexual harassment on the train, train/traffic accidents, you name it, from people who had never been to Japan, but only seen things on the news or the internet. Thankfully, we were not scared off and our experience living in Japan was amazing! Japan was the safest I have ever felt anywhere. I knew that I was spoiled and that whenever we left to travel or return to the U.S., I would have to get my guard back up.

Similarly, many people have warned me about Cairo. And yes, there is probably more reason to worry than with Japan. I will have to be more aware of where I’m going and who is around me. I will have to think about my appearance and being modest (not a new concept for me—many Asian countries like Japan are quite modest in dress especially in religious sites and I had quite a learning experience about dress in India). From where I stand, these things are not deal breakers. I’m not scared of the Islamic religion or Muslim people. I have read all of the travel alerts and I have done my research. I have asked advice from my new co-workers and people who have visited or lived in Egypt. Instead of giving into fear, I decided to go and form my own opinion.

I realize that I have the privilege to make the decision to live anywhere I want. And I have the privilege as an American citizen to leave whenever I want. Those statements aren’t true for most of the rest of the world.

I forgot this was supposed to be a long story short! Stay tuned on the blog as I try to make sense of a whole new world (a favorite karaoke song), more information about my school and its students, my local wanderings and travels, photos of pyramids and felucca rides down the Nile, food and coffee reviews (!!!) and Robert’s visits and impressions.

Have you ever been to Egypt? Do you think I should be worried? Why or why not? Head to the comments section below to take part in the conversation!

Looking back toward Fort McHenry from the cannon mounts near the Patapsco River.
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Fort McHenry: The Birth of a National Anthem

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, American colonial history is an afterthought. Our history is mostly natural or belonging to the region’s Native American tribes. But on the east coast, the birth of our country is on full display in every city and neighborhood. The backdrops of key moments in our nation’s history are now national parks, museums and monuments.

Situated on Baltimore’s Locust Point jutting into the Patapsco River, Fort McHenry is one of those places. The star-shaped fort played a major role in the War of 1812, but it is best known as the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Over two days in September 1813, soldiers held off the mighty British naval fleet in the Battle of Baltimore. The standoff would become a turning point in the war for the American forces.

A statue of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star-Spangled Banner, greets visitors to Fort McHenry.

A statue of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star-Spangled Banner, greets visitors to Fort McHenry.

A young lawyer named Francis Scott Key witnessed the battle from the sea. Key was sent by President James Madison to negotiate the release of several prisoners, including Maryland physician William Beanes. Beanes was eventually released in part due to his willingness to care for both American and British soldiers during the war. The mission helped set a precedent for the rights of humanitarian workers in war zones.

The original draft of the Star-Spangled Banner in Francis Scott Key's own handwriting is on display at the Fort McHenry visitor center.

The original draft of the Star-Spangled Banner in Francis Scott Key’s own handwriting is on display at the Fort McHenry visitor center.

On the morning of September 14, 1813, the results of the battle were still unknown. In the “dawn’s early light,” Key watched as the giant garrison flag—now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.—was raised from the heart of Fort McHenry, indicating the fort had survived the battle. Inspired, he jotted the first draft of what would become The Star-Spangled Banner.

Did you know? The Star-Spangled Banner is sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the official song of an 18th-century London gentleman’s club who gathered weekly for concerts, dinner and a lot of drinking. 

The garrison flag flies in the courtyard of Fort McHenry. The flag has 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing each of the colonies at the time. It was the only version of the flag with more than 13 stripes.

The garrison flag flies in the courtyard of Fort McHenry. The flag has 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing each of the colonies at the time. It was the only version of the flag with more than 13 stripes.

Today, the story of America’s national anthem is the main draw for visitors to the fort. The visitor’s center welcomes you with a small museum featuring artifacts from the war and displays about the evolution of the anthem in popular culture. A short movie offers a great crash course about the War of 1812 and how Key’s came to pen the anthem. At the end of the presentation, the screen recedes into the ceiling, revealing a window looking out to the fort and the massive garrison flag waving proudly while the Star-Spangled Banner plays.

During the park ranger-led Flag Talk, participants unfurl and hold a replica of the garrison flag that flies above Fort McHenry. At 30 feet by 42 feet, it required more than 30 people to hold it steady.

During the park ranger-led Flag Talk, participants unfurl and hold a replica of the garrison flag that flies above Fort McHenry. At 30 feet by 42 feet, it required more than 30 people to hold it steady.

After the movie, we stepped into the oppressive summer heat for a Flag Talk. A young park ranger explained the story of the 30-feet by 42-feet flag as the gathered crowd unraveled a full-size replica. Holding the flag in your hands and seeing how many people it takes to keep it aloft is awe-inspiring. It’s a physical reminder of a time when Americans worked together for the survival of our country.

Women dressed in period costumes demonstrate how soldiers would have made dried pasta during the 19th century.

Women dressed in period costumes demonstrate how soldiers would have made dried pasta during the 19th century.

We wandered through the fort itself and watched as history came alive. Most of the buildings are open, including old bomb shelters, barracks and the armory. The claustrophobic feeling of life in the barracks is palpable. The armory building has a slight lean from British bombs. You can look out over the river and see the ghosts of the Royal Navy filling the horizon.

Fort McHenry is a physical reminder of another time. A time when Americans banded together for the common good. It’s a lesson regularly forgotten and relearned in times of tragedy. In these divisive times, it’s a good lesson to keep in mind…

What does the Star-Spangled Banner mean to you? How do you feel when you walk through historic sites like Fort McHenry? Head to the comments section below to take part in the conversation!

If You Go…

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore. Follow the Fort McHenry signs on the freeway as many GPS directions are incorrect. Admission to the fort is $10 for adults age 16 and older and is valid for seven days. The visitor center, museum and informational movie appear to be free.

A sign pointing toward the trail to Mount Fuji's summit.
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Gear, Tours and Tips: Making the Most of Your Mt. Fuji Climbing Experience

Reaching the summit of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji is often on the short list of activities for visitors, but few realize the small window of opportunity for novice climbers. At more than 12,000 feet of elevation, the terrain is only passable for about 8-10 weeks from mid-July to early-September.

The view of the sunrise from the summit of Mount Fuji makes climbing through the night all worth it.

The view of the sunrise from the summit of Mount Fuji makes climbing through the night all worth it.

Reaching the Top

The top of Japan’s tallest peak can be reached a few different ways, but most climbers attempt to arrive at the summit for the sunrise. Arriving by 4:30 a.m. requires climbing during the middle of the night. While it’s possible to make all of the arrangements yourself, it’s much simpler to book a tour through one of the many companies leading both local and foreign visitors to the top.

We made our summit in August 2014 and chose Willer Express as our travel company. With daily tours departing from near Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, Willer Express provides bus transportation to and from Fuji’s 5th Station, an English-speaking guide, mountain hut lodging at the 8th Station, three meals and a visit to an onsen (hot springs).

Gear Up

With the 90ºF temperatures of the Tokyo summer, it’s hard to imagine you could be fighting off hypothermia less than 24 hours later. Having the right gear may be the most important consideration in making the climb an enjoyable experience.

Most tour companies offer an affordable gear package, which can be convenient for novice climbers or those traveling light. If you bring your own gear, consider the following items at a minimum:

Lightweight daypack with rain cover. Bring a bag just large enough to carry your gear. From Tokyo to Fuji’s summit, you’ll experience a 40-60ºF decrease in temperature, so you’ll need to be able to swap gear on and off along the way.

Waterproof jacket and pants. When it rains, it pours. Literally. On our summit, it started raining about 20 minutes before we reached the mountain hut at Station 8. By the time we arrived, we were soaked to the bone, even with our rain gear. Hut employees won’t allow you inside until you are dry and will greet you with leaf blowers and towels to keep the rainwater outside.

Waterproof hiking boots/shoes. With the steep ascent and descent, you’ll want properly-fitting hiking shoes with good traction. I’d recommend buying these beforehand and testing them in the wild rather than renting an ill-fitting pair of shoes on the morning of the climb. A pair of gaiters isn’t a terrible idea either to keep rain from entering via the tops of your shoes.

Cold-weather clothing. Poor clothing choices are one of the most common mistakes made by Fuji first-timers. Average temperatures at the summit are around 40ºF, but can feel much closer to freezing due to wind chill and the aforementioned rain. Dress in layers so you can add and remove as needed during the climb.

The terrain on the ascent of Mount Fuji varies from flat, volcanic rock to steep, rocky peaks. The right gear will make your experience all the more enjoyable.

The terrain on the ascent of Mount Fuji varies from flat, volcanic rock to steep, rocky peaks. The right gear will make your experience all the more enjoyable.

Hiking poles. Poles aren’t necessary for the ascent, but will come in handy on the long, steep descent. You can purchase a souvenir wooden pole and can have it stamped at each of Fuji’s stations to mark your progress. Make sure you have gloves if you choose the wooden pole as it’s more for looks than utility.

Hats. You’ll be climbing both in the sun during the day and in the cold at night. Consider a brimmed hat for keeping the sun away and a hat that will cover your ears for early-morning climbing.

Gloves. Bring warm, durable, waterproof gloves with good grip. I had warm gloves, but once they were wet, they were no longer warm. You’ll also be using your hands a lot near the final ascent to the summit, so they’ll need to stand up to sharp rocks.

Mt Fuji Headlamps

The view from our hut window around 1 a.m… a never-ending string of headlamps joining us for the climb to the summit

Headlamp. You’ll need your hands free to navigate the rocks near the summit, making a headlamp a better choice than a handheld flashlight. One of my favorite sights was waking up at the mountain hut at 1:30 a.m. and seeing the endless headlamps coming up the trail behind us.

Sunglasses/sunscreen. Fuji is exposed to all the elements, especially the sun. Bring a good quality sunscreen and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Water and snacks. Our tour company recommended three liters of water per person for the entirity of the climb. You can carry it all with you or bring one and purchase additional bottles at stations along the way. While it’s more economical to bring your own, it might be worth the extra yen to lighten your load.

Change of clothes. Bring a change of clothing and shoes, especially if you choose a package that ends with an onsen visit. The ride back to Tokyo will be much more pleasant in a clean outfit.

Japanese yen. Mount Fuji is one of the few places in Japan where you’ll find pay toilets. At 200-300 yen ($2-3 USD) per turn, you’ll want to budget accordingly. You can also buy additional water, snacks and gear at each of the stations. Japan is a very cash-oriented society, so carrying large amounts of money is not unusual.

Camera and extra batteries. The views on the mountain are breathtaking and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take photos. I don’t recall electrical outlets in the mountain hut, so make sure you have extra batteries or a portable charger.

Extras. If you are prone to elevation sickness, oxygen canisters can be purchased along the way, but you might consider bringing one with you in case canisters are sold out. In our group, the first case of elevation sickness from the thin air showed up around the 7th Station.

The sleeping arrangements in the mountain huts are cozy and booked solid. Be prepared to make some new friends!

The sleeping arrangements in the mountain huts are cozy and booked solid. Be prepared to make some new friends!

Tips

Stash your extra clothes, shoes and gear at the 5th Station. There are coin lockers at the 5th Station. I wish I’d stashed a complete set of dry clothes, including shoes, in one of those lockers. While the onsen was great, it was awful having to put wet clothes on afterward. It’s also a cheap way to lighten your load up the mountain.

Take the tour. Definitely spring for the tour company (we used Willer Express and would recommend them again) and take them up on their entire rental package. Mountain hut reservations often fill up quickly, but the tour companies have standing reservations.

Prepare for the rain and cold. I had a base layer, cotton shirt, DriFit pullover, fleece jacket and rain jacket and my teeth were still chattering at the summit. My gloves were soaked and freezing. My two layers of socks were the only thing standing between my toes and frostbite. Choose layering clothes as the temperature difference between the 5th Station and the summit is pretty extreme.

Check the calendar. The climbing season is short. If you’re planning to climb Fuji, make sure to schedule your trip between early July and mid-September. While you can still climb in the off-season, shops and huts are closed and trails are not maintained and the ascent can be dangerous for inexperienced climbers.