Fuji-san. The iconic active volcano we’ve all seen in photographs and movies looming over nearby Tokyo. It’s an irresistible setting to escape the megalopolis, and a considerable goal for those aspiring to reach its summit. Rising to 3,776 meters (12,380 feet), Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has been a sacred site in Shintoism since at least the 7th century.
Climbing Mount Fuji was one of two activities around which we organized the beginning of our trip, along with the ill-fated Elephant Festival in India. Our friend Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and climbed it too – although he’s much faster and seems to have sprinted to the top!
With over 200,000 people scaling Mount Fuji every year, this is an extremely popular activity with locals and tourists alike. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and a number of preparations should be made to have the best experience. Here are some things we learned.
1. Plan Ahead!
Due to its terrain and high altitude climbing Mount Fuji is only possible during the summer months of July and August. Unfortunately, most of Japan is quite hot in the summer so there’s a trade-off between being able to hike the volcano or being comfortable when exploring the Japanese cities.
Traditionally hikers aim to summit Fuji just before sunrise in order to witness the spectacular view – some have said it’s the most beautiful in all of Japan. Since the hike takes anywhere from 5-7 hours, this requires either getting a late start and hiking through the night or booking a guesthouse halfway up the mountain. While guesthouses are plentiful, they fill up early in the season. When Sam and I called to book a bed about a month in advance, we were told that all beds were reserved in every guesthouse for the entire season! Our only option was to hike through the night and try to make it to the top by sunrise.
2. Pick Your Route Carefully
There are four hiking routes to the summit of Mount Fuji – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – so you need to select the one that makes the most sense for you. Each trail is divided into a number of segments with stations marking the end of each section. Stations can be anything from a single hut with restroom facilities to small villages of guesthouses complete with restaurants and warming huts. Most stations offer a service where they will brand your walking stick with a unique stamp for around $2. Collecting a stamp at every station is a fun way to turn your walking stick into a great souvenir (and walking sticks are absolutely necessary for this hike).
The Yoshida Trail is by far the most popular since it’s easily accessible from Tokyo and offers well equipped stations along the trail. The obvious disadvantage is that the trail can be quite crowded. The second-most popular route, and the one that we chose, is the Subashiri Trail. You can get to the 5th station (where most people begin) from Tokyo by taking two buses, but it takes some time. Most of the stations along the ascent have everything you need, and there are far fewer hikers than the Yoshida Trail. The two trails meet up at the 9th station, so you have to climb the last bit in a single-file line.
3. Come Prepared
Sam and I were woefully underprepared for our hike up Mount Fuji. We should have taken warmer clothing, and our P.O.S. headlamps gave very little light and completely died an hour into the hike. We hiked the remainder of the trail using only starlight and trail markers to guide our way. Luckily the trail is well marked with a white rope skirting the trail. Nevertheless, it was not the safest experience and Sam had difficulty even seeing the ground below her feet. This made our progress much slower than it otherwise would have been.
There are a few places where the trail markers disappear altogether, so at those points we had to use our intuition to decide which direction to go. This is harder than it sounds when the fog rolls in at exactly the wrong time.
Don’t be fooled by the extremely hot temperatures in Tokyo in August. The elevation and total exposure to the elements means you need to be prepared for very cold temperatures and the possibility of rain or snow as you hike the volcano.
4. Consider the Proverb
There’s an old proverb about Mount Fuji: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool”. The reason for this proverb is simple – this is a tough hike! With nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a 26% grade, it’s more challenging than most hikes back home in Colorado.
Being a volcano with the varied terrain of black ash and blacker ash, and considering the fact that we were climbing in almost complete darkness, there’s not a lot to see as you climb. We tried to pass the time playing “I spy..”, although everything was either black or white so the game didn’t entertain us for long.
5. You Can’t Control the Weather
Despite some brushes with exhaustion, nausea, and frozen fingers caused by the gain in altitude, we made it to the summit with time to spare. Unfortunately, by the time sunrise rolled in there was little to see from the peak other than a white abyss.
We made the best of things by enjoying a nice bottle of sake we had brought with us to celebrate the occasion. Jelmini and I also took a stroll and peered into the crater.
I even had the chance to enjoy some Garretts Popcorn at the peak that we had procured in Tokyo the night before.
6. What Goes Up Must Come Down
After more than 24 hours without sleep and an overnight hike in the dark, we were more than a little tired when we started our descent. The first hour is pretty easy and sliding down the volcanic ash on the Subashiri Trail is fun at first. But then the fun stops. Truly, this was one of the most difficult physical things I have ever done. Going up was tough and tiring, but going down was an excruciating never-ending slog.
By the end, we all sort of felt like this:
Even with all the frustrations, climbing Mount Fuji was one of the more rewarding accomplishments of the trip to date.
But unless they install a zip line down, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again any time soon!