“Climbing” Mt. Fuji

You know the old saying:

“He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool.”

Every article about Mt. Fuji starts like this. It’s like some sort of rule; it does have the virtue of being true. I did it once. That was MORE than enough. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret: viewing Mt. Fuji from the Green Car of the Shinkansen while sipping on a cold Kirin beer is immensely more satisfying than getting up in the middle of the night to make the cold hard slog to the summit in hopes (rarely granted) that you will see the sunrise.

Climbing Mt. Fuji is like going to the Moon (with Earth gravity) and no spacesuit. The amount of gear you choose to take with you may mitigate the weather but it will most definitely increase the weight you will be lugging vertically up a loosely packed layer of volcanic rocks and dust.

Along the way you will marvel at the sights. The old woman who looks to be 100 years old with her walking stick showing she’s climbed it numerous times or the 20-something hiker bulging with muscles who struggles not to slide down the face of the mountain and its razor sharp rocks. You will marvel at the vending machines at each station which get increasingly more expensive the higher you go. Mt. Fuji in all its splendor is a sight to behold – in my opinion from afar – but at least once from the top, just to say you did it.

When To Go:

Hiking season begins in early July but be forewarned. The trails have different opening dates: 

The Yoshida Trail is open from July 1 to September 10

The Subashiri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya Trails are open from July 10 to September 10

Most people try to arrive at their trail as early in the morning as possible. Some people even start the night before. It takes between five to seven hours to make it to the top depending on a number of variables: weather, which trail you choose, which station you start at and your general fitness and tolerance for high altitudes. Also, half way up you may desperately want to quit and sit down to die. 

Many people think you are a fool to make a late start for two reasons:

  1. Hey gotta see that sunrise! (you aren’t going to see the sunrise).
  2. The traffic – not cars of course – people. In 2018 almost 300,000 people attempted the climb (emphasis on “attempted”). Just as Mt. Everest is experiencing a boom in travelers, the same is true of Mt. Fuji and you will be slowed down waiting in line to crawl up the hill grasping handfuls of volcanic ash in a desperate attempt to ascend. Descending is more like free-form skiing without skis, but more on that later.

If you go early in the season be prepared for the cold and rain. Just in case I didn’t express that clearly enough: COLD and RAIN. Alternatively you are an absolute whackjob to go during Obon when the trails look like the check out lines at Costco.

But let’s not be shy. Part of the experience is sharing the misery with other people. Also laughing at other people and their 

abject misery can be entertaining. There is a lot of falling (tumbling really) down the knee deep volcanic ash, and of course what isn’t as hilarious as seeing someone with altitude sickness vomit into an oxygen mask? Sharing misery with others is a great way to commiserate and make new friends. It doesn’t matter what language they speak: misery is a universal form of communication.

Regardless, my research tells me that you will encounter fewer hikers in the middle of July than in August so if you are going to do this thing that seems to be the best time to go, despite the weather.

What to take:

Sadly, there are not many places you can practice sliding down knee-deep volcanic rock in the freezing rain. Best bet is to pack light but prepare yourself for changing weather conditions, as the higher you go the colder it gets – because science. Additionally, you may want to bring your own refreshments, as the cost of anything on the mountain goes up the higher you get.

Anyway here’s a brief list:

  • Trekking shoes or boots
  • Rain wear
  • Water proof jacket and trousers
  • Warm clothes (fleece, sweater, down jacket)
  • Quick-drying underwear (apparently this exists)
  • Head lamp (flashlights are not going to cut it – you will need your hands at all times!)
  • About two liters of water (Water is also available for purchase at mountain huts)
  • Snacks
  • Trash bags to bring your trash back
  • Cash (credit cards are not usually accepted at mountain huts)
  • Small change for use of the toilet
  • Cap or hat
  • Map (or just follow the long line of people)
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • A walking pole
  • A burning desire not to die on a mountain

Where is It?

Mt. Fuji is located between Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures in the center of Japan. You may have noticed that big conical thing that blurs past on the Shinkansen between Nags and Tokes. That’s it.

How do I get there?

You can go by bus, train or even private car – though public transport is much more hassle free. Be careful not to do too much “celebrating” on the way. Many a hung-over climber has experienced the wondrous joy of altitude sickness and alcohol poisoning, making their Fuji climb so much more to remember. 

The Trails

As I mentioned before many people will attempt to make the full journey to the top all in one go. This is known as the “bullet strategy”. The problem with this is that not only should you be pretty fit, but the chances of altitude sickness increase because you don’t have time to acclimatize. The other strategy is to start climbing at night and have dinner at one of the huts along the way, taking time to rest and come up with reasons why you are turning back. The huts offer food and a cramped space for a futon for about ¥10,000 depending on the day and you need to make a reservation in advance. The advantage of the hut is that you don’t have to wait hours to see the non-existent sunrise. You can pop up there. Look into the crater, and then turn around and slip and slide your way down the mountain.

There are four trails up the mountain and each has 10 stations. and each has public transport to the 5th stage. Why someone would climb from the first stage remains a mystery, but I swear to you there are people who do this.

There are four major routes to the summit, each has numbered stations along the way. They are the (clockwise starting from the north) Yoshida, Subashiri, Gotemba, and Fujinomiya routes. Climbers usually start at the fifth stations, as these are reachable by car or by bus. During the summer season, buses to each of the fifth stations typically run from 6am to 8pm, depending on the trail.

The Yoshida route is the most-popular route because of its large parking area and many large mountain huts where a climber can rest or stay. During the summer season, most Mount Fuji climbing tour buses arrive there. Next in popularity is the Fujinomiya route, followed by Subashiri and Gotemba. 

The summit is the tenth station on each trail. The stations on different routes are at different elevations; the highest fifth station is located at Fujinomiya, followed by Yoshida, Subashiri, and Gotemba. There are four additional routes from the foot of the mountain: the Shojiko, Yoshida, Suyama, and Murayama routes

Huts at and above the fifth stations are usually manned during the climbing season, but huts below fifth stations are not usually manned for climbers. The number of open huts on routes are proportional to the number of climbers: Yoshida has the most, while Gotemba has the least. The huts along the Gotemba route also tend to start later and close earlier than those along the Yoshida route. It is illegal to camp above the fifth station because Mount Fuji is designated as a national park.

How the hell do I get down?

Remember that Paul Simon song, Slip Sliding Away? This is the method preferred by those who have little need to maintain appearances by needlessly “climbing” down a path which, in some areas, is the volcanic equivalent of a snowdrift. 

Even though most climbers do not climb the Subashiri and Gotemba routes, many descend them because of their ash-covered paths and for the brief yet humiliating plunge of desperation. 

From the seventh station to near the fifth station, one could run (actually tumble) down these paths in approximately 30 minutes. It says a lot about a place when you find out it takes about 6 hours to climb and 30 minutes to get down. So there’s that.

Of Interest

Surprisingly Mt. Fuji does not yet have a convenience store or an ATM, although it is probably just a matter of time. Bring cash and coins: coins for using the toilets, and cash for the huts which (I can’t believe this either) don’t accept credit cards! 

Additionally there are no trash cans so take back what you bring up. Oh and by the way, Mt. Fuji is a volcano, though it is considered “dormant” so some people bring masks to avoid inhaling the dust.

Sightseeing

Not interested in crawling up a mound of gray rock but want to have a Fuji experience anyway? Can’t see the point in climbing the mountain, exhausting your will to live and then just leaving? Not to worry! You can enjoy Fuji from a number of places.

The Fuji Five Lakes Region

The Fuji Five Lakes Region (Fujigoko) offers ample opportunity to get out and enjoy some scenic spots. The five lakes are as follows:

Lake Yamanakako

This is the largest of the five lakes. It is also nearly 1000 meters above sea level which affords it a very mild climate in the summer months. You can do everything from boating, windsurfing, tennis and more. A number of onsens in the area offer excellent views of the mountain.

Lake Kawaguchiko 

This lake is in the center of the five lakes region and as such is an excellent starting point for a number of Fuji excursions. It is also the only lake with an island. Here you will find a number of excellent views of Fuji including the spectacular vantage point afforded by the Ohashi bridge. As with Yamanakako, there are a wide range of water sports available.

Lake Saiko

This lake is bounded by the Aokigahara Jukai Forest and offers numerous campsites near the water. The lake itself is calm and mysterious, suggesting its nickname, The Lake of the Maiden. You may have heard of the the forest as the “suicide woods”, and local authorities go to great lengths to keep people out of certain areas. You may have seen in the news that a “famous” foreign Youtuber made a tasteless video there. What a dick!

Lake Motosuko

If you’ve ever used a ¥1,000 bill, you’ve seen this lake! At 141 meters deep, Motosuko is the ninth deepest lake in the country. Interestingly, the temperature never drops below 4°C. As such, it never freezes over in the winter. It is connected by underground waterways to two of the adjacent lakes.

Lake Shojiko 

This is the smallest of the five lakes. You can still see remnants of past lava flows here making it one of the more popular tourist destinations. It was also a popular summer destination during the Meiji period and a number of hotels dating from that period still survive.

Hakone and the Odakyu Hakone Ropeway

Farther afield from Fuji, but still offering incredible views, Hakone has been the place where hot and humid ex-pats sought respite in calmer climes since the Meiji era. From Hakone it is possible to view Fuji by a ropeway (cable car) operated by the Odakyu Electric Railway. The cable car travels from Sounzan to Togendai on Lake Ashi, a route that takes thirty minutes. The trip is a rare chance to take in a big breath of nature, affording panoramic views of Fuji from 130 meters above the ground.

More information on climbing Mt. Fuji: www.fujisan-climb.jp

Weather (search for Mt. Fuji) www.jnto.go.jp/weather/eng/

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