Climbing Mount Fuji is a challenge but with the right preparation, it’s one that is more than worthwhile
IF I HAD to name my great passions in life, the first would be cycling, the second hiking and the third spending time in Japan. Over the years, I’ve cycled many of Japan’s best known routes and I’ve also tackled some relatively easy hiking trails in Asia, including in Taiwan and Japan a few years ago.
But I’ve always dreamt of conquering the summit of Mount Fuji and now I’ve passed the age of 50, there seemed no better time than the present.
The official climbing season on Mount Fuji, which stands at 3,776 metres, is July and August, and it’s not as hard as one might imagine provided you prepare well.
Climbing Mount Fuji is very popular not only among Japanese but also foreign tourists, who currently make up more than a third of all hikers. A survey conducted in 2014 counted 170,097 hikers on the Yoshida Trail, 33,092 on the Subashiri Trail, 16,963 on the Gotemba Trail, and 64,492 on the Fujinomiya Trail, the numbers increasing dramatically following the designation of Fujisan, as the Japanese call their mountain, by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 2013.
For my first hiking experience, I put together a party of friends of different ages.
“I was worried at first about the hike, as I had never hiked before, and about my health,” says Hatairat Sinthuvarawan, who is over the age of 50 and doesn’t cope too well with changes in the weather.
She started exercising one month before the journey, gradually building up her stamina. “I felt exhausted during the hike. I was short of breath and found the route between stations so long, especially between stations 8 and 9, which was a night walk and all uphill. But, when I reached the top of the mountain, my exhaustion disappeared with the sunrise. My main obstacle was the cold wind. But it’s really all about our state of mind,” she says.
“It was one of the biggest challenges in my life,” says Songklod Sae-Ngow, 35, a content editor of Channel 3. “I lost a lot of my energy while walking from the fifth to the seventh station and during our night walk, the strong wind and cold air made it difficult to breathe. I was also tired because I hadn’t slept for long enough. But I was so excited to reach the top.”
Our journey starts with an early bus from Kawaguchiko Station to the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, home to restaurants, souvenirs and a post office. Here you can rent a horse to ride up to the seventh station. During the climbing season, tourist buses are parked here and the area is bustling with climbers. Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations with the first station at the foot of the mountain and the tenth station on the summit. The fifth station is halfway up the mountain.
Like other hikers, we spend an hour or so visiting Komitake Shrine, dedicated to Iwanaga-hime, elder sister of Konohanasakuya-hime, before having breakfast at the fifth station. We also procure some wooden hiking sticks.
Research on the Internet has emphasised the need for thermoregulation and while many hikers try to ascend in one go to witness the sunrise from the summit and descend the same day, we elect to stay at a mountain hut at the eighth station on the first day and spend some hours sleeping before continuing to the summit early on the second day.
We start our ascent at the Yoshida trail at 10am and walk the gentle slopes passing through Izumigataki junction. We pay careful attention to the information signs indicated in yellow, the landmarks for the Yoshida Trail, which prevent us from getting lost.
Reaching the sixth station at an altitude of approximately 2,390m, we find the Mt Fuji Safety Guidance Centre and the police box, which, with typical Japanese efficiency, provides information relevant to the climb and distributes climbing maps.
We follow the zigzag gravel path in the line of the ridge, which merges with the path going down, and pass a fence erected to mitigate rockslides. We climb slowly while maintaining our balance as fog dances around our heads.
Mountain lodges and toilets dot the area between the seventh station (altitude 2,700m) and the eighth station (3,020m). Customers of the lodges pay 100 yen (Bt30) for the use of the facilities while passers-by are charged 200 yen. Most of the mountain lodges offer benches where climbers can take a break. The path is harder between the seventh and eightth stations, requiring considerable climbing over rocks. I’m the first of my group to reach the eighth station, arriving at Taishikan, the first mountain lodge of this station, in just four hours. The accommodation is somewhat spartan, with climbers sleeping next to each other like in a military camp and without showers – water being too precious at this altitude.
The sign on the eighth station tells us that it takes three hours to the top and that the sun rises at 4.30am in summer.
We’re fast asleep at 6pm and while we had intended to leave at 1.30am, we set off more than two hours earlier, worried that we won’t get to the summit on time.
The nights on the mountain are dark, quiet and above all cold, and we quickly discover that many other climbers are also leaving early to catch to the sun. We set off along with sandy path, our climb made more difficult |by the scattered red rocks along our route.
Japanese efficiency again comes into play and as we near the summit, we meet some safety officers. They tell us it’s 30 minutes to the top and before long I spot the Shinto Torii gate with its two stone guardian dogs, marking the entrance to the actual summit. Once again, I’m the first and on hand to care of my exhausted friends.
The wind up here is even stronger and colder and I stand in front of Kusushi Shrine alongside other tourists and locals waiting for the sun to come up. A hot drink and a cup of instant noodle soup later, and it’s time to start the descent.
That turns out to be considerably more difficult than the climb, with loose volcanic rock making it hard to move quickly along the zigzagging route. Several people fall and hurt themselves, fortunately none of them seriously. It’s tiring and my legs feel very fatigued.
We are extra careful at the Shitaedoya junction to follow the yellow sign and take a left onto the Yoshida Trail (marked in yellow). If you don’t, you end up arriving at the fifth station on the Subashiri Trail and you will not be able to return to your starting point.
We walk down through the forest and then up a slope to reach the starting point, the fifth station parking area.
Tired but triumphant, I feel like shouting to the world “Yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve climbed Mount Fuji and lived to tell the tale”.
- The official climbing season on Mount Fuji is during July and August. For more information, go to www.FujiSan-Climb.jp/en/season/.
- For information on how to get to Kawaguchiko station, Lake Yamanakako and Mount Fuji 5th Station, visit www.DeepJapan.org/a/3197.