“A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once, only a fool climbs twice” Japanese Proverb.
Consider this the writing of a fool for I have climbed Mt. Fuji twice.
At 3776m or 12,395ft, Fuji-San is the highest mountain in Japan. As far as mountains go it isn’t really that high but Mt.Fuji is famous because it is the most perfectly symmetrical volcano in the world. When it is snow-capped in winter it is just so beautiful. It is a sacred mountain in Japanese religion and for many centuries the shrine at the top has been visited as a pilgrimage by Buddhist and Shinto Monks. I decided as soon as I arrived in Japan that I would not leave without having climbed it and so when climbing season arrived in August my friend Nikki and I headed off on a bus from Shinjuku for the 5 hour journey to the foot of the mountain.
The mountain is divided up by a number of stations (these become no more than wooden shacks nearer the top) and trails. Most people start climbing from the Kawaguchi-ko fifth station, although you can start from the foot of the mountain if you are really that keen. We were taking the Kawaguchi trail, which is allegedly the easiest trail to take and it should take somewhere between 5-7 hours depending on ability. As we would be starting our climb at 8pm in order to escape the heat of the day and to arrive at the top before sunrise, we had a bit of spare time at the station. Before you climb you can buy a wooden walking pole with a flag and bells at the top. Walkers can choose from the standard red spot on a white background flag, the rising sun flag or – oddly enough – the US flag, although why you would want a US flag when you are climbing a mountain in Japan is beyond me. This pole can then be branded at each of the stations with the height that you have climbed so far, making for a great souvenir (if a little difficult to get on the plane home!).
The initial path towards the 6th station followed a gentle incline and took us through some pine forests but don’t be fooled, it begins to get steep shortly after that. Also, don’t expect to climb Mt.Fuji alone, we climbed alongside hundreds of other walkers, all from different countries. Sometimes we would actually have to wait in a queue as overtaking on the narrow paths is dangerous. After we had been climbing for 5 hours we reached a station and had our poles branded, it read 3100m, we had thought surely we were higher up but we still had over 700m left to climb. The man at the station informed us that we still had another 3 hours to the top, but as it was so busy it could take us 5. This would mean that we would not make it to the top for sunrise. We kept going however but the terrain was getting more difficult, we were actually having to climb now instead of walk. We were now clambering up a lava flow of large chunks of rock that were taller than me. Because it was so steep and busy we were moving slowly so that after nearly an hour we had only moved another 50 meters.
Although Mt.Fuji is a relatively easy mountain to climb, it is not uncommon for storms to blow in suddenly and make attempting the summit very dangerous. At the next rest hut one of the workers told us that it was snowing at the summit (unusual for this time of year) and advised us against continuing to the summit. We contemplated it for a while but as other walkers were still going ahead we decided to try. Fortunately for us the storm blew over quickly, friends who attempted the climb the following weekend suffered a terrifying experience on the mountain when a storm blew in and they needed emergency assistance. We did not make it to the top in time for sunrise but still enjoyed watching it from a lower station.
After over 10 hours of continuous climbing I finally reached the summit burning with a sense of achievement despite the fact that every muscle in my body was screaming in pain. Not enough to put me off climbing again a few weeks later when a friend came to visit. The next time was a bit less busy and I made it to the top in under 7 hours, and in time for sunrise.
Watching the sun rise from the highest point in the Land of the Rising Sun is the most incredibly beautiful experience.
Tips for climbing Mt.Fuji
- Do not be fooled by the young and elderly climbers that you’ll see. This is a challenging climb and you need some level of fitness and stamina.
- Be prepared – even though it is summer it gets very cold at the top but very hot when walking down in the sun. Warm clothes and suncream are equally essential.
- Take plenty of water and snacks, it can take a while to walk between stations.
- A head-torch is really useful. The path is dark and sometimes you’ll need both hands to climb.
- Have a spare camera battery, low batteries may stop functioning at the top of the mountain (hence my lack of photos from the experience!)
- A small canister of oxygen is not a bad idea. They sell them on the mountain but they are not cheap. You will need it if you get altitude sickness and many people do.
- Avoid climbing on any kind of national holiday or at a weekend where the numbers of people make you feel like you may as well be in line for the supermarket!
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