I’ve climbed Mount Fuji four times using three different routes, and I look forward to climbing again with my daughters. It may not be the most beautiful trail, and it’s anything but solitude with nature, but the view can be incredible and what an experience to be on the summit waiting for sunrise with thousands of others. Most healthy people should have no problem getting to the top of Mount Fuji, but there are some basic things you need to know. Following are my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from each climb. I had fun writing this, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading and learn what you need to know.
My First Time Climbing Mount Fuji via Kawaguchiko 5th Station Trail
I wanted to climb Mount Fuji during our first year in Japan. Most people climb during an official season during July and August, so that became my plan. I quickly learned that if you get any five people together in Japan and mention climbing Mount Fuji, someone will probably quote: “Your are wise to climb Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice.” It’s not an inspiring proverb. But most people who quote these words have never climbed the mountain themselves. Fewer than one percent of Japanese people ever climb Mount Fuji. It’s too high and difficult, they say (or hint). It’s perfect on a postcard, wonderful when the clouds part and you can see it, but far removed from everyday life. Mention that you’re climbing Mount Fuji and someone is sure to ask whether you’ll be using oxygen. Mount Fuji stands 3776 meters (12,285 feet). People run marathons above that elevation in Colorado. It’s high, but…and then I feel apologetic for thinking disparaging thoughts. Oxygen or no oxygen, I can’t imagine why someone would grow up next to such a magnificent mountain and never go to the top. When August came, I was ready. A friend visiting from America provided the perfect opportunity. I recruited him as a climbing buddy. He arrived at Narita on a Thursday night, and we were on our way the next morning…
Mount Fuji in October from Mount Kintoki, a small mountain in Odawara, Kanagawa
Choosing a Trail
There is more than one way to the top of Mount Fuji. I didn’t spend much time worrying about this. A group of Japanese friends were already planning to hike up the Kawaguchi route, so my friend and I decided to go that way and hopefully meet them on the mountain. Of the five main routes up Mount Fuji, the Kawaguchi trail is the most popular. (You can read about my experiences on other roots if you keep reading.) In my non-expert opinion, this is a good route for first time climbers starting from the Tokyo-Kanagawa area (you might choose another trail if you are starting from elsewhere).
When to Go
We climbed in August. During July and August the weather on Fuji is quite moderate, and the snow that caps the mountain for most of the year has melted. People of all ages climb during these months in relative safety. You can climb Mount Fuji in other months, too. If you want to avoid the crowds, the best time to climb may be just before or after the climbing season, when the huts and stores are all closed. That means there are also no services, though, and you’ll miss out on quite a human spectacle. The further you get from the July/August window, the more dangerous it becomes. Once you add wind, snow, ice and falling rocks to the picture, Mount Fuji can be deadly. My Japanese friends were hiking on the same day, but they started in the early afternoon. Their plan was to take it really easy and sleep for a few hours at one of the huts along the trail. Then they would wake up and finish climbing in time for sunrise. This is a popular and traditional way to climb the mountain. My parents climbed Mount Fuji more than 30 years ago and stayed in one of the same huts along the way. By all appearances, little has changed since then. We followed another popular strategy. We started around 9pm, well after dark, and hiked all night. Our plan was also to arrive at the top in time for sunrise. Many climbers start at 11pm or later, but we were playing it safe so we started early.
What to Bring
As a first timer, I was concerned about this question. Some websites recommend bringing enough gear for a minor expedition, but I read another guy’s story of climbing up with sandals, a cheap windbreaker and his kid’s backpack. Given the host culture’s propensity to over-prepare, I decided not stress too much about gear and clothing. Given the extreme August heat, I decided to risk short pants and short sleeves. I stuffed a long sleeve shirt and a good mountaineering-type jacket for insurance into my (large sized) fanny pack. The jacket would protect me in case of rain, which was a worst case scenario. Just before heading out, I bought a new flashlight and lots of Onigiri (rice balls) from a convenience store. I also bought a couple of liters of water. You can buy water at the trail head for an exorbitant sum, but there is no running water to fill canteens. I spent way too much time thinking about what flashlight to get. Lots of websites recommend getting a head lamp. I’ve always chuckled at people who wear headlamps, because I can’t imagine many activities (other than spelunking) where you would really need one. But I was enticed. Such is the power of consumerism in Japan. All the camping and electronics stores I visited featured lots of headlamps starting from 3000 yen (about $30), along with a few cheap, plastic flashlights. I started to imagine myself crawling up sharp lava rocks in the dark, with a micro halogen bulb beaming from my forehead. In the end I settled for a hand held LED flashlight from the Yodobashi Camera store next to the bus terminal in Shinjuku. It was 1,000 yen ($10). In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t buy a headlamp. I didn’t need my flashlight nearly as much as I’d expected. In fact, my friend lost his flashlight part way up, and we shared mine. Finally, as I walked out the door, I reached into the shoe closet for my hiking boots. But they weren’t there. It turned out they were a few thousand miles away, because I hadn’t packed them when we moved to Japan. So I grabbed the ONLY pair of shoes that would work — my brand new running shoes (my running shoes tend to stay brand new for a long time). Those shoes were never the same again. I recommend that you hike in tough leather boots that can handle the wear or something expendable. Mount Fuji is a huge pile of crumbling lava rock, and when you walk/slide down your footwear will pay a price.
A sample list of items to bring for climbing Mt. Fuji (in August)
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Hiking boots or shoes (tough leather and/or expendable) and wool socks (in case you get wet)
- Warm jacket or shell (something light enough to pack when it’s too hot to wear it)
- Rain coat or pancho (if it rains then it would be very bad if you end up wet and cold)
- Long pants (or shorts along with some shell pants that you can pull out of your pack)
- Stocking hat and gloves (depending on how susceptible you are to cold these may optional or needed)
- Water (at least a couple of liters, or you can buy drinks for high prices along the way)
- Money (for items on the way, staying in a hut, and also for emergency expenses)
- Food (for your meals and/or snacks, although plenty of food is available along the way at high prices)
- Daypack or large fanny pack (comfortable and big enough for the stuff you need to carry)
- Camera(s) to capture an incredible sunrise and outstanding view
- Mobile phone to see if it works on top and for getting out of jams
This list works for me. If you search online you’ll find others who will recommend bringing more, including oxygen.
Getting to the Kawaguchiko 5th Station (Kawaguchiko Gogome)
First, be sure you know WHICH of the 5th Stations you are going to. I climbed via the Kawaguchiko Route, so I started at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station. Each of the routes has its own 5th station, so don’t go to the wrong one. You can get to the Kawaguchi 5th Station by taking local trains to the Kawaguchi-ko Train Station, then taking a bus to the Kawaguchiko 5th Station. If you are starting from the Tokyo area, then I recommend catching a bus from Shinjuku all the way to the Kawaguchiko 5th Station. Taking a bus is often cheaper than taking a bunch of local trains, and the bus is much more comfortable. We took a direct bus from Shinjuku all the way to the Kawaguchiko 5th Station. The bus is called the Fuji Kyuko, and we had reserved our tickets (which was a pain over the phone). The bus station is located in front of the Yodobashi Camera store. Take either the West or South exit from Shinjuku Station (easier said than done) and make your way there. If you take the bus, I recommend buying a round trip ticket. The bus company runs a set schedule during the July-August climbing season. You can choose from a number of departure and return times depending on your schedule and what’s available (some buses may be fully booked by the time you call). I can’t remember when our bus left, but we ate dinner before boarding. If you are planning to hike all night, then you should plan to be at the Kawaguchi 5th Station sometime between 9pm and midnight (we started around 9pm). I think our return ticket was for some time around noon. Most all night hikers start down the mountain around 8am or so, and you should be able to hike down in half the time it takes to climb up (I think we made it down in about 2 hours, but that was pretty fast). Don’t be late for the bus, because it will depart on schedule with or without you.
Kawaguchiko 5th Station and Starting Out
Getting off the bus at the 5th Station was surreal. The bus pulled into a large parking lot surrounded by tourist shops. It was dark, and most of them had closed. Many people drive to the Kawaguchi 5th Station for day trips. They’ll take a short hike, buy a souvenir — and that’s the closest they come to actually climbing the mountain. It gets very crowded on weekends and holidays in August, but at night it was quiet. About ten people were grabbing a bowl of noodles at an inside food counter, others were using the restroom, shopping or just wasting time. From the 5th Station it’s only a 5 or 6 hour hike to the top, so no one was in a hurry yet. Actually, it shouldn’t be to hard to hike to the top in 4 hours or less, if you keep moving fast and don’t run into gridlock on the trail, but you have to start early to beat the crowds (which sort of defeats the point). More on that later. The stores at the 5th Station have the usual assortment of key chains, carvings and boxed food for gifts. Two liter bottles of water, for those who forgot, were going for about 500 yen each. I bought two, because my only other choice was to fill my water bottles in an unsavory restroom sink. I didn’t buy much else, but I paid 100 yen to use the restroom and another few hundred yen for a locker. Here’s a tip. When you finish hiking Mount Fuji you’ll be tired, sweaty and dusty, and you may still have several hours of travel to get home by bus and trains. I suggest you bring a change of clothes, some toiletries and food to tide you over until you get to Shinjuku. Put all of this in one of the many lockers at the 5th Station, and you’ll be patting yourself on the back at the end of the day.
The only other thing I bought was a hiking stick. You’ve have to get one of these. Well, more than half the people climbing the mountain seem to think so. Every shop has a big bin filled with simple, wooden hiking sticks. My parents hiked Mount Fuji 30 years ago, and their sticks are identical to the ones they sell today. The sticks are pretty cheap (about 500 yen, I think). As you climb the mountain, you’ll run into a person at each station with a barbecue grill and a branding iron who will, for a price, burn an insignia into your stick. This is to prove that you reached that station. You can collect a row of stamps as you ascend Fuji, or save your money and just get the one at the top. At the top, you can choose from 2 or 3 different stamps. Just look around. My favorite says, “Sunrise on Mount Fuji” and includes the date. After awhile we decided it was time to get started. We took a couple of pictures, gathered up our stuff and went looking for the trail. It was dark. We didn’t have a map or any idea where to go, but that was no problem. We just looked for a group of people who seemed to know what they were doing and followed them. Once we got started, we were in the midst of fellow hikers all the way to the top. At the bottom, we enjoyed the company (particularly because they kept us from being lost). From the start we found that our flashlights were not that necessary. The moon was bright. We were following a clear line up the trail. And hikers tend to congest at the steeper spots, so all their flashlights come together, too. You should carry a flashlight, but most people who are comfortable hiking in nature don’t need to get stressed out about getting lost or falling in the dark.
Stations, Huts, Toilets and the Line
The first half of our climb was fun and easy. The trail was wide and didn’t seem that steep. Other than pausing for drinks of water, we didn’t rest at all until the 7th Station. We were passing people constantly along the way. For the most part, I enjoyed hiking with other people. But at some points we had to slow down because the trail became very crowded. At one point, when we were moving slowly up a “steep” section, I passed a man with two boys who were less than ten years old. He had laid a plastic mat beside the trail, and one boy had fallen asleep. By the time we came to the 7th Station, we were winding our way more or less straight up the mountain side. At each of the stations there are one or more huts and places to sit. Some people were resting, and others were getting started again. The front of the hut had a window facing the trail, and they were vending out hot cocoa, cup of noodles, and cans of oxygen for any takers. It was all ridiculously expensive, and we weren’t tired enough to be tempted. Inside the cabin was a large, open Tatami room with a warm fire, and further back a room where (I presume) people were trying to sleep. I say “trying” because there was constant chatter outside, despite their efforts to keep the hikers quiet. There was a charge to go inside the Tatami room, and a higher charge (about 7000 yen if I remember right) for those who wanted a place to sleep. We rested a bit, and I visited a restroom by the side of the trail with a door that wouldn’t stay closed. Outside was a bucket and a note that said, “100 Yen.” Maintenance must be expensive on the side of a mountain, because all those coins didn’t seem to be paying for much. We set out from the 7th Station, turned a corner or two and arrived at the 7th Station again. Apparently, stations are not precise spots but sections on the trail. We passed yet another 7th Station, and then we found ourselves once more rising slowly through the semi-darkness. But there was a significant change from about this point on. The further we ascended, the more crowded the trail became. For the first time, we noticed large tour groups climbing together. Some groups had 50 people each, and they were usually led by guides carrying bullhorns. We were grateful when they would move to the side of the trail for a rest break, because then we could quickly pass them. But further up the mountain, the trail was so congested that they could hardly get out of the way. Sometimes one tour group would pass another, which compounded the problems.
The front of a hut, hikers, and a restroom
The 8th Station
We reached the 8th Station sometime around 1:30am. We were supposed to meet a group of Japanese friends who were sleeping in the third cabin. When we got to the cabin, there was no way to know if our friends were sleeping inside. Well, there was one way… I took out my cell phone and dialed a number. It was a bad connection and cut off after a ring or two, but it had the desired effect. A couple of minutes later the leader of the group came stumbling out. They all needed to sleep some more, and there was little point in continuing up to the top so early, so we settled down to wait. Up until this point, I was wearing short pants and a long sleeved t-shirt, and I was perfectly warm as long as we kept moving. But as we waited the cold sunk in. I put on a coat and my friend and I eventually ended up huddled together and shivering next to the cabin wall. We ate onigiri and candy bars for the next hour and a half. At some point I went to the restroom. That’s when I learned the restrooms along the trail are co-ed. The restroom at the 8th Station had two urinals next to the door (with a close-up view of the trail when the door opened), and a couple of stalls with squat toilets inside. Co-ed restrooms are still common in various parts of Japan (older parts mainly), and urinals are routinely exposed. Personally, I wanted to finish quickly before a group of young girls — or worse, a female friend — came walking in. As for women, they have a different dilemma. A woman may walk into an empty restroom, use a private stall, but later emerge just behind a row of busy urinals. That can be quite a shock (or so I’ve heard) if you’re not used to this set up. At any rate, be aware. As we waited, at least two tour groups caught up with us, along with lots of individuals and small groups. The area in front of the cabin became completely packed. The poor people inside who had paid 7000 yen for a few hours of sleep faced a huge challenge. First of all, on a normal night in these cabins, you have to share a futon with at least one other person (it may be a friend or a stranger). People are constantly coming in and going out. On top of all that, you have a growing mass of people outside, with tour guides trying to regain control by shouting and using bullhorns. But our friends inside were surely deep asleep before we called and woke them up.
Crowds at the 8th Station
From the 8th Station to the Top
Our friends woke up, ate some noodles, drank some hot cocoa and slowly dragged themselves outside. It was a madhouse by then, and it got worse. Within 30 minutes after leaving the 8th Station, the trail was densely packed 3 people wide and moving like a line at Disneyland. Occasionally we would move to one side and pass large masses of people, but often the trail was too narrow for that. After an hour of hiking the sky started to lighten. I realized suddenly that some people would still be stuck on the trail at sunrise. That was a horrifying thought. The problem is not simply the number of people on the trail. Every year 200,000 people climb Mount Fuji, and most of them climb during July and August. That’s an average of 3000 people per day. Not bad, except…almost everyone wants to reach the top at the same exact time, which is just in time for sunrise. As a result, it took us over 2 hours to get from the 8th Station to the top of Fuji, even though it’s a relatively short distance. For future reference, I realized, it’s better to arrive at the top early (e.g., an hour before sunrise) then to hike in gridlock and get there just on time. (And on a future trip I tried out another strategy: hiking UP the DOWN trail.)
Sunrise On Mount Fuji
As we neared the top of the mountain, the sky slowly filled with light. I was sure the sun must be about to rise, but we still had a long way to go. But all was well as we made it with minutes to spare. Sunrise on Mount Fuji was earlier than I expected. You should know the time in advance. I didn’t. We were just climbing with the herd. At some point, though, someone said sunrise would be at about 4:30 am. I hiked as aggressively as possible up the final section. Speaking of “hiking aggressively,” what I mean is that I was passing people. It seemed perfectly natural except that I was about the only one doing it. I felt some justification due to the fact that most of the people climbing seemed to barely be making it (due to age, inertia, lack of exercise, etc.). But I couldn’t deny that passing others on the trail (masses of people, like 20 at a time) might have been considered rude. I believe in learning and following rules of my host culture. All I can say is that I was compelled by a higher cause (specifically the highest cause in Japan). We came around around a last curve and the summit was suddenly right ahead — just a short set of stairs and a Torii gate. Then the trail turned with the ridge on the left and a row of low buildings on the right. The entire left side was lined with people holding cameras, except for a woman talking on her cell phone. To the right, more people were huddled inside large, open rooms in the buildings eating noodles and drinking from Styrofoam cups. Vendors were lined up selling a huge collection of souvenirs, including oodles of key chains and other small, lightweight items.
At the Summit
I met up with my friends again (we had been separated in the rush to the top). We took a few pictures and then all went to stake out a place to wait for sunrise. I walked a short distance past the stores, pulled out my camera and pointed it in the same direction that hundreds or thousands of other people were pointing their cameras. We all waited as the sky became brighter, and then finally a tiny prick of orange light appeared. Quite simply, the sunrise from Mount Fuji (on a nice day like ours was) is spectacular. It was the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen, and it’s one reason I’d like to climb again and again. The view is unobstructed from Mount Fuji all the way to the ocean, which isn’t that far away. You see the gentle slop, rolling green hills and clouds rising from below. The land recedes to the ocean, and the two blend together in a hazy blur. I don’t know how to explain scientifically, but the sun appeared from within this transitional area between sea and sky. Anyway, you should climb up there and see for yourself.
Photographing Sunrise on Mount Fuji
The sky was suddenly bright and the skies were blue, but it was still super early. I turned to the vendors. Having brought little extra cash, I couldn’t afford even a small can of coffee (going at 400 yen). Some of my friends were eating bowls of ramen and instant noodles, which didn’t look very good but tempted nonetheless. To get my mind off of food, I wandered through the hordes of climbers and vendors looking for someone to stamp my hiking stick. Speaking of the vendors, I marveled at how they had brought so much merchandise up the mountain. Most of them live at their stations for weeks at a time during the climbing season. I eventually ended up in the Shinto temple to get my stick stamped there. There was an assembly line process inside. Visitors slide their hiking sticks onto a counter, then workers slid them past a man who was applying some sort of henna tattoo (on the stick). I was disappointed they hadn’t branded it. Awhile later I came across someone whose stick sported the mark I waned: “Sunrise on Mount Fuji 2002.” I finally found the guy burning sunrise stamps in the back of a long room behind noodle vendors. There was only one thing left to do after that. Mount Fuji is shaped like a cone with a huge crater at the top, center. There is a trail that goes all the way around the crater. On the way, it passes by the tops of all the other climbing routes. There are a few more shops (although most of the business is concentrated at the Kawaguchi route). More importantly, you must go to the opposite side of the crater to reach the highest spot on Mount Fuji (and thus, the highest spot in Japan). The place itself is not all that interesting, but how can you climb Mount Fuji and miss the highest piece of dirt? As a bonus, on your way around the crater you’ll pass a post office (the highest post office in Japan, and — despite the density of post offices everywhere else — the only one on Mount Fuji). This incongruous little building had a long line of people outside waiting to mailing postcards and letters that would be postmarked from Mount Fuji. I didn’t know about the post office, so I hadn’t come prepared. But several of my friends had brought postcards to mail. It takes about 30 minutes (more or less depending on your pace) to reach the little monument that marks the high point, and about 2 minutes to snap a picture and move on. There isn’t much to see, although I for one thoroughly enjoyed walking in the morning sun around the side of the crater. When we returned to the Kawaguchi area, it was still early (about 7:30am). There wasn’t much more to do, so my friend and I started down the mountain around 8:00am.
On the Summit
Getting Down The Mountain
People began pouring down the mountain well before 7:00 am. We weren’t in such a hurry, because our bus wasn’t leaving until 11:30 am. If you’re going to climb, leave yourself a little time to walk around once you reach the top. As for the descent, I had heard stories about running (or shuffling very fast) down the trail, so I was confident we would move quickly. Indeed, we started out walking fast and soon picked it up to a sustained jog — aided by gravity and the soft, dusty trail. One of the reasons people complain about climbing Mount Fuji is the dust on the way down. You don’t want to be behind someone at this point, and regardless you will be well coated (unless you sweat heavily, in which case you may be dripping with mud). At least I had an extra change of clothes, soap and a toothbrush waiting in a locker below. At one point my friend stopped at a fork in the trail and asked whether to go left or right. One interesting feature of the Kawaguchiko trail is that you come down by a different route than you go up, so we hadn’t passed this way before. Both directions pointed down. The question was settled when another hiker came and I asked, in my limited Japanese: “5th Station, this way?” He said something I didn’t understand, but eventually he agreed that the 5th Station was indeed the way I was pointing. Then we were off again. We increased out pace and hardly rested, but we were put to shame by a few young guys who were literally running down the mountain. I was pushing my 30+ year old knees to the limit, so I didn’t try to keep up. A couple of times, my friend asked if I recognized the trail. I was feeling a bit uneasy myself, but I knew that we were coming down by a different way and so we shouldn’t worry. Finally, the trail leveled out and we entered the woods. Once you’re in the trees, it’s shady and there is no more dust. On the down side, it’s hard to run in the woods, because the earth is packed hard and there are more obstacles. After what seemed like a long time, we turned a corner and saw the first stores. We had made it down in just 2 hours! But we didn’t celebrate, because … with a terrible, sinking feeling … we realized that the parking lot and stores were all different than the place we had started from. The weight of dust and sweat all over my body doubled in an instant. As the hot sun bore down, I talked in halting Japanese with a sympathetic store owner, who helped me understand that we had come down the wrong trail to a different 5th Station. Another sympathetic man wandered over. Actually, he wasn’t so sympathetic. He was a taxi driver. After hearing that our stuff was all in a locker at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station, he offered to take up back there by taxi for about 20,000 yen ($160 US). We didn’t have money for that. I pulled out my cell phone to call for help, but the battery was too weak to connect. I bought a phone card for 1000 yen, in order to use a pay phone, but when I opened up the address book in my cell phone the battery just died. So we bought a couple of drinks and started figuring out how to rescue ourselves.
Descending Mount Fuji
If everything had gone well, we would have cleaned up a ridden in relative luxury on a bus back to Shinjuku. The thought of that tortured me for the rest of the day. Instead, we walked to a gravel parking lot and caught an uncomfortable local bus that drove remarkably slowly down the mountain. We got off in a parking lot and waited for another even slower bus that took us to the slowest train I’ve ever ridden in Japan. We eventually made it home late that evening, sleep deprived and having expended at least as much energy as we had climbing the mountain the night before.
My Second Time Climbing Mount Fuji up the Subashiri Trail
Ever since my first time up Mount Fuji I wanted to go again. Sure it’s a crowded, dusty trail with little “nature” in sight. Yeah, thousands of people mill about at the top holding cameras and $5 cans of coffee purchased from one of the many vendors selling everything from key chains to noodles. But the view is spectacular, and it’s a people watching event. Hiking at night (to see the sunrise) means the temperature is cool (even in August), and you don’t see the dusty, rocky trail on the way up. This year I started early. I invited an Iranian friend who has lived in Japan for a very long time, and he agreed instantly. Our plan was to invite a bunch of our friends. But a week before the climb he had two people and I had none. One day as I was eating Indian curry at a restaurant in Takadanobaba, the waiter asked if I was studying Japanese. One thing led to another, and I invited HIM to climb with me. It turned out he was from Nepal and has been to elevations surpassing 6000 meters (including the Everest base camp). He invited a friend, too, so on the fateful day, we met at Tokyo Station and set off together.
My Climbing Partners
My friend’s name was Deepak. He was working two jobs totaling about 60 hours a week, and he was attending a Japanese language school. He spoke excellent Japanese despite only having been in Japan for one year (we spoke Japanese together). His friend’s situation was very similar. Both had plans to work and study in Japan then return to Nepal with some savings and education that they can parlay into a successful future there. They are great guys who I’m glad to have met. During our two hour train ride we took stock of our situation. That was when I realized that we’d had a communication breakdown. They didn’t know we were hiking at night. Somehow, they thought we would be spending the night somewhere and starting early in the morning. They had one jacket between them, and none of us had a flashlight. I called my friend in Odawara and asked him to bring an extra jacket, and we decided to go without flashlights. We didn’t exactly “decide” — we just didn’t form a plan to solve that particular problem (which I knew from experience isn’t all that great of a problem anyway). Very rarely in Japan do I find people who can keep up with me in the “winging it” department, so facing this first issue together was a breath of fresh air. Later I wished that we had planned a bit more though. Keep in mind that all of our planning for this trip was accomplished while I was eating lunch at the restaurant where my friend works and in two brief conversation on our cell phones — and neither of us was using his native language. But no excuses… We arrived in Odawara, bought lots of Onigiri and some drinks, and met my other friend outside. In my rush, I forgot to buy a coffee at Starbucks. You know how you look forward to something for two hours and…okay, I know that’s not interesting to you. My Iranian friend, who was waiting outside, has been living in Japan for many years and speaks excellent Japanese. He’s actually a master of informal Japanese; the kind spoken between men who know each other well. And he’s quite an extrovert. So perhaps you can imagine the effect when he initiates a conversation with strangers. Most seem to appreciate it after the initial shock recedes. Japan needs more people like him. He had invited lots of people to come, but in the end just one young woman had the nerve and desire to go for it. She REALLY wanted to climb Mount Fuji. She also drove us to the 5th Station in her car, for which we were all grateful. That was our group: two Nepalis, an Iranian, an American, and a Japanese. Four men, one woman. We ranged in age from 21 to almost 40. Except for my Iranian friend, none of us were in shape, except I ride my bicycle around quite a bit. But the Nepalis and the Japanese woman have the benefit of youth, and I USED to be somewhat of an athlete (and have walked up quite a few mountains in my time). I realized that my friend, the Iranian, had taken up himself to coach the Japanese woman up the trail. They were both meticulously prepared (in stark contrast to my half of the goup…) She was nervous but seemed genuinely determined. The Nepalis seemed strong and confident, though still a little surprised about climbing all night. I wasn’t that worried and joked in the car about mountain snakes that come sliding down the trail toward you in the dark.
The Climbing Begins
We drove two hours from Odawara Station to the beginning of the Subashiri Trail. The Subashiri 5th Station is also accessible via a bus ride out of Gotemba Station. It’s a well marked trail and in good condition. The vendors set up along the trail obviously want to improve the reputation of their route. As we began someone pressed a bowl of soup into my hand and inquired how I was doing. For my part, I bought a new Fuji hiking stick. I had bought my first stick two years previously and intended to carry the same one to the top again, but my father-in-law had cut cut it into pieces to use as door and window stops in their house. I can still see it every time we go to their house. The Subashiri route is much less crowded than the Kawaguchiko Trail. We started out at a slow but steady pace and found ourselves passing other groups one-by-one. We paced ourselves with group of four young women for awhile. Occassionally, their lead hiker would call out “ichi” and they each counted off “ni, san, shi”. They were really focused. Our group stopped for a break just after the 6th station. As the young woman who had come with my friend labored to breath in the thinning air, my two Nepali friends each smoked cigarettes. I mentioned previously that my Nepali friends and I didn’t have flashlights. The first part of the climb winds up through trees, so the trail could get quite dark. But it’s no problem if someone with a flashlight is either just behind or ahead of you. After we emerged above the trees, the three of us tended to push out ahead despite the darkness. I caught myself from falling a few times. A light would have been a plus, but we enjoyed the challenge — and the thrill of silently passing fellow climbers in the darkness. We all carried on quite well until about the 8th Station. At that point, the Japanese woman in our group wasn’t looking so good. She took out a cannister of oxygen. Now the idea of carrying oxygen up Mount Fuji has always struck me as funny. I’ve been at the top of many higher peaks and never seen ANYONE with oxygen. But the suffering of my new friend made me more attentive to others who weren’t doing well. Some people slumped over with the heads on their hands, despairing, crying, etc. I reminded myself, it’s the middle of the night, most climbers live at sea level and never climb more than, say, 60 steps (but only if the escalator is too crowded), and…there must be a psychological impact when you’re climbing THE BIGGEST MOUNTAIN IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY. Anyway, the Japanese woman in our group was pale and sucking oxygen from a can. And the temperature was dropping. My friend from the Indian restaurant seemed okay, but his friend (with the borrowed jacket) started getting cold. I felt pretty bad about that, although the jacket looked warm enough. He wrapped a towel around his head, put a socking cap over that, and continued. But he stopped at the 8th station and thought about going inside. He was cold and, more importantly, losing the mental battle. But after some talking about it, we all pressed on.
From the 8th Station to the Top
Our group was becoming ragged, and I started to wonder if we’d all make it to the top. Then the Japanese woman in our group stopped to throw up. She leaned against a rock, fished a bag out of a pocket, and completed the whole process so quickly I almost missed it. Thousands of people climb Mount Fuji each year without puking, but just to be true to the record, she didn’t. At that point I thought she would check out for sure, but she gamely pressed forward. My two friends from Nepal were also still in tow as we continued. I should point out two important facts for future climbers. First, the Subashiri Trail joins the Kawaguchiko Trail at the 8th Station. The result is that suddenly the trail because PACKED with hikers. Many of them are traveling in groups with leaders who exhort them with megaphones. From the 8th Station to the top we passed people holding flashlights designed for directing traffic (the kind with long, orange shafts at the end). These people were not that useful. There is only one trail and one direction to go, and they resolutely pointed us that way. Second, there is a separate trail that is used to DESCEND from Mount Fuji. This wide trail veers adjoins the ascending trail briefly at the 8th Station. I was pretty sure I saw one busload of people leave the ascending trail and head up the “down trail.” Here in Japan, to climb UP the DOWN trail (even if it’s empty) seems almost unthinkable. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. (But on a future climb I did.) As I said, the trail became quite crowded after the 8th Station. We had three hours before sunrise and a short distance remaining, but I started to wonder if we’d make it. Our progress was stop and go. After an hour I concluded that the chances of being on top for sunrise were slim at best. I started comforting myself that I had been on top for sunrise previously.I resisted the temptation to “widen” the trail. That is, it’s always possible to walk so far to the side of the trail that you can simply pass everyone. The biggest reason not to try this is because if you slip on a rock and start it rolling you might kill someone coming up from below. No kidding. BUT one group of people pushed up through the crowd doing anything and everything to move quickly. A young man pushed by me brushing his backpack against my face, while others from his group cut back and forth to the far left and right sides of the trail. They were…the Americans. They could have been “the Canadians” or “the French,” but I think I recognize my own compatriots. If one or two Americans had pushed their way up the hill they would have been balanced out by a few Japanese doing the same thing. But it was a whole busload and very aggravating. I sympathized with their urgency, though, and have to admit to doing a bit of the same, especially on my first ascent. Just before the 9th Station I looked back and spotted all the members of our group strung out behind me. For the past hour we had all been swallowed up in the crowd, so I was surprised to see everyone so close by. But that was my last glimpse of the two Nepalis climbing with us until we met at the bottom hours later, and I didn’t see my Iranian friend and the Japanese woman for quite a while either. At that point I felt completely fresh. We were moving so slowly that I couldn’t imagine feeling tired. Once or twice I got light-headed but managed to shake it off by telling myself that I had no business being affected by any altitude below 13,000 feet. I don’t know if my brief dizzyness was psychological, but that strategy worked perfectly. At about 4:40 am I arrived at the summit — about 5 minutes before sunrise. The Subashiri/Kawaguchiko trails end at a set of stairs with stone lions set on either side, followed by a Tori Gate. All the trails end by passing through Tori gates. They say the climb up Mount Fuji historically began as a Shinto pilgrimage, and there is a functioning Shinto Shrine among the cluster buildings at the top. Personally, I imagine that the first people who made their way to the top of Mount Fuji hundreds of years ago did it for the same reason that people all over the world scale any discernable mountain peak today — because it was there.
I had just enough time to find a spot, pull out my camera, check the settings, and start shooting. In case I didn’t get the perfect sunrise shot, there were several thousand pictures taken by fellow climbers that morning alone. I’m sure somebody nailed it. Once you’re on top of Fuji there’s quite a bit to do and see. There are stands outside selling everything from key chains to coffee. I recommend hiking around the rim. It takes about an hour, but it’s mostly level. There’s a Post Office where you can mail a postcard (stamped that it was sent from there). On the far side of the crater you will climb a short hill next to a weather station and find a pillar marking the highest spot in Japan. I didn’t do any of that because my Iranian friend called me and said he and the Japanese woman (who had made it to the top) had already started hiking down. I had never seen him on top, nor had I seen my Nepali friends. I continued to wait for them, walking back and forth scanning the crowd, but for all I knew they might have given up and gone back, too. Finally, I started down about 6am.
An Meeting on the Trail
If you’ve been reading closely, you will remember that the first time I climbed Mount Fuji I took a wrong turn at a fork on the way down. What happened, actually, is that I descended on the Subashiri Trail. This time, of course, I was intentionally taking the Subashiri Trail and wanted to take the same turn at the fork as before. I was paying close attention, and there was a (new?) sign marking the correct way. I won’t bore you with details of the dusty trail and my shuffling half-running gait, except to say my knees didn’t hold up as well as the previous time. In fact, climbing down Mount Fuji has been harder for me on every occasion than going up. As I neared the final stretch, coming down through the trees, I noticed a Caucasian man walking slowly and leaning on two hiking poles for support. I don’t normally greet every White guy that I run into, but seeing as we were all alone in the trees together, I said the first thing that came to mind: “Are you in pain?” “No,” he said, straightening up and picking up his stride. “But I’m tired, and I think I came down the wrong way.” “Really,” I said, “the same thing happened to me before…” He instantly burst out, “Yeah, the same thing happened to that guy on the Internet!” I blinked. My article about climbing Mount Fuji the first time was appearing in the first page of Google search results at the time and getting a lot of readers. “I’m the guy on the Internet!” I said. What a coincidence! He had read my story about climbing Fuji and felt inspired to give it a try. Of course, he was extra careful NOT to get misdirected on the way down, but somehow he missed the fork anyway. It was like fate drew us together. Poor guy. We finished the hike together, and then he set off to find a way back to Tokyo Station. At least his phone was working. I finished about 9:00 am and met my Iranian friend shortly after. We finally contacted the two Nepalis by phone at 9:30. They were on their way down but still at the 7th Station, so we waited another hour for them. They had stopped at the 9th Station on the way up and gone inside one of the huts to get warm. After sunrise, their spirits lifted and they finished the climb. So we all made it to the top and back! At about 10:30, we piled into the car, which seemed much smaller and hotter than before. We drove to the Hakone area and stopped at an Onsen (hot spring) hotel, and soaked our hot bodies in the hot, hot water. Only people who have lived in Japan can appreciate what that means. We drove the rest of the way to Odawara Station, and I didn’t forget to buy coffee at Starbucks before the 3 1/2 hour train ride home.
Climbing Mount Fuji for the Third and Fourth Times
I’m going to spare you full accounts of my third and fourth climbs, but here are a few useful details. Climb #3 was in September up the Fujinomiya Trail. September is AFTER the official climbing season, so all the shops and huts were closed. We climbed in the daytime, and there were very few people on the mountain. The Fujinomiya Trail was not unlike the others. It was a beautiful day, and even the views of the slope were beautiful in a stark way: multi-hued talus and blue sky.
Read about my least enjoyable Climb #4 via the Kawaguchiko Trail using the link below. For my 4th trip, I invited several international students to join me, but the only takers were two Taiwanese girls who showed up at the last minute wearing fashionable shoes and light jackets. That turned out to be the most difficicult and of my four ascents, mainly because it ended in fog and drizzling rain. You can read about it here: