Climbing Mount Fuji
By Matt Lindsay
Towering over the surrounding countryside on the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures a little south of Tokyo, Mount Fuji is as iconic of Japan as sushi, shinkansen bullet trains or high-tech gadgetry. Known in Japan as Fuji-san, (san being the alternative reading for yama – mountain), this active volcanic mountain stands 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft) high.
Being such a high mountain, the upper reaches of Mt Fuji is covered in snow for much of the year. The hiking season is therefore mainly limited to the summer months of July and August. There are a number of trails leading to the summit. For those approaching from the south, such as from Kyoto or Osaka in the Kansai west region of Japan, the Fujinomiya trail is the most accessible. To get to the starting point for the hike take a bullet train to Shin-Fuji, (change from a Hikari to a Kodama Shinkansen at Shizuoka), then a bus from here to the Fujinomiya 5th Station.
Upon arrival at Shin-Fuji station go to the information counter where you can buy a bus ticket to Fujinomiya, arrange accommodation on the mountain (if you have not done so already) and receive up-to-date reports of the weather conditions on Mount Fuji. The staff are very obliging and friendly, eager to assist however possible in English.
The bus ride from Shin-Fuji station to the Fujinomiya 5th station is quite long, taking about two hours. After passing through suburbia the scenery becomes more rural, gradually transforming into forest as the road steepens. Nearing the terminal it becomes apparent just how popular climbing Mount Fuji is; at times traffic is brought to a halt to by cars lining the side of the road. It also becomes clear what lies ahead on the hike; the treeline soon ends giving way to barren, rocky terrain seemingly reaching to the sky.
One of the first things to hit you when you arrive at the Fujinomiya 5th station is the pong from the toilets. Word of mouth has it that Fuji-san is strewn with toilet paper, but on the Fujinomiya trail at least, this is not the case. Obviously maintaining toilet amenities on the mountain is expensive so you are expected to pay towards their upkeep when you use them.
The 5th station is your last chance to stock up on water or food at a ‘reasonable’ price before you set off. From here on the only way is up for you and prices . For example, your last chance for a beer on Mt Fuji at the 8th station will cost 800 yen (about four times the usual price), conveniently obtainable from a vending machine no less.
The ‘recommended’ length of time for summiting Mount Fuji via the Fujinomiya trail is 6 hours but if you’re in reasonable shape and keep yourself hydrated it’s possible to summit in far less time than this. Although steep, the rocky trail is easily navigable and no climbing equipment is required, (though gloves are recommended in case of slipping onto sharp rock). To alleviate the effects of altitude many people break their climb into two legs, stopping to sleep at one of the higher stations then arising in pre-dawn darkness and hiking the remainder of the trail in time to witness the sunrise from the summit.
Accommodation at the stations is basically just a Japanese style futon floor mattress in a shared room. (Ear plugs may come in handy if your neighbour happens to snore.) Meals are an optional extra. Not only is the interior of the stations austere, the atmosphere is too. Lights out is at 9pm or a ridiculously early 7pm if you elect to stay at the summit station. (Maybe the staff at the summit station had been up there or gone without a drink for too long – they were very stern, smiling only to say goodbye.) It is highly advisable to reserve a bed in advance during peak periods such as weekends and holidays.
Arising from your futon when the lights are turned on pre-dawn, you will be grateful for your bedding. No matter what the season it’s cold up high on Mt Fuji! Despite the darkness there is a buzz of activity outside, hikers’ headlamps illuminating the lunar-like summit crater, as everyone strategically positions themselves to witness the sunrise traditionally known as ‘Goraiko’ – the (honorific) coming of the light. Should the weather be favourable it is indeed a sight to behold, worthy of reverence and awe.
After the transcendental experience of the sunrise from the Mt Fuji summit, you’ll need to come back down. That means the long, steep descent back to station 5. Although going down the mountain takes far less time than going up, it is probably more demanding; the rocky terrain is unforgiving on the knees. Back down at station 5 you will be welcomed amicably by the staff, respectful of your effort and more than willing to help you select a souvenir of your Mt Fuji experience.