Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is the world's most-climbed mountain. Even with that superlative, it doesn't make the experience any less special to Dustin and me. Living in Japan has brought many adventures. One thing we knew we had to complete (and mark it off the Bucket List) was to climb the highest mountain in the country. Only 1% of the Japanese population will ever climb to the summit. Many of the 300,000 people that reach the summit each year are foreigners.

"He who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool. He who climbs Mt. Fuji a second time is a fool." - Japanese Proverb

I've heard variations of the above phrase often when we would discuss Mt. Fuji. A Japanese friend told me that "Mt. Fuji is a mountain to look at; not to climb." She is obviously part of the 99%.

8PM - Starting Point
There are four main trails that go up various sides of Mt. Fuji. They range in difficulty and popularity. We chose one of the more popular trails because of it's easy access from Tokyo. The trails all start at a 5th Station. Then as you continue up the mountain you will come to different stations (6th, 7th, etc.) along the way. But more on these stations later.

We chose the Yoshida trail. Our bus from Tokyo brought us right to the 5th Station and gave us a chance to change clothes, buy walking sticks, and fill up on water.

5th Station - Yoshida Trail
There are two ways to climb Mt. Fuji. A day climb will get you to the summit at around 2PM. A night hike gets you there for the sunrise. In the "Land of the Rising Sun" this is an especially nice treat - and an adventure we wanted to take.

We started a little after 8PM. The first few kilometers of the trail are long switchbacks of small lava rocks, dust, and red rock. It was a tiresome course of back and forth. Every few steps small rocks would slide out from under our feet and we would have to take that step again. We had a two couples that got off the bus with us and started at the same time. We would pass each other every so often during rest periods. Other than them, the bottom part of the mountain was empty. The temperature was a comfortable 65 degrees with no wind.

About an hour into our hike we arrived at out first station. The traditional souvenir for climbing Mt. Fuji is a walking stick. Along the way you can get them branded for 200 yen (almost $3.00).

Getting our stamp!

 At the next station we met some interesting guys. It was nice to pause here for a few minutes, get our stamp, and talk with the group stationed here.

Getting a Mohawk above 9,000 feet!
The trail from here turned into larger boulders. Although we were never rock climbing in the traditional sense we were using our hands to keep balance and climb up the hardened lava rock. In most places the trail was about 15 feet wide and marked with chains. Often we would use the chains to pull ourselves up steep sections. Unfortunately, none of the pictures came out in the darkness. My motivation came from looking up the mountain at the lights of our next station. I have learned a critical lesson from this: distance is very deceptive!

Making friends along the way

Getting our stamp at station 7
Dustin and I didn't eat a good dinner before we started climbing. We had spent the day sightseeing in Tokyo and then jumped on our bus to take us to Mt. Fuji. We had prepared to eat, but were too excited. It wasn't until we got to around the 7th station that hunger struck. We packed granola bars, jerky, Powerbars, peanut M&Ms, and gummy bears for the trip. Snacking ensued and we kept climbing.

A station/mountain hut
 At most of the stations along the trail were also mountain huts. Many people will buy a small space on the tatami mats for 5,250 yen (about $70). That small (but heated!) space puts you head to toe with all the funky boot juice of every one else trekking up the mountain but can be a welcome respite from climbing. One plan is to start hiking earlier in the day, stay in a hut, and wake up early enough to finish the climb and reach the summit for sunrise.

I was not worried about the difficulty of the hike. Dustin and I are in fairly good shape so not making it to the top never crossed my mind. I was worried about the weather, temperature at the top, and altitude sickness. We stopped along the way for a minute here and a minute there to acclimate. I never had any trouble breathing, but Dustin made a few comments. While climbing it felt like there wasn't enough oxygen to hold him over through the exhale. By the time he was done exhaling he was panting. We never experienced nausea or dizziness, just the sense of breathlessness.

Still smiling!
At each of the stations were toilets for use. They cost 200 yen (again, about $3.00) per use and were very basic, but got the job done. Closer to the top they became co-ed. During my research I had read about the shared toilets, but I imagine it could be quite startling!

Quite a funky smell!
At the last station we stopped for a little bit to get warm inside the mountain hut. Many people were waking up to start climbing again for the sunrise. The trail starting getting crowded. We met an older man from Europe that opted to hike with us to the summit. The trail at this point was two-people wide and extremely steep. The final 900 meters are some of the most difficult of the entire trail. Slushy and steep is the best way to describe it.

There was a reverent quiet as we hiked those last few hundred meters. There was a sense of shared jounrey among those of us on the trail. Through our sweat, blood (for some), and tears (for others) we were going to be rewarded with something spectacular.

Finally we reached the top! But we were about four hours before sunrise! It was a chilly 17 degrees at the top of the mountain that morning. We had added layers along the way, but they weren't enough to keep us warm. I had read about people dying on Mt. Fuji - many from hypothermia. After being at the top I can understand how that happens. We curled up on a pallet to keep warm and try and get some sleep. Sleep didn't come, and honestly, neither did the warmth.

Starting to get light...

Wait for it...

Hurry up! We're cold!


People who didn't make the summit turned around.

The crater

We made it!
We made a quick visit to the post office and official high point. Then it was time to start the climb back down. We were very eager to get down to warmer altitudes, but so was everyone else.
Waiting in queues on the way down

Beautiful views
 Because the sun was up for the down trip we were able to take better pictures of the trail. Below is the hardened lava rocks we climbed over from Station 7 to Station 8.5.
Climbing down the rocks
Climbing Mt. Fuji was an amazing experience. We had such a good time and met wonderful people from all over the world. As the saying goes, "He who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool..."

Tired but happy!


  1. Reading your adventure was so exciting. You should write a book about your experiences. Was that 17 degrees C or F?

  2. Fred, I write like a ten-year-old on this blog. "Everything is so awesome!! Tastes soooo good! :)" It was 17 degrees F! Quite a change from the comfortable temperature at the bottom.

  3. Your uncle Gene (Dickey) shares your blog with me and I thoroughly enjoy it. You are an excellent writer. I have a grandson (a radiology officer on the George Washington) stationed there, but you are more informative than he or his wife. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for reading. At first this blog started as a away to keep in touch with family and friends back home. Now it has become documentation of our lives in this country - and all the strange (albeit interesting!) differences.