(Throwback Thursdays are a new feature here at asthejoeflies. They are stories from my travel experiences with zero regard to miles and points. Hopefully they inspire you, either to these destinations or beyond! Check out our long journey just to get to the foot of Mount Fuji in Part 1. I’ve forgotten a lot of the particulars and am relying on the internet to fill in the blanks, so please forgive me if I get some stuff wrong.)
There are a variety of ways to climb Mount Fuji. Most people, like us, don’t have the time to climb the 12,389 foot mountain from the base – though you can if you have the time and desire. Instead, like we did, most people will take a bus up to one of the 5th stations on the mountain. Each trail up the mountain is broken up into ten different “stations”, which are essentially landmarks. The Fuji Subaru Line 5th station (the one we got to from Kawaguchiko) is more than halfway up the mountain (7500 feet) and the base of the most popular trail up the mountain, the Yoshida trail. Many people just take a bus up there, hike for an hour or so, and then take a bus back down.
For those who want to reach the summit, the goal is usually to reach the top by sunrise. There are two widely used methods to do this. The first involves getting to 5th station sometime during the day and subsequently hiking up to one of the many sleeping huts on the trail. With a reservation, you can get a mat to sleep on in these huts. I think that the sleeping areas are communal and everyone is kind of crammed in together. Then you wake up around 4 AM and make the rest of the hike, hitting the summit in time for sunrise.
The second method, and the one we chose, is to take a night bus to 5th station and hike through the night, hoping to reach the summit by sunrise. The drawbacks to this method is it’s a bit of a race against the clock depending on your fitness level and your body has less time to adjust to the altitude. We were the last group to leave 5th station that night – it was absolutely deserted when we started our climb.
Hiking at night is something else. We hit the mountain equipped with multiple layers and winter jackets due to the cold and potential rain/snow, headlamps, walking sticks, food, water, and the oxygen canister my friend bought. We didn’t really need the headlamp for the beginning part of the hike. This first part runs through a tree lined area and then opens up to a beautiful view of some distant town. That was definitely the most enjoyable part of the hike, it was a very gentle slope and the view was spectacular.
At some point the tree line thinned out and suddenly we were just walking on volcanic rock. After that it was just switchback after switchback in the dark. The hike wasn’t difficult, I think we only had to scramble once or twice and that was only as a shortcut. But the air was thin and we were exhausted from all our travel – remember we had started in Taiwan that morning.
12:30 AM: 7th station so far so good
Thank goodness for the different stations and huts along the way. Every time we came upon a hut or a station, we’d sit and rest for a little while. As night wore into early morning our rest times increased – we even took 5-10 minute naps sitting up from time to time. I’m not sure whether taking a drag from the oxygen canister actually helped, but as a placebo it definitely made us feel better.
I remember one particular hut where the bench we were on was facing the wind in a way that it was just whipping into our face. The light drizzle accelerated through the wind and felt like hail for a bit there, but I was so tired I just closed my eyes and didn’t care.
At around 6 AM it was clear we weren’t going to make it up to the summit on time. We made it to about 3400 meters before rays of sun started breaking on the horizon (I think it’s near the old 8th station which is no longer operational). It seemed like we were going to have a nice view so we decided to just enjoy the sunrise from there.
Our slow ascent turned out to be a blessing in disguise, apparently the summit was all fogged in for that morning’s sunrise. After 8 or so hours of hunger, boredom, cold, and exhaustion on the hike, the sunrise truly made the entire thing worth it. We just soaked it in for 15 minutes, laughing, doing stupid pictures with our shadows, and enjoying the rewards of our labor. I don’t think pictures or words do the payoff justice, but that’s all I have for you.
An hour or so later we were at the summit and the three of us split the most expensive bowl of ramen I think I have ever paid for. It was incredibly satisfying.
The less said about the descent the better, but reader be warned: walking down a mountain and this one in particular is brutal. I’ve never enjoyed the descents of hikes, mainly because I feel like there is nothing really waiting for me at the bottom – no amazing view, no sense of accomplishment. It’s just drudgery and the way down Mount Fuji features some of the most boring switchbacks I have ever experienced in my life. It was just switchback after switchback on loose volcanic rock and ash, which got pretty nasty. The sun didn’t help either. Eventually we hit the tree line and things got pretty again but yikes did I hate that descent.
When we got back to 5th station it was nothing like the place we had left the night before. It was jam packed with people, many of whom would just do a short hike and call it a day. We passed through the crowd, indistinguishable from the masses. But we had accomplished something we would never forget.
Some useful Mount Fuji climbing sites:
Mount Fuji Climbing (old site, but I still remember using this one back in 2010!)
Japan Guide (basic info)
Mount Fuji Explorer (useful pictures)