This weekend, I climbed Mt. Fuji. It was an absolutely amazing experience, one that I will never forget. It was an adventure and a half, and a serious challenge, but I’m so glad I was able to make it happen. An important item checked off my Japan bucket list!
At 3,776 meters (12,389 feet), Mt. Fuji is Japan’s tallest peak, and an active volcano. It has been a pilgrimage site for centuries, and is considered one of Japan’s sacred mountains. Me, being accustomed to hiking “14-ers” (peaks higher than 14,000 feet) in Colorado, thought the hike would be a piece of cake. I scoffed at the idea of people using canned oxygen, since I have climbed peaks a good 2,000 feet higher than Fuji. But I’ll admit, I definitely underestimated the mountain. It was a serious hike, probably the most difficult one I’ve ever done. It got a little sketchy at points, and left me exhausted and sore. But, it was so worth it. Being at the summit for sunrise was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Mt. Fuji is a short two-hour train ride from Tokyo, so I was able to sleep in and head out around noon. I woke up slightly foggy-headed from the night before, and discouraged because it was pouring rain out. But, I packed up my backpack, laced up my hiking boots, and headed out. I met up with my hiking partners, three other JETs, one of whom I had met in Denver, at Shin-Fuji station in Shizuoka prefecture. Thankfully, it was not raining there. We stopped at a konbini to stock up on water and snacks, and grabbed a taxi, and were on our way up to 5th station. We could only see the base of the mountain, as the peak was enshrouded in clouds. The steep, windy road led through a lush forest of tall trees. We saw a few deer along the way. It felt good to be amid trees again, instead of city.
We started from 5th Station on the Fujinomiya Trail at 2,400 meters. Our plan was to hike to the 9th Station, stay in a mountain hut overnight, and wake up early to start hiking make it to the summit for sunrise the next day. We stopped into the gift shop and bought wooden hiking sticks. At every station you reach, you pay a couple hundred yen and they brand the sticks with stamps marking the station and elevation. It’s a cool souvenir, and the hiking stick was actually extremely useful to have. Equipped with our hiking sticks, we were on our way up!
From the 5th Station to the 6th Station was easy. The trail didn’t start off too steep, and it was misty and cool out. It felt good to be out in nature. The clouds were blocking most of the view, but it was still beautiful.
From 6th station to New 7th Station, we were starting to get tired, and a bit worried about the time. We were supposed to arrive at the 9th Station for dinner by seven, and it was already past six. We had spent a little too long in town and in the gift shop, and didn’t leave ourselves enough time before it got dark. At this point, it was actually cold – my first time feeling cold since arriving in Japan. I welcomed the feeling. I put on my layers and my hat, glad to actually have to wear it. It was starting to get dark, and it had started raining.
By the time we reached Old 7th Station, we were seriously worried about reaching our hut in time. We were all pretty exhausted and hungry. We decided we should try to make it up to 8th station when there was still some daylight, and stay there if there were any spots available in the hut. The rain started coming down heavier, and the wind started to pick up.
When we reached 8th station, we were disappointed to find out there was no availability. A kind soul who overheard our dilemma shared some extra rice balls with us. At this point, it was pitch black, pouring rain, and howling wind. We were all freezing, soaked to the bone, exhausted, and starving, but we had no choice but to venture on. I didn’t have a headlamp, so I held my flashlight in one hand my walking stick in the other. The terrain was steep, rocky, and treacherous in the dark. My legs were aching, and I took each step carefully so I didn’t slip. Thankfully the path was well marked, so I was able to follow it well enough in the dim light from my flashlight. The trail was almost empty. The thought occurred to me that it would actually be really bad if any of us fell right now. I pushed the thought out of my mind and kept moving.
I’d never felt so happy as when I saw the light from 9th station, shining above me. We made it! Dripping wet, and absolutely exhausted, but we made it. The proprietor of the hut took our reservation and let us in.
We sat down, peeled off our wet layers, and were fed a simple but extremely satisfying meal– rice, curry, and green tea. We were shown to our sleeping area, which was basically a big wooden box with blankets. It was simple, but all we needed.
I got about four restless hours of sleep, tossing and turning and waking up several times. At 1:00 am, the lights were turned on, and at 1:30 am, a guide came walking through the hallways yelling for everyone to get up. We woke up and started to put on our gear. Though we had hung our clothes up to dry, everything was still wet. We ate the small snacks we had brought for breakfast, barley talking. At just past 2:30 am, we started hiking. It was cold and clear, and thankfully the rain had stopped. We could see the lights of the cities and the ocean below us. And both above and below us, we saw the trail, illuminated by the headlamps of hundreds of hikers already on the trail.
It was packed. I know this was to be expected for a weekend day in summer, but I was still surprised by the number of people. And even though there was plenty of room for more than one person on the trail, everyone was hiking in a single file line. It was barely moving. The whole situation was absolutely bizarre to me. Even on busy hiking trails in the States, people usually step aside and let those going faster pass by. It’s courteous. But this is Japan, and I guess the idea of politeness is very different from what I’m used to – it’s more polite to stand in line and wait, even if it is slower for everybody.
While so far I’ve felt charmed by Japanese politeness, at this point, I was over it. The line was super slow moving, and we would definitely miss sunrise if we stood in line and waited. So, I pulled the annoying foreigner card and started cutting around and passing people. I heard a couple people call us “gaijin,” a not-so-nice term for foreigner, but I didn’t really care. We had worked hard to get here, and I wasn’t about to miss sunrise for fear of being perceived as impolite.
While it was a little annoying getting caught in the hold-up, it was also pretty of cool to be a part of the whole experience, and share it with so many other people. It was kind of magical, seeing the solid line of headlamps, and it felt like we were a part of something important.
We reached the summit surprising quickly, within about an hour and a half. There was a wooden gate marking the summit, which we proudly crossed through. Once at the top, we determined which was east, staked out a spot, and sat down to wait for sunrise. We laughed at how comfortable the rocks felt, because we were so tired. It was freezing cold, but we could already see the signs of first light coming from the east.
The sunrise was absolutely stunning, definitely the best one I have ever seen in my life. We were above the clouds, and we could see all of Japan stretched out in front of us, all the way to the sea. I truly felt like I was on top of the world.
We stayed at the summit for a couple hours, watching the sky change. It just kept getting better as it got lighter. I wandered around the rim of the volcano, and we met another friendly American and chatted for a while. We walked over to the shrine and got our final stamps marking the summit. There were a ton of people at the top, and you could see them all across the rim.
At about 6:30 am, we started our descent, taking the Yoshida Trail. I didn’t think it would be possible, but going down was worse than going up. Way worse. The trail is essentially just a super steep road made of gravel. It was so steep you slipped with every step. It was just endless switchbacks – there was no variety, no plant life, just rock and more rock. I fell quite a few times, and my legs and ankles were absolutely aching in pain. We thought we were moving very quickly, but were always disappointed when we came to a map. If you hike Fuji, I would not recommend the Yoshida trail.
It took us about 4 and a half hours to get down, and I’d never been so happy just to walk on flat ground. We stopped in a cafeteria and I ate a big, satisfying bowl of ramen. We were all so exhausted we had to force ourselves to stand up to go catch the bus. It started pouring rain again as we were leaving. We took the bus to Kawaguchiko, and we went to an onsen (hot spring). It was my first onsen experience in Japan, and it was amazing, exactly what we needed after the hike. It was the perfect way to end our adventure.