I am no stranger to hiking. I have backpacked through mountains in southern France, hauled myself up cables during the night to watch the sunrise from Yosemite’s Half Dome, climbed dozens of other various sized mountains and tried my hand at other types of long distance hiking. Therefore, I was not worried about Mount Fuji, the mountain that has always been touted as the mountain anyone can climb. I heard the mountain gets so congested with hikers that most of the time taken to go up the mountain is spent waiting in line behind all the other eager hikers looking for a decent view of Japan. I heard there were lodges and bathrooms on the mountain, which is pretty absurd for anyone who has climbed less touristy mountains. How hard could it be?
The view from the bus on the ride up to the Fifth Station was spectacular. I could almost forget that one jerk of the wheel or nudge from an oncoming car would send me and 16 other JETs plummeting to our deaths. The clouds stretched out below us like snow, except for the patches brown and gray of the cities below. I had never been so high up in anything but an airplane. If we were so far up Mount Fuji, how much was really left to climb?
The fifth station was a quaint little area. There was a large wooden lodge with the clouds as a backdrop and a cluster of restaurants and gift shops set in a semicircle. By the time we stepped out of the bus after a long ride from Fukushima City, Koriyama and Iwaki, the sun was already beginning to set.
“That’s not what we are climbing, is it?” One friend pointed to a small, brown mountain that rose behind a gift shop opposite of the setting sun. “No, no, that can’t be it. Maybe it’s behind that?” We spent the next several minutes debating whether that was the mountain we would climb or if the real mountain was hidden behind it. The mountain we were discussing looked like we could get up it in an hour or so, not the estimated 5-7 hours. We laughed about it and decided we should get a few bottles of sake as a victory drink for the summit.
We had some time before the hike, so we bought some Fuji walking sticks. I didn’t want one, but my incredible boyfriend luckily insisted on buying me one, which turned out to be a very useful investment. Whether you have your own walking stick or buy a Fuji one (1,000 – 1,300 yen) and get it stamped along the way (200 – 300 yen per stamp at various stations), I highly recommend it! It saved my ass several times going up and down the mountain.
We also looked around the gift shops and used the bathroom before setting out. There was water available in the gift shops – if you wanted to pay 400 yen or so for 1 liter of water (although it gets more expensive once you start hiking up the mountain!).
I was surprised to find the bathrooms were placed in nice buildings but were outhouse style. The bathrooms were occasionally manned by an employee to remind you to drop 200 yen into a box as payment to use the bathroom. As I waited for my friends, I watched someone complain to the staff member about having to pay for the bathroom and, once the employee had disappeared to take care of other stuff, watched other people ignore the sign and walk straight into the bathroom.
Speaking of which, most of the bathrooms once you start hiking are also honor system, with only a box for coins (one bathroom I saw surprisingly had a fancy modern turn stile. On a mountain. Above the clouds. Wrap your head around that). If you plan on hiking Mount Fuji, PLEASE just drop a few measly coins into the box. During the hike, my friends and I watched as a climber reached into his pocket, pretended to snag a few coins and made the motion of dropping it into the box. People have to lug your excrement off the mountain so that you don’t have to. I would rather pay 200 yen then have to dispose of it myself, wouldn’t you?
Anyway, we started our climb around 7 or 7:30 in the evening. Bells on our hiking sticks jangling (which soon got taken off and shoved into our backpacks), we were in high spirits for an easy climb. It started out easy enough. I had to use the bathroom at the very first health and safety check station. I pinched my nose and used the porta-potties. Little did I know that they would have flushable toilets with a proper sink higher up on the mountain. Go figure.
Over the next 7 hours the hike got progressively more difficult as it got steeper and the air got thinner. By the last kilometer or so we were taking breaks about every 5 minutes and I had run out of oxygen between me and my boyfriend. I regretted playing around and using the oxygen before I started hiking because I figured I wouldn’t need it. While the oxygen wasn’t crucial, it did make me feel better and more relaxed.
There were stations with bathrooms about every hour or so. Nearly all of the stations had break areas or lodging where you could sleep, but it all cost money. We preferred to sit on the rocks in the middle of the trail, turn off our headlamps and enjoy the absolutely stunning night scenery. I felt like I was an astronaut looking down on earth. I could see the curve of the horizon, the moon that started out blood red and low in the sky which lightened to a brilliant white over the course of the night. You could see the glittering lights of various cities below, in addition to the bobbing headlamps of fellow hikers further down trail that looked like dancing stars. The sky was clear and filled with stars. By looking straight ahead, you could see all these things at once, which was an incredible experience.
I am no stranger to great scenery. I am an avid hiker and traveler, but I can say that the night scenery from Fuji was the most surreal, incredible scenery I have experienced thus far. I may have called for a few extra breaks just so I could soak in the view. Of course it didn’t look anywhere near as awesome in the pictures I snapped, so I took every opportunity to watch it with my own eyes and enjoy the moment.
Up until we hit the 8th station (we started at the 5th station and the 9th station is the last one before the summit), which was a couple hours from the top, I had been wearing only a tank top and yoga pants that ended mid-calf. We sat down for a break, and that was when the cold hit. Until that point, I thought I had over packed. Just like I had underestimated the difficulty of the climb, I also underestimated how cold it would be. By the time we reached the summit, I was bundled up with 3 jackets, a scarf and gloves. That might seem like a lot, but considering how much body heat I was producing while hiking, it was not nearly enough for the long wait atop the summit when I would be stationary.
During the last few hours or so, we started passing hikers that were clearly struggling. There were a handful of people that had vomited either on the side of the trail or in the bathroom. We passed people staggering along the trail, barely looked conscious. They would lean against the rope or cliff side, stagger a step or two, fall back a step and stagger forward another step. Whoever said Mount Fuji is a cake walk is an idiot.
Part of the reason we all hadn’t taken Fuji seriously was all the talk about people waiting in line to get up the mountain. In our case, we didn’t experience that at all. Sure, it was pretty busy considering we were over 3,000 meters in the air at 2 o’clock on the morning, but it wasn’t enough to slow us down. We ended up reaching the summit at around 2:30am, just over 2 hours before sunrise. We turned the corner at the top, expecting fanfare and a giant sign that said something along the lines of “YOU DID IT! WELCOME!” Instead we found what looked like a country western ghost town. Wooden buildings and carts on either side. I was a bit surprised the shops closed, especially considering night time is the busiest time for hikers.
It wasn’t quite busy at the top yet, and we actually found space on a bench to curl up and try to sleep. We had beat the crowd, but there were dozens and dozens of people huddled in sleeping bags, curled under blankets and wedged between the rocks to avoid the piercing wind.
The next two and a half hours of waiting were absolute misery. I added my rain jacket / windbreaker and pulled on a pair of leggings over long, thick socks. I still couldn’t feel my toes and my lips wouldn’t stop chattering. I would have given an arm for some feet and hand warmers and more layers of clothing. I had to sit on my friend’s feet because he couldn’t feel his toes. Point of the story is, BRING WARM CLOTHES. Mount Fuji doesn’t care that it is the dead of summer. Dig out your winter clothes!
The sun rose at about 4:40am, although the horizon had started to brighten from 3am. As we waited, sitting on benches overlooking where the sun would rise, we watched the line of people that snaked down the mountainside. A fellow JET who was at the summit with us got a text from his wife (Yes, there is cellphone service on Mount Fuji!) saying she was stuck in line. I felt sorry for all the people who were still waiting on the side of the mountain as the sun broke over the horizon. Although to be fair, I’m sure the sunrise looks spectacular from anywhere on the mountain. If you plan on climbing Mount Fuji, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the top. You can either freeze at the top for a few hours, or watch the sun rise while waiting in line – pick your poison.
As soon as the sun was in the sky, we scurried to the now open shops where my friends got their walking sticks stamped (you can only get the sunrise stamp at the summit AFTER the sun has actually risen) and booked it out of there to beat the crowds going down.
Climbing (stumbling?) down Mount Fuji made the climb up seem like a morning stroll in the park. I should have counted how many switchbacks we had to endure, but I was too focused on making sure I didn’t pop a kneecap out. While the trail up was pretty steep and there were parts you had to jump from rock to rock like a mountain goat, the way down was boring and repetitive. Switchbacks filled with gravel. All. The. Way. Down. I didn’t mind it for the first 30 minutes. It was kind of fun sliding down the mountain in a shower of pebbles. After an hour, I hated my life. And I was only a quarter of the way done.
While I don’t think hiking shoes are terribly necessary to climb Mount Fuji, they would have been nice to avoid having to stop and dump rocks out of my shoes every once in a while. I also have bruises from where I inflicted injuries on myself when I kicked rocks into my own ankles.
By the time I reached the bottom, the general consensus from my hiking partners was that the hike down from Mount Fuji was much worse than going up. At least it was fun descending into the clouds. Have you ever breathed in clouds? I have. To my disappointment it doesn’t taste anything like cotton candy.
We finally hobbled our way to the bottom around 8am, 13 hours after we had started our climbs as naïve, eager hikers. Unlike the day before, it was so cloudy that you couldn’t even see Mount Fuji through the clouds (although the incoming hikers weren’t missing much). I heard that we were blessed with incredibly good weather, the best that FuJET has seen in a few years. We had clear skies for sunset and sunrise and it became cloudy just in time to shade us from the sun as we made our descent into the clouds.
After eating a bit of breakfast (we forgot it was only 8am and ordered curry, pork and other dinner food), we headed to the bus for some much needed sleep. Around 10:30am when everyone had made it back onto the bus, we headed for a much needed soak in the hot springs before we headed for home. The sake that I had packed for a victory drink at the summit was still unopened in my backpack. None of us felt like drinking when we got within a few hours of the summit. Another group that had brought wine also brought it back unopened. It was a nice idea, at least.
Although some of my companions may have had some less than nice things to say about Mount Fuji once we had finished, they raved about how awesome it was most of the trek up and at the summit. It was an incredible experience with incredible people and I don’t regret climbing Mount Fuji for a moment. That being said, I do not want to do it again. Unless someone asks me.
While I highly recommend Mount Fuji, I also recommend making significant physical preparation. I am usually the one who ignores recommendations and packs less things than I should. I usually don’t regret it because guidelines are often over exaggerated, but in this case I definitely regretted not packing more for Mount Fuji.
In summary, I felt like I had underestimated the tallest mountain in Japan. As a tip for future hikers, I encourage you to try Mount Fuji, BUT don’t underestimate the effort, time and weather! It may not be Mount Everest, but the average person isn’t as fit as an athlete, either. You can buy all the fancy gear you like, but if you aren’t physically prepared, it’s pointless. I was fine hiking in tennis shoes and wearing normal clothes (although I wish I had brought more!), but it was physically taxing. It is better to laugh about how you overestimated it once you finish, rather than being stuck halfway up the mountain and unable to go up or down.
In case you were curious, below I have listed what I packed for the trip, and another list of things I WISH I had brought.
Clothing worn while hiking:
Clothing worn near and at the summit:
What I mentioned above
Thick fuzzy jacket
Portable, down jacket (It is very thin, but made for hiking)
Thin waterproof shell jacket (Like wearing a rainproof plastic bag.)
Thick socks to cover my exposed legs over the yoga pants
Underpants used for snowboarding (I forgot to bring pants to put over it!)
Clothes I wish I had brought:
Feet and hand warmers
Blanket? (Depends on how much space you have in your bag)
Other stuff I brought:
Normal laptop backpack (not hiking backpack, although that would be useful!)
2 liters of water + 1 small water bottle
Snacks (calorie mate, salami, almonds, pretzels, etc.) – I ended up only eating a fraction of what I brought.
Lots and lots of 100 yen coins for the bathrooms (You can’t get change on the mountain!)
Oxygen (2 canisters compressed into one. About 10 liters of oxygen) – it was technically unnecessary for my group, but we used it anyway because it felt relaxing.
Sunscreen – for the hike down!
Alcohol. You think you will want it. You won’t. If you get to the top and regret not bringing alcohol, you can buy beer in the shop at the summit (although I am sure it is expensive).