Most people hike Fuji from the 5th station (2300m) as that is where the last paved road ends. Buses run regularly to here and there are lots of shops and restaurants. From the 5th station it is a 3-8 hour climb to the top depending on weather, your fitness, and the amount of people.
However, if you want to do ALL of Fuji there are options to pursue. In fact there are four trails that start from the bottom of Fuji, 1st station or below, and go all the way to the top. Which trail you take depends on which side of the mountain you are on, and they all start at different altitudes. Richard and I decided that we would go from the bottom on the Fujiyoshida trail (800m). Starting from the 5th station was not challenge enough for us. We also decided to hike it non-stop. We do not advise this (perhaps Kevin does, but Richard does not- schedule a nice long break somewhere in there, if not a nap)
On a clear day in late August we arrived in Fujiyoshida and checked into our minshuku (named Riban, it was nice). After asking around we made our way to Sengen jinja (ahem, shrine) where we would be starting the trail from the next morning. We had read that it takes about 11 hours from Sengen jinja to the top and so planned to be up bright and early to start. So we got our provisions for the next day from FamilyMart, had some beer, and watched Japanese game shows. At 6am the following morning we were at the shrine and ready to go. If you follow the path up into the shrine don’t be confused, go around the shrine to the right and the trail will continue. Very quickly you will find yourself on a paved road marching uphill. After no more than 5 minutes there is a sign indicating that you can either stay on this paved surface or you can take the nature trail through the woods. We opted for the paved surface as the nature trail does not make contact at every station along the way. After about 2 hours of this uphill on the road you come to Umagaeshi which is where the pavement ends and the 1st station of the climb begins. From here on you are on a dirt trail. From the 1-5th station took us another 3 hours. We stopped every 45 minutes or so to catch our breath and drink some water. The later sections of the trail are about medium difficulty, but it was nice because there was absolutely no one else hiking. We saw no one the whole time until we reached the 5th station (except for a mountain goat), moving a total of 1500m upwards in about 5 hours.
Once we neared the 5th station we were greeted with a procession of hikers young and old, and some kids on horses. Oh, and the air was alive with the sound of bear bells. Do not buy a bear bell. There are no bears. Don’t believe them when they tell you there are. And even if there were bears (which there are not) then the 1000s of people ahead, behind, around, above and below you will “scare” them away with THEIR bear bells. The 5th station is a ridiculous circus of activity, and after our 5 hours of hiking in isolation a bit of a shock. We changed our clothes for colder climes, had our lunch, bought a hiking stick (makes you feel like a tourist, but it’s worth the 1000yen- came in pretty handy), and quickly departed the mayhem- but not before Kevin tried to take some pictures of a well-endowed horse (true story, huge… bridle).
Back on the trail we could tell right away this was a different game. From 5th to 6th station is a very easy uphill hike that will take about 20 minutes regardless of pedestrian thickness. From the 6th the slog begins as at times you stand at the mercy of the butt of the guy in front of you. Between the 6th and the 8th station we made good time, hiking for about 3 hours. At most huts we stopped for a stamp on our sticks and just a few moments of respite before heading back along the trail in the wind and the rain. For those of you who know nothing about Fuji, it’s a big damn mountain and the weather is fickle, be prepared. We saw a couple that was not prepared, there were wearing sandals and garbage bags. We also saw people crying and are pretty sure we saw one woman realizing, for the first time, the human condition. It was beautiful.
After the 8th station you will notice the air gets thin. Some people have major problems with this, headaches and sickness. Other people are mainly fine, but everyone will notice it. Breathing becomes labored and we experienced a dulling of the mind. Kevin had a magical experience when he found an earring on the trail. Richard was equally amazed, though when we revisited the memory on the way down we were both confused as to what had been so special about it. If you are feeling the affects of the air too severely there are oxygen canisters for sale at some huts. In addition, many people stop at the 7th or 8th station for the night to become acclimated. That was not for us, we had a mission.
It took us another ninety minutes or so to reach the 9th station and then the top. By the 9th station any real hiking has ceased and most people are just putting one foot in front of the other. Kevin managed to maintain a pretty decent pace- Richard did not. Upon reaching the top you may want to whoop for joy, but please refrain from whooping. You aren’t there yet, you still have 45 minutes to go, sucker. The real top is on the other side of the crater next to the highest post office in Japan.
Also, don’t count on getting that last stamp. We got there at 6pm, right around sunset- but the place is closed from 5-7. People who hiked for sunrise also missed it due to odd hours. Anyway, don’t expect to get one or they will for sure not give you one just to spite you. Mountain people are like that.
We took our snapshots, looked at the sunset, had a can of coffee to warm our hands and then started our descent. The descent is much faster and more fun than the ascent. For most of the trail you are on a different path, one that is made of ash and quite cushy. Almost immediately after starting down, we came back to our senses and were able to once again use complicated grammar, some of which is featured in this article. Many people run down the mountain on this part and we were no different. Be careful as the trail splits at one point and if you don’t take the correct turn you will end up paying about 2万 to have a cab take you back to the 5th station. If you can read English or Japanese though, you shouldn’t have a problem- provided you have a headlamp/flashlight, which is a must. We were going quite fast, but night came on before we made the 7th station and so we had to slow down. From the top to the 5th station took us about 3 hours. From there we took a bus back to Fujiyoshida, which took about an hour, where we fell asleep without undressing.