A Wise Man Climbs Mount Fuji

Crowds watching sunrise from Mount Fuji, Japan

As you sit comfortably on the top of Mount Fuji, gently stretching out your tired legs and watching the steam rising from the cup carefully cradled in your gloved hands, you'll find yourself surrounded by hundreds of like minded individuals all waiting in quiet anticipation.  A steady stream of lights snakes up the mountainside as more and more hikers make their way through the torii gate and take their place among the expectant hordes.

Finally the first rays of light burst over the horizon, bathing the clouds below in pink, orange and gold.  Here and there jagged peaks poke through the sea of clouds, all seeming small and insignificant in comparison to the lofty heights of your sacred perch.  The sun finally appears and still everyone is dumbstruck, watching in awe as the gleaming blood red orb gradually creeps higher and higher.  The feeling of being on top of the world only heightens as the dawn light gradually unveils your surroundings.

Sunrise from Mount Fuji, Japan

Sunrise

Mount Fuji's Traditional Climbing Route

Every summer, thousands make the lengthy climb to the summit of Japan's highest mountain.  It's an important rite of passage for most Japanese and a popular challenge for tourists, so you'll see everyone from school groups to pensioners on your journey to the top.  The traditional route begins at Sengen Shrine in nearby Fuji Yoshida.  In years gone by, pilgrims on horseback traversed the relatively flat road to Umagaeshi at the base of the mountain where they dismounted and continued on foot.  The path from Umagaeshi starts as a clearly defined dirt track, which gently weaves up through the verdant forest, passing the occasional dilapidated hut, to the fifth station.  If you are short on time or keen to save your energy, you can take a bus as far as the fifth station and climb from there.

Pile of bells and colourful ribbons on Mount Fuji, Japan

Offerings to Divine Spirits

Above the fifth station, the landscape changes dramatically as the deciduous forest suddenly gives way to barren, rocky slopes, probably more in line with what you would expect from an inhospitable volcanic peak.  The bleak landscape is brightened by the rainbow of hikers zigzagging back and forth, not to mention the pile of bells, each on a brightly coloured ribbon, left as an offering to the divine spirits of the volcano.

The Effects of Altitude

Above the sixth station, you may begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness.  When starting to get out of breath, most people try to power through the discomfort and continue the race to the top.  You may come across these gungho hikers further up the hill gasping for breath, begging for oxygen, or even crying.  Many do not achieve their goal of reaching the top in time to watch the sun rise and it certainly doesn't make for an enjoyable day out.  It's better to take your time, go slowly and try not to get out of breath.  If you're barely putting one foot in front of the other and you're still short of breath, you're moving too fast.

School group ascending Mount Fuji, Japan

School Group

Hut on the Slopes of Mount Fuji, Japan

Hut on the Slopes of Mount Fuji

Spending the Night on Mount Fuji

There are several huts en route that are perfect for a tea break.  Sleeping for a few hours at one of the huts will help you adjust to the altitude but space is limited and in high demand so book early.  You'll be given a simple meal, usually hamburger steak and rice or similar, and be assigned a small space in a communal sleeping area.  You'll be too tired to care about the rattling hiss as your neighbour noisily sucks oxygen from a small portable canister.

Feeling much refreshed, strap on your head torch and join the slowly moving queues gradually trekking through the darkness towards the summit.  Regardless of how fast you usually walk, you will be limited by the crowds, so allow plenty of extra time.  When one of the many tour groups stops for a carefully scheduled break, they may completely block the path forcing you to take a break as well.  Around the eighth station you'll pass through the clouds and suddenly find yourself up among the stars.  The night sky is spectacular and watching the lightning flashes of a thunder storm lighting up the clouds some way below just adds to the experience.

The shadow cast by Mount Fuji, Japan

Fuji No Kage

The Summit of Mount Fuji

Arriving at the top, you may be surprised to see a wall of vending machines glowing in the darkness beside a number of low-lying buildings.  Many hikers purchase hot drinks or have their souvenir hiking staff branded with the summit stamp before taking their place among the crowds covering the eastern side of the mountain, patiently waiting for the best views of the sunrise.  Once the famed spectacle is over, continue your exploration around the crater where you'll see more torii gates, a post office where you can send a postcard marked with the official summit stamp, and the Fuji no Kage (shadow of Fuji), a large and perfectly symmetrical conical blot across the landscape.  The true summit is marked by a small stone pillar, easily located by the long orderly queue of Japanese waiting their turn for a photo.  You may also see patches of snow in the crater, even in the height of summer.
Climbers descending the red gravel Yoshida Trail on Mount Fuji

The Descent

Tackling Mount Fuji in the summer climbing season, with the crowds, huts and vending machines on the summit, is a truly Japanese hiking experience.  It can be challenging but with careful preparation it should be achievable for most moderately fit people.  Watching the sunrise, whether you made it all the way to the top or not, is a unique experience and worth the physical effort required to get there.  Just remember the old Japanese proverb, a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once, only a fool climbs it twice.

Mount Fuji Travel Tips

Whilst bottled water may be available for purchase en route, it is extremely over priced.  Bring enough water for your hike but have some cash to hand in case you do need to buy more.

Food supplies are very limited on the mountain so bring plenty of high energy snacks with you.

You may begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness above the sixth station.  It's best to take a break, or two, to give your body time to acclimatise.  Walk very slowly so you don't get out of breath and allow plenty of extra time for rest stops.

It's a good idea to reserve a place in one of the huts for a few hours sleep.  This should be done in advance as the huts book up early.  There are several different paths up Mount Fuji so make sure the hut you book is located on the path you intend to use.

When to Climb Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji's climbing season runs from July to September every year.  Check the official website for the exact dates.  Outside of the main climbing season, the trails and huts will be closed and the mountain is exposed to extreme weather conditions so climbing is not advised.

Outside the main climbing season, it's better to view the mountain from afar.  Seeing the snow covered peak from Lake Ashi in Hakone is particularly spectacular.

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