“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” — Ed Viesturs
This crucial lesson was learned by our group of fifteen fearless climbers as we all made our best attempt to conquer Mount Fuji in a revitalized GAJET event, spearheaded by Valerie and Alex. Thinking back on those two long August days, we’ve made a collection of thoughts on the highs on lows. Read on to get an insider’s look into the trials and tribulations of Fuji-san!
Why did you want to climb Mount Fuji?
Devyn: It’s been my dream to climb Mt. Fuji (shrine to summit, along one of the old pilgrimage routes) since I read about it as a kid. It’s one of the things that got me really interested in Japan. Since I have arthritis in a bunch of my joints, and my mobility is likely to decrease with time…well, no time like the present, eh? Plus, GAJET organizing the event meant I had the opportunity to climb with many friends. 😀
Nate: I like hiking and climbing mountains.
Rachelle:I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji to challenge my mind and body’s perceived limits.
Valerie: The people asked for the return of the GAJET Fuji Hike, so we listened!
Jasmine: It had been on my Japan bucket list for a few years now. I always enjoyed looking at Mt. Fuji from afar, but I thought climbing it would be a memorable experience as well.
What kind of experience did you have before attempting the hike?
Jasmine: None whatsoever!
Valerie:Just novice hiking. I had climbed Haruna, Myogi, Arafune, and Kurofuyama, as well as other trails and hikes here and there.
Nate:I rock climb and hike a lot, but this was the most difficult hike I’ve done.
Devyn: I’m a moderately experienced hiker, having hiked stateside and in other parts of Japan and Southeast Asia. This is the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed, though.
What was the most difficult part of the trip?
Valerie: Difficulty breathing at higher altitudes and hiking in the dark.
Ciara: The most difficult part was the final run between the ninth station and the top; the feeling that I was so close but also still so far.
Nate:I didn’t prepare well enough for how cold it would be at the top, and coming down was awful because I had no water and unlike going up there were no opportunities to buy more.
Rachelle:The most difficult part was going down the mountain on loose gravel. My whole body was screaming at me to quit but obviously that wasn’t an option.
Devyn: Descending was brutal, which most people don’t seem to mention in articles about climbing Fuji-san (probably with good reason). It might be TMI, but several of my toenails are still black from it.
What was your favorite part?
Jasmine:Getting to the bottom lol
Nate:The sunrise. I started crying a bit. I felt weird for tearing up at the top but it felt really oddly profound and beautiful.
Ciara: The moment I began descending the mountain, the feeling that I was going home.
Devyn: Seeing the remnants of huts and signs explaining what used to stand there in the past along the lower portions of the trail; seeing the sun rise above the sea of clouds and reaching the summit; making unforgettable memories with some of my best friends here.
Valerie: I actually enjoyed scrambling up/over rocks. And the descent was great; it was warm and bright out.
Rachelle: Reaching the top with one of my favorite people; being able to look at them and say, ‘We did it!’
Any funny or weird moments?
Ciara: When we reached the sixth station, and it dawned on us that it was almost all over, we ran to the fifth station. Where did all that energy come from?
Rachelle: None of the hand warmers we brought worked. Not a single one! It was an ice cold wait for the sunrise.
Devyn: Funny: Realizing that the Yoshida Trail 5th station and the place where the buses drop everyone off are two different 5th Stations (about 2 km apart) is hilarious in retrospect. Also, being warned by the owner of the bar beneath our hostel that I would: see no one along the trail until 5th station; likely get lost; and possibly be mauled by a bear—only to run into 50+ other hikers/trail runners/a group of scouts on a hiking trip on my way up to 5th station. (**Being aware of one’s surroundings while hiking and/or hiking with a buddy is important. The advice was appreciated, but likely more useful to people climbing outside of the high season.**) Weird: Thought it was real strange that I had cell service at the top! But it was cool to text people back home from the highest place in the country!
Valerie: Everyone laughed at me for bringing my Chromebook up Fuji, but I had to get work done for Gunma Orientation, and I was determined to have my cake and eat it too! The best part is that you can actually get service on Fuji, so I was able to hotspot from my phone and upload my files from the seventh station! 🤣🤣🤣 On the descent, at one point I was so sleepy I told my hiking partner that I had to stop to rest. We laid down on our backpacks on the gravelly red lava rock in the morning sun, and it was one of the best naps I’ve ever had.
Tell us about something especially interesting or memorable that you noticed.
Valerie:We saw fireworks happening below in one of the towns! From that altitude they looked so small! It was wild to see them from above like that.
Ciara: I was the dirtiest I’ve ever been in my life when I returned to the fifth station.
Jasmine: I forgot what station it was, but one of the walking stick stampers engaged us in conversation and gave us a present. He was so kind!
Rachelle: Being so high above the clouds was thrilling, humbling, and beautiful. Yet, there was a hint of unease because some part of me felt there was no reason for a person to be up that high. I would do it again for the view though. That Mt. Fuji sunrise was something magical!
Do you have any advice for future Fuji hikers?
Ciara: Don’t do it, and if you do, buy a Fuji stick. And bring wet wipes!
Nate: Pack enough food and water for the climb down because there are no rest stops!
Rachelle:Read the advice forums and bring proper gear. Respect the fact that while Mt. Fuji is a tourist attraction it’s still a mountain and hiking it comes with risks. Be careful and have fun!
Jasmine: Please prepare for the cold at the top of the mountain! Bring gloves, hand warmers, a few layers of socks, etc. Also, I highly recommend getting a walking stick. It helped me out so much.
Valerie:Listen to your body if you aren’t feeling well or need to rest. If you can’t make it to the summit as happened to a few of us, it’s ok! The sunrise will still be beautiful, and you can try again another time, better prepared (as I hope to do next year!).
Devyn:BRING POLES AND A HEADLAMP. You’ll be glad to have them. Keep moving during the pre-dawn hours, otherwise you’ll freeze. Have fun and be safe! You’ll never forget this adventure!
GAJET organizes a group trip each year, but if you’re interested in climbing Mt. Fuji alone or you’re busy that particular day, this guide is for you! I’ve written as much as I know about the mountain and provided links for leftover questions. Afterwards, there’s a little photo-journal and story about my own hike to get you inspired!
When to climb:
Mount Fuji is open to climbers in July and August. Technically, you can climb the mountain any time, as there’s no patrol to stop you, but climbing outside of these two summer months is incredibly dangerous. Even in 2016 climbers have died on the mountain out of season. In June and September, weather-wise it’s probably OK, but you should know that services on the mountain are severely limited (including buses and lodging) outside of July and August. And in winter the trails are flat-out closed for obvious reasons. While Mount Fuji is dangerous enough that climbers have died on it, it’s not a technically difficult climb and climbing in July and August means there shouldn’t be ice or snow, the number one cause of accidents. So please don’t be nervous! You can do it!
Mount Fuji is an active volcano:
Yes, Mount Fuji is an active volcano which last erupted in 1707. Recent measurements suggest that pressure inside the mountain is higher today than when it last erupted, implying an eruption is imminent, but these measurements are not as accurate as scientists would like and have been debated in the scientific community. An eruption is still really unlikely but you need to know that it is possible. Over the last few years, climbers have been urged to wear helmets and local authorities have intensified evacuation procedures. There’s more information here:
If you climb the mountain from the bottom, you need to be aware of the (unlikely) scenario of meeting a bear. Japanese climbers are very diligent about wearing bells to ward off bears. Most people I’ve talked to are skeptical about bears being in the area, but there are signs warning about them and it’s better to be prepared than not. Attaching bells to your backpack are the most ideal way to scare them off. More information on how to deal with bears while hiking can be read here:
The most common malaise you’ll face aren’t bears and lava, but the very natural occurrence of altitude sickness. Mount Fuji is 12,388 feet. Think of it this way: at the top, you’ll be a third of the distance an airplane reaches at cruising altitude! Like the other things, this isn’t a major problem if you take care. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches/lightheadedness, loss of appetite, seeing “stars,” shortness of breath…The best remedies for altitude sickness are to hydrate and take your time. Drink as much water as you can during your hike. Also, your body needs time to adjust to the altitude. A good rule of thumb is to rest 30-45 minutes at each station you reach (which is five if you start from the fifth station) to let your body adjust. You will see some people sucking on canisters of oxygen. These aren’t really necessary but if you’re really worried about it, you can buy these oxygen canisters at sports stores. I’ve never used it, but if you check out the reviews on Amazon, the opinions are almost perfectly split between great, so-so, and horrible:
Climbing Mt. Fuji is more about endurance than anything. Less of a climb and more like a long, slow hike, it’s not technically challenging. I have only done one of the four routes, so it’s possible some are harder than the one I did, but from what I’ve read online, most people describe the mountain in general as hiking up steep stairs, totally possible for people new to hiking and climbing. If you’re really worried about the physical aspect, obviously exercising a month or two beforehand is recommended. Walk up and down the stairs at school. Start riding a bike if you don’t. Start jogging if you already do. Join your school’s sports clubs! And of course try your hand at some of our beautiful local mountains.
What to take:
First of all, you’re climbing the biggest and most important mountain in Japan; invest in hiking boots to make the experience enjoyable and safe. I also recommend a high quality backpack. Hiking Mt. Fuji requires a lot of stuff. You want to be comfortable and safe. I recommend a backpack that allows you to easily carry several big bottles of water, since you want to hydrate constantly. If you climb from the bottom, one of the bizarre things about the hike is that you have to prepare for both summer and winter weather. It’s warm and humid at the bottom but freezing cold at the top. You’ll sweat through your clothes at the bottom and need to strip those off for dry clothes when it starts to get cold and windy. I recommend an extra undershirt. At the top, it’s simply bitterly cold. Anything less than what you would wear in January or February is dangerous. Take gloves, a face warmer, a hat, a scarf, everything to protect yourself.
Extra batteries (remember the cold can sap batteries quickly)
A back-up hand flashlight
Plastic baggy to stick money/phone in if it rains
A hat to protect face from sun
Face mask to protect from ash
Toilet paper, hand towel, hand sanitizer
100 yen coins for the toilets
Water and/or Pocari Sweat (at least 2 liters is a good idea)
Small snacks like packaged peanuts, banana chips, and energy bars (bring more than you think you’ll eat)
Light but hardy food like conbini sandwiches
I also recommend printing maps and transit information in case your phone dies, which is likely since you’ll be away from a charger for so long.
How to get there:
There are multiple ways to get to Fuji, depending on where you’re coming from and what trail you plan to take. There are many buses from Shinjuku to the 5th station. I bought my ticket the day of at the Shinjuku bus terminal, and had no problems with buses being sold out. If you want to hike from the bottom like I did, scroll down to the story below to find out how I got there. Otherwise, I recommend looking at these websites to help you figure out where you’re going and how to get there:
5th station or from the bottom?
The first decision you need to make is whether to climb from the bottom, as the pilgrims used to do, or start halfway up at the 5th station (taking a bus up a service road to get there), as the vast majority of modern hikers do. I did it from the bottom, my logic being that it would probably be the biggest climb of my life, so I wanted to do it the “right” way. And it was really rewarding. However, it came with extra challenges. Hiking from the bottom obviously increases your total time on the mountain significantly. Maybe five to six hours or more. You need to carry more food and water and schedule yourself accordingly. The bottom part is a forest, unlike the upper half. This is significant because you need to keep bears in mind when starting at the bottom. Also, there are no facilities at the first four stations. They are abandoned. There are no toilets. You will meet very, very few hikers. I only encountered two people over the course of four to five hours. There will be no help if you need it. No food or water to buy from vendors. The trails are still marked, but less so; it’s easier to get lost. So why do it this way? Exactly what I said before; for most people, this is the biggest hike of their lives. Mt. Fuji is a sacred symbol of Japan, and climbing it is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in this country. So why not climb the whole mountain? But that’s just my opinion, and 99.9% of hikers take the bus. The forest part is really beautiful and serene. You’ll probably see wild deer. The abandoned stations are really cool and creepy. They’re ancient wooden buildings, collapsed in on themselves. So if you do it this way, it will be rewarding but plan accordingly!
The second decision is about lodging, which seems to be the biggest question mark for most potential hikers. Staying in a lodge is certainly the healthiest choice. Taking a rest and getting some shut eye is the best way to ward off altitude sickness and not over-do it, especially if you’re not a regular hiker. Also, camping is strictly prohibited on Fuji, so no tents or sleeping bags! I didn’t stay in a lodge. I basically cat-napped behind rocks and rested where I could. I’m physically healthy and felt confident in myself, but I did have some problems with altitude sickness, and the effects were certainly intensified by my decision to not sleep. One last note; I did find the lodges to be really noisy places. It’s a natural point of rest for hikers, with benches and facilities, so keep that in mind.
How to book a lodge:
Here is a list of lodges with telephone numbers, other information:
A reservation is required via telephone. There is a link at the bottom for a company that will book on your behalf. As far as I know, it is not possible to book online, but things are always changing! If you know one, please note in the comments! An overnight stay typically costs around 5000 yen per person without meals and around 7000 yen per person with two meals. Expect the huts to be extremely crowded during the peak.
When to start my climb?
Many hikers climb the mountain to see the sunrise. If this is your goal, timing it up correctly can be tricky; on my hike, I actually arrived at the summit too early, and had to suffer the cold for longer. I guess I was worried about crowds, but that turned out to be silly; while there are a lot of people, the summit is absolutely massive (and the horizon is even bigger J).
From Japan-Guide: “Most people try to time their ascent in order to witness the sunrise from the summit. Also, the chances of the mountain being free of clouds are highest during the early morning hours. The recommended way of doing this, is to climb to a mountain hut around the 7th or 8th station on the first day and spend some hours sleeping there before continuing to the summit early on the second day. Note that the sunrise takes place as early as 4:30am to 5:00am in summer.”
So there you have it. If you’re hiking from the bottom, timing gets even more tricky. I can only tell you what I did. I started at around 4PM at the Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) and arrived at the summit around 2AM, taking many long breaks. So I arrived too early, and I spent a lot longer on the mountain than most people. But I didn’t want to be in the forest when darkness fell, so I didn’t want to start later (I still was stuck in the forest when night fell though!). If you did the same as what I did, but stayed in a lodge instead of all-nighting it like I did, I think you might have a nice solution to that problem.
Which trail to choose?
There are four trails to choose from. When choosing a trail, also keep in mind how you’ll get back down and what transportation you need to get to. I took the Yoshida Trail. Since trails offer different advantages/disadvantages, I’m not going to say too much about it. Instead, I’ll leave these links here and encourage you to suss it out depending on what works for you.
Fee – there isn’t an official fee, but climbers are asked to donate 1,000 yen to help support the mountain’s facilities, environmental efforts, ect.
The hiking sticks – everyone wants to know about the cool hiking sticks. I didn’t get one, but I saw it for sale in the temple where I started my hike. Hiking sticks cost about 1500-2000 yen and are sold at all the 5th stations except Gotemba. You can get it stamped at each station (starting at the 5th; the first 4 are abandoned), even in the middle of the night. There are dudes huddled around steaming pots even at one in the morning, ready to stamp it for you. I think each stamp costs about 300 yen.
Mistakes I made:
I forgot my bear bell and was still in the forest when night fell. If I stood still and turned off my headlamp, it was the most still, dark, and profound quiet I’ve ever experienced in my life. You don’t want to meet a bear in that.
I forgot chapstick! My lips were miserable coming down the mountain. There’s nothing to protect you from the wind.
My phone died very quickly. When you get to the summit, it will be cold enough to sap your battery a little something extra. When not taking pictures, be sure to turn your phone off to conserve energy. You definitely want to be able to take pictures when the sun rises!
My last mistake was really stupid, but I’m happy to admit it if it helps someone else…For some reason (I think I was delirious from being tired), I just kind of winged the way back down, and took a different trail down than I went up. I didn’t plan so much for the way back and just figured there would be one. And naturally as a result, it was a little bit of a problem. I ended up at a bus stop, but there was no bus for hours. I got lucky and found a few hikers to share a cab to the nearest train station. Do yourself a favor and plan everything out!
I began my hike at Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6903.html) around 4PM. It’s in Yamanashi Prefecture, and in Japanese the shrine is北口本宮冨士浅間神社 随神門. I took the bus in from Shinjuku bus terminal to Fujisan and walked 30 minutes to the shrine. You can see from the snapshot I took on Google Maps that this is quite far from the mountain. So this route includes a lengthy walk in the woods and through the city before the actual hike starts.
This is the Yoshida Trail (吉田). The actual trailhead is a bit hard to find. From what I remember, it’s to the right of the temple in the picture down below, down a sidewalk and a road that really, really doesn’t look like the entrance to Mt. Fuji. I remember thinking it was a bit anti-climatic; I was ready to embark on this epic adventure and I couldn’t even find the trail entrance. I thought there would be a massive torii gate, monumental statues, monks wishing me well…Instead there were cars driving around, an old guy walking his dog, and power transformers. I remember doubting if I was even going the right direction. But eventually…
The main shrine building; you can buy a hiking stick here to have it stamped at each station.
Eventually I found the Yoshida trail marking, with map. Notice it ain’t in English. But it’s not rocket science either. Once I found this sign, I felt confident I was in the right place. Take note of bear warning at the bottom.
For the first few hours, this is pretty much what it looks like! Just a walk in the woods. Doesn’t look like Fuji does it? After an hour to two of quaint trails, you’ll notice the slope increasing more and more. It starts to feel like exercise.
If you hear some crunching in the woods, don’t worry! Maybe it’s just some of these guys.
A long way to go!
Starting to get dark. This is where it helps to not have a colorful imagination…I hadn’t seen a soul in three hours. Soon you’ll experience complete darkness only found in deep nature. Switch off your lights and see how long you can stand in the pitch black and profound silence before freaking out. Don’t walk off a cliff though.
Something weird started to happen…fog rolled in. Massive, thick, heavy fog that added to my blindness. The picture above was only the beginning; it got so thick I could only see two feet in front of me with the headlamp on. It was like walking on the bottom of the ocean. I had to go very, very slowly not to lose the path. But eventually it let up.
You’ll pass the old abandoned stations about once an hour if you’re hiking at a decent pace. It can be kind of freaky. At least the money means humans have been here recently.
Eventually you’ll break free of the woods at the 5th station. The site is breathtaking and these pictures don’t do it justice. For me, the moon was hanging at the summit, giving me natural light to walk by. You can see the lights from the lodgings leading up the trail. There’s also a slight snake of lights from the other climbers. After several hours alone in the pitch black woods, it was a reassuring sight. Suddenly there are plenty of other people and vendors if you need supplies. At this point I recall having to change my shirt because the wind intensifies since there aren’t trees anymore. I had worked up a sweat from before and didn’t want to freeze.
From here, there’s not much to take pictures of. Follow the signs and it’s hard to get lost. There will also be plenty of other climbers (though not nearly as crowded as I expected). The terrain is something akin to walking on the surface of the moon. It’s mostly rock and ash, which is why great hiking boots are highly recommended. There aren’t many technical parts (or any, that I remember; Mount Myogi in Gunma is far more challenging in that regard). From here on, it’s an endurance test. The most important thing for you to remember is to take your time in order to acclimate to the altitude and hydrate often. A recommended tip is to stop and rest for 30-45 minutes at each station. If you start to feel light-headed or see stars, stop climbing immediately and take a lengthy rest. Drink some water and eat some peanuts. I thought I was doing really well acclimating myself, taking appropriate breaks and forcing myself to rest more than I wanted to, but then around the 9th station, it hit me like a knockout punch. I started seeing little bursts of light and felt like I’d just donated half my blood. I felt horrible. Part of it was that I had been climbing a lot longer than everyone else and also that I didn’t stay in a hut. So I took a long break and waited for my legs to get back under me, which they eventually did and I climbed the rest of the mountain just fine.
One of the stations: A trail sign marking arrival at the 9th Station
At the summit. There are facilities at the summit; food, bathrooms, temples, ect. The summit reminded me a bit of a field hospital from World War One. It’s a strange place. There are people everywhere, but most people are either silent or groaning, nursing tired limbs. At 2AM, not many people are in a festive mood but that’ll change by morning. I used my phone to figure out what direction I needed to face for the sunrise and camped out beside a big rock. Waiting for the sun to rise was one of the hardest parts of the climb. I had reached the top too early and it was bitterly cold. Find a large rock to huddle up against and protect yourself from the wind on at least one side. It’s a harsh place but incredibly beautiful. It’s probably the closest thing normal people can experience to being on the moon. The night I climbed, the cloud cover was very thick, but since Fuji is so tall, you climb through the clouds. This thickness suppressed the city lights and intensified the canvas of stars. It was the most vivid night sky I’ve ever seen. I still remember the shooting stars streaking in all directions. I actually fell asleep at one point in a pile of volcanic ash, huddled next to a rock, 13,000 feet in the sky. It’s a harsh and cold, but lovely experience.
Waiting for the sun to come.
No description needed.
The true summit. That building (which I think is an old weather station) marks the true highest place in Japan. There’s a marker to take your picture with if you can fight through the crowds. If you have some gas left, it only takes about 20 minutes to get up there. To navigate the entire crater, about an hour is needed?) of your life.
You’ll see some of the most amazing landscapes (skyscape?).
It’s like sitting on the wing of an airplane.
The shadow of Fuji from the top of Fuji.
The long, strange hike down…
People warn about the hike down. It’s supposedly faster, and that seemed to hold true for me, but the danger of slipping is higher. I fell a few times. Rolled down the mountain a little. I don’t recommend it. It’s tempting to dash down the soft ashy parts, but that’s also dangerous. My knees started to feel the exertion of the past 14 hours. Descending can be pretty rough on you, especially the knees. When I went to the Great Wall of China, they actually had slides where people could slide down the mountain like a Burger King play pen. I don’t envision that for Fuji any time soon.
One last wistful look upwards! You can see a building here. There will be places to grab an (overpriced) snack and drink if you need it. This is the part where you have to be careful not to get sunburned. Cover up. Put on sunscreen. And don’t forget chapstick! I remember being miserable because I forgot mine.
This is what you can look forward to for the next four or five hours.
Things start to get a little surreal. There were some plants I’d never seen before, like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, though I may have been hallucinating. And crazy packs of clouds start rolling in. The boredom and exhaustion starts to do weird things to your brain. I swear at some point I saw the Great Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke.
At the end…
Like I mentioned above, I took a different trail down than I did up. I can’t remember why. There’s something buzzing around in my memory that suggests I had heard one of the trails down was faster, and I suspected I could get down to public transportation easier. So I winged it, and I was wrong. I knew I was on a trail, and I knew I was going down, so I wasn’t too worried. But I didn’t really know where I was. I ended up at the “end”, or what I thought was the end because it was a parking lot. There was a bus stop. I checked the times and yea, you guessed it; no bus for hours. I was stuck. There were some facilities. I wandered around and eventually met some other Westerners, a Polish man and a Spaniard. We were all in the same sad, misinformed, Westerner boat. But actually we really lucked out that there were three of us stranded. We quickly figured out that we could share a cab and make it to a nearby train station for a decent price. There was a weird, random tourist stand thing and they were nice enough to call a taxi for us. He took us to some train station (I can’t remember the name). I charged my phone in a noodle place and used Hyperdia to figure out how to get back to Tokyo. So I winged it and didn’t die, but I don’t recommend it!
Back in Gunma, I slept for 14 hours straight.
My last recommendation: take the next day off to do the same.
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