Climbing Mount Fuji - A Very Long Walk
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All Japanese should climb Mt. Fuji; only fools climb it a second time (old Japanese proverb)
A thought occurred to me in the early part of this summer that I had not spent much time out in the country, which is truly where I prefer to be. Trying to determine a good spot to go – the mountains were obvious given the sweltering heat in Tokyo – but Japan being loaded with choices can make this task a bit daunting. It had been 20 some odd years since I’d last been to the top of Fuji and the in-season was coming soon, so I decided that this would be my destination.
Most people who have considered scaling to the top of this volcanic mountain have heard the very old saying that “He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool”. That said, this would be my sixth trip, but as mentioned previously, it has been 20 years or better since I’ve been up. A friend I spoke with about this then told me that this only makes me “an old fool” so the damage is already done. If you were thinking of telling me that, he already beat you to it.
The exercise and the cool, fresh air are enough to stir my interest, but I wanted this trip to be different. My previous visits to the summit all began at station 5 on the Kawaguchiko trail. Starting the trek from station 5 will put you at better than the half-way point in terms of trekking distance and elevation above sea level from the base to the summit. It lies at approximately 2500 meters above sea level, leaving a bit over 1200 meters to the summit. This may seem to take something away from the effort, but it is not quite as easy as you may think. However, with a little preparation pretty much anyone can make the trek from station 5 to the summit.
As you may know, Mt. Fuji is referred to as “Fuji-san” (富士山) in Japanese. The Kanji characters used for “fu” (富 - wealth) and “ji” (士 - warrior) may have some symbolic interpretation (although the name itself is Ainu in origin, the Japanese characters being applied at a later date). Folklore was probably lost centuries ago. The third character is “san” (山 - mountain) and should not be confused with the honorific that is used to refer to people. You may see or hear it pronounced “zan” depending upon which mountain is being discussed.
As mentioned before, I wanted to make this trip interesting so I decided to start at the base and opted for Subashiri. Station 1 is at approximately 1,500 meters above sea level and with the summit at 3,776 meters it is a very long walk. I like to walk so I thought this would be no problem. Now I can tell you how wrong I was and about some of the things that can go wrong even when climbing season is ‘in’.
To get to the top from station 1 will take between 9 to 12 hours, breaks included. If you undertake a trek such as this, I recommended that you prepare for an overnight on the mountain. A lot of things can happen that may keep you from being able to decide to stay or descend. For this trek I thought that I would need about 3.5 to 4 liters of water. As it turns out, this was exactly what was needed. For anyone climbing from station 5, I would recommend 1.5 to 2 liters. Bear in mind that the weight of 1 liter is equal to 1 kg. You have the option of buying water and food along the way but I have never been a fan of paying 400 to 500 yen for a half-liter of water! A cup of coffee goes for 500 yen. But you will hopefully not need the caffeine while trekking anyway. Besides, it dehydrates you.
The trail between stations 1 and 2 is an asphalt road that splits a military gunnery range. They seemed to be pretty well aware of this so thankfully it wasn’t necessary to duck and scramble for cover. Passing cars were a nuisance though by causing night vision to suffer. Having started at 2:30 in the morning traffic was thankfully light. And as luck would have it, all traffic was headed in the same direction – up the hill. I used an LED headlamp to warn them off by holding it behind my head and making circular and bobbing movements to warn them of my presence, or to hopefully cause them to think that it was a UFO. Walking on asphalt can be a problem in that it makes feet and legs tire quickly. It also does an extraordinary job of reminding you that your lower back has a nerve bundle that is essentially in charge of the entire operation. It was simply too dark to walk on the nice grassy strip beside the road and that was made worse by the occasional passing car disrupting night vision.
I would love to go into detail of how lovely the trail is between stations 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and finally, 4 and 5. But after reaching station 5 (6:50 AM) and having walked (on asphalt forever) 12 km while ascending 1,200 meters, I was happy to know that this significant leg of the journey was complete. Though it really is a beautiful walk through a forest filled with wildlife and lots of picturesque photo opportunities after daybreak.
Station 5 has several shops where you can buy the traditional and official Mt. Fuji walking stick. If you buy this stick, it can be stamped (burned seal) at each station proving that you’ve been there. The stick is not essential to completing the trek but is helpful in climbing some of the larger rocks when you become tired. It is also helpful to lean on when taking standing breaks and can make for a good conversation piece or school projects for children.
Set out from station 5 at approximately 7:30. It was great to be on a real trail and this part of the trail is absolutely gorgeous. It is heavily wooded but littered with volcanic rock that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors (mostly grey; but lots of really nice shades of grey). Abundant wildlife in every direction. The trail appears to be cut from water so I’m thinking in the back of my mind that if it starts to rain, this trail is probably not where I want to be. But for now it is easily navigable with no difficult areas to traverse. It was exhilarating after walking for what seemed like days on asphalt.
In an attempt to introduce some brevity to this article, I would skip quickly through. Station 6 is at 3,000 meters above sea level. It is a tough climb after having come this far. If you start from station 5, you can make it here fairly quickly, probably in less than one hour. This is about where the scenery begins to look like you’re walking on the moon and it will stay this way all the way to the top. After getting about mid-way between stations 7 and 8, the weather took a turn for the worse.
Distant thunder and what appeared to be a torrential rain was headed toward the mountain. Anyone who has seen this mountain knows how it completely dominates the entire area. It stands out so completely against everything else around it that it almost appears to be out of place. This causes the weather to be completely unpredictable. If clouds are in the area (area meaning from one or two hundred miles away in some cases) they will rush right over to huddle around the peak. Once there the clouds usually stick around until burned off by the sun or until they rain themselves out. It is not uncommon to go from unlimited visibility to 2 to 3 meters or worse in just moments. Coupled with the typical drop in temperature, you will quickly learn a new level of being miserable unless you are prepared. Take rain gear no matter what the meteorologists tell you. I’ve always thought that they can’t be trusted and should all have to buy us a beer each time they make incorrect predictions.
As tired as I was and with the weather threatening, I decided that turning around was the best course to take. After getting back to station 5, it proved to be a good decision. The sky opened up and it really began to pour down. Just before the rain came, thunder accompanied with a couple of lightning flashes that were far too close for comfort made me feel that I’d made the right decision in not going to the summit. To be up on that mountain without having a roof over your head could be deadly. Not simply because of the lightning but because small trenches in the trail that can quickly turn into a flash flood. With the heavy weather there are often winds that can lift a person off the ground. One unfortunate group was literally blown off the mountain while in a tent just a few years ago. Mt. Fuji is famous for having wind speeds during off-season similar to the Himalayan range at 8,000m. Consider wind-chill when deciding what clothing to take with you on your trek.
It was around the time when I reached station 6, I think, when I began to think about all the people who have climbed this mountain. Close to 200,000 people make the climb each year. I tried to imagine how it must have been in ancient times when people did this in grass sandals and there were no busses to take them to station 5. It became obvious to me that the old saying “He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool” came from before these modern conveniences made climbing Mt. Fuji a walk in the park.
It has been an on-going effort to get this mountain listed as a World Heritage site. During my previous treks it was impossible to not notice the litter. Plastic bottles, cans, food wrappers, cigarette butts, clothing, and just about anything else you can imagine. This is what kept Mt. Fuji from being selected by the committee for addition. On this trip up I noticed that it is much cleaner. If you do make the trip, please bring your litter back with you.
In-season runs from the beginning of July to the end of August. It is not advisable to attempt this trek outside of this period unless you have a lot of experience. Weather changes during off-season are much more frequent and violent. Avalanches are not uncommon. The trip can be made in a day but those who choose to spend the night expect to see temperatures lower than 10˚C and rain is possible all the time. Take lots of water or expect to pay 3 to 4 times the cost of what you pay in a convenience store. And it is not absolutely necessary but taking a small bottle of O2 is not a bad idea. Altitude sickness can cause lapses in judgment that could cause dangerous situations. Headaches from the thin air and exertion can become severe and cause a person to make bad choices. The O2 will help reduce or cure the headaches. Safe travels.
Editors comment (yes, thats from Mark): bugger that, head up to Shiroumadake (Hakuba for the unitiated) if you really want a great climb in Japan! Just not in the winter unless you really know what you are doing. Remember me to Renge Onsen!