For the longest time, I’ve wanted to tackle Mount Fuji (aka. Fuji-san) and when my friend moved to Japan a few years ago, I told him that when I visited, we would do this hike! So when I finally had the opportunity visit Japan and my friends just this past July — I made sure that Fuji-san was a priority. As typical with my travels, hiking is always one of the top priorities!
According to the official guide for climbing Mount Fuji, hiking Mount Fuji apparently for majority of people is only an option during the months of July and August when weather is a little more stable and the huts are in operation. The trails up the mountain are considered closed for the remainder of the year. This meant my travel plan had to coincide with July or August but unfortunately, they are also the hottest months to spend in Japan. Every day involved 100% humidity and a temperature of typically 35 or 36 degrees Celsius.
As you might imagine, this meant hiking is pretty tough in general, but I did end up trekking the Kumano Kodo (which I will post about later!). The only time I felt cool or even remotely cold in Japan was on Mount Fuji!
Getting to Mount Fuji Having been staying in Osaka, my friend and I had to make our way to Tokyo via night bus (a very long ride) and then once in Tokyo, catch another bus to Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station (this one experienced a lot of traffic jams during the day). The night bus is something to experience in itself if one hasn’t done so before!
If we had chosen to take the bullet train (Shinkansen), it would cost each of us about $300. I wasn’t really willing to dish out that much so I opted to go for a more spacious night bus experience (I prefer the deluxe ones in Chile, but who wouldn’t?!). The Japanese night bus isn’t bad with curtain dividers and space between every seat but it was still cramped in my opinion and if you are sitting in the middle, you don’t get much air conditioning so it gets rather warm at times.
The Plan I had heard that there was a primary route or trail that everyone used so I figured that rather than trying to find some off-the-beaten path approach, I wanted to experience what would eventually resemble a massive pilgrimage.
To do so, I decided that we would take the popular Yoshida trail which starts at the Fuji-Subaru 5th station.
The Trail Experience As soon as we arrived at 5th station, I was amazed at how much of a tourist attraction Mount Fuji was. Of course, I had already anticipated this in my mind but seeing so many people was still surprising to me. I imagine that since Mount Fuji was declared a World Heritage site, the volume of tourists must have increased dramatically.
My friend and I hadn’t really had much to eat and we were attempting to save money (as you probably noticed earlier by our mode of transportation) so we quickly purchased some meat buns from a food vendor, scarfed them down and made our way to the trailhead. The trailhead was more of a lengthy dirt road that passed all the buildings.
The initial part of the hike wasn’t too interesting to be honest. I was glad that for once in my time spent in Japan, the temperature was rather cool and I was in a situation where I was sweating profusely — but I wasn’t very keen on hiking up the loose gravel path all the way up, especially if all I could see was cloud or fog in front of me! Nevertheless, the end goal was set in my mind.
Thankfully, after hiking past a lot of tourist groups of all kinds (some chanting, some singing) — all of which were very slow because they were hiking in single file and often at the speed of its slowest party member. This is an excellent thing, unless you are not a member of the group and you are forced to speed up the path of loose gravel to pass the entire group. This meant my friend and I were constantly passing groups — taking breathers — and sometimes getting passed by the groups we just sped past. Most of the time though, the groups ended up taking breathers with us which was fun.
As we continued our ascent, we finally began to see the clouds dissipate. It was exciting to find that we were hiking above the fog and much of the lower lying clouds.
What wasn’t so exciting was the fact that we were faced with an extremely long and slow moving line all the way up the mountain. No joke, sometimes it was 5 minutes just to take a couple of steps.
Unfortunately, sometimes what made the pace of the hike up Mt. Fuji even slower is the actual impatience of others. This applied to a lot of foreigners but also some local Japanese people as well. While standing in line, they will notice that they can get past a group by creating their own trail up the mountain — only to end up creating a bottleneck further in the line because there is no other real path. I’m guessing that some people are on some tight timelines!
Lesson to learn: Don’t hike Mt. Fuji on a tight schedule!
As we continued to make our way up Mt. Fuji — passing station after station — we began to see the sunset. It’s the first time I’ve seen a sunset from near the top of a mountain and it is quite awe inspiring, just imagining how everything becomes so dark once daylight is removed.
We eventually donned our headlamps and continued up the trail (slowly), working our way to Fuji-san Hotel located on 8th station along the way up to the summit. I didn’t book any accommodation because I anticipated that it was pricey, and that it would be pretty bare bones when it came to sleeping quarters — however my friend really needed a rest so I agreed to to stay.
I’ve experienced a variety of mountain huts before and along the way up Fuji, I noticed that a number of the mountain huts we passed had bunk beds. This was pretty standard so when my friend and I finally arrived at Fuji-san Hotel, I was pretty surprised to find that I would be sleeping side-by-side next to strangers (take a look at this photo – via Summer of Blake’s post on Climbing Fuji). Imagine a giant bunk bed — two levels with many sleeping bags lined up next to one another. We were on the lower bunk.
While I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about sleeping literally right next to my friend and some random stranger — I was really not a happy camper when I realized the person next to me was making all sorts of weird noises! My friend apparently had some guy next to him who kept rolling into him so he decided to turn around facing me. So what that resulted in was some person to my left — who kept making weird noises (to the amusement of all the Japanese people giggling and chuckling softly, but not softly enough) — and to my right, was my friend who was sleeping on his side facing me directly.
Facing the fact that I wouldn’t get any sort of peace and quiet, I decided to just sleep on my back, staring towards top bunk while listening to some form of meditation guide on my iPod. This didn’t do much good either because eventually the stranger to my left began kicking and elbowing me. I merely counted the hours until we would wake up at 2:30am to continue the hike up to the summit in time for sunrise.
Finally out of Fuji-san Hotel, we re-joined the slow-moving line up to the summit. Though I wasn’t able to capture in a photo what was experienced, one of the most stunning and beautiful sights along the way was the vibrant line of headlamps leading all the way up and down the mountain in the dark.
I saw families with children as well as elderly sitting to the side in the cold, as tourists and travellers like myself trudged past them, eager to get to the summit in time for sunrise. We may have been close to the summit but it took us 2 hours or so to get there. We finally arrived at some time between 4 and 4:30am.
When we arrived, it was nuts — there were so many people at the summit that trying to navigate to the real peak was like trying to weave my way through a traffic jam. Barely any movement at times while at other times, I felt like people were shoving and pushing unnecessarily. It was like mini town on the summit, with a small temple, souvenir shops, restaurants, etc.
Finally we made it to the top and got away from the massive crowds huddling around the edge — eager to observe the sunrise. Instead we pushed even further towards the peak where we noticed a shrine and fewer people sitting around. It was a tough last push with the winds quite powerful and us being so tired but there was something so sweet about finally making it and just watching as the sun gradually and then rapidly rise to light up the sky … something so tranquil and peaceful.
The moment was so brief yet priceless.
Once the magic of the sunrise had worn off and we were beginning to really feel the cold, it was time to descend. There was an opportunity to hike around the crater but we had two buses to catch and were concerned about whether we would make it on time. These buses aren’t exactly inexpensive so we really needed to keep an eye on the time.
Now fully lit in daylight, the descent was a little different than the ascent. One thing to take note of is that the descent is very very dusty. In fact it is so dusty that I would recommend covering yourself as much as possible. Everything from my ears to my bare arms were layered with red dust and on occasion the wind blew the dust into my eyes as well.
It was just as beautiful, possibly even more so with the feeling of success. For me, I had achieved what I had intended on doing when I decided to visit Japan. Meet up with an old friend and successfully hike Mt. Fuji to enjoy a sunrise.
Would I do this trek again? I don’t know. Many folks say that you wouldn’t likely want to do something like this twice. I guess I would like to ideally see the sunrise or sunset elsewhere but it’d depend on the company I was with. I figured my friend and I — despite the now hilarious mountain hut story, as told above — were pretty fortunate. I’ve heard so many stories of people intending on hiking Fuji-san to view the sunrise only to be turned back because of weather or to only see cloud when arriving on to the summit.
I will however say that it is possible to not join a tour company, save money, and make it to the summit. My friend and I made it happen with just a little bit of planning. Sure, we got a little lost here and there but it made the journey that much more memorable.