Climbing Mount Fuji has been on my “to do” list ever since I moved to Japan. I was bound and determined to make it to that summit, and the fact that Mount Fuji was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site this year, which meant that the already numerous visitors would likely steeply increase in the coming years, lit a fire under me to accomplish my goal sooner, rather than later.
So a few weeks ago, I packed off to Tokyo for a brief sojourn, daydreams of the magnificent Fuji sunrise, so oft described as one of the most breathtaking in the world, already filling my head. Getting to Fuji is a bit of a feat in and of itself; the easiest way to get out to it is a two and a half hour bus ride from Shinjuku that deposits you at the mountain’s Kawaguchiko 5th Station in Yamanashi prefecture. Though there are several different routes to ascend to Fuji’s summit, the Yoshida Trail is by far the path best traveled. Seeing how this was my first go at climbing a ‘real’ mountain, I stuck with the most popular route.
From everything that I’d read beforehand, I’d expected Fuji to be a bit of an unending slog. While it’s not a particularly difficult climb, it does require some stamina. Estimates say that it takes most people between four and seven hours to reach the summit. Many people start climbing late in the afternoon and continue throughout the night in order to reach the summit for the (ungodly early) 4:40 a.m. sunrise. Since I’m rather fond of my sleep and didn’t particularly fancy the idea of twisting an ankle in the dark, I decided to start in the early afternoon, grab a few hours of sleep at one of the many mountain huts that dot the upper half of the climb, and then wake up early for the last leg of the ascent.
Though I knew that climbing Fuji would be a marathon, not a sprint, I couldn’t help but push myself to see how quickly I could climb. I was pretty pleased with my pace overall. From the 5th Station, I reached the hut where I’d be staying for the night in just over three hours, which was much more quickly than I ever expected to make the climb. And since I stayed at the highest hut, the last bit of the climb only took me about forty-five minutes. If there hadn’t been so many people on the trail, I definitely think I could have cut my time down even further. As annoying as the crowds may be, one of the most memorable parts of my climb was looking down and seeing the trail outlined by hundreds of headlamp lights as people ascended.
A word about the mountain huts on Fuji: “hut” is definitely the right word for them. You may be able to grab a few hours of sleep, but I’d never call the sleep I got as “restful.” You’re packed in like sardines in a can, shoulder-to-shoulder in long bunks with musty blankets and lumpy pillows. I managed to sleep for about three hours or so and then was awakened by the buzzsaw snores of about a dozen middle-aged men. Though I’d much prefer that to the alternative – climbing through the freezing, windy night – it certainly wasn’t an experience I’m itching to repeat.
As it turned out, it’s a very good thing that “climbing Mount Fuji” was on my bucket list, instead of “watch the sun rise from Mount Fuji.” The weather during the first day of my climb was absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous blue skies, a slight breeze, and a comfortable temperature. But the next morning, when I arose at 2 a.m. to climb to the summit? Horrible. I’d expected the freezing temperatures, but the rain was an unwelcome addition. By the time I joined the shivering, huddled crowds awaiting the sunrise at the summit, I was beginning to suspect that we wouldn’t see the sun at all.
And unfortunately I was right. 4:40 a.m. came and went, and the only thing we saw was a wall of white mist. As disappointing as that was, the rain made for an eerie landscape that was sort of beautiful in its own way. But once it became apparent that we wouldn’t be seeing a single ray of sunlight, I booked it back down the mountain in search of a hot meal and some respite from the rain and wind. So anxious was I to get out of the rain that I didn’t even snap a picture of myself at the summit, though in all honestly, it would have just looked like a drowned, grumpy rat standing in front of a white wall.
The bad weather proved a good motivator, as I made it down the mountain and back to the 5th Station in about ninety minutes. (It’s supposed to take between two and four hours, though I can’t imagine how slowly you’d have to walk…)
Much to my relief, I didn’t feel any sort of altitude sickness throughout the climb. In fact, aside from a few goat path-esque patches that required both hands and feet, I found the climb to be relatively easy overall. I definitely have my morning runs – and the thigh muscles and lungs that they’ve developed – to thank for that.
Funnily enough, it was the descent that proved to be more taxing on my body. The climb down is a long serpentine one, filled with long switchbacks and a slope that is just steep enough that you feel pulled to jog down…which would inevitably lead to you slipping on the loose rocks and breaking your neck. Because of that, you’re constantly digging in your heels and throwing your weight back as you descend. My hamstrings felt like they’d been dipped in concrete the next morning, and my run was less about maintaining my usual pace than it was finishing at all.
Though many of the Aomori JETs have climbed Fuji, I’d decided to make the climb alone. I had a few random days off during the week, which meant I could avoid the weekend crowds, and I’m never one to mind venturing off by myself. As it turns out, though, I wasn’t alone after all. One of the things that made my Fuji climb so memorable was the people I met along the way. Between people from Britain, New Zealand, and Norway, in addition to loads of new Japanese friends, I was never truly alone. One of the staff in my mountain hut was even originally from Hachinohe, one of the smaller cities in Aomori.
I haven’t decided if I’ll make the Fuji climb again in an attempt to catch the elusive sunrise. There’s a saying in Japanese that goes something like “A wise man climbs Fuji once. Only a fool climbs Fuji twice,” and since the climb itself, not the sunrise, was the important thing, I’m still on the fence about a repeat venture. A few other JETs have floated the idea of climbing via the Gotemba Trail, which is by far the most strenuous ascending route, and I’m definitely tempted by the challenge. Perhaps Fuji will prove a fool of me after all.