CLIMBING MOUNT FUJI

LOCATION: KAWAGUCHI-KO, JAPAN

When planning our trip to Japan the one thing that was a non negotiable on our itinerary list was climbing Mount Fuji. To stand atop the summit of an active volcanic peak would be the pinnacle of our Japanese experience in my eyes, and I’d romanticized about scaling Japan’s iconic and spiritual mountain as a test run to my aspirations of conquering other peaks. Siu On was  happy to accommodate my request and even my Japanese friend, Yusuke, was encouraging with his memorable remark that’s still seared into my memory; “Climb Fujisan? Yes, my grandmother climbs it every year!” However, little did I realize then that summating Mount Fuji would put an end to those mountaineering dreams faster than the I could projectile vomit my way up the mountain. Well played Yusuke, well played. 

The Summit of Mt Fuji

Climbing Mount Fuji is hard

There, I said it! The truth is that Yusuke’s grandmother probably does climb Mount Fuji every year because she also runs half marathons (a tiny detail that Yusuke failed to mention that night). Japanese people are fit, even their elderly have more fuel in their tank than I do on a good day, so don’t compare yourself to the local population. Also, if you are like me and have lived at sea level for your entire life, climbing Mount Fuji will be doubly hard because you will probably suffer from altitude sickness. When we arrived in Kawaguchi-ko, I hadn’t even noticed that I was already breathing heavier and was more lethargic than normal, as I just assume that was from the intense travel we had been doing prior to arriving there (we climbed Mount Fuji only four days after entering Japan); but I was already displaying signs of altitude sickness and didn’t even know it.

Also, a lot of the resources I researched online prior to climbing Mount Fuji didn’t accurately depict the full picture of the climb, and that’s probably my own fault for glossing over the unsavory details, so I’m probably going to crush your hopes and dreams of a magical Mount Fuji experience…

CLIMBING MOUNT FUJI IS HARD!

A view of the lower Mount Fuji Stations

About Mount Fuji

So you still want to climb Mount Fuji, just don’t say I didn’t warn you! Mount Fuji (or ‘Fujisan’ as the Japanese call it) stands at 3776m (12389 ft) above sea level and is easily accessed by bus and train from Tokyo, with Kawaguchi-ko the most popular starting town for climbers to base themselves at.

The official climbing season for Mount Fuji generally runs between 1st July to 15th September, and depending on which trail you are looking to take you will need to check the official site for confirmed opening dates, which are usually announced in the first week of July. It is not advisable to climb outside of these dates as the weather may not be ideal for hiking and the mountain huts are closed. Also, if the weather is poor during the open season, (e.g. unseasonal heavy rains may increase the risk of landslides occurring) the trail will be closed for your safety.

You’ll see a lot of talk of ‘stations’ when you look into climbing routes for Mount Fuji, and basically what this refers to are the areas where you can stop and rest along the way. Usually there are facilities for you to use including toilets and small stores selling food and simple climbing gear (such as air canisters and rain ponchos), with some also offering sleeping huts for those wishing to break up their ascent or descent.

I’ve also noticed on the official Mount Fuji climbing website, in the time since Siu On and I climbed Mount Fuji, that a 1000 Yen climbing fee has been introduced to help assist with conservation and climbing safety on the mountain. This may seem like a large fee to those planning to climb the mountain, however, bear in mind that there is a high volume of climbers who ascent Mount Fuji every year and are doing so on a sacred and world heritage listed sight with a unique ecosystem which is continually under pressure from this activity. The fee will do great things to not only preserve the environment on Mount Fuji, but to also improve the facilities for climbers (which were sorely in need of redevelopment when we climbed it).

Mt Fuji pole being stamped

Climbing routes

There are four color coded routes for you to choose from:

Yoshida Trail Head
The Yellow trail follows the Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station and is by far the most popular trail for climbers, as it’s easily accessible by but from Kawaguchi-ko and the Fujisan stations. This was the trail that Siu On and I followed when we climbed Mount Fuji, and it always gets crowded, especially once the Yoshida Trail joins the Subashiri Trail at the 8th station. The trail starts at an altitude of 2300m from the well developed 5th station. Give yourself around 9-10 hours for the round trip and pay attention to your color coded sign on your descent since part of this trail joins the Red marked Subashiri Trail that ends in a different area of Mount Fuji.

Hikers at the 5th station on Mount Fuji

Subashiri Trail Head
The Subashiri Trail 5th Station is marked in Red and is serviced by buses from Gotemba. The trail head has minimal facilities available so stock up on what you need before you arrive here. Starting at an altitude of 2000m the trail follows a gentle slope up the mountain and gets crowded once the trail meets the popular Yoshida Trail at the 8th station.

Gotemba Trail Head
The Green marked Gotemba Trail New 5th Station is the longest trail to the top of Mount Fuji, as it starts lower on the mountain (1400m above sea level). Give yourself between 7-10 hours as on the descent you can literally run down the soft black volcanic sand, thus cutting your descent time by half! There isn’t much at the trail head though, so make sure you have everything you need with you before you get to the start.

Fujinomiya Trail Head
The Fujinomiya Trail 5th Station will be marked in Blue and is the second most climbed trail on Mount Fuji, as it’s the shortest trail overall. The starting altitude is 2400m and the ascent is very steep and rocky (which is why it’s the shortest trail), so make sure you wear good hiking shoes! It’s an estimated 7-8 hour round trip  and you descend along the same path you went up (remember it’s going to be very steep with lots of loose rock).

For more information on the different trails, check out the official Mount Fuji website or the Japan-Guide section on climbing Mount Fuji.

Climbers ascend Mount Fuji

Staying on Mount Fuji

You can stay overnight on Mount Fuji if you wish to break up the ascend or descent, or if you are planning to make the sunrise; however, you will need to book the mountain huts in advance as they fill up quickly. It is unlikely that you can just turn up and expect to get accommodation (which, I’m told, is just a mat on the floor and you’re crammed in like sardines) as in excess of 300,000 people summit Mount Fuji every year!

For more information refer to the official Mount Fuji website.

Weather

Keep a close eye on the weather forecast closer to your intended climbing date as you don’t want to go up it in rain or cold weather. Bear in mind that the weather at the top of the mountain will be colder then it is at the bottom of the mountain, and  on the day that we climbed it was a balmy 30 degrees at the base but sleeting when Siu On and I summited the top! This is not unusual as mountain weather is unpredictable.

What to bring

Gear
I can’t stress enough how important it is to wear good sturdy shoes, especially if you have weak ankles or are prone to rolling them (like me). Additionally, Siu On and I bought hiking poles which I found really helped me haul my sorry altitude sick butt up the mountain. If you’re planning on doing the sunrise hike then definitely bring a head lamp or a torch as well.

Clothing
There is a big temperature difference between the base of Mount Fuji and the summit so bring cold and wet weather clothing with you. I started off with just hiking pants and a shirt, and packed a pair of thermal pants and top along with a rain jacket in my back, which I ended up putting on somewhere past the 9th station,  as the weather got colder the higher up we went.

Food and drink
Stock up prior to arrival in Kawaguchi-ko for the cheapest prices (we happened to come across a closing down sale at a sport store in Tokyo which was handy), but even buying what you need in Kawaguchi-ko will save you the exorbitant prices at the Mountain. However, you can still buy food and drink (both cold and hot) on the Mountain trail itself, just be prepared to pay for it and beware that the price will increase the higher you go.

Money
One thing that Siu On and I weren’t prepared for was paying for almost everything on Mount Fuji, and as a result we didn’t bring enough correct change with us and had to make a mad dash to the bottom before my bladder exploded. Credit or debit cards are not accepted on Mount Fuji so be sure to bring lots of 100 yen and 500 yen coins with you! You will have to pay to use the bathrooms, to get your Fuji climbing stick stamped, to buy bottles of water and anything else once you leave the trail head, and they will turn you down if you don’t have correct or near correct change.

Hikers on Mount Fuji

Getting there and away

There are many direct lines between the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, however we found using the bus was the easiest as we didn’t have to transfer anywhere. Depending on which route you take there will be a bus to get you from (usually) the train station to the trail head that you wish to begin your hike at. For more detailed instruction on getting to Mount Fuji check out  the Japan-Guide for a good run down of transportation options including timetables.

Altitude sickness

There’s nothing worse than being up on the trail and puking your guts our with a splitting migraine, where every step you take makes you nauseous and sick. Know yourself and know your limits. I did try using air canisters, however they were very short lived moments of feeling normal, and I hear that altitude tablets are not much better. There is no shame in turning back as once you’re up the mountain the only way to safety is to climb back down. Remember, safety first!

Awesome websites to help you plan

This is by no means an exhaustive run down, and I can’t encourage you enough to do your research before you get to Mount Fuji. This isn’t something you should really do on a whim unless you run marathons regularly. We met a lot of people who made that mistake and regretted it… including us! So here are a few more helpful websites with more information than you think you’ll even need!

Official Mount Fuji Climbing

Mike’s Guide to Fuji-san

Fuji Mountain Guides

Jelena at the top of Mount Fuji

In retrospect, climbing Mount Fuji on that trip ranks up there with some of the worst idea’s I’ve ever had. However it wasn’t all bad and despite the altitude sickness and physical nature of the climb wreaking me for at least a week after the trip, I knew that if Siu On and I could survive this disastrous climb, then we could probably survive just about anything together. I am not going to sugar coat this climb for you either! If you are not fit or are not accustomed to high altitude you will get sick and be in a world of serious pain. Do your research and start training for the climb before you get to Japan. Even now when I harken my mind back to that fateful climb I get a sick taste of acid reflux in my mouth again, and winch in pain at the memory of summiting my first big mountain; it reminds me to never do anything that stupid again. Ever again.

Final photograph by Auyeung Photography, all others by Jelena Stipanicev