Climbing Mt. Fuji: The Sequel No One Asked For

[Visited on August 3rd, 2022]

Last week officially marks the end of the 2022 hiking season for climbing Mt. Fuji. Yeah, that one, the volcanic giant of 3.776 meters, which hovers above Tokyo, threatening mass extinction with its next eruption. The lucky ones have seen Fuji on their way from or to one of Tokyo’s airports. The even luckier ones have observed it up-close, from Gotemba or lake Kawaguchi. But how many have actually observed it intimately close, let’s say at the top of its crater? Turns out, quite a few. And yours truly, managed to do it twice!

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Mt Fuji with all its glory as seen from the Fuji Subaru Line 5th station

Mt. Fuji is one of the most popular hiking destinations during the summer. Every year, it’s accessible from July 10th to September 10th. Thousands of people attempt the hike every year, and a large percentage manages to reach the top. For many, it’s a religious pilgrimage due to Fuji’s status as a sacred mountain. For others, it’s a test to their limits. The saying goes “Every wise man has climbed Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool climbs it twice”. Well, I’m the fool and I’m here to talk to you about it.

Hikers climbing Mt Fuji in the mist

As you may remember, I have already been on the top of Fuji in 2017, just 4 months after I arrived in Japan. From my description in that post, it is evident that my experience was not that satisfactory. I was in a rough body shape due to not exercising much, I was accompanied by a group of people unaccustomed to mountains and cold weather, and we had also peaked a super crowded weekend for our hike. Because we opted for a bullet hike during the night, while only resting on benches when available, I got myself a nice panic attack at the top. The elevation gain from sea level in Tokyo to 3.776 m was too much for me to handle in a span of a few hours. I started heading down to lower elevation as soon as I reached the top, in order to feel better. This meant that I didn’t get to explore around the crater or reach the true top, half a kilometer away on the other side of the crater. I was proud that I managed to do it, but sad that I didn’t do it properly. Soon, I forgot about it and life moved on.

Shops at the 5th station

Fast forward 5 years later, four days after my final presentation for the PhD degree, I’m again on my way to Fuji. Three of my best friends are with me; all doctoral students, all tired from the hard work we’ve put towards our degrees, all still unable to wind down after months of continuous stress. Everyone is there on their first attempt, apart from me. We decided to follow the Yoshida trail again, the one closest to Tokyo. Because hiking Mt Fuji once has made me *wiser*, I arranged the schedule so that we would avoid the mistakes I’ve made last time. So, we booked a bus from Shinjuku (the Fuji 5 lakes line from Keio highway buses) and reserved futon beds at a mountain hut at the 8th station (the main path starts from the Fuji Subaru line 5th station and the top is technically the 10th). The plan is to sleep for a few hours in the hut and hike the last kilometers to the top just on time to catch the sunrise. Spending the night at 3400m, instead of moving continuously, is supposedly going to help adjust to the altitude.

View towards the mountains in Yamanashi

It was a sunny day in early August, pretty hot in Tokyo and still hot enough by the time we arrived at the 5th station, around 10:30 in the morning. The altitude at this point is 2305m. A lot of tourists visit the 5th station just to enjoy a close up view of Fuji. It looks reddish from here, the true color of its dirt. While most people imagine Mt Fuji as blue, this is just the effect of light scattering in the atmosphere. Also, it’s characteristic snow cap has melted, that’s why the top is accessible to the hikers. However, even the 5th station is not as crowded as it used to be a few years ago during the high season.

The 5th station is located at 2305 meters
Fujisan Komitake shrine at the 5th station

We walked a bit around the shrine and the shops. My friends picked up wooden hiking poles from the shop, in order to fill them up with commemorative heat stamps from the mountain huts along the way. Since I had already done this last time, I used my normal hiking poles. After getting a nice bowl of soba noodles for breakfast, we headed to the start of the path. There were anti-covid measures in place, so every hiker who entered the checkpoint had to get a temperature measurement and confirm that they didn’t have any symptoms. Additionally, everyone is asked to pay a 1000JPY fee towards the environmental preservation of the mountain. An engraved wooden amulet is given as thanks, with a different design every year.

The end of the forest zone at Mt. Fuji

The first part of the path is covered with forest, it is the last part of the forest zone at around 2500m. There were a few people coming down the mountain at that time. They all looked exhausted. Horses are allowed to carry passengers at this first part of the path. Most of the time, foreign tourists are the ones who use the horses. Apart from that, they are helpful when there is a need to carry down people who are injured or exhausted. The horses can reach up until a little after the 6th station, at the parts were the path is like a dirt road. An safety guidance center is also located at the 6th station, with explanations of the safety protocols in case of an eruption.

Horses carrying down customers
Mt. Fuji safety guidance center at the 6th station

After a series of kind slopes, the path became rocky from lava flows. The number of people going up was gradually reducing, since many were stopping to rest or sleep at the mountain huts between the 7th and 8th station. There are 15 mountain huts along the Yoshida trail, quite a large number. They all serve overpriced cup-ramen and water. They also offer heat stamps, applied with a metal marking tool at an irori fire place. You can spot the irori as the fish-shaped metal object hanging from the ceiling. A fish is a creature of water; therefore, it is believed to protect the building from fire accidents.

The path moves on top of past lava flows
A hut employee is putting a heat stamp on a hiking pole next to an irori
The price of stamps ranges from 300 to 500 JPY

We moved upwards and the mist did the same. If you looked down, you could see the shadow of low hanging clouds above the plains of the five likes and lake Kawaguchiko. If you looked towards the top, there was only a thick block of mist that reduced the visibility. Some people started to put on heavier clothing, because it was getting cold fast, despite being still noon. We tried to avoid resting at the benches outside the huts, because our hut accepts people only until 8 pm. Any later than that and you would be left outside at the cold.

Low-hanging clouds drop their shadow above the Fuji five lakes
A red torii at a hut on the 7th station
One of the mountain huts
The path is completely red and occasionally scattered with low weeds

At the 8th station around 3100m, we could see some hikers experiencing altitude sickness. The elevation is brutal for kids, but there are surprisingly a lot of them climbing up with their families. One of the huts in the 8th station is called Taishikan, to commemorate the ascend of prince Shotoku, known as Shotoku Taishi, some 1500 years ago. Prince Shotoku is an important legendary figure, mostly because he introduced Buddhism to Japan.

The Taishikan hut at the 8th station

We were also going to spend the night at the 8th station, but at its higher end. Suddenly, the mists started turning into rain. We hastily prepared our rain gear and moved fast. The hut informs that they will not host customers if they are wet. The reasoning is that if any water enters the building, it can’t evaporate because of the low temperatures. Because we move and elevate fast, this last kilometer is hard to finish.

A hiker looking at the cup ramen
Mists start turning into rain

Finally, I could see the large name board of the 8th station Tomoekan, our mountain hut, at 3400 meters. The staff was waiting for us with large blow dryers and handkerchiefs in both hands to pat us dry. They sat us down and helped us take off our hiking boots and rain jackets. It was the first time that I received such a service in such a humble place. The directed us to a plastic sheet, to leave our bags and change to dry clothes. Then, they showed us our room, basically a loft with space for exactly four futon beds and just a meter of space until the ceiling. From the window, the view was excellent. I could see lake Kawaguchiko clearly during the sunset.

Our room in the hut
The corridor is full of the bags of the customers
View from the window next to the beds

We rested for a bit, and then headed downstairs at the main hall for dinner. In this case, dinner means a burger patty, curry and some rice at a plastic container. The hall is decorated with a shrine to Hi-no-Miko ( 日の御子), the protector of safe climbing and business prosperity. The original statue was said to be enshrined in Tokyo’s Zozoji temple (next to Tokyo tower), but was lost during the anti-Buddhism movements of the early Meiji era. It was miraculously discovered at Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine, near lake Kawaguchiko.

Dinner with curry and rice
The shrine to Hi-no-miko inside Tomoekan
The sunset from the hut

Soon, the rain and clouds cleared up. From the hut’s balcony, I could see the lights of the single hut above us, but also the head lights from people climbing during the night. Across the horizon, behind lake Kawaguchiko and the city of Kofu, I could see a thunderstorm going on. The staff at the hut informed me that there was a firework show at the lake yesterday, perfectly visible from the mountain. It was a such a shame that I missed it.

Sunset view to lake Kawaguchi
Thunderstorms behind Kawaguchiko

The staff advised against sleeping after eating, in order to avoid altitude sickness. So we waited for two hours and went to bed around 9 p.m. Almost everyone else was already asleep. You could hear every noise from the rest of the hikers, since our beds were separated from the rest only by a curtain. I didn’t sleep at all, because I my head and body were feeling uncomfortable from the altitude. Thankfully, I still managed to rest a bit from being warm and lying down. Around 2 a.m., people started waking up and getting ready for the final bit of the ascent. The sunrise was expected at 4:52 a.m. and everyone was looking forward to the last 400 meters of elevation to the top. We got a variety of sweet breads and instant coffee as breakfast from the hut. Then, we put on our headlamps and started walking again.

The lights to the top of the mountain
Night view to the top of the mountain

Security guards and volunteers were positioned at the last few meters to the top, shouting encouraging words to the hikers. After reaching the white torii gate and the two komainu statues, we basically arrived at the top. Thankfully, it was not crowded and we could easily find a nice place to sit and enjoy the sunrise. I was feeling refreshed and happy. My mistake last time was sleeping immediately after reaching the top, that’s what most probably caused my altitude sickness and panic attack.

The white torii that marks the end of the path
People waiting for the sunrise
Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
A group of Shugendo pilgrims

Indeed, everyone was so refreshed, that we walked another one and a half hour around the crater. The tallest point of the mountain is actually located on the opposite side from Yoshida trail, towards the Shizuoka side. At Kengamine, a weather station is set up, to monitor weather and volcanic activity. A few other peculiarities can be found along the ohashimeguri trail around the crater: two shrines, the inner shrine of Shengen Taisha and the Kusushi shrine, a fresh water spring, a post office and public toilets. The post office at the top is actually a twin sibling to the one at the tallest point of the Swiss Alps in Europe. A large number of hikers send postcards back home, so that they contain the postmark of the top of Japan.

The crater and the weather station in the back
View to Shizuoka
The post office at the top of Mt. Fuji
View to Yamazaki
The inner Shengen Taisha shrine

The insane volume of mail and other materials is moved to the bottom by bulldozers going up and down on the flat Subashiri trail. This is the trail we also take to go down, so I met two of them transferring provisions to the top. They are noise and fill the air with dust, making me cough. The descending trails is much faster than the ascending trail, probably because it’s so slippery that you can literally tumble down. There are almost no huts, apart from an intersection to our Tomoekan, an evacuation shelter at the 7th station and toilets the 6th station. Passing in front of Tomoekan, we saw dozens of soldiers from the Japanese self-defense force going up. I guess it’s an essential work out for them.  

The winding path of the descent
A group of soldiers going up

This time, I was lucky that the weather was clear during sunrise and I could see the landscape under the mountain with every detail. I could also see the pyramidal shadow of Mt. Fuji spreading above Shizuoka against the sunrise. As the sun was getting higher, a sea of clouds started appearing, obscuring the view of the plains. Last time, I could see only the sea of clouds and no lakes underneath. This alone, made me feel so satisfied that I decided to climb Mt. Fuji once more. With a bit better planning, I managed to enjoy the trip to the fullest. It took away some of my exhaustion from studying so hard and made me feel excited for new beginnings.   

A sea of clouds
A hiker looking towards lake Kawaguchi
The shadow of Mt Fuji
A girl petting one of the Komainu
Just before the sun rises

How did you like this hike? What’s the tallest mountain you’ve ever been too? Do you want to attempt Mt. Fuji if you get the chance next year? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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