Climbing Mt. Fuji is a bucket list item which most local and foreign travelers plan on doing even before they set foot in Japan. It is something that you have always dreamed of doing and when you go home, you tell all your friends how you conquered a mountain (even if all the centenarians passed you en route).
If you are like me, you spend a few weeks planning what you need and hope you are prepared. You dig out all the winter thermals that you packed away thinking you wouldn’t need them during summer. You find that pair of comfy hiking boots that you haven’t worn in years and your waterproof trousers that you were given years ago and finally have a use for. Once you are packed and raring to go, you get on the bullet train (shinkansen) and head towards the highest peak in Japan.
From all your hard research, you know you will be cold, you know you shouldn’t bullet climb, and you know that Mt. Fuji is a sacred place which thousands of tourists climb each year, so it can’t be that hard. But if you are like me, then you’ve never climbed a mountain before and your expectations are based on what a few Google articles have told you.
Well, here are 6 things that my fellow newbie hikers probably didn’t (or don’t) know about making the ascent up Fuji-san via the Yoshida Trail.
You might not have heard about this because any sensible person tries to get sleep on the bus to the starting point, especially if you are making a night climb. But I can’t sleep when traveling so I stayed awake. And not only is the forest thick at the base, you pass through clouds which give the wooded area an elf city vibe, topped off with the fact that there are wild deer frolicking in the bushes. Of course, it’s debatable whether it’s worth losing out on your beauty sleep when there are nothing but beautiful views all around Fuji, but if you can’t sleep, then try counting deer.
It might not be a shock that your starting point is above the clouds if you start walking from the highest point the buses can take you, but it does feel a bit like cheating. Of course, you can walk the very lengthy trip from the very base of the mountain but Mt. Fuji doesn’t technically become spiritual until the 5th Station. Even with “cheating,” though, it’s not a walk that you can take lightly. In the early stages of the trek, you will be passing plenty of exhausted climbers making their way back for a decent sleep and a hot meal. They looked pretty somber and it’s just a reminder to take it a little more seriously during the nice flat start.
It can be a very special journey for you if you are lucky enough to have a clear night. Our ascent was on a crystal clear day and the night sky was not only clear, but because of the lack of light pollution, you can also make out a huge amount of stars and even the rough lines that the Milky Way makes. This was made even more magical by the fact that we had a lot of shooting stars flying overhead. The rest stops are far from boring if you can stare up into the night sky and make out such a clear galaxy.
My grief. You know you are coming to a rest stop even if it’s dark because you smell it before you see it. That’s something usually glazed over by the fact that you have to pay up to 300 yen for the privilege of holding your breath for several seconds. Not every part of every journey can be magical, especially when it comes to bodily functions. The volunteers who clean and maintain Mt. Fuji have a tough job cleaning after so many visitors and I do not envy them. After all, you are climbing a mountain, so it’s better than going in a bush.
This isn’t really a secret, it’s listed on the map. The times between each station are written on the journey guide provided at Fuji. But once you start the climb and have a 2 AM fuzzy brain, coming across the 8.5 Station when you thought you were arriving at the 9th Station can make you annoyed. Then even more annoyed when you come across the Old 8th Station when yet again you thought you were about to reach the 9th Station. It’s a small annoyance that can really affect your motivation when you are tired.
Climbing a mountain involves quite a bit of scrabbling over rocks, and using your arms as well as your legs. But once you are getting towards the top, you start to meet the loose gravel. Big, chunky rocks that adsorb about 30 percent of each step so you feel like you are eternally climbing. Do not forgo the walking stick since the descent gets even worse. When you are walking down big loose rocks, your feet get faster and faster until you fall over. That is if a rock doesn’t get stubborn first and jars your foot into twisting your ankle. Not just that, but only the last portion of the ascent is loose gravel. The entirety of the descent are those annoying chunky rocks which make the walk a type of purgatory.
Climbing Mt. Fuji is a challenge for beginners like me, but it is doable. If you persevere and rest regularly, the top will eventually appear and it will be worth every step you took. Maybe you will also notice things about the ascent that no one else has written about.