Fuji-san is a big deal. It’s the highest point on all of Japan’s islands. It’s on the ¥1000 note. It’s the subject of countless photos, paintings, woodblock prints, poems… blog posts.
富士山 may well be the world’s most climbed mountain- 250-300k people climb it every year. The vast majority of these attempt it during the “official climbing season” of July and August. At times, especially during Obon week, people have to wait in queues just to get to the next station.
If you ask most folks who climbed Mt. Fuji, they will inevitably tell you how they got a “Fuji stick” and had it stamped at all the stations on the way up. They will say that climbing with thousands of people was part of the fun, and how they met so many cool kids from all over the world [see also: Annapurna Circuit, Appalachian Trail].
I get it… But it’s not for me. I see the beast as a massive strato-volcano. At 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft), it’s the biggest one around. I respect the spiritual journey of it all, and the fact that the mountain is sacred to Japan and it’s culture- just not among throngs of people. The first recorded climb seems to date back to 700 A.D. by Buddhist monk En-no-Shokaku. So, the true nature of the climb, in pure form, is a mostly solitary one. The only way to avoid waiting in line to walk uphill is to make an attempt outside of the normal window. My comrades and I compared schedules, and all were able to break away for a few days in early October. It was well outside the climbing season, and hopefully before too much snow and ice hit. Now we just had to decide on a route to the top.
Pilgrims from at least 500 years ago came to pray at the Fuji Sengen Shrine before they started their climb up the sacred mountain. This marks the beginning of the original Yoshida Climbing Route. To us, this was the most traditional route to take. Besides, riding a bus halfway up (many decide to take a bus to the 5th station) would rob us of at least 5000 vertical feet of joy. It was just not an option. So it was set. We made all the necessary arrangements, and were on our way…
It’s October 7, 2011. A fairly smooth flight from Okinawa, and seamless train ride on the JR Chuo line is fairly uneventful. It is near the end of the train’s scheduled trips, and only a few dreary eyed trekkers hop off with us at Otsuki for the Fujikyu line. We meander for a moment waiting to see if anyone knows where to go for the transfer. It is here that our trip really begins. A frantic train conductor runs onto our platform and starts yelling in his native tongue. My brain is too tired to pick up many words. His tone and the reaction of the native speakers around us queues us in that we need to run with him if we want to live!.. Or at least to catch the last train bound for Kawaguchiko. He takes off down a narrow hallway, and bolts right through the ticket gate. Another worker is standing there waving us through like a third base coach telling us to round it towards home. The small herd of trekkers stumbles onto the oddly Swiss Alps-looking red train, and it chugs off immediately for it’s final destination of the night.
Our adrenaline settles. We get off at Kawaguchiko station, and walk about 15 minutes to K’s House Mt. Fuji (a great establishment- would recommend it to anybody). It is very quiet as we arrive, but the staff has been kind enough to leave a key to our tatami room on the desk. After tiptoeing up the stairs, we find our room, and quickly fall asleep on the provided futon mattresses with huge comforters. There are a few options at K’s house, including hostel style dorms or private tatami rooms. We are new to the tatami style living, but find it to be really comfortable. We spend the next morning relaxing, checking out the sites nearby, and picking up last minute necessities.
In the afternoon, the journey to Sengen Shrine begins. It is a quick train stop down the line to Fujiyoshida, then about a 30 minute walk to the shrine (plus a stop at Lawson konbini for some onigiri and snacks). By the time we step onto the shrine grounds, the light is already casting long shadows behind the trees. Our plan is to push through the night to make the summit at sunrise. This allows us to leave the full shelter and extra food behind for a lightweight rapid ascent. (You can Check out Ben’s GPS Track Log here for official stats.)
Our enthusiasm and excitement bring us to Nakano Chaya, and Umagaeshi well ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, we are sweating and panting. All bad signs when hiking to altitude. A break to shake out our legs allows some regrouping and pacing.
The rhetorical, “Why the hell did we start all the way at the bottom?” is discussed. Mike offers his view, “I guess I’d just rather go up the hard way!”
A cozy lodge near the 5th station comes before midnight. It is not open, but we stop outside to cook dinner, and rest for a while. The cold wind is starting to prickle my skin, and frost is forming on the benches we sit on. A jacket, and steaming noodles help to ease my clenched muscles. It’s just after midnight now, and we decide to move. The goal of reaching the summit for sunrise drives me upwards. That, in combination with the thin air, give me a sort of tunnel vision. Conversation is limited to route finding. All minds are focused on one thing.
We’ve now surpassed the treeline. The wind bites harder. I cinch my hood tighter. To the East, a faint hint of light illuminates the low lying clouds. A sense of urgency is passed amongst the group, and we drive on. Above the 8th station, terrain becomes somewhat steeper and more rugged. The final slog is slow with frequent breaks. It’s getting much brighter now, and the sun threatens to breach the clouds on the horizon. Finally, at around 5:30 AM, a stark white torii gate guarded by fierce shi-shi dogs greet our windburned faces. It seems to glow in the early light against the red rock and dirt that surrounds it. It is not much longer before we pass through a small congregation of boarded up huts, and are standing on the rim of the caldera admiring the sun reflecting off of the clouds below.
We say our hearty congratulations, and I make my way around the caldera to the weather station where the highest point resides. Up until now, we have seen but a handful of climbers. A lone Japanese man joins my admiration of the task accomplished. We snap a few pictures and realize only half of the journey has been completed. Back at the windbreak of the buildings, our small group enjoys some breakfast, a bit of celebratory wine, a couple cheesy summit-dials to the leading ladies ;-), and some good old fashioned procrastination against the pending descent.
The sun warms our faces as we step onto the trail, and jackets soon return to packs. We begin to see a few more hikers who must have stayed at lodges the night prior, and began the trek at daybreak. A bit of route miscalculation slows us down. Low blood sugar sets in. We reach a sun-basked flat deck of a hut somewhere near the 7th station, and decide it is a prime spot to rest for a while. Boots come off, food comes out, and the entire party joins in a deep power nap. It is one of the best rest-stops I have ever taken on a mountain.
By the time we reach the 5th station, it is well past noon. In the interest of making it back to K’s house in time, we opt to catch a bus the rest of the way down. Maybe it was our proud tired faces or our musky aroma, but the penny loafer clad tourists that joined us on the bus did not seem to question that decision.
- I definitely recommend starting from Sengen Shrine. The hike through the forest is actually pretty cool. It’s also how it has been climbed for hundreds of years.
- If I do it again, I will hike to the 5th station early in the day, rest at a lodge, then begin the summit push later that night. Our climbing profile was a bit too aggressive, and mild symptoms of AMS were experienced.
- As long as you have some experience in the mountains or at altitude, I recommend climbing during one of the shoulder seasons like we did. Early October is just before the snow and ice start to stick, but after the crowds leave. You don’t need crampons or ice-axes; just some insulation, and a weather proof layer. Remember that most huts and lodges will be closed for the season.
- Fuji is easy to underestimate! It is not technical, but you still have to plan for the worst. There are much fewer rescue options in the shoulder seasons. Pace yourself. Be honest about your capabilities, and make sure you are prepared to bivvy if you become too fatigued or the weather turns.
Thinking about making the trek? Go for it! Here are some relevant websites that were useful in planning:
- Webcams <http://www.fujigoko.tv/english/>
- Weather <http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Fuji-san>
- General climbing info <http://www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp/div/english/html/climb.html>
- Interesting facts, and graphics <http://www.englishtreejapan.com/mt-fuji.htm>
- K’s House Mt. Fuji <http://kshouse.jp/fuji-e/facilities/index.html>
Thanks for reading! If you liked this tale, be sure to check out “The Core: They never Miss a Beat…”
I’d love to hear your own Fuji Saga. Shoot me a message or post a link in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to check it out.
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