If you were offered an experience that left you in pain with patches of missing time while depriving you of sleep and forcing you to survive on Cup Noodle, would you accept? Now imagine that you’ve been told you’d be missing out on a must-do life experience if you refused. If you’re still on board, welcome to the hell that is climbing Japan’s Mt Fuji.
That’s not to say that climbing Mt Fuji isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Of course it is. You’d never submit to it twice. Japanese people even have a saying for this: “You’re a fool if you never climb it, but a fool if you climb it twice” (登らぬ馬鹿二度登る馬鹿 / Noboranu baka nido noboru baka).
My partner and I left by bus on Saturday afternoon from Shinjuku, one of the key train stations in Tokyo. Just finding the combined bus terminal and ticket office had been a trial. No one could give me decent instructions and one even suggested I look inside a convenience store. Finally, someone told me it was right next to Yodobashi Camera. You mean the Yodobashi Camera with big red neon lights that reach to its roof? That Yodobashi Camera? Once I started walking towards the store, I could see the sign for the bus terminal sticking out, only visible if you were already walking towards it. There, I was told that ticket reservations were on the second floor. Which didn’t exist. I had to go outside and in through another door which looked like a personnel entrance except for the sign. Even then, I felt like I was trespassing.
The bus from Shinjuku is the cheapest way to get to the fifth station (五合目 / go-goume) from central Tokyo. If you’re going at the weekend, you’ll need to book in advance, but you might be able to do without that if you’re going on a weekday. When I went to book on a Wednesday evening near the end of August, there were plenty of same-day tickets available. Having said that, we took the train back from Kawaguchiko Station and found it more relaxing and not really that much more expensive. We might have been numb to the prospect of spending more money by then though.
Once we arrived at the fifth station, we paid to use the toilets (50 yen) after the two and a half hour bus ride, and got to the restaurant two minutes after they stopped serving food. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. We bought tons of food at the combined hiking equipment/gift shop below it to compensate, including mountain stew-flavoured potato chips. It was a strange world, where people seemed to have put on a backpack for the very first time that morning and were no longer aware of how much space they were taking up. Everyone seemed a little dazed.
I never thought Mt Fuji would be a difficult climb. I love Mt Takao in west Tokyo, and have climbed that a number of times. It’s a fun, easy trip that takes in several temples and a waterfall (depending on your route). The authorities have put in street lights and a paved road, while vending machines and noodle shops greet you at the top. The policy in Japan with mountains seems to be that they will do everything to make them accessible and ensure you don’t so much as break a sweat.
Not so Fuji.
It started out easy. Walking through the forest in the dark with lamps mounted to our heads was fun. After a while, we could truly see the stars for the first time in years.
The sixth station was out of commission during our trip, and so the seventh station was the first one we saw. We’d come some distance by then and, looking up, we could see the golden lights of the seventh station between the lights of the city below and the silver of the constellations overhead. I could almost hear Hugo Weaving intoning, “Welcome to Rivendell.” It was there that the climb got tougher.
While I never felt in danger of falling, there is a lot of scrambling to be done. Paths are loosely defined with ropes and place trust in your sense of self-preservation. A visual check will confirm that most of the time there are only scree slopes tilting at impossible angles beyond.
At the seventh station, we had a welcome rest. Already I could see hikers with their faces buried in the mouthpieces of their canisters of oxygen. My heart hurt a bit, but it was nothing I couldn’t deal with. Here, we got the first of the brands (焼印 / yakiin) on our wooden hiking sticks and then kept walking. There were people everywhere and that led to bottlenecks with queues stretching up and down the mountain. At some point between the seventh and eighth stations, I gave in and got a Cup Noodle. No idea what flavour; the packaging was white and blue, if it helps. It was the best thing I’d tasted in years.
Hours later, it was almost dawn. The altitude sickness had kicked in. My chest was tight and I felt as I were about to throw up. We stopped and my partner had some ramen while I put my head down on the wooden table. You could pay to rest on a bench for 1000 yen and we did so, although it turned out that the Japanese interpretation of the word ‘rest’ (the sign was in English) didn’t include the concept of ‘sleep’. At around 4.45am, we woke up alongside a few Japanese people who were also “resting” there. Although I’d heard that dawn was around five, through the door I could see a sliver of rainbow sky at the horizon. I will never forget the view as I stepped out of that hut.
Below us were thick morning-blue clouds that fell away to reveal glittering city lights. Misty mountains rose above them to our right. Above us, the stars were still visible, and ahead was the pre-dawn sky.
Shivering, we climbed up a little further and waited on a rock. There was a bank of cloud on the horizon, which glowed silver and lit the clouds below in grey-blue. As the first rays shone from around the cloud, the sound of gasps and whoops and cameras going off travelled down from the summit and continued to the people below us. In that shared experience, something in my heart stirred. Or perhaps it was the altitude sickness again.
We took more pictures and a guy next to us was pretending he was from Dragonball and getting his friend to take photos of him “shooting ki energy” with the sun. I was tired and I laughed.
Now we had to get to the summit and so we joined the queue. Yes, queue. It snaked underneath the two torii arches, both of which had hundreds of coins lodged into the woodwork. This section took longer than a couple of sentences can convey, just like most of this account. One step at a time, we made it to the finish the finish line at exactly the same time. A recommended strategy for competitive folks.
The summit, like many famous tourist attractions, has a row of gift shops and restaurants which are extremely crowded, while more interesting areas are almost empty. Once we had our photos taken at the height marker, we purchased victory oxygen, which clearly states on the label that it was bought at a height of 3776 metres, then had ramen and coffee. An attempt to use the bathroom facilities was made and then aborted in horror. As an aside, we saw some furries in felt costumes at the ramen shop. I like to think that they changed clothing at the highest point possible, and didn’t do the whole climb like that. Even at around nine in the morning, the sun was intense.
Afterwards, we set off to those interesting areas, which meant a trip around the crater. As my partner said, “We’re going to doing everything we possibly can while up here. I don’t want us to have any reason to come back.” As you walk away from the tourist area, there is a real danger of falling into the volcanic crater, which sounds pretty cool now I think about it. A flimsy rope at about knee-height separates yet another scree slope from a sheer drop into the volcano.
If you walk up the Kawaguchiko route, the highest peak on Mt Fuji should be opposite you, looking reminiscent of a Citadel of Evil. Atop it is a weather station, abandoned roughly ten years ago, looking nicely rusted. There’s even a metal platform that you can walk out onto that overhangs the mountain face. It doesn’t seem safe by any means, but you’ll feel better having done it. The crater also takes in a Shinto shrine, which has people slumped all over it, looking like a scene out of the Japanese horror movie.
Descending Fuji was dull. It reminded me of a scene from Final Fantasy VII where you have to go up many flights of stairs in Shinra HQ and have no choice but to keep pushing forwards. The only thing that breaks the monotony is the danger of slipping. Falling rocks are inevitable, particularly on the way down, but them being a size large enough to kill you isn’t. Maybe you’ll be lucky.
The misty weather when returning to the fifth station made it seem like early morning. As we walked through the gate that had marked the start of our route, our faces caked in volcanic sand that clung to the sunscreen, we cheered. A guy behind us saw us and started cheering too, shouting ‘congratulations!’
In the end, it has been around three weeks since I climbed it and my feelings on it have changed a lot. When I found myself on the bus going to Kawaguchiko Station and back to Tokyo, I felt a fervent desire to be carried straight into a shower and then to my computer so I could warn fellow human beings away from this mistake of an expedition. Then I remember the shared experience of the sunrise and the feeling of accomplishment at the end. The kindness of other hikers, one of whom, on overhearing that I had a headache from altitude sickness, offered her oxygen to me. It turned out she was actually someone I knew online, but she hadn’t known that until I turned around. Almost everyone we met on our journey up and down Fuji were friendly, from the Americans on vacation from Okinawa to the icecream seller at the fifth station. I’m now thinking about next year and I think yes, we will be returning. Call me an idiot, if you like.
To see all of my photos from Fuji, check out my Fuji Flickr Set. As always, clicking on any of the photographs in this article will lead you to their individual Flickr page. To read about another cool place worth visiting in Japan check out my post on the cemetery in Nagasaki, or simply click on the ‘travel’ tag to your right to discover other suggestions.