Planning the Climb of Fuji-San
Ever since our first trip to Japan, Fuji-san seemed to have cast a spell on me. Even Jerome had become fascinated by the mystic volcano having seen it on several occasions from Tokyo, from the train going to Kyoto and of course on photos and paintings like the ones from Hokusei. Four years ago, we had just booked another trip to the land of the rising sun and Jerome came to us one day after booking, saying that he wanted to climb Fuji during our visit. A hike to the summit of Fuji-san is never a walk in the park, even for experienced hikers. Not only is the way up a long, tedious climb over volcanic rocks which can make the ascent treacherous, the summit is over 3000m in height, which adds the possible danger of altitude sickness.
At the time most information was still only available in Japanese, with the odd English blog post thrown in. After researching the subject, we decided together that we would give it a try, mainly due to the knowledge that Jerome has been an avid hiker since he was little and has done some challenging hikes before as you will have seen from this blog. Reading the material online we were convinced that he would be able to make it to the top of Fuji-san with us. In some ways I was also more worried abut myself, having had asthma all my life, I did not know how I would handle the thin air near the summit having only reached about 2500m the Alps.
We made sure our suitcases were filled with the essential hiking gear, including proper hiking boots, trekking clothes and very important warm cover up jackets, thermal underwear, scarves, hats and gloves. It is hard to imagine that the temperatures up at the summit would go below 0ªC in August, when the temperatures in the rest of Japan barely drop below 30C at that time of year. In fact the main climbing season to the summit of Fuji-san is only 2 months a year, starting on the 10th July to 10th September, the Yoshida trail opens slightly earlier on the 1st July.
The Trails up to the Summit of Mount Fuji
There are four trails that lead to the top of Fuji-san and we had chosen the Yoshida trail for several reasons. We wanted to hike the trail from the 5th station, starting in the morning and then staying in a hut during the night to get some sleep and then to continue to hike the last part to the top in time for sunrise. The Yoshida trail not only has the highest number of huts along the way, they also are the closest to the mountaintop. The trail head starts at 2300m which is the second highest, meaning that we would only need to climb the height of 1400m to get to the summit of Fuji-san. The Yoshida trail also has first-aid centres at 3 of the stations, another reason for choosing this trail, as you never know how we would cope during the hike. The trail is a zigzag path, described as being on relatively flat ground surfaces and only after the 7th station slightly rocky. There is a great website that compares the trails and gives all the additional information needed. It also has updated notices of closures and dangers on the trails. Most of the others start lower, are longer walking and have fewer facilities.
Last Minute Decisions
We had planned to stay in the area near Mount Fuji for five nights and kept an eye on the weather forecast to decide when we were going to attempt the climb. The weather did not have to be perfect but we did not want it to rain or worse to have the chance of thunder and lightning or even snow at the top. After our first night at Fujitomina Inn we saw that the weather for the following day looked promising and asked our Mama-san to book us into one of the huts. We had chosen two or three of the highest ones, near 8th station and after a few phone calls we were booked at Goraikoukan, the hut closest to the top of Fuji-san at 3250m. We went to the supermarket and bought bottles of water (at least 2 litres per person is a good idea) and food that could easily be eaten and wouldn’t perish, including some fitness bars to give us some additional “power” if we needed it.
Early Morning Start
After an early night our Mama-san had prepared us a big breakfast. The lovely Amano family of our inn thought we were crazy gaijins (foreigners) to climb Fuji-san. They had not yet attempted to do the hike themselves despite living nearby all their lives. The Japanese have a saying the you should only climb the mountain once, you are considered mad if you do it again, and many never attempt it at all.
On our chosen day the sun was shining outside and the sky was clear, we could even see the outline of Fujisan from our bedroom window. Instead of using the bus to get to the start of the Yoshida trail we had made the decision to drive the private toll road to the trailhead and park our car there. The toll road had only been open to private cars a few days before, and during the main hiking season congestion gets so bad that private cars are often not allowed on the road to 5th station. Check the Fuji Subaruline website for details. Alternatively take the hiker buses from the train station at Kawaguchi or Mt. Fuji station.
Driving up the Fuji Subaru Line
The drive up along the toll road took us longer than expected, there were many viewing points on route but we barely saw another soul. After driving for about 20 km on the bendy road we started to see parking spaces next to road and shortly afterwards we reached the end of a long queue of cars full of people with the same intention as us. Instead of waiting in the traffic jam we took the closest car parking space and got ready for our hike. We guessed were were 3km from the end of the road but knew parking spaces are premium. Chris and I both carried a rucksack with warm clothes, food, drink and a first aid kit. The temperature had dropped already considerably and we were glad to wear long trousers and a jumper at the start having left T-shirt weather at the bottom of the mountain. Unfortunately the sun had disappeared and it was a little foggy, so we could barely see more than the immediate surrounding area.
5th Station at Komitake
Walking along the road, next to the long queue of cars, we started to meet other keen and enthusiastic climbers but also those who had just returned from the climb and the exhaustion and tiredness was clearly visible on their faces. Some were loaded with bags full of souvenirs before returning to their cars. After about 3km of bumber to bumber cars (quicker walking!) we finally reached the official 5th station start of the Yoshida trail, Komitake. There were hundreds of other hikers, mostly Japanese, with a few foreign faces thrown in. We went into one of the many shops at 5th station and bought an oxygen can, it made me feel more comfortable knowing I had one in an emergency, and we added some wooden walking sticks, Jerome also wanted a Japanese flag on his. With a quick toilet stop before we headed out onto the Yoshida trail we felt prepared.
The trail is well sign posted and the first part to 6th station felt more like an easy Sunday stroll than a full blown hike, we met a constant stream of other hikers coming towards us from their descent of Fuji-san. To our surprise once we turned off at the 6th station onto the main hiking trail we did see other families with children, there even was one Japanese girl of maybe 5 years of age that we overtook on the way. It later turned out that they would mostly only walk part of the trail before turning back to 5th station, in general a child of less than 7 or 8 is unlikely to have the stamina and mentality to make it all the way.
Meeting other Hikers
The spirit of the other hikers we met was cheerful and the Japanese were curious to know where we come from and were surprised when we told them that we wanted to go right to the top of Fuji-san. Every Japanese hiker was kitted out with the perfect hiking gear, sadly some of the few gaijins we met on the way were not. Some of the foreigners wore only basic sneakers, poor clothing cover and had no backpack to speak off. While it is perfectly possible to buy food and drink along the way at the huts, we were glad to have brought our own. At some point we were overtaken by a mountain runner who stopped briefly for a chat and a pause for breath. He told us that it was his 50th time up Fuji-san and that he was taking part in a race up the mountain the following week.
The Huts and Facilities along the Climb
As we passed each hut on the way Jerome enjoyed receiving the burning brand stamps for his wooden walking stick at each station for a fee of 200 Yen. Some had the brands in the fires inside the huts or some were electric, and Jerome was eager to watch them use it. It kept him motivated to have the chance to get the next one. Every hut had toilet facilities for a donation of 200 Yen but expect to hold your breath while you use them! The landscape of the volcano looked even more barren in the mist but I loved the sombre colours with the odd tuft of green vegetation thrown in. The trees stop between the 5th and 6th stations and higher there is nothing but black ash and rock. The hikers colourful outfits moved like bright dots up the dark slopes and could easily be recognised on the path above us.
Hut Ganso Muro at 8th Station
We made surprisingly good progress, in fact we were too fast on our climb to the summit of Fuji-san. We arrived at our hut Ganso Muro, where we wanted to spend the night at 1 o’clock. We checked in with the hosts, however these huts are mainly designed to house hikers for sleeping not for sitting around for hours. They also told us that dinner was only served at 18:30, which meant we still had over five hours to spare. We had not had any ill effects from the altitude so knowing that the summit was only about an hour away from the station we decided that we would climb the rest to the top, there and then. Our plan then changed to climb to the top of Fuji-san in one go and then return to the hut to sleep and to get up early to watch the sunrise from the area outside before descending the next day.
The Final Climb to the Summit
The rest of the hike to the summit was slower than our progress before, we really could feel the thin air by then and this slowed us more than our legs, which still felt surprisingly good. We took it slowly and stopped more often than before to make sure we would be fine. There were two girls that were definitely struggling and we could see they were pushing themselves too much. Another woman stopped at every bend to take a breath from her oxygen can. To our left we could see the throng of hikers making their way back down the slopes. After about another hour of ascending we spotted the tori gate that marks the top of the trail. We had made it! The wooden trunks of the tori gate had split open and people left coins in it for good luck. We each stuck one in as well, made a wish and took some photos before moving on.
Read more about our hike of Mount Fuji in the following post