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Mount Fuji: A beauty from afar, a challenge up close

Kai Dambach
August 15, 2018

Japan's most famous symbol is also a popular hike for both Japanese and foreigners. It can be accomplished by young and old alike, but you better come prepared for an hours-long ordeal.

Japan, Tokyo
Image: Getty Images/K.Nogi

Just over a two-hour bus ride outside of Tokyo is Japan's most famous landmark: Mount Fuji, a 3,776-meter (12,388 feet) tall landmark. It is often hidden behind clouds but in the right weather conditions, at the right time of day and from the right location, one can occasionally see the mountain just above the Tokyo skyline. It serves as constant reminder to those in Tokyo that there is more to life than working in this mega labyrinth of steel.

As you approach Mount Fuji, such as through the small town of Fujiyoshida, the nearly perfectly shaped volcano becomes even more ominous. Clouds wrap around it, hugging the middle of the mountain. So is this the tallest mountain in Japan? Yes, yes it is. Is it still an active volcano? Yes, yes it is, but the last eruption was way back in 1707. From this perspective, it looks like a gentle incline for most of the way up, making climbing it seem actually be doable. But is it worth the effort just to join everyone else to watch the sunrise from its summit?

Japan Vulkan Fuji
Looking up at Mt. Fuji from the fifth station. It's more than a kilometer in altitude from the fifth station to the top.Image: DW/K. Dambach

Halfway there already

Many of those who want to attempt the hike up the mountain take the bus from Tokyo to the Mt. Fuji fifth station bus stop. This station is already 2,305 meters (7562 feet) above sea level, and therefore halfway up the mountain, which is divided into ten stations in total. One could, of course, climb up from the first station at the foot of the mountain, but then again, why make life harder for yourself?

The fifth station is home to the usual tourist trappings - including a curry dish that is supposedly worth the mountain's height (in meters) in Japanese currency: 3,776 yen (€29, $33). Far more importantly, however, you can buy postcards that will serve as proof that you've made it to the mountain and grab a wooden hiking stick that will prove to be helpful for more than one reason.

Choose your destiny

After leaving the fifth station, hikers can easily join the Yoshida or Subashiri trail to begin the summit ascent. There are two other trails up the mountain (Gotemba, Fujinomiya), but they require a very long trek around the middle of the mountain just to get started.

Japan Vulkan Fuji | Bergwandern
The path gets tricky and rocky on the way up.Image: DW/K. Dambach

The Yoshida trail is the closest to the bus station, so naturally most people choose that route.

It starts off by simply heading up through trees for about an hour. The signs that pass by count down the number of kilometers and minutes left to the summit, as well as to each rest station. The signs also warn hikers along the trail of other possible dangers such as sudden wind gusts or falling rocks. Once hikers reach the sixth station the trees thin out and things turn grey as the hikers find themselves very exposed to the elements. This is pure mountain now. It will take all of what you have to get through.

No more rocks, please!

Like life, things can change in an instant on the mountain. At the fifth station, the sky above you is still covered with happy little clouds. An hour later, you're walking in them. And they're not so happy - or little - anymore.

And it is not just the clouds that one has to contend with. The mountain cranks up its intensity after the sixth station. What up to this point had been a simple walk with the occasional handrail accompanied by a gentle breeze in the sunshine now turns into a gray reality that includes rocks that have to be traversed. The hike is now most definitely a climb. It seems never-ending. Now one understands why it takes an hour to go one kilometer along the path. So, just five more hours to go from the sixth station, right?

Japan Vulkan Fuji
Getting higher: Looking out at the clouds from an eighth station rest stop.Image: DW/K. Dambach

A quick, cramped rest

If one could traverse the terrain like a jackrabbit, perhaps one could climb the mountain in just a few hours. But for us mere mortals it takes eight hours just to make it to the eighth station, which is just 600 meters (in altitude) below the summit. It's tormenting to see tiny specks at the top of the mountain, knowing these are fellow hikers milling around where you want to be, while your own legs no longer seem willing to take another upward step.

Japan Vulkan Fuji
The late evening landscape provides incredible views as well. Image: DW/K. Dambach

That means you have to spend the night at a mountain hut. It will cost a decent amount (prices vary, I paid 7,800 yen for myself) to stay up this high on the mountain. As a rule of thumb the higher the hut the more expensive it is. And it's not going to be five-star service either. The mountain hut involves a simple dinner and lying in a sleeping bag shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Some huts offer a little more privacy if one can splash out some extra cash, but that's as luxurious as it gets on the mountain.

Japan Vulkan Fuji | Schlafquartier
Sleeping quarters are not for the claustrophobic. Some mountain huts offer a little extra privacy for those with deeper pockets, but that is not true at every hut. Image: DW/K. Dambach

No matter what the plan for the following morning might be, everyone wakes up at 1:30 a.m. local time for the chance to catch the sunrise. Regardless of how much or how little you've managed to sleep, you're wide awake as everyone else fumbles for that last thing in the dark before heading off. Bringing a flashlight on the hike is always advisable.

Taking the easy route

If one doesn't want venture up the crowded paths to the summit, most mountain huts at the eighth station on the Yoshida trail are high enough to still offer a great view of the sunrise, the natural spectacle that everyone is wanting to witness. Just let the crowds chase the sunrise at the top while you leisurely crawl out of your sleeping bag, letting night silently melt away around 4:30 a.m. with the new day. The few hundred meters in height to the summit do not make much of a difference in the view.

Japan Vulkan Fuji
What everyone came for: the dawning of a new day takes on a new view from the mountain.Image: DW/K. Dambach

After another 90 minutes of a slow paced climb through the thin air, you finally arrive at the summit. This is your chance to celebrate, to look down at the accomplishment of actually climbing the highest peak in Japan, and to spend a short time to take it all in. After that, you should get the last brand mark on your walking stick to prove that you reached the top. If, for a small fee, you had it branded at the other mountain stations on the way up, your walking stick should chart your course up Mount Fuji. Then be sure to drop the postcards purchased at the start of this adventure into the mailbox on the summit and get some water from a vending machine. This is Japan after all. Vending machines are literally everywhere.

Japan Vulkan Fuji | Wanderstöcke
Getting the walking stick branded is a great way to celebrate an accomplishmentImage: DW/K. Dambach
Japan Vulkan Fuji | Blick vom Gipfel
The views from the top of the mountain simply cannot be beat. This is the real prize for making it to the top. Image: DW/K. Dambach

At this point something might dawn on you: What goes up must come down. And it's a very long way down. Thankfully there is a separate path for the descent so you do not encounter the hikers on their way up. After being very careful not to slip on the gravelly moonscape trail that takes around one hour to head down, oxygen levels return to normal. From then on it's a simple stroll back to the fifth station and to society.

A fun outing, but I'll never do again

The mountain demands respect from all who attempt to hike it. Even though hundreds of thousands do climb up and down safely every year, injuries and deaths occur every year on the mountain. It is certainly not as safe as sitting at home on the couch. And obviously it is much more painful.

Japan Vulkan Fuji
The mountain was considered sacred by Shintoists since the 7th century AD. There are two shrines around the summit.Image: DW/K. Dambach

Bearing that in mind, I believe that seeing the sunrise from far above the horizon and setting the day in motion that way is certainly worth the (albeit low) risk of injury. We will all die someday, so why not occasionally do something crazy?

And while climbing Mount Fuji is inspirational – a reminder that you can do anything you want to if you just put your mind to it – occasionally doesn't mean repeatedly. There's even a saying in Japan that roughly translates to: "Whoever climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man. Whoever climbs it more than that is a fool."

Japan Vulkan Fuji | Wanderstöcke
The final brand along the Yoshida trail: showing that you made it to the top. Image: DW/K. Dambach