“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
– Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh
In the past, Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shrine at the base of the mountain was the starting point for the climb but these days, the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, approximately halfway up the mountain is the most popular gateway to the summit. We went with an experienced Fuji trek guide who set the pace. I expected this trek to be difficult, but I was startled by how grueling it was, mostly due to a lack of sleep.
I would recommend staying at the 5th station for at least an hour and a half to acclimate to the altitude. The air really is thinner as you scale the mountain and you may suffer from shortness of breath or dizziness. Altitude sickness is not preventable, and even the most athletic of people can suffer from it. The only cures are time or descent.
From 4 to 6 pm we hiked from the 5th to 7th station to our mountain hut. (Huts charge 1000-2000 yen per hour and 5000-7000 per night depending on if you want them to prepare dinner and breakfast for you.) After about an hour of rest, we ate a dinner of curry and rice with hot tea provided by our hosts and went directly to sleep. From about 7:30 pm to 10 pm we napped in sleeping bags lined up on wooden platforms. We left with the parting gifts of a roll of bread, caloriemate (horrible but works if you’re in a pinch), dubious fish sausage, and apple juice. From 10:30 pm to 3:15 am we summited. It took just under 5 hours, about 7 hours total from the 5th station.
There is a photographic blackout from the hours of 10 pm until 4 am because I was so delirious from exhaustion and sleep deprivation that I never bothered to whip out my camera. I wish I had been able to capture the luminous fullness of the moon that evening, the total calm of the darkness and clouds below, the preparedness-chic costumes sported by the Japanese climbers, and the trails of headlamps zigzagging up the mountain, as if ants had been outfitted with luminescent antennae.
For some, Mt Fuji is an actual pilgrimage. Named for the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi, it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as acknowledgement of the spiritual walking meditation of our predecessors. My own journey tested my mental fortitude as I wavered between repeatedly counting steps to seven (you can do most anything for 7 seconds at a time), soldiering through the pain and dizziness, to wondering to myself if I could lie down on the side of the trail and sleep. The latter was absolutely not an option. I would either freeze to death or be trampled, but the heaviness and lure of drooping eyelids was difficult to resist. At various points I would walk with eyes closed, following the sound if not the form, of the person in front of me. I opened my eyes. The dark figure was already several steps ahead. In my haste I fell up the gravel incline on my hands and knees, only to scramble to my feet, hearing the muffled words of the hiker behind me: “we’re almost there”, when I knew full well we were hours away. Still, I appreciated the sentiment. I’d crane my neck, and bleary-eyed, recognize without registering the face of some fellow gaijin (foreigner) and attempt a weak smile as I tried to keep pace.
In the huts at the summit you can buy 400 yen hot cans of coffee, milk chocolate, or tea. Steamy bowls of miso soup and ramen can be yours for 800 yen. After about 20 minutes rest we continued our trek to the iconic crater seen from every vista in Tokyo and the surrounding area. This is the highest point in all of Nipponland.
I felt triumphant to have scaled this beast, and yet the exhaustion set into my bones quickly after any prolonged lack of locomotion. The view was truly transcendent and ephemeral. In our minds, the sun will rise every day, regardless of the activity of humankind. It is something we need not think about nor will to happen. It is a given. Taken for granted. But that morning, one with little wind and cloud cover, I marveled at that sunrise, that specific rotation of the Earth’s axis, that brilliant mélange of blue, pink, purple, yellow, orange and fire red.
If I could have floated on this cloud all the way to my bed I would have been very happy indeed, but what goes up must come down, and the descent may have been more physically taxing than the ascent, if only because of the pressure on one’s knees. I felt weak and brittle in the hours spent sliding down chunks of rock, envious of the hikers splayed out in slumber on the path. At that point, my trek guide felt like a warden barking orders to hurry the hell up (actually she was very sweet about my slowness but still, granted very few breaks because of the schedule of our returning bus). The upside to walking down the mountain are the beautiful vistas surrounding Fuji including the five lakes and rolling green hills that were camouflaged by clouds and midnight obscurity on the climb. The ultimate gift to myself for completing this expedition was an hour’s long soak at an onsen (hot spring), which I credit as I have many times before, for easing the immense soreness I would have otherwise felt. The Japanese definitely know what’s up with this practice. I finished the evening with a bowl of hot ramen and cuddles with my trek mates, Dan and Rainey, dear friends from middle/high school.
|7 hours up|
|1 hour crater walk|
|5 hours down|
|= 13 hours hiking total|
As I have chronicled, I struggled very much on this trek; most difficult of all was doing it on 2 ½ hours of sleep. You may fare much better than me and I believe the average is about 10-12 hours for the full trip.
Early July to mid-September is the official climbing season when the trails and mountain facilities are open, so plan your trip in that time period.
xo your friend alice
Location: Mount Fuji, Kitayama, Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan