With my wife I had the seldom opportunity to visit one of my best friends in Tokyo. This was a long waited journey as Japan has always been on my bucket list. Naturally, I had lots of stereotypes and notions in my head about the place, but it is surprisingly different in some ways. However, this blogpost is not intended to describe Japan in general, it tells only a story about how three musketeers climbed Fuji-san. I’m about to tell you my very own experience, but also I’d like to provide facts and objective advises what you should take into consideration before climbing the highest point of Honshu Island which is the highest point of whole Japan as well.
Mount Fuji or with Japanese kanji 富 also known as Fujiyama is 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft) high and has one of the most perfect volcano shape on earth. This magnificent cone plays an important role in Japanese culture, it is a saint mountain and all Japanese should climb it ones in a lifetime. Because of this and its proximity to the densely populated Tokyo area makes the climbing season rather busy, time-to-time irritatingly packed.
I planned our entire visit around the Fuji attack even though my wife wouldn’t join the climbing. August is supposed to be the busiest period so I chose early July date right after the official opening, which is July 10. This gorgeous cone is visible from Tokyo and that is probably not a huge surprise since its distance is 100km roughly from the capital. My friend (our host) invited his colleague, so three of us took a bus from Shinjuku Station at 8:55 and arrived to the Kawaguchi-ko 5th station at 11:20. This is a popular starting point with lots of shops and restaurants. Use here the toilet and consider it as last chance to buy food or equipment related stuff. The return ticket cost (in 2016) ¥5400 and you get a hassle free nice journey for it.
There are four trails you can follow to attack the summit and we picked almost randomly the Yoshida Trail even though this is normally the busiest. The pro side is that you can choose from numerous huts the way up. It is very important to book your accommodation in these huts well in advance. As I said before climbing season is busy, so huts are full and unless there is an emergency situation they would refuse to let you sleep there without a reservation.
The trail starts with rocky/muddy ascent surrounded by vegetation. The humidity was super high, time to time we had some drizzle. Overall I didn’t like the conditions because it was too warm (combining with the elevation) to wear the rain cover so either way you got wet. Fortunately not long after the start the weather changed quite dramatically and it became sunny and a bit colder.
From this point on Fuji-san treated us very well, sunshine and light breeze, spacious easy trail with no concentration of hikers. Probably I need to mention here that climbing Fuji is a lot of fun and you don’t need to be a pro mountaineer BUT it is essential to have adequate physical condition and proper equipment for all types of weather conditions. Don’t fool yourself when you see pictures of 70+ local seniors and children at the age of 10 climbing Fuji, they are not doing this for the first time. In Japan people eat super healthy and they exercise a lot and live 90+ years. Now, I’m not saying you should be scared but the point is you’ve got to respect the Mountain. In summer time at the peak you can have subzero temperature combining with strong wind resulting a feel of much colder. Not to mention the winter season when there is no official restriction to climb, but advised to be a real climber or have professional guide with you. In the winter the temperature drops between -20 and -30 Celsius plus the strong wind.
Until our accommodation at the Fujisan Hotel at 3400m, there is not much mentionable. You just march on, go higher and higher and you have time to think and mentally relax and get disconnected from everyday work. The only element you need to fight is the altitude. It is very much advised to drink as much water as you can but do it continuously and gradually. The only recipe to avoid headache and real bad altitude sickness is to drink and ascent slowly. Do not rush, take your time and enjoy the environment. Even if you follow these rules it can happen that your head is exploding like mine. :) I tend to believe this is individually me. I drank a lot, compared to my physical condition I walked slowly and yet I had to take pills in the hut. Hope you’re luckier. :)
And here we are at our shelter for the night at the altitude of 3400m. Personally the highest altitude I have ever slept. Things got interesting here and we experienced a fundamentally different behavior of the Japanese people. In the last 200-300m (elevation) we got a light rain but it was enough to have a softshell on. At the door after a polite Konnichiwa the hosts would start to push us aside to a “dedicated” area and they pressed a piece of rag in our arms to soak up the water from our clothes. Fair enough I actually liked the idea. Then immediately they forced us to change boots (for the provided inside flip flops) and asked us to pay. Well normally there is nothing wrong with that, maybe a bit pushy, but in Japan!? My friend who has already lived in Tokyo for more than 6 months had his mouth open. We have never seen this kind of almost rude attitude in whole Japan but here.
The real surprise is yet to come dear reader. At this point I already had this killing headache and we ran out of water. I decided to buy 4 times half a liter bottle (had to think on next day also). In Japan no matter where we went the bottled water was super cheap even in the most touristic places. In this hut 0,5l had a ¥500 price tag and I wanted 4. Well this is 15 EUR. I know this is not the end of the world if you are in real need, but everywhere in the country it costs ¥100. Alright, I am fully aware that on every high mountain the prices are high due to the obvious logistical difficulties. But on Fuji the trail is basically suitable for 4x4 and tracked vehicles and we saw quite a few of them. Those machines resolve the logistical problem. In Austrian Alps or in Slovakia there are huts where every supply is brought up in rucksacks and still you got only a 20-30% higher price tag. Plus even the busiest touristic places did not charge higher for water in Japan, that looked just standard. All in all it was a great shock up there.
We didn’t even have time to process the water price and we found ourselves in the dormitory section. Oh boy! I have seen many dirty places in my life with no charming smell but this place just claimed the crown. It was a place where 30-40 people were squeezed in and it was unbelievable fuggy and musty. Picture an enormous hiking sock after 50km wet walking and you need to sleep in that. Well that might be a better option :D:D You could ask why the fuss about. Well to reach the summit at sunrise which is at 3776m and you are at 3400m you need to get up early. Real early. Plus we had to calculate in the hiking time the crowd since everyone was there for the same sunrise. I think we set the alarm at 2am, but probably nobody slept more than an hour. We were stacked like fish in the can, each person upside down to the other so you had to smell in the better case your buddy’s feet, in worse a random hiker’s feet. Sweet! After almost no sleep the alarm went off, time to pack and go to conquer. All of us were happily leaving this hut. I mean if you prepare for such things still it’s unpleasant, but in Japan where the public toilette in the train station is as clean as in a hotel… well rather disappointing.
Before the breathtakingly beautiful sunrise, we had to fight our way up in the crowd. No joke, this was a queue like before concerts. On the narrow path there is no chance to take over, so for want of a better solution we stood in the jam. But hey it’s well worth it. We were about to experience something you don’t forget too soon. It was incredible. It was a very cloudy day but we were way higher up so the warm orange sunbeams started to shine on the eiderdown of white clouds. I think there at that moment we didn’t think “Land of the Rising Sun” is a cliché.
Here is a list you might consider also to bring:
- B/C boots,
- waterproof pants
- hard shell jackets
- warm down underwear
- soft shell jacket
- heads lamps
- 40l backpack with rain cover
- hat and gloves
- energy bars
- lots of water (more in the blog)
Facts/good to know:
- 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft) high
- 4 trails to reach the top Yellow:Yoshida Trail, Red Subashiri Trail, Green:Gotemba Trail, Blue Fujinomiya Trail
- Open usually between July 10 – September 10
- 100km from Tokyo
- Ascend 5-10 hrs
- Descent takes roughly half of the ascend time , 3-4 hrs
- Mountain huts provide night shelter
- Water is very scarce, limited purchasing points and shockingly expensive vs elsewhere in JP
The way down everything was super smooth. The weather became just stunning and we couldn’t have wished for better. Ascending basically in daylight was not a challenge really, but because of the speed we maintained our legs showed some weariness.
The path was covered with deep volcanic ash and I mean like 10cm, which turned out rather a good thing. Imagine to walk on pillow, our joints had some suspension. Here I need to mention how handy is when you have proper hiking boots. The stiff construction holds your feet in comfort and safety, plus the high upper keeps the dust out from your feet.
Last but not least some useful material
We did not get surprised by the fact that we were provided a pretty detailed booklet. In the gallery on the right side you can scroll over the pages and you can read those details I might forgot to mention in my blog post.
Probably you will also appreciate that everything in the booklet is in English and not in Japanese. I have to admit, even though the people in general could not speak English everything was prepared in a way that foreigners could get along just well.
Once you are in Japan there is no better way to travel than the train. Below is the most popular solution for tourist, the Japan Rail Pass.