Mount Fuji: A Beginner’s Guide
by Jordan Mounteer
photo by https://matcha-jp.com/jp/581
I’d always wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, but it took me until my second time visiting Japan to actually get around to it – and it was everything that I imagined. Almost every Japanese person can tell you off the top of their head how tall Mt. Fuji – or Fuji-sama – is at 3776 meters above sea level. The important thing to remember when climbing it though is that you usually are starting off at sea level. The towering ancient volcano looms in the distance of Tokyo, which is how most people end up getting there.
From Tokyo it’s several hours journey by train to get to Kawaguchiko, and if you really want a taste of rural Japan and what it’s like to live in a small village you’ll take the regional trains – this usually adds an hour or so to your trip but it’s worth it to see farmers planting rice in their paddies and school children pilgrimaging back and forth to school. When I reached Kawaguchiko and checked into my hostel I was already intimidated by the towering sentinel of Mt. Fuji, and even though the top half of it was obscured in cloud it almost became more imposing in my imagination.
There are actually four main routes that scale up the mountain, but generally speaking if you want to really hike the whole mountain you have to ask around in order to find trails that will take you there. For most people, hiking Mt. Fuji entails taking a bus up the steep winding road and starting from the trailheads that already a fair way up – one of the most popular is the Yoshida Trail however, since this starts at the Fifth Station, which is a bit of a tourist trap, but is nevertheless an easy place to get your bearings if it’s your first time up (the other trails include the Subarishi, Gotem, and Fujinomiya).
If trying to decide on a trail wasn’t hard enough, hikers also have to make a strategic decision about when they plan to do the hike. Deciding on a time doesn’t just mean a time of year – although generally speaking the mountain is “open” only during the spring and summer months, at which point it “closes” more or less informally to the public. You also have to decide if you want to try to hike the whole mountain in one day, or start hiking at around midnight so that you can get to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise.
There was one main reason I decided to do it at night: it just so happened that the day I arrived in Kawaguchiko was a full moon and the day after the routes are supposedly closed.
Now, I by no means advocate heading up Mt. Fuji in winter, but it’s almost surreal how empty the mountain becomes the day after the trails are closed. In essence, you can’t “close” the mountain – nevertheless, the week before the trails are supposedly cut off you can expect to see literally thousands of people switch-backing up the mountain. The day after, there’s no one. In fact, I only saw two other people the entire time I hiked up the mountain.
I waited off the main course and wrapped myself in my warm coat and rain jacket and tried to nap until twelve o’clock, but unfortunately it was quite cold and I was too excited so I ended up pacing quite a bit – I didn’t want to start hiking too early, because if I got to the top of the mountain too soon and had to wait around for sunrise, it can easily drop to temperatures below zero. My patience paid off, and I started off at midnight. Already the moon was high in the sky and the wind had died down. I had brought a headlamp, but I quickly realized that the moon was more than bright enough. In fact, many times hiking uphill I had to turn away from it because it was too bright. Another issue that some people have climbing is altitude sickness, especially if you’re climbing too fast. After about two hours I realized I was moving far too quickly and stopped next to one of the many shelters that are built on the side of the mountain. Because the trails were “closed”, these facilities were closed too, unfortunately, but I took the time to rest and rehydrate. At this time, I had started to develop a headache and my exhaustion, mixed with my lack of sleep, made the experience quite hallucinatory. Ever upward, in the dark it seemed like I wasn’t making any progress at all – each footstep was difficult, but I had promised myself to reach the top in time and my motivation to see the famed sunrise drove me on.
At last I caught up with a French couple who had started much earlier than me, and they were also suffering, but just seeing another person seemed to raise our morale. At last we started to see more structures, and when I turned back I could see the dim light of dawn still a half hour off, but the moon had illuminated the mountains and lakes for miles, and I could make out the diffuse glow of Tokyo in the distance. A sudden sense of vertigo overtook me, but it was more thrilling than anything.
Finally we passed under a wooden torii gate, and this was the entrance to the top of the mountain. There were more buildings at the top, but they were all locked and by now the wind had picked up something fierce. Huddling in the lee shadow of these buildings we bit our fingers and rubbed our limbs as we tried to fight back the cold and hypothermia and waited for dawn. When the first glimmer of sun peeked out over an ocean of clouds far, far below us, I knew that it was all worth it. For three hundred and sixty degrees in every direction the warm light of dawn spilled out across clouds and the impression that I was in fact on top of the world was an illusion that was impossible to dispel.
Sleep deprived, physically exhausted, chilled to the bone, and still suffering a pounding headache I couldn’t help but smile and reflect on how apt the experience was. There’s a reason, I reflected, that they call this country the land of the rising sun.
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