Climbing Mount Fuji – The journey is the destination
A travelers account of his first Mt. Fuji expedition.
Fuji-san – Japan’s holy mountain, a Zen-like sight that might display a monumental calm and steadiness at the first glance, yet opens up into a diverse flow of beauty, once you have been drawn into its magic. This phaenomenon has been depicted in a surprising variety by countless native and gaijin artists, the most famous being Hokusai’s work of ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’ and the beautiful art of nihonga artist Yokohama Taikan’s ‘Ten mountain scenes’.
It’s the journey, that makes us happy.
Intrigued by the saying, that every Japanese is supposed to make the pilgrimage of the climb to the crater of this infamous volcano, at least once in their life, this opportunity was offered to me for the first time in the Summer of 2018. – I have to say it was one of the most rewarding hikes in my life.
Let’s do this 😍
This mountain peaks at 3776 meters above sea level and is famous for its unexpected weather changes and cloud cover. Although the route is pretty safe for a fit adult with the appropriate clothing and hiking gear, it is strongly recommended that you gather as much information as possible up front, regarding weather, traffic and other conditions. In hindsight I have to say, that I was pretty lucky on some matters like ideal weather conditions and overseable crowds. If you are inspired to, or were already planning for this trip, please don’t underestimate this hike. It took me about 12 hours in one go, leaving the van at 9pm for the hike to the top, returning around 9 am the next morning.
Today I am happy to take you along for this ride 🚌
The first glimpse I had of Mount Fuji that day was rather a surprise. It was the usual heat of Japanese Summer outside. I was headed for Fujisan from the valleys of Saitama Prefecture planning to do the hike right at the beginning of climbing season, first week of July. After a refreshing bath in one of Saitamas’ mountain rivers, I continued on the last stretch of road that would take me towards Mount Fuji, arriving to its slopes at Fujiyoshida, a sprawling city below the mountian and the gateway to one of the drives that lead to the highest point accessible by car.
The drive was the usual curved road through green mountain valleys that eventually opened up into its suburb districts of Fujiyoshida. And then – there he was! Driving up to one of the larger intersections, Fuji was suddenly looming in the distance, hooding its peak from the clear blue sky in a cover of clouds.. (2.30 in video)
Quickly I pulled up to the convenience store next to the crossing, to take in this first sight (and get some iced coffee against the heat 🤷♂️😊 ), before I continued on to a planned stop nearby, a location with one of the most iconic views in Japan:
Aruka Fuji Sengen Jinja – 新倉富士浅間神社
After leaving the van at a not too crowded parking lot, I first took the stairs to the shrine office, to have my Goshuinchou (Red Stamp Book) signed by the monk on duty, then continuing on, up the stairs to one of the most featured pagodas in Japan.
The whole shrine was not too crowded, which I found a bit unusual for this famous a sight, but given that you can only really get there by car, I guess that not many tourist make it out there out of Sakura season. 🤷♂️
After taking in the sight and an extensive use of my cameras I was excited to go on. Tonight would be the night to head up Mount Fuji for the famous sunrise view in the morning from the top. Amazing! 😆
Soon I was heading up the Subaru line toll road. Subaru is the name of the famous pleiades stellar constilation in Japan. But here it seems to be the Subaru corporation is sponsor of this, like we have sponsors for stadiums in Europe. There is even something called Fuji Subaru Land at the start of the road (I did not check it out🤷♂️).
Passing through the toll gate, I continued up the road which was winding through the forrested lower slopes of Mount Fuji, also known as the ‘The sea of trees’, the occasional bus and car oncoming, but not too busy with traffic this early in the season. There is some stops and parking lots where one can start extensive hikes through the forrest. I marked this as a to do for next time, also in order to get used to the height.
After a while you could see it ahead between the trees, Mount Fuji’s barren upper ranges were getting closer.
Coming up at the end of the road, there are several larger parking lots, giving the occasional viewpoint up the mountain, again leading to hiking paths into the surrounding forrest and the lower ranges of the barren volcanic landscape of the crater. Coming up closer it kind of reminded me of looking up a crater on Mars, with it’s brown reddish color in the evening sun. From this close you can just guess at the size of that thing. Up here, the mountain is not looming as impressive as it did from the distance, the slopes not as steep and spectacular close up, as the ones of the mountains further north in the Japanese Alps.
Finally, after passing a few kilometers of parking lots along the road. (which can only let you guess on how crowded this must be during main season, school vacations or Obon week) I arrived at the last stop:
Subaru 5th Station
Subaru Station was bustling with activity. I arrived late in the afternoon and found a space on the main parkinglot without much hassle. It was crowded, nevertheless not filled to its maximum capacity and the day’s guest were just starting to leave.
I went checking out the shops and facilities of the Station. There are a few restaurants and hostels and the usual free facilities as well as a free hikers lounge. It’s worth to mention the Ranger Station. At first I just entered out of curiosity, to see if there was some useful information to be gathered beyond what was available from the websites. I quickly dived into a conversation with a friendly Japanese Ranger who as it turned out, had studied in Germany and as all Japanese I met with this trait, was well versed in my native language. So we had a pleasant conversation, during which I learned a few more things about Mount Fuji. He asked me about my equipment and gave me further info on the Mount Fuji National Park preservation efforts, which have to fight with the onslaught of mass tourism. I contributed 1000 Yen receiving a neat little souvenir “I climbed Mount Fuji” hanger for my backpack, made from the pines that grow on the slopes of the mountain.
The rest of the evening I spent on the visitor center’s terrace, watching the sun set above the clouds that covered the valley below in a fluffy carpet. Hundreds of people around me were also enjoying this view, there were at least 20 different languages spoken. I’m always happy to see that people from all kinds of cultures are not so different in their goals after all, once enabled. 😊
Finally I took back to the van for a nap, which didn’t really turn out to be one. With all my excitement I could barely keep my eyes shut. It was 9 pm as I headed out. The night air was mild as I walked the first steps under the light of a rising and almost full moon.
Yoshida Trail Ascent
The first part of the trail covered some distance parallel to the slope to reach the actual ascent entry point. There were no ‘street lights’in between statiosn, so it was pretty much pitch black between the trees, except for the headlights of the hikers. Excited voices where coming from the groups around me, most people speaking English at that time.
After a while you could hear speakers blaring through the night. The announcement a continuous loop of warnings in Japanese and English giving advice regarding the ascending path. There was a large clearing at the starting point of the ascent where I stopped to draw in the magnificent view that was already given without even having climbed a step.
Down below you could see the lights of the surrounding cities. Some covered by clouds with a sea of light behind the mountain range on the horizon. That was probably Tokyo, or at least some part of the Kanto flat. As I turned around to face the mountain, I could see the chain of lights that represented the famous Yoshida trail. Zigzagging up the slope you could already guess at its course and see the occasional headlight of a hiker in between the larger spots where the stations where located, every few hundred meters en route to the peak.
Starting the ascent, it was fun watching and listening to the conversations around me. Occasionally I joined in. It was mostly young people from all over the globe, that were as exited as I to go on this trip. I met a group from the US who’s hillarious conversation was about the latest gossip in their community.
It was a lush and unexpected 19 degrees celsius when I started out and I began to sweat with the exercise the climb provided, so after a while I started to strip down to my T-shirt. The path was becoming narrower over time, nevertheless was well maintained and basically becoming a convenient staircase made out of volcanic rock.
Upon the second station up the trail, I met my first group of Germans, a bunch of guys in their late teens from Leipzig. We were chatting a bit as they waited for one of their comrades, who when he arrived, made already a very exhausted impression. ‘He is not going to make it to the top, if he is exhausted this early already.’ I thought. They were backpackers that came up from Tokyo for the night to make the sunrise hike, but had totally underestimated the climb. I bid them farewell after a while, moving on to the next station.
Somewhere along the track around midnight, I met Bryan, a craft beer brewer from San Francisco, who had visited family in Korea and now was taking the opportunity to do the Fuji hike during a vacation in Japan. We steadily climbed over several hours, stopping at the stations for the odd coffee and to take in the view. It was really nice to bond with someone from the other side of the world during this memorable trip.
At over 3000 meters, past 4 am, it started to get cool, so we changed into the warmer gear that would be necessary at the peak. The air was getting considerably thinner and our steps became slower as my breathing got strained. At the 11th station at 3250 meters we could already see dawn coming over the horizon. We finally decided to take the sunrise from there with about 50 other people. No need to rush to the peak which was at least another hour away. The view was as magnificent from here. So we took our cameras out, got another coffee from the kiosk and chatted away while we waited.
The Moment the sun came out was truly a sight to behold. It’s a very intense experience. Me up here, made me think about a lot of things that had passed in my life. Talking to Bryan about who we were and why we’d come here had brought up a lot of memories already. The least to say, it was a very emotional moment for me and still is today, as it marked another occasion that changed how I saw life. It’s not about being spiritual for me, standing up there, seeing the beauty of the world and the opportunities you have. It rather had a big influence on future decisions on what I want out of life and who I want to be.
After half an hour we decided to move on to the peak. The crater edge was already visible less than a kilometer above us in the distance. And there it was: people were standing in line for the last couple of hundred meters. I read about it before, but it was kind of funny to see it in person. The path became really crowded now with people that were on their final meters and the oncoming downhill traffic of people that already were leaving after the sunrise.
In the meanwhile we could take in the view of the scenery below that was really breathtaking in the sunlight.
About 20 mins later, at about 3500 meters, the headache struck me. I can’t say if it was height sickness, but I’m pretty sure it was at least related to the height. As with my marathon running, I’m out there to enjoy myself and not to risk my health, so knowing the risks and that I had not taken the precaution of sleeping a night at Subaru 5th Station or higher, I already had decided earlier, that as soon as something like height sickness was showing, I would turn back, as getting lower is key to get better again.
So I said my goodbyes to Bryan, who moved on. A couple of days later we shared emails with pictures. He had made it to the peak and sent some really nice pictures from up there, one more motivation for me to make it next time.
It was quite interesting to see, how different the landscape looked in the light of day.
Return to Subaru 5th Station
Subaru station was really quite this time of morning. Having been tired as hell, I slowly walked to the van, got rid of my sweaty clothes and fell into a comatouse sleep in the back. 😅😴😴
My advice is, in case you are planning this trip, giving the weather conditions are ok, to go in the first week of July, as I did. The school vacations have not started then so the crowds are not too bad. Avoid high season like Obon Matsuri (Google will give you the dates in August), unless you want to add to the pictures of kilometer long queues on a hiking trail. Tip: Overtaking is considered rude in Japanese Culture. 😉
Please check in with the rangers at the rangers’ station. They speak several languages. I even spoke to one who was fluent in German. They will be able to tell you how safe the current weather conditions are and answer any questions you might have. The Ranger office is open 24h. And while being at it, please donate the 1000 yen for the Mount Fuji preservation fund. You will get a really cool, Mount Fuji pine grown ‘I climbed Mount Fuji’ wooden tag for your backpack.
Be aware that there can be a temparature difference of 20 degrees from 5th Subaru station to the peak. When I made the accent I started at 19 degress Celsius in the evening, feeling comfortable in shorts and T-shirt until 3000 meters above sea level, where the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Celsius in the morning.
A headlight is a must for the night trip. There is no lights along the way other than the stations’ and it can get pretty dark. Other than with a normal light you have your hands free. Mine features all kinds of gimmicks and SOS functions.
Hiking gear: I highly recommend hiking sticks for the climb. For me they made a big difference. They should be telescopic so you can easily stow them away when not needed.
Food & Water
Bring enough water. You need to drink a lot to prevent dehydration and height sickness.
One hack idea of mine, after having done this hike: there is plenty of stations on the way up. Water is like 4 EUR half a liter. So you could also save a bit on weight and just take a one liter bottle with you, refilling it at the stations and spending the money.
The stations provide for a range of food, there is hot soup and coffee to buy. Not cheap, but also not astronomically expensive.
There is a pretty high amount of people experiencing the phenomenon on Mount Fuji I learned from the rangers. Accomodation for at least a night to acclimatize is the way to prevent this for most people. That’s what I will do next time.
Finally a sheldonian fun fact: Only westerners refer to the Fuji as Fujiyama. Fuji-san is the correct term in Japanese although the Kanji writing is identical. 富士山 San is the Onyoumi (Chinese) reading and a more honorific naming of the sacred mountain, while the reading for yama 山, the single Kanji, refers to the Japanese Kunyoumi reading, that normally means a good old plain mountain (of the non holy sort 😉 )
For Campervan visitors:
Subaru 5th Station is the highest point you can drive up Mount Fuji approx. 2300 meters above sea level.
The toll road cost about 3000 yen. There are parking spaces at Subaru Station and on the way up at the entrances to various hiking routes. No parking fees. You have to leave the mountain after closing time except you are staying in one of the hostels/hotels.
Toll road is closed for traffic in the climbing season 10th July – 10th Sept. except for the first week of July (check Fuji websites). During this time there are shuttle buses going up.
Tourist presence at location: high
Show Mount Fuji area on map:
Did you enjoy the article? I’m happy about feedback, referrals as well as any inspiration you took from it.
Hokusai at wikipedia
Yokoyama Taikan at wikipedia
Website Subaru Line toll road with opening times: www.subaruline.jp
Website with tons useful infomation Mt. Fuji National Park Rangers
Website of english speaking van rental in Japan Japan Campers