5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Climbing Mt. Fuji
As we casually set off to hike Mt. Fuji at 8 am on the last Sunday of the last weekend of the climbing season, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t ready.
11 hours, one drenching downpour, many snacks, a few tears, plenty of new friends, some intensely sore muscles, two hours of night hiking with iPhone torches, and one wedding proposal later, this was confirmed. We had not been ready.
Mt. Fuji – Fact vs. Fiction
Living in Japan, everyone I know has hiked Mt. Fuji, or knows someone who has hiked Mt. Fuji. So after two years of making excuses (not the right shoes, being too unfit…) I decided it was time. The downside of being the last person in the country to attempt the climb was that it was impossible to escape the torrent of well-intentioned advice that inevitably followed any mention of my plans. This also made it very difficult to separate fact from fiction, and in many cases I received conflicting advice.
Conflicting Advice – The top three:
1. It is all very easy: FALSE
As I prepared for my climb, I heard over and over again that it was no big deal. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing stories of people’s aging grandparents or 10-year-old siblings successfully climbing the mountain without breaking a sweat. Colleagues told me stories of people starting the hike on a Friday night after work and having an easy time of it.
I don’t know who these people are or what kind of superhuman genes run in their families, but climbing Mt. Fuji is HARD. I’m sure that some routes are easier than others, that certain weather conditions are more favorable, but you are nonetheless hiking up a really tall mountain. On that fateful Sunday, we set off as a group of six individuals with varying levels of fitness. Although not impossible, all of us found the climb to be a challenge. This means you should come prepared and with the right equipment, to ensure it can be an enjoyable, once in a lifetime experience.
2. It’s only worth it if you go for sunrise: FALSE
This is one piece of advice I was glad we did not listen to. There are a few different ways to attempt Mt. Fuji but the most common are:
– Climb part of the way up in the afternoon and stay the night at a mountain lodge. Wake up early to climb the rest of the way and watch the sunrise from the top.
– Leave at dusk, climb through the night, and watch the sunrise from the top.
– Leave in the morning, reach the summit just after midday, and get back to the bottom by nightfall.
As we were short on time and funds, we knew that we did not want to stay at a lodge. This left us with two options: either climb through the night, or forgo the sunrise and climb during the day. Many people advised us that it wasn’t worth the arduous hike if you didn’t get to watch the sunrise. An equal number of people told us that climbing at night was the worst experience of their life and that their sunrise view had been obstructed by bad weather anyway. Based on how unpleasant that sounded, we decided to climb during the day.
We were glad we did. Being able to see the terrain made the climb easier, and the views on the way up were worth it. The weather was warmer, which meant being able to take longer breaks without getting too cold. Towards the end of the day, we began encountering night climbers just as we were finishing our descent. The mountain seemed to be even busier by night, with long uninterrupted lines of hikers. I did not envy them the climb ahead, racing against the clock to get to the summit before dawn.
3. You will be cold: TRUE
I’m not sure why this never quite sunk in. When I checked the weather for the day of our climb, it suggested a fairly warm 7 degrees Celsius. “Very reasonable”, I thought, taking out a layer from my already too full bag. I never stopped regretting that layer. My biggest piece of advice: pack more layers than you think you need. When the wind is blowing or if it starts to rain, you will thank me.
5 Things I Wish I had Known
1. Choose your route carefully
Before setting out, I was vaguely aware that there were several possible climbing routes up Mt. Fuji. Based on a quick google search, we decided to hike the Fujinomiya trail known as ‘the shortest one’, since we were trying to get up, down, and back to Tokyo in less than 12 hours.
Unfortunately, ‘the shortest one’ also turned out to be ‘the steepest and rockiest one’. I don’t regret our choice but I do wish I had done a little more research before making a decision.
Here is what you need to know about the four Mt. Fuji Trails based on data from the official Mt. Fuji website.
This is Mt Fuji’s most popular trail, with over 170,000 climbers choosing this route in 2017. The trail for ascent is completely different from the trail for descent.The ascending trail has many mountain huts and facilities while the descending trail has none. In the section between the 8th station and the summit, trails for both ascent and descent are the same as those of the Subashiri Trail. I recommend avoiding this trail during the summer holidays.
This trail snakes through the forest up to a fairly high altitude. Once you have emerged from the forest, you will have a great view of the sunrise from anywhere on the trail. Paths for ascent and descent are different but overlap with those of the Yoshida trail between the Old 8th Station and the summit.
This is the longest and least populated trail, with few mountain huts or facilities. It features a gentle slope of volcanic gravel up until near the 8th station. Ascending and descending trails diverge midway, and the sunrise can be viewed from anywhere along these. Due to the length and large altitude difference along this trail, it is only recommended for experienced climbers.
This is the shortest and second busiest trail. It is the only trail to have the same path for both ascent and descent. As it is very rocky and steep, getting down the mountain did feel long and tedious and my muscles were definitely sore the next day. There are mountain huts at every station along the trail though many of these were not open during our climb.
2. Bring the right equipment
There are few situations more miserable than being halfway up a mountain, freezing cold and soaked to the bone. I know this from being caught in rain and strong winds for an hour period between the New 7th station and the 8th station. When the rain finally stopped and we staggered dripping up to shelter, I was so glad I had brought a change of clothes. At the same time, it became painfully clear that I was missing some crucial pieces of equipment.
Things I wish I’d brought:
– Hiking boots: Finding shoes my size in Japan is a constant struggle. For this reason I resolved to climbing Mt. Fuji in my battered trainers. This was not too much of an issue in terms of the actual climbing, but turned into a problem when my shoes became completely waterlogged from the rain.
– A waterproof jacket that was actually waterproof: My Uniqlo jacket just didn’t cut it in Fuji’s intense horizontal rain. I was soaked three layers deep. Others in our group with more high-end waterproof jackets were fine however. I recommend a good quality rain jacket and waterproof bottoms.
– A head lamp: We may have slightly underestimated how long it would take to complete the hike. This meant that we ended up climbing down in pitch darkness for at least two hours. As the path was quite treacherous and rocky, our iPhone torches were inefficient and cumbersome. Even if you are not planning to climb at night, bring a head torch just in case.
– Tissues: Because they are just so useful and no-one thought to bring any.
Things I’m glad I brought:
– Heat pads: The ones that stick to your body and clothes were most useful in these conditions.
– Walking stick: Shops at each trail head sell a variety of walking sticks. These start at around ¥ 1200. The sticks also make a nice souvenir as you can get stamps burned into them at various points along the hike. They are really helpful when going up and down steep sections of the mountain.
– Many layers and a spare change of clothes
– Lots of snacks: Almonds and raisins are amazing for a quick energy boost. A thermos of hot coffee or tea is also a great comfort.
3. Make sure you have cash
Most importantly, bring ¥ 100 coins. You will need these to pay for toilets and to get stamps for your walking stick. Cash is also required to buy bus tickets to get from the car park to the trail head and for any food or drinks you wish to buy at mountain huts along the climb.
4. Take your time
Having completed the entire Mt. Fuji climb in one day, I can say it is eminently achievable, though I would recommend setting out a little earlier than we did.
However, if you have the luxury of time, I think it would be even more enjoyable to spend the night on the mountain. We ran into a hiker who arrived at her mountain hut 30 minutes from the summit around noon. She was just spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the mountain before setting out early to catch the sunrise. If the weather is nice, this is the ideal way to do it.
In any case, give yourself plenty of time to take breaks and get used to the altitude. Although a few members of our group did feel some altitude effects, it was nothing taking frequent breaks couldn’t fix. Based on the timings indicated on the climbing map, we found that ascent times were accurate but did not take into account stops, while descent times were very ambitious. We took much longer to descend the mountain than the times on the map suggested.
5. Soak in the magic
When I said we weren’t ready, that was true. It was hard and at times we wanted to give up. What surprised me most, however, was not the challenge, but how much I enjoyed it. The camaraderie on the mountain was unlike anything I had experienced: hikers on their way down shouting words of encouragement, strangers sharing snacks and stories, everyone in the vicinity jumping in for group pictures just to prove we all did it.
At our lowest point, soaked and shivering from the rain and wondering whether or not to give up, we met a couple. They were debating abandoning the climb themselves and wanted a second opinion on what to do. Together, we all decided to keep going, and in fact stuck together all the way to the summit. During those hours of climbing we got to know them and bonded in a way that rarely happens in real life.
We reached the summit, exhilarated, exhausted, and slightly delirious, all hugging and crying. As I turned around to look at the view, I saw our new friends standing near the edge. He got down on one knee. She said yes… and the whole mountain erupted in cheers. We are all invited to their wedding.
If you are hesitant about attempting Mt. Fuji yourself, just take the plunge, it will be the most memorable part of your Japan experience.
It was for me.