Climbing Mount Fuji – Japan’s Highest Peak: Part 1
As beautiful as Mt Fuji appears from afar, nothing compares to the views from the summit. Witnessing the rising of the sun from the top of Japan’s sacred mountain is well worth the challenge of climbing this most iconic of all volcanoes.
Day 1 – From the 5th Station to a Mountain Hut Near the Summit
We set out to climb Mt Fuji in mid-September, a time when Tokyo was still in the grip of the late summer heat. The crowded high season had passed, meaning we were able to climb in a relatively relaxed frame of mind. Being autumn though, and despite the high temperatures lingering in the cities, the wind on Mt Fuji’s was decidedly chilly.
We chose to climb the Yoshida Trail, the least steep of the four climbing routes, and to spend the night in a hut as close to the summit as we could get (at a point between the 8th and 9th Stations known as hachi-gō go-shaku – essentially, the ‘8.5th’ Station). We then climbed through the wee small hours and got to the summit in time to witness the go-raikō (sunrise from Mt Fuji). Most of the mountain huts had already closed for the season, but a few on the Yoshida Trail were still open for business.
Climbing against a backdrop of the most extraordinary scenery
We drove as far as the 5th Station on the Fuji Subaru Line toll road, where the Yoshida Trail begins. This point is easily accessed by buses and private vehicles and there was an unmistakable tourist buzz about the place, with lots of visitors here for sightseeing in addition to those who had come to climb Mt Fuji. This spot is already more than 2,000 metres above sea level, so we take our time getting ready here to let our bodies get used to the altitude. At 9:00 in the morning, leaving the tourists far behind us, we embark on our climb.
The trail starts off on a gently sloping incline but then forks and becomes steeper, while the surroundings gradually become more ‘alpine’. Having passed the 6th Station, we’re now climbing in earnest with views of Lake Yamanaka our constant companion.
We’re at the same level as the clouds here, which close in on us without warning from time to time, blocking out the view. We can see climbers all along the zig-zag trail above us, with those far in the distance appearing as tiny as grains of rice. Realising how far we have yet to climb, it’s hard not to let out the occasional sigh. But the views give us courage – looking back down the trail, Lake Yamanaka basks at the base of the mountain and, beyond that, layer upon layer of mountain ranges stretch into the distance.
After about an hour of climbing, we find ourselves in a world far removed from our everyday lives.
Finding strength in the embrace of this sacred mountain
Above the tree line (2,400-2,600 metres elevation being the upper limit of tree growth) the sun beats down mercilessly, making us extremely hot. However, the air temperature drops as we get higher and if we stop to rest, the cold air chills our sweat, making us cold. Most of the trail is sand or gravel, with the occasional steep rocky area. Extra care is needed if it has been raining, as the rocks get slippery.
At a height of around 3,000 metres, as we continue past the huts of the 7th Station, the air gets thinner and it becomes harder to breathe. We inch our way up the mountain, ticking off the milestones as we go – past the 8th Station, past the Old 8th Station, past the hachi-gō go-shaku point. I keep looking up to see if I can catch a glimpse of the hut we plan to stay in.
We’ve been climbing for six hours when we finally reach our hut, the Goraikō-kan. At an elevation of 3,400 metres, the Goraikō-kan is the nearest hut to the summit of Mt Fuji. We breathe sighs of relief mixed with awe once we get to the hut – not only to have made it so far, but also at the beauty of the panorama that unfolds below us.
As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature begins to plummet. The city lights of Fujiyoshida begin to twinkle below us and it’s time to turn in. Tomorrow we’ll make it to the summit.
* This report is from September, 2012.
Chiho Kuriyama is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles cover a range of fields, from country living to the outdoors and snow sports.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.
Photographer Yūji Kaneko specialises in photographing outdoor sports – mountain and trail running in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. He also photographs the occasional tea ceremony.