Mount Fuji

It’s still a couple of months until the frenzied activity of the ‘official climbing season’ (July and August) begins on Japan’s iconic tallest mountain, but I’ve been meaning to put up a few photos and my ambivalent thoughts about this place for quite a while, and since it’s bucketing down outside, and shows no sign of stopping for the rest of the day, today seems as good a time as any!

Station Five on the Yoshida Trail, the most popular starting point for the most popular route uo Mount Fuji

There are loads of excellent sources for hikers wishing to climb Fuji, and anyway since we climbed the mountain three years ago, there’s no point in adding my general (and almost certainly inaccurate)  contribution on getting there and away to the loads of more up-to-date info already available.

The endlessly zigzagging Yoshida Trail is functional rather than scenic

On the other hand, although Fuji is such a fabled mountain, and one that so many Westerners seem eager to climb, many (myself included, before I went) seem to have a false idea of what the climbing experience is really like. Climbing Fuji is a fantastic and absolutely worthwhile hike, but more for the extraordinary cultural experience it guarantees than for the climb itself – at least if you follow the phenomenally popular Yoshida Route as we did (there are another three trails up the mountain).

On the way up, kongo-zue in hand

To put it bluntly, the Yoshida Route is – for the most part – a wide, crumbling, zigzagging track built with the sole purpose of getting countless locals (and a substantial number of foreigners) to the top of the mountain safely and as easily as possible. It has its occasional moments of scenic beauty, and in good weather (and we were blessed on our climb!) the views are magnificent, but to put it bluntly, it ain’t a very scenic experience. For a far more wild, natural trip to go along with the bragging rights that come with climbing one of the region’s highest mountains, try Yushan (Jade Mountain, here in Taiwan), or Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which is both the toughest hike of the three summits by far, and the highest peak in East Asia (that is if you regard Papua, which has several far higher summits,  as part of Australasia). Either of these two offer hiking in incomparably more scenically beautiful surroundings, unless you find volcanic scree unusually beautiful.

So climbing Mount Fuji along the Yoshida Route is – scenically – basically like climbing a vast mound of gravel. It’s also a treacherous descent, so consider carrying one of those traditional wooden poles or kongo-zue, which you can buy at the trailhead, to guard against slips; you can get them branded with stamps marking your altitude at the many stations and other stops on the way, and the branded kongo-zue makes a great souvenir of the climb.

Climbing Mount Fuji isn’t really about communing with nature; it isn’t even about challenging yourself especially, since although quite steep in places, it’s a pretty simple walk on a track (with just a few easy rough bits) that most able-bodied people can probably manage. Instead its great attraction is as an extraordinary cultural experience: mingling with the crowds at station five, hiking up past groups of color-coordinated local hikers, and sharing the sunrise view on the second morning (and the electric atmosphere they create) with thousands upon thousands of Japanese hikers. Owing to the language barrier we hardly exchanged a word with any of them, but up here all that stereotypical Japanese sense of ritual and stiff politeness are thrown to the winds. Everyone grins at everyone else, all formality is forgotten and the huge crowd shares in astonishment the drama and extraordinary beauty of the scene as the sun creeps over the horizon (and the Fuji sunrise was hands down the best I’ve ever enjoyed), and then casts a perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain over the mist on its far side.

That sunrise view is something I won’t forget for a long time, but climbing Fuji once is enough for me. I wouldn’t go back for several reasons – there are countless far more beautiful and scenically rewarding climbs – in Japan as well as elsewhere – that deserve a trip, plus  it’s quite a controlled hike (you’ll probably have to book up the hut well in advance. Plus if you sleep the night on the mountain (as we did) the mountain huts are incredibly cramped. It’s astonishing, the Japanese ability to regularly put up with the most uncomfortable conditions. I’ve never had to make do with so little sleeping space in any mountain hut I’ve slept in – ever. Perhaps we were just unlucky (there are quite a few huts dotted along the upper reaches of the Yoshida Route, and maybe not all of them force sleepers in like sardines), or maybe we’d chosen an especially busy time to climb. Whatever the reason, once we were bedded down, we were packed in so tightly that – quite literally  – I couldn’t turn or even move without disturbing the sleepers on either side of me. It was hard to sleep more than a short spell at a time: I was constantly afraid of kicking my neighbor, or breathing into his face, and at one point, to save myself from going stark raving mad, I got up (waking up my fellow sleepers on either side in the process) and went to the chilly bathroom for about half-an-hour, not to use the facilities, but to doze a little on the loo and enjoy the feeling of space for a spell before returning to the claustrophobic nightmare of that dorm.

More photos

An extraordinary lenticular cloud, which formed soon after sunrise on day 2

The summit sign at the highest point of Mount Fuji

Just after sunrise, the sun casts a perfect shadow of Fuji over the morning mists on the far side of the mountain

Fuji’s impressive summit crater

Me at the top!

During the short season, vast crowds gather each morning to watch the sunrise from the summit of Mount Fuju

Torii Gates like this one ring the summit crater of Mount Fuji, marking the end of each of the four trails up the mountain

8 thoughts on “Mount Fuji

  1. How interesting! I was told it’s popular but didn’t expect the kind of crowd you described! Probably not going to be a peak on my list to climb (because of the crowds), but I enjoyed reading your article 🙂

  2. Glad you liked it! The season on Fuji is so short, and the mountain exerts such a pull on locals and foreigners alike, that it’s porbably impossible to avoid the crowds here unless you went out of season, which is regarded as very dangerous, because of the unreliable weather, I suppose.
    Well, it’s a great experience, but I honestly don’t think it’s one of the Top 100 Things to do Before You Die; it’s a truly fascinating cultural experience, but then so is wandering the streets of Tokyo!

    • I agree! The same phenomenon occurs (much more famously) at dawn at the summit of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka (a much more scenic climb), but I’d never heard of it at Fuji.

  3. Hi Richard, I have been awarded the Illuminating Blogger Award and would like to pass it on to you. It’s an award for illuminating and informative blogs. I think your blog is definitely one and I enjoy reading it a lot 🙂 Please check out my latest article for more info.

    • Congratulations on the award! It’s well deserved – you write very naturally and draw the reader in with your enthusiasm, and I love the blog combination of cooking/food and the outdorrs! I’d read your blog more often, but all those wonderful recipes and hikes in NZ make me both envious and hungry!!

  4. I enjoy your posts on hiking in Taiwan, and I was pleased to find this one as well. I’ve done Mt. Fuji twice, the first time using the Yoshida route that you describe above, and the other time the Gotemba route. This latter way up was far less crowded, and in fact we reached the summit much earlier than planned and had to wait a couple of hours in the freezing cold before the sun finally appeared. It was worth the wait, however.

    On both occasions, I arrived at the respective 5th stations late in the evening, and hiked during the night, sparing the costs and hassles of having to stay in a hut. Of course, this meant missing out on the scenery after the sun went down, but as you write above, Fuji-san isn’t exactly one of the world’s most scenic mountains once you’re actually on it (it looks much, much better from a distance). I was also able to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen from the Yoshida route 5th Station just before starting the ascent.

    The Yoshida route is the busiest mainly because it’s the most conveniently accessed from Tokyo, being easily reached by bus. For those hikers who would like to have more solitude, any of the other three routes would be preferable (and those coming from Osaka or Kyoto will find the Fujinomiya Trail to be more convenient). The next time I do Fuji-san (yes, I’m planning a third ascent!), I plan to go up via the traditional route, starting at the 1st Station at the Sengen Shinto shrine in Fuji-Yoshida city. This was the path used by pilgrims back in the days when Mt. Fuji was climbed for religious reasons, and before there were paved roads leading up the 5th stations.

    If you haven’t done so already, I’d suggest hiking in Japan’s Alps, very similar to Taiwan’s central mountains but on a much larger scale.

    • Thanks for the new information; hope you have a great third trip! I’d love to hike in the Japanese Alps, I’ve heard that there’s lots of magnificent hiking there. Maybe one day!

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