Despite its steep slopes, Mt. Fuji can be climbed up quite easily even by beginners, for it has signboards and mountain huts.
This is from an official website on Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan.
I first learned that average hikers can think about climbing Mt. Fuji from a piece by Susan Orlean , author of The Orchid Thief about her climb.
Really? I never thought of her as an outdoor person but her personal essay got me thinking.
From the moment Hannah and I decided to go to Japan, we had Mt. Fuji on our agenda. We were extremely lucky to have Charlie, my son’s colleague at Ohio University, working in Japan and interested in taking his teenage kids up the mountain as well.
I had worked out the details of the climb.
Station 5 is 7,606.5 feet (2,305 meters)
Station 8 is 10,230 feet (3,100 meters)
Mt. Fuji is 12,460.8 feet (3,776 meters)
The Yoshida Trail also known as Kawaguchi -Ko Trail, the most popular trail up the mountain, is only 3.7 miles from the 5th station and 4.3 miles going down. The difficulty is in the steepness and high altitude.
We take a train from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji Station 1 and a bus to Station 5. There’s a crowd at Station 5, a large roundabout with buses, groups, leaders waving their flags and restaurants and gift shops galore.
I’m anxious. To put it in perspective, the altitude here at Station 5, 7,606.5 feet, is higher than anything than you can climb east of the Mississippi -Mt. Mitchell at 6,683 feet.
Am I going to get up there? Is Hannah going to make it? If she doesn’t make it, I don’t make it but not the other way around since she can climb with Charlie and his children, Mina and Shaw. We start on a good tourist trail at Station 5.
I had been worried enough about the altitude that I obtained a prescription for Diamox, a pill which is supposed to mitigate the effects of high altitude. I don’t like to take “unknown medication” but I’ve heard so much about Diamox as a standard for altitude problems that I feel I’ll probably be OK. I take it the first day of the climb.
The bus driver announces at least ten times that the restrooms at Station 5 are the last free toilets, so use them.
We start climbing as a group of five in a crowd. I want the kids in front of me. “I don’t have the mental energy to worry about you lot,” I say. Mina and Hannah stay together while Charlie and his son are way ahead.
The trail is rocky and volcanic. Any vegetation on the side of the trail has long disappeared. All you see are bare dirt. At each bend of the trail, one of the girls stops to breathe. So the three of us stop. Drink, eat a little and take deep breaths.
Many Japanese take a break by pulling out a cigarette. [Now that makes sense since we’re all oxygen deprived as is. :):)]
Everyone carries oxygen but me. My pack is already so full with warm clothing, food, water and my first aid kit.
There’s no potable water on the trail. I started with three pints and realize that I will have to get water at our hut. The only water on the mountain is what you can buy for 500 yen per pint. Snicker bars are 500 yens but think of what it took to get the bars up here.
A smooth, parallel trail snakes up the mountain for caterpillar trucks. That’s how workers, trail maintainers and supplies go up the mountain and take garbage down. Plastic water bottles and other packaged, convenience foods must create a huge environmental impact.
Crowds snake up the mountain. I try to pass a few hikers slower than me and give the faster walkers a wide berth. But most are content to follow the person in front of them. Large groups of hikers start and stop at the same time. The Japanese are used to crowds.
Finally, we reach station 8 and our hut, Horai-Kan, at 3:30pm. The young man charged with giving us an introduction focuses on the toilet rules. Using a toilet the first time costs 300 yens, then the rest is free for the duration of our stay at the hut.
“Put your toilet paper in the garbage bin, not the toilet.” If you want water, you need to buy it. I wish I had known this before I started so I wouldn’t have packed my toothbrush, toothpaste and soap.
After paying 10,000 yen a person, he shows us to our sleeping quarters. The double-decker bunk is long. We’re given a sleeping bag and pillow and our personal space is the width of the sleeping bag. If one person turns over, we all turn over.
Since we got to the hut early, our scheduled dinner will be at 5 pm. Dinner is rice curry, a Scotch egg and potato salad with green tea. I keep asking for tea since that’s the only liquid I don’t have to pay for. At dinner, we’re handed a breakfast Bento box consisting of packaged Spanish rice and two white flour buns in an air-tight wrapping.
Most hikers then go to bed at 6pm. They’re exhausted with nothing to do. But I wait until much later, since I’ll be tossing and turning otherwise. But when I crawl into my sleeping bag, I find that the people on either side of me have expanded into my space. I wiggle, push them aside, and reclaim my spot. The next group of hikers now have dinner.
As I look outside from our hut , I see a much bigger dragon formed by hikers slowly climbing. Hikers pass our hut and continue up through most of the night.
The first group of hikers who wish to see the sunrise on top of the mountain get up at 10:30pm. A second group start out at 2am. But we wait until it’s light outside at 4:30am, eat the breakfast that was handed out yesterday along with a small bowl of miso soup and start walking. Everyone has to be out of the hut by 6am.
To my surprise and joy, the trail from here is much smoother than yesterday. It’s still incredibly steep but at least I don’t have to use my hands to get over rocks. We pass and are passed by many hikers. Finally at 7:30am, I reach the torii gate at the entrance of a Shinto shrine. The moving fog lets me take pictures of Japan spread out at my feet.
Charlie is waiting for me with his camera in hand. The kids are already sitting in the rest area, eating a bowl of Ramen noodles.
“It’s lunch time somewhere,” I think.
I walk into the shrine. By now, I know the ritual of clapping, bowing, and holding your hands together in prayer in front of the shrine. But I feel that Shintoism is a religion and leave the ceremony to believers.
Fog has enveloped the crater. After a 300 Yen bathroom stop on top, we take a dedicated trail, going downhill. The trail consists of loose volcanic rocks and red dirt. Some hikers run down, others, afraid of the steepness, slowly pick their way down. We’re still at a high altitude but going down is a lot less challenging than going up.
We arrive at Station 5 at about 11:30 am in a sea of tourists and trekkers and head for the ice cream stand. I certainly don’t feel I’ve “conquered Mt. Fuji”. It will stand as a Japanese icon forever but I feel good about having climbed the mountain.