A mountain tale

This is Mount Fuji:

Mount Fuji (from Wikimedia, public domain images)

According to sources on the internet, this is what the summit of Mount Fuji is like:

Mount Fuji torii (from Wikimedia, public domain images)

I will have to take their word for it.

Ever since learning that we would be coming to Japan, we knew that we wanted to climb Mount Fuji. It is the single most-hiked mountain in the world, sort of a rite of passage for visitors to Japan, and just one of those things that you have to do. It’s also fairly uncommon for a mountain that high (3776m/12389ft) to be such an “easy” walk up – meaning that there is no actual rock climbing involved, just the act of putting one foot in front of the other.

Our drive to the trailhead parking lot: oh what foreshadowing

We drove from Nagoya to the trailhead on Saturday afternoon with a friend of ours. The weather forecast wasn’t spectacular, but the summit was predicted to be clear (if not a little windy) on Sunday morning. Though people climb Fuji-san at all times of the day, the most popular method is to arrive at the summit for sunrise. For some, this means climbing partway and spending the night in a mountain hut, finishing in the pre-dawn hours. For those of us who are too cheap to pay $60-$100 for the privilege of sharing a hut with hundreds of snoring strangers, the strategy is to begin around 10pm and hike all through the night.

Our first (and last) view of the summit

Each trail to the top has a number of stations along the way, which function as outposts complete with bathrooms, food, and the aforementioned lodging huts. Though traditionally a climb meant starting at station #1, roads now lead all the way to the 5th station. When we arrived at Fujinomiya station 5, we found ourselves above the fog and within view of the peak. It really didn’t look that far away (and truthfully, it isn’t… the trail we took was just 3.7km/2.3mi long and gained 1376m/4514ft). We stopped to buy the most important souvenir, which is a walking stick that you get stamped with a hot brand at each station to document your journey to the top.

Our “before” picture

Looking for some protection from the wind at station 8

Making the climb at night was a real adventure. You could see the endless line of hikers with headlamps stretching all the way to the top, while brighter lights identified the locations of the stations. Somewhere between stations 6 and 7, the wind started to pick up and clouds rolled in. By the time we reached station 8, the wind was really howling. Joe summed it up pretty well when he exclaimed, “This is so cool! The wind is blowing the snot right out of my nose!” As we continued to ascend, the temperature plunged and it began to rain sideways. Each station was packed with people huddled around the leeward sides of buildings. The elevation was also starting to have an effect and many people were visibly sickened by the decrease in oxygen.

As seen at station 5, another reason to quit smoking: hurting the cigarette’s feelings (click to enlarge)

The stations were a nice relief from the weather. They were also a pretty interesting place for people watching. Many people were combating the altitude sickness with bottles of oxygen (which were sold at prices that directly increased with the elevation). Many other people were dealing with it by smoking. Some people were even smoking and using the oxygen bottles while we braced for the impending explosion. The creepiest moment happened, though, when we were leaning up against the wall of station 7. I felt a funny sensation in my fingertip (cold? lack of oxygen?) that eventually registered – I was being chewed on by a rodent!! I had just finished eating a Snickers and evidently my fingers were easily confused for a candy bar. I never did see the mouse (or rat?) in the darkness… I imagine the surprise he felt when his Snickers suddenly leaped out of his mouth was at least as great as my shock from being gnawed on. G-r-o-s-s.

The shrine on the southern side of the summit

We reached the top around 4am, but unfortunately there was no visible sunrise. It was in fact so cold and wet that I’m not sure anyone there would have cared if there was a sunrise or not. We jostled for position under the eaves of the buildings and even paid 200 yen to use the toilets just for a chance to sit out of the weather! Crowds gathered around the doors to the cafe, desperately waiting for it to open. We had brought an alcohol stove with us to make hot chocolate and soup, but we knew that no flame stood a chance in that wind. Instead, we gladly stood in line and paid exorbitant prices for hot instant soup (well worth it, by the way).

The cafe was doing good business at the summit

I was surprised by how many people were in serious distress at the top. There were a ton of people there, many of whom were clearly unprepared for the cold and wet weather. The reality of the situation hit me when I saw a number of people being treated for hypothermia. I was thankful that we’re always in the habit of over-packing and carrying extra clothes for any possible situation. Once we warmed up, we got our sticks stamped at the shrine and headed down as fast as we could. By then the rain had turned to sideways sleet and our eyelashes were frozen, yet some people were climbing up in shorts. Crazy.

Happy to be heading down

We made it back down in good time and in good spirits. Thankfully the weather improved somewhat at the lower elevations. Truly a one-of-a-kind adventure and an unforgettable experience!.

Finally seeing the mountainside back near station 6

Our proof that we made it all the way

The “after” picture


2 thoughts on “A mountain tale

  1. Incredible! Made me laugh and glad I wasn’t there. Vicarious vacations are the best. I will go back to read the others, i am totally enjoying each one. Helene

  2. I’m starting to see a pattern of bad weather and you guys…makes for great reading as I’m snuggling with Franklin.

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