Welcome to the first post in my Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains series. This post details my climb of Mt. Fuji. Since this trip happened about 5 years ago, the quality of the photos is significantly lower than what you see from my more recent trips. Forgive me! They’re still pretty nice even if the resolution leaves something to be desired. With that, please read on to learn a bit about my experience on Mt. Fuji!
When you think of the greatest internationally recognized icons of your home country, what do you think of? Speaking as an American, I’d first think of the flag or the Statue of Liberty — some man-made thing or another. On the list of symbols that you could imagine, where on the list would you find a mountain? Maybe Mt. Rushmore would be in the top 10, but certainly not number one. Any others? I can’t imagine. More impossible to imagine would be that American children could grow up with well over a thousand years of artwork, songs, and poems depicting that mountain, that we’d learn about it in school and that every person in the country would feel almost a sense of national duty to climb the mountain once in their lifetime, like a visit to Mecca for Muslims or a trip to Israel for Jews. Well, if you can imagine something like that, then you can imagine what climbing Mt. Fuji must mean to a Japanese person.
At the time that the idea of climbing Mt. Fuji was first beginning to enter my mind, the significance of the mountain itself was unknown to me. I hadn’t even considered how odd a thing it was that I had even heard of the mountain. After all, the list of mountains outside the U.S. that I could list off the top of my head then couldn’t have been more than the number of fingers I had, and yet most that I did know were the giants like Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro. At 3776 meters, Fuji is hardly comparable to them, or even to the few mountains in the Rockies that I got to climb when I was a teenager. And yet, for all that, I could only name 4 or 5 peaks in the US and if you showed me a picture I probably wouldn’t recognize them at all; but I could not only recognize a picture of Mt. Fuji but give its name as well. So powerful, then, is the cultural force of that mountain that it had entered the imagination of a small town Missouri kid long before he had ever even dreamed of visiting Japan, let alone climbing the mountain.
Now, with Fukuda’s book in hand, I’m revisiting the my memories of that mountain, the first of those 100 Famous Mountains that I climbed, so many years before I would even learn of that list. The story starts seven years ago, when I first visited Japan in the spring of 2010.
I knew from the minute that I committed to studying in Japan that I wanted to at least explore the possibility of climbing Mt. Fuji. Not being a particularly serious hiker at the time, the thought entered my head not so much from the perspective of wanting to do it for myself but more from the fact that I wanted to live up family hiking tradition around which I was raised. I grew up always hearing references to my dad’s old backpacking store, stories of Colorado and the Maroon Bells, and the Appalachian Trail too. Not to mention, of course, the few times my dad dragged me away from my video games to go hiking on the Ozark Trail, or down into the Irish Wilderness. I’d even done some hiking in Colorado a few times, but I had never yet to this point taken it upon my own initiative to seek out and climb one. Somehow though I felt some unspoken pressure of this family history on my shoulder, some sense of shame that I would feel at having had the chance to climb such an exotic mountain and yet pass it up.
Sadly, though, it was not to be. After doing some research, I found the top portion of Mount Fuji is covered with ice and snow until well into the summer, and for that reason the mountain is closed until then. I, unfortunately, would have to return to the states before the climbing season opened. That didn’t stop me from spending a week at Rivermouth Lake (河口湖), a beautiful and scenic town on the shores of its namesake, backed by Fuji’s omnipresence.
When I first caught a glimpse of the mountain, I was immediately impressed by its size: that single mountain seemed to take up the whole sky, towering over Rivermouth and all around it. But it wasn’t just the height of the mountain that gave it such and overwhelming presence. At less than 4,000 meters tall, it’s dwarfed by even average-sized mountains in Colorado. However, unlike the mountains in Colorado, where massive peaks are a dime a dozen, Mt. Fuji stands alone at the center of a large basin with not a single competitor, and the nearest other mountains don’t get within 1,000 meters of its height. It’s the contrast, then, that really lends the mountain it’s magnificence.
During my week at Rivermouth, the area made a deep impression on me. I walked the lakeshore. I visited a Japanese-style hotspring for the first time with a couple British guys and an old French man that I met at the hostel. I road a day-long cycling trip around four of the five lakes at the foot of the mountain. I hiked a day-hike out to Three-Passes (三つ峠) despite having injured my foot while running in Tokyo. I even got to witness a horseback archery contest. I left with a feeling that would persist for years, telling me that this was where I wanted to live someday.
As amazing a time as I spent during that week at Rivermouth Lake, I left somewhat heavy hearted knowing that I might never get the chance to climb to the top. Little did I know that just over a year later I’d be living right across the sea on that little peninsula known as Korea, putting me within a reasonable distance of the mountain once more. Yet again, I put my sights on the “Wealthy Gentleman,” this time after having gotten several Korean mountains (including the two highest) under my belt.
Summer, 2012. I’d been living in Korea for a year at this point and my summer vacation was just starting. Naturally, after spending my first full year living abroad, my main plan was to go back home to visit my family and to drop back in to New York to visit my college friends. But, right there on the list with those two important goals were Japan and Mt. Fuji. Looking back, I realize this reveals a bit more about my priorities than I knew at the time.
With a quick flight out of Incheon, in less than two hours I was boarding a limousine bus from Narita Airport to Shinjuku, and from there I caught the last bus direct to Rivermouth Lake. I stepping off the bus into the cool night air, I felt a distinct sense of nostalgia at returning to this place after more than two years. Despite having only stayed here for a week, the place felt as familiar as my hometown. I looked up in the direction of the mountain, a massive black silhouette against the stars and moon. The next day I would get and catch the first train to Fuji-Yoshida Station, the closest to the trailhead I had chosen.
My research prior to the trip revealed that there were four main routes up the mountain: Yoshida on the north face, Subashiri on the east, Gotemba on the southeast, and Fujinomiya form the south. Not being so confident in my Japanese to wander too far, I opted to go up the Yoshida trail since it was closest to my hostel at Rivermouth, allowing me to get started as soon as possible. For the return trip, I chose the same path to avoid the chance of getting lost on the way back.
Click the following link for a trail map: Mt. Fuji Trail Map
Another tidbit that I came across was that the paths to the top were divided into ten stations, and the upper stations, from the fifth on, had mountain huts in which you could stay for the night in order to get up super-early and catch the sunrise from the top. In accordance with my typical preferences, I decided to do this, not just for the pictures but because I wanted to do what seemed most difficult to me. Being cheap as I was, I decided to bring a sleeping bag and just lay down outside one of the huts to save the $60 it would cost to stay for the night. As I would later find out, this wasn’t exactly the smartest idea.
A final piece of info that I found — much to my annoyance — was the fact that roads had been paved about halfway up on all the trails, so anyone could just take a bus up to fifth station and start walking from there. Well, that’s no fun! I thought. Isn’t half the fun of conquering a mountain starting from the bottom? I couldn’t tell from the maps I found online whether trails started from the bottom or not, but I surmised they had to be there, so I decided to wing it a bit and just walk from Fuji-Yoshida station towards the mountain and see what happened. Luckily, I turned out to be right.
So with this research in mind, I made the following plan. In order to maximize hiking time on the first day, I would get up early enough to catch the first train to Fuji-Yoshida Station. I would walk from the station to the Yoshida trail, climb all day, getting as high as possible. I would then throw down my sleeping back outside a mountain hut in order to save the 60 or so dollars I’d have to spend to stay there for the night. I’d then get up before sunrise and hike the rest of the way up so that I could snap some of those legendary sunrise shots from the summit. After that, it would be a straight shot back down to my hostel to rest.
Unfortunately, there were two important factors that I didn’t consider. First, was the fact that I’d be making the final ascent in the dark, yet for some reason it didn’t occur to me to pack a flashlight. The second was how truly cold it would get so high up. Although I had heard that it would be really cold at night despite it being the middle of summer, I didn’t take this seriously enough. Sure, I hiked with my winter jacket and gloves, but I was only carrying a sleeping back rated for 40° F. Would that be enough? I thought so.
The morning of the hike went as planned: I woke up on time, bought supplies at the nearest convenience store, caught the first train, and arrived at Fuji-Yoshida Station before the sun had even crested the hilltops. As I walked through the empty streets of the city, Fuji rose overhead, tinged with pink in the dawn light. Gradually the buildings thinned to forest, the sun appeared, and the road narrowed and steepened. Finally, I arrived at a small parking lot accompanied by bathrooms, a small pavilion, and a sign reading “First Station” (一合目). I had found the trailhead.
The trail proceeded steeply straight up the side of the mountain with no switchbacks and, curiously, was set in a narrow ravine much deeper than I was tall. I suspected, given how many centuries people had been climbing the mountain, that this was caused by the erosion of so many footsteps over the years. I climbed and climbed through the forest closer and closer to the treeline. As I went, every so often I would pass a dilapidated old building. These were the remains of the huts at stations 1 through 4. I surmised that they had fallen into ruin after the roads to fifth station rendered them useless. During this section, I saw only a few other people.
It must have been noon or thereabouts by the time I broke through the treeline and reached 5th station. Here only scraggly pines were growing, and the ground was comprised of volcanic gravel and larger pieces of stone. And, of course, it was here that I began to encounter the crowds Fuji is famous for. It was also at the point that I finally had a decent enough view to take a picture or two.
For those who have never seen Fuji up close, the mountain is totally different that you’d expect once you get above the treeline; well, that is unless you’ve climbed in extinct cindercone before. When the mountain was active, it was the variety that built itself up by belching fine debries and sometimes larger chunks of detritous into the air, which rained down upon itself until a mountain formed that was more or less a huge pile of gravel and larger stones. And, that’s literally what it is. As I hiked up, it was not that much different that trying to walk up the kind of gravel mound I used to play in at the quarry when I was a kid, except on a much more massive scale. Every step upward was absorbed somewhat by this constant downward sliding of gravel, making me feel like I had to work twice as hard as I normally would have to go the same distance.
This constant erosion caused by the footsteps of tens of thousands of climbers every year creates a curious problem for the conservationist. How do you keep the mountain open to tourists without them destroying the mountain altogether? The solution as I found was with bulldozers. As I climbed, I could also see the operators of these machines hard at work literally pushing the eroded gravel back up the side of the mountain day in and day out. I found it incredibly bizarre. I also started to wonder if this was the reason why roads were build up the fifth station. Previously, I had assumed that it had been done with money in mind: make the mountain accessible to more tourists, attract more tourists, make more money. But now, I began to think that maybe the primary purpose of the road was to get those bulldozers up there to do their restorative work.
Up and up I went went with each exhausting step, but my spirits stayed high as I took in the spectacular views below, and I even enjoyed some light conversation with other climbers. I vaguely remember running into a group of Korean girls who were studying abroad in Japan, so I leveraged my broken Korean for a bit of awkward flirting.
Somewhere in the early afternoon, probably around three, the exhaustion really started to set in. Remember, I’d woken up before sunrise and had started walking just as the sun was coming up over the mountains, so by this point I’d been awake for over ten hours on a short night’s sleep. At one point, I just sprawled out on the gravel at a relatively flat spot and took a nap. Well, took a nap might be a bit of an understatement: I practically passed out on a pile of rock. At some point a person that I had spoken to earlier caught up to me and stopped to check and see if I was ok. I said I was, got up, and continued onward.
The sun got lower and the air got colder. A strange dark space appeared below me. It was like a big dark triangle extending over the land. I kept glancing back down at the valley trying to figure out what it was until suddenly, it occurred to me: I was looking at the shadow of the mountain in the setting sun.
I reached 8th station near sunset. It was really cold now and I was beginning to appreciate just how cold it was going to get that night. Also, I was beginning to realize just how insufficient my sleeping bag was likely to be. Sitting outside the hut and nibbling on a riceball, I considered my options. I had at least brought enough money for the hut, so I decided I’d best not risk it and just pay the money for a spot on the bunk. I went in, found the master of the house, and told him I wanted to stay for the night.
“Yoyaku ga arimasu ka?” Do you have a reservation?
“Iie, nai desu. Daijôbu desu ka?” No, I don’t. Is it ok?
“Sumimasen, mannin desu,” he replied. I didn’t understand.
“Wakaranai,” I said.
“Full,” he replied in English.
Full? Oh shit.
The sun continued to set.
Famous mountains climbed: 0.5/100
This post is part of an ongoing series on the Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains and is part 1 of 2 on a miniseries about Mt. Fuji. To view the other posts in this series, click here.
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© 2017 Brian Heise