When you think of Japan, it is hard not to think of Fuji-San (Mt. Fuji) – with its picture-perfect volcanic shape, the snow-covered top and gently sloping base… Standing tall and proud at 3776m above sea level, it’s Japan’s highest and holiest peak and a scenic hiking destination, to see the sunrise. So, grab your hiking boots and let’s head for the most beautiful sunrises of your life.
Five trails lead to the top of Fuji-san and most hikers start from the 5th station.
Yoshida Trail Head: Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station
Subashiri Trail Head: Subashiri Trail 5th Station
Gotemba Trail Head: Gotemba Trail New 5th Station
Fujinomiya Trail Head: Fujinomiya Trail 5th Station
The Yoshida Trail is the most popular one. It is scattered with mountain huts and zigzags up the face of the mountain. It remains relatively flat until the 7th station, from where it becomes quite rocky. This trail is suitable for not the fittest of hikers, even small children and elderly. Moreover, as it lies on the east side of the mountain, even if you don’t make it to the top before sunrise, you can still enjoy it from any position.
Every year there are a few very sporty types who attempt to hike Fuji-San from the bottom – known as bullet climbing. Typically you would start in the early morning from sea level and reach the 5th station in the early evening, after a few hours of rest you can continue to the top late at night. The official guide of climbing Fuji-San advises against this practice and the trails are riddled with signs warning of the risks and dangers. I have myself hiked with a bullet climber and towards ⅔ of the hike was exhausted and could hardly walk – we had to support him from time to time. Some parts of the trail are very steep and a wrong step could cause serious injuries.
All stern warnings aside, I have done the hike thrice and arrived home safe and sound:
The First Climb
The place was Fuji San, the time was mid-July 2016. Most people who venture out to hike to the summit of Mt. Fuji do so for the sunrise (ご来光; goraiko). The sun usually rises sometime around 5 am, which means the hike happens completely or partially in the dark. My first hike was a bullet climb from the 5th station. We left from Shinjuku station by bus and arrived at the Yoshida trail 5th station at 9 pm. After dinner and about 1 hour of acclimatisation to the altitude, we set out for the hike.
Here is a list of my equipment:
- 45l backpack
- 5l water
- 1l green tea
- Various snacks (nuts, rice balls, crackers, etc)
- Shorts and a t-shirt (I was wearing this in the beginning)
- 2 pairs of thin leggings
- 1 pair of thick leggings
- 1 tanktop and 1 extra t-shirt
- 1 think jacket
- 1 thicker jacket – replaced by my skiing jacket on later hikes
- 1 hoodie
- Extra pair of socks
- Sneakers (wearing)
- Gloves and throat warmer
- Plastic bag for trash (yes you have to take all your trash back home!)
- Kairo – hot patches that go on your skin and warm you for hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any myself… but smarter people do.
I did not have any hiking poles or such, so I opted for buying a “fuji stick” – a long wooden pole – at the fifth station. At every subsequent station, you have the option to brand their logo into the stick and bring it back as a souvenir. I very quickly found out that on the way up the stick is a big nuisance and on the way down it does not help at all. I didn’t get any logos branded in it, so I left mine behind at the fifth station for, another hiker, when I came back. Soon after I bought proper hiking poles from Amazon.
Summer in Japan is very humid and hot and so was also the climate at the fifth station. We all started out with very light clothing and were adding layers as we went up. We also rested very frequently, for one because the weight of the water, everyone was carrying and for the second because, as the altitude gained, we all started feeling mild altitude sickness.
According to the hiking map it takes about 6 hours to ascend from the fifth station. We were ahead of schedule for the first ⅔ but closer towards the top the path got narrower and more crowded. So the time caught up to us. Eventually, we were just standing in a queue for the top. With the clock striking 4:30 and sunrise being only about 15 minutes away, we made the decision not to push for the peak, but to find a comfortable rock and sit down about 100 m below the peak to enjoy the sunrise. Here is where my second pair of thin leggings and the tank top came in handy: The winds at the peak can be bone-chilling and until the sun comes out temperatures will be close to zero – changing the most bottom layer of my clothes, from a sweaty and cold one, into a dry and warm one made a world of difference in comfort.
And then the sun came out. That day had many low hanging clouds about ¼ down the mountain from where we were standing. The sun poked through this sheer blanket of white with rays of golden light radiating in every direction. It immediately became brighter and warmer and for a moment everyone was very still and quiet and it was like the world had come to a halt. Then the cheering started and cries of “Banzai” echoed all around the peak. Camera shutters clicked and a cheerful chatter of hikers swelled up.
We enjoyed the sunrise for about 30 minutes, took many beautiful pictures and waited until the crowd dissipated a bit, before pushing on for the peak. The top of Fujisan is quite lively, it sports several restaurants, bathrooms, a post office and a shrine. After a hearty meal of overpriced (but very yummy) instant noodles and a short nap at the restaurant we set out for the really hard part – descend. Now, climbing Mt. Fuji is actually not the hardest part, it’s getting down. At 4h the descend from Yoshida-trail is shorter, but not easier. A monotonous, seemingly never-ending zigzag, down the face of the mountain on a path of loose and slippery volcanic rock… I guess my loathing for it was amplified by the fact that the Fuji stick offered zero support, my city sneakers were absolutely unsuitable for the hike, I fell down three times, and I lost my phone on the way back… I have only one surviving picture of that sunrise – the one I sent my mum from the top.
Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and memory to share that with my friends and losing my phone meant that I had to just hike it up again and retake all those pictures. Which I did, twice.
The Second Climb
To the day one year later in mid-July 2017, I set out to reclaim my lost images of the sunrise on Fuji. This year I was not only in a much better physical shape – thanks to cycling to basically anywhere in Tokyo all the time – but we also had booked a mountain hut. Mostly because we were late and could not book a late-night bus anymore. At 9000 JPY for a sleeping bag, a simple dinner and even simpler breakfast, it was a steep price, but still better than sleeping somewhere on a bench. We opted for the Yoshida trail again, simply because there was the risk of a thunderstorm and that path has most shelters and mountain huts.
I do admit that hiking up Fuji during the day was beautiful. I had not realised how much I had missed out of the vista on my first hike. The weather was pleasant, the sun was shining, not too hot, not too cold. Equipped with my newly bought hiking poles on we went, step after step, ascending the near-endless serpentines to our hut at 3250m above sea level.
Traditionally at mountain huts, you are fed Japanese curry. It is less spicy than it’s Indian and Thai cousins, thicker and sweeter. Usually, with potatoes, carrots and onions chopped in big chunks and served with a fried pork cutlet. I love this dish on any day, but especially after a good hike, when it gets really cold. We watched the sunset at 4 pm, we enjoyed a cloudless night sky, sprinkled with stars (thank you Fuji San for low levels of light pollution), ate our dinner and retired to sleep. Tightly packed, in sleeping bags, with just as much space, as an adult’s shoulders are wide. This long rest at that altitude did wonders for my onsetting altitude sickness.
At about 2 am we were woken up and ushered out into the chilly, windy night for the last portion of our hike. Well rested, warmed up and well-fed the remaining hour to the top did not seem such a daunting an undertaking anymore. And true, we reached the top way ahead of schedule. For the prime seats for the sunset, we had to cower and freeze for an hour. Vendors were selling hot drinks from a tub of boiling water and I bought a canned coffee. While walking back to my spot, I kept the can in the inner pocket of my jacket. It turned out to be a great improvised hot bottle and I kept it in the inner pocket, without drinking it, until the sun came up and melted the figurative icicles off our hair. After a hot (and overpriced) bowl of ramen, we started the descend. This time it was so much less of a torture! Finishing off with a visit to an Onsen in the town of Fuji Kawaguchiko and a very relaxing bus ride home, my 2nd ascent to Fuji was over.
What happened to the photos you ask? Well, the sunset was magnificent, but very different from the first one. I cannot deny a little sting of disappointment. That first sunrise will forever have to stay visible only to my inner eye.
The Third Climb
Now this one came as a surprise. Late July 2019, I was just getting ready for a lengthy vacation in my beloved Georgia, a colleague and friend approached me. “I want to hike up Mt Fuji, will you join?” The date, which she was proposing would have been 3 days after my return to Tokyo. I was worried about the jetlag and my resulting not-fitness. I am pretty confident that I wanted to decline, but then – to date, I don’t know how or why – she convinced me to join after all. So there I was on a Saturday morning in early September, at 8 am or so boarding the bus at Shinjuku station. I had slept about 4 hours the night before, my body was still in a timezone of its own and I had just come back from 3 weeks of being force-fed by my grandma 3 days before…
As if that was not enough, a Taifun was supposed to hit on Monday afternoon, the sky was overcast and it was surprisingly cold for that time of the year at the fifth station. Very soon into the hike, I noticed how unfit I actually was. I felt really sorry for my friend, whom I was slowing down A LOT! Before long we split up and would only meet up at the longer stops at the mountain huts. Luckily for us the sky cleared somewhere past the 7th station and we were rewarded with both warming sunshine and breathtaking views. Up, up, upon the Yoshida trail, my third time. Half the time I was cursing it, half the time I was excited about the top and in between I was wondering why I remembered the path to be shorter and easier. The first hike had already faded from my memory, poisoned by the loss of my phone, it had been banished to the depths of my mind. The second hike – attributed to my significantly better fitness – was in my memory an easy hike. I had made that one mistake that I warn others about: “Do not underestimate the physical strain of hiking up that mountain, when you are a lazy couch potato!”
While my poor friend was freezing and waiting for me, I was crawling along the trail. Despite the altitude sickness medicine, I was feeling very dizzy and nauseous. But giving up was out of the question! As if that was not enough, it started raining about 30 minutes before I reached the hut. But all that was soon forgotten, once I was wearing fresh clothes, had taken off my heavy hiking boots and was snug and warm in my sleeping bag. The curry again – delicious! Unfortunately, different from the second hike, I could not close my eyes even for a second. I did get a lot of beautiful views however. Lit up towns in the distance, like diamonds on black satin, above them the stars, as a reflection, both melting together at the horizon. It was dazing, but the experience was darkened by my dread of continuing the hike. At that point, I had been awake for over 24h already. This time too, we were awoken at 2 am and again ushered out into the cold. My friend and I quickly split up again, she went off to reserve us a spot. I was trying to keep my eyes open and not faint. I don’t really remember the rest of the path in details, just that at some point I was at the top and very, very relieved.
We had arrived too early, almost 2 hours too early. The cold on the top in July is nothing in comparison to the cold in September. The mountain would close in a few days, so no longer were there vendors selling canned coffee from boiling tubs of water. Oh, how much would I have given for that hot can of coffe? Huddling together and praying that we won’t suffer from frostbite, we watched the clock hands slowly move. The blackness of the sky slowly made for a deceiving grey. Twilight had come, but the dawn and the warming rays of sunshine were still far off. Trying not to think of the wind, reaching all the way to my bone marrow, I started setting up the camera, to capture my third Fuji sunrise. I had seen 2 already, and this one was very different too. I can’t describe how it differed, and neither do I think that I should. The sunrise from Mt Fuji is the reward for the hike (Although you can get unlucky and see nothing at all!). The overpriced ramen did not really warm us, but within half an hour the cold had been scattered away by the sun.
In order for my third hike to be at least a bit different, we decided to take a different trail down – the Gotemba Trail. The longest but at the same time fastest trail. For a brief moment, we discussed to walk around the crater once – but the idea was quickly dismissed. Getting from the Yoshida trail took as halfway around and at one point we could even look inside the crater, all the way down – a first for me. Unfortunately, the crater is not very spectacular…
The Gotemba trail is not one of the popular trails, but if your knees are in a good shape, it’s the best way to get off the mountain. About halfway down the serpentines stop and you reach what they call the “sand run”: A slope of loose basalt rock, sand and ash where you sink in up to your ankles and on which you can literally jog or run down the mountain. You can even, if you are not tired enough, hike up Mt Hoei, before fully descending from Fuji.
My knees, unfortunately, are in horrible shape after an accident that left me with 2 torn and patched up ligaments. When ligaments are damaged, the knee becomes unstable. Surgery can fix it only so much, so on normal days, my muscles compensate. But when the strain on the muscles becomes too much, they give up, so from then on all the strain goes on your already weakened ligaments and the remaining tissue has to work overtime… The hiking poles are not really helping on that path either. But I had to get down, right? So one foot before the other, and on I went. At some point, close to the end of the trail, the path becomes normal again, but after slide-running down for 2 hours at first it is very weird to walk on normal ground again. For the first few minutes, everyone looks a bit like a nutcracker… I found that at that point walking backwards was a great relief for my knees, thighs and calves.
By the time we had reached civilization again and bought tickets for a bus to Tokyo, I had been awake for close to 36h. I don’t remember anything about the bus ride because I passed out the moment I sat down. I woke up briefly to walk home from the station and passed out again in my bed – for 20h straight. When I woke up, however, the Taifun coming to Tokyo had already passed, my train to work was not running so I was rewarded with a surprise home office day and the cherry on top – my jetlag was gone.
This report might sound a tad negative, and I did promise myself that 3 times was more than enough. But I still enjoyed it, I spent quality time with my friend, saw (literally) a different side of the mountain and brought home a ton of new pictures and memories. At the end of the day, hiking up a mountain is not only about reaching the top and seeing the view – it’s about the whole path!