On top of the world: Climbing Mt Fuji

People young and old climb this Japanese peak every summer. But make no mistake — it’s still a mountain, and a big one at that.

It’s cold, and nearly silent except for the crunch of grey gravel and my carefully controlled breathing. My two companions are a little way ahead of me, and far above them — seemingly in the black sky itself — are the golden lights of a few huts. I turn around to see the pinheads of light hinting at the streets and homes scattered over the plain below. Civilisation feels very far away.

It’s hard to believe that just hours ago, we were strolling between green trees in Mt Fuji’s lower regions. That brisk blue sky above and the groups of cheerful climbers are in stark contrast to present conditions.

I turn back to the trail, putting one foot in front of the other and breathing through the incredible sense of fatigue that comes from trekking at altitude.

The three of us are young, moderately fit and keen. We’ve prepared with layers of clothing for the expected temperature fluctuations, packed plenty of snacks to supplement the dinner and breakfast provided at the hut, and sought out anecdotes from people who’d done the climb. Many made it sound like a cheerful jaunt: Six or seven hours of walking and we’d be at the summit for sunrise.

But right now, not for the last time, I feel somewhat misled.

The deception begins with the fact that people young and old climb Mt Fuji every summer, and also that it’s extraordinarily well set up. The paths are well maintained, often wide and flat. The 5th Station, 2305m above sea level and the point from which most people start climbing, is populated with tourist buses, restaurants and souvenir shops. The mountain huts along the Yoshida trail are well-stocked with food and drinks and toilets.

But all of this can be a distraction. There’s the odd “bullet climber” who makes it look easy, striding past in nothing more than lycra. But make no mistake — it’s still a mountain, and a big one at that.

We had set out after lunch, having travelled from central Shinjuku to the 5th Station that morning. The crowds were no surprise — it has become so popular that the mountain huts closest to the summit were already fully booked six weeks before our climb.

After three hours, we’d arrived at our hut at the 7th Station tired but in high spirits. After resting in the sleeping quarters, we ventured back out for the sunset. The fine weather continued to hold, giving us a majestic view of thick pillowy cloud stretching into the distance. As the sun set we had an incredible sight: the shadow of Mt Fuji lying flat across the clouds. It was surreal to think that we were climbing that very same shadowy peak.

Back inside, after a cup of warm amazake rice drink and a simple curry made in the rudimentary kitchen, we relaxed in the cosy mess-hall feeling of a warm hut perched on the side of a mountain. Retiring to the futons early, we eventually fell asleep, lined up like sardines in a tin of soft quilts.

Not for long. At 1.30am  we were awake and layering up. The mood was different as we prepared for the long, cold trek ahead. I pulled my waterproof pants and jacket over top, even though it wasn’t raining — mountain weather is as changeable as it comes, and they would keep me warm regardless.

Headlamps shining a thin light, we clambered over rocky sections and trudged along sandy paths. From time to time we met other climbers, everyone in the same boat, walking slowly but steadily and taking breaks when needed. Along one stretch, a small group was curled up between boulders, eyes closed, regaining their energy (we hoped). 

There were nowhere near the crowds of yesterday afternoon, when several narrow sections of trail consisting mainly of boulders forced us to clamber up in queues. The feeling that you are the only people awake as the whole world sleeps is especially acute on the side of a mountain. A great stillness was all around us, a monolith ahead, and nothing but the night sky at our backs.

Sometime around 4am  we came to a hut selling hot drinks from a kiosk window. Inside, bodies could be seen warmly bundled up in sleeping bags. I felt a pang of jealousy but settled for a small cup of hot green tea for 500 yen (about $6 — nothing is cheap up here).

The night seemed to go on forever and at some point I started to wonder whose brilliant idea this was (OK, it was mine). The moment we stopped, I felt freezing, while walking had begun to feel like lifting legs of iron.

But after the endless night comes the morning. We were approaching the 8½ Station when the sky started to lighten. Climbers congregated on the deck outside the hut, and we joined them, watching the sky in anticipation. As the lip of the orange sun crested the horizon, a cheer went up. Strangers grinned at each other and I started to feel like it may have been worth it.

And then the slog continued. On and on we went, our breath coming more shallowly, and as we started up the final stretch between the 9½ Station and the summit, the queue returned. More and more people were lying beside the path to rest in the sun. Most were taking four or five slow steps at a time. As the sun got higher, the landscape became clearer. It was Mars-like — bleak, dusty, and much redder than I had expected. Awe-inspiring in its expanse. But I had little energy to do more than register this, and keep moving.

This is how I summit: shuffling a few steps, pausing to breathe, focused only on forward motion. And suddenly, my boyfriend’s hand is grabbing mine and I’m standing beneath a stone torii gate and he’s telling me I made it, we’re at the peak.

Some Japanese people say Mt Fuji is best appreciated from afar. I now understand this position. But I also can’t forget the breathtaking feeling after reaching the peak, of being so high up in the sky, clouds hovering beneath my feet.

Several times since then, I’ve looked at Mt Fuji from a distance and found myself peering at its slopes, trying to picture three tiny little figures climbing up, up, up. Would I do it again? Not likely. But the memory is certainly something to relive.

Picture at top by Yasufumi Nishi/JNTO. 

Fact File


You may also like