Climbing Mt. Fuji (or, why did we decide this was a good idea?!)

A few years back I was living in Japan. I’ve been to Japan a bunch of times but mostly in Winter or late Autumn because that tends to line up best with Summer break in Australia. Living there gave me a chance to see through all the seasons in Japan, and all of the extra opportunities and experiences that they bring.

One highlight (though there were so many amazing things) was that being there in Summer gave me a chance to climb Mt. Fuji (or Fuji-san). Fuji-san is only open from early-July to mid-September and so living in Japan was the first time I had really had a chance to think about climbing it.

My birthday is at the start of July and around this time one of my oldest friends had come over to visit me from Australia. She and I were born in Adelaide about six weeks apart. Our mums were friends and our dads worked together and we’ve stayed in contact ever since even though we ended up in different cities from time to time, so we’ve known each other essentially our whole lives. So, given my birthday had just been and her birthday was coming up and she’d come all the way to Japan to visit me, we figured we should do something special. So, we decided to climb Fuji-san.

The only problem (which didn’t seem like a problem until we were actually on the mountain) was that neither of us had ever really climbed a mountain before. I’d done the Oxfam 100km walk a year or so before, but walking on mostly flat with some hills (even for a very long time) is pretty different to climbing a mountain. And at least I’d trained for the Oxfam walk.

We decided to do the overnight climb, which is really popular in Japan. You climb while it’s dark but then (if you’re lucky) you get to see the sunrise from the highest peak in Japan. I’d read up a bit on the walk, about times and trails and such, and the fact that they only allow climbers in good weather (one of the reasons it’s only open in the warmer months, as the snow on the bare mountain makes it more dangerous). Note this, good weather, I found out later my definition was apparently not the same as whoever decided on good climbing weather or not for the mountain.

Anyway, we decided that climbing Fuji-san would be a great experience and a lot of fun, so we packed up our gear in Osaka and headed off to Tokyo. We each had a small backpack for the climb, stocked with water, chips (or crisps), pocky, and several packs of gummies (which accidentally became one of my staple food groups when living then). My friend was wearing a hoodie, a long-sleeve shirt and jeans. I was wearing denim shorts with leggings, a t-shirt and a hoodie. We’d both packed a scarf just in case it got a bit chilly. Those of you who hike and climb mountains might be getting an idea that we were not super prepared for this. We were not. To be fair, we were starting off in Tokyo and the temperatures on that day hit mid-to-high 30’s (Celsius) and the humidity was pushing 80% when we set out from the city in the afternoon, so it felt far hotter still.

We took the bus from Tokyo (Shinjuku) to the Fifth station on Fuji-san. This is the most popular station for climbers to start from, and depending on which route you take/how many people are there/weather and so on, the websites I’d read had told me it could take on average around 5-6 hours to climb (disclaimer: I don’t know if the websites have changed or conditions have changed or I was being determinedly oblivious to bigger time estimates back then). Our plan was to get there around 6pm, have a drink and snack and then start around 7pm. This should give us plenty of time for the climb, plus time to curl up and nap somewhere near one of the rest points once we were close to the top.

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Our first view of Fuji-san from the bus. Cloud-topped and imposing.

The first hint we had that maybe we had misjudged this whole venture was when we stepped off the bus at the Fifth station. We’d come from hot and humid Tokyo. The sort of weather were just standing still in the shade resulted in sweat dripping liberally down your back almost immediately. As we left the bus and the residual heat of Tokyo, we were hit by a strong wind and we shivered slightly as it instantly sent a chill through us. After a quick discussion (mostly slightly concerned and meaningful glances as both of us reached for our just in case scarves, we went straight into one of the big souvenir stores there. We quickly bought some extra layers; thick socks, gloves, and an extra oversized hoodie that, to this day, is one of my favourite purchases.

The other thing we both bought was one of the wooden walking poles. I’d seen a number of other climbers on the bus with those fancy, lightweight walking poles – the ones that look a bit like ski poles. I don’t know the lingo. As we’ve established, I’m definitely not an expert on all things hiking and climbing. In place of the fancy poles, we each got a plain wooden staff (which instantly made us feel properly adventurous), decorated at the top with a red cloth cover and a pair of bells that rang brightly with every step. The other thing, is that as you climb Fuji-san you can get seals burned into your staff, to mark your ascent. It costs a few hundred yen for each seal. Each of the main stations offers them and a number of the smaller rest-/guest-houses on the mountain do too. We were going to only get the seals from the major stations but honestly we got fairly disoriented (I’m getting to that) and ended up getting a few others unintentionally. It’s a bit of a hassle carrying the staff at some points but honestly I’m so glad I did. I brought it back to Australia with me when I moved back and it’s one of my favourite possessions.

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Me (left) and my friend, Cassie (right), feeling confident again now that we each have a trusty staff. Photo taken by a lovely passerby.

So, armed with extra layers and sturdy staves we were ready to go! I took out my camera to take a photo to commemorate the start…and the wind instantly picked up and tore the waterproof cover from my hands and hurled it away down the path into complete darkness, as we both shrieked at the sudden burst of cold. Somewhat nervous but definitely not disheartened we set off down that same dark park, ready for the long night ahead.

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Sun starting to set. Blurry, I know, but this was one of the first times I’d tried any sort of night photography and plus did I mention it was a bit windy and cold?

As chance would have it, a good ten minutes down the path we actually found my camera cover, caught on a branch. The base of the mountain – or the area near the Fifth station – actually has a few small trees and shrubs which protect you from the elements a bit. Once we’d actually left the starting area to go down the first path we warmed up a bit as we weren’t in the full breeze and we’d started to warm up from moving too.

The first couple of hours were pretty fun. We laughed and chatted, we enjoyed the adventure and the views of the towns at the base of the mountain, lit up like tiny fairy lights. We even got to see a firework show at one point!

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The lights already look so far below
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A tiny, distant firework.

We took a number of breaks while we climbed, and on one of these we were approached by a young woman who was visiting from South America, was climbing alone and wanted to climb with us (for company and also because it’s always a bit safer with buddies when you’re doing something like climbing a mountain in the dark). We were more than happy for her to join and instantly shared our supply of gummy lollies (one of my staple foods in Japan…). We chatted, swapped stories of our hometowns and past travel experiences, and enjoyed the adventure.

As the night wore on, however, the adventure did start to take its toll a little bit. The temperature was steadily dropping, both with the increased altitude and the lack of sun, and we started to lose track of how far we’d come, and therefore how far we had to go. We could see lights up ahead marking out the rest stations but it wasn’t clear which ones were the “main” ones, for which we knew the relative distance they marked, and which were additional ones. To make it worse, we only worked out there were additional ones part way through the climb, which threw any measurement of progress we thought we how out the window.

A little after midnight the wind started to pick up, blowing ashy dust and dirt into our faces, sometimes strongly enough to make us slip mid step. I was extremely grateful for the walking staff I’d bought before the climb – it stopped me tumbling over more than once. Some of the parts of the trail were pretty steep, and you’d use chains or ropes attached to spikes driven into the mountainside to pull yourself up.

Around 2am a cloud descended on the mountain. There’d been little light around before this, so that didn’t change much, but we did lose the moon and the scattering of stars. The cloud, however, was very damp. I feel like you (or I) often forget this when looking at clouds in the sky – the look so nice and fluffy and soft. But in really they are just giant blobs of water, that manages to find its way into any gap in your clothing. As the temperature continued to drop the dampness from the cloud became an almost frost-like all over us.

I lost most concept of time after this, apart from the fact that I knew the sun was rising at around 6am and we were hoping to be at the summit by then. There were some small bonuses along the way, like a hot drink of green tea at one of the rest stops, and the “stamps” we had burned into our walking staves to mark our progress. At 5am we were getting close to the summit, and then that progress came to a standstill. Literally.

At the top of Mt Fuji is a pillar marking the summit, and of course everyone who reaches it wants to get their photo with it. The path at this point was pretty narrow, essentially becoming a single file queue for this photo point. It took us a bit over an hour to go the last hundred metres or so, and during this time the sun actually rose. I would have been way more disappointed that we weren’t actually at the top for this, if it had not been for the cloud. We were still inside that cloud. In itself, not great, still very damp and still very cold, but it also meant that when sunrise happened, things just went from black to dark grey. So I guess the silver lining to this particular cloud (see what I did there?) was that we didn’t really miss sunrise at the summit because there wasn’t really much of a sunrise to see!

“Sunrise”

The slow progress continued (and we did seriously consider just saying “close enough” and turning back) but we did make it to the summit – and obviously after waiting all that time we were going to get our own photo in front of the pillar. We’re not exactly smiling in the photo but we were pleased – at least afterwards – that we had stayed til the top!

The slow progress continued (and we did seriously consider just saying “close enough” and turning back) but we did make it to the summit – and obviously after waiting all that time we were going to get our own photo in front of the pillar. We’re not exactly smiling in the photo but we were pleased – at least afterwards – that we had stayed til the top!

Having climbed pretty much the whole night, which meant being awake the whole night as well as much of the previous day, we decided to take a break in the rest hall at the top. You can get a bowl of simple noodles there and, despite its simplicity, it was hands down the best bowl of noodles I’ve had in my life (disclaimer: this *may* have been because I was freezing and in want of proper food after surviving on snacks and sugar overnight). It was exactly what was needed and we got to sit inside for a bit in the warmth while we ate.

Having finished, we began the descent, and we actually got super lucky – after only half an hour or so the clouds suddenly lifted and for the first time we got a proper view of the world below. It was stunning, and well worth the hike and everything that had come with it. The walk down was a somewhat slippery 5 or so hours, making the whole climb about 16 hours all up (and down).

Was it tough? Yes.
Was I woefully underprepared? Yes.

Would I do it again if I had the chance? 100% yes.

If you’re still here it’s been a bit of a long read – after all it was a long climb – so I’ll leave you with some photos of the descent as the clouds slowly lifted and revealed the bit of Japan far below.

And finally a before and after shot too!

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