Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) 3776m (12,389 ft) night-time climb, Japan
Mount Fuji - known as Fuji-san - is Japan's highest mountain and celebrated as a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone. It is visible from Tokyo's skyscrapers on a clear day, and from the shinkansen along the coast. Around its base are the Five Lakes, with many other easier walking opportunities and views of beautiful Mount Fuji across the water. At 3776m, Mount Fuji is equivalent to two Ben Nevises and a Snowdon stacked on top of each other (the highest mountains in Scotland and Wales). Around 200,000 people climb it during the short summer climbing season (July-August), so we knew we would have company.
Catriona and I had included Mount Fuji in the itinerary for our 3-week holiday, but hadn't really worked out how to organise it. We were keen to climb the whole mountain, not just go up to the 5th station at 2300m (i.e. halfway up) by bus like most people. There were a number of ways of arranging this, with one tourist newspaper listing 5 possibilities for the climb including getting a few hours sleep in one of the mountain huts along the route. The guidebooks and leaflets recommended climbing through the night to see the sunrise, and this would avoid having to find somewhere to stay overnight, so that's what we decided to do. The traditional climb to the summit starts from Fujiyoshida on the north-east side and that's where we headed for.
We checked out of our Tokyo hotel, met up with friends for coffee, then took the train to Shinjuku to get a bus to Fujiyoshida. If we'd decided to walk from the 5th station, we'd have got the bus to nearby Kawaguchi-ko. This is recommended as the cheapest and most straightforward way to get to Mount Fuji using public transport.
The coach swept along the motorway and into mountainous country, and then the rain started. We began to contemplate the prospect of a wet and windy night-time climb. The coach stopped to drop people off at a theme park - the Fujikyu Highland Resort - then crawled through to the bus and railway station, where we got off. It was about 3.00 p.m.
The rain had eased off, but we decided to check the forecast at the little tourist office in the station building. A very friendly elderly woman welcomed us through the window, advised that the weather should be clearing up and supplied leaflets with maps and directions in English to the start of the climb. She spoke good English herself - it turned out she had an American husband. We asked about lockers to leave our packs in, and she said we could leave them in her little office, which was really helpful (although I hope that mentioning this on a website won't lead to hundreds of others turning up seeking similar treatment - there wasn't much space in the office).
We sorted out what gear we needed for the climb, then went to a restaurant above the station for a good hot meal of spaghetti to fortify ourselves for the task ahead.
Just before 5 p.m. we set out, turning right onto a long street, climbing gently. Within a few minutes, the rain began falling heavily. We had waterproofs and even a foldaway umbrella, but as I raised it quickly, our hearts were sinking fast.
Should we push on? We did. A left turn took us down a main road along the edge of coniferous woodland and then a right turn led up to the Fuji Sengen Jinja - a shrine marking the start of the religious pilgrimage to the mountaintop. It was an opportunity to shelter from the rain for a few minutes and cast coins through the wooden grille of the wishing box, to appeal to the gods of the mountain for a safe passage and better weather!
The Yoshidaguchi climbing trail started on the tarmac road heading south-west, and we had to take care at a few road junctions. We knew we were heading the right way as we passed the Fuji Pines Park on the left, and carried on walking as rapidly as we could, climbing gradually. Fortunately the rain stopped. Eventually after an hour we reached a junction at Nakanochaya, and the trail went to the right side of a tea shop, but we didn't have time to stop. It was still a tarmac road. Around 7 p.m. it was getting very gloomy under the trees in the gathering dusk, and I had to start using the small pocket torch I had brought.
We came to a car park at the road end, and the trail started winding and zig-zagging up through the woods as the slope became much steeper. The path was being rebuilt, with lots of rough stone, trenches and timbers to climb over. Sometimes it seemed to turn in one direction only to come up against trees, and we found the route heading the other way. I was getting worried that my two torch batteries wouldn't be enough even to last us to the 5th station (there are 10 stations on the way to the top). We were encouraged by the signs for the various stations, with the 3rd station at 1850m indicating we were halfway to the top, but of course we had started at 800m. It was a long, dark, tiring climb. At one point a light appeared ahead, moving quickly towards us, then another walker dashed past on his way down. It was the only soul we saw between the tea shop and the 5th station, and he was just a dark blur hurrying down.
At around 9.00 p.m. we saw lights appearing ahead again, this time from windows, and it was a great relief to go through the door of a mountain hut at the 5th station and be welcomed by the occupants - three Japanese men, three women, and another man who turned out to be Spanish. We were treated to a cup of tea each and sat close to the stove in the centre of the room, exchanging smiles and gestures. Catriona explained who we were, and when we had started out - they were impressed by our progress. It was a friendly place to relax, in a very rustic setting. Even here though, we had to take off our boots before stepping up to take a seat. Other walkers would use the hut to sleep, before tackling the second half of the climb.
The Spanish guy, Alfredo, was having a meal in the room next door - we just bought water and juice to restore our fluid levels. Dehydration would be a big danger on such a long hike - although less than in the daytime. We set off again around 10 pm, at first with Alfredo, but he soon dropped back. The track took us across a road and then through bushes, and there were more people around. It was walkers starting out at the 5th station from Kawaguchiko. Now we could use the light from other people's torches at times and conserve our remaining battery.
There were more huts offering food and drink - we bought water at one, bananas at another. The price of a bottle of water rose with the altitude, but we knew we had to drink more. Resting on rocks, we could see stars above, and became much more cheerful about our progress. The lights of the huts were strung out on the mountainside above. As we approached each one, the smell of the toilets hung in the air. Walkers were asked to keep their voices down, as others were sleeping inside.
We reached the 8th station at 3000m around midnight, still going well with 776m or around 2500 feet to go. It looked like a safe bet to be there well before sunrise at 4.20 a.m. Then we turned the corner from the hut veranda onto the track, and came to a dead stop in a queue of people waiting patiently to climb a stretch of rock. It wasn't vertical but it was just as well to hold onto the fixed chains. We thought it was just the tricky section causing a bottleneck, but that's how it was for the next four hours! We didn't realise that another route of ascent had converged on ours, adding to the flow of people.
There were more English-speaking voices around than we had been used to - and suddenly Catriona bumped into a Canadian girl she had met a few weeks earlier in Niigata, where she had been studying. Out of all the thousands of walkers there!
The rest of the route was mainly up a zig-zag track on loose volcanic gravel, climbing steadily but not too steeply. From time to time there were more rocks to scramble over. Everyone was patiently walking, then waiting, then walking again, generally two abreast. There were young guys in brightly coloured jackets seemingly trying to manage the flow of people, encouraging faster walkers to go on the left - we weren't sure if they were official Mount Fuji countryside rangers or responsible for an organised group of people.
Where the path was wider, we did manage to make faster progress, but with each burst of effort I found myself tiring and getting dizzy with the altitude and probably from dehydration. The weather had turned for the worse, with a freshening breeze and rain, and the temperature had dropped several degrees. We had put on all our thermal vests and microfleeces, wool hats and gloves and waterproofs, but were getting chilled when the queue was moving slowly.
We had to keep going. Surely we were nearly there. One of the mountain rangers shouted out that strong climbers could get to the top in 5 minutes. Then at last the red-painted torii (the gate to a Shinto shrine) emerged from the darkness ahead, marking our arrival at the sacred summit. We had made it. The last 770m should have taken about two hours, but took twice that.
On the circular ridge of the summit crater there were crowds of cold, wet, bedraggled walkers milling around, and various makeshift stalls selling food and drink. It was like a miserable night in a wildwest town. We squeezed into a more substantial hut and managed to find a bit of space at one end in a kind of corridor leading to another room. Signs hung above us advertising food for sale. We ordered a couple of plates of chicken curry, and tried to warm up a bit, but we were chilled to the bone. Catriona was feeling pretty sick, and couldn't eat much. As soon as it looked like we had finished, we were pushed back out into the open to make room for others. The dawn light was creeping through the mist. We found a friendly walker to take a picture of the two of us, and Catriona managed a smile, then we decided we should start to set off back down. It was still only about 4.45 a.m. We hadn't fully explored the rim of the crater, but there was no view in the cloud and rain, we were exhausted and frozen and had to get moving again.
It was a different route down, with wider zig-zags (to avoid congestion and accidents from falling rocks), and there was an easier flow of people. A couple of hundred feet below the summit, the sky began to brighten and breaks appeared in the clouds ahead of us. Suddenly there were glimpses of sunlit clouds below us, and the scene began to open out. We paused to marvel at the spectacle, and take some photos. It was only about 5.30 in the morning, and the early morning sunlight was breaking through an upper layer of cloud to illuminate a blanket of low-lying clouds below. It was utterly breathtaking, and a really uplifting sight after the cold anticlimax of the summit.
A steady stream of walkers flowed down the stony track in red, blue, yellow and orange rainjackets. The lava rocks had crumbled to small pebbles under thousands of feet, on the main part of the path, but the overtaking lane took us onto the lumpier rocks. They were a mixture of red and black, and very light. Now we could see the mountainside that we had been climbing all night - mostly barren, but with lots of little clumps of bright green leaves and yellow flowers. Down below were the forests we had climbed through earlier in the evening.
e decided we were too tired to retrace our steps down through the forest and along the road to Fujiyoshida, so we headed from the 6th stage northwest along the roadway to the Kawaguchi-ko 5th station. It halved the distance we had to walk down, but still felt a long way. We were there by 7.40, nearly 3 hours after leaving the top. This 5th station had a turning circle in the road, ringed by shops. We bought bottles of chilled tea and relaxed, waiting for the bus which arrived at 8.30 and took us down to the railway station at Kawaguchi-ko. From there we caught a train the short distance to Fujiyoshida, where our friend in the tourist office was glad to see us and made us a very welcome coffee.
After a quick clean up in the shopping centre washrooms, we returned to the station platform to travel on to the Kiso Valley. Before leaving, I ceremonially dumped my old climbing boots in a litter bin. I didn't expect to need them during the last week of the holiday, and decided against carrying them round any longer. They had done what they were supposed to do - help me get to the top of Japan's highest mountain and down again.
Later, we found that we had chosen the "Sea Day" holiday weekend for our climb. We had thought that there wouldn't be too many people climbing on a Sunday night, having work the next day, but because Sea Day fell on the Sunday there was an extra holiday on the Monday. That meant that lots of people must have decided it made the perfect night to climb the mountain - hence the traffic jam!< Back to Japan page for links to other stories
GalleryView a gallery of further images for this story.