Hiking Fuji-san was on my bucket list but I hadn’t thought much about it. Brian already climbed it and wasn’t hugely interested in climbing it again (although he agreed to if I needed a partner). At the rowing event in Tokyo a few months back I mentioned to my rowing friends that I wanted to climb it but didn’t have a partner. Atsuko-san immediately said she wanted to climb with me. Some time went by, some health issues came up, and I started to look into climbing by myself (or dragging Brian with me). I realized that my window of opportunity was closing. I’ll be going home for home leave in August, and by the time I return in September, the climbing season would be closed. It is only climbing season from July 1- September 10th, and although you can climb it out of season (like Brian did), it’s harder to do. I wanted easy.
Not so long ago Atsuko-san brought it up again and proposed dates. It was going to have to be a weekend and weekday, instead of the two weekdays like I had proposed, because of her husband’s work schedule. It’s summer vacation and someone had to watch her two adorable girls. Climbing on the weekend is supposed to be hell, wall to wall people, and I wanted to avoid if possible. I met with Atsuko, and her husband Takashi-san to go over the tour Atsuko proposed. Takashi-san works for a Canadian company and speaks perfect English, whereas Atsuko and I cobble together English and Japanese until we understand each other enough. We laugh a lot and knowing her makes me a more patient, flexible, and better person. My Japanese is also much improved! When going up the tallest mountain in a country and planning a trip, we needed to make sure that we were on EXACTLY the same page. It was also fun to learn that Takashi-san has heard as much about me as Brian hears about Atsuko. Anyways, they were quickly able to convince me that going on a tour was a better idea than doing it ourselves. The bus picked us up a 5 minute walk from my house, drove us straight to the Fuji trail head, provided us with 3 guides to help with pacing and issues that come up, housing for the night, and two meals, and on the return, a stop at an onsen to get rid of the grime before being on a bus for a few hours, and getting dropped off at home (basically) once again, all for the same price as the train ride there and back plus the hut would have cost me if I was doing it by myself!
Working up to the trip I was nervous. It has been so hot in Japan that I avoid being outside if possible. When we have hiked on weekends recently, it has been pretty miserable and I didn’t have a great time. I’ve been waking up at 5 am worrying about whether or not I can make it to the top. Anyways, it was great to finally be on the eve of the trip.
It was wonderful to wake up in the morning, have time to cook a hearty breakfast, and walk five minutes to the bus stop for pick up at 8:30 AM. I was greeted by my cheerful friends Atsuko and Kayoko. We quickly loaded up and began to drive. We had two stops to pick up other people and then a stop for lunch, and a stop for a snack, and a stop for a bathroom/snack. I felt like I was in the scene with Merry, Pippin, and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.
“Aragorn: Gentlemen! We do not stop ’til nightfall.
Pippin: But what about breakfast?
Aragorn: You’ve already had it.
Pippin: We’ve had one, yes. But what about second breakfast?
Merry: Don’t think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.
Pippin: What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn’t he?
Merry: I wouldn’t count on it.”
What google said was going to be a four and a half hour drive, somehow took eight hours. We arrived at the Subaru 5th Station at 4:30 PM.
We were told we had a half hour to change and gear up before we would meet at letter E (there is a forrest of sign posts for easy gathering). I didn’t understand the instructions. It maybe is worth mentioning again that while Atsuko and I enjoy each other’s company and can carry on a conversation, we can’t always convey the nuance of things to each other. In this case, I missed the fact that we needed to take our packs with us and have our “onsen bags” left on the bus. I took my onsen bag, left my pack, and ran off. Thankfully my dear friends grabbed my pack and brought it to me, because the bushad gone off to park. I changed and used a coin locker to hold my onsen bag while we were gone. We went downstairs and gathered at the E post. There we met our 3 guides and did some light stretching. They also handed out neon green bandanas so that they (and we) could recognize us. They checked our packs and made everyone do little adjustments. I was a little smug when, after being tugged a little bit, they had no adjustments to make. Hooray for well fitting packs!
We started our trek and the weather was not promising. The cloud was in, and although it wasn’t raining, we were all getting wet. We were told that there were the possibility of thunder storms, and if they happened we would not go to the summit.
It was a very quick walk to the 6th station (maybe half an hour), where we were shown the route map (again) and were further informed of the weather conditions. The guy looking at the map in the far left photo was one of our guides (you would hope he didn’t need the map if he was a guide….)
We were also given the option of renting helmets, as Fuji-san is an active volcano, and therefore dangerous. I rolled my eyes. If Fuji-san erupted while we were up there, I’m pretty sure we were screwed one way or another.
We continued on and it was even foggier. Up and up and up we went. Shortly after the 6th station switch backs start and they don’t stop until you are at the top. Switch backs are pretty rare on Japanese mountains. The Yoshida trail is the “easy” course, so I think they try to maintain a pretty steady incline.
At about 7:30 it started getting dark but we moved above the main cloud line and the clouds still above us began to disappear.
One by one the stars came out and suddenly the Milky Way was at my fingertips. We also saw shooting stars! It was the beginning of the Perseids meteor shower, so although there weren’t that many, I saw 5 over the course of several hours.
We took regular breaks for snacks. I introduced my friends to trail mix, which they seemed to enjoy. They introduced me to “Calorie Mate” which is a terrible dry energy bar, as well as candied beans in a bag puffed with air so they don’t get smushed.
We past the 7th station at about 8 pm. At this point it was dark and you could see the trail of lights of people in front and behind us, proceeding up like ants.
Some folks started to struggle at this point. A grandpa and his 7 year old grandson began experiencing altitude sickness. Two members of the group were falling behind, although I can’t tell you if it was due to the climb or altitude sickness. I had a minor head ache but a hit of my portable oxygen cleared it right up (it is compressed O2, in a container that looks like it should hold your cleaning chemicals).
It’s hard to know when you’ve reached the 8th station… because there are so many of them. There are 9 huts on the Yoshida trail between the 7th and 9th stations. I think we stayed at Ganso-muro, which is 4th from the top. I’m not sure because we were given a map in Japanese and I can’t read kanji.
Just after 10 PM we arrived at our hut. We were violently wiped off by the staff to get all drips off our gear before it was put on our beds. They were confused by me because I had taken off my rain gear after we were above the cloud line. While everyone else was still bundled up, I was wearing my light fleece. We took off our shoes, and went inside. As soon as our backs were on our bed, we were fed dinner.
Let me tell you, I did not want dinner. It was late, I had eaten a lot of trail mix, and I really wanted to sleep. Nonetheless, I decided to eat as I was sure I would want the protein in the morning. Then they put it in front of us and I almost changed my mind again. It was curry and rice with a pork “hamburger” patty on top. The patty was grey as so unappetizing. Somehow I managed to eat the whole thing. I grabbed my sushi bento box for the next morning and climbed into the bunk I would share with Kayoko and Atsuko. It was 10:15 PM. We were on the top bunk. There was a very thin mattress under us but it wasn’t what I would call comfortable. Then there were 3 fleece blankets interlocked with each other that we shared. I was hot and they were dusty but I couldn’t get out of them without making my friends uncomfortable. My nose ended up stuffy and I couldn’t sleep. I remember looking at my watch at 11:15 and swearing to myself. They were waking us up at 11:45.
At 11:45 one of the hut staff came into our area and made enough noise that we all woke up. We were given a half hour to get ready to go again. I was so grumpy. I was tired, I wanted to sleep more, why did the guy under us have to snore so loudly? Thankfully, no one was in the mood to chat.
At 12:15 we started on our way again.
More people started to feel sick. One of the guys in our group kept puking. I was indignant because he would throw up on the mountain side of the trail, not the cliff side. Therefore, all of us unlucky souls behind him had to watch where we stepped. So gross dude!
The clouds had completely disappeared and it was amazing. I got a little emotional because I felt as though I was walking to heaven. It was peaceful and beautiful. Above and below us streamed thousands of other hikers. This photo is looking down.
We got to the last “8th station hut” and took a rest. There I met a 6 year old who was climbing with his mom. He was happy as a clam! This photo is terrible, but I’m also in it.
We started on our final ascent! The light at the top of this photo is the summit!
Shortly before the summit you walk under a torii. People had stuck coins into the cracks in the wood as offerings.
We were so close! The last 400 meters was supposed to take us 30 minutes. For those of you not fluent in metric, that’s about a quarter of a mile. Normal walking speed, I can usually do that in about 5 minutes. The climbing got steep and the trail was crumbly. You took a step forward and slid back half way. Up to here the climb had been pretty easy. At this point I started aching just a little.
This pile of rocks and falling down timber is the 9th station. There isn’t much there anymore.
At 3:19 AM, July 31, 2017 I summited Fuji-san with Atsuko and Kayoko.
Our group provided us with two options, sit close to the trail head down and watch sunrise, or hike along the crater to the tallest point and watch sunrise. I chose to do the crater walk, and my friends chose to stay behind. Only eight out of our twenty eight person group continued on to the highest point.
I laughed at the sign on the rim warning of falling rocks. There were no rocks above me. In the case that there would be rocks spewing up and falling down, you’d be screwed.
Around 4 AM sunrise began. We continued walking.
We passed the Sengentaisha-Okumiya Shrine and took photos with the post there. I’m sorry to say I have no idea what it’s significance is.
Just after that we past the post office “Fujisancho” which means top of Mt. Fuji. It’s the highest post office in all of Japan! I brought a few post cards to mail with me, but hadn’t purchased stamps. I figured I would have time to do that while up there. First off, we didn’t have time because we still had a way to hike to reach the highest point and only a little time before sunrise. Second, the post office didn’t open for another 2 hours! I ended up sticking my postcards in a zip lock I was carrying and putting money in it for postage. I slipped it in the box and hoped for the best.
And we kept going, all the way to Kengamine-Peak, which at 3775.6 meters is the highest point on Fuji-san. There is a weather station on top!
After taking our photos we claimed our spots and settled in for sunrise.
It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me remotely well that when the sun finally peaked it’s head over the horizon I started to cry. I made it. The weather was supposed to keep us from the top but there I was. It was supposed to be cloudy, and it was, but only enough to make for an incredibly dramatic sunrise. I was so happy and in the moment and really fricken proud of myself!
I have almost 100 photos of the sunrise, and I think they are all worth looking at. However, I don’t have the space on wordpress to share them with you. I encourage you to check on my album here: https://goo.gl/photos/ik6Bz7FKb2oFDypQ6
The sunlight also made the rocks around us glow.
We could see into the crater, where there was still snow!
We were all so in awe of the sunrise that we had forgotten to eat our bento breakfast. Our guide gave us a few extra leisure minutes to chat and eat.
We then set out for the rest of the crater. After a very short descent, our guide has us walk to the outside edge of the crater, so that we were looking over the edge. He pointed out that we could see the shadow of Fuji on the clouds! It was another special moment, that I didn’t even know to expect!
We continued on. I loved seeing the colors on the rocks. It was obvious they had been through incredible heat, fire, and pressure.
All told, it took about an hour and a half to walk around the crater, but it was closer to two hours before we got back to the trail head. We were given a half hour to go shop, repack, and use the restroom. I got a charm I will use as a christmas ornament and a small wall flag that is stamped with the date.
Google has used it’s Street View technology to let you walk around the crater yourself. It’s here if you are so inclined: https://www.google.com/maps/about/behind-the-scenes/streetview/treks/mount-fuji/
At 6 AM we started down again. I had been told that I wouldn’t see my friends again until we were at the bus, but 15 minutes after we started, we caught up with the larger group. Two of our guides were still with us, helping us learn how to walk down the trail. It is very loose gravel, so you take a step and you slide. But you can’t expect to slide each time, you have to learn where to step so you can slide. It was unpleasant. After an hour our guides gave us a short farewell and told us to be back at the bus by 11 AM. At this point the group scattered. Some people shot down and others meandered. We were somewhere in between. Kayoko was super speedy (I learned a new vocabulary word- hayai 速い) but Atsuko and I struggled a little bit more. Going down was twice as hard as going up.
You take a slightly different trail down than you take up. I think it is the one they use dozers to resupply with. It just zig zags for ages. I believe there are between 42-46 switch backs.
Thankfully you can stop and enjoy the view when the clouds break. There are 5 lakes near Fuji, aptly named, the Fuji Five Lakes. I could see two of them as we meandered down.
In some areas the rocks suddenly changed colors.
This photo looks crooked, but this is level. It’s just under a 45 degree slope.
Just before the sixth station there were a bunch of horses! You could pay to get a ride back to the fifth station on one.
We crossed paths with a resupply truck.
We finally passed the splitting point for the up trail and the down trail. Some hikers on their way up!
We played tag with one of our guides. He would stop and hang out with friends at various huts and emergency stations while we would continue on. 20 minutes later he would pass us at a jog. It was incredible how fast he was going. We were so close, but limping along.
Another one of our guides.
A very young person on his way down!
And we made it back to the fifth station!
We did a little shopping, and I bought myself a lemon fuji cookie. It was tasty!
At 11 we all hopped on the bus and took a 40 minute ride to an onsen. I’m pretty sure everyone on the bus slept. After a brief bath and a welcome change of clothing, we had a little time to eat lunch. Atsuko and I went to KFC. I learned that KFC is a holiday tradition in Japan on Christmas! She didn’t know why. You are supposed to reserve your chicken ahead of time, otherwise you can spend several hours waiting in life for your KFC. How strange!
After eating, we all piled back on the bus again and soon you could hear snoring. I slept about 3/4 of the way back. At 7 PM we returned to Toyota station. I was planning on walking back to my apartment, but Atsuko and her husband insisted that they drive me home. They’re so sweet. Atsuko’s two daughters, Haruka and Aya, jumped out of the waiting car and ran to give their mom big hugs when we got off the bus. They were so excited for her! It was darling.
Brian had just gotten home from work when I arrived. He gave me a big welcome and was super proud of me. It was lovely. We ate dinner, watched some TV, and I slept like the dead.
On Monday August 7th, my postcard arrived in the mail! I had sent myself a letter. It should be read to the tune of “On top of Mount Smokey”. The postmark “FUJISANCHO” means Top of Mount Fuji. Only people who make it to the summit get that stamp 🙂
It was such an incredible trip. I’ll never forget it or the friends who I went with.