It’s still a couple of months until the frenzied activity of the ‘official climbing season’ (July and August) begins on Japan’s iconic tallest mountain, but I’ve been meaning to put up a few photos and my ambivalent thoughts about this place for quite a while, and since it’s bucketing down outside, and shows no sign of stopping for the rest of the day, today seems as good a time as any!
There are loads of excellent sources for hikers wishing to climb Fuji, and anyway since we climbed the mountain three years ago, there’s no point in adding my general (and almost certainly inaccurate) contribution on getting there and away to the loads of more up-to-date info already available.
On the other hand, although Fuji is such a fabled mountain, and one that so many Westerners seem eager to climb, many (myself included, before I went) seem to have a false idea of what the climbing experience is really like. Climbing Fuji is a fantastic and absolutely worthwhile hike, but more for the extraordinary cultural experience it guarantees than for the climb itself – at least if you follow the phenomenally popular Yoshida Route as we did (there are another three trails up the mountain).
To put it bluntly, the Yoshida Route is – for the most part – a wide, crumbling, zigzagging track built with the sole purpose of getting countless locals (and a substantial number of foreigners) to the top of the mountain safely and as easily as possible. It has its occasional moments of scenic beauty, and in good weather (and we were blessed on our climb!) the views are magnificent, but to put it bluntly, it ain’t a very scenic experience. For a far more wild, natural trip to go along with the bragging rights that come with climbing one of the region’s highest mountains, try Yushan (Jade Mountain, here in Taiwan), or Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which is both the toughest hike of the three summits by far, and the highest peak in East Asia (that is if you regard Papua, which has several far higher summits, as part of Australasia). Either of these two offer hiking in incomparably more scenically beautiful surroundings, unless you find volcanic scree unusually beautiful.
So climbing Mount Fuji along the Yoshida Route is – scenically – basically like climbing a vast mound of gravel. It’s also a treacherous descent, so consider carrying one of those traditional wooden poles or kongo-zue, which you can buy at the trailhead, to guard against slips; you can get them branded with stamps marking your altitude at the many stations and other stops on the way, and the branded kongo-zue makes a great souvenir of the climb.
Climbing Mount Fuji isn’t really about communing with nature; it isn’t even about challenging yourself especially, since although quite steep in places, it’s a pretty simple walk on a track (with just a few easy rough bits) that most able-bodied people can probably manage. Instead its great attraction is as an extraordinary cultural experience: mingling with the crowds at station five, hiking up past groups of color-coordinated local hikers, and sharing the sunrise view on the second morning (and the electric atmosphere they create) with thousands upon thousands of Japanese hikers. Owing to the language barrier we hardly exchanged a word with any of them, but up here all that stereotypical Japanese sense of ritual and stiff politeness are thrown to the winds. Everyone grins at everyone else, all formality is forgotten and the huge crowd shares in astonishment the drama and extraordinary beauty of the scene as the sun creeps over the horizon (and the Fuji sunrise was hands down the best I’ve ever enjoyed), and then casts a perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain over the mist on its far side.
That sunrise view is something I won’t forget for a long time, but climbing Fuji once is enough for me. I wouldn’t go back for several reasons – there are countless far more beautiful and scenically rewarding climbs – in Japan as well as elsewhere – that deserve a trip, plus it’s quite a controlled hike (you’ll probably have to book up the hut well in advance. Plus if you sleep the night on the mountain (as we did) the mountain huts are incredibly cramped. It’s astonishing, the Japanese ability to regularly put up with the most uncomfortable conditions. I’ve never had to make do with so little sleeping space in any mountain hut I’ve slept in – ever. Perhaps we were just unlucky (there are quite a few huts dotted along the upper reaches of the Yoshida Route, and maybe not all of them force sleepers in like sardines), or maybe we’d chosen an especially busy time to climb. Whatever the reason, once we were bedded down, we were packed in so tightly that – quite literally – I couldn’t turn or even move without disturbing the sleepers on either side of me. It was hard to sleep more than a short spell at a time: I was constantly afraid of kicking my neighbor, or breathing into his face, and at one point, to save myself from going stark raving mad, I got up (waking up my fellow sleepers on either side in the process) and went to the chilly bathroom for about half-an-hour, not to use the facilities, but to doze a little on the loo and enjoy the feeling of space for a spell before returning to the claustrophobic nightmare of that dorm.