Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fujisan (富士山), Japan's highest mountain, needs no introduction. The outstanding symbol of Japan on a billion postcards, woodcut prints, calendars and fridge magnets worldwide, this sacred, symmetrical snow-capped cone has held a special place in the Japanese cultural consciousness since time immemorial.

As of June 2013, that cultural significance has been internationally recognized in the form of UNESCO World Heritage status, noting Mt. Fuji's defining role in Japanese art, religion, tourism and popular imagination. And if you live around Tokyo, commute on its trains or expressways or hike in its mountains, then chances are that every now and then, when the horizon is clear of clouds or smog, there Mt. Fuji will be: a timeless landmark, a stalwart constant, standing firm in an ocean of endless upheaval and change.

A few friends and I decided to climb it. At night. This post is as much to provide information and useful advice for those hoping to do similar as it is a commentary on our trek, because at 3,776 metres high, climbing Mt. Fuji is a serious undertaking.

Mt. Fuji climbing season is open for only two months per year – July and August – when the mountain huts and services are running, regular bus routes serve the trailheads, and hundreds of thousands of people from Japan and abroad pour in to attempt the climb. Even then, when Tokyo scorches in thirty-degree summer heat, Fuji's upper reaches and summit may fall below freezing amidst battering winds and shrouds of cloud. In winter these winds become extreme, temperatures plunge to minus thirty, and severe snow and ice bring a perpetual risk of avalanches, making an ascent not far from maniacal.

Ascending at night adds darkness and fatigue to this mix, but will reward you with one of the most magnificent experiences, natural and cultural, in the entire sum of what Japan has to offer: the rise of the morning sun, as witnessed high above the clouds and peaks of the mortal world.

Make no mistake: you'll bring your mortality with you and be reminded of it as it clatters against you on every step of the way – especially as you straggle back down the next day on thirty hours without sleep. Click below to see the full account.

Logistics and Equipment
The night ascent is not the only option. If you feel like forking over 5-7,000 yen and reserving in advance, you can hike most of the way up during the day, get some sleep crammed in with 100+ other people in one of the mountain huts on the way, then rise in the early morning to reach the top before sunrise. If sunrise is your goal, it happens at about 4:30am in early July, though the sky gradually brightens from about an hour before. Whatever the case, the summit of Fuji-san is not a day trip: you're in it for the long haul, and will want to be fully prepared with scheduling and equipment, not to mention mind and body.

Most of the ascent is steep but not onerously so, though a few sections call for (relatively straightforward) hand-assisted climbing. No single section should be beyond the abilities of casual to moderate hikers or people of reasonable fitness. The challenge comes from the sheer, strenuous extent of it: four to eight hours up, one or two hours to walk around the crater, and four to eight hours down, depending on which route you take and how fast you go. Be especially aware that the descent can demand as much stamina as the climb.

In addition to this, the air begins to thin near the top, especially noticeable past 3000m or so. Different people are affected differently by this, not always predictably so: so be aware that it may become more difficult to breathe near the summit, especially if you haven't climbed a mountain on this scale before. Reduce the risk or impact of altitude sickness by climbing slowly and taking long, frequent breaks.

At bare minimum, be sure to bring:
  • Hiking boots – or at the least, shoes in adequate condition for long hiking on rough terrain.
  • Cold-weather clothing: multiple layers of thick insulation for the summit, ideally easy to put on or take off. Conditions and temperatures can change rapidly, anywhere on the mountain.
  • Gloves, hat, scarf and other sundries: when you reach the high, cold sections, you'll be glad indeed to have them.
  • Waterproof: Mt. Fuji generates a climate of its own, characterized by temperamental and sometimes violent clouds. Make sure you and all your gear are protected in case of rain.
  • Flashlight: With batteries fully charged. For climbing at night, a head-mounted light (available at electronics or mountaineering stores) is an excellent investment, and will keep your hands free..
  • Water and food: I would recommend at least 3 litres of water, preferably more, and plenty of food provisions, all of which should be calculated to last you until you get down. Convenient, high-energy snacks like Calorie Mate are ideal, but it's worth bringing more substantial fare for rewarding meals at key moments too. Food and drink are also available from the mountain huts, but the prices rise proportional to altitude, and become astronomical at the summit.
  • Money: To avail yourself of those goods in emergencies (or because you just want that 400 yen can of hot coffee that badly); and also for the public toilets. There are plenty of these at the mountain huts, in good condition, but you are obliged (and in some cases required by turnstile) to pay a maintenance fee of 200 yen for each use – and 300 yen at the summit. Bring plenty of 100 yen coins.

And though not 100% necessary, you will be thanking yourself for having the following when it counts:
  • Sunglasses – for the piercing rays of the sun through the thin air at altitude; but more so for the copious dust on the return route.
  • Sun hat, and sun protection cream – though with the amount of exposure you'll get, odds are you'll emerge like a roasted turkey anyway.
  • A hiking stick will especially help you on the return slopes. For the full cultural experience, you can purchase an iconic Mt. Fuji wooden staff (1200 yen) where you start the climb, and get it branded at the huts on the way up and at the summit – for a price, of course. Then you can take it home, display it in the proudest corner of your dwelling and talk the ears off your guests about it for the rest of your life.
  • Oxygen cylinders are available at the starting points and mountain huts. It may be worthwhile to have some to hand if anyone in your party is likely to have trouble with the thin air at altitude.
  • Map/compass: Usually essential, but Fuji's well-demarked routes and high population of climbers during the open season (including at night) make it extremely unlikely that you will get lost. Still worth having though.
  • And of course, don't forget your camera.

All these warnings are not exaggerations. Fuji does kill people who approach it unprepared, especially outside climbing season. However, do not be intimidated: chances are that so long as you have a modicum of fitness and stamina, you can do this climb, just as thousands of people do each year. You don't need to be a hardcore mountaineer or an immortal to do it: what matters is that you treat the mountain with respect, prepare and pack thoroughly, know your capabilities and limits, and go in ready and aware of what to expect. If you do, you might just come away with memories of the adventure of a lifetime.

Oh, and one final thing to be aware of: Mt. Fuji is an active volcano. The good news is that it hasn't erupted since 1708. The not-so-good news is that intervals between its eruptive periods tend to be only a few hundred years long, and some modelling of the pressure in its magma chamber after the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake produced data that could be interpreted as ominous. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean anything – but it just might be an idea to pay attention to the latest news.

Which route?
There are four trails up Mt. Fuji, each of which is divided into ten stations – the first station at the bottom, the tenth station at the top. In all four cases, climbers typically start at the Fifth Station, the highest accessible point by road and about 1500-2000m up the mountain in each case. (If you're really dedicated, you can climb from the First Station, but then it becomes an operation of a whole new level.) The four routes, as colour-coded on the signs, are:
  • Yoshida Trail: North side, from Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) and the Five Fuji Lakes in Yamanashi Prefecture. Most popular route, easiest to get to from Tokyo, and has a developed Fifth Station with many facilities and services as well as plenty of mountain huts on the way. Also offers the best views of sunrise.
  • Subashiri Trail: Northeast side, with some initial hiking through forests. Accessible from Gotemba in Shizuoka Prefecture. Less crowded until it joins the Yoshida Trail at the Eighth Station.
  • Gotemba Trail: Southeast side, with a limited Fifth Station, and the longest ascent through lava fields. Accessible from Gotemba in Shizuoka Prefecture.
  • Fujinomiya Trail: South side, with the highest Fifth Station and shortest (but still 4-7 hour) hike to the summit. Offers views of the sea, but the sunrise cannot be seen before reaching the top.

As first-timers to this mountain, travelling from Tokyo and aiming for the sunrise, we chose the Yoshida Trail. During climbing season there is a reliable two-hour bus service between Shinjuku Station and the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station (2,600 yen either way for adults), but booking is required. English page here: make your booking, print out the confirmation page, then present it at the bus office to pay and receive your tickets. If you're hiking up through the night with intent to reach the top in time for dawn, you would do safest to take the bus that arrives around 8pm, or earlier.

Phase 1: The Ascent
Kawaguchiko Fifth Station is the last place you can stock up on essentials for close-to-reasonable prices. From there, a steady trail leads west to where the proper ascent begins. By 9pm we were well underway.

Following the well-signposted path for about half an hour, we came to a police box, where an amplifier issued warnings about the climb ahead, and a policeman stood handing out leaflets about the Yoshida Trail. There the trail turned upwards, zigzagging into the darkness: our six-hour climb had begun.

Two of the most striking characteristics of the ascent could not be captured on camera. The first spread out above us: the stars, which if you've been stuck in Tokyo for too long you might have forgotten existed. Far above and beyond the urban centres' hives of swarming light, Mt. Fuji may be one of the very best sites in the Kanto area to bathe in the splendour of the night sky as it is meant to look; not quite in its fullest glory, perhaps, but even the Milky Way was just discernible on our progress. The other light show comes from the towns of the Five Fuji Lakes, far below: a teeming orchestra of colours which sounds all the bolder as the dark settles around them. Though made distant and beautiful, to witness them is still to empathize with the armies of long-suffering salariman whose overtimes, late-night commutes and hospitalization from overwork is doubtless the stuff those lights are made of.

After some good sustained hiking, we came to the first mountain hut of the Seventh Station. It turned out that these Stations were not singular installations like the Fifth; rather they consisted of separate huts distributed over a longer section of the trail, typically with short, steep segments between them. This had its advantages: the huts helped us pace our climb, taking short rests on the benches outside each one before continuing to the next. For 200 yen you can also get your climbing stick branded at some of these, as evidence of your successful passage.

Be advised. You cannot go inside the huts to avail yourself of their luxurious heating unless you're willing to hand over a steep sum – typically 1000 yen per hour – for the privilege; the space is chiefly reserved for those sleeping. The toilets, again, are in good condition, but require a 200 yen donation to use; and prices for snacks, coffees and other provisions swiftly become exorbitant. It will be a relief at this point if you've come prepared, without need for the huts' services.

From the Seventh Station onwards, the trail gets tougher. Midnight sets in; the temperature drops; the wind picks up; and the path becomes steep and rocky, sometimes requiring the use of your hands – and judicious directing of your lights – to progress. But it is worth fighting off the fatigue to remember where you are: and aside from the stars and the lights far below, the volcanic rock you are climbing may itself take form in increasingly exotic shapes and colours. Take your time to climb at a comfortable pace, rest for as long as necessary at each waypoint, and appreciate the wild earth on which you stand.
The trail is well-signposted throughout.

We reached the Eighth Station, past the 3000m mark, by approximately 1am. By now you can notice the air thinning, so it is all the more important to take your time and let your breathing adjust. This was also where it begun to get crowded: climbers who'd arrived at these huts the previous evening were now waking up, and emerging to resume their climb and make it to the top for sunrise.

Take a look behind as you climb, and you may well notice an accumulating snake of lights. On this occasion, it grew longer, its components diversifying in colour and contracting tighter together; and soon it became as an unearthly procession through the darkness, like drifting ghosts, a spiritual wake through silent, distant reaches.

By now the wind will be very strong, the temperature will have fallen into the single digits, and you may well be ruing your lack of sleep. But do not relent: if you've got this far, most of the hard work is already behind you.

We trudged on in the early hours of the morning, counting off the final succession of huts (the “8.5th Station”) and finding the trail more congested with each that we passed. The signs by now reassuringly promised one hour, or one hour and a half, to the summit: but soon it was neither the distance, nor the height, nor the cold, nor the wind, nor the air, nor our own exhaustion that would make it take longer.

By 3:30-4:00am, the first light of dawn was emerging. The summit was close. But what was that zigzag of lights ahead?


If you ascend through the night like this, expect to spend at least the last hour of your climb – or more, in late July or August – queueing on the final stretch to the summit. But while you wait, remember to look behind you, as the horizon glows and spreads its warmth across the clouds and forests and peaks below.

Then at last – at long, long last: the summit.

Phase 2: The Crater
If you've arrived in time for sunrise, it's worth it to stagger through the crowds and find a good spot to watch one of the most magnificent spectacles you're ever likely to see.

As the new day begins, it will dawn on you that it is five in the morning, you've been hiking all night with no sleep for twenty-four hours, and you're 3,776m above the ground and totally exposed to the freezing air and battering winds. So at this stage it is definitely time to find some (relative) shelter, get as much rest as you need, and ideally munch on whatever most special and revitalizing breakfast you've brought precisely to revive yourself at this juncture.

Then you can turn around and find that what's behind you is equally amazing.

On the left: Japan's highest post office.
The crater of Mt. Fuji will take one or two hours to circle, if you have the energy to spare. Most of it is decidedly less strenuous than the ordeal of getting up there in the first place, but there are a few demandingly steep sections to negotiate. But it's well worth it: to tread the edge of the sky is to experience volcanic panoramas and vast perspectives on the world below you will find in few places else.

At the highest point on the rim sits a weather station: and having come this far, you might as well struggle up there to stand at the highest point in all Japan. Be prepared to queue again for the privilege.

Again, keep a look out for the views as you come back round – though be careful not to fall, whether into the crater or off the side of the mountain.

There are services up there, if you need them. The main building has a sleeping section, a souvenir shop, a place to get your stick branded, and a restaurant, though you'll find it brutally expensive. The public toilet nearby costs 300 yen to use. It's probably best not to linger much longer than you need to.

Phase 3: Coming Down
The return leg of the Yoshida Trail takes about four hours on average, though it will feel like an eternity. The downwards route is a separate path from the upwards one, though they run in parallel within visible distance of each other. Make sure you identify the correct path down: for the Yoshida trail, it is a short way clockwise around the crater from the arrival path, just past the main buildings and the toilets.

There follows what will feel like an infinite set of switchbacks, back and forth down very different terrain from the path up. Unlike the strong, dependable rocks and soils of the ascent, the way down consists entirely of steep, soft slopes of volcanic gravel, which will slide beneath you with every step. You can run down here – indeed, may be forced to by the gradient – and while quite fun, it will likely shatter your tired muscles after all the preceding exertion.

Furthermore, the rising dust will assault your eyes and throat: either from your own footfalls or those of your party, or from other climbers (you'll pity the poor sods trying to climb up this way, as their every step slides back a few centimetres), or later on from the tractors on caterpillar-treads supplying the mountain huts. The sun will likely be beating down hard by now – or it will be raining – and the cold wind will not have subsided. Given Mt. Fuji's unpredictable conditions, it will now pay to have flexible clothing and sunglasses.

None can predict what the clouds will be doing on any given day, though at some point you will almost certainly go straight through them. These heights offer rare opportunities to watch them rising and falling, shaping and dissipating with wild spontaneity.

It is also very important to pay attention: the initial descent is shared between the Yoshida and Subashiri Trails, and these split at a junction within an hour or so from the summit. If you're following the Yoshida trail, turn left (following the yellow on the signs) to avoid the enormous and expensive headache of reaching the wrong Fifth Station.

Thereon there are only one or two mountain huts, and it will feel like the trail zigzags down forever, like an endlessly-repeating loop that creates more path in front of you or secretly teleports you back to the top every few minutes. But eventually, after a long, long haul, the red and brown gives way to green. There are about 60 zigzags in total before you come to the end of the switchbacks, and can follow a relatively smooth path thereon back to the Fifth Station.

And that's the police box where we started the previous night. From there it's just a further 30-60 minutes along the initial trail, back to the Fifth Station; and in daylight, you'll now be able to actually see it.

It was midday when we finally arrived. If you see this for yourself, you can congratulate yourself, and let it sink in that you made it to the top of Mt. Fuji and back; more so, in the unlikely event that you're not apoplectic with exhaustion. Well done – and hopefully you didn't lose your return bus ticket.

What target audience was in mind when they designed this? And what kind of historical precedents made such advice so warranted?


  1. We just did it this past summer and luckily went off without a hitch. It looks like we did it on the same day but looks like you had a clear summit view we had a stormy view. Good job!

    1. Goodness, looks like you had it much rougher than we did because of that storm! Must have been a uniquely dramatic experience though. Well done!

  2. Hello!

    I realize this is coming out of nowhere and that makes it seem all sorts of odd, but my name is Stephanie. I'm doing an online scavenger hunt (which is totally real and not made up, I promise!) called the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen ( It has a website and is Google-able and everything!

    One of the items is two pictures. One of a person at the bottom of Mount Fuji and another of the same person, wearing the same clothes, at the summit, holding a sign that says, "Everything is easy when you GISHWHES!!"

    Can you help? Do you know anyone who might be planning a trek to the summit this week?

    Please feel absolutely free to email back to tell me you want to help us, or to say that you would please like me to never email you again.

    I can be reached at

    Have an awesome day!