It all starts off a bit like a Disneyland attraction. By the time you reach the top, you are in no doubt that Mount Fuji is very high and not to be messed with. It’s summit is 3776m (12,388 feet), so one of the highest stand alone mountains in the world.
I’m not an expert climber, this is just our experience of the climb – mum and daughter aged 11. Please enjoy the photos and story, but read up yourself on climbing the mountain safely.
We were woken early at 5.30am, first of all in traditional style by the alarm going off, and then five minutes later by a mini earthquake. Much more effective than a snooze button when you are on the 8th floor of a hotel. It lasted a few seconds and felt like our room was momentarily just above a busy subway track.
We needed the early start. We were 50 minutes or so from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo – half a centimetre on the map – and our train was just after 7am. We had to find luggage lockers (on certain days it can be hard to find empty ones; a bit of a disaster climbing Fuji with a suitcase) and then our train. Shinjuku is reputed to be the busiest transport hub in the world. Over 50 platforms, 200 exits and, they say, 3 million users a day. I have succeeded in getting lost on the smallest subway system in the world with only one line and a handful of stops, so we needed the time.
Our 7.18am train (x 2) plus bus got us to the 5th station of Mount Fuji at 11.30am; enough time we had reckoned to have a bite to eat and climb up slowly to the highest hut, Goraikoukan, by dark. Not quite, but it nearly was. We were glad we had taken torches.
Dangan Tozan, or bullet climbing, is the name give to ascents plus descents of Fuji which take only a day in total. 30% of climbers do this, and it’s a much higher percentage for foreign climbers. Altitude sickness can be a real issue so the longer you can take to acclimatise the better. There were lots of people with sore heads and feeling sick over night in the top hut at 3450m. The slower you can take it the better.
I had had the original grand idea of climbing from the foothills of Mount Fuji, but I’m very glad we didn’t. The forested paths are beautiful and there are a number of shrines in the lower villages, but it took us 7 hours to reach our night stopover just from the 5th station. This is the most popular starting point. It’s just on the tree line and sits at 2305m. We spend a while there, eating as much as we could and getting used to the air.
This is the Disneyland part. There are dozen of buses and thousands of climbers. I read that up to half a million climbers ascend every year. It’s busy. We would have avoided the weekend if we could have, but the mountains hut we stayed at closed the next day on 14 September for the winter. And I would never climb it in winter, it’s hard enough on a good weather day.
This slightly surreal part of the walk comes complete with a cobbled pathway, horses if you don’t want to walk, and signs telling you about a wifi card you can buy for the summit. Possibly this is where you can be lulled into a false sense of security and set off on your trip in a t-shirt (there were a few).
I read somewhere (http://www.garyjwolff.com/climbing-mt-fuji.html) that climbing Fuji is the equivalent of climbing the Empire State Building four times in terms of vertical height. My legs would have said much much more. Katie was like a mountain goat on the descent, but the altitude change for the last couple of hours, overnight and day after, affected her. We had an oxygen inhaler with us (you can buy it at Fuji) and that helped.
So we set off. There is a defined path up and a separate path down on the yellow Yoshida Trail (the most popular one). On this route you can’t see the sun setting (it’s on the other side) but you can see it rising. And there are a number of mountain huts en route.
The walk to the 6th station is easy, and here there are toilets (they get more expensive the higher you get – carrying lots of change is essential). It’s not really possible to wee in the bushes, 1. because there are no bushes and 2. because there are dozens of people all around. Here, you can also give a ¥1000 (£5) donation towards the upkeep of the paths etc and get a badge in return.
After that, things started to get a bit steeper. Some steps are cut into the path, some parts are sandy rubble and some are rocks which you need to clamber up using your hands. No hiking equipment is necessary but after hours and hours of steep incline, you will feel it. The altitude meant that my legs felt pretty jelly-like after 30 or so steps. Katie came up with a great idea – and I think this is what got us to the top – I walked 30 steps or so until I found a rock to sit on. When I stopped, Katie started, so we each had a minute or two to charge up our muscles with oxygen again, and we could maintain a steady slow pace.
We took lots of water, chocolate, energy bars and nuts. I could have done with a helicopter in parts instead. The cameraderie grew as we got higher, as we overtook or were overtaken repeatedly by the same people. There is no time when you are completely alone, and at narrow points, it’s like waiting in a supermarket queue. Funnily enough, as it got more physically demanding, I forgot that I was on a mountain with hundreds of other people. And it didn’t detract at all from the exhilaration of reaching the top.
The stations are numbered oddly, and when I say oddly I mean a bit meanly. You know when you are telling a little one that they can have a treat and you count 99, 99 1/2, 99 3/4….. Well we were aiming for station 8.5. We were exhausted by the 7th station. Then we had “old” station 8. Then station 8.5. The last 20 or so minutes we did in the dark. We got to Goraikoukan just after 7pm. Still easily an hour and a half from the summit, if not more. The sign said an hour. The place was fully booked.
I haven’t been so happy to see a doll’s bunkbed ever. We were directed to our section of a long continuous two levelled bunk. Super, I thought. “That’s for 4 of you” we were told. To be honest, I’d have taken a bed of nails by that point. There were metal hooks on a pole at our feet running the length of the bunkhouse. We were given a bag for our shoes and instructed to to hang up our backpack. We had a hot bowl of noodle soup and got into bed at 8pm. We had food with us, but hot noodles seemed like a better idea. Despite being in two minds about another upwards climb, we decided we’d get up early and hike to the summit before sunrise.
Our other two “bed mates” arrived and got into bed about 10. Thankfully they were very small. Katie woke up at midnight. She said it felt like there was a cucumber stuck in her throat – the altitude. At 10000ft you get only 2/3 of the oxygen of a breath at sea level. We got up and joined a number of other awake people. An oxygen inhaler helped, and she got back to sleep in the common area of the hut where there was more space. A kindly Japanese guy got chatting and told me Goraikoukan meant Sunrise Hut in Japanese. At 2am, most of the occupants of the dolls beds got up and ready to climb to the summit. We gave it a miss. We had another few hours of sleep with twice the space. At 4.30am we got up, we were warm, there was no wind, we had a hot chocolate and watched a stunningly beautiful sunrise just after 5am.
Don’t be thinking you can get back down to kip for a few hours after the sunrise. Check out is at 5.30am! Katie was keen to go the hour or so up to the top because she was feeling a lot better. I wasn’t quite as keen but the reward is a different descent down a more windy gravel track rather than over boulders, which sounded an awful lot easier. It was gloriously sunny just before 6am when we set off. The view was spectacular. We could see Tokyo and all the lakes at the foot of the volcano. There were very few clouds. I am glad we had heeded the advice about taking sunglasses – which had meant a trip across Tokyo the night before to our previous hotel because I’d left them behind. Not only is it bright up a mountain, there’s a lot of volcanic dust being blown and kicked about as you climb. Our ears and nostrils were black by the time we got home – and we are still picking black dust out of our ears after a bath.
About nine tenths of the way up the wind rose and one wispy cloud turned into blanket fog within a few minutes. The misty sleety rain started. A guide on his descent told everyone he passed we had to come down the same way because it was too windy for the other descent. My heart sank. Katie the mountains goat was fine but I knew it would be a bit sore on the old joints.
It was blowing a gale on the summit, freezing, and there was only a few metres visibility. We stopped for barely a couple of minutes to eat a box of tablet – Mrs Tilly’s Finest all the way from Scotland which we introduced the hikers beside us to. Actually, that tablet reward is one of the things that kept us going to the top. Martin, a lovely English guy with a massive rucksack who looked like a bit of a pro, offered to accompany us down. He gave me a hand for any big boulders or steps. And we played “when I went to the supermarket I bought an apple, a banana, a cat…game” and memorised lists of animals. We were able to rejoin the alternative descent path (a bit like going down a sand dune, but mightily easier than the wet boulders). In no time at all – 4 hours – we were at the bottom.
Katie was a star. It is very possible to climb Mount Fuji with children if you are prepared. And also, probably, prepared to turn back if necessary. A day to relax and reacclimatise to the lower altitude is also a good idea. I can type today (we descended yesterday) but I can’t hold a pen or close a zip – the back of my hands are all lumpy, I think using a hiking pole to protect my joints for so many hours. If I were to do it again – ha, no way! – I’d book a lower hut for a lower altitude sleep (and more time to get to it). But that said, the view from that top hut at sunrise is something we won’t ever forget.
Here are some sites we found useful for organising the trip if you want to climb one of the most beautiful, wackily organised, iconic mountains in the world:
http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/ – you can read about the Japan Rail Round Trip Fuji pass here. It can be booked within Japan, unlike standard JR passes. It saves about 50% of the standard fare and covers trains and the mountain bus (from Tokyo). You can also go on organised trips and by bus all the way.
http://www.goraikoukan.jp/english/ – the site for booking the top hut (it helps to know someone who speaks Japanese because emails come back in Japanese – or there are agencies you can book through.
http://www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp/div/english/html/index.html – good for general information about the climb, the huts, the trails etc.
We’ve just stuffed our wet kit into the suitcase ready for the night bus to Kyoto and our next adventure. A kimono. No black dust or boulders or exertion involved.