filed in Japan on Jul.16, 2008
Before I came to Japan, I had already formulated a pretty strong opinion about Mt. Fuji. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and one of the most famous mountains in the world, climbed by over 200,000 people per year. In fact, I’d say that more people could identify Mt. Fuji by picture alone than any other mountain – its perfect symmetry, its gentle slopes, its omnipresent ring of clouds…I can’t think of any other mountain that is more distinct. Mt. Fuji is a Japanese icon – probably even moreso than Hello Kitty.
And like all natural icons in Japan, I had been told that Mt. Fuji had been tamed and turned into the most touristy of tourist attractions.
“Everyone in Japan climbs to the top of it, even 80 year old grandmas!” people told me.
“The trail is paved all the way to the top, and there are vending machines and restaurants the whole way!”
“It’s so crowded, you literally have to wait in line as you’re climbing up!”
“A few years ago, there was a guy who pogo-sticked to the top for a Guinness World Record. How hard could it be?”
Well, yes, all of these things are true – at least partially. But there was one thing I was not expecting: Mt. Fuji is actually a very tough climb.
We arrived at Mt. Fuji via train from Tokyo. It’s about a two hour train ride, and at some point, you have to switch from the normal JR trainline to a local one that has a ton of anthropomorphic mountains painted on the side, making various ridiculous faces. The train deposited us in the small mountain village of Kawaguchiko, which is famous for its lake of the same name, and for being one of the best starting points for climbing the mountain.
When we arrived, we spoke to a British tourist, who informed us that one of the choice ways to climb Mt. Fuji is to do it overnight – leaving around 10PM, climbing through the night, and then arriving at the top for the sunrise (which is about 4:30). “That will give you your best chance to see the view,” he said.
“Cool,” we responded. “Which direction is the mountain?” we asked, surveying the horizon. We figured it shouldn’t be to hard to spot the tallest mountain in Japan, from our position at its base.
“Oh, it’s right over there,” he said, pointing off into the distance…toward a limitless expanse of clouds. No mountains in sight. “Well, I guess you can’t really see it right now,” he added. “But it’s normally there. Beautiful mountain. Great view.”
We nodded. Looking back, we probably should have taken that as a sign that the “great view” everyone talked about from Mt. Fuji might not be especially great, considering the layer of thick, gray, impenetrable clouds overhead…but then again, we’re not that smart.
Besides, a night hike sounded alluring; being at the top of Mt. Fuji for the sunrise sounded like it would be beautiful, regardless of the weather conditions and vending machines. And if we were going to make the effort, of course we wanted to be there when we had the best chance at seeing the view. And judging by Kawaguchiko, there really wasn’t much else to do in the town other than climb Mt. Fuji.
It was decided. We would do the night hike, and hope for the best.
The Fifth Station, and Weather Advisories
At 9PM, we boarded a bus headed up to Mt. Fuji’s Fifth Station. The majority of the “climb” up Mt. Fuji isn’t much of a climb at all – three-fourths of the mountain is mostly a gradual rise, stretching for miles, and on the whole, it’s pretty uninteresting. It’s not until the Fifth Station (located about 2300 meters up the 3777 meter peak) that the climb gets steep (and inaccessible by cars), the geology gets cool, and the view gets (supposedly) breathtaking. We, like most other Mt. Fuji climbers, decided to skip the foreplay and get right into the action.
The hike from the Fifth Station to the summit takes most people five to seven hours (plus another two to four on the way down), though it can certainly be done in a lot less if you have some mountain climbing experience. Altitude sickness is apparently a big problem on the way up. So are falling rocks and slipping / falling injuries.
But the main issue people run into when climbing Mt. Fuji is lack of proper clothing. You see, Japan in the summer is best described as “balls ass hot.” The temperature is scorching, and the humidity is just short of unbearable. Most day, I’m pretty sure I would die – actually die – in anything heavier than a t-shirt and shorts.
But at the tops of the mountains, it’s a different story entirely. There’s snow, the air temperature’s just above freezing, and the gale force winds and rains make heavy, waterproof mountaineering gear a must. In fact, at the Fifth Station, there is a constantly-looping audio warning in both Japanese and English that tells climbers they need heavy winter clothing, hats and gloves to proceed. And anyone I spoke to who had done the climb echoed the same warning: wear heavy clothing.
Suffice to say, I was well-warned about the arctic temperatures at the top of the mountain. But I was also well aware that it was over 80 degrees Fahrenheit with near 100% humidity that day in Kawaguchiko, and that my brutish young male ego makes me consider myself to be superhumanly tough. The heat was killing me, I didn’t buy it that a mountain a few miles a way was gonna be that much colder. And frankly, I was no pussy. I could take the cold. There was no way I was gonna break out the polar gear on this sweltering mid-July day.
I was going to go up in a t-shirt and shorts, and for good measure, I put on an underarmor shirt as well. I suppose I heeded the rain/wind warnings a bit, because I tossed my raincoat into my daypack as well (figuring it would be nice if it rained, or winds were indeed gale-force). That was more than enough, I reckoned, as I broke a sweat just sitting in place at the bus stop with two layers of t-shirt.
Peter, on the other hand, opted to bear on the safe side – putting on longjohns under his long jeans, and wearing a hoodie sweatshirt and his raincoat.
And so did everyone else that was climbing that night. In fact, compared to the other climbers in our bus that night, Peter looked way underprepared, and I looked downright foolish. The Japanese on board were decked out in heavy parkas, snow pants, backpacks full of winter gear, and even sleeping bags. They looked like they were on an expedition to the South Pole. I was definitely the only one on the mountain that night in shorts…and rest assured, I soon found out why.
When Nature and Capitalism Collide
The trail up Mt. Fuji is well-worn, and quite wide for the most part, and is even paved with asphalt in the lower portions. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost, because the trail boundaries are well-marked, and there is a zigzaggy track of lights along the path going all the way to the top.
That’s right, lights. The Mt. Fuji trail is chock-full of little stores, restaurants, bathrooms, medical facilities and rest houses, most of them open 24 hours a day to cater to the stream of night-hikers. They’ve all got electricity (provided by generators), and everything, of course, comes at hugely-inflated prices. A candy bar will cost you a minimum of 300 yen ($3), a bottle of water is 500 yen, and a small bowl of ramen noodles sells for 800 yen or more. It even costs money to use the bathroom (a 100 yen suggested donation). And yes, like all of Japan, there are plenty of vending machines, serving up all manner of overpriced bottled beverages.
But despite my contempt for commercializing a mountain, and practically extorting hikers, the businesses along Mt. Fuji are actually quite tasteful. The stores are run out of rustic huts, doubling as prayer stops for wandering monks, and they don’t really bear much resemblance to the Starbucks and McDonalds chains that you might be imagining. They’re generally manned by one person; their merchandise selection is tiny; they lack things like automatic doors and air conditioning; and there are no big, flamboyant neon signs or advertisements begging you to buy, buy, buy. I suppose they’re more of a service for underprepared or exhausted hikers than anything else. Considering the thousands of famished customers who wander by each of these huts every day, the stores are relatively unobtrusive. The stores didn’t distract too much from the hike, aside from the occasional $5 Snickers bar that beckoned to me as I walked past.
There’s also this gimmick that some genius Japanese businessman came up with years ago, where hikers can purchase wooden hiking staffs at the base of the mountain, and get them stamped on the way up, at designated stations along the way. It sounds like a pretty cool keepsake, until you hear the prices. For a cheap wooden staff with a few ribbons and a bell on it, you have to pay 1500 yen ($15) – and each of the stamps along the way costs 200 yen ($2). For an ink stamp. It’s a pretty ingenious little scam. Peter and I of course opted out of paying over $30 for a cheap piece of wood with a few ink marks on it, but the marketing certainly worked. Every time I passed a hiker and heard that distinctive bell jingle, I eyed their souvenir staff with jealousy – even though I knew I had absolutely no use for a five foot long walking stick.
We set out on the hike a little after 10PM, along with a pudgy Canadian guy we met on the bus named Lionel. The first stretch of trail beyond the Fifth Station is relatively flat, mostly paved, and wide enough for cars to drive on. But despite the gentle slope, Lionel, who proudly carried with him his souvenir walking stick, was already lagging behind. We slowed our paces to match his, partly out of pity, partly because Lionel was a walking encyclopedia about Mt. Fuji – of the armchair tourist variety. Lionel had read everything there was to read about the mountain, and was eager to share.
Sweat cascading down his face, he explained to us that there were 9 total stations along the route, the locations of the medical facilities, and about the various rest houses along the trail; as he huffed and puffed along, he told us about several parts of the climb that were quite precarious and required four-point (hands and feet) climbing; and as he stumbled up the tiniest of inclines, Lionel explained the finer points of treating altitude sickness and the chemical makeup of the mountain’s unique geology. It was marvelous how much expertise on Mt. Fuji Lionel had managed to accumulate, you know, having never actually climbed Mt. Fuji – or any mountain – in his life.
By the time we reached the Sixth Station – the site of the first collector’s edition hiking staff stamping point – Peter and I were both rearing to go, and were antsy from holding back to keep pace with our out-of-breath buddy from Vancouver. Lionel excitedly got his staff stamped, paying the 200 yen fee as if it were a great honor. Then he asked me to snap a photo of him posing in front of the 2,390 meter marker – yes, just 85 meters higher in elevation than the 2,305 meter Fifth Station – before he collapsed for a break. This gave us a golden opportunity to ditch him, so we kindly excused ourselves, wished Lionel well, and took off up the trail. At Lionel’s pace it would be next Tuesday before we reached the summit.
The next stretch of trail was far steeper than the initial section, laid out in long zigzaggy switchbacks, bordered by rock walls etched into the mountain face. The surface in this area is loose and rocky, though some of the steeper parts have sections of stairs.
The various stores and rest houses along the way are placed on terraced outcroppings on the way up the mountain, and generally it is a 10 to 15 minute walk between each of the buildings or stations (which all have a sitting / overlook area to provide tired hikers a place to take a rest). The spans of trail in between the buildings are actually quite natural – with few unnatural distractions, other than signs warning of falling rocks, or of going off the trail.
One other interesting thing about Mt. Fuji is how spotless it is. There is absolutely no trash in sight, despite there being no trash receptacles anywhere on the mountain. Fuji has a strict carry-in, carry-out garbage policy. If you bring any garbage with you, or purchase something with a wrapper or container, you must carry it down the mountain with you. And, apparently, everyone abides by these rules, since I didn’t see a single smidgen of garbage throughout the entire climb.
Peter and I continued trudging up Mt. Fuji, now making great time, having rid ourselves of Lionel. The first 800 to a thousand vertical meters of Mt. Fuji beyond the Fifth Station are a steep, but easy upward climb. The trails are wide, there are frequent rest stops, and buildings’ lights the make it easy to see the trail without a flashlight. Sure, it’s a bit strenuous climbing up, in the way that it’s strenuous climbing up several long flights of stairs in a row, but it’s nothing too involved.
On the way up, we began passing groups of Japanese climbers, all decked out in their Antarctic explorer gear, and giant packs. The Japanese climbed very slowly and precisely, carefully placing each step in succession, moving smoothly and gracefully. They almost all had walking sticks or ski poles, and were all equipped with state-of-the-art high-power LED headlamps to light the way – pointed squarely at the ground in front of them. The Japanese hiked like disciplined monks: silently, steadily, and meditatively.
Peter and I, on the other hand, hiked up quickly and sloppily, with our heads up in the air, eyes staring up toward the peak. We’d take long strides, sometimes stepping on uneven ground and slipping, and engaged in constant conversation. It highlights the difference in culture – for Americans, it’s all about the goal, getting to the top; whereas for the Japanese, it was much more about the journey. Or maybe I’m just overanalyzing.
But one thing’s for sure, as our elevation rose, the temperature fell. A lot. The billowing heat at the bottom of the mountain, which left Lionel sweating bullets, and me doused in sweat wearing just two thin layers of t-shirt, was quickly replaced with frigid mountain air. And as we ascended, the gentle breezes that were so refreshing us at the bottom became cruel gale-force winds that howled down from the icy peak above.
“It’s getting pretty cold,” said Pete, as he slipped into his hoodie.
“Yeah,” I said, patches of goosebumps appearing on my arms and legs. “But it’s not so b-bad,” I said with a shiver.
As we passed the Seventh and then Eighth Stations, I noticed quite a few things. Peter was lagging quite a bit behind me; it was getting way colder, and starting to rain; I was seeing fewer and fewer people along the trail; and the rest buildings/stores were getting fewer and farther in between. Looking up the hill, I no longer saw the zigzaggy trail of lights and buildings that we’d followed from the base. Instead, there was nothing but darkness ahead.
At one point, Peter decided he wanted to take a rest, and told me I should go on ahead. I was hiking quite a bit faster than him, and didn’t feel like stopping in the icy wind, so I obliged.
Continuing up the mountain, it was the first time so far on the hike that I didn’t see any other people. Aside from the howling wind, Mt. Fuji was eerily silent, and looking up, all I could see was a dark, shadowy, formless expanse. This was not the touristy, commercialized, Disney-fied, Mt. Fuji I had expected – it was pure, brutal, unadultered nature. I was alone on Mt. Fuji.
The rain started slowly. A few drops here and there, in the icy wind. I finally gave in and pulled out my raincoat, which also provided some degree of protection from the wind as well. But the wind continued to whip at my bare legs, and even with my raincoat on and the hood pulled tight, I was cold. I could feel the force of the wind pushing me off balance as I trudged upward, and each step got more and more arduous. Every once in a while, I’d stop and look off into the distance – and see nothing. It was surreal.
And the trail got dark – very dark – to the point that I could no longer see the boundaries with my naked eye. I found myself weaving around at points, lost, until I would stumble across the thick metal chain that acted as the trail boundary / handrail. The trail was steep and rocky, and I’d often find myself on all fours, scaling a rock or squeezing between some boulders. The trail’s surface was made up of a gravelly, red volcanic rock, that made a glass-like sound as my feet crunched over it, the only sound I heard other than the wind my own labored breathing.
Sure, there were a few hundred other hikers at various positions on the mountain that night, and every once in a while, I would come across another headlamp on the trail, attached to another solo hiker. But as I passed them by, the hikers would not acknowledge me, and I would not acknowledge them. In the dark, we could not see each other, and there was a mutual feeling that it would be almost blasphemous to break the mountain’s silence. So we all hiked alone. Every single one of us.
And finally, around 2:30 in the morning, wet and freezing, after nearly half an hour without seeing another soul, I stumbled up to a large shack, with a sign: “Mt. Fuji Summit – 3,776 meters.” I was at the top.
In the middle of the night, the wind-swept peak of Mt. Fuji doesn’t look like much. The darkness hid any view that there was to see, and the thick coat of fog would have made seeing anything impossible anyway.
The first thing I noticed after the “Summit” sign was – off in the distance – vending machines. I had just spent nearly an hour hiking in the dark from the Eighth Station, without so much as a hint of modern technology other than the occasional headlight, and at the top, I was greeted by bottles of Coca-Cola and Japanese favorites like “Pocari Sweat” in a lit-up, coin-operated machine.
The silence that pervaded the hike up still hung in the air, and I was surprised to find, tucked into all manner of nook and cranny around the summit, were other hikers, sheltering themselves from the frigid wind. But, unlike me, the Japanese hikers who’d arrived before me weren’t wearing shorts and thin raincoats: they were wearing heavy parkas, snow pants, and they were huddled together, cocooned under plastic tarps and sleeping bags that they’d brought with them.
And boy, was I cold.
I paced rigidly back and forth around the collection of shacks at the summit, desperately searching for some sort of protection from the wind. I soon found that all of the shacks were locked up, and so I started looking for some sort of natural barrier from the wind outside…perhaps in a doorwell, perhaps under a bench, perhaps curled up against a wall – and soon discovered that hiding from the wind was useless. Cursing my stupidity, I hunched up against a wall, shivering, getting blasted by the howling winds…and endured the coldest hour of my life.
Around an hour later, Peter arrived at the summit, closely followed by a series of other hikers. There was still an hour until the sun was due to rise, but when Peter arrived, the haunting silence on the peak ended abruptly.
We were both freezing, and we started laughing at our predicament. Peter and I double-checked all of the places I’d checked before, looking for shelter from the wind. No dice. So we circled back around to the row of buildings near the overlook. Peering through the windows, we discovered that those buildings weren’t vacant, but were actually rustic little hotels, with a handful of people sleeping in each of them. (I found out later that they had paid astronomical prices to stay the night, but it was probably well-worth it, considering the conditions outside.)
But, as freezing as we were, we became enraged. How could those jerks be hogging all the warmth to themselves? Can’t they see that there are all these freezing people outside? What a bunch of jerks!
And then, inside the building, a light came on. One guy walked into the empty room – full of perfectly good benches – and started making a fire in the middle of the floor. It was is he was mocking us, and we almost immediately came to the conclusion that this guy was, without a doubt, the biggest douche in the universe. We almost started a friggin riot.
We were not amused:
But, before we had a chance to unite the mob and storm the building, the biggest douche in the universe, finished lighting the little fires, and then opened up the front door, inviting us all to come inside. It turns out that he was starting the fires for us all along, and that the final (heated) rest house on Mt. Fuji only opens about 20 minutes before sunset. All of the hikers who had been bundled up around Mt. Fuji crowded inside, to wait for dawn. (Not to mention, purchase some incredibly overpriced coffee, tea, and ramen and udon noodles from the workers in the rest house.)
A short while later, the darkness subsided. It was dawn. After hiking all night, finally, we got the chance to see the view.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the view from the top of Mt. Fuji at dawn:
Yeah, that’s right. Nothing but fog as thick as pea soup. “Dawn is your best chance to see a good view,” my ass!
The whole situation was pretty funny. After hiking all night, to the top of the tallest mountain in all of Japan, we ended up seeing pretty much the same view you see in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter on the Nintendo 64:
In fact, I’m pretty sure we might have accidentally stumbled from Japan into a Nintendo 64 game, on the way up.
Anyway, we spent about an hour at the top of the mountain, waiting for the fog to clear up – and when it showed no signs of dissipating, we headed down.
The Route Down
The route down from Mt. Fuji is much less scenic and interesting than the trail up. Rather than winding up sharply over rocks and around ledges, the route down is just a series of gigantic sweeping switchbacks from the top of the mountain to the bottom. It almost completely lacks rest houses, shops and vending machines, and since it’s going down, it’s a much quicker hike than the way up. (It took me about four hours to get from the Fifth Station to the top of Mt. Fuji, and a little over an hour to get back down.)
Anyway, our search to see the view not a complete loss. As we traveled down the mountain, the clouds and fog started to burn off, and finally we got to see the magnificent view that we’d been hoping to see at the summit.
The coolest part was that we were well above the cloud level, and it was really neat seeing mountain peaks sticking out from a sea of clouds.
It was also on the way down that we finally ran into the “hiking in lines” problem that we’d been warned about. Since everyone that climbed to see the sunrise at the summit left at around the same time, there was quite a backup at some points on the trail. I’ve never been on such a crowded hike in my life!
All in All
All in all, Mt. Fuji is a much more difficult climb than I would have ever given it credit for, and you should definitely heed the warnings about the weather: it’s damn cold and incredibly windy, and you’d have to be a moron (like me) to attempt to climb it in shorts and a t-shirt.
Also, the things they say about the commercialization and how crowded the trail is are true – to an extent – though I don’t think they take away from the experience as much as people would lead you to believe. In fact, I think climbing a mountain with vending machines and thousands of people is a much more unique experience than having a mountain entirely to yourself anyway. I’ve gone on many hikes where I didn’t see another person for miles and miles, and I’ve only ever climbed one mountain where I could buy a Coke at the top, get my souvenir walking stick stamped, and had to wait in line on the way down.
Plus, it’s a hell of a lot more Japanese. And after all, that’s why we’re visiting Japan in the first place.