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Summiting Mount Fuji: The Story

Posted By in Japan | 29 comments

Summiting Mount Fuji: The Story

The sounds of the climb were repetitive, and almost soothing: The gentle crunch of shoes against volcanic rock and debris; the steady jingle of bells attached to the climbers’ hiking poles; and the occasionally raspy breath of a person inhaling from an oxygen bottle.

The Yoshida Trail is the most popular of the 4 main routes to Fuji’s summit, and we could see a long line of climbers extending up the path in front of us. The climbers’ multi-coloured hiking gear looked like a rainbow, which contrasted against the otherwise grey-brown, rocky slopes of Fuji.

Yoshida Trail Mount Fuji

Some people are deterred by the number of climbers on Mount Fuji, particularly during Japan’s Obon holiday week when we did our climb; but I felt a kinship towards the other hikers. Summiting Fuji carries many different meanings for different people, but there was a sense that we were all on a kind of pilgrimage together. We were all pushing ourselves a little (or, in some cases, a lot!) beyond our usual physical capacities. We were all tired, but determined.

The challenge of climbing Mount Fuji is known for being underestimated by many tourists. It’s true that you can hike straight up the trail without any major climbing gear, but Fuji is still the highest mountain in a rather mountainous country. It’s a very long, very steep, and very rocky hike.

climbing mount fuji

The Yoshida Trail was narrow, which meant we were rarely able to pass other hikers in front of us. The result was that everyone had to walk slowly. Altitude sickness is incredibly common, so I was grateful that we were forced to pace ourselves, allowing our bodies more time to adjust to the increasing altitude.

The changing altitude was a very weird experience. Sometimes I stopped noticing it for a while, but then we would stop for a break, and I would realize how forcefully my heart was pounding. We gradually added clothing layers as we ascended: First fleeces on top of our T-shirts and shorts, then thick winter jackets, then long pants and gloves.

sleep in mountain hut Mount Fuji

After about 5 hours of hiking, we reached the 8th station, where we would spend the night before setting out for the summit early in the morning. When we entered our hut, we were each inexplicably presented with yellow, magnetic Mount Fuji chip clips as welcome gifts. The inside of the hut smelled like pine and curry. The entrance led into a common room with low tables where we could eat dinner, and then branched out into 2 smaller sleeping rooms.

sleep on Mount Fuji

The sleeping rooms were crammed with sleeping bags, which were lined up one against another. After dinner, we slept surrounded by, next to, and practically on top of 200 other hikers. At first the hut was icy cold, but it warmed as more and more bodies piled in.

At around midnight, people began to stir. They gathered their belongings and shook awake anyone who was still sleeping, “Come on, you’ll miss it.” Outside, the Yoshida trail was now illuminated by hundreds of flashlights and head torches.

There was more energy in the air now, and I felt a new competitive edge: I was aware that the first people to reach the peak would have the best views of sunrise. Fortunately, our hut was a little higher up the trail than most of the others, so we had a slight head start on the biggest crowds.

After another 3 hours of stumbling over rocks, following the narrow vision of my head torch, we reached the summit. The dark made our arrival somewhat anticlimactic because we weren’t sure if we had really arrived. At first, it just looked like another station hut, beyond which the trail might continue further. But then, we saw a few people cheering and snapping photos next to the summit sign, and we knew that we had made it.

We bought cans of milk tea that were being warmed in a pot of boiling water, and staked out a spot facing the dawn. It was 330am, and the horizon was still completely dark.

sunrise mount fuji

As the sky became lighter, the crowd swelled gradually larger. We stood quietly for over an hour, shivering under our many layers and watching the orange and pink waves slowly sweep across the horizon. Soon the sky was bright enough to light up the faces of the 100s of other hikers that had made the climb with us that night. We were all waiting for that first glimpse of the sun’s orb.

sunrise on mount fuji

When the deep red orb finally burst onto the horizon, the crowd gasped. The dawn seemed to arrive quickly after that first moment. Only the round tip of the sun peeked out above the clouds, but then, in the blink of an eye, the entire orb was visible, slowly turning from red to orange. People cheered, hugged and snapped triumphant photos.

top of mount fuji at dawn

Amide all of the celebration, one man jumped up on a ledge and hollered “Ohayou Gozaimasu!”. Good Morning.

29 Comments

  1. Jennifer August 28, 2013

    Gorgeous sunrise photos! I’d like to climb Fuji.

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Thanks! We were lucky to get a good spot – our view was amazing for photos!

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Thanks! Do it! It's a really cool experience. If you go any time during July or August other than Obon week it probably won't even be as busy as it was for us.

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Yeah – it's hard to even estimate how many people there were. I'm glad we had the foresight to book our hut in advance, otherwise I'm sure we wouldn't have had anywhere to sleep.

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Bathrooms! They were probably the least nice ones I've seen in Japan, but there were some at every one of the 10 stations on the way up. And you're supposed to pay a 200 Yen fee each time you use them, although I saw a lot of people going in without paying.

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Yes! It had been on my bucket list ever since we got here, so I'm really glad we were able to do it.

  2. Colleen Brynn August 28, 2013

    This experience must have been so surreal. I can imagine doing the hike and experiencing that sunrise to be something you would look back on in the future and think how odd, how amazing, was it even real?
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    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      Totally! I feel like most of my travel experiences are like that, haha :).

    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      The official hiking season is only 2 months long (July and August), so I guess there's just a lot of people who want to do the climb with a very short range of time to do it.

  3. cubiclethrowdown August 29, 2013

    I laughed out loud at the ohayo…I can just picture it. You're so brave for hiking with (and sleeping in a room with!) so many people. I would go crazy!
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    • waysofwanderers August 29, 2013

      The sleeping bit was the weirdest. I had Brent on one side of me, but a strange man on the other. We would just sort of awkwardly roll away from each other whenever we touched by mistake, haha.

  4. Aryn August 30, 2013

    Thank you for sharing. Strangely, I never realized what a production it is to actually climb Mt Fuji. I guess I'm too used to just driving up mountains, haha!
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    • waysofwanderers August 30, 2013

      You can actually take a bus up to the 5th station, which is about halfway. It's a good option for people who don't want to commit to the full climb.

    • waysofwanderers September 3, 2013

      Thanks! The sleeping rooms surprised me too – particularly because a spot was minimum $55 for the night! Definitely a seller's market.

  5. @TammyOnTheMove September 5, 2013

    Congrats on making it to the summit. Altitude sickness should not be messed with. A fellow blogger recently had to return before summitting Mt. Fuji and I had to stop my Everest Base Camp trek too one day before reaching the camp. Your photos are stunning. It must be such a nice view up there. Would love to try the hike one day.
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    • waysofwanderers September 5, 2013

      Thanks! It's awesome that you tried the Everest Base Camp trek. I never understood the power of changes in altitude, but I definitely understand now how intense and serious the effects can be.

  6. sarahwriteshere2010 September 12, 2013

    Good gravy Jess.
    Some of your adventures I can't even believe it. Hiking all day to sleep in a strange place and then getting up at the crack of midnight to hike more? Nutty. I'm so glad you told and recorded your story for those of us who are not able to go that far out of their comfort zone.

  7. Maike March 11, 2014

    Hey, I´m going to Japan the 20th of August and I´m thinking of climbing mount Fuji as well.
    I climbed before (on Trolltunga (Norway) which is only 1214 meters above sea level) but I´m not a very experienced climber. I´m not one of those fanatic ones.
    I will be working on my condition before my holiday. Did you do any training before hand? And what should I definitely bring along on my hike? Any organizing tips?
    I loved the pictures, they were very beautiful!

    • waysofwanderers March 11, 2014

      You should be completely fine to hike without any preparation. Generally the only people who have issues are the ones who climb too fast and end up with altitude sickness. I'd bring a hiking pole (we managed without, but I wished we had them), and it's a good idea to stock up on food and water too; they're available at posts along the climb, but they're quite expensive.

  8. Kevin April 2, 2015

    Hello,
    I have question about climbing during Obon festival. Was it too crowded?
    My son and I will be in Japan for only that week, so if we climb Fuji is must be then.
    Do you recommend against climbing fuji that week?
    Thanks!
    Kevin

    • waysofwanderers April 2, 2015

      We climbed during Obon and it is a busy time to go, but I still say do it! The slopes were definitely a little crowded, but it's still an amazing experience.

      • Kevin April 3, 2015

        Thank you for the recommendation. I just made reservations at goraikan (www.goraikoukan.jp/) on Monday night of Obon. One needs to use the Japanese page for online reservations and then depend on Google Translate to figure out the right responses. I'm very excited! Thanks!

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