At 12,389 feet, Mt. Fuji – Fuji-san, 富士山, in Japanese – isn’t the highest mountain Jacque and I have ever climbed together. But it is the most spectacular.
Fuji-san is an incredibly popular mountain for both Japanese and gaijin alike. During the climbing season in July and August, around 300,000 people stand atop the summit’s crater rim. For most, the goal is to watch the sunrise from the summit. A common way to do this is by staying overnight in a hut on the trail, ascending from the 5th station to the 8th station in the afternoon or early evening. Then, after a few hours’ sleep, the climbers will wake up around 2am for the ascent to the summit. Given that a night at one of the huts runs around $60 per person, Jacque and I decided to take a less-common route: dangan tozan, the practice of climbing through the night without sleep to summit at sunrise.
We left our guesthouse in Tokyo at 3:30pm on September 11th for the short train ride to Shinjuku station. The bus from Shinjuku to the Fuji-Subaru line 5th station took two and a half hours to deposit us at a heavily developed base area. The 24-hour restaurant served as our home for the next few hours, and we both made ridiculous-looking but oddly effective plastic-bag-and-duct-tape shoe covers, then bought the traditional walking stick to get stamps at each station on the way up.
At 10:15pm, we started hiking after a short lightning delay. We dutifully ignored the signs at the bottom telling us not to do exactly what we were doing. Fuji is already nearly bare at the starting elevation of 7,560 feet, with a few trees hanging on for the flat first 45 minutes of the hike. Upon reaching the 6th station, the trail turned right and went straight up the hill. Above us, we could see a string of lights – the generator-powered lights of the many mountain huts along the Yoshida trail. As we started to climb, the clouds that had threatened lighting fell away; the full moon made our headlamps useless and illuminated the clouds below us. For the next four hours, we had the trail nearly to ourselves, a rare blessing on Fuji-san.
The volcanic rock on the entire Yoshida trail is, by turns, solid and stair-like or crushed and slippery. We slogged at a measured pace, stopping to rest every 45 minutes to eat some food. Each station has a handful of huts, some of which had already closed for the season. Few were open in the middle of the night anyway. At the ones that were open, though, we stopped to get Jacque’s walking stick stamped. (The “stamps” are really more like brands, burned right into the side of the stick.) Each stamp, by the way, costs $4, and each bathroom stop $2. Bring money to Fuji.
At 2:30am, we hit the 8.5th station – yes, that’s how they write it on the mountain – about an hour from the summit. With sunrise at 5:30, we figured we should rest for a bit before heading to the 19°F windchill on the summit. To rest inside a hut, of course, we were required to buy two $5 hot chocolates; they would have kicked us out otherwise. With 300,000 people going by every summer, the proprietors are understandably persnickety at all of the huts, including written threats of fines for hanging out in the restroom during thunderstorms. While we were resting, everyone who slept at the hut woke up and got on the trail. The mass of climbers meant the last few hundred meters of the hike were at a walk-two-steps-then-wait-five-seconds pace. Regardless, we got to the summit as the sky was just starting to have a hint of color in the east. We were lucky to have clear skies for the sunrise – and what a sunrise it was.
Once the sun had fully risen, I took a quick lap around the entire crater rim while Jacque got warm. The actual summit of the mountain is 180° from the top of the Yoshida trail, so I was, of course, required to do the loop for full 12,389’ summit credit. There are also a couple shrines and a large meteorological station on top of the crater. (Speaking of craters, Fuji is on an approximate 300-year eruption cycle. The last eruption was in 1707. So…) We headed down the mountain on a different trail with more switchbacks – the mountain is so busy, there’s a separate trail for going up and down. It was a miserable descent trail, with an inclination and surface perfectly calculated to cause massive knee pain. A few hours later, though, we walked back into civilization at the 5th station, caught the next bus, and promptly passed out the entire way back to Tokyo’s Shinjuku station.
We were happy that the timing of our Japan trip allowed us to climb Fuji-san. The season is short and mostly extremely busy. Just a few days before the end of the season, there were comparatively far fewer people on the mountain and still decent weather. Jacque did hero’s work getting us warm hats, gloves, and extra layers the day before the climb (I was at the Indian consulate getting visas), without which we would have frozen. Surprisingly, both of us handled the night without sleep very well; we even managed to navigate our way across Tokyo to our lodging afterward without any issues. The dangan tozan (bullet climb, in English) seems like the best way to see sunrise on Fuji. For those used to Colorado hikes and altitude, this mountain is easy; going overnight only makes it a little harder. And I promise that you will sleep like a rock the following night.
See all photo in the Picasa Album here.