Summer is officially over. My school assignments are in full swing. However, I had time for one last summer adventure. Last Sunday and Monday I climbed and conquered Japan’s highest mountain, Mount Fuji. After nearly six months in Japan, I can finally cross something off of my bucket list. Not to sound arrogant or crazy in shape (because I don’t consider myself either) but I didn’t find the climb as difficult as I imagined. However, the descent was more brutal on my knees than I expected. I was told that Mount Fuji wasn’t a beautiful hike. While it certainly isn’t the most picturesque surrounding it’s still interesting in its own way.
So, who did I go in this grand adventure with? If you really need to ask yourself this question you may not know me well enough to know how much I love traveling alone. Granted, this time around I decided climbing Fuji wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing alone. For some strange reason I was afraid of getting lost along the way. I considered joining a tour group. A friend of mine told me early this summer he would climb with me, but he decided not to towards the end of July. He and his friend came to visit in August and I hadn’t yet found a replacement. A colleague of mine showed interest last week, but because I had to work Saturday, I could only climb on Sunday and Monday and he works Monday. In the end, I went for it alone. I knew I’d meet people there or at least find someone to follow. Actually, I was concerned that there would be almost no one around. It was the second to last weekend of the season, school was in session, and I was climbing on a Sunday. To being the safe side, I reserved a hut near the 8th station.
I felt adequately prepared. I did some research, my colleague gave me some tips the month before. My only concern was the cold weather. I didn’t want to take my winter coat with me because it’s big and bulky. I’m all about minimalist travel, especially when you’re carrying the weight on your back. I don’t have a hoodie nor any type of sports jacket (my packing for Japan was really limited). I went to Uniqlo and picked up a cute cable knit sweater that was on sale. At least it was something I would wear again. Plus, I was reluctant to buy things I already own in the States.
Sunday morning I showed up at Shinjuku Bus Terminal bright-eyed and bushy tailed. I immediately made friends with the Americans sitting next to me in the waiting room. They were a group of six military contractors living in Northern Japan. They came as a men’s weekend trip, but immediately took me under their wing. I slept most of the bus ride there and debated striking up a conversation with my Japanese seat mate. I chickened out because he never looked my way or was also sleeping. During the bus ride I realized I had forgotten some essentials: a hat, a scarf, my goshuin and stamp book. Side note: a goshuin is a special book used to collect official temple and shrine seals. My stamp book is a notebook I purchased at the 100 yen shop. Japan has an obsession with rubber stamps and famous monuments and train stations frequently have custom ones that people of all ages collect in a notebook book.
We arrived at the Station 5 at about 12h30, which is where most people begin their hike. I chose the Yoshida trail because it’s easier, has a direct bus from Shinjuku, and is the most popular. As I previously stated, I thought there wouldn’t be many hikers since hiking season was nearly finished. My new friends asked what I planned to do. I gave them the advice a colleague gave me: hang out at Station 5 for a good hour to acclimate your body to the altitude. They agreed it was a good idea and we all went to eat lunch together. During lunch I told them there was a post office box at the summit, one of the highest in the world. We all went and bought postcards to mail from the top. Unfortunately, the post office worker told us that the box was already closed for the season so we had to mail them from the base. They still have cool special stamps. Finally, we purchased our hiking sticks. A famous Fuji souvenir is a wooden hiking stick you get branded at the different mountain hits along the way. In the end, you end up spending about 6000 yen on the stick and branding stamps. But hey, if I’m only climbing Fuji once why not go all out? I even purchased the fancy stick complete with bells and Japanese flag. I wish the bells were optional because after 30 minutes they became annoying.
Before I realized, it was 14h and the seven of us were on our way. The beginning of the hike was through a wooded area. I think many people go and hike to Station 6, which is only 30 minutes from Station 5. There are some horses you can rent to ride, and as a result, their fecal stench fills the air. Soon enough you leave the forest and horse path behind and hike endless zigzags that will eventually let you reach the top. I made sure to take mini breaks at each but to prevent altitude sickness and I would recommend doing the same. Granted, I had to stop to get my walking stick branded at each hut. I figured I would only climb Fuji once so I might as well go all out and get every stamp as well.
Before long, I was leaving the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen behind and hiking the last hour alone. They reserved a hut near the seventh station and I the eighth. I didn’t want to change my plans because that would mean an extra hour of hiking on top of a really long second day. At the first Station 8 hut there was a girl trying to ask the Japanese inn keeper if any remaining huts take credit card. I helped her out and told her my but did, gave her the phone number and name, and went on my way. The sun was setting early since I was on the east face of the mountain and the temperatures were dropping. I wanted to get to my hut before dark and before freezing.
I arrived before I expected and almost passed it because the name was only written in Kanji and the two previous huts weren’t clearly separated on the map. Luckily I asked the lady at the counter because I almost kept hiking. The staff working at the hut we’re all incredibly nice. I talked to an American couple for 20 minutes or so before our simple and overpriced Curry and rice dinner. It was 1000 extra yen for dinner. I was already carrying snacks and breakfast so I splurged and ate dinner at the hut even if I wasn’t very hungry.
Right after dinner, I tried my best to sleep. The sleeping arrangements are quite interesting. It was two bunk beds except each number was the length of the hut and lined with tatami mats. On the tatami mats are a row of sleeping bags overlapping each other. It’s almost obligatory that you sleep in your side because of the lack of space. Fortunately, my hut arranges strangers only to sleep next to strangers of the same sex. Thus, I was happily sandwiched between two random girls. I spent the next 4 to 5 hours tossing and turning completely unable to sleep. Between the later hikers arriving and eating, inn keepers eating, and people waking up hours before they needed to and talking, it was impossible to sleep. The girls next to me repositioned themselves just as often and frequently as I did. Plus, I had to get up and pee every hour. Sleeping was hopeless.
The inn keepers informed us that the morning wake up call was at 1h30. I knew I had about 2 to 2.5 left to the summit. If I left at 2h, I’d make it in plenty of time to see the sunrise. Unfortunately at 12h30 I completely gave up on trying to sleep. Half the hut was awake. I stretched, organized my bag, and talked to the girl I helped out earlier (she too gave up on trying to sleep). I wrapped my travel towel around my head and we set out at a little after 1h. Once I started hiking I realized that was the best idea. Looking up the mountain, as far as the eye could see, was an endless zigzag of headlamps. I tried to snap a shaky photo but it at the time I was already way too cold. It was windy and cold, and the slow moving line of people didn’t help. I was surprised how many people were still climbing Fuji this late in the season. I can only imagine in the height of summer. Granted, some huts were completely booked. I’m sure there are many more people that just cuddle up on the side of the huts for a few hours.
Anyway, the slow moving line allowed me to stare up at the sky and enjoy the stars. I immediately found Orion’s belt. I expected to see the sky completely littered with stars, but there weren’t anymore than I would see out in Kansas City. I’m not sure if it was the light pollution from below or maybe there were clouds. It seemed the stars we’re all concentrated in one area on the night sky. I didn’t feel like stopping nor completely busting my ass so I didn’t analyze the sky for too long. Occasionally, I remembered to glance up and appreciate the stars, knowing that my chances of seeing them in Tokyo were nonexistent.
I made it to the summit with about 30 minutes to spare before sunrise. That’s when the cold started to set it. It was freezing and packed with people. I snapped a few photos then went to fine a decent place to watch the sunrise. I looked the for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but they were nowhere in sight. After sunrise, me and my new girl friend ate breakfast then snapped some photos at the volcano opening. My map said walking the opening takes about an hour. I was cold and already tired. I did not want to spend an hour hiking the perimeter of the opening, especially since it was steep. Plus, the mailbox on the other side was already closed for the season. We walked part of it to snap some photos then started the grueling decent.
Descents are awful. They are absolutely gruesome and rough on your knees. I could climb mountains all day, especially when I know I’m getting a good booty work out. Going downhill however was torturous. It took a little over 3.5 hours to get downhill and my knees were in major pain not too long after starting. The descent dragged on and on. The only positive thing was I really enjoyed the changing rocks. The landscape doesn’t change much, it’s a wide open mountain face with little to no vegetation. The rocks went from black to a clay red/brown. It was beautiful. It was also disheartening to look downhill and see never ending zigzags.
Somehow I made it to the end without the need for crutches or a wheelchair. The girl and I grabbed lunch and she went on her way. My bus was departing at 14h, and no earlier bus tickets were left. I took my time browsing the shops, visited a shrine, wiped myself down with baby wipes, sat outside trying not to fall asleep, and made one more round in the shops before running into one of the guys. They were waiting for the same bus I was so we spent the last hour or so talking. I was happy to see the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again and hear their stories. Plus I was happy to finally found someone to talk to. I slept the entire way back to Tokyo and on the way home bought a fried chicken breast at the yakitori stand (it costs less than$1.50). I made myself a chicken salad, showered, and was in bed sleeping by 19h30.
It was hard to find a good packing list. I felt like many were over the top. Additionally, I didn’t really have a lot of the necessary clothes for hiking and somehow managed. I saw people hiking in vans, jeans, and a peacoat so at least I was more prepared than them.
Here is my packing list for Fuji:
- Hiking boots and socks (I use a will liner and wool hiking sick)
- Clothes – this is where I literally scrounged up whatever workout stuff I had in my closet. You could definitely pack more efficiently. I had a technical t-shirt, long sleeve tech shirt, running long sleeve, Patagonia down vest, a sweater from Uniqlo, and my Marmot summer rain jacket. Definitely bring layers, definitely take something that is waterproof and will prevent the wind from chilling your bones. Don’t forget your hat and scarf like I did. I had thin fleece gloves, but my hands were frozen at the end. I had one pair of leggings and two capris. Sweats are a good idea and something like warm running tights or ski pants.
- Space blanket. I wish I had one of these. Everyone had them at the top and it’s such a genius idea. Heck, throw in a pack of hand warmers too.
- Oxygen can. Buy it BEFORE you get to Fuji. It’s half the price I’m Shinjuku. I used it just in case but I couldn’t tell the difference. It’s 600 yen and weighs next to nothing.
- Toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, baby wipes, and dust mask. I read the way down is super dusty. It wasn’t. I didn’t use my masks.
- Water. I brought a 2 liter bottle of water and two smaller sachets of Aquarius. At the end, 500 ml of water remained. However, I would still take 2 liters in case you get a warm day.
- Food. I brought tons of snacks and hardly ate them. I made a huge chicken and avocado sandwich that I ate at the summit. Had I not paid for dinner at the hut I would have finished my snacks.
Finally here are my summarized tips:
- Book your hut and bus tickets beforehand. I booked my bus ticket halfway down the descent. By the time I arrived at the bottom, all buses were sold out until 17h. Unless you’re going to spend a day at Fuji Q Highland theme park you want to make sure to get roundtrip tickets. I can’t imagine hanging out at Station 5 for 3 more hours.
- Spend at least and hour at Station 5 before hiking. You’ll prevent altitude sickness. Also, take frequently breaks along the way.
- Bring at least 1000 yen in coins for the toilet. The huts will give you change for the brands, but it’s nice if you have exact change.
- Buy your postcards and stamps at the base. I didn’t see any postcards for sale at the summit, nor stamps. Better to be safe than sorry.