MOUNT FUJI

Getting to the top in Japan

by Hiroko Kimura

There is a Japanese proverb that says only a fool has never climbed Mount Fuji — or has climbed it twice.

The 3,776-meter dormant volcano, referred to as Fuji-san by Japanese, is the nation’s highest mountain and one of the best-known symbols of Japan. This sacred mountain, which towers over the Kanto region, is typically used to represent the nation on postcards and is a favorite destination for tourists.

On July 1, the mountain’s official summer climbing season opened, and from then until it ends on Aug. 31, about 200,000 tourists are expected to visit the mountain.

Despite its popularity, however, climbing Mount Fuji is not easy, and in foul weather it can be a nightmare. So before you rush out to make your own pilgrimage to the summit of the volcano, you should carefully assess your love for climbing and make sure you’re well prepared. And do remember, this is no leisurely stroll in the park.

First of all, what should you wear and what should you have in your backpack? A simple rule is to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The weather on the mountain can change rapidly and the average summertime temperature at the summit is about 5 degrees C, with the chill factor from strong winds sometimes lowering it to below freezing. So, a few layers of thermal clothes and rain gear are recommended, not to mention proper hiking boots. Many alpinists wear sturdy waterproof boots and sweat-absorbent, quick-drying underwear. As outer garments, synthetic fleece and Goretex gear are recommended. You should also bring a change of dry clothes for after the hike.

Of course, you will need lots of energy for the trek, which can take more than seven hours. At least 1 liter of water per person is crucial. Food is also a necessity to keep up energy levels. But at the rest stations on the mountain expect to pay three or four times the usual price for soft drinks, beer, chocolate and other food. And don’t forget to take something to put your garbage in. Nothing spoils a good hike more than seeing cans, bottles and plastic bags strewn along the trails (litter such as this is one of the main reasons why the beautiful cone-shaped Mount Fuji has never been included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list).

Take a first-aid kit just in case there is an accident, and a headlamp is a must because there are no trail lights. Sunglasses or hats can be added to the list as hot sunshine can make hiking uncomfortable during the day. Some take walking sticks, but you can purchase a wooden stick at souvenir shops on the Fifth Station, which you then get branded with an assortment of stamps from rest-houses along the way to the top: A great memento of your “conquest” of Mount Fuji.

When you’re fully prepared, the next thing to think about is which route to take. There are basically four — Kowaguchiko-Yoshida-guchi Trail (5 hours ascent; 3 hours descent), Fujinomiya-guchi Trail (4 1/2 hours ascent; 2 1/2 hours descent), Gotenba-guchi Trail (7 1/2 hours ascent; 3 hours descent) and Subashiri-guchi Trail (5 1/2 hours ascent; 2 1/2 hours descent).

Kawaguchiko-Yoshida-guchi Trail is the most popular route of the four. Its Fifth Station is located at 2,305 meters above sea level and many tourists, who are not there to climb to the top, visit this station for a good view of the summit. Fujinomiya-guchi Trail is more convenient for people from the Kansai region and is the shortest route to the top. Getenba-guchi and Subashiri-guchi trails are popular for the descent, as you can enjoy sliding down through sand and gravel while remaining on your feet.

In any case, you can access the Fifth Station of each trail — where the climb begins — by public transportation. If you drive, remember that traffic restrictions on the Fuji Subaru Line and Fuji Skyline from Aug. 7 to Aug. 16 prevent you from driving directly to the fifth stations, requiring you to park and take a shuttle bus.

Into the night

Many visitors begin their climb at night, hoping to reach the peak in time for sunrise. In this case, as you would have been climbing all night long, by the time you reach the top, you will be exhausted after tackling many sharp rock walls and steep gravel slopes. It might be a more sensible plan to start late afternoon, take the half day to climb, with frequent stops to take in the view and then stay near the summit during the night, getting up early to watch the sunrise. There are 10 to 20 rest-stations along each trail. One night’s accommodation at these huts on weekdays and Sundays is available at around 7,000 yen, which includes breakfast and supper (it’s about 5,000 yen without meals; a 1,000 yen surcharge is added to the overall cost on Saturdays). Remember that many of the rest-stations require a reservation in advance.

Once you start climbing, you’ll notice that there are few flowers or plants adding color to the scenery, but, then again, it’s always a pleasure to breathe in that cool, fresh mountain air.

The lower trails are pretty comfortable to traverse, but toward the top they become steep. In some places, you have to climb over rocks, but there are fixed chains to aid you.

It’s best to stop at each station to take a break. The stations are an hour to two hours apart, depending on your speed and the route you take.

As most of the people are coming from near sea-level elevation, the 2,000-meter ascent to one of the fifth stations can take sometime to get used to. If you start suffering from a headache, zero energy and nausea, you would be wise to turn round and try for the summit another time, as you may be affected by potentially fatal altitude sickness. Two first-aid stations will be open from mid-July to mid-August — one at the Seventh Station on the Kawaguchiko-Yoshida-guchi Trail and the other at the Eighth Station on the Fujinomiya-guchi Trail. There are also cans of oxygen you can purchase at the rest stations.

Eventually, the trails break free above the tree line. As Kawaguchiko-Yoshida- guchi is the most popular trail, at night you will be surprised to see a trail of bright lights — headlamps on climbers — snaking its way to the top during the busiest season, especially in the Bon holidays. Near the summit, the trail becomes bottlenecked, and at several points, hikers are forced to step in unison like a giant millipede.

At the summit you will encounter the inevitable crowd of climbers waiting for the sunrise — the climax of the trip. At around this time of the year, the sun comes up between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. When the sun appears slowly in the distance, many people whoop in exhilaration or shed tears of joy. And you might hear the popping of Champagne corks. For others, it may feel like a religious experience, a very pristine moment. If you are lucky, you will see the imposing shadow of the mountain stretching across the plain thousands of meters below.

Many, tempted by the opportunity to reach out and touch civilization, rush to the mountaintop post office to sent a postcard or to use one of the pay phones there to call their family or friends. Of course, nowadays, most people use their cellular phones.

At the summit, allocate some time to walk around the rim of the rust-brown crater that last spewed lava in 1707. There are eight peaks at the summit, of which Kengamine peak is the highest. You can take an outer-rim course or inner-rim course or both, if you have the strength left to do it. It takes about 1 1/2 hours to walk around the crater edge.

Other attractions

The area surrounding Mount Fuji has been designated as a “thematic tourist destination area.” This area encompasses the borders of Kanagawa, Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, and the governments of these prefectures are eager to raise the profile of their other tourist attractions along with Mount Fuji.

The three prefectural governments, and all tourist institutions including accommodation facilities, restaurants, transportation organizations and travel agencies, have made major efforts to warmly welcome foreign tourists to the entire region. This has included the introduction of The Mount Fuji Welcome Card, which gives foreign tourists and accompanying Japanese discounts of about 10 percent on services at 211 facilities, such as hotels, restaurants and museums in the Fuji, Hakone and Izu regions. The card can be printed out by visiting via the Web site at www.mtfuji-welcomecard.jp

Yamanashi Prefecture, located on the northern side of Mount Fuji, is blessed with five beautiful lakes: Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Yamanaka, Lake Motosu, Lake Shoji and Lake Sai. Here there are many hot-spring hotels, pensions, lakefront shops, restaurants and museums. In summer, many enjoy taking in the scenery, camping and boating.

Hakone, located at the western edge of Kanagawa Prefecture, is famed for its hot springs, unique museums, and Lake Ashi. A cable car and a ropeway offer stunning scenic views, and another vista, one of Mount Fuji, can be had during a short boat trip on Lake Ashi. Because of its accessibility, the town is a popular resort for day-trippers from Tokyo and other cities in the Kanto area.

The Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and also has numerous hot-spring resort towns, such as Atami, Ito, Kawazu, Matsuzaki and Tohi. The area is also known for many beautiful gardens and Japanese-style ryokan and inns that serve excellent food from both the mountains and sea.

After descending Mount Fuji, or perhaps before the climb, it’s a good idea to visit one of Japan’s most popular resort areas, where you can observe the nation’s highest and most beautiful mountain from the distance.