SUMMITING THE SACRED MOUNT FUJI
Immortalized in the global imagination by the images of Katsushika Hokusai, particularly his “Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” the UNESCO World Heritage site Mount Fuji is said to be the most-climbed mountain in the world. The popular Yoshida Trail, still closed and covered with snow in June, is open for climbing the 3,776-meter peak between July 1 and Sept. 10.
While views of Fuji itself are striking from far away, nowhere else in Japan beats the vistas seen from its summit with views of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, as well as the Pacific Ocean.
Standing on the lip of the huge crater gazing out over fields, forests and sea, it’s hard to believe that it only takes moments for the visible world to disappear behind white clouds. The ever-shifting weather of high-altitude mountains means it’s better to climb prepared with wet-weather gear and lots of sunscreen.
The fifth station is the most popular starting point for Mount Fuji treks. Here, a village-esque feel binds restaurants, gear and souvenir shops together as a type of base camp. It offers the last chance to buy anything forgotten, or fill up on reasonably priced food before the long climb to catch sunrise at the summit.
On a clear day in Tokyo, Fuji appears picturesque and perfect, just like one of Hokusai’s depictions in his ukiyo-e series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” However, up close, hikers find themselves examining the layers of geological textures of past ages that comprise the volcano’s rough surface. Although many people miss the sacred sites on their race to the top, there are various temples on the mountain that also contribute to the site’s World Heritage status. Some of these places of worship are rebuilt every 20 years, while others are renewed every 60.
While the summer days of climbing season are hot, mornings and evenings at high-altitude are chilly. Climbers should bring something warm to throw on as temperatures average around 4 degrees Celsius through the night into the early morning. Additionally, comfortable shoes with reasonable grip are strongly recommended. The climb might not reach the death zone proportions of Everest, but the walk is long and the descent is often found to be more challenging, with slippery slides over volcanic rock for hours on end taxing the unprepared.
Lower down, the paths are uncrowded, with plenty of people who appear to have set out for a short adventure from the fifth station with plans of returning later in the day to the comfort of luxurious dining below. The early stages of the climb are all about striding along smooth paths punctuated by occasional high steps where the terrain slowly shifts from heavily wooded areas to scarce smatterings of green. Higher up, the landscape changes into almost nothing but volcanic rock and dirt. Those inexperienced with altitude, should take care to proceed slowly, carry plenty of water and rest often, as the path may not look challenging, but the altitude can be a different story.
With blue skies above and the feel of never-ending clear air, climbers are usually keen to reach their little mountain hut, or yamagoya, booked in advance for the night. A simple bento dinner and patch of tatami mat in a crowded room costs about ¥8,000 per person.
As the sun begins to rise, it resembles a tiny diamond of intense light far off on the horizon. It’s easy to forget it is around 4:30 a.m. and the chilly temperatures remain, even in midsummer. Climbers who journey to the top may feel as though they are standing on top of Japan.