The saying goes ‘A wise man climbs Fuji once and a fool twice’, but that degree of true wisdom is generally learned the hard way. Thankfully I choose to follow the path of wisdom for once as opposed to the latter.
Mt Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain and the crowning glory of the vast and extremely beautiful Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. A perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone, the mountain is a near-mythical national symbol and equally respected and feared. I was informed that all Japanese people must climb at one time in their lifetime.
Nightlife in Tokyo
I ventured out to a restaurant/sit down pub in the Tawaramachi area of Tokyo called Kamaya Bar. You enter, point to the food which looks appetising, order a pint which looks more like a German Oktoberfest stein, and a local sweet spirit with a sting called Denki Bran to warm your soul after a hearty meal. If you arrive in a group, chances are you won’t find space together so you sit where you can and meet the locals. I have been here many times and have met some characters; men who fought in the war, Japanese punks with the hipster edge, elderly parents and young children practising their English. But also suited workers looking for more than light refreshment to take the edge off after a day pounding numbers. It is unassuming from the outside but oozes personality once inside. It was here I met a very drunken man with broken English (but better than my terrible Japanese) who recommended I not delay in climbing Mt Fuji. Naturally after a few Denki Bran’s (because one is never enough right?) I pledged my soul to climb in a way the drunken tourist does so well.
Hiking up Mt Fuji, Japan
The first time I attempted the daunting challenge of Mt Fuji I was leading adventure tours in Japan and we hovered at the 5th station under shelter as a hurricane spiralled about our heads. The winds teased us with beckoning whistles and the rains drove us further into the safe confines of four walls and a ceiling. Sadly the glory of summiting was not meant to be. I watched as climbers set off up the mountain, buried under a layer of GorTex and wishful thinking, only to reappear 30 minutes later with spirits crushed seeking refuge in mugs of hot chocolate. Although the night did not plan out as expected, I did take the bullet train to Mt Fuji Station one week later from Tokyo in order to plant my feet on the rough scoria at 3776 meters.
Firstly, let me just say that the Japanese know trains; no other country can quite compare to the sheer speed and comfort of the bullet train. When the departure time is 6:56, it departs to the second regardless if you are counting your bento box change or nibbling your way through a box of Pocky. Yes, there are so many incredible things about Japan it is astounding and I left Japan in awe of what I had experienced; but also fed up with the types of travellers who joined my tours. They tended to be older and quite unable to grasp the array of exciting new customs.
Having taken the bus up to the 5th station again, this time under the magnificence of a golden sun my hopes were high. I have never been a big wearer of climbing boots, so armed with my trusty sandals I was ready to inch my way into Japanese favour and fulfil my drunken oath. To me heavy trekking boots (although incredibly practical) feels like carrying lumps of ice and in my experience being fairly sure footed, to be unnecessary. I hiked the Torres del Paine trek in Patagonia in sandals despite constant advice against it, and all was well with the world!
OK let me get back on track. A team of intrepid Japanese loitered at the 5th station ahead of the arduous journey as I set off on my path to true wisdom. The way up is just that, straight up, and the uneven scoria and unsteady terrain makes for a whole host of slipping and sliding. Up two steps, back one…but always directly up. The path snakes infrequently but generally it is uphill without deviation or hesitation.
It was brilliant to see families climbing together, sharing the experience, as well as fresh-faced tourists and hardened climbers ploughing their way up the jagged surface. My sandals were met with polite giggles and at times pointing to which I jumped up, clicked my feet together with an Irish jig.
When hiking uphill on rough scoria I am not too sure there is really any ‘best’ technique for the most effective way to climb, it’s tough however; generally I was making good time. Slowly but surely I passed the overnight stations one by one where a bed and hot drinks were served. The stations are set out as communal dorm rooms and are fairly basic in nature but serve their purpose well considering their location. I went with intentions of overnighting at the 8th station having summited and not left enough time to descend. As I climbed, the peak of the cone approached closer more rapidly than expected and it wasn’t long until I was pulling myself up the remaining steep sections with the provided chains provided and planting myself on the top of Japan.
The views are worth it! There is nothing wrong with views from the top of any mountain; everything is good with this scenario. Wispy clouds ambled by and punctured the rich blue sky, paving the way for sweeping views which exploded in 360 degrees directions and out past the eyes view. Hikers lay scattered over rocks, sleeping, relaxing in the sun or raiding the vending machine for snacks. Yes that’s right, the country which has an estimated 5.6 million vending machines, also has one at the top of Mt Fuji. My recommendation is upon reaching the top, walk around the crater rim for sweeping views in all directions.
Truth be told, I ascended and descended in 5.5hours. Sure it was tough but unless you set a slow pace or specifically want to overnight on Mt Fuji it is a good days hiking. I was sweating, exhausted and hungry but happy after battling Fuji; it just wasn’t as tough as expected. I will say that there was a magical sense of comradery in both directions, unified by one goal which kept my spirits high and blood pumping throughout he climb. From the 5th station I took the bus down to the station in the town, retrieved my backpack from a locker (you can pay by the hour and will hold a full pack) and went looking for a ryokan.
Ryokans are the perfect way to sleep your way through Japan and offers travellers the opportunity to experience something different; mainly the chance to avoid identical chain hotel rooms. The floors are inlaid with rice tatami and rice sliding doors offer privacy. Traditional Japanese food is served whilst seated on floor cushions and comfortable slippers are worn which change with frequency depending on the room. There are entrance slippers, room slippers, bathroom slippers and onsen slippers. The onsen is a communal shower room, separated by male/female. There are a series of taps and waist height and small child-like chairs which barely hold the weight of a man. Seated and using soap and water, you clean yourself from head to toe before entering a communal heated pool to soak away the aches and pains. But it is also a place where gossip is spilled, plans are devised, troubles are told and laughs are shared. It is yet another ritual in a country with so many rituals and an integral part of social Japanese life.
But it is also the best cure for cleaning off the scoria from 3776 meters and to enjoy views of Mt Fuji from a distance, having admired views earlier from on top of the same mountain.