Following the first week of classes at Temple Japan, I heard that some new friends in my dorm building were going to be hiking Mount Fuji the next day. I have some experience hiking in California, and a love for nature and the outdoors, so even though I was still settling in to my new life here, I couldn’t turn down the adventure. But I had no idea what I was getting into.
Mount Fuji, at somewhere around 4,000 meters, is the tallest mountain in Japan. It’s considered an active volcano and sits about a 5-hour trip away from Tokyo via bus and train. It’s a Japanese tradition to hike mount Fuji overnight and considered good luck to see the sunrise from the summit. If we were going to hike Mount Fuji, we were going to do it right.
I didn’t bring any hiking gear to Japan, but thankfully I was able to find some hiking boots in a Women’s 7 at a second hand shop in Shibuya the day before the hike. A friend of mine that lives here lent me rain gear, a head lamp, rope, a sunhat, and a beanie. I did plenty of research before the trip, and even though it was hot and humid in Tokyo, it was supposed to be cold on the hike and frigid on the summit. There are a couple trails of varying levels of difficulty, but the Yoshida trail, the easiest one, was supposed to be manageable for all ability levels.
I packed up all my gear and tons of bananas and snacks- chocolate almonds from the convenience store, granola bars, ibuprophen.
My North face pack was full and heavy, but not as much as my friend who decided to bring a DSLR and multiple lenses and tripods. I’m a photographer too, but that’s dedication. His backpack was a heavy rock.
The 7 of us left our dorm at around 1:30 pm that Saturday with all our gear and we hopped on the Keio line to Shinjuku, where we picked up a train to Oetsuki. From there we transferred to the most adorable train with little animations of Mt Fuji as a cartoon character on it. We took that to the town at the base of the mountain, where we got some fast food from Mos Burger and coffee from a local shop. It was about 5pm when we got the bus to take us the final stretch up to what’s known as station 5- where the trailheads meet a hub halfway up the mountain with souvenir shops, restaurants, rest areas and a bus depot. I ate hot chicken and French fries while we drove high above the horizon and the clouds. When we arrived it was dark outside, but we still had several hours of waiting before we could start the hike so that we wouldn’t sit freezing at the summit waiting for the sun to rise. Now, in retrospect, I would’ve rather left earlier than we did. We sat around and attempted to nap until 11pm but I think it drained my adrenaline a bit.
It was quite a scene at station 5. A sea of Patagonia jackets and hiking polls, and people in layers and beanies from all around the world. Just waiting until it was late enough to hike Mt Fuji the ritualistic way. We got udon at a crowded, cozy restaurant upstairs in the main lodge. I was worried that I would lose my energy, so I made sure I stayed fed here. We bought hot coffees from vending machines and made sure our water bottles were full. We rested, mingled with other tourists, listened to podcasts, passed the time. We found a heated room where we were able to lay on the ground with our backpacks as pillows. I even met some people from my hometown. What a place to meet, halfway up mount Fuji!
Finally, on 0 sleep, we started to hike at 11pm. It was steeper than I think we all expected. Really, really steep, like a flight of stairs but without flat ground. We got separated into pairs pretty much immediately. I was a straggler, which I expected since I had not quite been training- I had only just recovered from my jetlag. The terrain was gravelly, with sections of slippery large rocks, and sections that were straight up scrambles. There is vertical climbing involved in this hike, which I was not expecting. I was hanging on for dear life at points but making it past the scrambles felt super satisfying.
Though the hike was scary at points, I was never too worried. Mount Fuji is a sacred, living mountain to the Japanese. I somehow felt like the entire time, the volcano had my back. I felt so stranded but so protected by the rocks.
The hike is an 11-mile round trip, but with an elevation gain of 3776 meters, or 12,388 feet. It’s no joke. There were tons of resting areas to hang out at along the way. My friend Gary got a warm cup of noodles at one of them, and there were vending machines available and water for sale at some too.
The black sky started to gain a pink hue, so I assumed I was almost to the top. But signs alluded to me that I still had an hour of hiking to go. I sat on volcanic rock alone to watch the sunrise. Though I didn’t make it to the summit, where hundreds of people watched together, I was able to see the rising sun in solitude. It felt symbolic of the journey I was only a couple of weeks into, living alone in a new country. Watching the sun rise is always a good way to inaugurate a new chapter of life. After the hike, when I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t made it to the top in time, my dad told me that sometimes, you don’t make it to the top of the mountain. But you can still see the beautiful sunrise from the tallest peak in Japan.
As I continued to walk up, I was able to lose the headlamp and beanie, throw on my sunglasses, and actually see where my feet were going. I ran into one of my friends at a rest stop somewhere around 3,700 meters. We both fell asleep in daylight there, at around 7am, and when we woke up, sleep deprived and with so much physical exhaustion, we had no actual choice but to turn around. I don’t think my legs could go another step uphill.
But the way down was not a walk in the park at all. It was so steep going down that it was problably not even up to code. We were in a huge stampede going down. And people were slipping and falling left and right. The gravel was so loose. Rain would’ve helped pack the dirt together. The texture of the volcanic gravel was kind of crushing beneath our feet like powdery snow. The way down was significantly faster, and didn’t feel endless like our uphill journey in the dark, but it was hard on the knees, and the ankles. I sprained both of mine. People were talking, and laughing, though. It was less stressful. It was a rewarding trip down.
When we got back to station 5, I couldn’t believe that it was only the night before that we had arrived there. Climbing a mountain overnight felt like the longest week of my life. I rode the bus, sweaty, dirty and with multiple sprained ankles, back into civilization. I called a cab to the apartment, where I finally processed the fact that I had just climbed the highest peak in Japan in the 24 hours prior. What an accomplishment. My taxi driver hadn’t done it himself. We talked about the yen to dollar exchange rate the whole way back. And prices in Japan versus the U.S.. And how nice it was to be in nature for a day.
If you decide to take on the challenge to hike Mount Fuji, I would totally recommend it, and I’m totally willing to talk about it. I’d especially recommend a hike like this at the beginning of a study abroad experience. You have no choice but to bond with people after going through something like this. It is so strenuous though. Please jog 5 miles a day and stretch so much at least a week leading up to it in preparation! And do not push yourself. Stay hydrated, and pace yourself at whatever speed feels the most comfortable.
Check out my last blog post to see an animation inspired by Tokyo commuters, or these posts to advise you on other hiking adventures for your time overseas.