I’ve skipped talking about Tokyo, which I’ll write about after my trip. Fuji is fresh in my mind and in my legs so I feel the need to write. Overall Fuji was a disappointing experience and I could not recommend the hike.
Over 90% of hikers will take the bus to the 5th station and then ascend the Fujiyoshida trail from there. The other trails are significantly less popular, and I wanted to try something different. My plan was to take the least popular trail, Fujinomiya, and start at the 5th station by bus, but the weather didn’t allow it. So I had to settle for the most popular trail, Fujiyoshia, so instead of busing up to the 5th I started from the base of the mountain to get some alone time on the trail.
I was glad I did too. I started from the Fujisan Train Station (elv. 813m) after I filled myself with Udon for my last good meal. A 2km walk from the bus station to the Sengen shrine. The official start of the climb up. Payed my 100 yen to the mountain spirits for safe passage, in hindsight I probably should not have cheapened out on the mountain spirits offering. The trail goes up slowly but steadily. The forest was really beautiful and I even saw a pack of deer rustling in the woods. This was the only time I saw wildlife, which is a big weakness of Fuji, it feels almost sterile because of the lack of wildlife.
I only encountered 2 hikers on this trail and they were coming down as I was starting up at 4:00pm from the Sengen Shrine. I tried to greet one in Japanese with “Hello” but it came out, “Good morning.” at 5pm…I bought some vending machine water putting me at 2.1L of water, opting for another .5L of soda as my victory beer at the top. (Alcohol and altitude sickness do not mix well I had read)
It was getting very dark around 7:00pm so pulled out the flashlight so I could see my way up, turns out it had been switched on inside my bag and had no batteries left. This could have been a disaster, because I am too stubborn to quit a climb. Luckily, I was ascending which is not as dangerous, and I had the sun in the morning to guide my descent so I felt pretty safe just ascending slowly and cautiously. I had reached the 2nd station (elv. 1700m) and was feeling good, my first vertical km was not that difficult and was an enjoyable hike. It was now pitch dark and I was relying on my phone as a flashlight until I could break out of the tree line.
The wooden stairs started appear more and more often as the trail kicked up and became steeper. I tried to take brief rests every 30 minutes because I knew pacing would be everything. I had read reports of people doing the trail in 8 hours, the maps said 11, and the guidebook said 12. None of those times were relevant to me because they assumed a night stop at a mountain hut. I gave myself 13.5 hours to summit and catch the sunrise. I was ahead of pace early on but lack of a headlamp slowed me a bit. Along the trail at station 1-5 were English explanations of mountain rituals and customs which I found very interesting to read. They used to carry a giant statue up the mountain then leave it and bring it down and have a celebration later in the year, they don’t do that anymore… I exited the treeline around 10:30pm at the 6th station (elv. 2330m) and was greeted by a full moon meaning I no longer needed the phone as the batteries were nearly dead by now anyway. I heard some singing and noticed a few headlamps coming from the east. It was the first people I had seen in over 6.5 hours and 1.5 vertical kilometers alone.
It was the people that had stayed at the 5th hut/bus station (different 5th station than me) for the night and were just starting up. They had slept at altitude, eaten and moved a bit quicker than I did. This is about when I stopped having fun. It was probably the lack of sleep, mild altitude sickness, deteriorating trail conditions with a boring rocky landscape ahead all combining. Still I didn’t feel terrible and I wanted it enough to continue. I remained strong and soldiered on actually increasing my pace to pass a number of people and arrive at the 7th station. Snapped a picture of some headlights going up and resolved to keep it in my pack because “ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.” I was starting to fall off pace, even with my extra time I allotted for myself. It was getting cold and windy. One thermometer read 8 degrees Celsius. My phone said conditions at the top were below freezing and windy.
The following stations had lots of inn’s where an overwhelming majority of hikers had spent the previous night to get a good rest and prepare their bodies for the altitude. A vital step to any high altitude summit. This is the recommended course, bus to the 5th and hike to 7/8/8.5 stations the day before your summit and sleep until 1-3am then summit in early morning. This is what a more competent and less frugal person would have done. The food at the huts is $6 for a cup of noodles, $4 for bottle of water, $2 to use the bathroom, and $60 to sleep on the floor with bodies packed on top of each other. The 7th station and beyond seemed like a commercialized hiking themed amusement park. The history of the mountain, its past, the rituals and customs that revolved around it were completely absent here. However, a rocky landscape and profiteer inn keepers were abundant.
I’m going to sound like an elitist for saying this. If you need to spend the night at a cabin, an inn, a shelter constructed by someone else, that you didn’t carry up the mountain; you have no business being on that mountain. Accessibility is a great thing and I took advantage of it myself by taking the bus down once I had summited and descended to the 5th station. I repeat, accessibility is a good thing; it means more people get to enjoy the mountain and the mountain gets more financial resources to maintain itself from the mass of people destroying it. However, you have to draw the line somewhere, because having cable cars to the top of the mountain is unacceptable. I choose to draw that line at making permanent structures and affixing permanent gear/ropes.
People that buy a family of sherpas to carry their crap to the top of Everest while they themselves climb ladders and fixed ropes to get there, don’t deserve the respect that summiting Everest should warrant. In the elite climbing community Everest has become a joke. Last year a top climber was nearly killed in a fight between sherpas because he was trying a difficult course and it coincided with sherpas setting up fixed lines for tourists, and neither party would compromise. More recently the Everest organization in Nepal took out the ladders to do repair work and banned climbing the mountain by not giving out permits. Other climbers still wanted to climb it because fuck ladders, who needs ladders. The Nepalese government wouldn’t give out climbing permits so the climbers helicoptered into the mountain and there was severe backlash. Back to Fuji, I was at the 7th station…
It was still very cloudy. It had become early morning now and I had to put on rain gear because the rain came back and it was cold. It was starting to get very windy as well. It snowed at one point, but to be honest, there isn’t much to say about the 7th station and beyond. It was a blur of rock scrambles and gravely trails. I was a bit out of it from the altitude sickness. I focused heavily on my breathing, taking big breaths, stopping every 10 seconds, moving slowly and carefully. A lot of people quickly passed me and I was aware that I was dropping even more off pace and eating away at the extra time I allotted myself. My focus was only the top. At the 8.5 station I tried to take a nap on a bench but was quickly nudged for more bench space. Every inn after the 7th had a bench outside. And every time I sat down, relaxed, and then force myself up to continue. I had passed the 8.5 station and realized I was very low on water and had not been consuming much. I started to ration and drink as little as possible, I assumed there would be vendors at the 9th station or summit.
At the penultimate 9th station I nearly gave up. I thought to myself, “This is high enough lets just go down. You have suffered enough. The altitude sickness is slowly becoming worse and could become severe, you don’t have enough water for the descent anyway.” I came to the 9th station to discover it is not really a station, just a pile of rocks of a former station.
I was running low on willpower and making audible sighs and groans; in hindsight I probably wanted some outside encouragement and I eventually got it. I hit one corner of a switchback after the 9th station and a Japanese looking person said only “Almost, only 40 minutes”. To which I responded, a very broken, “yeah?” I looked at my watch and, hot damn I had 30 minutes until sunrise I was not that far off away from the top. Those few words were enough for me to let go of the idea of a premature descent and continue. The sky was turning orange and the sun was coming up. I was within sight of the summit but figured this is close enough to start taking pictures. I got an orange glowing sky and clouds. It was pretty cool, I mean the sunrise had been hyped pretty significantly so I was ready for disappointment, but it was a good memory.
I walked though the shrine at the top (elv. 3770m) and my mind immediately switched to survival mode, I needed water and the sooner the better. I had about 200mL left of my “victory” coke that had been opened at roughly the 8.5 station. The 9th station was a bust and at the summit they were letting people into the “gift shop” hut one at a time to keep the place from getting crowded. Outside of that hut a man was selling $14 canned coffee that goes for $1.20 in town. Coffee is mostly water…but I decided I’d rather die somewhere on the descent from dehydration than pay $14 for canned coffee. I didn’t actually go to the tippy top (+10m), because I was in survival mode and it didn’t seem important enough. I also have no pictures of the descent or inside of the crater for the same reason. I have a little regret about that, but I won’t lose sleep over it. I have the memories and mental pictures. I’ve found the pictures online to be much better anyway.
The descent begins. There are 53 switchbacks of lose gravel, fist sized rocks and sand. It’s an ankle breaker of a descent and is the most boring thing I’ve done in my life. The descent alone is reason enough to never climb Fuji. I’ve heard the Gotemba trail has a “rock slide” descent which is both quick and enjoyable. Descending that route would have taken me to much less developed bus stop, on a trail with almost no people, and I would have had to stay at altitude to hike around the crater to get to the descending trail-head, a suicide mission I decided to skip. There is no water to buy on the descent. At the bottom of 53 switchbacks you find your knees weak, your ankles rolled, and you still have 8km+ of trail to descend over the same crappy conditions. This descent trail is another travesty on the mountain. It’s not a descent trail, it’s a tractor road made by bulldozers to carry that overpriced water and $14 coffee to the top.
Coming down I hit the 6th station and was feeling very dehydrated. I had finished my water and cola at around the 14th switchback and had made the descent almost entirely without water. I changed my mind, I was ready to pay $14 for a can of coffee, but there are only vendors between the 7th and 8.5th ASCENDING stations on the mountain and the summit. The 6th station is where the ascending and descending trails join. And the trail branches downward, one goes down to the 5th station which I came up. The other goes to the 5th which is a bus stop. I asked at the 6th station if they had water they said “No, at the bus stop”. Unlikely, but if they give it to me they gotta give it to everyone. It’s 1.7km at sign reads. My head is spinning from dehydration and the perma-headache is starting. My head feels light, but I’m not terribly worried. I’ve been surrounded by a train of people since the 6th station ascending, if I pass out someone is going to help me. My mind races for the word water in Japanese and I remember it is, “Mizu.” It will be my last word before I fall over. 1.7km later I’m at an intersection in a panic because there is no bus or any vendors. A sign reads 1km to bus stop.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in such bad shape. I was doing everything I could to focus on not passing out. I eventually made it to the bus stop, went to information desk asked for water and was pointed toward a vending machine. I got my water and started to chug and remember that was a terrible idea when you are already dehydrated. So I sipped my water, and enjoyed my killer headache, nausea, and muscle shakes. All the symptoms went away 2-3 hours after I got some water in me except the headache which bothered me all day. I took the bus down, cleaned my locker where I stashed my hiking non-essentials and found a hotel, then ate. I went to my room and took a short nap at 2pm, 23 hours since I started the climb my Fujisan adventure it came to a close. The rest of the day was spent eating, doing laundry for the first time, and soaking in a rooftop onsen(hot tub) with a Mt. Fuji view (only $28 bucks). The view from the bottom really is much better than the top, haha.
I met another traveler at the train station who stayed at the same place as me in Kyoto. It’s a small world! Cool guy, he stayed at the mountain huts so it was neat to hear about the other ways to do the mountain. He had a much more enjoyable hike. He also had a cool souvenir. You can buy these Fuji climbing sticks and they burn stamps into them for $3-$6 each and the staff costs about $10-15. A lot of climbers had them, some didn’t care for them and would affix them to their backpack others climbed onward. It made a great little medal to have at the end and I wish I had got one and the stamps. A little regret being too frugal. But it would have cost $30-40 and I’d have to mail it back to Korea/USA which is another hassle when I’m on a vacation.
In closing, with regard to Fuji. I think there is too many damn people on the mountain because it is too accessible due to the mountain huts and terraforming(wrong word but can’t think of right one for changing the shape of the land, any help?) done to the mountain to create easier ascending/descending routes. The trails are constantly eroded and seeing them at the end of the climbing season (Sept. 10th is last day) you really see how much damage is done. There are signs everywhere to take your trash down with you, but what about the huts and other permanent structures that still remain up there? There are 15 huts now, I hope they don’t build more. Leave no trace is a difficult rule to follow, but it’s an important one for a sustainable outdoors for our children.
I wrote this huge post on the 7 hour train ride from Fuji to Hiroshima. Oddly enough my thumb is now very inflamed, too much typing maybe? Going to get settled tonight and then sight see the place where USA dropped a nuke 60 years ago. Crazy!
I must start bringing more water. Halasan, Jirisan, and Fuji I went into all of them under-prepared. I should have checked my light before I headed out too.
For a better Fuji write up with good pictures ofthis trail check here. It is less bias than my perspective. http://www.japanguides.net/yamanashi/real-fuji-climbers-hike-the-yoshidaguchi-trail.html