So, Mount Fuji. Fuji San. 富士山. The highest and most iconic of Japan’s many mountains, the subject of so many ukiyo-e woodblock prints and haiku poems, one of the most recognisable mountains on Earth by both name and image, the national symbol of Japan. And, if you’ve landed here via Google, probably the one mountain that you’re planning to climb on your upcoming visit to the Land of the Rising Sun. With that in mind, I was going to write a ‘how to climb Mt Fuji’ primer, but that’s been done many times over. For example, the fantastic Japan Guide page is an excellent source of information (as usual), with a clear breakdown of the four Mt Fuji trails, climbing times, access details, and so on. So what I will do instead is describe our experience of climbing Mt Fuji from the southern approach (from Shizuoka) on the Fujinomiya trail, and give my thoughts on the best strategy for climbing the mountain with regards timing and altitude sickness.
Climbing Mt Fuji from Kyoto on the Fujinomiya Trail
I climbed Mt Fuji with my then-girlfriend while I was living in Kyoto, and we did it bang in the middle of the O-Bon holiday – the most crowded time to be on the mountain. This is best avoided, but like everyone else in Japan it was the only chance I had because that was when my (and everyone else’s) summer holiday was! There are four Mt Fuji trails to choose from; approaching from anywhere in western Japan, the Fujinomiya trail on the Shizukoka (south) side is the most convenient option. If travelling by Shinkansen you need to disembark at Shin-Fuji (新富士) station; if by regular train, at Fuji (富士) station. These two stations are about a mile apart, and the buses to the mountain depart from Shin-Fuji station roughly hourly with three of those per day also picking up from Fuji station.
(If you’re approaching from Tokyo by bus, you’ll be taken to the northernmost of the Mt Fuji trails, the Yoshida trail on the Yamanashi prefecture side. If taking the train from Tokyo, you can take your pick between the Yoshida trail and the Fujinomiya trail – the shinkansen to Shin-Fuji for the Fujinomiya trail is more convenient but more expensive, the regular train to Kawaguchiko for the Yoshida trail is slower but cheaper; if you have a JR pass, take the shinkansen and do the Fujinomiya trail. The other two Mt Fuji trails, on the east of the mountain (the Gotemba and Subashiri trails), aren’t so well served by public transportation and are also much longer hikes as they start from lower elevations, and as a result see far fewer crowds. If you have wheels and fancy a more strenuous work out, those are the routes for you)
We were travelling at the time using the Seishun-juhachi-kippu (a seasonal holiday train pass for local trains only – I couldn’t get a JR Pass at the time as I was a Japanese resident), travelling from Kyoto to Nagoya on the first day and spending a night there; the local trains in Japan are a hell of a lot slower than the bullet trains, so on the second day of the trip we left Nagoya in the morning by local train and reached Fuji station in the evening. One night in a business hotel next to the station, and then next day we checked out, shoved most of our stuff in a locker at the station, and caught the 9.25 bus up to Mt Fuji’s ‘5th station’. (If you’re travelling by bullet train, take a Nozomi Shinkansen to Nagoya then switch to a Kodama Shinkansen there, for a total journey time of around 130 minutes to Shin-Fuji; if you’re using a JR pass the Nozomi isn’t covered, so just take the Kodama Shinkansen all the way from Kyoto to Shin-Fuji, journey time 150 minutes. See Hyperdia for train schedules in Japan; there’s a good explanation for using it here).
The four Mt Fuji trails are each divided into 10 stations, with 10 being the top. The stations are where you’ll find the mountain huts, toilets, first aid, and shops selling snacks and drinks at altitude-sickness-inducing markups. Each trail is usually climbed from its respective 5th station (which is where the road ends and you park your car or get off the bus), though they can be done from 1st station at the base if you have an extra day and want to walk the whole way up. The Fujinomiya trail has the highest 5th station (at 2,400m), meaning it has the shortest route to the top. So, our bus dropped us at the Fujinomiya trail 5th station at 11.35 after a scenic drive in the splendid sunshine of a glorious morning, and that turned out to be the last of the sun we’d be seeing that day; once we’d had a potter around the 5th station’s shops and used the loo, the cloud promptly rolled in as we started our climb. It then proceeded to piss rain on us as we shuffled upwards while not seeing an awful lot (except for the many – many! – other hikers), and we checked in to the hut at 8th station in the late afternoon / early evening. I say we shuffled, for one really cannot stride on Fuji – the loose surface of volcanic sand underfoot means you are forever sliding half a step back for every step taken forwards. It hadn’t been a great day’s hiking, and the curry rice served in the hut, though mediocre, was very welcome. Once that’s down you, the idea is to get to bed early, get a few hours’ kip, and then get up in the middle of the night to complete your ascent in time to see the sunrise from the summit.
I hardly slept a wink though, crammed in like sardines as we all were on deeply uncomfortable wooden shelves (forget any ideas you may have about beds), people snoring, the temperature unbearably hot inside but freezing stiff outside (where I spent half the night)… but, most problematically, I had a bout of altitude sickness kicking in. I’d felt it before on Mt Kinabalu, but for whatever reason it was worse this time. My headache came on ever-stronger as the night wore on, and I eventually paid a daft amount of money for a little canister of (allegedly) oxygen which did very little. I also downed a bottle or two of Aquarius (a Japanese isotonic drink a la Lucozade) which felt like it was much more helpful, so perhaps I’d allowed myself to get dehydrated. And when I did finally drift off to sleep I then seemed to be almost instantaneously shaken awake for the push to the top. I dragged myself up, and by now I felt like I was coming off the back of a 10-pint bender and most definitely had my grumpy face on. But though I didn’t much enjoy it, we made it up to the top in the dark anyway, and as we waited for the sun in the gathering light it occurred to me that having never seen Mt Fuji on any of the times I’d passed it on the train, I’d just climbed to the top of the damn thing and still hadn’t really seen it… Mt Fuji is famously elusive, coyly shrouding herself behind a vail of cloud most of the time – even when I later lived in Tokyo for a year and a half, I only ever saw the mountain from the city on half a dozen occasions (while at my company’s head office high up in a Shinjuku office block, or once silhouetted against the evening sun from a bridge while out running – alas, without a camera – and the only good picture I ever got of it was during this ridiculous journey from Sapporo to Kyoto). I even climbed three mountains in & around Tokyo with views of Mt Fuji, but saw only cloud!
Three non-views of Mt Fuji:
And here’s one clear view I got from the train (on this ridiculous journey):
But anyway, the rain had finally stopped overnight allowing for a dry climb, there we were at the top, the light was growing, and we were now looking down on the clouds – the very clouds that blocked the sunrise that morning. It just grew brighter and brighter until the sun eventually showed above the sea of clouds, and by then the sunrise moment was long since finished. So, after an uncomfortable hike we had a disappointing sunrise, and I really felt like shit – not the most fun I’ve ever had on a mountain! The descent was by far the best part – the nice thing with altitude sickness is that as soon as you’re going down, the hungover nauseous feeling disappears, and even better the clouds finally scattered and allowed us to see some of the views as we descended. We were back at Fuji station by mid-afternoon, grabbed our stuff from the locker, and were dining in a Shinjuku skyscraper that evening. Job done! An oft-repeated Japanese proverb tells us that although everyone should climb Fuji-san, you’d be a fool to do it twice – and I would definitely agree with that. I’m glad I did it, and I don’t want to do it again – next time I want to go high in a Japanese summer, I’ll be heading to Kitadake or the Northern Alps.
Mt Fuji & Altitude Sickness; 2-day Climb vs Overnight Climb
But what I really want to do here is not describe the merits of the different Mt Fuji trails or try to entertain with my own tale, but to discuss the altitude and whether you should stay overnight on the mountain. The conventional wisdom in Japan, and the strong recommendation from the authorities, is that you should climb to 8th or 9th station on the first day, spend the night there, and summit early in the morning – just as we did. The alternative, which many prefer, is to climb the mountain at night, going straight from 5th station all the way to the top in one go and then taking in the sunrise before heading straight back down. The official rationale that you should stay overnight in the hut is that this will give you time to acclimatise to the altitude and thus reduce your chances of developing altitude sickness. I think that this is incorrect, and if you are fit enough to do the (roughly) 6-hour hike up and 4-hour hike down without sleeping you should certainly consider doing the night climb – you actually have less time to develop altitude sickness this way.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone above 3,000m, and just as being young and fit doesn’t mean you won’t get it, being old and out of shape doesn’t mean that you will. Some factors are within your control – if you’re already dehydrated or physically tired at the outset of the climb, the chances of falling sick are higher. I’d spent the week leading up to the climb working hard, not sleeping enough, and drinking mostly coffee, so I’m sure that didn’t help. But really the only way to avoid it is to gain altitude slowly enough for your body to acclimatise. For example, when travelling on the Tibetan plateau last year I reached an altitude of 4,000m, and the highest town I slept in was at 3,400m. So I went higher than I had on Mt Fuji and felt absolutely fine, whereas Mt Fuji made me feel rotten. This was because in Tibet I’d gained altitude little by little, with a night or two each in a string of high-altitude towns, and was therefore well-acclimatised.
So, surely that means it is a good idea to spend a night on Mt Fuji to acclimatise, right? Well, not really – if we consider the altitude profile of my Mt Fuji climb:
10.30am: Fuji station, altitude: just above sea level
1pm: Fujinomiya trail 5th station, altitude: 2,400m
6pm – 1am: Fujinomiya trail 8th station, altitude: around 3,200m
Around 4am: Mt Fuji summit, altitude: 3,776m
So we went from just above sea level to 3,776m in around 17 hours. The fact is that your body does not acclimatise that quickly – spending seven or eight hours in a hut at 8th or 9th station isn’t enough for you to acclimatise, but it does prolong your stay above 3,000m and therefore increase your likelihood of feeling sick as a result. On the other hand, if you do the night climb:
5.55pm: Shin Fuji station (last bus departure)
8pm: Fujinomiya trail 5th station
Around: 4am Mt Fuji summit
(Doing the night climb you want to take your time and climb slowly and carefully, with long breaks at the stations (take a thermos or two of hot tea!), as you don’t want to arrive on the summit two hours before sunrise. It’s jolly cold up there, and though there is a cafeteria on the summit it wouldn’t be a great place to be hanging around for that long)
Doing it this way, though you’re getting to the top even faster and that is likely to make you feel the effects of the altitude, you’ll be descending again before it’s really had time to kick in. The fact is that you’re not going to be acclimatised with either option, and may or may not feel sick either way; but the time spent above the crucial 3,000m mark is far greater if you stay in a hut, meaning that if you do get a touch of altitude sickness, you’ll simply have to suffer it longer. Better to get up to the top in one go, timing it for just before sunrise and descending straight away. If you feel fit enough to deal with that amount of hiking without a proper break, that’s the way I’d advise doing it and that’s the way I’d do it if I were to make myself a fool by doing so again. Actually – climbing mountains in the dark sucks, so I would even consider an early morning start and getting up and down within the same day (and sod the sunrise).
Really, the only way to properly acclimatise would be to spend a night at 5th or 6th station and then another night at 8th or 9th station, or even better to climb the mountain from 1st station, i.e. don’t take the bus and start from the very bottom of the trail. That also gives you way more bragging rights!
For some other hikes in and around Tokyo, see here
For hiking in Kyoto, see here
Have you climbed the Fujinomiya trail? Or any of the other Mt Fuji trails? How was it, and what do you think about the question of night climb vs 2-day climb? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!