Last year I climbed Mt Fuji with my son, Pete. It’s a fabulous over 50s climbing experience – to watch the sunrise from the summit and to see Fuji’s arrow-head shadow spread over the surrounding landscape after dawn. Don’t expect to be on your own though. Climbing Mt Fuji is a rite of passage for young Japanese and every day during the climbing season there will be hundreds if not thousands of enthusiastic young Japanese with limitless energy and massive mobile phone photo storage capacity. Among them, the expected groups of backpackers… and the occasional over 60s Westerner with a big grin on his (or her) face.
We arranged things ourselves, helped at the last minute by Pete speaking good Japanese. This isn’t needed though if you know in advance how things work. The Climbing Mount Fuji section of the Japan-Guide.com site has all the information you need to plan your travel to Fuji by train and bus. If you have a Japan Rail Pass (expensive but highly recommended as it gives you huge flexibility on the amazing Japan train system), you only need to pay for the bus. This gets you to the start of the trail. Even if you are going on an organised tour, this research helps ensure you go on a track that suits your walking style and fitness.
The independent traveller then only needs to book the mountain hut to stay in overnight. Oh, the huts…the huts.You cannot avoid them as camping is prohibited. You have to have serious kit and mountaineering experience to climb outside the summer season. In summer, fit people can climb up and back in a day, but you have to climb through the night if you want to see the sunrise. I’d rather not.
To make a booking, you have to contact the hut directly. Here is the list of all huts and their contact numbers. Before you book a hut though, read up on how you get to the start of each trail, and decide how far you want to climb on the first day, and how far you are prepared to be climbing Mt Fuji in the early hours if you want to see the sunrise (as huge numbers of people do). Then call your chosen hut to book a slot. Note that I didn’t say ‘book a bed’ or ‘book a room’. Fuji Mountain Guides also offer a booking service for English speakers who find it hard to communicate direct, though they can book only a limited number of huts. They will also try to get you to pay for a guide, of course.
So, all ticketed and booked for a hut on the Fujinomiya trail, the steepest but shortest to the summit, we caught the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo, getting off at Fujinomiya station. The next bus was in half an hour so we slouched and coffeed, then hopped on the small bus with a few other itinerant travellers. After sorting gear and dumping non-mountain things in a locker at the roadhead (station 5), we headed on up the trail, paying our 1000 yen fee on the way. The uphill started almost immediately, and from then on the only flat sections were at the huts.
The ground is rocky and dusty, so gaiters can help keep pebbles out of your boots, especially on the way down. Walking boots are certainly preferable to trainers if you want to avoid twisted ankles. Warm mountain clothing is essential, though you do see all sorts of inappropriate outfits. Climbing Mt Fuji is just a matter of going up and up though, and staying overnight at a hut means you don’t have to rush. The views get broader as you climb, and it’s hopefully a lovely cool day in Japan.
We arrived at our chosen hut and were allocated our space in the communal bunks. I put my sunglasses down at one stage and they disappeared, so beware the opportunist Fuji thieves. The hut didn’t seem too bad though, if you are OK sleeping in your clothes and sleeping under duvet style covers that have been used by many people before you and will be used by many in the nights ahead.
We were given a simple meal and a small package with breakfast food to carry the next morning. Then we tried to sleep. Tried is the operative word. As the evening and night wore on, people kept coming and coming, and each group made lots of noise as they unpacked and settled in, and the space available to us became less and less. Eventually we realised that the space allocated was actually narrower than our shoulders. Lying on our sides was the only way to rest, as long as the person beside you did not move. The person beside me twitched and kicked whenever she slept. People snored everywhere. It was unbelievably awful, but in retrospect the memory is a part of the whole Mt Fuji climbing experience.
After many hours of this, and just 30 minutes’ sleep, it was clear that some people had started to pack up to continue their climb. It made a lot more sense that staying and not sleeping, so we dressed and packed, turned on head torches and headed on up. We arrived at the top still in darkness, and walked round the crater edge to the east side where we joined hundreds of others as the sun began its gorgeous passage to create our day.
It was one of my life’s great joys to sit there on a small ledge with my son and watch the sunrise from the rim of the Mt Fuji crater. Pete had brought eclipse-watching glasses so we watched the sun rise when everyone else had to give up. Then when the day was established, we wandered round the crater, stopping to watch the mountain’s arrow shadow stretch over the plains below, bypassed the long queue to climb the last few metres to the highest point – who cares! – and finally headed on down.
Reunited with our street clothes at the 5th station, we had a meal and got on the bus back to the Shinkashen. Everyone on the bus slept the whole way to the train station so it was clear few people get sleep in the huts, and then we slept on the bullet train back to Osaka except to get those last glimpses of majestic Fuji slumbering over Tokyo, as the last of the cherry blossom petals fell.