An in-depth look at what it takes to get to the top of Japan’s highest peak
~ Story and photos by Esther Dacanay
It’s past 7am, and I’m out of breath. “Just a few more steps,” I tell myself. Every muscle in my body screams as I take the last two steps prior to reaching the top of the steep, concrete staircase.
Reaching the summit of Diamond Head, Oahu’s landmark mountain, brought me back to the moment I had conquered Japan’s Mt. Fuji, and stared down its enormous volcanic crater just months prior.
Mt. Fuji, still an active volcano today, is Japan’s tallest mountain, standing in all its majesty at approximately 3,776.24 meters high (12,389 ft). Its last confirmed eruption was in 1707, still with the potential to erupt again at any moment, especially if a major earthquake were to hit the region. In such a catastrophic event, as many as 750,000 residents would have to flee their homes in a moment’s notice if the eruption was even close to that of 1707. With that being said, thousands of people still come from all over the world to climb Mt. Fuji, even knowing its risks, great and small. But the reward of conquering Fuji’s summit, despite the obstacles, offers the kind of personal satisfaction that is quite remarkable and inexplicable.
After scaling the mountain two consecutive summers, I’ve learned the importance of respecting the process of preparing for such a great and sacred climb. First and foremost, its important to understand that if your goal is to reach Mt Fuji’s summit, then it’s not going to be a regular day hike that only takes a couple of hours.
Here in Hawaii, residents and tourists alike are accustomed to short hikes where it might be okay to wear a tank top, shorts, and pack only a bottle of water. That isn’t the case with climbing Mt. Fuji, which can take anywhere between 6 to 16 hours to reach the summit and return, depending upon which of the four trails you choose, how crowded that trail might be, your hiking pace, the amount of times you choose to stop for rest, and how long you take for each resting period.
There are four trails, each with its own trailhead that serves as the starting point, all leading to the summit. The rest stations are equipped with bathrooms and snack bars offering cold and hot drinks, dry snacks, and even hot ramen. Each trailhead splits off into two separate trails – the ascent, and the descent.
It’s important to note the characteristics of each trail, and to take the right trail back down on the descent so that you end up in the same starting point. Otherwise, you could end up heading down the trail that leads you all the way to the other side of the mountain, which could take you a few extra hours to get back to your original starting point. This could pose quite a frustrating challenge, especially for those who parked their cars at a certain part of the mountain base, or booked a place to rest for the night near their starting point after completing such a long endurance hike.
7–9 hours ascent; 5–7 hours descent
Wide, open path; fewest number trees and rest stations; longest trail to summit
5–7 hours ascent; 3–4 hours descent
Steep, jagged boulders; same trail to ascend and descend; shortest to summit
5–8 hours ascent; 3–5 hours descent
Deeply embedded in forest, low visibility; osanabashiri (sand run) for descent; section of descending trail shared with Yoshida Trail descent
6–8 hours ascent; 4–6 hours descent
Steep, jagged boulders; highly populated trail due to most number of rest stations
An interesting characteristic about the Subashiri Trail is that its descending trail is nicknamed Osunabashiri, the “sand run” because it’s a straight shot down, and you can literally run back down the trail if you so desired.
But be careful on all the descending trails because each contains medium-sized loose lava gravel that can sink your whole foot unless you run, or tread lightly. A short section of this trail’s descent is also shared with the Yoshida Trail, which can be confusing for some trying to avoid coming back to the wrong trailhead.
Most of the year, the mountain is covered in snow, making climbing conditions quite challenging. However, much of it melts in the summer just enough to get in a good, formidable trek all the way up the summit.
Although I do have some thrill-seeker friends who have daunted the climb, and even conquered the summit through treacherous winter conditions, equipped with spiked hiking boots and pick axes, they added even greater risk by hiking off season. The official climbing season for Mt. Fuji commences each year in mid-July, ending in early-September, right before typhoon season kicks in full gear.
If you dare take on the climb any time other than the official climbing season, none of the rest stations will be open for business, including the few stations that do staff medical personnel. Also keep in mind that the temperature can dip between 40 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, even during the summer, so it’s recommended to bring extra layers of clothing for the higher altitudes.
Water bladder for easier accessibility
Quality hiking boots and socks
Gators – to prevent gravel from entering boots
Hiking gloves or fingerless weight training gloves to scale large volcanic boulders
Retractable hiking sticks
Flashlight with extra batteries (for night climb)
Headlight to keep hands free
Plenty of Japanese yen
Lightweight hiking backpack w/ back support
Small blanket and/or extra layers of clothing for higher altitudes and temperature drops
Can of oxygen to adjust to high altitudes
Snacks and small pack of fruit chews to help stave off nausea from “altitude sickness”
Electrolyte tablets to dissolve into water for extra energy and cellular strength
Small bottle of aspirin in case of headache
Mini first aid kit
Mobile device with earphones
The trails even have a few mountain huts where you can book a small, single-occupancy space, like a hostel, to help break up the hike prior to reaching the summit. Some climbers choose to do this if they started on the trail in the afternoon, and want to get in a few hours of rest just before reaching the summit at sunrise. Staying at a mountain hut requires a reservation, and can cost an upwards of ¥7,000 ($70).
For some, it’s worth it (as opposed to the typical 20-min climbing break), especially if traveling with kids in tow. And yes, I’ve seen kids on the trail – people of all ages climbing and descending Mt. Fuji, young and old, Japanese and foreigner alike, ages 5 to 95.
The first time I climbed Fuji, my brother was visiting from San Diego, and we chose to hit the trail and climb all through the night without any sleep (a bullet climb). So there we were, with a climbing mate from the UK who had recently climbed and conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We all stood high above the clouds, yards above the final rest station prior to reaching the summit, which we could see visibly. It looked close from our vantage point, yet it was still another two-hour hike away.
From that final rest station, looking down, the clouds are literally just a few feet below and it looks like you can jump right onto a pillow-like trampoline. But I wouldn’t suggest that because it would end badly.
It was 4:39am, the sun was rising, dazzling with brilliance in orange and purple. It was then, at this very moment, where I realized exactly why Japan is known as the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Never in my lifetime have I ever witnessed a sunrise as incredible as seen from high above the clouds on Mt. Fuji.
Just moments prior, my altitude sickness and pounding head had taken its toll on my body and spirit, and I felt as though I was either going to throw up, or pass out right there on that trail, backpack and all.
At that point, all I wanted to do was chuck my backpack over the cliff, and I could care less about reaching that darned summit. But somehow, witnessing that brilliant sunrise gave me the kind of morale boost that fueled my cells, motivating me to conquer Fuji’s summit at all costs.
The journey had a few bumps in the road, but at last, mission accomplished. I looked around at the scenery and the views from the top. Photos alone cannot even begin to give justice to such magnificent views, and most importantly, the inexplicable feeling of accomplishment of overcoming, spiritually, and quite literally, a mountain of obstacles.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, never to be repeated again, or so I thought. But months later, I found myself at a sporting goods store looking at hiking gear once again. I sensed the great Fujisan reaching out. I heed its whisper.