At 3776 metres above sea level, Mount Fuji is not only the highest mountain in Japan, it’s also one of the most iconic in the world. The official climbing season is during July and August, and while you’re able to climb it at any time, climbing outside of these dates may mean conditions won’t be optimal, and the shops and huts on the mountain are likely to be shut.
My brother and I decided to climb from Fujinomiya-guchi shin-go-gome (Fujinomiya trail, new fifth station) – the quickest and the shortest route to the summit, starting from a car park at 2,400 m. For us the attraction was reaching the summit, not so much the hike itself. However in retrospect, we regretted not starting from the bottom as the trail weaves through an ancient and scenic forest, instead of a barren rocky trail. From this point to the top, it was just a seemingly endless sequence of steps up volcanic gravel, guided by chain and rope handrails.
It was a little before midnight when we arrived at the car park at shin-go-gome after driving through impossibly thick fog and clouds up the long, tight, twisty dark road that snaked its way up Mt Fuji. The rain from the trailing end of a typhoon was lashing the car, and there were streams running down the road. You could say that it was suboptimal conditions to be climbing a tall and exposed mountain, especially given our levels of preparation – we’d brought plenty of food/fluids, but neither of us had proper wet weather gear, shoes, or quality lighting.
The car park was empty. Being stuck in a crowded, slow moving congo-line of people climbing to the summit was one of our major concerns. But, it seemed that people weren’t interested in climbing during a raging storm, as during the entire climb, we saw less than 10 other people – eight of whom were climbing back down. Undeterred, we continued the ascent. Our rain jackets stopped being waterproof, our lights were ineffective and the winds didn’t stop howling. But, due to the aggressive pace that we were setting, our bodies were radiating with heat. The only salvation from the infinite darkness came from the huts and shops with their fluorescent lights at regular intervals along the trail. One even had a vending machine, which I thought was both a brilliant and horrible example of modern Japan.
After an hour of climbing, we managed to make it above the rain, and now we were only left with the constant wind, which had quite literally torn the raincoats off our bodies.
Three-and-a-half hours of climbing later, we’d reached the top of the trail. Only, it wasn’t what we were expecting. The huts were all shut, and it was completely dark. A thermometer we found on the outside of a hut read 2˚C – it was 25˚C at the base. We were cold, wet and tired and left with no options other than huddling under emergency blankets within a stone doorway, to escape from the wind. We remained here like this for 45 minutes, until the door we were leaning against creaked open at 4am. We’d been sheltering in front of Japan’s highest post office.
Yes, there is a post office at the top of Mt. Fuji. If you send mail from here, it will be stamped with a special stamp acknowledging your achievements. And yes, I bought some postcards and sent them from the summit.
The workers in this post office take it in turns, working for weeks at a time up here. They were quite surprised to see us up here, and welcomed us in allowing us to warm up and dry a little. It also finally allowed me the chance to take my camera out of the bag. Until now, it had only been darkness.
We thought that we’d reached the summit, however there was still another final push to make it to the highest point on the other side of the crater. I don’t know if it was the altitude, or if it was weariness from hiking through the night, or just purely mental, but the scramble up the tractor trail to the real summit was the hardest part of the entire hike. But, we couldn’t hike Mount Fuji without getting to the actual summit. There is a small monument marking the summit, as well as a large weather station.
We celebrated our achievement as all good mountaineers do – by cracking open a small can of beer. We’d chosen Asahi, as it means ‘sunrise’ in Japanese, hoping to enjoy it while watching the sun rise over the land of the rising sun. Instead, we were trapped in a fog that was slowly, but perceptibly, becoming lighter.
As the sun rose, the clouds started to burn off, and we could see the post-apocalyptic landscape. It was akin to something from a Mad Max movie, barren rocks, giant craters and extremely weathered buildings. We followed a trail around the crater, to get a better view of the sea of clouds and the now visible sun – which had already been up for an hour.
We didn’t get the sunrise that we’d hoped for, but we managed to have it to ourselves. We were tired and satisfied, and in basking sunlight, we made our way down through the tide of Japanese making their way to the summit. Two hours of half-walking, half-sliding down the loose gravel we were back at our car, in the now crowded car park.
There is a Japanese saying that ‘He who climbs Fuij once is a wise man, but only a fool would climb it twice’. It wasn’t that bad, and given the opportunity, I would certainly try it again – though in clearer and calmer conditions!