Taking on Fuji

Watching the sunrise from this sacred mountain is not easy, but it is unforgettable

By: Mark Edward Harris

Though Mt. Fuji is worshiped throughout Japan, I was surprised to learn that only 1 percent of the Japanese ever experience the thrill of a Fuji ascent. That number, however, doesn’t translate into a solo expedition. Since the official climbing season is only two months, July and August, a line of humanity can be spotted threading its way toward the summit especially on weekends during this period. But the camaraderie of a shared goal reaching the top transcends language barriers and adds to the experience.

The Routes
At 12,388 feet Mt. Fuji is divided into 10 stations, with the first station at the foot of the mountain and the 10th being on the summit. Most hikers begin their hikes from one of four 5th stations which are accessible via paved roads. During the summer months access by public transportation is available.

The ascent to the summit from Kawaguchiko 5th Station is the most popular and usually takes five to seven hours and the descent three to five hours for those in good condition. But it’s no cakewalk. From the Kawaguchiko, the Yoshidaguchi Trail leads to the summit and there are separate trails for the ascent and the descent. Sunrise takes place on this side of the mountain and the trail is lined by more than a dozen mountain huts between the 7th and 8th stations. Other trails have fewer mountain huts. An overnight stay at one of these huts costs around $42 without meals and around $58 per person with two meals. The Fuji-Yoshida City Web site (www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp) lists phone numbers for reservations.

Even during the summer months when the weather tends to be relatively mild and mountain huts with basic supplies and sleeping areas are open, it’s important not to underestimate Fujisan. Proper preparation is essential. Regardless of the temperature at the starting point, the weather can change quickly, so warm clothes and a rain jacket is a must. It’s a good idea to fill a small backpack with a hat, gloves, sunglasses and sunscreen, a water bottle, toilet paper, a flashlight, a basic first-aid kit and high-energy snacks. I wore a fanny pack for easy access to my camera. We picked up walking sticks for around $8 at Station 5, which turned out to be a very helpful piece of equipment and a great souvenir. At each of the stations along the climb 200 yen ($1.50 or so) will get you a stamp branded onto your stick as a memento.

A popular way of climbing the mountain is to hike through the night to reach the summit in time for sunrise. (Japan after all is the Land of the Rising Sun.) Sunrise takes place between 4:30 and 5 a.m. in summer. The recommended way of doing this is to climb to a mountain hut around the 7th or 8th stations during the day, and spend some hours resting before continuing to the summit late at night. This pace helps reduce the possibility of altitude sickness. (Small bottles of oxygen are available at the 5th stations and mountain huts and can be effective in dealing with altitude sickness.)

My wife and I decided to start from Kawaguchiko 5th Station at 10:30 p.m. for our summit attempt. We were told we could make it in 4½ hours. If your clients are told the same, tell them not to believe it! We left an hour earlier than suggested, and it was touch and go whether we were going to make it to the summit in time for sunrise.

The climb up is a combination of hiking and climbing through ancient lava flows. There are chains along the steepest inclines to help pull yourself along. As dawn approached around 4:20 a.m., people yelled words of encouragement to each other above and below them to find the strength to make it to the top in time for the magical moment when the first rays, and then the ball of the sun, rise above the horizon.
We passed through a large Shinto gate known as a tori and found a vantage point on the summit just in time to observe an amazing sunrise. After a few minutes of gazing in awe at the magnificent start to a new day, we then turned the camera on ourselves for a “We made it!” photo. We then headed into a large shelter and joined fellow climbers for a well-deserved bowl of hot ramen.

The Descent
On the way down we caught two hours of sleep at the hut at Hachigome (Station 8). The relatively shallow slope, with soft pumice acting as natural shock absorbers on the descending trail, allowed us to do a kind of trot.

After five hours from the time we left the summit we were back at Station 5 where we stopped in at the O-miyage Ya (souvenir shop) and bought certificates with our names in calligraphy proclaiming our successful summit bid.

There’s a Japanese saying which loosely translates as: “He who has never climbed Mt. Fuji is a fool. He who has climbed Mt. Fuji more than once is an even bigger fool.” At least in this context we cannot be considered fools. Climbing Mt Fuji has given us a memory that will last a lifetime, and I consider it one of my greatest achievements. For me, it was my personal Everest.


Outside of the official climbing season of July and August, there are fewer or no bus connections to the 5th Stations. Only seasoned climbers with proper gear and willing to pack in their own supplies should consider taking on this majestic volcano from October to May when extreme weather conditions and avalanche possibilities become a real concern.

To Kawaguchiko 5th Station: There are many buses from Shinjuku in central Tokyo directly to the 5th Station (about $22, 140 minutes one way). There are also about three buses a day from Shin-Fuji Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen line directly to the 5th Station (about $29, 160 minutes). There are frequent buses between Kawaguchiko Station and the 5th Station (about $17, 55 minutes roundtrip).

To reach Gotemba from Tokyo, take the JR Tokaido Line to Kozu (75 minutes) and transfer to the JR Gotemba Line to Gotemba (45 minutes). An alternative is to take the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku to Matsuda (80 minutes) and transfer to the JR Gotemba Line to Gotemba (30 minutes).

To Fujinomiya 5th Station there are direct buses from Shin-Fuji Station (135 minutes) and Mishima Station (125 minutes) on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, Fuji Station (130 minutes) on the local JR Tokaido Line and Fujinomiya Station (100 minutes) on the JR Minobu Line. A roundtrip costs approximately $25.