Mt. Fuji, Japan
This short trip was full of many surprises and tested my luck to no end. Only four days during the Korean Chuseok holiday yet crammed with adventures in every part, it’s another one of the highlights of my life. Let the saga being…
Part 1- A Thrilling Beginning
I can’t remember exactly when my traveling partner -Eric- and I realized our plan had a slight glitch. Our problem was this: the total travel time from the airport to our hostel near the mountain was over 3.5 hours; we had to take four different trains to get there (on a rather complex transit system); the last train was outside of Tokyo and therefore stopped running much earlier; the VERY LAST minute we could catch our first train to have any chance of catching our last one was 8:45 pm.; our plane landed at 8:00 pm. Whew! It was going to be a squeeze – with a small chance of success and a large chance that we would be sleeping on the ground of some train platform that night. It didn’t help that -of course- we were seated at the VERY back of the plane. I mean the last two possible seats against that back wall. But we were prepared to throw some elbows and dodge the slow walkers trying to make that train. My first panic attack of the trip occurred upon landing when the stewardess announced that the local time was 8:58 pm. Whaaaaaat?! Was there a time difference we didn’t account for? Did we misread our ticket? No – the stewardess came on a few minutes later to correct her mistake and our hope was restored.
We luckily didn’t have to knock anyone over since the Narita Airport in Japan was very efficient and not very busy so we made it through customs and security without any problems. Finding the train ticket counter was also very easy and our first bit of luck kicked in as the woman at the ticket counter was able to issue us tickets for this train AND the next; saving us time at our next transfer. Wouldn’t you know it, our train departed at 8:43 pm! There was now a slight glimmer of a chance we could possibly catch that last train.
It was a comfortable 40 min. ride on the Sky Liner to Nippori Station. I was impressed with the automatic capsule bathroom and the roomy, comfortable seats. However, that relaxing ride soon came to an end and we were back in panic mode to make the next train. Thanks to the first ticket lady we only had to find the right platform – which with all of the signs clearly marked in English – was no problem. The Shinjuku Station was another matter entirely. For the life of us we couldn’t figure out where to get a ticket. We were running around the station and then the platform looking for a ticket booth or someone to take pity on the struggling foreigners. We found an employee who was able to convey to us that we could just get on the train and pay later. Ok… So the train arrived and we hopped on. Just as we had been told there was a man issuing tickets just inside the doors – excellent! But this trip was the clincher: an hour long train ride that determined whether or not we would catch the last one at Otsuki Station. We saw the other stations flash by and got more and more discouraged at the thought of sleeping on a concrete floor on an outdoor platform. It was a tense ride to be sure and we literally bolted from the train when it stopped and ran down the platform (in what we hoped was the right direction). We bought two tickets as the station guard held the train and we stepped on with the doors closing IMMEDIATELY behind us. Holy shit! Biggest feeling of relief I can remember experiencing. We would make it to our hostel that night.
We disembarked close to midnight at Kawaguchiko Station in Fujiyoshida and followed the walking directions to K’s House Mt. Fuji Hostel. With only a couple wrong turns we made it in fairly good time, grabbed the keys off of the reception desk, and collapsed into bed. I was so thankful for that simple little bunk bed, in a room, with a pillow – you have no idea!
Part 2- From the Very Beginning
We woke up surprisingly early and took advantage of the very quaint and cozy dining room and kitchen facilities to make some breakfast and have tea. We had to check-in/check-out around 8:00 am and got excellent directions to our starting point.
Most people hike Mt. Fuji starting from the 5th Station: it’s road accessible and a bus from Kawaguchiko Station takes you right there. The Subaru Subway line also connects up to that point. But I’m not one to start from halfway up already so Eric and I decided to do the traditional climbing trail starting from the Kitagushi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine – 11 km and 1,400 m below the 5th Station. We decided to make it even longer by starting the walk from our hostel. It was great to walk through the town and we got our first incredible day-light view of the mountain along the way.
Starting at the Sengen Shrine is the best decision we made in terms of hiking Fuji. There are so many sights to see along the way full of history and information about this original trail. It’s also the most beautiful part of the mountain (excluding the view from summit). While everything above the 5th station is barren rock and dusty gravel, this first half is in beautiful, lush, green forest. We stopped at all of the points and even had close encounters with wild deer along the way. This route is known as the the Yoshidaguchi Climbing Trail and is dotted with interesting buildings, ruins, shrines, statues, huts, stations, etc. the whole way up.
There are incredible shrine buildings and a small temple here that are the perfect start to the hike. We took some time to explore and admire the different monuments and the exceptionally large and majestic pine trees that dotted this area. At the very back is a small stone shrine and just to the right is the starting point of the trail. I couldn’t have been more excited to set off.
This stop was a pleasant surprise. There was a large information map about the hiking trail, a bathroom and other helpful amenities. There was even a small store that sold snacks (including Mt. Fuji chocolates that I was sorely tempted to buy) and tea. We took a small break to enjoy a small cup of tea – for free! The owner was very gracious gave us a very helpful trail map (also for free).
This area traditionally marked the entrance to the holy area of Mt. Fuji. There was a lovely, green park space where we stopped for a snack with some older Japanese men who were making the same hike. A set of stairs led up and on and from this point shrines, Buddhist stone images, and historic relics can be found along the path.
The Old Stations (1-4)
At some point all of the stations below 5 were abandoned and none are now operational. In fact, most are basically crumbling ruins of the old buildings. But they all have really interesting information signs that detail the history of that particular site.
Many of the stations featured shrines to important individuals and gods. They held religious ceremonies and offered special areas for people to worship. The 2nd Station, for example, was a holy ground for women since in past times they were not allowed to hike above this point. There was originally a teahouse at the 3rd Station and a statue of the goddess Sarasvati that women would touch to pray for conception. It was fascinating to learn about this historical aspect of the mountain. It made me a little sad though: that people no longer used this route and missed out on all of these incredible sights. There used to be 18 mountain huts in the area around the original 5th Station in the first half of the 18th century (lower than the current 5th Station) but it dropped to 4, and eventually all of the mountain huts below what is now the 5th Station were abandoned. I think this is quite a shame since this was by far my favourite part of the hiking route and worthwhile for everyone to experience.
Shortly after this last dilapidated hut was the first operational one: Sato-Goya. I waited here for Eric to catch up and was given another excellent route map by the man operating the station. He didn’t speak any English but he had a warm, smoky fire going and was friendly. I couldn’t linger long inside however since I would’ve been charged a resting fee (oh yes!) so I sat outside enjoying a lovely view. It’s really the first time that the trees start thinning and you can see both up and down the mountain.
Eric arrived in a little while and we made an exceptionally short hike to the Seikanso hut: our accommodations for the evening.
It was an expensive stay but worth every yen. The sleeping arrangement was modest but clean and smelled like cedar (always a plus). In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I’ve enjoyed many proper beds. Eric took advantage of them right away and even though it was only about 3:30 pm curled up for a nap. I wasn’t at all tired from the hike so I enjoyed some of the sunshine on the benches outside and read a book. We had dinner served at 5:00 pm so that we could get a few hours of sleep in before we had to leave for the summit climb. Dinner far surpassed my expectations! I was expecting something resembling airplane food and instead was served a proper meal on a Japanese-style plate (with the divided sections). There was a large and juicy hamburger patty; rice; various sides including kimchi, tofu, pickles, and orange wedges; miso soup; and a pot of green tea. All of which was delicious. We even got our 2L water bottles filled for free so we didn’t have to buy more. To top it of the place had a quiet, calming and rustic atmosphere that allowed me to really relax before the tough part of the journey.
Part 3- Up, Up, Up We Go
Our stay at Seikanso was much too short. With an estimated climbing time of 6 hours we had to leave around 11:30 pm to reach the top by 5:30 am. Our wrapped lunch was left ready to go for us so we packed up all of our things, bundled ourselves in our clothes and set off for summit. It was slightly warmer than I expected it would be which was encouraging since I hoped that meant I wouldn’t be too cold at the top.
We reached the 6th Station – which is where disaster struck. This is where the trial splits since the ascending path continues and the descending trail comes down at meet back up with the original path. Being tired, in the dark, with our headlamps fixed down and only a foot in front of us we missed the ascending trail and continued up…along the descent path. By the top I got enough of a bad feeling to pull out my map we were too far gone to turn around and go back.
Luckily there is a path that joins back up with the ascent path at the 8th Station and it was this that we were going to take to get back on track. But it was a long way up and not there were not huts or the 7th Station to break up this section of the route. I lost Eric pretty quickly at this point so I also had to climb it alone. It was boring and rocky and I spent the whole time beating myself up and wondering how I could’ve been so stupid as to miss the main trail! Why didn’t I see it?! Obviously this was the wrong way! I should’ve taken my map out sooner! I kept telling myself to brush it off, no big deal, just a slight detour; but the monotony and loneliness of that part got me down. That was definitely the hardest part for me of the whole hike.
I did at one point run into a hiker who was camped out in his sleeping bag at the side of the trail. He gave me quite a start at first but he gave me some uplifting news: a group of hikers had come through about an hour ahead of me and had done the exact same thing! It was encouraging that I wasn’t the only one who had made the mistake and it made me feel a little better…for a short time…
The thing that really lifted my spirits (to the point of giddy laughter) was arriving to the 8th Station and getting back on track. Now again there were people, lights to follow, and a clear path to follow to the top. At the 8th station hut I found the people ahead who had also gone up the wrong path. Kelsey and Andrew ere fellow Canadians and Phillip was from South Africa. They passed on some good news. I would definitely be making it to the top for sunrise. I was now only 80 min away and it was still more than two hours before sunrise. Since Eric was still nowhere in sight they graciously allowed me to join their group and I huddled up with them for a while before continuing up. It was starting to get cold now. The wind chilled right through the clothes since we were all sweaty from the hike up. We tried to stay there as long as possible but eventually got too cold and had to keep moving. The rest of the hike was steep but much more enjoyable since I now had company. We passed through gate posts where people stuck coins for good luck and statues guarding the entrance to the summit. We reached the summit while it was still dark so we grabbed some prime view seats to watch the sunrise from.
At some point through this breathtaking natural phenomena I started to burn my eyeballs. But it was really too spectacular to look away. I sat over 3,700 m, on the very edge of Mt. Fuji, with new friends, knowing that making this trip was an excellent life decision! How incredibly, insanely lucky I am!
Part 4 – A Test of Luck Descending
I hadn’t seen Eric since shortly after we had taken the wrong route at the 6th Station. Terrible scenarios were going through my head where we couldn’t find each other, I had to make my way to Tokyo alone (not knowing where our hotel was) and meeting up finally at the airport, or something ridiculous. I reluctantly headed down with the others and decided I would wait at one of the stations and hope Eric would meet me there.
Again, I came out flying on the wheel of fortune. At the exact point of the descending trail that is connected to the ascending trail by a short path, I notice Eric’s plaid shirt and bright red hat. The odds of both of us being at this exact spot at the same time is staggering and it makes my mind reel just thinking about it. We could now make a solid plan though with no need to worry about getting separated again. He continued on to the summit while I went down to wait at the 8th station hut. I enjoyed the packed lunch I had received at Seikanso: rice with fish, a sausage, egg and a piece of fried chicken. I think I replenished all of my protein! I snacked, napped and enjoyed the now hot and bright sunshine until Eric met back up with me. We made the descent path much quicker on the way down! It was great now to enjoy the view in the full sunshine as we headed to the fifth station. Since we needed to get all the way back to Tokyo we were leaving from the 5th Station by bus to the Kawaguchiko station. It was more of a kerfuffle navigating our way back but we eventually got there; in time to grab a shower, eat some Japanese shabu shabu and pass out early for a good night’s sleep.
Part 5- A Very Fond Farewell
We stayed at Asakusa Wasou Hotel for our final night. The bathrobes and the location were the only perks of this overpriced stay. And the location almost made it worth the cost. It was within a short walking distance of a beautiful temple and the subway station we needed to reach the airport. So, we spent the morning before our departure exploring Sensoji Temple and the shopping streets around it.
One more mountain, one more sunrise summit, one more country, and one more magical journey that I will never forget. The Land of the Rising Sun…totally lived up to that name.