Mt Fuji: Above the clouds
I saw a man do a double take as he walked passed me in the train car. The passengers around me were dressed in tasteful, modest clothes in a palette of white, black and pastels. I, on the other hand, stood out in my short running shorts, a hand-me-down vintage Frank Shorter exercise top with a mesh back, and pink running shoes. Could this train really take me to the base of Mt Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan and my objective for the weekend?
My doubts were quelled when I found a line of other intrepid explorers waiting for the shuttle bus to the Subashiri trailhead outside the train station. Backpacks, technical fabrics, and Vibram soles abounded; we were all clearly headed for Mt Fuji. The idea had been born early in the week, as I sat in my office, hatching weekend plans over my post-lunch coffee. After reading the detailed information pages available on the web about the hike, I learned that this weekend was the last in the ‘official’ climbing season. Since I didn’t bring any winter gear to Japan, I decided it was now or never, and booked an overnight spot in one of the huts high on the mountain.
A common way of summiting Mt Fuji is over two days: first climbing to a hut high on the mountain, then spending a night (well, more like half a night) at the hut before climbing the last stretch to see the sunrise from the top. The weather on Sunday morning was critical to this end, and I watched it like a hawk all week, wondering if I had pulled the trigger too early. By Friday morning, the forecast took a turn for the better, and I booked my Shinkansen (bullet) train tickets to go to Mt Fuji the next day.
The bus wheezed up the winding road, ascending to 2000 meters, or more than halfway up the mountain. As we pulled up to the Subashiri trailhead, a recorded English voice over the loudspeaker informed us of the dangers of climbing Mt Fuji, and urged precaution. “The temperature at the top of the mountain can be 20 degrees Celsius colder than in the urban area,” the female voice emphasized. Well duh, it is at 3700 meters! I found myself thinking, before realizing that this might not be so obvious to the city-dwelling Japanese or eager tourists.
Welcome to the Subashiri Trailhead!
The trailhead certainly catered to tourists. There was a small restaurant selling noodles and ice cream, a souvenir shop selling walking sticks to be branded at the different huts on the way up the mountain and other sundries, and pay-per-use toilets. Before starting my hike, I made the obligatory charitable donation (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) of 1000 yen, or around 10 USD, to the conservation foundation for Mt Fuji. There was no doubt about it: there are plenty of opportunities to empty one’s wallet on Fuji.
Flowers on the trail up Mt Fuji
It was just before noon as I began to hike up the mountain, and I focused on slowing my steps. I had all day to ascend the 1400 meters to the hut, hardly a daunting prospect given my current fitness level. The Subashiri trail is the second most used of the four trails ascending Mt Fuji, but right then I didn’t see any sign of the 100 000 people who purportedly summit each year. The first section ascended on a bed of volcanic pumice through a dense forest of stunted trees. Flowers dotted the path, signifying that summer wasn’t over, not yet. For a while, the trees closed in over the trail, forming a natural arched tunnel. I felt like a creature of the earth, burrowing my way up the mountain. I spotted a side trail, and popped out of the tunnel to a view of the bare mountain above me, the summit obscured by clouds. I’m going up there! I thought.
A tunnel of trees
Although there had been fog at Subashiri trailhead, I soon ascended into the sun and arrived at the 6th station. The trailhead is located at what is known as the 5th station, and the summit is at the 10th station. I assume there historically were 4 stations lower down the mountain that have fallen into disuse due to road that now goes up to the 5th. A ‘station’ is a group of simple huts selling snacks, hot food, water, and, you guessed it, pay-per-use toilets. Afraid they would extract money from me if I sat at one of the picnic tables outside of the 6th station, I found a nice place to sit further up the trail and took a snack break.
I began to contemplate my progress. Even trying to go slow, I was making good time and would arrive at the hut in the early afternoon. The weather was looking increasingly good, and checking my weather app, I saw a high likelihood of clouds and precipitation the next morning. I should just go for it, I thought, I can probably make it to the top this afternoon if I want. So I turned up the pace, and shot up the mountain.
Sometimes I feel like I am too competitive. Climbing a mountain, after all, is not a competition, especially not a mountain that gets climbed as often as Mt Fuji. But the satisfaction I get from passing people, as far as I know, doesn’t harm anyone, and so I relished in it as I motored uphill. I was out of the trees now, and had climbed high enough to be above the clouds. Despite the increasing altitude, I felt great.
I stopped to talk to a lightly dressed French/Tunisian couple. They had taken the bus from Tokyo that morning, and had no idea how far they were up the mountain, or even how tall the mountain was. I eyed their light clothes and single backpack, and said, cautiously, “You do know it gets dark at around 6pm, right?” They assured me that they would turn around at the next station, and I took off up the trail, eager to reach the summit.
Above the clouds on my ascent of Mt Fuji.
Above the 7th station, huts appeared so often you could always see the next one above you. At each hut, the price of bottled water increased, and I was glad I had taken it upon myself to haul 3 liters up the mountain. There is no water on volcanic Mt Fuji, other than what is transported up to the huts. The huts also sold canned oxygen, for those who felt the air at 3000 meters was too thin.
The people I passed roughly fell into two categories. There were those dressed to the nines in state-of-the-art hiking gear: gaiters, hiking poles, special hats, mountaineering boots. And then there were those who looked like they had just walked off the streets of Tokyo onto the mountain, wearing jeans and tennis shoes and carrying computer backpacks. It was fascinating to watch this diverse multitude of people united by a common goal of the summit.
Near the top, I passed an American who muttered to his companions, “We’re getting passed by girls!”, sotto voce. As though I was an entire flock of schoolgirls, giggling as I sprinted passed him. As usual, I came up with a good retort a few minutes after the fact. It’s called getting chicked, I should have said, own it! Inside, I just hiked on silently.
Lions guard the entrance to Kusushi shrine, just below the summit crater of Mt Fuji.
Predictably (we are in Japan after all), there was a shrine at the edge of the volcanic crater of Mt Fuji, complete with an arch and statues of lions. The highest point on the mountain, Kengamine, is on the other side of the crater from the Kusushi shrine where the Subashiri trail ascends. It didn’t look that far away though, and I decided I had time to hike the trail that encircles the crater.
Hikers overlook the sea of clouds on the Mt Fuji crater rim trail.
The crater was an absolute moonscape. There were icicles on the shaded sides of some of the massive rocks on the crater’s edge, and rocks of red, yellow, brown and white formed a muted rainbow. Although the weather was beautiful, sudden gusts of strong wind swept the crater and I stopped to put on more clothes. Mt Fuji was a cruise boat on a sea of clouds that stretched as far as the eye could see.
A rainbow of rock on the Mt Fuji crater.
The final climb to the Kengamine was a steep ramp of loose volcanic soil, and I found myself missing my dweeby hiking poles as I slid one step back for every step forward. There was a meteorological station on the summit and I marveled once again at how developed this mountain was. At least there’s no shopping mall on top, I reminded myself, thinking of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. Well, at least not yet.
The Mt Fuji crater as seen from Kengamine summit.
I completed my circuit of the summit crater and jogged down the side of the mountain to my hut at the 8th station. Mt Fuji has separate uphill and downhill trails to accommodate the crowds. While the uphill trail is rugged and climbs up fairly solid rock, the downhill trail is wide enough to drive a jeep up and descends steeply on loose volcanic sand.
I rolled into the hut at about 4:30 pm, and was given a rundown of the hut rules in surprisingly fluent English. As I checked in, I saw a dark-haired, but clearly Western, girl eyeing me, and I recognized the look on her face completely. Someone I can talk to! I thought. She approached me afterwards, and that’s how I meet Kathryn, an Australian teacher who recently moved to Tokyo to teach at an international school.
We spent the evening chit-chatting about the strange and wonderful lives we lead in Japan, and wondering how we would possibly sleep in the packed bunkrooms. The bunkrooms w
here the most cramped I’ve ever been in. They literally put you so close together you can’t move without your neighbor (a complete stranger) knowing.
Rows of bedding, ready to pack hikers like sardines.
I turned in early, even though I wasn’t intending to hike to the summit for sunrise. I understood there would be crowds of people and I thought the likelihood of a spectacular sunrise low given the weather forecast. I still planned to get up for the sunrise, as it can be seen from the hut, which is at a respectable 3400 meters.
The shadow of Mt Fuji on the sea of clouds at sunset.
Unsurprisingly, I had a terrible night’s sleep. Although the bunkroom was well-ventilated, the sleeping bags we were given were far too warm for the heater that is this Wild Bazilchuk. I ended up sleeping on top of the bag for a while, marveling at the woman next to me who was dressed in down jacket and wool hat, her sleeping bag zipped up to her throat and covered with a fluffy blanket to boot.
Then, at 2 am, the hut staff came in, turned on the lights, and woke everyone up for sunrise. I tried in vain to sleep through the chaos of people getting up and packing, but in the end I decided to get up, avail myself of the pay-per-use toilet and check out the craziness outside. Outside the hut was a line of people shuffling towards the summit of Mt Fuji. The weather was better than I feared, but I couldn’t get excited about standing in line to get to the summit. I went back to bed, happy to have more personal space now that my neighbors were shuffling off to the summit.
The line of people on the way to the summit at 2 am.
The wake-up call came again at 5 am, and this time I got up for good. The sunrise was a little disappointing, mostly obscured by clouds. I still enjoyed eating my breakfast outside the hut, taking in the view from one of the highest places in Japan. Glancing up, I realized that the summit was once again completely obscured by clouds.
Clouds lap at the foot of the mountain, as seen from the 8th station hut where I spent the night. Man-made steps of contained rock run parallel to the trail; I suspect they are to prevent erosion of the soft, volcanic soil.
I reviewed my options. The hut staff clearly wanted us out; they were closing the hut that day and looked like they were eager to get started. The first bus was at 8:50 am, eons away. I decided to go for the summit one more time, just to see how fast I could do it! I motored up to the top in 36 minutes, feeling strong and powerful. It was cold, windy and foggy at Kusushi shrine, so I didn’t even consider the trek around the crater again.
A less-than-spectacular view from the summit on Sunday morning.
As I descended the mountain, I came into the sunlight below the summit clouds, but above the valley clouds. I slid down the volcanic sand, trying to ignore how much of it was collecting in my shoes (should’ve brought my Dirty Girls!). Gradually, the trail brought me down the mountain and back to reality. It had been a spectacular adventure above the clouds.
- The Wild Bazilchuk