Prior to booking my ticket to Japan, I had no desire to hike to the top of Mt. Fuji. I had seen photos of it on travel programs, thought the snowy peak looked quite nice from the comforts of my warm abode with functioning amenities, but never really thought to myself, “I need to be on top of that.” Proximity sure is a son of a bitch.
Once I realized where the mountain was, and the seemingly smallish effort it would require to attain this summit, the seed had been planted. There was no turning back. “I enjoy hiking,” I thought to myself. This will certainly be a grand way to spend two days in Japan. Travel and outdoor adventure. What a perfect pairing of things I enjoy! Oh, even better, the hike is rated as moderate. In hindsight, this statement does contain a smidgen of accuracy when looked at through a glass full of vision distorting oil.
My journey began leaving out of Tokyo. Feeling a bit citied out, I found myself on a train bound for Kawaguchiko, where I could catch a bus up to the 5th station to begin my hike. It was my first train ride of any sizable distance, and I was enjoying being able to utilize my JR Pass for the first time, and watch unfamiliar countryside zip by. I had checked the weather report before departure, and I knew that there was a chance of encountering rain. Approaching the mountain, this chance imperceptibly morphed into a gray certainty of hovering precipitation. It was going to be a wet day for walk up a mountain.
Arriving at the 5th station, there was already limited visibility. Having condemned myself to lugging boots and a heavy jacket around for this specific endeavor, there was no way I was going to back out of this. I prepared my gear, worriedly purchased water (did I have enough?!), and bid adieu to the dry warren of the station buildings. Helllloooo, Mt. Fuji!
Aside from the moisture, I didn’t think the beginnings of the hike were all that bad. In a way, the mist and rain was pleasant (I told myself), because I became so scorchingly hot inside the shell of my jacket from labored physical activity. Watching people pass in the opposite direction, I wondered what they knew, that I didn’t.
I opted to hike up the Yoshida trail, which by and large is the most popular trek. I had arranged for overnight accommodations at a mountain hut at the 8th station. Leaving around 3:00p, my only goal was to arrive before sundown, which thankfully I did. That’s where things kind of began to take a turn.
In my mind, once I reached the 8th station, I had 30 minutes left beyond that to make it to the summit. All of the articles I read talk about staying overnight to acclimatize, and give yourself a rest and warm meal, in order to pleasantly continue to the summit to watch sunrise. Arriving to my hut around 5:30p, I was proud of what I had accomplished; albeit, a bit soggy. I had found my lodging despite rain and language barriers, and I was able to watch the shadow of Mt. Fuji grow against the horizon as the sun went down. When double checking what time I needed to leave in the morning to catch sunrise, I was told 1:30am. Wait.
1:30am? Yes. That is correct. With sunrise shortly after 5:00a, my calculation of 30 minutes to the top was deeply, deeply inaccurate. Why I thought this to begin with, is beyond me. Sometimes thoughts manifest themselves in funny ways, or something like that. No problem, I thought to myself. The sun has gone down, I’m exhausted, and dinner was quite tasty. If I lay down now, that gives me about 7 hours of solid rest in a communal mountain hut filled with strangers. Woohoo!
Waking up around 1:00a there was already a flurry of activity. Zippers being zipped, hiking boots being laced up, and headlamps being adjusted for optimal night time path viewing. I better understood the 1:30a departure once I saw the sheer number of people attempting to do the exact same thing. Let me reiterate the staggering amount of humans who were lining up to trudge up a mountain path in the dark, to witness the birth of a new day. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Now, not that I ever doubted the advice of the guides I read, but change in temperature due to elevation is a real thing. I didn’t feel underprepared in the gear department, but it’s one thing to read about being cold, it’s another thing to be cold. There was no shortage of stark, unrelenting blasts of frigid air released from the lungs of whatever ice demon that lives atop Mt. Fuji. It was COLD.
Even if I had wanted to power up the trail, and somehow circumvent the droves of people on my own personal route, I don’t think my body would’ve allowed it. It’s one of the first times I can remember my body basically saying, “Nah, dude. I’m good.” Huffing and puffing, I was happy to saunter along at the collective pace the line had decided.
Arriving at the summit around 4:00a, I realized that I had to somehow keep myself warm for another hour or so, before I could resume motion. I found a corner to nuzzle into to protect myself from the wind, but it’s howling was incessant. Go for a hike, they said. Experience Japan, they said.
While rocking my body to and fro in order to maintain some semblance of warmth, a Japanese teenager approached me. Without hesitation he blurt out, “You are cold. I am a frog.” He was correct in his assessment. I was cold, and he did have a pretty great frog hat on. His enthusiasm, paired with a big toothy smile, somehow transferred an inkling of warmth, that I very much required in that moment. Thank you, frog.
Around 5:00a the omnipresent gray mist began to take on more of an orange hue. A certain rumbling of activity began to spread it’s way through those who found themselves huddled in anticipation. People began to jockey for camera position, but the clouds were having difficulty in deciding whether or not to allow a view this particular morning.
For a brief moment, the clouds released their hold from our mountain perch, and an audible gasp was heard throughout the crowd. Seeing the tiny, glowing orb hovering just above the cloud line is something I will always remember. Watching the sunlight gradually reveal form out of darkness, was a shared experience that transcended time and language barriers. It was nice to pause and reflect on everything for a bit, prior to descending the mountain.
Getting off the mountain was quite the quest in and of itself. One would think traveling downhill versus uphill would be welcomed, which in some ways it was, but the downhill went on, and on, and on, and on. I kept peeking over the edges of the switchbacks in an effort to estimate how much longer it was going to take to get down. For a while I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. One small slushy volcanic rock step for man, one giant… I forget how it goes.
Slowly but surely, clunky missteps yielded gradual descent. Temperatures began to change, and layers of clothing began to be removed. Knowing that the only way to get off the mountain was self propulsion, I continued to put one foot in front of the other. Watching as grannies and grandpas zipped by me really made me question my level of physical aptitude. Nearing the bottom of the mountain, with legs shaking, I watched as prospective summit seekers prepared themselves for the ascent. I now knew, what they would soon find out.
Hearing stories of people who did not make it to the summit, or those who became sick due to the altitude, makes me appreciate my experience even more. Having meditated on it a bit, what a peculiar desire it is for anyone to want to put themselves on top of a mountain to begin with. Having now subjected myself to some fulfilling, self-inflicted physical punishment, I most certainly desire to meet a new mountain, and scurry up, should my body allow.