The snarling, fierce gazes of mighty beasts illuminated by my headlamp light send a momentary jolt of adrenaline through my sleep-deprived body. Upon further inspection, the fearsome pair is revealed to be stone shisa statues, mythical dog-lion creatures that act as guardians from evil spirits. Here they sit, perched beneath the final tori gate high on the shoulder of 12,388-foot Mount Fuji. The summit of Japan’s highest mountain is only a short distance beyond their outpost and amazingly, my hiking partners and I are the only ones in their company.
Mount Fuji is a deeply meaningful mountain in Japanese culture. The graceful, triangular contours of the peak are beautiful when viewed from a distance, especially when glazed with powder-fresh snow. Poets and artists poets have immortalized Mount Fuji with elegant words and moving pictures. It is large enough to create its own weather systems and is classified as an active volcano, with the last major eruption occurring in 1707.
Japanese and foreigners alike target the lofty summit as a worthy pilgrimage. As such, it is one of the most climbed mountains in the world. From July to August (official hiking season), thousands of climbers commit to the taxing hike, most of them spending a night at one of the several lodging houses located mid-mountain. An average hiking season will see over 300,000 people reach the top. Most adventurers depart pre-dawn for the opportunity to watch the sun rise from the summit. It is not unusual for a slow-moving train of humanity to form as hikers grind up the peak in the early darkness. An unbroken string of headlamps glowing from the summit to the lodging houses is a regular phenomenon.
It is a testament to Japan’s cultural discipline and orderly society that so many natives attempt the hike exclusively during the official hiking season. Part of this has to do with the plethora of amenities en route. The lodging houses are heated and have electricity. Several vending machines containing energy drinks, hot coffee, and candy bars are stocked along the way. Shops selling warm ramen, bottled oxygen, and souvenirs are found at stations all the way from base to summit. Benches and chain railings are there to assist weary hikers. One must bring along an ample supply of patience when joining the ascending crowds.
Yet, as soon as majority of the lodges and shops close in early September, the mountain is practically deserted. Mount Fuji’s seasonal shut-down presents a remarkable opportunity to climb the peak without hoards of well-meaning but slow-moving tourists. One or two of the lodging houses stay open for the extended season, which usually lasts until mid-September.
A standard hike up Mount Fuji starts at the fifth station (5,500 feet), a teeming collection of restaurants, shrines, stores, and museums that is the highest point reachable by paved roads. At the start of the off-season, busloads of tourists still arrive for easy day hikes, pony rides, and to take in colorful autumn view. Timberline is a short distance beyond the bustle, and this is where the main trails up Mount Fuji begin. All the standard trails are non-technical walk-ups with a bit of light scrambling, but the real challenge comes from the abrupt elevation gain: about 5,000 vertical in 4.2 miles (one-way). Lodging huts begin at 5,800 feet, about 2.5 miles into the hike. Several lodging hut stations continue to appear for roughly another mile up to 7,800 feet.
Our three-person team consisted of me, my girlfriend Sheila (the two of us coming from Colorado) and our friend Paul, a member of the US military stationed in Kumamoto, Japan. Paul has lived in Japan for five years. Despite the popular saying, “A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once; a fool climbs it twice,” he was on his second trip to the top.
We set out to hike Mount Fuji soon after arriving in Japan from the United States. This strategy helped us sustain the acclimation inherent from living at altitude. Setting off from the 5th station on a clear, warm afternoon, we arrived at our lodging house right as the sun was setting. The clear twilight sky raised our hopes for a storm-free summit sunrise. Despite being the off-season, a steady stream of hikers in groups of three or four slowly arrived at the hut. Around 60 total people shared the 250 capacity building. Sleeping quarters consisted of tight-fitting barracks where we literally were sleeping “cheek to jowl” despite the vacancy of nearby bunks. Every crinkle of paper or throaty snore reverberated in the darkness.
After enduring a sloppy night of sleep, we awoke at 2 am to get ahead of the crowds and make our way to the summit. Sheila and I arose full of energy due to a fluke of our misaligned circadian rhythms. Paul was groggy but eager to get rolling. In the chilly pre-dawn air, we could see the lights of the valley towns glowing far below and the inky night was moonless and still. Our fear of a cloudy morning was unfounded–Mount Fuji’s notoriously bad weather would not be a concern.
We didn’t see another set of headlamps set off until roughly 40 minutes into our hike and by that time, we had the place to ourselves. There was an unspoken sense of gratitude to be isolated on such a well-traveled mountain. The three of us quietly climbed along the rocky trail. After passing the aforementioned guardian shisa statues, we found ourselves on the eastern rim of the summit crater. An enclave of shops is cobbled into the mountainside, built from stone and framed with heavy, wooden doors. This late in the season the buildings were boarded up, creating a shadowy ghost town under the starlight.
It is another 30 minutes around the rim to the highest point at Ken-ga-mine on the western side of the mountain. An automated weather station at the high point is a high-tech contrast to the stone-and-mortar shops and lodges found on the mountain. From this airy vantage point, the prominent summit crater can be seen in all its glory. It was not filled with bubbling magma as I anticipated; at its deepest point it is a rock-floored indent where small puffs of thermal smoke rise from overheated vents.
Arriving well ahead of sunrise, we bundled up in the darkness. A few other hikers made their way to the high point and about ten of us chatted in several different languages as we anticipated goraikō, “the arrival of the sun.” Quietly, a dim orange gradient diffused the blue-black night and the sun made its noble appearance to silent delight.
Seeing Mount Fuji in the full morning light revealed a crimson, rocky summit with fangs of ice hanging from steep, volcanic walls. More commercial buildings lined the rim path back to the eastern portal and several more shisa stood in stately repose. Makeshift shrines could be found in hidden pockets just off the trail. Views from the top were stunning, extending from the green valleys all the way to the eastern ocean. Clouds of condensation began to form in the lowlands. The majority of hikers also began to congregate at viewing stations along the eastern rim as we began our descent along the ordained return path. Unlike the way up, which was a standard-width hiking trail, the way down was on steep road flattened by rugged tractors. Sharp, baseball-sized, volcanic rocks pressed into the road remained abrasive enough to tear chunks out of the rubber of our hiking boots and in several places, we saw entire soles ripped off.
After a couple of knee-pounding hours, we returned to the people and bustling energy of the fifth station. Our experience had been nearly solitary and because we had not been caught up in the claustrophobic glut of hikers normally present during hiking season, it was a welcome site to see the well-dressed, smiling crowds taking photos and eating exotically flavored soft-serve ice cream.
We were fortunate to have so much time to ourselves on Mount Fuji, not to mention two consecutive days of flawless weather. Months later the experience resonates in my memory, surreal and dreamlike, and I count myself amongst the countless millions inspired by a visit to Japan’s most sacred mountain.