Finding Solitude on Mount Fuji

Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski
Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski

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.

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Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski
Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski

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.

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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.

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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.

Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski
Hiking Mount Fuji; Photograph by James Dziezynski

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.

Comments

  1. Patrick Whittle
    NY
    November 5, 2013, 4:48 pm

    This makes me want to climb Mount Fuji, read this article at its summit, climb to its base, and read it again!

  2. Paul E Lenhart
    United States
    November 5, 2013, 5:01 pm

    I’m hoping to plan a trip to Japan and was thinking about adding Mt Fuji to my itinerary. Based on your photos and trip report, I will absolutely make it my goal to make time for the hike during my stay. Thanks!

  3. Cynthia Barnes
    November 5, 2013, 5:02 pm

    Nice! I’ve always wanted to make it to Fuji. Maybe next trip….

  4. Lauren Rains
    Boulder, Colorado
    November 5, 2013, 5:07 pm

    Great article! Mount Fuji is high up on my list. There’s just something about being on top of the world, and the journey one step at a time that takes us there, that I’ve become addicted to.

  5. Rob_L
    Colorado
    November 5, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Excellent article James! Your visual expressions make me feel as if I might have been there with you and Sheila. Too bad Freemont could not experience it though I am sure it would have ruined his paws on the descent with the volcanic rocks
    goraikō
    Rob

  6. Jim Strickulis
    United States
    November 5, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Great article yet again! Would love to climb the world like you do! Would never have thought to climb Fuji but this makes me want to add it to the list!

  7. Candice Blodgett
    Maine
    November 5, 2013, 5:28 pm

    Well, Japan is already the place to which I most want to travel…and this makes it sound like Mount Fuji isn’t ruled out as an option for even a body as broken as mine to visit, if not summit.

  8. Kirby
    November 5, 2013, 5:29 pm

    Beautifully written. I feel like I was right there with you. I now want to go!

  9. Lisa C.
    United States
    November 5, 2013, 5:33 pm

    Wonderful description of a very special adventure. Hiking Mt. Fuji has never been on ‘to do’ list but I think it just got added! Thanks for the great blog!

  10. Sheila Powell
    United States
    November 5, 2013, 5:49 pm

    This article definitely captures the spirit, enjoyment and peace that hiking the highest mountain in Japan -gives to the soul. Thank you for writing this so informatively, but also so eloquently.

  11. Becky Pahl
    November 5, 2013, 10:53 pm

    Never thought much about it before, but Mt. Fuji is now on my bucket list, especially since I now know the scoop on how to avoid the masses. Great article!

  12. Tom Goldpaugh
    New Paltz, New York
    November 6, 2013, 12:10 am

    Nice article. I hadn’t really considered visiting Mt. Fuji. Its summit is now a a goal when I get to Japan. ..

  13. meredith knauf
    denver, colorado
    November 6, 2013, 12:47 am

    What a Great description of this hike. I have always loved volcanos and have been drawn to them. I will definitely add this to my bucket list, and the tip about hiking it in the ‘off season’ is great!

  14. Rosie Fuller
    United Kingdom
    November 6, 2013, 5:23 am

    Great piece! And ramen would be amazing mountain food…

  15. Gail Storey
    United States
    November 6, 2013, 1:44 pm

    What a stunning account of your Mount Fuji climb! You convey the physical adventure, social culture, and sacred power of the mountain with such clarity and grace that we felt we were there. Beautiful photos, too!

  16. Tashima Byrne
    Tokyo, Japan
    November 6, 2013, 9:01 pm

    I climbed it my first summer here. I’ve never really climbed anything berfore and it was high season so we were stuck in a line climbing up the mountain. what struck me were the girls climbing in low-medium heels, the odd guys in shorts and flip flops (roasting at the bottom, but freezing at the top of the mountain) and the old oji-san/oba-san who easily outwalked me with my worse than expected elevation sickness. Would love to do it again with the kids as there were plenty of them on the route although I’m guessing most would go during day time.

  17. James Dziezynski
    Boulder, CO
    November 6, 2013, 9:39 pm

    Tashima,
    Congrats on climbing Mount Fuji! The high season hiking experience seems to be both amazing and frustrating. Given the relatively steep terrain and high altitude, I am really impressed how many people are able to get up (this coming from a guy who hikes and climbs in Colorado on a regular basis). I assume when you get stuck in the line of hikers though, you move slow enough to save a lot of energy.

    Did you stay at one of the huts? Ours felt crowded and it was only 1/5 capacity. I can imagine they must be packed in high season!

  18. Glorious Nature
    USA
    November 7, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Glad you all made it but I’d rather see it from above – in a plane.

    “Skill is walking a tightrope between the World Trade Centers. Intelligence is not trying.”

    Marilyn vos Savant, highest IQ in the world
    (Obviously written prior to 9/11 but we still hear her……)

  19. Kyle Sevits
    Fort Collins
    November 10, 2013, 10:24 am

    In August the huts were booked solid for the entire time I intended to be in Japan. I was very bummed to miss such an iconic hike. But, that is ok I must have goals. Hopefully sometime soon.