6 Things I learnt from climbing Mount Fuji alone
In 2015, I decided that Mount Fuji was going to be my first ever mountain-climbing experience, and that I was going to do it alone. To be honest, I have never been a fan of physical activity (I am neither a runner nor a gym-goer), but I do enjoy hiking for scenery. Being away from crowds and gazing at wide and vast scenery makes me feel at peace. Little did I know that climbing Mount Fuji would change my mindset and spark a new interest; I’m so glad I went for it!
A symbol of Japan, the almost perfectly symmetrical Mount Fuji is the nation's highest mountain, standing at 3,776m above sea level. Considered sacred and being the source of much artistic and spiritual inspiration, it was gazetted a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. With trailheads starting at 2,300m, the climb is doable for beginners, with many families bringing their elementary school children along for family hikes. Since 300,000 people climb Mount Fuji each year, making it one of the most-climbed mountains in the world, it can’t be that hard to climb right? Or so I thought…
View from somewhere after 7th Station. Can you spot the climbers? (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There are four trails to climb Mount Fuji: the Yoshida, Fujinomiya, Subashiri and Gotemba Trails. While the Yoshida Trail near Kawaguchiko is the most popular trail due to its accessibility from Tokyo and availability of facilities, it is also notorious for long lines near the summit due to crowding. Thus, I opted to climb via the Fujinomiya Trail, the steepest but less crowded and still adequately manned trail, and to go down via the Yoshida Trail. Looking back, I am convinced that this was the right decision, and I would still do this route if I were to climb again.
Heading back from 6th Station in 2015 (left), setting off from Fujinomiya 5th Station in 2016 (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In late August 2015, excited despite the bad weather, I set off to climb Mount Fuji...but a typhoon came so it was a no-go. I had almost made it to the 6th Station when the winds and rain got really strong and I could not see anything around me anymore, so I turned back. It was a frightening climb down the slippery rocks. But I did not give up just yet, I tried again the following year in late July 2016, and made it to the top!
From climbing Mount Fuji, I discovered how amazing it feels to literally be above clouds! It is like entering another world – the air is crisp and fresh, the temperature is cool, and you really feel the vastness of the planet and think, “Earth is amazing.”
Here are six things I learnt while climbing Mount Fuji alone in 2016 that kick-started my newfound interest for mountain climbing/hiking:
At the Kengamine peak 3,776m (left). At the summit shrine (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
1) I'm fitter than I thought, but also less fit than I thought
Climbing up by the steepest Fujinomiya route was like 6 hours of climbing stairs, though they were more like high, uneven rocks instead of stairs. Somehow, I actually made it to the summit, and made it back down alive. But afterwards, I ached in places I didn't even know could ache, and the aches didn't go away for about a week.
Rainy, rainy day while descending. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
2) Mountain weather is very unpredictable and constantly changing
The weather could be forecasted as sunny, but suddenly turn rainy, or vice versa. For my climb, weather was cloudy at the start, got pretty sunny while going up, became cloudy again at the summit, and worsened to an incessant downpour on the way down. I seem to have no luck with climbing mountains, it is always raining…So unfortunately, there was no sunrise and no view when I went. I was glad to have had fully waterproof shoes which kept my socks and feet dry. Sadly, my jacket and pants soaked through a bit, but they had endured 5 hours of constant rain on the descent, so I guess that’s not bad! I still have and use them today. Sunscreen is important too! I forgot about it and of all places, it was the back of my hands that got extremely sunburnt.
Bench at 7th Station (3,010m). Outside 9th Station (3,460m). Mountain hut at 9.5th Station (3,590m). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
3) Canned oxygen and hiking sticks are lifesavers
I was super glad to have brought canned oxygen and hiking sticks despite the weight and space they took up! At >3,500m above sea level, the atmospheric oxygen available is only about 2/3 of that at sea level, and you are more prone to getting altitude sickness. Climbing Mount Fuji wasn't so much physically tiring, but the lack of oxygen made it slightly hard to breathe, especially near the peak. I got my can at ¥500 in Tokyo, but on the mountain they were going for ¥1,500 a can.
On the way up, I saw many young American soldiers climbing as well. They were climbing quite quickly, in shorts with nothing but a stick. They resisted at first, but around 9th Station many caved and bought the oxygen. Altitude sickness is no joke, it does not discriminate and anyone can get it – young or old, athletic or non-athletic.
Hiking sticks are very helpful for balance and lessening the battering on your knees, especially on the way down. Compared to climbing up, going down is harder on your knees due to the uneven ground and loose rocks. Hiking sticks help to alleviate this, and also help with balance.
Looking at the trail below (left). Walking above the clouds (center). Mannenyuki (万年雪, ten thousand year snow) – a patch of snow that never melts (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
4) Stay positive, pace well, just keep going and you'll finish
I hurt my left knee on the way up, and started feeling the sharp pains later that evening while trying to sleep in the mountain hut. Climbing down the next day was excruciating. It was already a disappointing day due to the rain and no sunrise, plus it was a miserably cold and rainy day. I had to hobble very slowly for 5 hours in the rain on a rocky and uneven path.
The hiking sticks really helped in weight distribution as it really hurt to put weight on that knee. I must have been gripping the sticks very tightly as my hands had bruises the next day. It seemed like a never-ending descent and even though I was miserable and wet, I just kept looking at my wet watch and counting down, constantly telling myself: only xx more hours...you can do it...there's no pain, nothing hurts, everything's fine. Even though that wasn’t true, somehow I made it. The first thing I did was to ask for painkillers, and then change into dry clothes. Having a calm and positive state of mind really helped get me to the end.
Sending a postcard from the highest post office in Japan. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
5) Climbing (and travelling) alone is a very fulfilling experience
Climbing alone, you have more time for yourself, and can go completely at your own pace without waiting for someone, or making someone wait for you. It also gives you the freedom to think in peace, reflect on your life and learn a bit more about yourself. I saw many other solo climbers, so despite what others might think, climbing alone is not strange. Since climbing Mount Fuji, I have gone on solo climbing/hiking trips every year. Climbing is not a race, so there is nothing wrong with taking your time to enjoy some me time with the scenery. As a memento of this climb, I sent myself a postcard from the top of Mount Fuji. It was waiting for me when I got back to Singapore!
Views of Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi (left) and from Arakurayama Sengen Park (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
6) Mount Fuji is best enjoyed from afar, but is worth climbing at least once
There is a Japanese saying regarding climbing Mount Fuji: 「富士山に一度も登らぬばかに、二度登るばか」, which translates to "He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool." Indeed, Mount Fuji’s beauty is best enjoyed from afar. Many people go on fujimi (富士見) climbs/hikes – climbs or hikes from where you can get a good view of Mount Fuji. A popular spot for this is Mitsutougeyama (三ッ垰山), near Kawaguchiko. Although Mount Fuji makes for great scenery, the scenery while climbing Mount Fuji is not that great...there is hardly any vegetation or trees around, and all you see is red-brown gravel.
Most people climb Mount Fuji to see the goraikō (ご来光 sunrise from the top of the mountain) and for the feeling of accomplishment of conquering Japan’s highest peak. Goraikō is supposed to be stunning and an awe-inspiring experience. I too, climbed Mount Fuji in hopes of experiencing this. However, as I did not get to see the goraikō yet, perhaps I will become a fool and try climbing Mount Fuji for the second time someday!
Views Mount Fuji from Mitsutougeyama. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Despite the weather, climbing Mount Fuji was an incredible experience, both mentally and physically. If you are on the fence about climbing Mount Fuji, go for it! The Yoshida Trail and Fujinomiya Trail are accessible by public transport, are adequately manned and have plenty of English markings. These two are also the only trails with first-aid stations – it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are of average physical fitness, climbing Mount Fuji should not be a problem if you are prepared.
The Official Website for Climbing Mount Fuji has a lot of useful information and guidelines to read up on before your climb, as well as necessary items to bring along, a detailed climbing map and more.
Goraikō, sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji. (Image credit: Pixabay)
Do stay overnight at a mountain hut instead of trying to climb up and descend in one day, as that can be very dangerous. There are mountain huts on the various stations, including the summit. Staying at a Japanese mountain hut squeezed like sardines with strangers was another new experience, but that’s a tale for another time! Here is the mountain hut information (Japanese only) for the Yoshida Trail and the Fujinomiya Trail. Lastly, don’t forget your ¥100 coins! Toilets on the mountain are unmanned, and usually require a small “donation” of 100-200yen for its upkeep and maintenance.
*In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Mount Fuji will be closed to climbers for the 2020 climbing season.
- Fujinomiya Trail
Frequent buses are available daily during climbing season from JR Fujinomiya Station (富士宮駅) (80 minutes), JR Mishima Station (三島駅) (2 hours) and JR Shin-Fuji Station (新富士駅) (2 hours). It cost about ¥2,000~¥2,500 per way, or ¥3,100 for a round trip ticket (Mount Fuji Climbers’ Bus Pass).
- Yoshida Trail
Frequent climbers’ buses are available daily during climbing season from Kawaguchiko Station (河口湖駅) (55 minutes) to the Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station, the beginning of the Yoshida Trail. There are also some direct buses from Shinjuku (2.5 hours) to the 5th Station. It costs about ¥1,540 per way, or ¥2,200 for a round trip ticket.
- Mount Fuji Climbers’ Bus Pass
If you are climbing and descending from different trails, or going by the Fujinomiya Trail, I recommend getting the Mount Fuji Climbers’ Bus Free-combination Pass. With a validity of three calendar days, for a flat fee of ¥3,100 you can mix and match climbers’ buses operating between train stations and 5th stations. The timings might vary slightly from year to year, but here is the bus timetable in English for 2018.
For me, I used the Mount Fuji Climbers’ Bus Pass from JR Fujinomiya Station → Fujinomiya 5th Station, and Fuji-Subaru 5th Station → Kawaguchiko Station. From Kawaguchiko Station, I then took another bus to JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅), where I headed off to Kamikochi – my favorite place in Japan! Check out my other article on climbing from Kamikochi to Karasawa here!
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh