The recommended way to climb Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as it is called in Japan, is to begin at midnight in the summer months when the weather is less volatile and extreme. Hikers carry flashlights or don lighted headbands to illuminate the trail. The goal is to arrive at the top for sunrise, then descend early to avoid the heat of day or afternoon thunderstorms.
Hovering over the landscape, Japan’s highest mountain soars at 3,776 meters, or 12,388 feet, in altitude. The most popular trailhead starts at 2,300 meters, or 7,500 feet. And, as you have no doubt seen from photographs and those famous woodblock prints by Hokusai, the peak stands alone, rising dramatically in a classic shape.
In the fall of my second year in Japan, returning fresh from summer hikes in Colorado, where I lived at 8,500 feet, it made sense to me to hike Fuji-san in the fall, when I was already acclimated to high altitude air, rather than in summer, when I would have been living at sea level for months before.
I brushed off the warnings of my Japanese friend that Fuji-san should not be climbed in the fall because the danger of sudden snows made it unsafe. As a seasoned mountain hiker, I knew what was reasonable and checked the forecasts. Not eager to be stumbling around rocky paths in the dark, or biting off too much of a trek alone, I went for a day hike. These days, getting older and after decades of Colorado hikes, I was no longer feeling like I needed to get to the top of things. I came to commune with Fuji-san, not to conquer it.
The earliest train ride to Kawaguchi-ko, the town at the base, took about three and a half hours with several transfers, the bus up the mountain to the trailhead another fifty minutes. On the way there, the trains passed through mountain, village, and farmland, with hay tied in bundles and hanging out to dry on racks lined up in the fields. Ripening orange persimmon hung heavy from tree limbs. On this typical overcast gray day, Fuji-san was hidden from sight, even from the nearby villages. But during the ascending bus ride to the trailhead, through fog thick as cotton concealing the view as we rose, the clouds fell away like a shed skin as we broke through to a brilliant blue sky.
The clouds now gathered below me. Fuji-san’s brown bald pate, not yet blanketed in snow, appeared briefly through the trees as the bus rounded switchbacks to the Kawaguchi-ko fifth station, the highest stop accessible by road. There were ten stations, marked spots up the mountain. The Yoshida trail I had chosen started at the fifth station. The first was at the bottom, where the bus began, for those purists with plenty of time and energy; the tenth station was at the top. While I hiked, light clouds played hide-and-seek around Fuji-san’s peak, sometimes cloaking its shape, sometimes teasing and tickling, and at times shining white with reflected sun. The twisted tree forest, where the highest of the trees frequently braved ferocious winds, blazed yellow and red. Soon the trees disappeared and a chilly wind blew across the wide-open tundra.
In about two hours of hiking relentlessly uphill on a crushed lava path that narrowed to about sidewalk-width in long zigzags, I made it up to where the mountain huts began, where overnighters huddled before making the ascent to the top, or hikers could rest or escape the elements —just below the seventh station. I chatted with other hikers now and then and could gauge the time needed to go much further. A young man limped down the trail, leaning on another hiker he had met. Above that point, the trail changed to a rough, steep, rocky climb guided by ropes. From there, looking up, I could see the huts perched one above another on the intensely switchbacked trail. Looking down, a soft sea of clouds hid the world below treeline. A good place to consider a destination; the trek downward would get me there in time to catch one of the last buses of the day.
The clouds were rising, and I descended into fog on the way down. By the time I made it back to the bus stop, raindrops were pattering the ground and wind rustled the trees.
My thanks to The Travel Architect for asking about this hike!
This piece is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).
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Email me at: Ruth@RuthRosenfeld.com