A dormant volcano at 12,389 feet, Mount Fuji is the tallest peak in Japan, and climbing it was our next challenge. When we started planning our eastward journey toward home, we knew we’d be spending a week in Japan, and seeing Mount Fuji was high on our list. But after conquering the Scottish Highlands and realizing how much we love hiking, we thought–why not get a more intimate look at the mountain?
I’ll fully admit I was nervous. Between altitude sickness, our consistent traveling and inability to train, and the uncertainty of the weather, I nearly convinced myself we would fail. But, the transport tickets were purchased, our trek was mapped out, and we were ready to prove to ourselves that we still had our mojo.
[Our transport to Mount Fuji/Lake Kawaguchiko was a bit of a dance and coordination effort, so I’ve compiled all of those notes below.]
To be fair, we did not climb the mountain from the base to the top. That trek would take a few days, and we didn’t budget for them, so we took the more traditional route of beginning at the 5th station and following the Yoshida Trail. A bus leaving from Lake Kawaguchiko took us to the 5th station in about 45 minutes. It is highly recommended, and I will second it personally, that you wait at the 5th station area for about an hour to let your body get accustomed to the altitude. If you start your climb immediately, it is probable that with the fast climb in the bus (2,300 meters from the ground), and the instant inclines on the mountain, you will get sick and have to turn back.
It is also not recommended to climb the mountain in one day. There are many cabins and huts that house climbers for the night along the ascent. But if anything we learned from our trek in Scotland, the hostel experience does not lend any relief. We weighed the options of a sleepless night and exhausted second-day climb, or just powering through the 4 miles up in one go. We were going against the grain, and conquering the mountain in one day.
We arrived to the 5th station at about 715am. There is plenty to do at the small village before you climb like grab some coffee, take some photos, but also purchase your walking stick. The famous Fuji walking stick is a very coveted souvenir on the trail because as you pass each hut and station, you can pay a couple hundred yen to get a stamp branded into the wood. By the end of the walk, you have this charred, but beautiful, memento of your climb.
Since we were not done with our travels after Japan, packing a full length walking stick in a carry-on or even checked bag was impossible. We opted to get two small sticks ones to decorate and then donate my full length one to a new climber when we were finished.
It was exactly 815a when we began our climb. The fog and mist were still rolling in, and we first saw all of the climbers who had opted for the over-night, sunrise trek. I totally respect those people, and I’m sure the sunrise from the top was breathtaking and worth the pain, but to see their faces as they were so close to the end made us instantly worry about our day. They looked like zombies emerging from a Stephen King nightmare.
The other benefit we found starting our hike early in the morning rather than later in the afternoon was the trail was mostly empty. If you want to get the sunrise, the climb would begin mid to late afternoon, and there can be very slow queues that occur as people congest the walkway. We had no trouble at all with other hikers along the trail.
A quick note: At the beginning, you will be asked to “donate” 1000 yen for preservation of the trails and mountain. The people standing at the entrance make it seem mandatory to donate, but it is totally optional. We didn’t carry that much cash on us, and the coins we did have were going to the bathrooms along the trail. It is highly recommended to donate 200 yen per restroom usage. What we didn’t give at the entrance, we gave along the way instead.
It took us about 30 minutes to get to the the 6th station on the mountain, and we found it relatively easy. It was a slow but steady incline on a typical trail path. But once you pass the 6th station, the challenge begins. Almost immediately, you are pulling your body up rock faces.
When we started, Jeff and I were in several layers anticipating the advertised cold. By the time we made it to our first rock, we were down to the last layer and begging another climber for sunscreen for our now-exposed skin. It really is a crap-shoot for the weather on the mountain. It could be freezing, humid, or scorching, and it is impossible to predict it, so be prepared for anything.
The distance between station 6 and 7 was slow and tedious. Jeff figured out a genius way to climb by using the chain ropes marking the trail to pull himself up. He saved his legs by relying on his arms and managed to fly. This is where I hated my walking stick. It was like a third leg and slowed me down quite a bit. But without it, my knees would have buckled. My stick and I had a complicated relationship that day.
A quick note: The bathrooms dotted along the path ranged from 100 to 300 yen, so do make sure you carry some change with you. Only a handful of the bathrooms have coin changers for bills. Also, some of you may be pleased to know they are not squatty potties. They had commodes. And while toilet paper was provided, I would recommend bringing some extra just in case it’s out.
The 7th station was a blur as we pushed on through to the 8th station, but as we got closer and closer to the next huts, the air got increasingly thinner. Still panicked we would suffer from altitude sickness and have to turn around (which we saw a handful of people doing), we took it much slower walking for a few meters and then stopping to catch our breath. We weren’t climbing as many rock faces at this point, but the constant incline was numbing us mentally and making the shortness of breath frustrating.
But all we had to do to get our bearing was turn around and face the vast horizon. By this point, we were above the clouds. We couldn’t see the city at all, but we have heard on a clear day, you can see all the way to Tokyo. We were elated to stand on this mountain and see what we could only ever see out of an airplane window.
With newly formed smiles, we turned around and continued our ascent. Being through the clouds, the sun was beating down on us, so it was getting very warm, and hydration was paramount. We were constantly drinking water and sports drinks, and exactly like the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, the higher you climb, the more expensive the vending machines and retailers are for water, so come prepared with water or cash.
By the time we made it to the 8.5 station, we could feel the end approaching. It was just another 376 meters of incline left to the summit. So, we buckled down and continued up, up, and up. When we saw the first shrines, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was so beautiful to see these empty doorways beckoning us to a piece of heaven.
At 12:30, we were at the top. 3,776 meters, 12,388 feet. We were in such disbelief, we asked some Japanese climbers to please translate the pillar at the top to which they brokenly said, “It says it’s the summit!”
We smiled, kissed, selfied, and got our stamps burned into our sticks with pride. We were thrilled to know we could climb the mount in a little over 4 hours. Many other reports told us the climb was anywhere between 6-8 hours, so we were concerned about actually enjoying ourselves, and seeing the zombie climbers that morning didn’t help.
We did not race up the trail nor did we go slowly. Many, many other climbers were doing the climb in two days since doing the “bullet” approach is not recommended. But since we were well-rested and not climbing overnight like typical “bullet climbers,” we felt really good.
There are a few cafes at the top and shops for souvenir shopping, but our stomachs weren’t taking in anything other than water. We decided to keep the legs warm and continue to walk around. At the very top, there is a very short trail circling the dormant crater. We did not do the full loop, but we did venture over to see where the ancient lava flowed.
We took in the views for a few more moments before we bid our goodbyes to the iconic summit. Jeff describes those moments as his most surreal along our eastward journey toward home. Standing at the top took any sting out of the climb and made each moment worth it including having to do a basic pull up at times to get my body from step to step.
The descent was much easier than the ascent, but it was a lot more painful. The ground or trail is all loose sand or lava rock dust, so each step sunk several inches and forced you to slide forward a bit. At first, we were laughing at how quickly we were going down as we let gravity do the work turning Mount Fuji into a sandy Slip-n-Slide, but after a while, the tedium came back and my knees were screaming.
My walking stick turned into a ski pole as I basically cross-country skied down the mountain in a zig-zag motion. Going straight down the path was murder on my IT-bands and ankles, so going in a zig-zag pattern made it a little longer, but it eased the impact on my already-tired joints.
Along the way down, we passed some climbers we had waited with at the bus stop in Lake Kawaguchiko. They could not have been more mismatched. One of them had very short, athletic shorts on and was jumping up and down in anticipation. The other guy had on Vans shoes, jeans, and a casual coat we would typically see in the streets of downtown. By the time we caught up with them on the descent, the guy in the Vans shoes was walking like a penguin, and the guy in the short shorts was limping.
In that moment, I was grateful we didn’t wait too long at the top for our leg muscles to cool. I was in pain, but I knew it would be worse if we had stopped to relax.
We made it back to the 5th station at 3:30 pm. We gave a little boy my trusty walking stick, and we indulged in a much deserved ice cream before boarding the 4:10 pm bus.
A quick note: I recommend buying your transport tickets the day before for the small discount, and also make sure you buy your to and from tickets together. Toward the end of the day, seats are not as available as the crack of dawn, so book in advance to make sure you get back.
We made it to Lake Kawaguchiko after an hour, and our biggest fear happened: our muscles cooled. The .8 mile walk to the hotel was harder and more challenging than any moment on the mountain.
Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration, but I regretted not hopping in a taxi.
The hotel’s ryokan hot tub was the definition of pure bliss as we enjoyed chocolate, Fuji apples, and sake from our hotel with a foggy and overcast view of the mountain we both conquered.
Getting to Mount Fuji from Kyoto was a bit complicated for us. Most travelers visit the mountain from Tokyo via the bullet train, but here is how we made it to Mount Fuji from The Old Capital while saving a few dollars.
We left Kyoto on the famous bullet train. Tickets were just over $200 for the two of us, which was more than we had initially thought. But we got off at the Mishima Station about 2 hours later after observing very boisterous Japanese business men laugh, joke, eat, and then pass out along the way.
From the Mishima Bus Station, we got on a bus for $45 toward Kawaguchiko. That trek took about an hour and a half, and this time, we were traveling with a team of rhythmic gymnasts with ribbons and hoops as their luggage. We just laughed at the stark contrast of fellow travelers, but when we arrived to the Kawaguchiko station, we immediately bought our bus tickets for the next day’s climb (highly recommend) and got to our hotel, the Kawaguchiko Hotel.
A quick note about the hotel: Their website specifies they take cash only, but when we arrived, we found out they do take cards. We wish we had known that beforehand.
The hotelier was adamant about reminding us we had a “Japanese style” room and not an “American style” room, and we nodded many times in agreement. But I will say, while this hotel had spectacular views of Mount Fuji (when not covered by clouds) and the stunning Lake Kawaguchiko, it was in desperate need of a make over. It looked like it had its heyday in the 1970s and never updated. Between the brown plastic house shoes, old upholstery, and baked-in cigarette smell, we felt like we were in a time capsule. But it was fun to try and imagine what the hotel must have been like at its peak.
I will note that the town of Lake Kawaguchiko has very little going on. The restaurants are mostly ramen, so being gluten-sensitive, I had a hard time finding food. I mostly resorted to the grocery shop and Lawson convenience store for food. It was an adorable little town, which I could definitely see as a weekend getaway or summer resort, but for a couple of climbers, it was over-priced and limited for our needs.
After climbing Japan’s tallest peak, we are both extremely keen to keep hiking and climbing. It was a literal highlight for our trip, and we would love to do it again, but alas, our trip had to continue on. Stay tuned to the last Japan blog where we conquer Tokyo in 48 hours.
For the data nerds out there, here is my Garmin stats for the climb.