It’s been mythologized in literature, photography, poetry, and paintings. Mount Fuji is easily one of the most recognizable mountains anywhere in the world. Peaking at 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft), this quiet volcano offers one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring adventures in Asia.
South Korea is a mountainous country. As my home in Asia, it has taken me on a lot of hikes. Climbs here can range from as little as an few hours to the beautiful nightmare that is Seoraksan, which I found myself trekking in the rain for over 13 hours. When the idea of climbing Mount Fuji in Japan was presented to me, I was hesitant to make the trip.
For one thing, I was travelling alone. When being faced with the challenge of climbing a mountain, it’s always nice to have moral support. Someone to talk to, someone to pace yourself with. I had never climbed anything by myself, so the idea of doing Fuji solo seemed like a daunting task. But, after some very strong recommendations, I made the plunge.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Departing from a bus terminal near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the trip to the mountain was a few hours that I seized to try to get as much sleep as possible. It had been recommended that I take the last bus to the mountain, which arrives at a little after 10pm. The idea was to climb the mountain overnight and reach the summit shortly before sunrise.
Describing the climb is a matter of perspective. It’s not a difficult hike in terms of danger or balance; I’ve braved much worse in Korea. But there are other factors that make Fuji a challenge. It’s a game of endurance. The Yoshida trail is most commonly used to reach the summit, as the sun rises on this side of the mountain. It’s a steep, zigzagging climb. Fortunately, there are huts that serve as hotels from the 7th station on. Although I didn’t stay in one, many took the opportunity for a nap and climbed the mountain in smaller, more manageable segments. But it’s entirely possible, and I would say recommended, to do it all in one go. Each cluster of “hotels” also typically has a small shop where you can buy water, hot drinks, snacks, and oxygen canisters on your way up. Be forewarned, prices get…steeper…as you approach the summit.
Altitude is another factor you must consider when making the climb. This is where those oxygen canisters come in handy, though they’re not required if you pace yourself. Fuji is almost twice the altitude of the highest peak in Korea, so nothing I had climbed before forced me to grapple with the thinning air of high altitudes. There were a variety of reactions: some passed out, some slowed down, some seemed fine, and others vomited on the side of the trail. Personally, the experience amounted to the feeling that you’re moving underwater. I had to hike much slower than normal, heavily mouth-breathing and feeling as if I was in a dream. Oxygen deprivation can be a blessing when you’re on the seventh hour of a hike. The disembodied feeling can add to the euphoria when you reach the summit.
I reached the peak of the mountain a little after 4:30am, with only a few minutes to spare before the sunrise began. What followed cannot possibly be described.
Picture the widest panorama you’ve seen in your life. Double it. Imagine that the clouds are a thousand meters below you, laid out in patches punctuated with the greenery of the forest far, far below. First, a subtle glow replaces the cool blue over everything you see. Though it’s the middle of the summer, it’s freezing cold, and suddenly the sun breaks over the horizon. As it picks up strength and hurls the full spectrum of light at you, you can feel the warmth immediately. Loose your breath in an entirely different way.
And when the light show is over, and daylight has broken, wander through the village that rests on the top. It’s a collection of ramen shops, vendors, and even a post office where you can send a postcard from the top of Japan. Walk around the rim of the volcano if you wish.
I headed down the descent path of the mountain with a profound sense of accomplishment. In many ways, I was glad to have done the hike alone. It gave me some much needed space to really absorb where I was and what I was doing.
When I arrived back in Tokyo, it was around noon, and I immediately checked into a spa. I highly recommend you do this after such an undertaking. Soaking naked in a hotspring after scaling a mountain is always a good idea.
And then I suggest you take a very, very, long nap.