Ever fancied climbing a 3,776m-high pile of ash? With a load of grannies and school kids? At night? It's safe to say that getting to the top of Japan's iconic Mount Fuji is no ordinary climb...
I won’t lie to you: there will be times during your ascent of Mt Fuji when you’ll wish you hadn’t bothered. The sweat, the altitude, the queueing - any one of them might make you wonder why you’ve chosen to climb what my mountaineering friend once described to me as ‘Just a big pile of ash’.
But it’s the biggest pile of ash in Japan (3,776m), and the reward for getting to the top is legendary: the sunrise. Not for nothing is Japan known as the ‘land of the rising sun‘ and where better to view this, I ask you, than the very top of the country?
During the peak climbing months (June-August) some 3,000 people every day make the ascent up Fuji-san (as the mountain is known in Japanese), so you won’t be alone. In fact, at certain points you may find yourself having to queue - a surreal experience for anyone who views climbing as an opportunity to get away from it all. But this is part of the fun. This isn’t just any old climb; this is Fuji. Normal rules don’t apply. After all, you’ll be climbing at night with grannies and 10-year-olds (all shouting encouragement to each other and taking glugs of oxygen from bottles) - how often can you say that about a mountain large enough to give you serious altitude sickness?
Fuji is split into four trails on opposite sides of the mountain, and these are in turn split into 10 stations depending on elevation, with the first station being at the bottom and the tenth at the summit. I started at the Kawaguchi-ko fifth station - at 2,300m, it’s the last one reachable by paved road and thus the most popular with amateur hikers such as myself.
For all I was warned about how commercial Fuji could be, the size of the fifth station still surprised me. It was like a mini resort - with gift shops, restaurants and a car park that could rival Disneyland. But it’s reassuring to know that if you forget any supplies you can buy them here - if you don’t mind paying for them. A half-litre bottle of water will set you back 500 yen and a walking stick 1,200 yen.
To the top
So, at 9pm on a hot August evening, we set off for what the guidebook told us would be a six-hour hike to the top. Little tip for you here: bring a head torch. It’s a pain in the proverbial having to carry a hand-held torch for most of the night. I forgot mine but was spared - and not for the first time, I have to admit - by the foresight of my girlfriend, who had borrowed one from a friend.
For a while we followed the trail as it wound its way through forest, but as we emerged into clear air, we were met with an extraordinary sight: hundreds of lights zigzagging their way up the mountain ahead of us. And an even better sight: stars in the night sky. A clear night meant perfect sunrise viewing.
As we climbed higher, we encountered the stations, and at every station there were huts, serving food and drink at inflated prices and giving you the option of spending a night on a tatami mat floor for the princely sum of 5,000 yen. Most guidebooks will recommend you do this as the best way of preventing altitude sickness, but I feel it’s entirely up to you. For me, I did begin to feel a little sickness as we got higher, but I’m afraid I can’t work out whether this was due to the altitude or the 75 Kit-Kats I consumed on the way up. Either way, you should probably stop if you start to feel unwell.
We reached the top at 2am - one hour ahead of schedule. Another little tip for you here: bring some warm clothing. Although it was August, and around 30°C at sea level, temperatures can still drop as low as freezing on the summit at night. It was bloody cold.
It was busy on the top, too, like a small mountain village. There were benches, a souvenir stall, huts selling steaming bowls of noodles and, this being Japan, a couple of vending machines thrown in for good measure. There was even a post office from which you can send home postcards with a Mt Fuji stamp on them. Like I said, this isn’t your average climb.
So, we waited on the top and tried not to die of exposure. Eventually, just after 5am, it happened. The sun, a bright red, blazing ball, pierced the horizon. Its light revealed a sea of fluffy white clouds a thousand metres below us. Tops of mountains poked through the cloud, like little islands in a frothy, white sea.
And then, all too quickly, it was over. Within 15 minutes the sun was too strong to look at and already the temperature was beginning to rise. We took one last look at Fuji, snaffled another quick Kit-Kat, and then started the long trek back to the car. Job done.
What to do and where to stay
Afterwards, to soothe those aching limbs there's nothing better than a good old onsen (Japanese hot spring). I recommend Yurari Hot Spring in Kawaguchi-ko (0555-85-3126; www.fuji-yurari.jp). Pick up a leaftlet from the Mt Fuji visitors centre in Kawaguchi-ko and save yourself 200 yen.
As a place to stay, I'd recommend Sunnide Village in Kawaguchi-ko. It's a lovely little hotel about 15mins on a bus from Kawaguchi-ko station (or you can take a taxi for 2800 yen or walk it in about 45 minutes). It has a great view across Kawaguchi-ko and an outside bath in which to soothe those aching limbs. A single should cost around 5000 yen and a double 10,000 yen.