If you were looking for an image to represent Japan, chances are the perfect, snow-capped cone of Mt. Fuji would be high on your list. It’s not just there to admire from a distance, however. Conquering Fuji is at the top of many people’s bucket lists and with Mountain Day just around the corner and a few weeks left in the climbing season, now is a great time to take up the challenge!
To help you along the way, here’s our beginner’s guide to tackling this most iconic of mountains.
Choose your route
There are four different trails you can take to reach the summit of Fuji: Yoshida (yellow), Subashiri (red), Gotemba (green) and Fujinomiya (blue).
The Yoshida trail is by far the most popular and is equipped with the most support facilities. This makes it an excellent choice for first-time climbers. If, however, you want more of a challenge or a quieter climb then you might want to consider trying one of the other routes.
The Subashiri trail has more varied views and joins the Yoshida trail at the eighth station, so it’s another good option for beginners. More experienced hikers or those who have already crested Fuji once might want to try the steep and rocky Fujinomiya trail or the longer and least crowded Gotemba trail.
More information on the characteristics of each trail can be found on the official website for climbing Mount Fuji.
Decide when to climb
Once you’ve chosen your route, the next thing to decide is when to set off. Fuji’s official climbing season runs from the beginning of July to the beginning of September (exact dates vary each year, but for 2018 the trails are all open until Sep. 10). Peak time tends to be from around July 20 to the end of August, when the weather is more stable and the schools are on holiday. Part of the fun of the climb is chatting with other hikers, but if you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, aim for a weekday and skip the Obon holiday period.
Then there’s the question of what time to start climbing. It’s possible to summit Fuji in a day if you start early, but for most people a major part of Fuji’s appeal is the chance to watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain (known in Japanese as goraikou). If that’s your goal, you have two options: start in the early afternoon and rest at a mountain hut at the seventh or eighth station in the evening before heading to the summit after midnight, or starting in the late evening and powering through to the top without a long break.
While stopping at a mountain hut costs more, it helps you to acclimatize to the altitude and gives you a chance to rest your legs. This means it’s a good option for less experienced or confident climbers.
Book a mountain hut
If you decide you want to stay in a mountain hut, it’s advisable to book one in advance. While it’s sometimes possible to turn up on the day and get a spot, this is risky — especially at peak times — and you don’t want to be stuck outside for hours with nowhere to go.
All huts take bookings over the phone (in Japanese) and these days several also allow you to make reservations online (in English and Japanese). On the Yoshida trail, this includes the Kamaiwakan, Fujiichikan, Toyokan, Gansomuro, and Goraikokan huts.
Costs range from around ¥6,500 for a sleeping bag in a shared room to ¥11,000 for a sleeping bag in a semi-private space with breakfast and dinner included. The food is fairly basic, but a hot meal is a great pick-me-up after a long climb! Veggie options are also available at a few of the huts, including Toyokan and Taishikan, just be sure to request this in advance when you book.
Most huts also have small shops where you can purchase supplies such as food, water and oxygen canisters — albeit at greatly inflated prices. Some will let you rest inside for short periods of time for ¥1,000 an hour and they also have toilets you can use for ¥200 (so make sure you carry plenty of change!).
Educate yourself on altitude sickness
One of the benefits of staying at a mountain hut is that it gives your body time to get used to the higher altitude. If you ascend too quickly, you may find yourself suffering from altitude sickness as a result of the lower levels of oxygen in the air. Symptoms range from tingling in the fingers to breathlessness, headaches and nausea, all of which could stop you from making the summit.
To find out more about preventing altitude sickness, I spoke to Simon Caley, an experienced climber who has summited a number of famous peaks including Elbrus (5,642 meters) and Kilimanjaro (5,895 meters), and even reached Advanced Base Camp on the north side of Everest (6,500 meters).
“Predisposition to altitude sickness varies from person to person and there’s no way of knowing in advance if you’re susceptible to it. The most important thing is to take your time when climbing, to allow your body to acclimatize to the higher altitude. When you reach the fifth station, wait 30 minutes or an hour before starting the climb and then take regular breaks as you ascend,” he says.
“If you do get sick, there’s only one cure: go back down, even if it’s just a few hundred meters. You can then wait an hour and see if the symptoms pass — if they do, you can try for the summit again. Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol the day before you climb.”
Prepare your clothing and equipment
This step is key, as having the right gear can make the difference between an enjoyable climb and a miserable one. The weather on Fuji can be fickle and unpredictable, so make sure you bring rain gear even if there’s not a cloud in sight when you set off. The temperature will also drop dramatically as you climb, so dress in layers that can easily be added or removed to keep you comfortable. If you’re aiming for the ultimate goraikou view, be aware that the pre-dawn temperature at the summit can drop to around 0℃ (32℉) and you’ll feel a lot chillier when you’re not moving.
Appropriate shoes are a must, preferably with ankle support. Remember that your feet will swell a little as you climb, so you want the shoes to be large enough to accommodate that. If you’re climbing at night, bring a head torch (plus spare batteries) so that you can safely make your way to the summit in the dark on the rocky trail. Trekking poles can also be useful, especially on the descent. An alternative is to buy a wooden pilgrim staff before you set off, which you can have branded with unique stamps at each station (for a few hundred yen each), and makes a fantastic memento of your climb.
This might sound like a lot but the great thing is that there are a number of climbing shops — such as Yamarent and Sora no Shita — where you can hire everything you’ll need at a fraction of the cost of buying it all, which is perfect for tourists and casual climbers. Many of these shops allow you to reserve equipment online (in Japanese and English) and either have it shipped to your home or hotel or collect it in person when you arrive. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that!
Buy food and water
Climbing Fuji is no mean feat, so you’ll want plenty of fuel to keep you going. You can purchase food and water at each station, but this will be very expensive so it’s preferable to stock up before you go.
“Climbers should take at least 1 1/2 liters of water with them,” advises Simon, “and take regular water breaks. The higher you go, the more water you lose and it’s important to stay hydrated. Stop every hour or so to eat something, for example a sweet snack such as chocolate, to give you a burst of sugar and prevent you from building up a deficit.” He also recommends including complex carbohydrates such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta in your diet a day or two before you climb.
Start your climb!
With all the preparation out of the way, there’s only one thing to do: get climbing!
Whichever trail you’ve chosen, you’ll be able to get a bus to the fifth station and continue from there on foot. The ascent can take anything from 5-10 hours depending on the trail you choose, your level of fitness and how many breaks you take.
If you’re taking the Yoshida trail, you can expect a zigzag path on the way up, with rocky sections as you approach the summit, while the way down is a winding route over dusty, dark red rubble. Keep in mind that the summit is only the halfway point! The descent will take about half to two-thirds the time of your ascent. Make sure you have enough food and water for the return journey, and don’t rush. The majority of accidents happen on the way down thanks to a combination of fatigue, adrenaline and gravity!
And remember: even if you don’t see the sunrise from the peak due to timing or weather conditions, making it to the summit is a huge achievement that will stay with you forever. And if you are lucky enough to be there for goraikou, I promise you it will be one of the most beautiful sights you’ve ever seen.
Is there anything else you want to know about climbing Fuji? Let us know in the comments!