Despite the sore feet, altitude sickness and empty purse (¥500 for a drink out of the vending machine at the summit?!), the four main trails leading to the summit of Mount Fuji are swamped with as many as 320,975 people a year (a record set in 2010) as soon as climbing season opens in July until it closes in September. Around 30% of this number are foreign tourists.
Why does Mt Fuji possess such an enduring appeal?
Let’s start from the beginning with the first recorded ascent. In 663, an anonymous monk decided to try his luck and climb Japan’s highest mountain. And it wasn’t just for kicks and giggles. Mount Fuji has been seen as a sacred mountain since the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan, first arrived way-back-when.
For over a thousand years after our nameless adventurer’s successful attempt, climbing Mt Fuji was seen as an act of purification for both Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims. The climb represented a journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead and back again.
Anyone who has taken the Subashiri trail up can definitely see where they were coming from; the lush forests circling the bottom of the mountain eventually give way to a barren, fiery-red landscape not unlike hell (I’m guessing).
And of course, there’s an obvious reason for that. Mt Fuji is not just a sacred mountain – it’s also a somewhat-active volcano. Most people have been able to climb a mountain at some point in their lives, but you have to be somewhere special to climb a volcano – which also happens to be the iconic symbol of an entire nation.
Everybody has their own reason
Of course, most people’s personal reasons for climbing are nowhere near as grand as these – and they don’t need to be.
My own personal reason for climbing was an on-going battle to get over my fear of heights.
I’ve been terrified of high-up places all my life but ever since I tackled a (much smaller) mountain in Austria, I’ve been on a mission to climb as many as possible, getting taller as I go along. After my move to Japan, Mt Fuji’s 3776m bulk was begging to be conquered.
When I finally reached the summit, (an attractive bundle of sweat, tears and Coolish ice cream), I realised my fear had only really kicked in at the second-to-last station. It really brought home how far I’d come: from paralysed kid at the top of a jungle gym, too scared to go down the slide, to watching the sunrise at the highest point in Japan.
For my three friends who I climbed with; one had come to Japan specifically to take on Fuji, keen to test out whether his recent gruelling fitness regime actually worked (he climbed up in almost half the time it took the rest of us). The other two had simply come along for the ride.
During our climb, we saw families, large groups of pensioners and a fair few groups of elementary schoolers. When I questioned my work colleagues, most people who had climbed Mt Fuji did so as a child.
Not only is this testament to Japan’s reputation for having a healthy, active populace, it also shows what a special place mountains still hold in Japanese culture. What with the introduction of the ‘Mountain Day’ holiday this year, it seems like Mt Fuji will long continue to be a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Advice for first-time climbers
Whatever your own motivation for braving the climb, be it for a personal challenge or to cross something off your bucket list, here’s some advice:
- Don’t rush it. In fact, take the experience as slowly as possible. The main reason that people don’t end up making it to the top is altitude sickness. Many websites suggest that climbers should stay near the base of Mt Fuji the night before and/or wait an hour at the 5th Station before starting in order to acclimatise. This is so important.
- No matter where you stay, mountain huts are going to be noisy. Take some earplugs and don’t worry about paying extra for a fancier-looking hut. Save that money and put it towards getting all the station stamps on your Fuji stick or for well-deserved refreshments at the summit.
- Dress appropriately. Climbing season is during Japan’s hot, humid summer and certainly near the bottom you’ll be glad to be in a t-shirt and shorts. Just make sure to pack lots of warm clothes for the top. That way, when you see those unlucky people shivering in their tiny tank tops and flip flops at the summit, you’ll be able to watch the sunrise snug-as-a-bug.
- Take the road less travelled. The Yoshida trail is the most popular trail because of its frequent stations and emergency hut. However, from my experience of taking the Yoshida trail down: it’s boring. I took the Subashiri trail up and would recommend it for those who are first time climbers. Your views are way more varied and you won’t find yourself looking at the exact same winding, red-rubble trail for hours on end. It’s less convenient to get to than the Yoshida trail but if you have the time, give the Subashiri trail a try (or one of the other two trails if you’re more confident!)
- Even if you don’t get those sought-after sunset pictures to post on Instagram, be proud of your achievement. Even if you don’t make it all the way up, be proud! You made it (or almost made it) to the top of the tallest mountain in Japan and that is a memory that will stay with you forever.
And if you’re still not quite sure why you want to or should climb Mt Fuji, perhaps the quote from George Mallory on climbing Everest says it best. When asked why he wanted to climb the tallest mountain in the world, he simply said: “Because it’s there.”