View of the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji. (Photo by Jonathan Fisher)
By Jonathan Fisher
It’s been almost a year since I climbed to the summit of Mt. Fuji (富士山), an unforgettable journey I made alongside my fellow Hiroshima JETs in early September.
To those JETs considering the climb this year, I’d like to offer a little background on the significance of the mountain, as well as some friendly advice about the climb, should you decide to take the challenge (and I hope you do!).
Climbing Mt. Fuji the traditional way involves hiking through the night in order to witness the famous sunrise at the top. Sound insane? Yeah, just a bit. Yet each year a couple hundred thousand climbers scale the mountain’s rocky paths in the dark, all eager to say they’ve conquered the mountain that occupies such a special place in the hearts of Japanese people.
At 3,776 meters above sea level, not only is Mt. Fuji Japan’s tallest mountain, it is also an active volcano that last erupted about 300 years ago. Fuji-san, as the Japanese call it, is one of Japan’s three sacred peaks, and as such the mountain appears prominently in Japanese culture and literature, often serving as the focus of traditional artwork from poetry to wood block prints. Even today, Mt. Fuji is a symbol of Japan’s cultural and political prowess, its name and characteristic shape adorning everything from the luxury automobile logo for Nissan’s Infiniti brand to Japan’s largest pop music festival, Fuji Rock. Perhaps it goes without saying that conquering Fuji will earn you instant respect from all your Japanese co-workers and friends.
Even more than that, though, climbing Fuji is the perfect way to bond with your fellow JETs. It was during this trip—my first such outing as a new ALT—that I saw for the first time the incredible community of gaikokujin (foreigners), of which I had just become a part. One of the best parts about the Hiroshima AJET Fuji Climb was the journey itself to the mountain. AJET charters a bus for the 10-hour trip, and while riding the bus is a bit uncomfortable, by the time you reach the mountain you’re sure to have made some new friends.
Mt. Fuji and the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. (Photo by Morio.)
Having survived the trip in one piece last year, here are my top 10 tips on how to make climbing Mt. Fuji a positive experience.
1.) First, lay off the booze!
Avoid heavy alcohol consumption for about 24 hours before the ascent. No one on the bus wants to sit next to the hungover guy. Save the booze for celebrating on the return trip—or if you’re feeling extra genki, haul a few brews up to the summit to crack open when you greet the sun. They’ll certainly stay cold enough in your bag, and I guarantee that they will be some of the best-tasting beers of your life.
2.) Dress appropriately.
Summer is climbing season because it’s the only time the mountain loses its snow-covered cap, but it’s still pretty chilly and windy at the top. Do not be that loony guy who wears shorts, or you will be sorry. As you go up, the temperatures go down, so pack layers of clothing that you can put on as it gets colder. It’s tempting to think you’ll just put on all the clothes at the beginning of the climb so you won’t have to carry them all, but that’s a mistake, too. Sweating under six layers at the start will only make your lower layers damp, which will make it hard for you to keep warm as temperatures decrease. It would be a good idea to bring a full change of warm, dry layers to put on after you reach the top of the mountain (as well as a change of clothes for the bus ride home, after you’ve bathed — but you can leave those on the bus). Likewise, it would be smart to bring a rain suit. Violent storms sometimes crop up unexpectedly on Mt. Fuji. An umbrella won’t cut it, and it would really ruin your day to spend hours soaking wet in cold temperatures.
3.) Wear a comfortable, sturdy pair of shoes.
Remember, you’re going to be hiking for several hours on steep terrain that is rocky or full of volcanic ash. Hiking boots with ankle support are advisable.
4.) Stow your stuff in a comfortable bag.
You’re going to be carrying it for a long time. If you’ve got a hiker’s pack designed to transfer a lot of the weight off your back and onto your hips, that would work well. Be careful about what you choose to pack. Climbing Fuji is hard enough without carrying a ton of extra weight.
5.) Bring a headlamp.
It’s dark…very dark. And you’ll want your hands free to help pull yourself up over the rocky trail at points. How did I make it up Mt. Fuji in the dark without a flashlight? Only my trail buddies, Luc and Jason, know the answer to that question.
6.) Consider packing a couple ski poles.
They may not be so useful on the ascent, but that extra pair of legs would’ve worked wonders for me on the long slide back down the mountain. Note: there was no snow, only loose gravel. Everywhere.
7). Pack plenty of water, or resign yourself to paying way too much for it.
Stuff gets expensive at the little rest stops near the top. There also isn’t anywhere to purchase water going back down the mountain, so ration your supply to make sure you have enough to drink on the descent.
8). Bring a lightweight emergency blanket or sleeping bag.
Chances are you’ll spend more than an hour at the summit waiting for the sun to rise. Some JETs bonded enough during the bus ride and ascent that the ensuing snuggle fest during those final chilly minutes before sunrise was no problem. For others, however, a little bit of synthetic insulation from the wind and frosty ground would have been like a gift from Amaterasu, the sun goddess, herself!
9.) Pace yourself.
A relatively physically fit (sober) person who keeps to a moderate pace should have no trouble reaching the summit in six hours of hiking from the fifth station parking lot. But keep in mind it’s not a race to the top. Climbing too quickly can lead to altitude sickness, not to mention that reaching the peak early will only mean a long wait for sunrise in freezing conditions. The change in altitude can be uncomfortable for some people, and everyone will be winded from such a steep ascent and dodging the huge packs of retiree tourists, anyway. But if you pace yourself, stopping to catch your breath when you need to, you’re sure to make it to the top for that beautiful view and famous sunrise.
10.) Pay close attention to the path back down.
It’s when you’re making the return trip on those steep trails you just climbed the night before that exhaustion really begins to set in. Your knees want to give way and it’s tough to keep the volcanic gravel out of your shoes. You’ve likely only slept a couple of hours out of the last 24 and you’re distracted by the gorgeous panorama and the slightly lower concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. But don’t take a wrong turn! The paths all look the same, and they are only marked in Japanese. Luckily AJET leader/organizer Callum Watson came to the rescue last year with some much-needed direction at the crucial juncture, and everyone ended up back at the bus. But it would have been very easy for someone to make a mistake, end up at the bottom on the wrong side of the mountain, and miss the bus back to Hiroshima. Don’t let it happen to you.
Though it is by no means a typical hiking experience, climbing Mt. Fuji is the chance of a lifetime, definitely an AJET outing not to be missed. Making it to the top guarantees a deep sense of accomplishment, bragging rights, and most of all, incredible memories of good times bonding with fellow JETs.