What is the one thing that most tourist want to do when they go to Japan? Okay, Okay… I know there is probably a multitude of things that could be listed. I just hope that Mt. Fuji is on that list. Yes, grand old Fuji san. I was fortunate enough to have the experience to climb this beast while studying abroad in Hachioji, Tokyo. And yes, I do mean Beast.
What may come as a surprise to many is that majority of Tokyo residents have never climbed Mt. Fuji. I guess it is similar to when one lives by the beach but never visits. It is easy to take what is close for granted. However, I did not have the luxury to say it will be there due to my limited stay in Japan. Hence, my thought process of “let’s do this thing!” I somehow managed to persuade my close friend to climb it with me. We planned the trip, booked a space in a capsule hotel, and packed our “hiking” bags full of 100 yen goods. We thought we were super prepared for this trip. Oh we thought, alright. We thought wrong.
First misfortune of the trip: the weather. We climbed Mt. Fuji in early August, which is the recommended hiking period. We picked a day it was suppose to be sunny and decently warm. However, as soon as we got to the train station at 8 a.m it was pouring buckets of rain and I mean buckets people! It was raining so much that the stairs had become a waterfall. It had only been 5 minutes into our journey and both of us were soaked straight to the bone. It reached a point where with every step I could hear the squishing noise of my wet socks. This was only the beginning of the horrors that awaited us. We transferred several trains until we boarded our 1 hour train to Kawaguchiko, a small town by Mt Fuji. We walked approximately 20 minutes to the capsule hotel and tried to wait out the rain there before heading towards our hiking destination. Unfortunately, the rain was not going to stop anytime soon. We decided to take our chance with it and left towards the bus station around 8 pm.
As we were walking, I caught a glimpse of something from the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a mangled looking dog between the size of a German Shepard and a Great Dane. This lead to the thought of “oh no, a loose dog!” Upon closer inspection, I realized I was mistaken. This was no dog, but a huge monkey!!! The monkey looked in my direction and gave me a look ensuring me where I stood in relation to it. The monkey slipped between the alley and disappeared from sight as if it was never there. I quickly turned to my friend and frantically shouted, “did you see that monkey?” She replied, “what monkey?” As I was having a staring contest with the monkey she was having one with her feet. The lesson of this story is to look where you are walking. Nonetheless, the monkey decided to spare us that day and we safely reached the bus stop.
Second misfortune of the trip: the bus driver. Now let me start off by saying that every bus driver I’ve encountered in Japan has been super polite and quiet. All of my experiences were great until this moment with the super cranky bus driver. Now I do not know this man’s life and how fun can it be driving up and down a mountain. Who am I to judge him? However, I think he could’ve handled himself a little more professionally. A family made the mistake of leaving their bags next to the middle bus door. He started screaming over the intercom, “move your bags away from the door.” However, the family had no idea that he was even speaking to them and were ignorant to the situation. In fact, everyone seemed to be confused to why he was shouting. My friend and I were the only people that seemed to comprehend Japanese. The bus driver shot up in their direction before I could even try to motion to move the bags . He grabbed their luggage and threw it aggressively towards them. They just looked baffled as he walked back up to his seat. It’s understandable why the bags shouldn’t be near the door, but it was handled poorly. Moreover, he was a very aggressive driver. There are a lot of sharp turns heading up to the 5th station of Mt Fuji that teeter on the ledge of the mountain. They are terrifying, but apparently not to our bus driver. Oh no, he whipped around those turns like he had all the lives of a cat, fearless. I wanted to kiss the ground by the time we made it to the 5th station. Now, I have more to say about my experience with this bus driver; however, the rest occurs at the end of our journey so I will revisit this topic.
Third misfortune of the trip: the rugged trail of Mt. Fuji and the lack of basic safety regulations such as having rangers patrol the area, having safety ropes, just anything to save you from death. The only thing that acted as a barrier between me and the steep drop was a chain nailed in the ground accompanied by signs labeled do not grab. Upon seeing this, I was comforted by my small whistle that would be used to blow for help if I fell over the edge. Also, certain areas of the trail were so narrow that only one person could fit at a time. This led to people taking turns going up and down or people hardcore tailgating each other’s backside. I don’t know why they were so eager to get to the top…it would be there. What made matters worse is that we were climbing at night during a lightning storm. It was pitch black and the rocks were very slippery from the rain. I remember violently shaking in fear at the worst portion of the climb. Furthermore, my friend and I only had small pinky-sized flashlights that we took turns holding. Did I already mention we made many bad choices on this trip? In order to see the path better, we would follow guided groups that had head lamps and larger flashlights. Unfortunately, we could not keep up and rotated between several groups. Although, most of our trip was separate from a group due to our lack of speed.
Let me take a moment to described what Mt. Fuji looks like in some detail. Starting from the 5th station, you enter the woods with a gravel trail. The trail loops back and forth and grows steeper as you climb. At certain portions of the climb you’ll have to climb up large rocks and at times it feels like rock climbing. There are a total of nine stations on Mt. Fuji that are small wooden buildings placed on a platform with nearby bathrooms. This is the only lit area at night on the trail. There will be someone manning the station that sells food, water, and a place to rest. An important side note is that these stations are not open 24 hours. I learned that fact the hard way. Also, the bathrooms do not flush, just some more food for thought. All I will say is that I did not relieve myself for a total of 11 hours. However, my friend had more courage than me or maybe a weaker bladder?
I bumped into several interesting characters during the hike. Some I enjoyed, others I loathed, and some I just pitied. Let’s talk about the people who did not tickle my fancy because that is always more interesting. My friend and I just finished a quick rest at the 6th or 7th station. We decided to proceed and had to pass a group of British guys who looked close in age. As I passed by, I heard “nice stick.” This was a comment referring to the walking stick I had purchased at the 5th station. At first, I didn’t realize he was talking to me because the brim of my hat obscured my view. After I passed, I realized that it was probably a question directed toward me. However, I felt the tone didn’t seem friendly and decided to ignore it. As I began to climb, I heard the same voice say, “well she can shove that stick up her a**.” That statement confirmed my theory, definitely directed towards me. This made me so mad because it was just so unnecessary. Did he really have to shout such a rude comment because I bruised his ego? One of his friends stated that it was possible that I didn’t even speak English, which was very possible. Once we hit a resting point, I could see the same group nearing us. I began to speak to my friend in Japanese because I didn’t want the guy to know I spoke English. I did not care about his feelings, but I didn’t want to deal with him any further. I can happily say that I did not see his face any point afterwards.
Another interesting group of people were the ones that suffered from altitude sickness. Many people purchase oxygen since altitude sickness becomes so severe during this hike. I saw one guy halfway passed out sitting against one of the stations mumbling, “yabai yabai”, which basically means ‘crap, crap.’ In between the mumbling he would violently throw up, which is an awful sight to witness. At the same station, there was a group of three guys and one chanted, “ikuzou!” meaning ‘let’s go!’ In an instance, he threw up then sprung back up and chanted once more. Altitude sickness was not going to hold him back. I experience a bit of altitude sickness myself, but not in the form of vomiting. I was slightly dizzy and had a feeling similarly to when you get a buzz. Altitude sickness is kind to no one.
A shocking sight to see during the climb was Japanese hikers ranging from the ages of 6 to 70 years old. I, myself, was 20 and getting my butt kicked by Fuji and somehow someone at the ripe age of 70 looked as if they found enlightenment. I began to question my health. I know I would never see an American so young or old hiking something the height or length of this mountain. There was even a group of elementary students at the 8th station taking a break to eat breakfast. They were all loud and chatty and chasing each other like they weren’t just hiking for 6 hours. It was baffling to see their level of energy. My confusion will make even more sense with my next statement.
We had reached slightly past the 8th station around 7 hours into the hike and I had never felt so miserable. I was freezing because I was forever being rained on and we were at a height above the clouds. My body was exhausted from not sleeping, eating, or relieving itself for approximately 8.5 hours. All my will to continue the hike was gone. My friend and I agreed to stopping and resting at the station for at least 1 hour. We requested for two beds; however, the man said a reservation couldn’t be made because they close in 1 hour at 6 a.m. I felt a bigger sense of defeat in an instant and I could tell my friend felt the same. For about 25 minutes, we both just stared at the sunrise in silence quivering from the cold. If we decide to continue to climb to the top it would be another 2 hours plus the climb down. However, if we decided to climb down then we would have to go back the way we came. There is no lift or magical escalator that goes back down once defeat is admitted. I had never felt so trapped in my entire life. I just wanted to collapse and ball my eyes out. I also felt pressure to continue the climb because I knew I would be asked, “did you reach the top?” However, my feeling of sheer misery trumped my pride. We agreed to go back down from which we came.
I was slightly concerned about the climb down because it would be more dangerous than the climb up as one woman had warned us. Another couple made the comment, “ you’re not going to the top when you are this close.” To which I replied, “it’s another 2 hours.” At these words, the man looked like he was going to faint. I was really happy with our decision because it was so much warmer the further we descended. Moreover, we ensured our safety by a method of ‘butt scooting’ down the boulders. Although, I got impatient at one point and straight up leapt off a rock. Yes, I did fall and scrape my hands… no regrets. I cannot say my friend was as pleased with my decision.
We became lost as we neared the 5th station due to our poor sense of direction. Eventually, we reoriented ourselves after studying the map and calling for directions. I could remember tiredly dragging my feet along the gravel while having people speed past me. To me it was obvious they didn’t even attempt to climb very far up the mountain. I began to pick up my pace from the immense pressure of people behind me, which was yet another mistake. Since it was raining and we were walking downhill, the gravel was slippery. Yes, I fell again. This time I ripped a huge hole through my pants and gashed my knee open. My wound was muddy, packed with the gravel and oozing blood. I have a strong history of tearing up and infecting my knee, so I was not pleased. The frustrating part of it was I managed not to do serious damage for 10 hours of the climb up until the last 5 minutes of it.
Finally, we had reached the 5th station and it was time to get back on the bus. It seemed everyone had the same idea as it was very crowded. My friend and I were separated as she was carried into the bus by the sea of people. However, the bus driver jerked me into the bus due to my friends panic. Furthermore, he annoyingly attempted to rip my wet poncho off instead of asking me to take it off. The trip down the mountain on the bus was worse than the one up because I had to stand, was exhausted, and blood was still dripping down my knee. After the bus ride, we had to go back to the capsule hotel we barely used to check-out. After we checked-out, we took a 10-minute break by the batting cages. I fell asleep in an instant with my eyes open for the first time in my life. My friend was extremely creeped out and uttered, “never do that again… ever.”
Walking back to the train station, I remembered the monkey I had seen. This time I was prepared to beat it with my handy dandy walking stick if necessary. As we waited at the bus station, I began to clean out my knee with the first-aid kit I knew I would need. A mother came up to me with a huge tube of Neosporin and asked if I needed any…this is how pitiful I looked. Eventually, the train came and we returned to our dorm in uneventful Hachioji. I slept in a coma like state for what felt like days. I had several people ask me how my trip went. I would reply, “You don’t want to know.”
My experience with Mt. Fuji is not meant to scare anyone away from it. I can’t say that I would do it again, but I will say I am glad I did it. I made so many memories and experienced many new things. I also cemented a lifelong friendship during that trip because over 12 hours of pain and misery will do that. The real purpose of this story is to inform what the hike entails because I feel that no one informed me. Again, I recommend hiking it yourself because who doesn’t want to say, “I climbed Mt. Fuji” or maybe “I survived Mt. Fuji.”