Since I moved to Japan over a year ago, climbing Mt. Fuji was on the top of my travel bucket list. Fuji-san, as it’s called by locals, is Japan’s tallest peak. It’s an active volcano 3,776 meters high that can be spotted up to 300 km (186 miles) away. (Source). Making the pilgrimage to the top is an extremely popular attraction for tourists and locals alike.
Beginning the Ascent of Mt. Fuji
It’s a warm July morning as I drive up to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station. I’m accompanied by 9 other friends. The weather forecast shows rain and possible thunderstorms. But I already booked my reservation and it’s too late for a refund.
The plan is to get to our 8th station mountain hut by evening, and then leave at 2 am to make it to the summit for the sunrise. Most of the trails depart from the 5th station (10 stations total). The station has souvenir shops, food, hotels and even a Shinto shrine. It’s 12 pm as I begin my ascent on the Yoshida trail.
The trail starts off gradually, full of zig zags and loose gravel. There’s many hikers already descending from the summit. I slowly trek up to the 7th station. The air becomes thinner and it’s harder to catch my breath. It starts to rain lightly. Japanese hikers crowd outside the huts for smoke breaks.
As I get higher, I enjoy the silence as less groups pass by. Clouds drift below over green rolling hills. The wind blows them in all directions. They change form as they rise high above the summit. Lakes Kawaguchi and Saiko glisten in the distance.
A Change in Weather
Somewhere after the 7th station the storm clouds catch up. It’s now pouring rain. The wind howls as it gusts down the mountain peak. Even in full rain gear, I’m soaked from the waist down under my clothes.
A thick fog surrounds the trail and I can’t see more than a few feet ahead. I’m with two other friends and we take cover behind one of the huts. Hikers aren’t allowed to rest inside unless they have an overnight reservation. I start shivering from the cold and hide inside a bathroom. A red sign warns ‘No resting in bathrooms – 5,000 yen fine.’ But there’s local hikers resting here too, so I figure it’s okay.
I put on my heavy snow jacket over my raincoat. It’s now 4 pm and the rest of our group has already made it to our hut. I step back out to glimpse at the trail but can’t see through the fog. All I can tell is that the trail is steep and rocky.
I try to remain calm, but on the inside I start to panic. I fear being stranded in a bathroom all night. I seriously begin to doubt if we’ll make it to our hut. “Why did I want to do this!?” I ask myself. The weather is miserable. I’m soaking wet, freezing, and my back hurts.
But it’s too late to turn back now. I decide to continue on cautiously. With every gust of wind I get low and grab onto whatever I can. I tie my walking stick to my bag and crawl along the rocks like an injured crab.
Fortunately, once I get a little higher the wind starts to calm down. My hope has returned and I know I’ll make it, after all. At 6:30 pm I finally arrived at the 8th station ‘Tomoe-kan’ mountain hut.
The staff blasts me with a leaf blower to dry off my clothing. I’m so exhausted I can hardly move. They help me take off my shoes and heavy bag. I’m so relieved to reunite with the rest of our group. The dinner of curry and rice never tasted so good. I’m in bed by 8 pm. The beds are dormitory style but surprisingly comfortable and warm.
Final Trek to the Summit
“Soo…Soo!,” my friend whispers my name to wake me up. It’s 2 am and everyone else is still sleeping. I wanted to stay in bed, but we’re so close to the summit I can’t give up now.
At 2:30 am we embark on the final trek to the mountaintop. It’s pitch black and clouds hide the stars. All I can see is a few feet ahead of my headlamp. The weather hasn’t changed since yesterday: pouring rain, thick fog and unrelenting wind.
This time I’m in the front of the group, with 3 friends leading the way. I hold on to the soaking wet ropes secured along the trail. My gloves are drenched but I keep them on. I wince in fear with each step through the dark. But I remind myself – ‘just one step at a time… one step at a time.’
About one hour later – my friend tells me we’ve made it. Two dragon statues and a stone monument mark the summit. But it’s still pitch black and foggy. I can’t see anything except the building we huddle up against. There’s a whole hour to wait until the sun rises at 4:30 am.
Sunrise Atop Mt. Fuji
But the sunrise was not the gorgeous view I’d hoped for. All I could see were my friends, fog, and rain. It was like standing in a cloud. However – I was still ecstatic that I had made it! I climbed Mt. Fuji – all 3,776 meters of it! Although I missed the view, I was still proud of my accomplishment.
As we descend, I’m relieved to see the blue sky again. The trail becomes loose volcanic rock that’s super slippery in the rain. It only takes a few hours before we’re back at the 5th station.
Looking Back at my Mt. Fuji Experience
Mt. Fuji was one of THE scariest things I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of good friends. For most of the hike I was soaking wet, slightly nauseous, and freezing cold. And there was no breath-taking view at the summit due to bad weather.
However, sharing a warm meal with great friends, 3,400 meters above the clouds in a wooden mountain hut – atop the iconic Mt. Fuji – will be an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.
Nevertheless, I would do it again in a heartbeat – but only in good weather.
Written by: Soo Takiguchi
Soo Takiguchi loves to travel for adventure, delicious food, and sharing unforgettable moments with great friends. She grew up in California, lived in Hawaii for 12+ years, and is now living in Japan. She writes on her blog about living abroad, mindful living, and personal growth. Follow her at mindfullbloom.com