TOKYO >> At 12,388 feet high, it’s Japan’s tallest mountain, vast and beautiful. Well connected by public transport to Tokyo, it is also one of the world’s most popular climbs — in 2018 alone, almost 300,000 people attempted to climb Mount Fuji in the summer season.
Despite the number of climbers, and the infrastructure that has been built to serve them, the mountain is not without its challenges. Altitude is one of the most significant, and the mountain is easily tall enough to induce altitude sickness in even the fittest of climbers. Another is exposure: Above the treeline there is very little shelter. Fuji is so prominent that nothing blocks incoming weather, and conditions can change very quickly.
However, to summit Mount Fuji is a challenge that should be relished. The view of Japan from its heights is unparalleled, especially during sunrise.
When to climb
The window for Mount Fuji begins July 1, when the Yoshida Trail opens, and lasts through Sept. 10. Three other trails open July 10. Weekends are much busier than weekdays.
Many people aim to be at the summit for sunrise. This means climbing during the night.
A “bullet ascent” means beginning the climb before midnight and going nonstop until sunrise. While this has advantages, low cost among them, it increases the chances of altitude sickness.
Each trail has a number of mountain huts, and a second strategy is to climb a portion of the mountain in the early evening, have supper and sleep at a hut, then wake before sunrise to complete the ascent. This gives the body time to adjust to the altitude. A night at a hut with meals included costs about $93 (10,000 yen), depending on the day (weekends cost more). Huts are basic, a futon on a tatami floor, and can get crowded. Reservations required.
If you climb overnight, time your arrival at the summit within minutes of sunrise. It is very cold there, so hanging around at the top for hours isn’t the best plan.
There are four main trails, each with different levels of difficulty. Each trail is broken into 10 stages, and public transport runs to the fifth stage of each route, where most climbers start their ascent. During summer, buses typically run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Routes finish at stage 10, the crater rim. Different trails offer different options for where to start and finish.
>> Yoshida: The most popular, with about 170,000 climbers using this route each year. Bus service runs to the trailhead from Kawaguchiko and Fujisan stations. Buses leave from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal.
>> Subashiri: Merges with the Yoshida at the most difficult part of the climb, meaning you’ll navigate crowds as well as the mountain. There are no mountain huts on the descent. Bus service runs from Gotenba and Shin-Matsuda stations.
>> Fujinomiya: Quicker than other routes, but also steeper, following a rocky path to the top. Huts are situated at each of the stations. First aid is available at the eighth station. Bus service runs from Mishima, Fuji, Shin-Fuji and Fujinomiya stations.
>> Gotenba: By far the least crowded trail, this one adds a punishing half mile to the trek. It is gentle at the start, then becomes steep and is frequently loose underfoot, adding to its difficulty. There are few mountain huts and first-aid facilities. The reward is far less company. Bus service runs from Gotenba Station.
Relatively few people visit Kengamine, the true summit of Mount Fuji. It is best accessed from the Fujinomiya and Gotenba trails.
The crater is vast, more than 1,640 feet across and 820 feet deep. At the top is a shrine and a post office, as well as several huts serving pricey food.
In summer, it will be warm around the trailheads even at night. But the top of the mountain is cold. Temperatures rarely exceed 41 degrees and drop with windchill. In fact, the wind can be severe, and weather can change quickly from clear and calm to wet and windy, with little chance of natural shelter.
When climbing during the day, use sunscreen — there is almost no shade once you leave the lower slopes.
There’s no overemphasizing the importance of layers. Pack gear that will allow you to hike comfortably in a wide range of temperatures. Outerwear should be wind and waterproof.
Other items: Summer boots, a head torch for climbing at night, a thin mask to avert breathing in dust, Diamox for symptoms of altitude sickness.
Food and water are available on the Yoshida, Subashiri and Fujinomiya trails. This can keep your load light. But prices rise as you ascend the mountain.
A good strategy
Carry enough food to last eight to 10 hours, and 2 to 3 liters of water. Note that you’ll dehydrate faster at altitude. Many of the descending trails have no opportunities to restock, so plan ahead before leaving the summit.
Guides are good for first-time climbers. They can also arrange reservations at mountain huts and transport to the trail heads.
Most mountain huts are cash only. Toilets are available at most huts for a small fee. Bring coins.
There are no trash cans on the trails, so you are required to keep trash with you.
Mount Fuji is a UNESCO heritage site. A donation of about $9.25 (1,000 yen) for maintenance will be requested at each trail.