Tom Fay, co-author of Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps explains a few things you should know if you’re planning an ascent of the iconic Mount Fuji.
Towering up to a height of 3776m, Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san as it is often called, is Japan’s highest and most famous mountain and has been celebrated in art and literature for centuries. It rises from the plains on the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures and is a dormant stratovolcano (a conical volcano built up by hardened layers from repeated eruptions).
This most recent eruption in 1707-1708 created a smaller secondary peak and crater on the mountain’s south-eastern flank called Mt. Hōei. Mt. Fuji is snow-capped for half the year and is visible from Tokyo and other faraway spots when the weather is clear (passengers on the Tokaido shinkansen bullet train running between Tokyo and Kyoto can catch a glimpse of it around Shin-Fuji Station). It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013, but as a cultural rather than natural landmark, presumably due to the relatively high level of development on its slopes.
During the official summer hiking season people of all ages and nationalities attempt to scale the mountain, with many climbing most of the way through the day to arrive at a mountain hut before dark. After a warm meal and a few hours’ sleep they then set off in the dark for the final push to the summit, hoping to catch the sunrise from the top before the long slog back down the mountain. This is the classic way to climb Mt. Fuji, and despite the typically large crowds (around 300,000 people a year attempt the climb during the short climbing window), there is often good camaraderie between hikers and reaching the summit feels like an achievement.
It is a mountain experience quite unlike any other, and even if the thought of sharing the mountain with hundreds of other people is not appealing, the long processions of headlamps slowly winding their way up to the summit in the dark, plus spectacular early morning views, do make it a truly unique ‘bucket list’ experience.
There are four main routes to the summit: the Yoshida, Subashiri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails. Like several other mountains in Japan, each trail is split into 10 stages or ‘stations’, known as gō-me (合目 in Japanese). Back in the olden days pilgrims used to climb from the very foot of the mountain (and some people still occasionally do), but now buses run to and from each trail’s 5th station roughly halfway up the peak so most people start and end their climbs there. The summit is dominated by a 100m-deep crater, and snow often remains there until late in the year. The true high point is a small peak called Mt. Ken-ga-mine and is home to an automatic weather station which, until 2004, used to be manned throughout the year. There are several huts, vending machines, a post office and a shrine on the summit rim, and an undulating path follows the circumference of the crater, which takes about an hour to walk around.
When to go
In 2019 the official climbing season is from 1 July to 10 September for the Yoshida trail, and from 10 July to 10 September for the other three trails. Generally, the official climbing season runs from early July to early September (the exact dates can vary a little every year), and during this period frequent buses run to all four trailheads, mountain huts are open for business and thousands of people descend on the mountain every day. Paths to the summit will be clear of snow, so no specialist equipment is required. Mt. Fuji is most busy on weekends and public holidays so aim for a weekday climb if possible. It’s best to avoid the week-long Obon holiday in mid-August when the trails and huts can be heaving with people.
Temperatures in the summer are generally hot and humid at sea level, warm at the trailheads but chilly at the summit, especially in the early morning and at night. The weather on Mt. Fuji is extremely changeable, so it’s important to bring rain gear and a warm jacket at the very least, no matter what the forecast.
Late summer to early autumn is typhoon season, so check the forecast carefully before climbing. Typhoons generally last for 24 hours or so, but they bring heavy rain, driving winds and can cause a lot of damage, with transportation often severely disrupted, so be prepared to change your plans if a typhoon is forecast.
Climbing Mt. Fuji outside the official climbing season is generally not encouraged, as most of the huts, facilities and transport options are closed or extremely limited. Tackling the mountain a week or two before or after the official season is possible if you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, but be aware that most huts will be shut. Climbing Mt. Fuji in winter conditions (November to May) is a very serious undertaking, for those only with the correct gear and lots of winter mountaineering experience. There are accidents and fatalities most years, so the local police authorities have an off-season climbing form that should be filled in and sent to them before attempting a climb.
There are four routes to the summit of Mt. Fuji, and while most people go up and down on the same trail, it is perfectly viable to ascend one way and descend by another, especially if you are using public transport. The most popular trail by far is the Yoshida route, as it has easy access from Kawaguchiko and is the most developed trail on the mountain, with a plethora of mountain huts all the way from the 5th station up to the summit. It has separate up and down paths for most of the way to keep human traffic running smoothly and takes roughly 6 hours to reach the top, and 3 or 4 hours to go down.
The second most popular trail is the Fujinomiya route on the south side of the mountain. This trail is rather steep and rocky near the top but is the shortest trail in overall distance as it has the highest starting point of any of the 5th stations. It also brings you out closest to Ken-ga-mine, the true summit. There are no separate up and down paths, so expect to pass many hikers coming from the other direction. It takes about 5 hours to ascend and 3 hours to descend.
The Subashiri route is the third most popular trail, and the most varied. It starts off in verdant forest, then climbs steadily above the treeline and later joins up with the Yoshida trail closer to the summit, at which point the number of hikers increases tenfold. The mostly separate ‘down’ trail involves an enjoyable and slippery descent on fine black scoria along the sunabashiri ‘sand run’ on the lower section. The Subashiri trail takes around 6.5 hours to climb and 3 hours to descend.
The Gotemba route is the quietest and least developed route, with only a handful of huts and relatively few hikers. It has the lowest altitude starting point of all the 5th stations and much of the trail is on loose, sandy scoria, so it is a rather long and tiring slog in ascent, taking around 7 or 8 hours. It is a fantastic descent trail, though, as the loose sandy ground means you can bound and slide down the mountain in record time (less than 2 or 3 hours) with relatively little effort on the famous osunabashiri, or ‘great sand run’.
Most hikers climbing Mt. Fuji do it over two days, typically spending a (sleepless) night at one of the many mountain huts on the way to the summit. All the huts are open during climbing season and offer hot meals, snacks, drinks and shared dorm-style accommodation. Futons are always provided, but some people like to bring their own liner or sleeping bag. On particularly busy nights everyone will be packed in like sardines, so with all the snoring, shuffling and people getting up to go to the toilet, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a great night’s sleep (an eye mask and ear plugs can help).
The cheapest option is to pay for accommodation only (called sudomari in Japanese), which costs around ¥6000 per person. With dinner and/or breakfast included this rises to around ¥7000 to ¥9000, and nightly rates are increased by ¥1000 or ¥2000 on Fridays and Saturdays. Dinner is usually served early, from around 5-7pm, with lights out typically around 9pm. As most people leave very early to reach the summit for sunrise, wake up calls can start from around 1.30am, depending on the hut’s distance from the top.
It is usually essential to book accommodation beforehand, and a small number of huts have online booking in English. The vast majority require reservations by telephone, so speak very slowly and clearly or get a Japanese speaker to help. Some hotels will help you to make a reservation if you provide them with all the information needed. Huts do not accept credit cards, so don’t forget to bring plenty of cash. During the daytime most huts are open and sell snacks, drinks and a few souvenirs, and many have toilets nearby, use of which requires a small tip. Also be aware that camping on Mt. Fuji is strictly prohibited.
Things to consider
Mt. Fuji is climbed by thousands of people every week during the summer, and a large proportion of them are not likely to be serious hikers. This does not mean that the mountain should be underestimated, as the climb does involve a substantial gain in altitude, and if you are exposed to the elements then hypothermia and heatstroke are both real risks. Wear comfortable hiking gear and either boots or sturdy trail shoes, as the terrain can be rough underfoot. The abrasive volcanic rock and scoria can really shred up delicate footwear. Bring a couple of pairs of socks and plasters (band-aids) for blisters.
It’s best to cover up as much as possible as there is almost no escape from the sun on most of the trails, so sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat are essential. Even if it’s cloudy or overcast, sunburn is a strong possibility in the thinner air at these altitudes. Carry warmer layers for the evening and early morning, when it can be close to freezing near the top. Always pack rain gear, as this can serve as an extra warm layer or for wind protection. Some people like to wear gaiters to stop stones from getting in their shoes. Don’t forget a headlamp or flashlight (and spare batteries) for night climbing, and as food and drinks at huts are relatively expensive, bring as many snacks and as much water as you feel comfortable carrying. Hundred-yen coins are useful for buying drinks and for tips at toilets. Many people use trekking poles, while traditional wooden pilgrim staffs are sold at the trailheads and can be branded at various points on the way up the mountain (and good luck taking one home on the airplane!).
Altitude sickness is not usually a big issue for climbers, although mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) can start from around 2500m, especially if you ascend quickly. Symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, breathlessness and nausea, and the only remedy is to rest and then descend if there is no improvement. Bottled oxygen is sold at some of the huts, but this is probably only of benefit to people who are badly out of breath.
Following a recent initiative, climbers are now encouraged to pay a ¥1000 donation at the trailhead to help pay for environmental protection and for the upkeep of the mountain.
The Yoshida trail is best reached from Kawaguchiko, a popular tourist town on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi directly north of the peak. There are direct buses there from Tokyo, or you can take a train on the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station, changing at Otsuki for the Fujikyu Railway Line. From Tokyo it takes around 2 hours to Kawaguchiko by either bus or train.
The Yoshida trail 5th station is at the end of the Fuji Subaru Line, which has daily buses running from Kawaguchiko all year round. Search online for the latest bus timetables or ask at the tourist information centre next to Kawaguchiko Station. From late April to early November there are also direct buses to the trailhead from Tokyo’s Shinjuku bus terminal.
The Fujinomiya route is convenient for those taking the bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto. During climbing season there are frequent daily buses to the Fujinomiya trail from Shin-Fuji, Fuji and Fujinomiya Stations, and then only on weekends outside this time.
The Subashiri trail is served by buses to and from Gotemba Station on the JR Gotemba Line, with 6 to 10 buses a day during climbing season. The Gotemba trail also has 6 or 7 buses a day to and from Gotemba Station during the climbing season. It is also possible to drive up to the Gotemba trailhead, with plenty of parking available for private vehicles.
Update for 2019: Owing to a landslide on the Yoshida trail just below the summit, the upper part of the trail may be closed until repair work has been completed. The Yoshida trail is due to open on 1 July and the Subashiri trail from 10 July, but it may not be possible for hikers to climb any higher than the Goraiko-kan hut at 3450m (also known as the 8.5th station, past where the two trails converge) until further notice. Please check online for the latest information.