So if you’re going there to play Pokémon Go, you’ll be disappointed. You’d think the summit of the highest mountain in Japan would have something special to catch. Or at least some rock types. That’s just logical.
There is actually a Pokémon Gym, but according to my friend Nick, all it contains is “another fucking Vaporeon.”
He knows this because along with three other friends, we climbed Mount Fuji last month.
Every year between July and September, thousands of people dust off their hiking gear and trek to the top of Fuji-san to see the sun rise over the surrounding hills and lakes. For foreigners it’s a sort of must-do activity if you live in Japan, much like wearing a kimono, bathing in an onsen, or seeing tentacle porn for sale in Akihabara.
I’ll have you know I’m only on three out of those four.
Yup, still never been to an onsen.
Several of my friends here have climbed Fuji and they all recommended it. Well, they said it was excruciating and a generally awful experience from start to finish, but still totally worth doing for the view.
When one of my colleagues started putting together a trip, I decided to tag along.
There are several trails up Fuji of varying difficulty, the most popular of which is the straightforward and therefore crowded Yoshida Trail. Then there’s a choice of two ways to see the sunrise:
Climb leisurely through the afternoon and stay overnight in a mountain hut. You’ll eat, drink and be merry, then wake up just before the crack of dawn to arrive on the summit refreshed. This is what most Japanese climbers do.
Climb through the night, nearly freeze to death, then (if you make it) arrive at the top exhausted and miserable. This is what most foreigners do.
Guess which we chose.
Option number two is known as ‘bullet climbing’ and is a good way to get altitude sickness. Around 15% of people give up and go home.
The trails are only open in the summer months when the weather is safe so we planned to climb on the opening weekend. Unfortunately, we had to cancel because the official website said there was still snow and therefore the mountain was ‘closed’.
Due to a clash in schedules I ended up climbing with another group of friends, two of whom openly saw the expedition as a good chance to catch some new Pokémon.
Fit for a prince
So now it was me, my friend Nick, his friends Greg and Yuuki, and Yuuki’s friend Momo. While I was still game to trek through the night on the Yoshida Trail, Momo did her research and suggested a route called the Prince Trail, which was supposed to be both easier and more scenic. Apparently it was used by the Japanese royal family when they felt the urge to climb Fuji. She even managed to book us a few beds in a mountain hut so we could have a pleasant climb and probably not die.
It sort of sounded too good to be true.
If the trail was easier and more striking, why would anyone bother going up the Yoshida Trail? What was the catch with the Prince Trail? Ghosts? Wild beasts with a taste for blood and Goretex?
We found out at the fifth station starting point when the staff at the gate informed us to be careful because there had been a landslide the night before.
So that was it, a moderate chance of being crushed by falling rocks. Before we started climbing we stocked up on some essentials from the shop:
- Large wooden sticks that could be stamped at each station on the way to the top and would also help us with the walk
- Oxygen canisters
- Some Fuji shaped candies
We also visited the restaurant where I dined on the special Fuji curry.
Rice mountain not to scale
Fuji girl, you’ve been living in a Scree God world
Thankfully, reports of landslides were slightly exaggerated and the trail did have plenty of other climbers and was perfectly safe. The route appeared to be a gentle slope up Mount Hōei and then a steeper ascent into the clouds. There was only one obstacle:
Scree. So much scree.
The incline was easy, but the loose gravel underfoot meant that every step forward meant almost half a step back. It was Hell on the calves.
Greg and Nick take a rest with their Fuji sticks
At first we embraced the challenge. After twenty minutes we were in pain. After an hour we’d started singing pop songs and changing the lyrics to be about scree. I remember Billy Joel and Kate Bush, and the rest is a blur.
The Scree God, as envisaged by Nick Westbrook
The shadow of Fuji-san
Arriving at the top of Mt Hōei we were feeling confident. We’d defiantly entered the Scree God’s realm, battled somewhat but survived unscathed, and now felt on top of the world at this lower summit. I really needed the toilet but resisted temptation to act like Tyrion Lannister at the Wall and take a piss off the edge of the world.
The view from Mt Hōei
As we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for making it this far, let’s pause briefly to discuss how (un)prepared we were. Have a look at this link to essential climbing gear.
Although we all had boots and at least one item that was waterproof, Nick and I were in jeans and on the train down we got a message from Greg saying he’d forgotten to bring a coat. Fuji is known to be literally freezing at the top.
Thankfully, Yuuki had a solution:
For those not in the know, Kuroi Jukai is known as the suicide forest and has been the subject of numerous horror movies. It’s a truly creepy place with no phone signal and lots of undergrowth and caves to get trapped in. Our bus drove through part of it on the way to Fuji.
Despite not having all the essentials recommended for the climb, we continued to our accommodation without any major problems.
Still a long way to go...
The mountain hut
As we checked-in for the night, one of the hut staff offered to take my backpack and put it up on a shelf for storage. I declined because I wanted to keep my bottle of water with me while I slept. Little did I know that the tiny attic space he was putting it in was actually our bed for the night. Somehow, in a one storey structure there were three levels of nooks and crannies filled with sleeping Japanese people. It was almost as bad as going on the Tokyo subway at rush hour. Needless to say we got almost no sleep before our alarms went off at 1am for our final hike to the summit.
Maybe it was the altitude, but from this point onwards I remember a lot less. We’d barely slept and the rocky path in front of us was illuminated only by the headlamps of other climbers, slowly staggering to the top. We paused a lot for rest but pushed onwards, being careful to stick to the path. In the darkness the trail was quite precarious for inexperienced climbers. This must be why the Prince Trail is not as popular for first timers or bullet climbers, because it looked like if we didn’t pay attention to our footing we could actually get hurt.
In true Japanese fashion, a queue was forming for the final stretch. We emerged from the crowd to the summit just as the sun rose over the surrounding countryside.
My photos obviously don’t do it justice. We sat and watched the sunrise on the mountainside, checked out the crater (Fuji is still an active volcano) and then ate a very expensive cup noodle. The view was truly breathtaking, but the best part was just after sunrise when the full morning light illuminated a sea of clouds.
We took it all in, milled about for a bit, then decided it was time to leave before we all collapsed.
We decided to descend on the Yoshida Trail on the other side of the mountain and were quite shocked by what we found. There were loads of facilities and unlike our rocky ascent, the path up had caterpillar tracks. It really was a stark difference - we’d spent the afternoon knee deep in scree and then most of the night climbing over boulders. By comparison this looked like pavement. We immediately started talking shit about the trail and everyone on it, questioning their climbing experience, strength and sexual preferences.
Then we tried walking down it.
There’s a separate route down and unlike the route up, there were no facilities at all. None of the stations sold water, which would have been fine had we not drunk almost all of ours at the top once we decided the Yoshida Trail was the ‘pussy route’. All the main stations on the Prince Trail offered something, but here there was no water available until the fifth station bus stop, which was a very, very long walk away in the rapidly approaching midday sun.
I'm reasonably sure we only just made it down alive.
Simon’s Fuji guide
When people ask me what I thought of the climb, I say this:
Going up was fine. Going down was torture.
That was mostly because we were unprepared for the descent, possibly forgetting that reaching the summit is not actually the finish line, but rather the halfway point. Here’s my advice for a happy climb:
- Buy a stick and get it stamped on the way up. It’ll make the climb easier and makes a great souvenir.
- Take LOTS of water. You can buy drinks, food and even ice cream on the way up, but practically fuck all on the way down. Two large 2 litre bottles should be more than enough.
- Take snacks. A Snickers has never tasted as good as it did on the summit.
- Jeans are probably OK and it’s not THAT cold. We all survived. But if it had rained it would have been absolutely shite.
- If you’re taking the Prince Trail, make a sacrifice to the Scree God just in case.
More information is available here at the 'Council for Promotion of the Proper Use of Mt. Fuji'. Seriously. Don’t use the mountain improperly!
You can book bus tickets here to/from the centre of Tokyo. We took the bus there and the train back. The bus journey was much quicker.
If you’re struggling to find information on the Prince Trail in English, it’s basically a combination of the Gotemba and Fujinomiya routes.
- Height: 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft)
- Number of peaks at the summit: 8
- Yoshida Trail: 6 hours ascent, 4 hours descent
- Prince Trail: We walked from roughly 2:30pm till 8pm, then 1:30am till 4:30am, stopping lots for photos.
- Mountain hut price: ¥6,000 - ¥10,000
- Also: It's a Goddamn active volcano!
So there you have it. Climbing Mount Fuji is easily one of the best things I’ve done in Japan and I’m reasonably sure that our route was the superior one. You will find 4G internet at the top but sadly not any interesting Pokémon. I guess you’ll just have to make do with one of the most beautiful views you’ll ever see.
I know it’s not a Pikachu, but life’s tough.
From left: Me, Yuuki, Momo, Nick, Greg