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A family adventure: Climbing Mount Fuji

Panorama view of beautiful mt.Fuji in the morning , View from lake Kawagushiko , Japan The volcanic cone of Mount Fuji rises above Lake Kawagushiko. | Photo by nithid18/stock.adobe.com

When my wife, Lisa, suggested a family trip to Japan during August, Mount Fuji instantly popped into my mind. The iconic, 12,388-foot conical volcanic peak that has graced so many Japan guidebook covers and travel websites has long intrigued me. And climbing season goes from early July to early September, so the timing would be perfect.

Would Lisa and I, along with our daughter, Daniela, who had just turned 13, be able to climb it? The elevation gain is more than 5,800 feet, sudden weather changes are common, and sleeping quarters are far from luxurious. Our family had done high-elevation hikes in the past, but never one this high.

In hindsight, I’m glad we decided to forge ahead with the trip and join the estimated 300,000 people who ascend Japan’s sacred mountain annually, because by the following summer, the country, along with the rest of the world, would close its doors to tourists in the midst of the pandemic.

Mount Fuji has four main trails and 10 stations, or mountain huts. We planned an overnight climb and reserved beds in a hut on the mountain so we could reach the summit for sunrise. As most hikers do, we would start our climb at Station 5, where the paved road ends and the gravel Yoshida Trail begins. We’d sleep at Station 8, the highest, so we could summit quickly the next day. Here’s how our 24 hours on Mount Fuji went.

6:45 a.m. Thursday

Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, Japan

The bustling Shinjuku railway and subway station in Tokyo. | Photo by ake1150/stock.adobe.com

We board a long-distance highway bus at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest train station. Although we’d heard that Shinjuku Station was a crowded maze, the bus terminal was easy to locate and the staff welcoming.

Tip: Japan’s many privately owned highway bus companies offer a cheaper transportation alternative to trains. Seating is comfortable, and the buses are equipped with Wi-Fi. Tickets cost 2,950 yen (about $27) per person for the somewhat scenic 80-mile ride from Tokyo to Mount Fuji’s most popular trailhead, Fuji Subaru 5th Station. You can buy tickets in advance on highwaybus.com. Supplies and food are more expensive on Mount Fuji, so it’s a good idea to buy necessities in Tokyo.

9 a.m. Thursday

Subaru Line 5th Station, Japan

The Subaru Line 5th Station is a popular starting point for ascents of Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

We arrive at Station 5, at 7,545 feet elevation. The two-story building, which contains small restaurants, souvenir shops, hiking outfitters, and a shrine, is a lot less rustic than I had expected. We pick up last-minute supplies, get last-minute climbing information, and acclimate to the altitude before we start the climb. It’s free to climb Mount Fuji, but we pay the suggested donation of 1,000 yen (about $9), which goes to environmental conservation and climber safety efforts. We get a small wood medallion souvenir in return. The temperature is about 70 degrees, a welcome break from humid, 90-degree Tokyo.

Tip: Just beyond this station, a police station has helmets that can be rented for the climb for 3,000 yen (about $28). Experts advise using helmets because falling rocks on the mountain have injured and killed people.

11 a.m. Thursday

On the wide gravel path that takes hikers up Mount Fuji, Japan

On the wide gravel path that takes hikers up Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

We start our climb up Mount Fuji. The first part is pleasantly shaded by stunted, oddly bent trees that border the wide gravel path. The fog is thick at this point, and we wonder if the views ahead will be rewarding.

Tip: Good-quality, water-resistant, high-top hiking boots are recommended because loose gravel tends to get into shoes on the way down and wet weather is common on Mount Fuji. 

12:30 p.m. Thursday

Workers at Mount Fuji's Station 6 engrave hiking sticks for climbers, | Photo by Rob Andrew

Workers at Mount Fuji's Station 6 engrave hiking sticks for climbers, | Photo by Rob Andrew

Station 6 comes more quickly than we expect! We still have lots of water and supplies in our backpacks. Climbers stop to get a stamp burned into their wooden hiking sticks, a traditional souvenir available at all the mountain stations.

Tip: Choose a shorter stick if you just want it for a souvenir. That way you don’t have the burden of carrying a full-size stick up the mountain. 

1 p.m. Thursday

Hikers use ropes and hands and feet to scramble up large rocks on the path to the top of Mount Fuji, Japan

Hikers use ropes and hands and feet to scramble up large rocks on the path to the top of Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

The climb is steep and rocky here. Between stations 6, 7, and 8, we traverse larger stone steps, and Daniela (pictured above) must stretch to reach each one. We need to use our hands occasionally to ascend steeper sections. Although it’s a weekday, hundreds of climbers are on the trail.

Tip: Overall, Mount Fuji is a challenging climb that both experienced and occasional hikers can conquer. The elevation gain is more than 1,000 feet per mile, similar to climbing Half Dome in Yosemite or Mount Baldy in Southern California. 

1:09 p.m. Thursday

Author's wife, Lisa, approaches Station 7 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Author's wife, Lisa, approaches Station 7 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Daniela, Lisa, and I arrive at Station 7, elevation 8,800 feet. We’re starting to run low on water, so we grab a couple of bottles at the concession stand. The climb from Station 7 to Station 8 is the most difficult because they are the farthest apart, requiring about three hours of hiking and an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet. The altitude affects us at this point, and we take frequent breaks to catch our breath. In the higher elevation, the air is colder and drier.

Tip: Carry some 100-yen coins so you can use the pay restrooms that are available at all stations. You can’t get change at any of the stations, except 5.

3:30 p.m. Thursday

On the way to Mount Fuji's Station 8, hikers can see the Five Lakes area. | Photo by Rob Andrew

On the way to Mount Fuji's Station 8, hikers can see the Five Lakes area. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hikers move slowly and stop often to take in the views. On the way to Station 8, we can see the scenic Five Lakes area in the valley below. At this height, the views remind us of looking out of an airplane window; the clouds consistently rest below us. We feel blessed to have clear weather.

Tip: Don’t get your heart set on panoramic vistas. The weather can be foggy or cloudy. Rain and wind force many groups to turn around. Try to plan around weather and don’t be too disappointed if officials close the routes to the summit because of poor conditions.

4 p.m. Thursday

Hikers sometimes overnight at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hikers sometimes overnight at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Ahead, we see Station 8. We plan to eat and sleep at the Fujisan Hotel for a few hours to further acclimate to the 11,154-foot elevation.

Tip: Book sleeping accommodations and a meal at the Fujisan in advance at fujimountainguides.com. The lodging is well worth the $60–$95 per-person cost.

4:30 p.m. Thursday

Eating dinner at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Eating dinner at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

The Fujisan Hotel staff serves us a meal of sausage, rice, and gravy with bottled water in the hotel dining room. Beer and other beverages and treats are available for sale. Exhausted but excited, I enjoy a can of Asahi beer on the hotel balcony before turning in.

Tip: Staying overnight at a higher station means less hiking in darkness the following day. If possible, choose to sleep at a higher station and go up on a weekday to avoid crowds. Also, try to summit early in the day.

5:30 p.m. Thursday

Dorm-like room with a row of bunk beds at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Dorm-like room with a row of bunk beds at the Fujisan Hotel at Station 8 on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

A hotel worker shows us to a dorm-like room with a row of bunk beds, where we will crash for a few hours alongside fellow hikers. Because we are one of the hotel’s earlier arrivals, we secure three adjacent beds at the end of a row. The quarters are tight so we carefully organize our supplies, headlights, and warm clothing to quickly get ready the next morning without disturbing other sleeping hikers. We choose the standard 2 a.m. wake-up call to reach the summit by sunrise.

Tip: Don’t bring bedding or pillows. Everything is provided and is more than adequately warm and cozy.

2 a.m. Friday

A hotel worker wakes us up. We turn on our headlights and go outside into the cold to brush our teeth and gather our things. You can pay to use the toilet and sink in the restroom, but I opt to brush my teeth outside in the open with bottled water to avoid the crowd.

Tip: A headlight is indispensable for getting ready hands-free in the early-morning darkness. Dimmable headlights are best to avoid disturbing other hikers sharing sleeping quarters.

4:30 a.m. Friday 

A line of hikers wearing headlights climbs in the pre-dawn darkness on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hikers wearing headlights walk in the pre-dawn darkness. | Photo by Rob Andrew

A line of hikers wearing headlights dots the trail. Daniela leads the pack. My legs are burning from the previous day. Now, two hours into our slow climb in the darkness, there’s enough light to begin taking photos again. We continue climbing on big stone steps. Ropes mark the trail. The crowds make the pace a very slow one.

Tip: If you want a remote, peaceful hike to commune with nature, this is not it. Mount Fuji is popular and heavily trafficked, and you’ll get a heavy dose of civilization: You’ll have access to ramen, Wi-Fi, beer, and other conveniences all the way up!

5 a.m. Friday

Hikers stop at this gateway as the sun rises on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hikers stop at this gateway as the sun rises on Mount Fuji. | Photo by Rob Andrew

We reach the official summit! Although it’s technically not the highest point, many hikers stop at this gateway to shoot photos and videos as the sun rises over the Land of the Rising Sun. The mood is celebratory, despite the exhaustion and cold temperature, which has reached about 40 degrees Fahrenheit at this point.

Tip: Follow the path past the stations and restrooms to explore the volcanic crater at the very top.

5:17 a.m. Friday 

Hikers continue on the path to reach the lip of Mount Fuji's volcanic crater. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Hikers continue on the path to reach the lip of Mount Fuji's volcanic crater. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Daniela is feeling a little woozy from the altitude and has a stomachache. I am anxious that she’ll give up or become sick, but, with encouragement, she perseveres. The line of hikers ahead of us ensures a slow climb, but their effort also reassures me. I feel proud of my daughter, hoping she’ll look back on this moment fondly.

Tip: Most of the hike is exposed to the sun, so be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen. The availability of snacks, soda, drinking water, and restrooms all the way to the top makes the ascent seem much easier than comparable wilderness climbs.

5:30 a.m. Friday

On the lip of the volcanic crater. | Photo by Rob Andrew

On the lip of the volcanic crater. | Photo by Rob Andrew

We choose to continue a bit higher to explore the lip of the large volcanic crater at the top. The altitude here is 12,388 feet. We’ve climbed more than 5,000 feet since yesterday. I feel winded after a short walk around the crater. 

6:40 a.m. Friday

The Summit Station has pay restrooms and a restaurant. After celebrating with a bowl of ramen and some rest, we start the long return hike on the descent route. Our shuffling descent on the loose gravel is not nearly as fun as our ascent. Bulldozers use this route to take supplies and clean linens up to the mountain huts and stations.

Tip: A collapsible hiking stick or two on the descent will give you stability and take stress off your knees.

10 a.m. Friday

Descending Mount Fuji in the wooded area near Station 5. | Photo by Rob Andrew

Descending Mount Fuji in the wooded area near Station 5. | Photo by Rob Andrew

We finally arrive at the wooded area near Station 5, where we started. Even with plenty of breaks, the hike down takes only about half the time as the hike up.

Tip: Some people tackle both the ascent and descent in one day. While a very fit hiker can do this, other climbers should consider the overnight hike to give their knees a break and ensure a more enjoyable experience.

Rob Andrew is a commercial and editorial photographer based in San Diego. 

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