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The Truth About Climbing Fuji

I had a strange feeling that climbing Mt. Fuji was going to be more difficult than I anticipated. Not the physical exertion of it—I could hike the Subashiri trail in a suit of armor—but the experience of it.

This nagged at me before I even left Tokyo. “Is there a problem?” I asked the friendly but inept sales girl, upon realizing I’d been waiting nearly half an hour and still didn’t have the headlamp I’d asked to rent.

She didn’t reply (which made sense—she didn’t speak English, so far as I could tell). But the ease with which a task had morphed into an ordeal seemed to foreshadow future tedium.

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Every Meter I Ascended

The sky was bright blue as my train sped westward from Shinjuku Station Thursday morning, which suggested at a minimum that I’d been hasty. I’m very easy to please—sunshine practically guarantees I will be.


Things continued going swimmingly onboard the bus bound for Subashiri Fifth Station. I was one of only two passengers, the other a young Israeli woman who didn’t have any bags or belongings. This struck me as strange.

But it wasn’t my concern: Climbing Fuji was going to be a piece of cake, if the length of time it took me to reach the 6th station (under an hour) was any indication. The journey to the 7th station was slightly longer (in part because of the “Original 6th Station” that sold the same sorts of overpriced sake and sundries as the current one), but neither that nor the fleeting symptoms of altitude sickness I forced myself to ignore could rain on my parade.


The higher I climbed, to be sure, the more delight I took in the dichotomy that surrounded me. Did I prefer the precipice of Fuji, with its increasingly rocky, Martian soil, or the view of Lakes Kawaguchi and Yamanaka, which appeared more dreamlike with ever meter I ascended?

As Roomy as a Beehive

It was a question I didn’t intend on answering, particularly once I reached the 8th Station just before 5 PM. I was less than thrilled with the sleeping quarters in the spartan hotel I’d booked, not having realized it was as roomy as a beehive, but the increasingly dramatic sky beneath its rickety balcony mostly made up for this.


I didn’t stay up much past sunset: I’d be climbing Mt Fuji (or, more accurately, finishing the climb I’d already mostly completed) around 3 am, and if I wanted to get the eight hours of sleep to which I’m basically addicted at this point, I needed to sleep before 7.

Unfortunately for me, my “bed” was sandwiched between two overweight dude bros, one of whom had breath that smelled like cigarettes mixed with halitosis, the other not so pungent but physically unable to stay out of my personal space. This, combined with the symphony of cellphones, conversations and flatulence that naturally accompanies any bedroom-sized space with a hundred adults crammed into it, quickly made it clear that I wouldn’t actually be sleeping.


This was fine, of course, since I wanted to be one of the first people to the top of Fujisan, to arrive before most everyone else who was also planning to ascend. The good news was that I was among the first 100 or so, passing the sign that indicated my achievement just after 4 am.

A Fitting Punishment

The bad news is that my Fuji climb soon went from the dream that made up for a sleepless night to a fucking nightmare. Minutes after I sat down at a makeshift restaurant at the precipice, a mix of rain and sleet began flying through winds that must’ve gusted to hurricane-force, making it immediately clear that sunrise (or any photographic evidence of my having summited Fuji) wasn’t going to happen.


Actually, that was good news too, in the grand scheme of things. By the time I arrived back at the “hotel,” my shoes were filled with rocks, my body soaked to the bone to the extent that I’d have surely been hypothermic had it been 2°C colder. Had it not been for a trio of American women (Lori, Nan and Dana, who was Nan’s daughter) who wanted the fuck out of Dodge as much as I did, I might’ve wallowed long enough to have stayed another night.

They were sweet; but I wasn’t. Though they had motivated me to brave the elements and get off the damn mountain, I quickly left them in my dust, not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary for the next bus to Gotemba. (I arrived to Fuji Subaru Fifth Station, not having wanted to head back along the Subashiri Trail, to discover I’d need to connect in Kawaguchiko, a fitting punishment for my shitty behavior.)


Everyone on the bus had just finished climbing Fuji, which is to say we were all soaked. I’d planned on sitting silent amid the musty mist that was wafting through the bus, by my seat mate wasn’t having it. “Did you just climb, too?” she asked, with an effervescence so energizing I couldn’t possibly answer with a single word.

Only a Fool

During the brief bus ride, I spoke with Olivia (as I discovered the young woman’s name to be) about dozens of topics, from digital nomadism, to the gentrification of America, to Kyoto in the off-season, to growing up Catholic in the Midwest, to our luck of having seen such beautiful skies on Thursday night, to how the disappearance of my invincibility complex in my mid-30s had made my Mario Kart experience in Tokyo less thrilling than it might’ve been even a few years ago.

“I get it,” Olivia empathized. “I’m 35.”

Our conversation ticked many intellectual boxes, but in the end its impact was existential—though climbing Mt Fuji hadn’t been the disaster I predicted, I did feel regretful about not having seen the sunrise. Olivia rectified this for me when, out of the blue, she recited an old Japanese proverb: A wise man climbs Fuji once; only a fool climbs it twice.


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