Mt. Fuji
(From the bottom -- the pilgrim's way)

30-31 Aug 2002 - by Sherry Boschert

I climbed Mount Fuji the way of traditional pilgrims -- that is, from the Kitaguchihongu Fuji Sengen Shrine at the foot of the mountain (850 meters elevation) to the top (3,756 meters). These days, nearly everyone takes a big bus two-thirds of the way up the mountain and starts the climb from there. It has been said that the upper part of Fuji-san is where heaven meets earth. I did not want to take a bus to heaven. Plus, the beautiful Kitaguchihongu Fuji Sengen Shrine at the bottom is worth seeing, to put you in the right frame of mind for your climb, even if you do take a bus or taxi up the mountain!

I'm a 46-year-old, very physically fit woman but not a technically skilled mountain climber. I had no idea how much I would be able to climb, since I've had some trouble with altitude sickness in the past. I thought that maybe starting from the bottom and ascending more slowly would help with that, and it did. No altitude problems.

I aimed to have no goal except to just hang out with the mountain, and get to know it a bit, not necessarily to conquer it. I only saw one other person on the lower two-thirds, which was beautiful green forest that I had all to myself. It was hot and humid in late August, but on the lower half of the mountain at least you are in the shade, for the most part. As you ascend it gets cooler, and cold at night, so carrying clothes for all situations plus plenty of water is a must.

I began hiking around 10:30 a.m. The first 3 miles or so from the Fuji Sengen Shrine was a paved, mostly unshaded double-lane road, which was nothing to write home about and is probably why most people skip it. Then it became a lovely, tiny one-lane road edged by shrines, which ended and became strictly footpath shortly before the first of 10 "stations" up the mountain. It is possible to take a taxi to the end of the paved road and start where the footpath begins.

Nearly every "station" in the upper half of the mountain has one or more mountain huts, but on the lower part of the mountain most of these are abandoned and fallen apart. Which, to me, added to the charm of my hike.

I only met one other person climbing the lower part of the mountain, which I greatly enjoyed. Along about the time I reached the Fifth Station (closed during my visit because this was near the end of hiking season) at 2,305 m and 5 hours into my hike I began to wish I had a walking stick, as the terrain was getting steeper. Lo and behold -- Fuji provided. Someone had left a serviceable tree branch that clearly had been used as a walking stick. As the treeline fell away I hiked up 2.5 more hours to near the 8th station, where I stopped at dusk (around 6 p.m.), watched the sun set, and decided to sleep in a mountain hut.

Everyone raves about seeing the sun rise while on Fuji-san, but I found it equally beautiful seeing the sun set, because what you see (if you're lucky enough to have clear weather) is a long, crisp shadow of Mt. Fuji stretching out across the land for hundreds of miles. Stunningly beautiful.

I felt like I could have kept on hiking, but I would have reached the summit in the middle of the night and waited in the cold for hours for the sun to rise. So I shelled out the equivalent of $50 to sleep in a mountain hut, and I'm glad I did because I didn't realize how hard the rest of the climb would have been if I hadn't rested.

The sleeping facilities in the huts are basically huge long plank bunks with thin futons, blankets, and buckwheat pillows, where everyone sleeps and snores and coughs and sneezes side by side. Which, I believe, is where I caught a wicked cold that showed up a couple days later. I dozed fitfully until around midnight, when a hut employee made an announcement that I guessed translated to something like, "Anyone who wants to reach the summit to watch the sunrise should get their butts moving now." Since I wasn't sleeping all that well, I got up and went.

I mentioned that most people climb from the 5th or 6th stations of various trails. The other key factor is that most of them climb at night, to catch the sunrise. So my night-time trek was a matter of getting in line with hundreds of others, scrambling 10-20 steps up the rocks, and stepping aside to catch my breath and let my heart rate settle down. Then repeat. It was another 5 hours to the top.

Don't let any of the tourist brochures fool you -- it's a very hard climb, not just because of the altitude but because of the jagged terrain and the air quality. Every mountain hut has a diesel generator, and at the upper elevations you must pass many of these huts. Plus, it seems that every Japanese man smokes cigarettes, as do plenty of the tourists. So I was gasping for air in more ways than one.

Fuji-san usually is clouded over, but I was extremely lucky in that it was clear the entire time I was there. The views all along the way were spectacular. Sunrise was gorgeous, though it was very cold at the top at dawn. I could see for hundreds of miles up the coastline of Japan.

I did take lots of pictures, although I mainly did the climb to experience the mountain in the present moments. I guess Fuji-san knew this, because the mountain kept my camera, lost somewhere just before reaching the top. And there was NO WAY I was going to backtrack even a little bit down that trail to try to find my camera. On Fuji, most of the descending routes are separate from the ascending routes anyway, so I would have had to fight the uphill traffic even if I'd had the energy to go hunt for it. Which I DIDN'T.

I climbed down for 5 hours on the Gotembaguchi trail, which is the dryer, volcanic scree side of the mountain. The final 5 miles or so I felt like I was staggering through a hot desert, hoping that the parking lot ahead was not a mirage, concentrating on putting one shaking, wobbly-kneed leg in front of the other. Or, as the Japanese say, "my knees were laughing."

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed it.

Before I went, I could find virtually no information about climbing Fuji-san from the bottom. Even the kind employees at the inn where I stayed had no information, which is why I'm posting this account.

Here's a link to general information that I found helpful: www.sunplus.com/fuji/scott/links.html


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