Exploring Mount Fuji: A Visitor's Guide
Mount Fuji - or Fuji-san in Japanese - is the highest peak in the Fuji volcanic chain in central Japan and is the country's highest and most beautiful mountain. Almost perfectly round, its symmetrical form has long been celebrated in poetry and painting, most notably in the 8th-century verses of Yamabe Akahito and the series of woodcuts, Views of Fuji, by Hokusai at the turn of the 19th century. The very symbol and emblem of Japan, the often snow-capped Mount Fuji can, on a clear day, be seen from as far away as Tokyo some 100 kilometers to the east. Part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Mount Fuji attracts more than a million climbers in July and August, many of whom scale the mountain as an almost religious act, the culmination of which is the observation of sunrise on the summit. One of Japan's Three Holy Mountains, or Sanreizan, Mount Fuji joined the ranks of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 2013 as an important cultural location, and climbing the mountain is now a rewarding and relatively easy experience given the many facilities set up to feed and accommodate climbers.
Mount Fuji: Facts and Figures
Mount Fuji, a stratovolcano, which came into being in the Quaternary era some 300,000 years ago, is almost perfectly circular. Its base has a diameter of close to 40 kilometers, while its summit stands 3,776 meters high and is capped by snow for several months of the year. Believed to have been named after the Ainu word for fire, 18 eruptions have been recorded here, the most violent being those of AD 800, AD 865, and more recently, in 1707. During the latter eruption, the town of Edo (present day Tokyo), some 100 kilometers away, was covered with a thick layer of ash. At the same time, the present lateral crater of Hoeizan was formed. Fortunately, the volcano has remained dormant since then, although there are those who speculate that a further eruption is possible in the foreseeable future.
Climbing Mount Fuji
With more than a million visitors arriving each July and August to make the approximately eight hour ascent, the crowds climbing Mount Fuji can at times seem a little daunting (likewise, the roads leading to Mount Fuji are sometimes gridlocked). This is especially true at sunrise at the summit, the reason the majority of Japanese visitors make the pilgrimage, an important rite of passage to be tackled at least once in a lifetime (an old Japanese saying states that only fools make the climb a second time), a tradition that reputedly dates back to the seventh century when the first monks began climbing the mountain.
There are four routes up Mount Fuji, each divided into 10 stages or "gome" of varying lengths, at the end of which are stone direction signs along with, in most cases, mountain "huts" (often quite spacious lodge-style facilities offering food, drink, and accommodations). While huts are always open during July and August, be sure to check in advance for locations open during cooler months of the year. Most climbers start their ascent in the early afternoon from the 5th Station so as to reach the 7th or 8th Stations before nightfall, spending the night in a hut before making the final summit climb early the following morning. Once there, climbers rest, take a walk around the crater's edge (the Naiin, or "shrine") before beginning their descent around midday, returning to base in the late afternoon. An increasingly popular variant is to make the ascent in one go, starting after 4pm and reaching the summit at sunrise. This latter option also offers great views from the summit before clouds begin obstructing the view down into the valley, usually after 9am, and ensures a chance of catching a glimpse of the famous Mount Fuji sunrise (goraikō).
Another popular option is to take one of the frequent buses running from the foot of Mount Fuji to the large 5th Station (or drive and park there), continuing the climb from there, reducing much of the hard work required to make the ascent and allowing the return trip to the summit to be done in a day. Alternatively, many seasoned climbers and hikers arrive in the quieter seasons of late spring and early fall to make their ascent. Despite the possibility of snow, trails are open year round, though additional precautions - in particular the need for warmer clothing - are required. The beginning and ending of the official climbing season are celebrated on July 1st and August 31st with solemn ceremonies.
Also of interest to those with an adventurous streak is the increasingly popular sport of paragliding. Thrill seekers can have lessons and rent equipment from a number of paragliding schools making use of the slopes adjacent to the car parking areas around the 5th Station.
The Mount Fuji Trails
Mount Fuji's summit is accessible by four trails leading from the base of the mountain to the all-important 5th Station at Fujinomiya: the Yoshida, Suyama, Shojiko, and Murayama trails, from where a further four trails make the ascent: the Subashiri, Gotemba, Lake Kawaguchi, and Fujinomiya trails. Of the routes from the 5th Station, the most popular is the Lake Kawaguchi trail due to its numerous large huts and larger parking lot, and its popularity among the many tour operators whose buses stop here. While most visitors refer to "climbing the mountain", the slopes are gentle enough that even the steepest of spots can be handled without climbing gear. Trails are wide and safe and can easily handle the large numbers of climbers - even at choke points like the summit.
An alternative to climbing to the summit is to take the Ochudo-meguri trail - the path is known as the "boundary between heaven and earth" - which encircles the mountain between the 5th and 6th Stations at the 2,500-meter mark. The complete circuit covers a distance of almost 20 kilometers and takes between eight to ten hours. The most difficult stretches are Hoeizan, on the east side, and the Osawa Gorge - the largest gorge of Mount Fuji - on the west side.
The Summit Crater
The crater rim trail around Mount Fuji's summit, Ohachi-meguri, takes in its eight peaks - Kengamine, Hakusan, Kusushi, Dainichi, Izu, Joju, Komagatake, and Mishimadake - and has two variants. Easier than the steep direct route along the crest is the shorter three-and-a-half-kilometer path around the inner rim of the crater, with the benefit of passing the Sengen Shrine and the Gimmeisui Spring, also known as the "silver-shimmering water." At the foot of the Hakusan peak, on the north side of the crater, rises the Kimmeisui Spring, the "golden-shimmering water." Well worth the effort, the climb to the crater offers breathtaking views over almost the whole of mainland Japan. Hot Tip: Be sure to visit the Kuzushi-jinja Shrine where special stamps can be purchased (and postcards mailed) commemorating your climb to the summit.
Fujiyoshida and Mount Fuji's Visitor Center
Due to the increasing popularity among "casual" climbers simply wanting to say they've "done Mount Fuji," a number of older shrines, huts, and teahouses along the lower routes are once again becoming popular. These routes, such as the old Murayama trail, are often skipped over by those heading for the summit. From here, you'll not only get a taste of the excitement experienced by climbers in for the long-haul (without any of the work), you'll also enjoy some great views up the mountain from the lower slopes.
The town of Fujiyoshida serves as a good place from which to explore Mount Fuji's lower regions, and in addition to its views of the mountain, it offers a number of interesting tourist attractions. Highlights include Kitaguchi Hongū Fuji Sengen Jinja, an important Shinto shrine built in AD 788 that served as the starting point for pilgrimages up Mount Fuji for centuries, and is home to a museum dealing with the lives of locals living in the volcano's shadow. Fujiyoshida is also where you'll find the Mount Fuji Visitors Center with numerous interactive displays, as well as related videos and guidebooks. It's an excellent resource for those seeking more information about making the ascent up the mountain.
Fuji Five Lakes
On the northern flank of Mount Fuji is the Fuji Five Lakes region, an area of outstanding natural beauty that also provides superb views of the mountain. The five lakes themselves - Lakes Shoji, Kawaguchi, Sai, Yamanaka, and Motosu - are worth the journey and offer a number of fun activities, from fishing to kayaking or a pleasant trip aboard a pirate-themed cruise ship. Another attraction of note is the Village of Healing (Iyashi no sato), a traditional Japanese village showcasing the lives of locals over past centuries.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Mount Fuji
- Clothing: Due to its altitude, the higher reaches of Mount Fuji can drop to freezing, especially after nightfall and in the early hours of the morning. Take an extra layer of clothing (as well as a raincoat), and wear strong, comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots as well as a hat.
- Flashlight: Inevitably, you'll do at least a little walking after nightfall, so be sure to take a flashlight - some trails can be uneven with rock obstacles.
- Take it Easy: While the trails are safe and well marked, the air at higher altitudes is thinner. Consequently, make sure you stop frequently and rest, don't be in a hurry, and allow plenty of time for your visit (if possible, two days should be set aside).
- When to Climb: While the best time to make your ascent is July and August when the weather is more suitable, try to avoid the busy holiday period from August 13th - 17th. And while the weather a few weeks either side of the busy season can prove suitable for climbing, avoid winter climbing.
- Food: Hot food and beverages are available from most rest huts. However, be sure to "fuel-up" whenever an opportunity presents itself, such as at the many food vendors found at the 5th Station, and carry some snacks and protein bars with you.
- Water: While water can be purchased at the huts, take along an empty bottle or water container to fill-up whenever possible.
- Sleeping: While numerous huts and shelter spots are available, the best (and most popular) options are the larger chalet-like rest houses located at most stations (reservations can be made in advance at some). And forget about showering; these places are meant for sleeping and provide only basic amenities due to tight water restrictions.
- Gratuities: Be sure to carry loose change to tip at washroom facilities.
Getting to Mount Fuji
- By Air: While some international flights are handled at Mount Fuji Shizuoka Airport, 80 kilometers away, most overseas visitors fly into Tokyo International Airport.
- By Bus: A number of non-stop bus services are available from Tokyo and Nagoya that will deliver you to one or other of Mount Fuji's more accessible stations.
- By Train: Fast train services are available from Tokyo with connecting buses.
- By Road: Mount Fuji is accessible by road from all major cities, but once at its base, expect heavy traffic sometimes, especially if driving all the way to the 5th Station.
- Parking: A number of public parking options are available around the 5th Station, as well as in the towns at the base of Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji: Best Views
For those unwilling (or unable) to take the time to visit and climb Mount Fuji, there are wonderful views of the mountain from a variety of locations easily accessed from Tokyo and other major cities. While on clear days the mountain can be seen some 100 kilometers away in Tokyo, the best urban areas from which to view the mountain are the three small towns at its base: Fujinomiya on the southwest side, Gotemba on the east, and Fujiyoshida to the north. Of these, perhaps the best choice is Fujiyoshida, home to the Mount Fuji Visitors Center and a number of historic temples providing great views toward the mountain.