On Sunday, July 16th, 2017, we hiked to the summit of Mt. Fuji.
3,776 meters. 12,388 feet. All in less than 24 hours.
There are a few trips that I still want to write about, but I feel like I need to write about this first; my legs are still sore from walking, and my mind is still in awe that we actually completed this goal that I’ve had for such a long time.
I’m tempted to type out a disclaimer about how “I know it’s not the highest mountain in the world,” but you know what? I’m not going to minimize what we did. This was a big mountain for me (and a lot of other hikers), and that’s the truth.
For this post I’m going to write about our hike up, my feelings, and my fears. I’ll write a review about the tour we took at some point this week, but for now, it’s gonna get a little more personal.
Friday was a workday, and I couldn’t stop wondering what Fuji would be like. I had watched a few Youtube videos and read a few blog posts about people climbing the mountain, yet I still felt anxious and unprepared. During my lunch break I quickly packed my backpack and cleaned the apartment. I reluctantly walked back to work, convinced that I was under-prepared, like the time my family went on vacation and I had somehow only packed one pair of pants.
After teaching all of my classes, I bid my students goodbye, and even though I had been let out half an hour earlier than expected, walked straight to the train station because I didn’t want to be late. Leading up to the trip, I had been having dreams of losing my fingers to the cold because I forgot gloves, and having to turn back prematurely because I contracted a bad case of altitude sickness.
I just couldn’t afford to be late. I had to prove my dreams wrong.
We made it on the train to Koriyama, and had more than enough time to make it on our Shinkansen to Omiya. From Omiya, we took a local train to Shinjuku Station, and then walked fifteen minutes to the Airbnb that we were sharing with seven of our fellow teammates.
After we checked in, we went out to eat at Yamachan and gorged ourselves on wings. This was our last hoorah, and we wanted to go out with a bang.
Two hours of conversation, 10 pitchers of water, and 120 wings later (not an exaggeration), we were back at our Airbnb; tucking in for the night, and praying that the next few days wouldn’t be filled with disappointment and failure.
I woke up nervous and a little bit sick.
I grabbed some Imodium from John, who became my drug dealer throughout the weekend, and hoped for the best. Breakfast was a 7-Eleven croissant and a Beans & Roasters iced latte, and I drank some water for good luck. I still wasn’t convinced that this trip was actually happening, let alone that I would make it to the summit.
We left the apartment at about 6:45, and walked to where we thought our check-in point was.
**Spoiler Alert**, the instructions that Willer Express sent us brought us to the wrong place, and we had to run about 10 minutes to the actual check-in spot.
Out of breath, and already sweaty, we boarded our tour bus, and met our fellow English-speaking hikers. We had two mountain guides on the bus with us – Tomoya, also known as Tom and/or Tommy, and Yamabushi, who claimed to be a monk and told us to just call him “Yama.”
On the way to the fifth station, they told us what we needed to do to make it up the mountain:
- Drink water
- Breathe deeply
- Walk slowly
Yama talked about the hikers that blow past him on the trail – “they’re the ones that don’t make it,” he said. I didn’t want to be left behind, so I started practicing my breathing on the bus, drank more water, and inhaled a tuna mayo onigiri.
After about two hours of driving, we made it to our rest stop, where we took a bathroom break, bought some snacks and water, and tried an anpan (a sweet roll filled with red bean paste and cream) that this rest stop was famous for. It was just okay, and only made me more thirsty. Not good.
From here, we stopped at an equipment rental place, where the hikers that rented equipment could pick up their bags. We had forgotten flashlights so we picked up some headlamps, and then hopped back on the bus for our final leg to the fifth station.
The Fifth Station:
The fifth station was essentially a shopping plaza, with restaurants, shops selling omiyage to bring back to co-workers and friends, and tons of Mt. Fuji t-shirts and sweaters. There were a lot of people not dressed for hiking, and a few families having picnics on the lawn. Every shop sold wooden walking sticks that you can have branded at each mountain hut, and we snagged one as soon as we got off the bus.
We spent an hour getting acclimatized to the altitude, and then met up with our tour group to start the hike. They passed out helmets (which we would supposedly need the next morning), and we each got a little goodie bag filled with gloves, a face mask, three green tea Kit-Kats, and a caribiner. Just more stuff to carry, in my opinion, but saying no was not an option.
And then the ascent began.
Because it was a holiday weekend and the city traffic was really heavy, we didn’t make it to the fifth station until almost 12:30, and didn’t start the actual hike until about 2 p.m.
In true Japanese fashion, we had an opening ceremony of sorts where Yama prayed to the mountain god (we prayed our own separate prayer to Jesus), and then we were on our way. Our group was instructed to stay in a single file line, and we shuffled our feet rhythmically up the steep, gravelly, path.
As we started the trek, spirits were high, and I had an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment wash over me. I had a flashback to when I was a senior in high school, sitting in a daycare room filled with sleeping toddlers, and making a list of the things I wanted to do in my lifetime.
I added things like “graduate college,” “become a teacher,” and “get married.” I put down places I wanted to visit, and sites I wanted to see – one of these things being “Climb Mt. Fuji.”
In that moment, I don’t think I ever imagined myself living and working in Japan. In fact, I don’t think I truly believed I would check off as many of the things on that list by my 26th year. But here I was, confidence soaring, making my way up what seemed to be a beast of a mountain.
The Sixth Station:
This station came super fast. At first I didn’t realize it until our guide made us stop for a 10 minute break. We took a few pictures and I ate my first bar of Calorie Mate – cheese flavored. If you don’t know what Calorie Mate is, just read about it here.
Sixth – Seventh Station:
The trip from the sixth to the seventh station was relatively easy. Our group continued to stay at a slow pace, and we were able to enjoy the view as we climbed higher and higher into the clouds. Each time I looked down, I realized how far we had walked. More water was drunk, more Calorie Mate consumed.
During this stretch, the mountain huts started offering walking stick stamps, and we tried to stop for each of them. They were expensive, but so incredibly worth it.
This was also when our mountain guides started yelling at us to keep up the pace, and as we reached the beginning of the eighth station, Yama yelled “We wasted ten minutes! Ten minutes means two extra hours!”
Yama, I still call your bluff.
Seventh – Eighth Station:
Here is where things got difficult.
The gravelly terrain switched to hard, jagged rock, and we struggled to keep the pace with the group while also taking pictures and getting our coveted walking stick stamps.
Our mountain guides yelled at us to take short steps, but it seemed almost impossible to take small steps when we had to climb up giant rocks. A part of me felt like they had forgotten what it was like to climb Fuji for the very first time, and I tried to stay positive as we trudged along.
Thankfully, my body was still doing well. My legs felt strong, my breathing was regulated, and I didn’t seem to mind the altitude changes. “Altitude sickness, shmaltitude sickness,” I said, as I bit into my fourth Calorie Mate stick.
Once we got to the end of the seventh station, I paid the suggested ¥200 bathroom fee and took a pee break, right before our group was corralled for the last stretch up the mountain before stopping for the night.
Eighth Station – the Mountain Hut:
This was the worst part of the ascent by far.
The sharp rocks continued, and I started to feel my stamina slowly declining.
My body began rejecting the Calorie Mate and I had the worst stomach pains I’ve experienced in a long time. It felt like I had somehow swallowed a brick, and it was sitting at the bottom of my stomach causing me and everyone around me pain, as I shamelessly farted my way up Fuji.
When we reached the beginning of the eight station, our group cheered – we had made it, right?!
Yama shook his bearded head and said, “Our hut is at the END of the eighth station,” most likely adding in his head, “stupid Americans.”
So we continued on, strapping on our head lamps because the sun was beginning to set, and keeping our eyes on the prize – the mountain hut at the end of the station trail.
The Mountain Hut:
Finally, after six hours of shuffling our feet and breathing deeply, we arrived at the hut; my stomach still felt like it was filled with bricks, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep.
We were instructed to take off our shoes, walked inside and up a set of stairs, and were brought to our bunks. Caleb and I were put in a bottom bunk with ten other sweaty strangers laying next to us. We each got a sleeping bag and a tiny pillow filled with beans, and tried our best to find a little bit of personal space.
Dinner was provided through our tour, and turned out to be a pretty sorry bowl of curry rice. I ate it despite my brick stomach and overall distaste for this sad display of one of my favorite Japanese dishes.
And then we were sent off to bed – two hours of sleep awaited me before I had to be up and ready to hike up to the summit.
It had been a long day, but I knew I was ready to get to the top.
Tomorrow I’ll share Part II of our hike up and down the mountain. If there are mistakes or if this post seems rushed, it’s because I wanted to get it all out before I forgot the details of how I felt climbing Fuji.
This mountain tested my endurance, patience, and good spirits, and I am both thankful that I did it and that I never have to do it ever again.
I hope you’ll come back for Part II, and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, because I’ll be posting lots of Fuji pictures there over the next few days.
If you have any questions about any aspect of our climb up Mt. Fuji, let me know in the comments below – or just watch our vlog below!
Thanks for reading, and happy traveling!