Today I’m going to write about our journey up to the summit, and our descent back down to the fifth station. Climbing Mt. Fuji definitely tested my mental strength, and I hope this will help any traveler know what to expect.
But before you read this, make sure you check out Part I!
About 12:45 a.m.:
I’m not sure what time we fell asleep the night before, but I remember waking up a few times afterwards and checking the clock. Even though we had already come so far, I was still nervous that I would oversleep. The one morning I was late for my biology final still haunts me.
I somehow managed to get a few hours of sleep, and at about 12:30 a.m., I awoke to the beautiful sounds of twelve other hikers talking and trying to gather their things together. I stayed snug in my sleeping bag until the last possible second, and then clambered out of bed to put on my extra layers of clothing and go to the bathroom.
Confession Time: I stopped paying the ¥200 bathroom fee. It should be complimentary at the hut you’re staying in, right?!?
My stomach pains conveniently only went away when I laid down, so I prayed that I would be able to go to the bathroom. God clearly wanted to teach me a lesson about long-suffering, because nothing happened during my 15 minute bathroom break.
I had no other choice but to get out of the stall and join the group.
Our group gathered together at the back of the mountain hut, turned on our headlamps, and carefully strapped on our blue helmets. We were instructed once more to walk slowly, stay with the group, and not stray on another mountain path.
We saw a lot of other hiking groups going up on the other side of the mountain, but I’m pretty sure the path our tour brought us on was an easier and more direct way.
The air was crisp and cool – we had been graced with incredible weather during our entire trip, and it continued to cooperate beautifully. There was a slight breeze that drifted up the mountain with us, and we shuffled along in the quiet. Every once in a while I would look back and see the bright city lights blending in with the rhythmic bopping of flashlights and headlamps, and I began to wonder why each person on the mountain was there.
There were young children, vagabonds, and an American couple that had come to Japan just for this hike – they were flying back to California in two days.
So why were we climbing this mountain? A rite of passage? Just another vlogging/blogging opportunity? Our love for nature? I guess I still don’t know.
Whatever it was, we were there, and only hours from the top.
Two hours later, and our guides stopped us to announce that we had made it to the summit! A weak cheer let out as we realized we were done climbing up – and eventually had to go back down to the bottom.
Our tour split into two groups: one group paid an extra 500 yen to hike a few more miles to walk around the caldera, and another stayed at the summit to watch the sunrise and then make the descent. We decided to join the group staying at the summit, and had about 30 minutes to walk around before the sun was scheduled to rise.
The summit reminded me a lot of the fifth station – an overload of tourists, restaurants, and souvenir shops. We bought a small ¥400 bottle of corn soup, and went on a search for our final walking stick stamp. The shrine had a hanko-like stamp, but the man selling the fire-branded stamp wasn’t starting until 5 a.m.
It was pretty difficult to get through the mass of people on the summit, but we eventually met up with our group and settled in for the sunrise.
And then Yamabushi came calling.
Yamabushi Ruined Everything:
I mentioned in Part I that Yama and our other mountain guide had forgotten what it was like to climb Fuji for the very first time. Combined, I think they had climbed it over 500 times, and their main objective was to get up and down the mountain as quickly as possible (while also regulating our breathing and taking short steps).
At around 4:20 a.m., the sun was starting to rise. We had snagged an awesome spot with no other hikers in our way, and we were planning to wait until 5 a.m. to get our last stamp. But Yama had other plans for our group.
He started yelling our group name (“Bansaiiiiii!!!!!”), and instructed us to put our helmets back on and start the descent.
Uhm. Excuse me? Make the descent?
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing at this point. There was no way that this crazy mountain guide was serious. I had just spent eight hours climbing up this desolate landscape only to go back down it while the sun was rising AND not even get my stamp?! This was not good news to hear – and not good for Willer’s yelp review once the tour was over.
But Yama was not one to joke around about such matters, and began yelling a phrase that is now branded into my memory.
“Don’t be late!”
Yelled in the shrillest of tones, this phrase made me cringe as I began climbing down the mountain path. He yelled it at us when we stopped for a group picture, when we slowed down for a water break, and when we blinked our eyes for too long.
DON’T BE LATE!!
Yama had a strict hiking schedule to stick to, and none of us noobs were going to get in his way.
From the summit, it took maybe 30 minutes to get back to the mountain hut, and we stopped for about an hour to eat breakfast and gather any things we left behind.
Breakfast was even worse than dinner – a bento filled with cold rice, fish, egg, and a crunchy pickled plum.
And then the real descent began, and it was miserable.
The path they led us down seemed even gravelly-er than before. It was all downhill, and my toes hit up against the top of my hiking boots. I could feel the blisters forming, and my knees felt sore from bending my legs to stay secure on the rocky path.
We were instructed to stay with Yama until a certain point, and then were free to make the descent on our own. After yelling “Don’t be late!” about 30 more times, he reminded us to take it slowly, and then let us pass him – something we were more than happy to do.
Back at Station Five:
Getting to the fifth station seemed to take forever, even though in reality it only took us three hours.
There were long stretches of gravel that seemed to last for miles, and it was impossible to feel completely secure and balanced. I used our walking stick as a weapon – stabbing the ground below and silently cursing each rock that made me slip.
Thankfully, the weather continued to be pleasant, my stomach cramps had gone away, and I’m happy to say we made it all the way back down in one piece.
We ended up being the first people in our group to make it back down the mountain, and even though it was only 9 a.m., ordered big bowls of ramen and split a soft cream while we waited for the rest of our group.
Four hours later, we were finally back on our tour bus, and headed back to Shinjuku. We stopped for a bit at an onsen, and while I thought I would enjoy soaking in the hot water, I didn’t really spend too much time in the baths, and enjoyed taking a cool shower the most.
We arrived back at Shinjuku Station with just enough time to grab dinner at McDonald’s and jumped on the local train to Omiya where we then boarded our Shinkansen to Koriyama. From Koriyama we got on our local train back to Tamura, and were finally home after a whirlwind of a weekend.
Traveling from our small town to anywhere in the world is so much more difficult than we thought it would be. But we make it work.
Was it Worth It?
A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.
Someone quoted this to me when we started planning our trip months ago, and I couldn’t help but think of it as we made the climb.
I know that if we had left Japan without climbing Mt. Fuji, I would have felt like there was something we had forgotten and can’t get back. A missed opportunity. Two years in Japan and I didn’t hike Fuji?! It’s borderline blasphemous.
I’m being dramatic, but you get my point.
It’s hard to picture us visiting Japan after we leave next year, so checking this off our list was something that made me feel accomplished. There are too many people that just talk about what they’re “gonna do,” and not enough people actually doing them. I never want to stay in the “gonna” category.
But if I was living in Japan for a longer period of time, would I do it again? Absolutely not. Hiking in Japan is just so different from hiking in America, and there are so many other places to see here that I wouldn’t want to waste my time climbing Fuji again.
I found this blog about “why you should never climb Mt. Fuji” and while I don’t agree with everything he said, it expresses how I feel about experiencing “nature” in Japan perfectly. Check it out if you’re in the mood to read a rant. If not, just know that Fuji isn’t terrible, but it’s not for you if you’re an experienced hiker, or if you hate commercialism. Like almost everything here in Japan, it’s very tourist-focused.
As I’ve reflected on our Fuji experience over the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about achieving your goals and what it means when the goals don’t meet every expectation.
Moving overseas and teaching English was a huge goal of ours but the reality of it sort of shattered our original expectations. Even traveling and living in Japan hasn’t lived up to what we thought it would be. Things are more expensive. More difficult. Painstakingly rule-focused.
Fuji wasn’t amazing. The sunrise was beautiful, but we didn’t get to enjoy it. I didn’t feel changed or have an epiphany when I got to the top. I was just ready to come home.
When it comes to travel (and basically everything in life), it’s okay to check something off your bucket list and at the same time feel disappointed. It doesn’t mean that what you just did wasn’t worth it, or that you wasted your time, because how can anyone know what something will be like if they don’t go out and try it? We can’t live in fear of failing, and we can’t live in fear of not liking something. That’s such a limiting way to live life, and life is too short to stay in that kind of bubble.
So, if you’ve wanted to hike Mt. Fuji for a long time, do it.
Try it for yourself. You might enjoy it. You might hate it.
But it’s always worth it for someone.