Stairway to heaven

By on August 5, 2008
Photo © Elena Derevstova
When you are able to state that you have climbed Mount Fujim the reaction you receive from those who haven’t is often a mixture of disbelief, or indeed shock, and amusement. Those that have climbed it will simply give a knowing nod and will start a game of one-upmanship on who had the most challenging experience.

Let’s backtrack a little. What do we know about Mount Fuji? Called Fuji-san in Japanese (Mr Fuji?), it is a volcano, either extinct, dormant or active, depending on which amateur geologist you believe. It is Japan’s biggest peak, at an impressive height of 3,776 meters, or 12,388 feet if you prefer, and stands on the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures to the west of Tokyo. On a clear winter’s day, you can get a glimpse fm any west-facing tall building in downtown Tokyo. However, most of the rest of the year, our hero is hidden behind an impermeable haze, making only a few special guest appearances every once in a while. It has long been a symbol of Japan, often depicted in artwork both old and new.

But climbing it? Take a deep breath. It isn’t that bad. Let’s take it one step at a time (forgive the pun).

If Mount Fuji were a job advertisement, it would say, "Mountain climbing experienced preferred, but not essential." For some people, Fuji is and will remain the one and only mountain they will ever climb. All you need is a basic level of fitness. If you can cope with the stairs at the train stations across Tokyo, then perhaps Fuji is for you. However, it should be said that it really is not suitable for young children. If nothing else, it would be difficult getting the pushchair/stroller up the path. However, older children on the basketball team at high school will certainly be able to relish the challenge.

July or August is the time to go for the simple reason that the snow all but disappears, meaning that you don’t need equipment with scary spikes. It is also when the facilities on the mountain are open. Fancy a stop halfway for a cup of tea? No problem. How about a bowl of noodles at the top? Certainly. Even the pickiest of teens will find their thirst quenched by the range of drinks available from the vending machines on the summit. I kid you not. It has to be seen to be believed.

Facilities come in the form of a series of huts divided into 10 stations. But here is the good part. Almost everyone who climbs Fuji cheats and starts from one of the 4 fifth stations. You could say that you climbed from the first station, but frankly, no-one would believe you. The best place to start is from the Kawaguchi-ko fifth station. It is the most popular route and so, as well as a certain amount of camaraderie, you have safety in numbers. It is easy to get to, as there is a direct bus from Shinjuku. It is also possible to go by train to Kawaguchiko and get the bus up to the station from there.

There are more huts than stations, so it is easy to lose track of what number you are up to when climbing. However, they provide a welcome opportunity for a sit down, a re-grouping and a chance for someone to listen to you when you say, "Why am I doing this?" You can also get your souvenir walking stick branded and will probably be the only chance in your life when you will be able to say, "A cup of tea and a canister of oxygen, please."

OK. Time for a bombshell. It is the done thing to climb Mount Fuji at night. Many climbers start after 9pm and take around 4-6 hours to make it to the top. However, another alternative is to start earlier in the day and take advantage of the beds available at the huts. Climb most of the way, have a few hours sleep, and then climb the rest of the way to make it to the top in time for sunrise. Booking ahead is advisable because the huts can easily become full.

Climbing at night does also mean that it gets a little chilly. Don’t let the temperature at the fifth station fool you. You will need warm clothing and plenty of it. As a parent, it is your chance to make your cool teen wear that terrible woolly hat that granny sent for Christmas last year. You will also need strong shoes – hiking boots are best, flip-flops are just downright dangerous. On the way down, there is no escape from the sun for a large part of the route so take sunscreen too.

And that’s it. Grab your walking stick and be off with you. Make sure you have your camera ready to record one of the most amazing sunrises you will ever see. A wise person will climb Mount Fuji once in his or her life, according to an old Japanese proverb. A fool will climb it twice. Be wise, but don’t be a fool.

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