THE BLOG
08/05/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

How to Climb Mt. Fuji

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Japan is in the grip of Fuji Fever. Ever since this iconic symbol was named a World Heritage Site, there is no escaping the mountain: Fuji art, Fuji snacks, Fuji towels, Fuji socks, Fuji character goods -- Fuji is everywhere. And people are setting out to climb the peak like never before. Just halfway through climbing season and it's estimated numbers are up by 35 percent.

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Walk up Mt. Fuji in your Fuji print socks.

Long before climbing Mt. Fuji was fashionable, the holy mountain represented an arduous spiritual pilgrimage for the Japanese, climbed in straw sandals and white, wrapped robes. These days scaling the peak during the summer season is not quite the same soul-enriching zen experience.

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Crowds on the way up. At least you can catch your breath as you wait your turn.
Photo courtesy Mike Nakada.

Around 300,000 people make the trek even in a normal year. Some portions of the climb seem more like the L.A. freeway at rush hour. Both the way up and the way down can become extremely congested at narrow points along the trails on weekends.

There are outstanding views if you manage to get fair weather and, of course, experiencing sunrise on the peak is amazing. Nevertheless, the mountain is just rock, rock, and more rock up and down. This is, after all, a volcano. The most popular route up has vendors huts selling water, soft drinks, snacks ...so this is not exactly nature at its wildest.

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Blot your face as you strain up the trail with Fuji oil blotting paper.

For a close-up, step-by-step climb to the summit, Google Earth has mapped the route up and down the mountain. Get started at their website

The climb is very steep in places. If the most activity you get is a stroll around the block with your dog, this is not going to be easy. Altitude sickness is unpredictable Tiny old women happily munching their rice balls and chattering away seem unaffected, while the captain of a university rugby team gets carried by, flat out on a stretcher. If you have asthma or respiratory problems, please, please exercise caution before deciding to climb.

The latter part of August during the O-Bon holidays sees the heaviest crowds. O-Bon is when the spirits of the dead can return to earth and, besides being an ideal season to release horror movies, is a very spiritual time. A chance to communicate with those who have passed on. Fuji is one of the holiest mountains in the country and many make the climb to pray at the summit.

Getting on the mountain :
There are four access points to climbing Fuji's trails. Paved roads lead to the fifth stations (climbing, not train) called "Go Gomei," and that is where hikers start their trek. The stations are: Fuji Subaru Line for the Yoshida Trail; Fuji No Miyaguchi for the Fuji No Miya Trail; Gotemba for the Gotemba Trail; and Subashiri for the Subashiri Trail.

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Fuji Fifth Station, at the entrance to the Yoshida Trail, is crowded with tour buses, climbers and tourists.
Photo courtesy Mike Nakada.

The most popular (and crowded) access to the mountain from Tokyo is the Fuji Subaru Line Go Gomei. Here you are already 2300 meters above sea level. It's a busy, bustling place with shops and eateries, packed with tour buses, climbers and day trippers.

This is the entrance to the Yoshida Trail. The reason this is the most popular course is because it's the fastest to reach by public transportation from Tokyo, not because it is any easier! The trail is a steep, five to seven (or more) hour trek to the eighth station. The descent averages around three and a half. (There are separate trails up and down.)

Both the seventh and eight stations have rest houses where hikers have dinner and grab a few hours sleep before getting up at midnight or 1 a.m. to finish hiking to the top in time for the sunrise. Oh, and First Aid huts during climbing season are at the seventh and eighth climbing stations.

The Subashiri Trail is one of the least crowded until you get close to the summit where it joins with the mass of people on the last stretch of the Yoshida Trail. There are slightly fewer service huts on this route, far fewer than the Yoshida Trail. If it's clear you can see all the way to Tokyo from some vantage points. Keep in mind getting from the fifth to the seventh stations can take slow hikers seven hours! It's a long, uphill walk. Many hikers stop at the seventh station and sleep until midnight, then finish the hike to the summit for the sunrise.

Some Japanese I spoke to recommend the Fuji No Miya trail for beginners. This starts at a slightly higher altitude making it a little shorter than the others by about an hour. This climb starts from the Fuji No Miya Guchi Go Gomei. There is First Aid at the eighth climbing station.

As for the Gotemba Trail, I've got very little info. I do know there are only around five service huts and it has the fewest climbers. Probably because there are so few climbers huts. Please use caution on choosing this trail.

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Even on a cloudy morning, sunrise on the summit is pretty amazing.
Photo courtesy Mike Nakada.

What you need:
Fuji is 3776 meters high. The climber's peaks a few meters below that. Wear layers of clothing for warmth and wet, including gloves. There are extremes of temperature up and down the peak. While you were sweltering at ninety degrees at the base, up on top of Fuji that can plummet to a shivering forty degrees plus the wind chill factor.

Proper hiking shoes. The trails are steep and slippery with loose rock (especially coming down). Remember, volcanic rock is sharp.

Flashlight or headlamp. Sunrise on the peak means getting up before dawn and making the final trek in darkness -- unless you sleep at the top.

Bring money. A lot more than you think you'll need. Vendors charge up to five dollars for a bottle of water up on the mountain. Mediocre curry rice twice that. (OMG the Japanese and their inescapable curry rice!) You can buy water and food at the huts along the way. There are also several first-aid stations for emergencies.

Backpack. Besides extra clothes and necessities (don't forget bandages for blisters), stuff it with high-protein snacks! You need a lot of energy to climb.

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The Eighth Station on the Yoshida Trail has sleeping huts. Fog and clouds can move in fast even mid-summer, so dress warmly. Photo courtesy Mike Nakada.

Spending the night: If you don't plan on sleeping rough in a sleeping bag for a few hours, there are hostels that include dinner and access to a futon bed on the floor - squeezed together with a bunch of other people - at the upper stations from around 7000 yen ($70.) I'm not saying it's going to be curry rice for dinner....but it's probably going to be.

Hiking Stick: Of course you can bring your own high-tech version, but traditional wooden pilgrim's poles are prized by first time Fuji climbers. A unique stamp is burned into the pole at every station to mark your pilgrim's progress. The pole. costs around 2000 yen ($20) and the branded stamps around 600-1000 yen each ($6-10).

Oxygen: Some Japanese tuck a little portable can of oxygen complete with mask in their backpack, just in case. They are available at drugstores-- really - for around ten dollars.

Postcards: Don't forget to stop by the post office on the summit and send a card home from the top of Mt. Fuji.

Good advice: Toilets are few and far between. Do not miss your chance to go.

Can you climb off season?
Actually you can. though the official season is until the end of August, there is no direct prohibition. Some huts remain open through September selling food and water and a place to sleep. The crowds are definitely thinner. Don't leave it until too late in the autumn and please, do not climb once the cold weather sets in. Every year even experienced climbers who challenge the mountain in the winter or early spring never make it back.

Fuji as a day trip:
If you feel the climb will be too much but would really like to hike around the mountain, there are two lovely (and easy) hikes that are far quieter and less congested than the ascent to the peak. Both the Onakado and Ochudo Hiking Courses start from the popular Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station. These walks wind through forests and along the slopes with views of the mountain above. The Ochudo takes about an hour to complete. Onakado around 90 minutes.

Do wear proper shoes and dress in layers. Even here, the temperature can suddenly drop if the clouds move in. In the fall, it will be cold.

Non-hikers can stroll up part of the Fuji trail just to get a feel for it. Once it narrows though, you are not supposed to turn around. So keep that in mind.

Also, the Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station stays open in the fall, so visitors coming a little later in the year can still enjoy a bit of communing with the holy mountain even after climbing season finishes.

Access to all four routes from Tokyo:

Fuji Subaru Line Go Gomei (Fuji Fifth Station) for the Yoshida Trail:
Take the Chuo Line limited express "Kaiji" from Shinjuku to Ohtsuki Station. The trip takes about seventy minutes and costs 2700 yen ($27) one way. At Ohtsuki, change to the Fujikyuko line to either Kawaguchiko Station or Fujisan Station. Catch a shuttle bus for the 50-minute ride to the Fuji Subaru Line Go Gomei area. Round trip by bus: 2000 yen ($20). Here's a link to the bus schedule, check which station works better for your timetable.

Weekends and holidays in the summer there is a direct bus to and from Shinjuku and the Subaru Line Fifth Station. One way fare is 2600 yen ($26). This website has the info.

JR East railway company is offering a great way for visitors to cut these costs in half. A combined rail and bus ticket to the Fuji Fifth Station is only 5,500 yen for adults ($55) and 2750 yen ($28) for kids 11 and under. During this 'See Fuji' campaign. The offer is valid until Oct. 30.

Their website has the details.

Fuji No Miya Go Gomei (Fuji no Miya Fifth Station) for the Fuji No Miya Trail:
The route is almost identical to the Subaru Line Fifth Station's. Take the Chuo line from Shinjuku to Ohstuki then transfer to the Fujikyuko line and get off at either Kawaguchiko or Fujisan Stations. Then ninety minutes by bus to the mountain. (Yes, ninety minutes!) Round trip on the bus is 3000 yen ($30).

Subashiri Guchi Go Gomei (Subashiri Fifth Station) for the Subashiri Trail:
For Gotemba Station, see "Gotemba Guchi" above. At Gotemba Station, take the Fujikyu bus for Subashiri Guchi Go Gomei. It's about 60 minutes. Round trip is 2000 yen ($20).

Gotemba Guchi Shin Go Gomei (Gotemba Fifth Station) for the Gotemba Trail:
Gotemba can be a pain to get to. One way is to take the Odakyu Line Asagiri Limited Express from Shinjuku Station directly to Gotemba Station. This takes a little over an hour and a half and costs 2500 yen one way. From there, the shuttle bus takes another 40 minutes. Round trip on the shuttle is 1500 yen ($15). (One way is 1080 yen ($11), so be sure to buy a round trip!)

The Odakyu line is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

If you want to save money, you can use your pass like this: Take the JR Tokaido line from Tokyo Station to Kozu Station. At Kozu, transfer to the Gotemba Line to Gotemba Station. That's going to take you over two hours though. Plus you still have to take the shuttle bus.

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Kumamon, a super popular character item, is confused why even he is promoting Fuji. He's the symbol of Kumamoto. In Kyushu. Not even the same island as Mt. Fuji.

By car:
Due to the huge influx of visitors, private vehicles are being regulated during the summer vacation season. For example, from Aug. 26-Sept. 1, no private cars will be allowed on the Fuji Subaru Line to the fifth climbing station. From Aug. 26-29, private cars are barred from the Subashiri trail access route.

Extra costs: Just implemented in July is a voluntary contribution of one thousand yen to climb the mountain. The government is test marketing having hikers pay a fee in order to raise money for all the cleaning and maintenance that goes into having hundreds of thousands of people on the trails every year. Despite the line of people waiting in front of the tables, you do not have to pay.

For more photos of Fuji Climbing Season, click through to this Huff Post article.

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