Parks Beyond Borders: Climbing Mount Fuji—A Second-To-None National Park Experience

Mount Fuji from the air (top to bottom), and a friendly mountain guide, just not as high in the air. My hike up thousands of stone steps was steep, and wet! Luckily the hut food was good and plentiful. Sleeping was definitely a communal experience. The hut shop had canned oxygen (on table at bottom) and an autograph from Jimmy Carter (on wall above). At the different "stations" of the climb, many hikers had their hiking staff marked by a wood burner. The summit torii is a highlight of the hike—but I almost missed it in the "challenging" weather (I definitely did miss this view!) All photos by Randy Johnson, except very top and bottom, both courtesy Wikipedia (top by NASA; Jpatokal, bottom).

There is likely no more cherished national park experience on the planet than the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb Mount Fuji. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Japanese do it—and pilgrims from all over the world are joining them. I was one of them not too long ago.

An anonymous monk made the first climb in 663—and the first climb non-Japanese climber summited in 1868.

Nearly 10% of Japan’s land area is protected in 30 national parks and 56 quasi-national parks—but none is more precious to the Japanese than Mount Fuji.

The mountain towers as the centerpiece of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park—富士箱根伊豆国立公園—a 500-square-mile cluster of parks not far from Tokyo in Yamanashi, Shizuoka, and Kanagawa Prefectures.

A Perfect Pilgrimage

The Japanese have long revered their country’s highest mountain. The nearly perfectly pyramidal peak— 3,776.24 meters (12,389 feet)— lies at the heart of Japanese culture, and a millennium of artistry has paid it homage. The climb to see sunrise from Japan’s loftiest summit is the ritual of a lifetime.

The mass appeal and arduous challenge of the climb require an organized approach—a strong suit of the Japanese. The short climbing season—July and August—also requires pre-planning, so now is the time to be scoping your own visit to Japan and ascent of Fuji-san.

Easily booked package deals with bus transportation bring climbers from Tokyo to various starting points. Wikitravel has a nice travel overview for potential Fuji climbers. And there are other good guide sites.

From those various trailheads—large groups merge into one huge gathering that snakes its way inexorably up the mountain.

Hut, Two, Three, Four

If that doesn’t sound appealing—keep in mind that this is a unique cultural experience in a densely populated country used to masses of people. If you’re into really challenging hikes—this one is a must. It can start far lower and top-out higher than all but the most arduous climbs in the United States.

There is rest for the weary. After zigzagging back and forth on steepening trails for much of the day, various groups check into no-frills mountain hostels called huts to eat and rest (but rarely sleep) before starting off again at midnight for the summit. On the way, stations mark the ascent, and many people pay to have station stamps burned onto their hiking staffs.

On my most recent national park trip to Japan, I gazed out at Fuji from the sulfurous fog in Hakone National Park and knew I had to try to see the sun rise from this famous summit. I felt lucky—years of climbing mountains have often rewarded me with stunning vistas, even where clear views are rare. When I realized I could be standing on the world’s most perfect mountain on my birthday, I felt fortunate in more ways than one.

Breathe Deep!

Sadly, I stepped out of the bus into sheets of torrential rain that continued mile after mile. It stopped for awhile just as I entered Toyokan Hut.

Many hikers queued in the thin air to buy cans of compressed oxygen. I still have one of these great souvenirs sitting on my desk. It looks like a typical spray can of Right Guard with a plastic cap on top (visible in photo to left sitting on the table at the bottom). Tear off the shrink-wrap, position the cap on the dispenser tube—and it fits nicely over the mouth and nose. Press and voila—instant oxygen.

The can has a few exhortations in English— "Congratulation! [sic] Do It Now O2. See You Again!" Somehow I doubted the "See You Again" part. The old saying about Fuji is that "a wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool climbs Fuji twice..."

I tucked my oxygen can in my pack and walked outside. It was awesome. A mountain-rimming sea of clouds stretched across a sleeping world far, far below. A huge moon shone above.

A Japanese Meal to Remember

I checked-in at the hut and like everybody else I stripped off soaking wet outer gear and hung it from any available peg while portable heaters warmed the large common room.

Soon it was time to sit down at the low table while an array of foods appeared before the quick-to-assemble guests. There were soups and all kinds of little delicacies—and one hearty dish that included a very non-traditional meat that looked like a hamburger patty. I'm fluent with chopsticks—but I was so hungry I actually wished for a bun!

Early Start

Later on, we all filed into sleeping rooms where side-by-side bunks and futon mattresses with blankets were warm and cozy relief from the cold outside. I dozed a few hours, then it was time to suit up and head onward and upward.

By now, the trail rose so steeply a hiker could literally fall off the rocky path and down the volcanic slope. In a disorienting maelstrom of bobbing headlamp beams, my group slogged into a cloud cap of even heavier rain, then sleet. It was like being in one of the Lord of the Rings movies—each hut appeared above like a flickering castle tower, the weather a barrage of abuse poured down by an invisible enemy.

After a numbing trudge, I passed through the summit torii (photo at left) to a sunrise of sorts—the gloom turned pink. The peak was a combination of a Zen painting and a nightmarish vision out of Hieronymus Bosch. Flashes of clear air alternated with windy, vaporous voids. Troops of climbers hiked off then evanesced out of sight as crags rose then retreated into memory and mist. I could only imagine the sunrise I’d hoped to see from nearly 13,000 feet.

Down And Down And Down

If I thought the hard part was over—well, I was wrong. The descent seemed interminable. More wet, more slog, and of course there was an eventual “ouch” every time my long-problematic left ankle decided it had had enough.

When I finally threw my pack under the bus, I marveled at the fact that beneath my mostly North Face outer gear I was basically just damp instead of drenched after climbing for almost 36 hours in nearly constant precipitation of one sort or another.

Onsen Insight

Later, soaking in a local hot spring called an onsen, while exchanging shy smiles of recognition and bows with half-naked fellow hikers I’d earlier seen struggling up the mountain, I felt wonderfully refreshed. It was funny to see the looks on the faces of the people who recognized me in this very Japanese setting. They did a double take and you could see them saying—”Wow, there’s that American I saw half-way up the mountain!”

Soaking in pure bliss, I realized I hadn’t achieved my goal of seeing Japan stretched out at my feet, but after hours spent straining to the summit of Fuji, I passed through the torii at the top and something dawned on me (even if it wasn’t the sun).

The Japanese seek a spiritual reward in climbing Fuji. After an hours-long mantra of rhythmic breathing and sharing my pilgrimage with real pilgrims, I realized it’s communion with the spirit of the mountain that counts.

To Mount Fuji’s masses, the means is the end; the climb is the reward. Success, I realized, is about gazing at an inner horizon when the outer one doesn’t cooperate. Surprisingly, all of this came into view just a few hours from Tokyo.

A Gift for My Favorite Local Sushi Shop

Later, back in North Carolina, I took a Fuji memento with me as I walked into a favorite sushi restaurant—Asahi Japanese Steakhouse, in the mid-state city of Greensboro (home to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park). As chef/owner Steve was preparing my sashimi plate, I told him I’d climbed Fuji and he looked a little skeptical. Then I took a beautiful gold commemorative coin out of my pocket, bowed, and presented it to him. They were only sold at one spot on the mountain—the summit.

My little presentation created quite a stir. Now, whenever I go back, I sit there in the sushi bar and smile a few times during each meal as I look up and see the gold Fuji summit coin in its place of honor, now displayed in a beautiful, and very elaborate, shadow box frame.