Moving to Japan this year has introduced me to a plethora of cultural experiences and adventures. This is a country that surpasses the western standards of living in many ways, constantly surprising me with what I find, innovative ways of doing things. And so I vowed to take advantage of it during my 6 month stay in Tokyo.
Altitude sickness is SO real.
My first adventure was a big one, more so due to a timing issue. Hiking Mt Fuji was not necessarily on my bucket list before moving to Japan but became one after hearing the stories of my friends who’d already done it. What I did not initially realize however, is that the trails on this gargantuan volcano close at the start of September. Having arrived in Japan August 8th, the opportunity presented itself when a rehearsal was cancelled, leaving me with three days off in a row.
And so, I convinced my friend Katie (who I had only known about two weeks) to hike Mt Fuji with me.
With only one day to prep, we ran to the store and bought the essentials: snacks, water, socks, oxygen and a headlamp. We managed to borrow hiking boots from friends and planned to buy a hiking stick at the base of the mountain. We booked tickets to take a bus from Shinjuku station directly to Fuji-Subaru Line 5th station, the most popular starting point for the hike.
*Note: I would recommend bringing a few plastic bags, as there is no place to dispose of garbage on Mt Fuji.
And we were off. The trip started well. Not completely familiar with the transit system yet, we managed to miss our bus by exactly 1 minute. Damn the Japanese and their exceptional time keeping. This was after we’d ran off the subway like we were on the final leg of the amazing race, jumping gates and subway turnstiles as they challenged us.
So, completely soaked from our marathon sprint, we found an information desk and managed to book new tickets, via two trains and a bus. Even through all that, we would only get to the base about 2 hours later than planned, which was completely fine as we had left ourselves plenty of time.
*Note: Here is the bus we booked in case you want to do the same! Direct bus from Shinjuku to the 5th station: 2950 yen and about 2h 25min one way – https://highway-buses.jp/course/fuji-5th.php
Now, a lot of people recommend hiking the trail at night, so you can get to the summit for the sunrise. This is what we chose to do. So, at 20:45, we arrived at the base already tired from our journey there. In one of the stores, you can buy a hiking stick made out of wood with a flag attached. It’s a really lovely idea as you can get different symbols burnt into the wood as you reach various pit stops of the hike.
However, I would recommend bringing some thin gloves. You will definitely need them as you progress towards the top, but I found them helpful to prevent blisters on your hands from the wood.
*Note: The walking stick cost 1500 yen. However, the store that sells them does close at 21:00 so plan ahead. More so, many websites and blogs had mentioned each stamp cost about 100 yen. We found this to be false. Most cost between 300 yen to 500 yen and there are a lot of stops along the way. Of course, you don’t need to get them all, but if you want the complete set, it will probably cost you at least 4000 yen in stamps alone.
There are four trails you can choose from before you start, each bearing different levels of difficulty, terrain and access. We chose to do the Yoshida Trail Head because it had many huts to rest along the way, as well as first aid stations and restrooms. It was also the trail that had the most people which appealed to us for safety reasons. These facilities are divided into what they call stations, from the 5th station to the 9th station before reaching the summit. You can stop outside of these huts to rest, get a stamp and have a bite to eat before continuing on.
However, it is important to note that they will most likely not let you stay inside unless you pay for a bed. Unlike us, some climbers will start a bit earlier, and then rest for a few hours before continuing to see the sunset. These beds are usually sleeping bags on the floor with a small pillow and can cost around 5000 yen. I would also recommend booking them in advance as they fill up when the hiking season is in full swing.
*Note: The restrooms do cost 100 yen to use but this was not being monitored during our climb. Regardless, I would recommend bringing lots of coins for the bathrooms and stamps. You can also buy food, drinks and oxygen but the price gets quite steep the higher you climb.
Now, according to the Mt Fuji climb website, the Yoshida trail was advertised as a “zigzag path on relatively flat ground surface up to the 7th station. Slightly rocky beyond the 7th station”. I’m here to tell you that this was deceiving.
I found the flat ground to be quite steep, especially when you are hiking for a long period. Completely manageable, but still steep. However, it was the slightly rocky terrain that surprised me. This, in reality, consisted of a trail made up of rocks and boulders, often quite large in size.
It was in these moments I was happy for my hiking boots (as opposed to regular sneakers) as you could easily twist an ankle slipping through a gap in the rocks. There is a rope tied to the side that you can use as leverage but even so, many people were using there hands to steady themselves on other boulders on the way up.
*Note: You can visit the official Mt Fuji Climb website for more details on the various trails. http://www.fujisan-climb.jp/en/basic/index.html
This next bit of information, I recommend you don’t take lightly.
Altitude sickness is SO real.
Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, I didn’t do much hiking that went very high. Now by very high, I mean over the clouds high. Mt Fuji stands tall at 3,776 m (12388.45 feet). 5th station, our starting point, is 2400 m high. We could already feel our ears popping as we rode the bus there.
For those who don’t know, altitude sickness stems from a sudden loss of oxygen because of high altitude. It is why people who climb Mount Everest will often take a few days to acclimate to different heights throughout their climb. It can hit anyone at any point and is in no way a reflection of your athletic ability.
I had the joy of discovering altitude sickness for the first time on this hike. It hit me incredibly suddenly as we stopped to eat at the 7th station, 2900 m above sea level. At first, I felt nauseous as I tried to take a bite out of my pb&j sandwich. After about 15 minutes, we continued on for fear of getting too cold. Keep in mind the temperature changes drastically as you ascend.
When we left Tokyo that day, it was about 35°C. As we reached 5th station around 21:00, it was about 10°C and the summit was below freezing. And so we trudged on over the rocky terrain. I stopped multiple times when I thought I was going to be sick, but I never was. This was almost worse as I would have preferred to throw up and feel better than this lingering nausea. Katie was wonderful, and she kept chatting away trying to distract me from my current state.
*Note: Make sure you are bringing many layers on your hike. I started in leggings and a long sleeve shirt and added a sweater, a rain coat, a second pair of leggings and a hat and mittens along the way.
We hiked for about an hour a half when we reached the 8th station. It was about 1:00 in the morning and I was starting to feel light headed as well as increasingly nauseous. We noticed people were sitting indoors and I found myself suddenly lying in a ball on the floor of this cabin, without my boots. I honestly don’t remember much after that but I woke up two hours later in a bed.
What happened next is as Katie described. She felt awful that she was not able to help me in any way when she noticed that the gentlemen in charge of the hut were on a break. She wandered upstairs to find many beds, most of them empty, and proceeded to sneak me upstairs where we slept for the next two hours.
Bless her heart.
We woke around 3:00 and agreed to continue on. After a bit of sleep and acclimatizing to our height, I felt better and was hopeful for the remainder of our hike. It only took about 20 minutes of climbing before it hit me even harder than before. As we continued to ascend, I found myself not only nauseous and lightheaded, but now also very out of breath. I had been using the oxygen bottles we brought with us and my first bottle was almost empty.
I was facing a bit of a quandary. I desperately wanted to make it to the top but knew that the higher I climbed, the worse I would feel. We eventually made it to the top of the 8th station (basically the 9th station) about two hours later, a much slower pace than normal because of my increasing need to stop.
I was now at my worst, barely able to get enough oxygen to speak, whispering to Katie when I needed a break. I had just about finished our second can of oxygen at this point. She was completely fine, further proof that altitude sickness doesn’t affect everyone.
In the end, we stopped at that hut and watched the sunrise at 5:13. We had seen some beautiful views on our way up but the fog had rolled in and covered almost anything past the volcano’s edge. Feeling very weak, I bought an available bed for 3000 yen and proceeded to sleep for two hours while Katie continued to the summit. She made record time and was able to meet me back at the hut on her way down at 7:00 when they were closing for the day. I was about an hour away from the top.
Many people will say that the hardest part of their hike was the way down. The descending trail (which is different than the ascending trail on the Yoshida hike) is very steep and covered with tiny rocks that offer no grip. It’s very hard on the knees and people were constantly sliding down and losing their balance. I, however, was (literally) on cloud nine.
As we descended, the fog dissipated, leaving us with the most beautiful view of Japanese landscape. The sun was shining and I could feel my energy returning with every step. It was incredible. With every stride I took towards sea level, my body was responding, breathing in the increasing oxygen.
By the time we got to the 7th station, I was back to normal, though disappointed I didn’t make it to the top. We walked the rest of the way while Katie told me about the summit. It seems many people had stopped along the trail and were grasping their oxygen for support. More so, the fog had rolled in early morning, covering any additional views the summit had to offer.
*Note: Most people still have phone service during the hike and at the summit. I use a portable wifi device, and was able to talk to my family on the way down!*
We made it back down to the 5th station around 10:00 in the morning, taking significantly less time than advertised. I was finally feeling well enough to eat so we got some breakfast and walked around the touristy buildings that we had missed the night before.
It was immensely crowded, as people who don’t hike tend to visit the station for their Mt Fuji fix. Finally, at 12:30, we made our way to the bus stop to start our journey back home.
Thinking back, this adventure definitely had its challenges. From missing our bus in a foreign place to my sickness along the way, none of it came easily. We took risks and I kept going when I felt I couldn’t go any further.
Would I do it a second time, knowing what I know now? Probably not. But would I recommend it? 100%.
Climbing Mt Fuji is one of those bucket list moments you can’t imagine until you’re doing it. It tests your character, your strength and your perseverance. And the reward is just as fulfilling as the energy it takes to climb. Katie and I had only known each other two weeks at that point, and I can easily say I would not have made it as far as I did without her. That 24 hours forged a friendship that, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I feel will last a long, long time.
I might not have made it to the top, but I climbed on for 4 hours when I felt like I had nothing else to give. And I’m very proud of that.