Mount Fuji: Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan

Mount Fuji: Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan

Scaling the Symbol of Japan

The Japanese call it “Fuji-san,” as if it were a dear old friend. It’s not only the tallest mountain in Japan—an almost perfect cone 3,776m (12,388 ft.) high, its majestic peak usually swathed in clouds—it symbolizes the very spirit of their country. Today, about 600,000 people climb Fuji-san every year, mostly on July and August weekends. It’s not like climbing Everest, a challenge for the expert mountaineer; you’ll see everyone from grandmothers to children wending their way up those level slopes. It’s the quintessential Japanese experience.

You don’t need climbing experience to ascend Mount Fuji, just stamina and a good pair of walking shoes. Six well-established trails lead to the summit; another six lead back down. Each is divided into 10 stages, with the actual climb beginning around the fifth stage. From Tokyo, which is only about 100km (62 miles) from Fuji, Kawaguchiko Trail is the least steep and easiest to get to. Take a shortcut directly to Kawaguchiko’s Fifth Stage by bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station (be sure to book in advance); the trip takes about 21⁄2 hours. From this starting point, it’s about a 6-hour climb to the summit, with another 3 hours to make the descent; at the top, a 1-hour hiking trail circles the crater.

Mount Fuji

The highlight of the classic Fuji climb is to watch the sunrise from the peak, which in summer means being there by 4:30am. There are three ways to accomplish this: Take a morning bus, start climbing in early afternoon, spend the night near the summit in a mountain hut, and get up in time to arrive at the peak at sunrise; or alternatively, take in the sunrise from your hut—that still counts, honest!—and then climb to the top. Then there are the night climbers, who get off the bus at the Fifth Stage late in the evening and climb through the night using flashlights, timing it to hit the summit at sunrise. The mountain huts have futons for as many as 500 hikers each and serve simple Japanese meals (dried fish, rice, soup) if you aren’t carrying your own grub; they’re open July to August only and you must book early. One of the most popular with foreigners is the Fujisan Hotel 2 ( 81/555/22-0237) at stage 8.

It may be disconcerting to get off the bus at the Fifth Stage and see a crush of souvenir shops, blaring loudspeakers, and tour bus hordes—hardly the atmosphere for a purifying ritual. But don’t worry; most of those tourists aren’t here for the climb. You’ll soon find yourself on a steep rocky path, surrounded only by scrub brush and a few intent hikers below and above you. Settle into your stride, and after a couple of hours you’ll find yourself above the roily clouds—as if you are on an island, barren and rocky, in the middle of an ocean. Ah, there’s your spiritual high. —HH

Fujiyoshida City Tourist Office ( 81/555/24-1236;

Tour: Mt. Fuji Mountaineering School GoRiki ( 81/555/24-1032;

When to Go: July–Aug.

Narita International (48km/30 miles). Shizuoka Airport (81km/50 miles).

For help with booking huts, call the Japanese Inn Union of Mount Fuji ( 81/555/22-1944).

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