Travellers always seem to marvel at the sight of Mt. Fuji. It may be the sheer size of this impressive volcano. It may be its’ near-perfect symmetry. It may be its’ iconic use in both ancient and modern Japanese imagery and art. Perhaps all of the above. But I believe that more than anything else, travelers really marvel at the sight of Mt. Fuji because of their desire to scale it... and to conquer it.
Mt. Fuji, one of the world’s most famous, photographed and depicted natural landmarks, lies approximately 100 kilometers West of Tokyo, and is sometimes even visible from there on a clear day. Fuji, known in Japan as Fuji-san, is a geological formation known as a Volcanic Cone, and is the tallest mountain in Japan, standing 3,776m (12,389 ft) tall. Approximately 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji every year; a seriously impressive figure, considering just how difficult it actually was to climb in my experience.
Along the various climbing routes there are small checkpoints called stations, which are essentially huts or cabins where you can stop for a rest, some food and drink, or even a nap. There are a total of 10 stations situated between the foot of the mountain and the summit, but almost all climbers opt to begin their ascent from the 5th station, which is already 2,300m (7,500 ft) in altitude. Ascending all the way from the foot of the mountain is a serious undertaking recommended for only the most hard-core hikers and climbers with lots of time and endurance. When I climbed Fuji with our Executive Editor, Matthew Soroka, we were pretty confident at the start of our journey; after all, we are young, fit, athletic and train jiu-jitsu regularly, right? You’d think that would make this ‘hike’ a cake-walk. But beware, it’s not quite as easy as you may expect.
The official climbing season is during the months of July and August, and it is generally not recommended to climb earlier or later in the year, as the temperatures become prohibitively cold, especially at the summit. But due to the dates of our trip to Japan, we had to climb on the very first day of climbing season, which meant the temperatures were very low to say the least. Furthermore, we were ill-prepared, and didn’t have proper winter clothing or coats. I will make specific gear suggestions later in the article, but suffice to say, make sure to come prepared.
As you begin to climb higher and higher, you may start to experience the symptoms of altitude sickness. These symptoms are caused by the low air pressure at such heights, and often mimic the feelings of a hangover, including any or all of the following: headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, joint soreness, etc. Inconveniently, physical exertion tends to aggravate these symptoms. But fear not, you can get canned oxygen at most of the stations, which will make you feel better almost right away.
Our climb was the experience of lifetime, and I can never forget even the smallest details of this adventure. In preparation, we stopped off at Ici Sports in Harajuku to buy headlights before heading to Shinjuku to take the Keio bus up to the 5th station. We bought climbing sticks/staffs and began our ascent at 9:00pm. We climbed in the dark all night, stopping off for Ramen noodles and Snickers bars at a few of the stations on the way up and reached the summit in time to watch the most breathtaking sunrise imaginable. I think that the 45 minutes or so that we spent there at the peak was possibly the coldest time of my life. After a satisfying and introspective sunrise experience, we began to descend. The way back down was difficult, long, seemingly more dangerous than the climb, and painful since my old knee injury was acting up from the low pressure at such high altitudes coupled with over-exertion. Matt also had a massive headache from the altitude sickness. To be honest, we felt like two old ladies trying to descend this mountain. But we pushed on, and after running into a group of super cool Zen Buddhist monks dressed in white robes and ninja-turtle shoes, we made it back to the 5th station where our journey began. By this time it was about 10:30am, bringing our total adventure time (from bottom to top, back to bottom again) to around 13.5 hours. When we were waiting for the bus back to Tokyo, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the ground with my head leaned on a rock.
It may sound as if our overall experience was not terribly enjoyable, and possibly even painful. But no, that is not the case at all. Above all else, it was rewarding. We were rewarded with a great sense of accomplishment having scaled one of the most impressive mountains on earth. We were rewarded with the character-building experience of 13.5 hours of grueling, self-doubt-instilling climbing. We were rewarded with one of the most picturesque moments of our lives having watched the sunrise from above the clouds atop Fuji-san and with a great worldly experience to cross off our life to-do lists. And we were rewarded with that oh-so-delicious Katsu-don after our climb that we had been craving for every minute of those 13.5 hours.
Climbing Mt. Fuji is a must for any athletic travelers with a taste for adventure. It is an essential part of any trip to Japan, and traveling to Japan is especially relevant, given the historical significance of Japan in the conception of BJJ. If you train, then this is for you.
There is definitely validity to the ancient Japanese proverb that says: “Anybody would be a fool not to climb Mt. Fuji once, and a fool to climb it twice.” So do yourself a giant, mountain-sized favour, and make sure that this is one experience you do not miss.
A pair of good, comfy hiking shoes with proper support and good traction
A Climbing stick/staff, which can be purchased at the 5th station, and is a great keepsake that you can mail home afterwards (like I did)
A proper coat, and dress in layers, as you will be both extremely hot and extremely cold throughout your climb (and probably everything in between)
A comfy knapsack with bottled water and snacks. Be mindful not to bring too much water, as it will be heavy as you climb, but enough to keep you hydrated for a good half-day. As for snacks, bring things that are portable yet filling and can provide you with the energy boost you need to keep climbing once your legs start to give out. Foods like granola bars, bananas and onigiri are ideal (Onigiri are tasty and filling rice snacks. See the Onigiri article on the JitsMagazine.com website)
An LED headlamp (with spare batteries). You can buy these at any outdoors/camping/sports store in Tokyo before your climb.
Bottled oxygen if you are especially susceptible to altitude sickness
An exceptional camera! (with lots of memory and charge)
Words by Dave Menceles
Photos by Matthew Soroka
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