Fuji-san is not only Japan’s highest mountain, but also its most important one, an icon of Japaneseness, one could say. Climbing Fuji-san is a feat that every self-respecting Japanese should achieve once in their lives, according to a Japanese proverb. The „san“ in the mountain’s name means „mountain“, but it also evokes the honorific „san“ used to address persons – to Japanese, therefore Mt. Fuji is also Mr. Fuji, in a way.
The honourable mountain can be rather shy. The first time we went to Hakone to see Fuji-san (was that really back in 1991??) we arrived at the shore of Lake Ashi. People told us to take a rowing boat onto the lake because we were just behind a low ridge that blocked it from view. We rowed out and stared at the low mountains beyond the lake; none of them looked remotely like the Fuji from the postcards and woodblock prints. Rowing further and further, still no Fuji-san was visible.
Only on the next visit did we realize that those mountains along the horizon are just the height of Fuji-san’s waist, so to speak, and that we would have had to search far higher up in the sky. But then, on most days the iconic mountain is hidden in mist and not visible anyway, even from directly below.
On clear days, however, Fuji-san can be seen from as far away as Tokyo. It is a major landmark on the old paths along the coast. The first literary hommages to Fuji-san can be found in an 8th-century anthology, but its most famous artistic treatment is in the woodblock prints of the Edo period (1600-1868). Katsushika Hokusai printed his „36 views of Mt. Fuji“ around 1830 – Fuji-san as seen from different places along those travel routes and from Tokyo.
Pilgrims climbing a holy mountain
As a holy mountain, people have climbed Fuji-san for centuries, long before Japanese started mountaineering for fun. For the early pilgrims climbing the 3776 m high volcano, it was a spiritual exercise. The pilgrimage was only officially opened to women in 1872.
The Japanese artistic, cultural and religious fascination with Fuji-san is also the reason why it is, since 2013, listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage – rather than a natural heritage: its attraction places a considerable strain on the mountain’s natural environment.
Today, several hundred thousand people climb the mountain every year in the brief official hiking season in July and August. From parking lots and bus stations at a height of around 2300 m, several paths lead straight up the mountain. Steps and walkways help to ease the climb in the loose volcanic ash. Its last eruption was in 1707, but technically, Fuji-san is still considered an active volcano. Most people walk overnight in order to see the sunrise from the top, but we can recommend going up and down during the day. This is just right for a long day trip and not so cold once you get to the top. If you are lucky, you can see the lakes and lower mountains around from there, but never the most beautiful mountain of Japan. And if you climb after the official season (for example in early September) the huts and the post office on top of the mountain will be closed, but there will only be a few people hiking the holy volcano.
The proverb that makes the Japanese climb Mt. Fuji, by the way, continues that only a fool would climb Fuji-san twice.
Is it worth climbing Fuji-san?
Whichever way you do it, climbing Fuji-san is an experience. It is strenuous, but not as much as you might think. And it does offer the elation of reaching the peak – a relativlely easily achieved happiness. But keep your expectations moderate. If you are easily disappointed, the (potential) lack of view and of tranquility, and the busy commercial atmosphere can be disappointing.
How to get the starting point for climbing Fuji-san
During the season there are direct bus connections from Shinjuku to the 5th station half up the mountain where most hikers start. The only feasible alternative is a rental car.