Of Mount Fuji, the Bamboo Princess, and the time I didn’t train to climb a mountain

There’s a Japanese saying that goes like this:

“A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once. Only a fool climbs it twice.”

There’s a reason people say that and I got to find out why.

I did not really believe René and Vassili the first time they told me we were going to climb Mount Fuji. My friend Vassili and I were planning a trip to Japan, where René had been living for the past few months. We would stay in Tokyo, but would visit other parts of the country and, if possible, we would fly to South Korea. I was excited about going, but the Fuji part didn’t sound very appealing to me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure we would actually do it. I knew it was perfectly possible. René was member of a hiking club and spent some weekends going up mountains and Vassili exercises on a regular basis, but I am not a sports person at all.

“We’re going to climb Mt. Fuji,” they said every time we talked about the trip and made plans. So I went out and bought sports pants and pulled out my all-terrain running shoes, which I only used to walk comfortably to university, and started walking a bit more. That was it. From what I’d heard, climbing Mt Fuji was something people did during the months of July and August. There were some YouTubers who didn’t exercise that much and who had done it and had filmed their adventure. So I, not knowing what I had agreed to, decided not to train to climb a mountain.

 Mt. Fuji from a distance. Photo by René.
Mt. Fuji from a distance. Photo by René.

Mount Fuji

At 3776.24 m, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. It is located south-west of Tokyo, and it is one of the three holy mountains of Japan, along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku. It is surrounded by five different lakes: Kawaguchi, Motosu, Sai, Shōji, and Yamanaka. On its north-west base is the Aokigahara forest, which is said to be the dwelling place of yūrei, spirits of the dead, and which is internationally referred to as the suicide forest. We did not go near the forest, but the reason I bring it up is the contrast between this place, which is commonly known as a place of death, and the name Fuji.

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

It is unclear where the name Fuji comes from, but according to the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari) also known as the Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語 Kaguya-hime no Monogatari), the name comes from the world “immortal” (不死 fushi, fuji).

The tale starts with an old bamboo cutter who sees a shining bamboo stalk and, upon cutting it, finds a child as big as his thumb. He brings the little girl home to his wife, and they name her Kaguya-hime (かぐや姫, “Shining princess of the supple bamboo”). They raise her as their own, and she grows up into a beautiful woman.

  Source: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by Studio Ghibli
Source: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by Studio Ghibli

Her beauty attracts many suitors, among them five princes, who ask for the princess’ hand in marriage. She gives each one of them an impossible task with the promise that she will marry the one who is successful. All of them fail, and she remains unmarried. Word of her beauty reaches the emperor, who goes to meet her and falls in love. She rejects him as well, telling him that she is not of his country and therefore cannot go with him, but stays in contact with him.

Some time later she confesses to her parents that she is, in fact, from the moon, and must soon return to her people. When the day finally comes, the Emperor sends guards to her house, to protect her from the moon people. However, an embassy of “heavenly beings” descends from the sky and blinds the guards with their light. Kaguya-hime writes letters to say goodbye to her parents and to her friend the Emperor, and she gifts him an elixir of life, granting him immortality, 不死 (fushi).

The Emperor, having read her letter and deeply saddened, refuses to drink it, for he does not want to live an immortal life without Kaguya-hime. He asks which mountain is the closest place to heaven and orders for the elixir to be burned there.

Climbing Mount Fuji

 René, Vassili, and me
René, Vassili, and me.

So I heard the story, I bought the clothes and I brought the shoes. We had gone to the supermarket to get our supplies: rice balls, sandwiches, energy bars, water, and Japanese energy jelly drinks (those were particularly weird to me, since I’m not a fan of drinking jelly, but were ultimately lifesavers!).

And so we hopped on a bus and went to Mount Fuji to climb it.

We took two buses, actually. The first one took us from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko, a town next to the mountain. There, at Gateway Fujiyama we took the second bus, which took us to where we started our hike.

Lo! I bring ye good news, inexperienced, unprepared climber: You don’t usually start the climb at the bottom of the mountain.

The mountain is marked by different stations where you can take breaks, buy something to eat or drink (food and drinks are more expensive than at any supermarket and get even more expensive as you climb up).

Hikers usually start at the 5th station, which is at about 2300 m already. So, no. You don’t actually have to climb 3600 m.

We hopped out of the bus, changed into our hiking clothes, and ate at one of the local cafeterias while we waited for the night to fall.

We chose to climb it at night, as many people do, to be able to reach the summit right before sunrise and see the goraikō, (御来光 ) the “arrival of light”.

 Mount Fuji, the 5th station.
Mount Fuji, the 5th station.

René loves to hike. He’s done it several times, sometimes even staying overnight on the mountain, so he has all the gear, the clothes, the shoes, the backpack, everything. I, on the other hand, thought of bringing a flash light, but I didn’t have one. Vassili, also lamp-less, would take his phone out from time to time, just for a few seconds, whenever we needed to dig into the backpacks. Other than that, we relied on René’s headlamp. A flash light would have only been useful at the beginning, however, since later you need both hands to grab on to the steep rocks.

So here’s a tip for you, untrained climber: bring a headlamp.

The start isn’t that steep, to be honest, but less than thirty minutes after we started, my legs started complaining like they’d never been outside before. I was tired, thirsty and embarrassed. A long time has passed since my strong ballet years, but thirty minutes? I needed a break.

So we took a break. We drank some water, enjoyed the freshness of the night and went back to walking. One thing I will always be grateful for: I set the pace. There was no pressure, no ridicule, not even a sly comment. We walked at my pace and took breaks whenever anyone of us needed them.

A second tip for the inexperienced climber: go with people who love you and who will not pressure you into going any faster than you can.

“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly.”

Miyamoto Musashi

Yeah, I couldn’t see anything clearly. It was pitch-black and there weren’t any lights except at the stations and wherever there were more people around. At some point we sat at the edge and saw the city lights, but the clouds came down quickly enough, and we sat in the dark for a little longer. Talking and thinking how it was getting colder.

The best time to climb is between July and August, when the weather is nice and there’s no snow at the summit. We had not had a single day when the temperature went below 25ºC, but up there it was cold. The higher you go, the colder it gets.

So, here’s the third tip: bring a hat and an extra sweatshirt.

I really don’t have any beautiful landscape pictures to share, but here we are, having reached the 8th station at 3250 m, a few hours later.

Each station has a little shop, a few toilets, lights, and a few places to sit down. At around 3 am we reached the 8.5th station at 3450 m and found nothing of the sort. There were no huts, no benches, no toilets and no lights. There was only a big space where people sat and slept before walking the last 80 minutes to the summit.

It was at this point that we decided to take a longer break. I took out my blanket and the three of us laid down on the cold, volcanic rock, trying to get some sleep. The boys slept around 20 minutes. I couldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, but I cannot sleep when I’m cold, so I just laid there, staring at the sky, keeping an eye on my watch and thought about what a crazy thing I had agreed to do.

I’d never in my life done anything remotely similar. The trail was full of tourists who came from other parts of Japan and from other countries. We had started with a few other people, but as we went higher we encountered more and more people. From the seventh station on, we had to make a line. There had been several points when I felt like crying because my legs were sore, but it changed when we reached the eight station, which was steep and full of big rocks. That was actually a lot of fun.

We reached the summit just as the sun was coming out. As I turned, I saw the white layer covering everything around us, I saw a storm in the distance, I saw the clouds moving, I saw the sky change color from black to a dark blue, to a bright yellow and then to a clear blue.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!”

John Muir

Every person who climbs the mountain goes through the torii to reach the summit. Toriis are the traditional Japanese gates, which represent or mark the entrance to sacred places.

Six hours after we started our walk, we passed the torii and reached the summit. We were exhausted, we were cold, but we were happy. I had never experienced something like it, and I was glad to be there to share it with people I love.

And then Vassili pulled out his phone and realized he had full 4G signal.
So he called his mom and showed her the view. Then we called René’s mom, and we showed her the view. And then we called my parents and showed them the view. And then, at the top of Mount Fuji, I told a stupid joke and I laughed so hard that I cried. René had to take over the call, while Vassili took more pictures. We said goodbye and sat there for a while, me, still laughing.

We bought something hot to drink and made our way down. It was by far the worst part of the whole endeavor. My knees hurt like crazy, the gravel went into my shoes and stained my socks, it was cold, and we were hungry, but we made it back in about four hours. We then took the bus back to the Kawaguchiko station, and then back to Tokyo.

About my own experience, I can say this:
It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life, and according to the Japanese saying, I am wiser for having done it. Will I be a fool and do it again in the future?
I don’t think so.

And to you, inexperienced, untrained, unsuspecting hiker, I say this:
If such an opportunity presents itself to you, do your research and read about other people’s experiences (like this person’s useful article), buy good shoes and appropriate clothes, get yourself a headlamp, ask good friends to join you, and please, for your own sake, train to climb the mountain.