Because I’m in Japan, I decided that I really had to at least go by and say hello to the mountain. I really do want to add it to my list of cool mountain climbs, but since climbing above the 5th station requires special equipment, I was really not prepared to do so this visit. Alas, next time. Instead, I decided to go see what I could see of the mountain and it’s beautiful surroundings.
This can be a bit of a challenge, since there are about a million awesome things at the base of Mt. Fuji including the five lakes, the hot springs, the suicide forest, the ice caves, the waterfalls and two other national parks. I also looked at several options for getting myself out there and exploring alone, but I quickly realized I would probably spend more money on public transportation and taxis trying to get around, plus I really had no idea where to go. So I decided to book a bus tour to get out there and see the basics.
An Aside on Climbing Mt. Fuji to the Top
Previously, I have enjoyed a variety of mountainous hiking. I’ve done a bunch of National Parks in the US and two sacred peaks in China, but not once have I ever actually tried to climb anything that came with an altitude sickness warning. So when I learned about the warning on Mt. Fuji, I needed to learn more about it. It turns out that above 2400m, the air gets crazy thin and there isn’t enough oxygen. Like many of you, I knew that climbers in the Himalayas needed to bring oxygen with them, but I didn’t realize how many other peaks require similar precautions. There are also a few medications that can help prevent altitude sickness. And finally, it is recommended that ascent is not to rapid to allow the body time to acclimate. So people who want to climb all the way to the peak and back in a short period are especially at risk. Being in great shape doesn’t protect you from altitude sickness, either.
In addition to this, because the last 5 stations of Mt. Fuji are above the timberline, the climb is all on volcanic rock, meaning you need sturdy supporting hiking boots, and gaiters to keep the rocks from entering said shoes. You also need climbing sticks, gloves and clothes that can be used in hot, freezing, dry and wet weather meaning lots of gear and lots of layers, and a big honkin’ waterproof backpack (being in great shape definitely helps with that). There are places to rent all of these around Mt. Fuji, but it will definitely cost you a couple hundred to rent the whole kit. That’s on top of the cost of transportation, food, accommodation, water… Tour guides packages start around 400$ generally include transportation from Tokyo, 7th station inn, and a couple of meals leaving you on your own for the rest.
Basically, I think climbing Mt. Fuji is a great goal, but you either have to plan that ahead or be willing to drop a serious dime to do it spontaneously. For me, I’m going to have to put a pin in it and try again next time I’m in Japan.
The Tour Begins
I chose the Fuji and Hakone tour with Viator / Sunrise Tours because it was a pretty reasonable price for a lot of sightseeing (e.g. less than I would have paid to arrange my own transportation). Every single place we stopped at was amazing and worth it, but we did spend 6 hours on the bus that day and only 4 hours on foot (45 minutes of which was lunch). I don’t think they’re a bad tour agency, just that there is so much to see over such a huge area that it’s hard to have a day trip with less than half the time in the vehicle.
I started out leaving my apartment in Aobadai at about 7:15 am, and loaded up some snacks on the way to the train station where I experienced the joy of the crowded morning commute into Tokyo. It took me two trains and more than an hour to get to Shinjuku where I was to meet the tour bus, and I nearly missed them because the directions they gave us on how to find the meeting place from the train station were entirely vague. I left myself an extra half an hour and wound up being only about 3 minutes “early”.
We left Shinjuku at 9:05 and the tour guide was already upset we were late. To be fair, Japanese culture considers 10 minutes early to be “late”, but it was still something a lot of travelers didn’t understand since they too had a hard time finding the meeting point. We stopped at a rest station because someone forgot to pee before leaving, and then we were “so far behind schedule” that we had to skip our 20 minute stop at the Mt. Fuji visitors center.
The Fifth Station & Shinto Shrine
We pulled up to the 5th Station at around 11:30 and had about 30 minutes to explore. I can promise you this is like the barest minimum that one could use to see this place. The 5th Station is the farthest rest stop that can be driven to. Private vehicles aren’t allowed, so everyone has to take a tour bus. It’s 2,305m above sea level. Fuji has 10 stations total, the last one is at the very peak and is 3,775m high.
It was a rainy cloudy day, and the air at the 5th Station was blissfully cool. There was a really beautiful effect of the clouds wreathing through the lower peaks around us, and the peak of Fuji itself was obscured by more clouds. I could see that we were close to the timber line because the bare part of the mountain was just a little bit higher than we were. I looked it up and found that for Mt. Fuji, the timberline is between 2400-2500m. It was strange to see the dense lush green forest below and all around us with the barren black lava crusted surface extending above us.
I was initially a little disappointed because it looked like one giant tourist trap. Fuji can only be climbed for about 3 months in the summer, so everyone comes during that time, plus August is vacation time for the Japanese, so the 5th Station was thronged with people, and lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. I spotted the bright red torii gate that led toward the Shinto shrine and headed that way. It was small but pretty. There was a purification area, several beautiful decorations and of course a place to buy prayer strips and other luck charms. There was even a little coin-op machine that showed a puppet demon doing a traditional dance performance. The view from the top was pretty, and probably would have been astonishing with a few less clouds.
Then, as I came back down the steps, I noticed a small path leading behind the shrine that no one was taking. Of course I followed it. Just a few steps was all it took and the noise of the crowds faded to almost nothing. The green trees, black earth and red torii gates stood out brilliantly in the wet and cloudy air. The smell was amazing, fresh and alive, and I could really understand then why this spot had been chosen for the sacred shrine. Instead of a concrete platform with a railing and a coin operated binocular set, the dark soil led out to a steep decline where I could look into the valley below. Small pine cones adorned the gnarled evergreens, sparkling with raindrops. It felt like my own private Mt. Fuji.
With a few minutes left before the bus left, I ducked into the souvenir shop’s post office to buy a couple post cards for my collecting friends. The shop itself was kinda lame, but it was fun to get the Fuji postal stamp as well as all the ink stamps on the postcards.
Back on the Bus: Black Mt. Fuji
Do not let my time estimations lull you into thinking our guide was in any way casual about time. Our bus dropped us off at the drop point, but then had to go park in the tour bus parking lot, with no designated space number. Our guide said she would be waiting outside the bus to help us find it, but that lot was rather large. Our departure times were given to us before we left, and we were told that if we were more than 15 minutes late, we would be left behind. It turned out the bus was all the way at the very other end of the lot, so I barely made it by the departure time, and once again, several other people were late. Honestly, I have trouble blaming the tourists, since they were foreign and not familiar with the locations, but by the end of the day, I seriously wanted to whisper to the tour guide to start giving fake departure times.
We had not been able to see the peak of Fuji from the 5th Station due to the cloud cover, but as we began driving down, the clouds cleared up and the guide stopped the bus and let us out for a quick photo op. I was really surprised to see that the peak was plain black. I mean, in every picture ever of Mt. Fuji, it is a snow-capped cone with intense contrasts between the dark base and white peak. When I lived in Japan as a kid, we missed the summer altogether, so I never saw it in the hot weather. And in Seattle, our own Mt. Rainier is at it’s most visible in summer, and is always crowned with white. So what the heck was going on with this lump of volcanic black looming over our heads?
A Brief Explanation of Timberlines and Snowlines
After this trip, I did some research about mountain elevations, timberlines and snowlines. I now know more about all these things than I ever thought I would. Timberlines are the elevation at which trees stop growing due to temperature and/or oxygen availability, but are generally between 2100-2500m above sea level. Snowlines on the other hand vary by latitude, and can be drastically different from equator to pole. Thus, Mt. Rainier (which is 4,292m high) and Fuji (which is 3,775m) both exceed the timberline by quite a bit and have totally barren tops. They aren’t hugely different in altitude, but they are in latitude. Rainier has a snowline between 2900-3200m. So if Fuji were as far north as Rainier, it too would have a permanent snow cap, but since it is much farther south, the snowline is more than 5400m, meaning that all the snow melts in the summer heat. Hence, black Mt. Fuji.
Lunch by the Lake
We had another long drive back down the mountain and over to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. Our tour included a local food lunch, but it took us about 40 minutes of driving to get there. While our guide was chatting to us about the history of the Shogunate in the area, the mountain made another appearance from behind the clouds, but since by this time we were on the ground, we could see more of the iconic conical shape. When she pointed it out, the whole bus full of people spun around in our seats to catch a glimpse and let out a spontaneous and involuntary synchronized “ooooh” as we all saw the mountain for the first time.
We pulled up next to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. We were offered a very generous meal that sampled many different dishes including tempura, teriyaki chicken, rice, tofu, pickled veggies and a local speciality of noodles in miso broth with a slice of fresh watermelon for dessert. The food was delicious and there was a great view of the lake from the second floor window where we sat. Then suddenly, one of the large camera enthusiasts came in and declared that he had found a great view of Fuji around the side of the building. Not willing to risk the clouds coming back around, I paused at lunch and scampered downstairs for a quick glimpse and photo op. It was really astonishing to see the giant volcano looming over the village houses. There was a cloud parting around the flat cap creating a halo above the peak. After a few dozen pictures, I tore myself away to finish lunch, then returned to the lakeside to soak in the greenery before we got back in the bus for the next long drive.
Why Are We Driving So Much?
This is a great question. I have no good answer. We drove for 2.5 hours to spend 30 minutes on Fuji. We drove 45 more minutes to have lunch and didn’t even get to walk around the lake. And now we were driving another 90 minutes to get to our next stop. See, Lake Kawaguchi is on the north side of Mt. Fuji while Lake Ashi is on the south side, so we have to drive all the way around the mountain to see both. I think if I had known this I would have booked a different tour with less driving time, but it didn’t really occur to me to Google map every stop on the itinerary. Live and learn.
The poor little tour guide did her best to entertain us on all the long drives, filling us with lots of mini lectures about Japanese culture and history, factoids about the mountains and lakes, accompanied by photos and hand drawn infographics. At one point she even sang us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji. Interestingly, the road up to the 5th Station has been graded in such a way that the hum produced by the tires of vehicles plays that song… I heard it, it was a pretty cool piece of engineering. On this particular stretch of drive, she handed out origami squares and taught us all how to make a very simple snow-capped paper Fuji.
Ascending Mt. Komagatake
We parked at the sky gondola that would take us up the next mountain with only a few minutes to get on board. The gondolas only run every 20 minutes, so we scurried up to the landing area for the 3:10 ride and piled into the (supposedly) 100 person capacity gondola. Although, to be honest, I’m pretty sure that 100 people would involve the level of crowding normally associated with the Tokyo train at rush hour and that only about 25 people could reasonably be expected to enjoy a view from the gondola.
The day was very cloudy, so as we rode upwards we entered the cloud layer. It was pretty cool to watch the cables vanish into the thick white fog and then to follow it. I had hoped we might emerge above the clouds, but no such luck. I believe the mountain top would be quite beautiful in the sun, and even as it was there was a kind of quiet eerie beauty to the viewing platform. We could choose to descend at 3:30 or 3:50 in order to catch the boat. As nice as the top was, we all sort of decided there was only so much looking at the inside of a cloud we could do, so we piled in with an Italian tour group for the earlier gondola so we could check out the area around the lake.
On our way down, feeling a little disconsolate for the lack of view from the top, our spirits were lifted when suddenly the clouds to our right broke and Mt. Fuji came into view. According to our tour guide, it’s very rare to see Fuji from the Hakone area in the summer, because the summer is the cloudiest time of year in Japan. The mountain burst though a low layer of clouds which in turn were lit golden by the afternoon sunlight. The swirl of dark gray rain clouds and golden fluffy clouds danced around the black silhouette of the bare mountain. It really was a delightful and blessed feeling.
Shopping at Hakone
We spent some time exploring the shops while waiting for the boat. Pretty typical touristy stuff, but there was one shop that specialized in a local handicraft: Hakone puzzle boxes. These beautiful wooden boxes are made with intricate geometric patters comprised of the wood of different trees to create the different colors. The boxes require a series of secret movements, adjusting the side panels in a specific order. There is no metal or plastic, but the boxes are locked tight until the correct combination is performed.
In addition to the boxes, which were demonstrated by the shopkeeper, they had many other gifts made with the beautiful wood in the puzzle box patterns. I’m totally out of luggage space, but it was nice to see some local handicrafts promoted among the plastic ninja swords and plush Mt. Fuji dolls.
A Boat on Lake Ashi
Our boat picked us up at the pier next to the gondola station and we set off across the lake at 4:15. It was a really relaxing ride with great views. The valley was clear, the sun was beginning to peek out from the clouds, and we were able to watch Mt. Fuji receding in the distance as we sailed away. There were little towns at various ports around the lake. There were more torii gates along the waterline. And there was even a boat tour that went in a 3 masted old-fashioned pirate ship, which was an adorable contrast to the Japanese countryside.
In contrast to the cities, the weather on the lake was cool and pleasant, so I really enjoyed the ride on the upper deck, basking in the sun, wind and amazing views. I also met a lovely family from L.A. (because no outing is complete without meeting new people!) and spent most of the trip chatting with their college-age daughter about the benefits of living overseas. I think I sold her on it.
It was really crazy how many people with giant expensive cameras were there. Mind you, all I had was my phone, which stands me pretty good in most cases. I’m pretty sure it didn’t even come close to doing the lake justice: brilliant golden sunlight reflecting from the small waves caused by the wake of many boats, deep green rolling foothills on every side, brilliant red torii gates dotting the landscape and over it all the black, symetrical cone of Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was a perfect way to end the day.
We left just before 5pm and spent a little over 90 minutes returning to Tokyo. Since it was rush hour(s), I hung out in one of the famous Shinjuku department stores. These things are huge. Floors and floors of beautiful clothing, home decor and accessories. Unlike normal Japanese shopping, which is tall and narrow, the Shinjuku department stores are both tall and wide. I was just killing time, but I was astonished at the variety of fashion available. If I ever have a ridiculous amount of money to devote to my wardrobe, I’m pretty sure Shinjuku wins out over Dubai for shopping destination.
I managed to stick it out until after rush hour so that I could actually get a seat on the long train ride back to Aobadai. The day was long, and really really full of uncomfortable transportation, but despite the lack of sleep, the aching feet and the hours of bus riding, I have to say that the whole Fuji-Hakone-Izu National parks area is amazing.
Now that I know a bit more about the area, what there is to see and how its laid out, I can say that my preferred future method would almost certainly be to go in the off season, rent a car and spend several days circling the base going from little lake town to little lake town. The only thing you can’t drive yourself to is up the mountains themselves, but there are local buses going up Fuji itself, and some of the other mountains have gondolas like the one we took. Sometimes it feels like the first time I visit someplace is just recon for the second time, but then again, I guess that’s why I want to live abroad instead of just taking short vacations. And even though things didn’t work out in Japan this time around, I have no doubt that I’ll come back here again someday.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and as always, please check out all the photos on my facebook page 🙂