Having done my preparation I decide to catch the 10.30am train from Shinjuku to Ōtsuki, changing there for Kawaguchiko. I’ve done his trip once before when I hiked up Mt Ryūgatake. So it feels very familiar.
However, I don’t see the need to buy my ticket in-advance. But as I’m running a bit late I end up missing the 10.30am train and have to catch the next express at 11.30am. This hiccup is not a major problem as I’ve allowed plenty of time to hike the first half of Mt Fuji.
The day is typical of late summer in this part of Japan: sunny with scattered clouds but not completely overcast. Although it’s heading that way. In fact, light afternoon drizzle is forecast. Bugger! Yet it might be refreshing.
The train is not crowded but when I reach Kawaguchiko Station I need to ensure I get on the correct bus as there are many hikers catching the one straight to Kamaguchiko 5th Station. My instructions are:
“There are 1 – 2 buses per hour from Kawaguchiko Station and Fujisan Station in direction of Lake Yamanakako and Gotemba that stop at the Sengen Shrine along the way. Get off at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fujisengen Jinja-mae bus stop in front of the wooded approach to the shrine. The bus ride takes about 15 minutes from Kawaguchiko Station or about 5 minutes from Fujiyoshida Station. Alternatively, the shrine is a 30min walk from Fujiyoshida Station.”
This reference to Fujiyoshida Station (above) is somewhat misleading as I later discover it’s simply called Mt Fuji Station.
Mt Fuji is a volcano that last erupted in 1707. A volcano is classified as either dormant or dead, and it’s definitely not dead. The fact that it erupts on a roughly 300-year cycle provides food-for-thought. I hoped there would be some hint or advance warning from the mountain before it performs a “Pompeii”. But then my wife points out “after the fact” that seismic activity counts as a warning: think last year’s devastating earthquake. Mmmmm.
The shrine is like many I’ve visited before. One description is:
“There are more than one thousand Fuji Sengen Shrines across Japan, dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the Shinto deity associated with Mt Fuji. Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shrine, formally known as Kitaguchi Hongu Sengen Jinja (North Entrance Sengen Main Shrine), is the main Sengen Shrine on the north side of the mountain.”
“The shrine stands in a dense forest and is set off from the road by a long approach lined by stone lanterns and shaded by tall cedar trees. The shrine’s red painted buildings include a main hall dating from 1615, a dancing stage and a few auxiliary buildings.”
Beginning the climb from Sengen Shrine at the base of Mt Fuji is, as previously mentioned, the historical route rather than the more popular Kawaguchiko 5th Station start.
To quote my research again:
“In the past, Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shrine used to be the common starting point for climbing Mt Fuji from the north. The trailhead is still located directly behind the right side of the shrine’s main hall, and some traditionalist hikers still begin their ascent with a prayer at the shrine before passing through the wooden torii gate in the back of the shrine grounds.”
“These days, however, most climbers forego the shrine and start their ascent from Kawaguchiko 5th Station, halfway up the mountain. This effectively halves the distance to the summit and shortens the climb by more than five hours.”
I do say a prayer, asking for safety, but it’s not to any of the local gods.
My plan is to not rush it. “Five hours” means I will reach Kawaguchiko 5th Station after sunset. But I know hiking estimates are often conservative so I set myself a target of 7pm so that I’m not walking in the dark.
When I ask a monk at the shrine for directions he provides me with a map which proves very, very useful.
The trail essentially runs along side the road, although usually out-of-sight. It’s well signposted and is, for the best part, a pretty straight line.
Forest cedars are numerous, as are small shrines similar to previous hikes. The actual trail itself is situated just to the right of the road so I first need to find the small path that joins onto it.
It is an unsealed road, mostly packed earth with small rocks. The woods provide plenty of dappled shade that is most welcome in this heat.
A dragonfly rests nearby as I stop to photograph it.
The steady hum of cicadas fill the air. I can also here cars passing but they’re generally unseen.
The sound of birds also helps me to relax and enjoy the nature all around me.
Walking through the Suwa Forest I am surounded by Japanese red pines planted during the early 1600s. Their purpose was to counteract the effect of the Spring-thaw’s heavy flow of water down the mountainside.
Yet I also notice a copse of silver birch shining in the sunlight.
At this stage it’s an easy walk with a relatively gradual incline.
A runner passes me heading in the other direction. And a hiker who appears to be finishing his climb.
After 1/2 hour I pass under the Higashi Fujigoko Expressway.
I’m aware of spiders, other “creepy crawlies” and beautiful butterflies.
Yet it’s a shame that there are also cigarette butts littered on the trail.
I pass one hiker sitting, waiting. I’m not sure which way he’s going yet I share a friendly konnichiwa.
Around here there are numerous pretty, yellow flowers and occasionally wild strawberries.
Within an hour I reach Nakanochaya where some temporary toilets have been set-up.
I ask directions from a couple of hikers who are lying down, resting. They too appear to have finished their ascent of Mt Fuji complete with their burnt, engraved walking sticks.
For some reason I recall a drive up Mont Ventoux in Provence, France earlier this year. On that occasion the temperature was minus 4 degrees C, made even colder with a strong wind howling all around us. I do hope I’ve brought enough warm clothes.
There is now less shade and the road becomes wider. It’s softer in spots, and appears to be used by vehicles from time-to-time.
The ground here is also uneven, with rubble making it a little harder to walk. Even the incline becomes steeper but it’s still not onerous. Although I’m sweating it’s not pouring out of me. But I am conscious of the need to take small sips regularly as I read somewhere that fluid-loss is exacerbated at higher altitudes as we breathe out more moisture than normal.
I’m no longer hearing as many cars passing by. And thankfully the shade has returned.
The path is also packed-earth again, albeit narrower than before. Mind you, it’s still pretty easy.
Looking around I see ferns, low-growing bamboo, a Japanese maple, and an unusual plant with bright, red seeds.
Sometimes it feels like the light is failing but then the clouds disappear and it opens up to clear, blue sky.
After two hours I reach Umagaeshi. Once again some temporary toilets are provided. And I see another hiker heading down.
There is a small shrine located nearby. Whilst I stop to photograph it I glimpse some 20-something’s being dropped off by taxi.
The path becomes more compact, either mud or perhaps clay. And it’s getting steeper but it’s still OK.
After 2h15m I reach the first of many “stations”. It’s basically an old timber building, closed-up and no longer in use.
The sun streams through the trees as I enjoy the afternoon light; it’s definitely my favourite time of day.
I pass an abandoned earth digging machine. There are several pits on the trail. The first of each pair contains large rocks but the second is empty. The path looks quite like a watercourse so perhaps they help with heavy downpours or the Spring-thaw.
The ground is noticeably steeper here. This is where the real work begins! Fortunately it’s getting cooler the higher I go and the later it gets, especially as its no longer sunny.
Timber sleepers have been used to make some steps, similar to other hiking trails I have experienced. But then I encounter a rocky road, quite like cobblestones yet much bigger. It looks very old.
Behind me I can hear the laughter and loud conversation of those young adults. It’s possible there’s only two of them but it sounds like a bus-load.
After 2h40m I make it to the 2nd station. It too is a disused, extremely dilapidated old hut that has been roped-off to discourage anyone entering or using it.
Just beyond it is a small bridge, suggesting in some ways the entrance to a whole new world.
A sign, one of many I’ve seen detailing distance forward and back plus a travelling time estimate. It’s pretty spot-on too, at least regarding the time taken for my hike so far.
The clouds are making the place darker although it’s still well before sunset. Yet I’m really starting to sweat.
Three hours into the hike and I reach the Kawaguchiko 3rd Station.
Another hut. Another bridge.
It’s definitely cooler although a little less steep. Then out pops the sun again.
Yet it doesn’t take long for the path to steepen. It’s really starting to feel like I’m quite high up, journeying on some long-forgotten road.
I can’t hear any cars now and wonder how far away the road is from the trail. However, I can still hear the kids just behind me.
Then there are some old stone steps reminding me that this was once a very popular route.
After 3h15m I reach the Kawaguchiko 4th Station. This hut is so rundown that it no longer exists.
Only a shrine stands nearby at this elevation of just over 2000m. This now leaves me with the last leg before my goal of Kawaguchiko 5th Station.
Oddly, I can smell the distinct aroma of cooking. Surely I’m too far from my destination? I soon stumble upon a family of what appears to be at least three generations cooking their dinner on a hot-plate, seated around timber tables in-front of a large, very usable hut. Perhaps they plan on sleeping here tonight?
It smells really good but as sunset is fast approaching I avoid the temptation to stop and chat. We exchange some quick “hello’s” and “good-bye’s”, the young boy instigating it proudly in eigo (English).
I pass yet another shrine; I think this one is called Gozaishi Sengen Shrine.
At 3h45m I reach a road and a sign. Almost there.
My timing is perfect as I catch the heavens putting on a show. Wow! What a sunset.
I see and smell some smoke but it’s not terribly noisy around here. If it’s the 5th Station it’s not very busy. In fact, it’s pretty deserted.
It’s now four hours since I started but it appears there are multiple versions of the Kawaguchiko 5th Station. This one, I suspect, is actually Sata-goya but I’m not 100% sure. What I do know is sunset is fast approaching and with it goes the ambient light.
I look across to see the twinkling lights of the town below. It’s quite magical and the atmospheric clouds only add to the drama.
The last section takes about 1/2 hour. The road is quite smooth and the incline now very easy.
Before I know it Kawaguchiko 5th Station looms before me like the apparition of an oasis. At last! And just as the clock ticks 7pm.
Time to rest and make a phone call home before starting the second half.
level of difficulty : 8/20
duration : 4 – 5 hours