About 300,000 people climb Mt. Fuji every year during the official summer climbing season from July to August. All of those people have to eat, and fortunately food is available at various altitudes, but be warned about the heavy price tags.
Though some more adventurous types choose to do the sea to summit hike, the majority of Mt. Fuji hikers start their journey from the 5th station. This station is 2,300m above sea level and is about 60% of the way up the mountain. From Shinjuku it takes about 2.5 hours to get to the 5th station by Highway bus.
The area is really crowded as it attracts hikers and tourists just looking to get a closer view of Fujisan. Here there were a bunch of hiking gear shops, souvenir stores, and of course places to eat. We chose to eat at the 2F Kitchen in a restaurant called Fujisan Miharashi. The restaurant boasted a menu full of Japanese dishes including quirkier options like Eruption (噴火) Curry, where the rice was shaped like Mt. Fuji with the curry coming out like lava. I settled on some classic ramen to get me through the long arduous hike ahead.
The ‘Mt. Fuji Ramen’ was really delicious and wonderfully presented with a fish cake in the shape of Mt. Fuji and nori printed with the height of Mt. Fuji (3,776m). The vegetables tasted fresh, the pork was tender and the broth was flavourful. The restaurant was obviously very popular with tour buses as tables set up with lunch sets were prepared. As expected the prices at the 5th station were significantly cheaper than those higher up the mountain.
I bought a walking stick to help me navigate the rocky volcanic terrain and we were off just before noon on the well-traversed Yoshida Trail, following yellow signs like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Our plan was to hike from the 5th station to our mountain hut at the 8th station called Taishikan, 3,100m up the mountain.
There are several stops on the way up to Mt. Fuji giving people a much needed rest, the hardest thing perhaps was to push on as it felt like there was somewhere to stop every couple of metres. These stopping points also gave ample opportunity to have some quick small talk with the assortment of Japanese and foreigners making the pilgrimage. There was a real sense of community, us the climbers trying to conquer the mammoth mountain. At most of these stops there was a mini kiosk selling everything from chocolate, to water, to oxygen bottles all at exorbitant prices.
I knew about the inflated prices of food on Mt. Fuji so I made sure to pack my own snacks and water, but the general rule seemed to be the higher the elevation the higher the prices, which is not surprising considering the effort it takes to get up the mountain bulldozer or otherwise. I highly recommend at least a 2 litre bottle of water for the climb up as you’ll need to keep hydrated to replenish your body after sweating and stave off altitude sickness.
After about three an a half hours of climbing we made it to Taishikan hut on the 8th station, 3,100m above sea level at 3.30pm. A little light headed from the altitude, I thought I was hallucinating when I saw my name on a list outside the hut but I was delighted to see that it was real, a nice little touch. We were led inside into modest but clean wooden interiors with staff who spoke good English. As we were doing the popular sunrise hike, the idea was to have an early dinner then sleep for a couple hours and wake up in time to start our hike from just before midnight.
I had booked space at the hut online in advance as they often fill up during climbing season. Luckily we were making the final climb on a Monday, a day less crowded than on a weekend or during the Obon public holiday period. Dinner was served at around 4pm and we sat Japanese style on the floor with low tables. Waiters came to fill our cups with warm green tea which was very appreciated after the long hike. The dinner set included Japanese curry rice, and sides of fried fish, a sausage, pickled vegetables, grape jelly, and a cake shaped like Mt. Fuji filled with red bean paste. Though a little small, the meal was delicious and warming and very welcome to our hungry bellies.
As the huts can get quite crowded I was aware that this perhaps wasn’t to be the most leisurely dining experience but knowing the hard road ahead I was happy to eat my dinner quickly and head to a very early bed time. As hikers often leave very early in the middle of the night/early morning for the sunrise hike we are given an on the go breakfast of sweet potato vegetable bread and heated rice in a bag, which in truth was quite mediocre. Though the 8,500 yen price tag on getting a couple hours or sleep and some food was a bit steep, I was thankful that I was going to face the hardest part of the mountain in a somewhat good state.
About 6 hours later we woke up and went downstairs to join the other hikers organising their things and gulping down a quick breakfast. We donned our headlights and started walking in the pitch black looking up to see the lights of climbers ahead of us who had already started their ascent. From the 8th station it would take us approximately 3 more hours to get to the top at the steepest inclines.
The path winding up was narrow and got congested the nearer to the top we got. There were even officers directing the flow of the traffic in a rather hasty fashion entreating hikers in Japanese and English to essentially ‘Keep Moving!’. Unfortunately, the narrow road up meant that any stopping would hold up the whole line of hikers climbing up, so despite being exhausted from a few hours of sleep I pressed on.
Passing through the Torii gate we arrived at the top at about 3.30am and had about an hour to go until the sunrise. I had been warned that it was cold up at the top but I wasn’t quite ready for the absolutely freezing temperatures before sunrise, even with thick gloves and socks I was still going numb. All this however was temporarily forgotten once I was able to see the beauty of the sunrise, luckily the weather was good that day, and I got to see the beautiful yellow sun rise over the clouds. It was a view I’ll never forget.
After watching the sunrise it was time to get more warmth into my freezing body. There is a distinct lack of shelter anywhere on the mountain except for the dining area. After waiting in line for what felt like forever in the freezing cold we were ushered inside to sit down on long benches alongside other weary travellers. The place was very efficient with staff coming to people sitting on the benches to take their orders and bringing them their food. With my body numb from cold all I could think about was getting something warm in my hands and stomach immediately. It seemed that there were two main things on the menu – a bowl of udon or cup noodles.
Thinking the cup noodles might be a cheaper option I ordered it and some hot chocolate (they didn’t have any hot tea and the notion of cold tea was laughable at that moment). Imagine my surprise to find out that at Japan’s highest point your run-of-the-mill 150 yen konbini (convenience store) cup noodles was a whopping 800 yen. Talk about a markup. Despite my feeling of incredulity I must say it was the best cup noodles I have ever and probably will ever have in my life. I washed it down with a 400 yen can of hot chocolate.
After getting some warmth back into my body it was time to explore the mountain a bit more, after all I had spent a day trying to get up here it was the least I could do. The views were absolutely amazing, clouds and mountains as far as the eye could see, and a beautiful but fear-inducing view of the crater.
Coming down the mountain wasn’t as easy as I had expected and had its own challenges. Whereas the descent was more physically demanding with climbs up stairs and steep inclines, the descent was as much a psychological as a physical battle as I had to deal with the anxiety of possibly slipping downhill on the seemingly endless gravel paths, or risk being flattened by one of the dozen mini bulldozers that I saw perilously reversing towards the edge to manoeuvre the narrow passages.
About four hours later we arrived back at the 5th station triumphant and thankful to be on flat ground again. Exhausted from the journey I couldn’t wait to crawl into my bed and sleep for eternity, piling myself onto the bus home I waved goodbye to Fujisan, the perfectly shaped mountain of nature, filled with memories of delicious albeit overpriced food, astounding views, and a glimpse into the community among strangers that Fujisan can inspire.