Hints from a Successful 2012 Summit via Gotemba Trail and a 2009 Fail via Subashiri Trail
by David Wallace
(New York City, USA)
Hikers awaiting sunrise on the eastern rim of the caldera
First, let’s all thank Gary for one of the most helpful comprehensive English language sites on the topic of climbing Mt. Fuji! (Tasukaremashita (助かれました, it was helpful)！)
Please enjoy the sunrise I saw from the summit of Mt. Fuji:
(If player above is not visible, you can view video at YouTube here. Note: The background music is David's own electric viola!)
All footage is either from the Gotemba route or from the Ohachi-meguri trail that circumnavigates the summit caldera. Plan to include this loop on your trip; it’s stunning. That said, be aware that approaching storms or darkness could complicate your return: don’t get stuck on the opposite side of the caldera from your descent route!
If you want to avoid crowds, I highly recommend either the Gotemba or Subashiri routes. For a nice tour of the mountain, ascend the Subashiri trail and descend the Gotemba.
The Gotemba trail is hard to ascend and has few huts, amenities, or protection from the elements. However, it has phenomenal vistas and great night views of the horizon, stars, and constellations. Both of these trails provide good vantage points for the sunrise, whether or not you summit.
The Subashiri trail has more huts, restrooms, and amenities, and it also is a short trail that begins high up the mountain. It has the most trees of any route, and the flora and fauna are quite beautiful.
Either trailhead can be reached from buses at the JR Gotemba train station. It can be challenging to figure out the navigation to Gotemba, but the cheapest quickest way from Tokyo is to catch the Odakyu bus from Shinjuku Station. Be careful not to exit at Gotemba Outlet Mall; take the bus all the way to the JR Gotemba train station. From outside of the station, you can buy bus tickets to the Subashiri or Gotemba trailheads. Some of the buses make multiple stops, so be sure you’re at your destination before you exit. The Gotemba 5th station has fewer buses, so plan accordingly.
If you can spend a night in Gotemba first, it will make the venture less exhausting and you can begin your hike rested rather than stressed from navigating the commute.
In 2012, I stayed at The Gotembakan, which is right across from the train station and the bus stops. It’s a simple, efficient, no-frills hotel, but it does have a restaurant and coffee shop. My room had a fantastic view of Fuji. Many inexpensive and good restaurants are nearby, as is a grocery store, which sold some delicious local produce (vine-ripened cherry tomatoes!), which I enjoyed on my ascent. A convenience store located across from the bus station sells water, energy drinks, sun block, and other items.
Just to underscore a few important thoughts that bear repeating:
• Bring a mountaineering-grade headlamp, not a flashlight. I recommend anything by Petzel. You’ll be glad to have your hands free, and in the frequently inclement weather, most handheld backpacking halogen or LED flashlights are useless. Trust me. In 2009, poor visibility in a gale caused me and fellow hikers to lose the trail twice. Bring extra batteries; you might need them.
• Bring a rain suit, meaning waterproof pants and jacket / shell with hood. Ponchos are worthless in Fuji’s horizontal rain and wind. Water-resistant materials will leave you damp, wet, or even soaked.
• Gaiters are recommended. If you are in rain, they will help your legs and feet a bit. If you are descending the compulsory Osunabashiri (sand / gravel slide) on the Gotemba or Subashiri routes, gaiters prevent gravel from getting into your boots. In 2012, I met a woman who had a miserable descent on the Gotemba trail because pebbles kept getting into her shoes.
• While it’s possible to climb all trails in tennis shoes, a boot with good ankle support and a high top will make you happier. The hike has nothing technical, so a heavy, all-leather boot isn’t compulsory. I enjoyed having a strong, but flexible leather-Goretex hybrid for my successful attempt.
• Good trekking poles will make your life much pleasanter and help you to hike faster. I highly recommend them!
• Pack versatile layers of clothing. Expect temperatures to range from sub-freezing to hot summer temperatures. In 2012, I brought a mylar blanket and an emergency bivy sack, but didn’t use either. When I reached the summit, many exhausted early-summiters were sleeping in these items, though.
• Bring more than adequate water. Mountain prices are steep, and some routes will not have vending machines or venders. Dehydration can be debilitating, especially at high altitude. Over the night and day of my successful trip, I drank nearly five liters. On my unsuccessful attempt, I drank nearly two liters, not to mention the pint or so of rainwater that the mountain forced me to drink in a horizontal deluge.
• Know the Kanji for your route and ALL routes. You don’t want to descend to the opposite side of your mountain!
• From my experience, timings on Japanese guidebooks and park signs are quite accurate for a fit person hiking briskly with minimal rest stops. If you want to enjoy the view or spend any amount of time photographing your trip, factor in additional climbing time, especially for your ascent. The same goes if you are not in top physical condition. If you’re doing a sunrise hike, plan to summit well before sunrise to get yourself a good vantage and to enjoy the spectacular pre-dawn color changes.
• Approach the altitude gradually. . .especially if you aren’t able to acclimate beforehand. 30 minutes resting at the 5th station before you begin is good policy, and know that a slow, sustainable, steady pace will get you up the mountain more effectively and with less fatigue than pushing yourself close to your physical limit and stopping more frequently. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that the staggering 7,664 ft elevation gain from the Gotemba 5th station actually helped me acclimatize because the elevation was gained over a longer period of time.
• Take the weather very seriously! Mt. Fuji generates its own weather, so not all forecasts are useful, and rain and storms are always possible. In 2009, I wound up in an eleven-hour gale, which would have led to hypothermia or worse, had I not found shelter in a mountain hut. The most useful weather reports are at Snow-Forecast.com. Ideally, look for a big, high-pressure system that is forecast to settle over central Honshu for a week. But you’d better believe that thousands of Japanese will also take advantage of a good window, especially if it’s vacation season or a weekend!
Dr. David Wallace