Almost exactly as the bus pulled through the gates of the National Park, it started to rain. And it was rain that meant business: the typhoon people had been promising me for days finally split the muggy haze, pouring from the sky with a force that turned the world dark. I felt like a woman being led to the gallows as we curved up the mountain road. My body was slowly trying to glue itself to the bus seat under the threatening weight of the sensation that I was not going to be able to do this.
Climbing Mount Fuji is something I’ve inexplicably wanted to do for years. Inexplicably, because if there are two things I hate in the world it’s hills and walking up them. This year I’ve been to the gym zero times and – aside from about two weeks of YouTube Kettlebell workouts in my bedroom until my enthusiasm predictably waned – I have done almost zero exercise. I am at what I would describe as my peak unfitness. And yet there was Fuji, and some years-old desire to climb it, and the worry that I may never have another chance to. So, I’d booked an overnight Fuji tour and boarded a bus, stricken with dread, gripping tightly to that single, wispy strand of determination deep within me.
We began in a typhoon. Lightning flashed and booms of thunder rolled through the blackening sky. It felt like the mountain laughing at me, and my self-doubt worsened. Luckily, the rain washed off after an hour or so. Suddenly it was too hot; I was hiking beneath a sticky blue sky.
When I climbed Mount Batur a few years ago, I called it the hardest thing I’d ever done. But that molehill looked like a handful of baby steps compared to Fuji. After the sixth station, my breath weakening thanks to the altitude, the path got much harder. My guide’s mantra, “small steps, slow breaths”, went out the window as I was forced to scramble up huge piles of ancient lava; grey rocks worn smooth by centuries of feet.
If you’re relatively fit – by which I mean you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get out of breath talking whilst climbing a flight of stairs – you probably won’t find Fuji the kind of challenge that I found it. It’s still a challenge, but it probably won’t be the full-body agony I forced myself to suffer through, simply because I’m not strong enough to argue with myself once I become set on an idea.
I struggle to find adjectives for this hike. Phrases like “tough” and “challenging” and “hard work” don’t quite capture the magnitude of my personal struggle. This was the single most challenging physical thing I have ever done. My hamstrings were screaming with each step, almost literally. I felt like I could hear them. My legs were jelly, my toes were numb, every breath was a struggle I wasn’t sure I’d win. It was, without doubt, the most physically difficult thing I have ever put myself through.
But I pressed on, because every step forward was a joy as much as it was a torture. The world fell away beneath us; rolling hills and lush forests stretching out below a blanket of cloud. I’ve never witnessed anything like it. Standing on rocks spewed out by a volcano, surrounded by red ash, watching the sun disappear behind the far side of the mountain with what felt like the entire world at my feet.
After dark, it got cold, and we added layers as we pressed further upwards. Queueing our way up Mount Fuji, at the heart of a zigzagging trail of headlights and torches flickering in the dark. I’d picked the busiest weekend of the year for my climb – the day after National Mountain Day, during Japan’s summer Obon holiday – and the way up was a slow queue among giggling groups of tourists. For some, that would be hell. But I needed that collective goodwill, and the enforced slow walking speed, and the total blockage behind me preventing any inkling of desire to turn back and give up.
From the moment the sun went down, my memories of climbing Mount Fuji become surreal and patchy, a series of dream images. You never seem to remember every detail of something hard. With time, each impossible step is forgotten, and all that’s left is the overall impression of something difficult, and a few piercing memories of notable or beautiful moments. I remember passing another guide – a man whose deeply lined face flashed orange in the glow of a match as he sparked up a cigarette – and wondering how many times he’d climbed this mountain. I remember forks of purple lightning leaping through the sky on either side of me. Weirdly shaped rock formations and sheets of barren, ash-strewn landscapes flashing for a moment, before vanishing again into blackness. I remember the biting cold, the icy air cutting into my lungs with each ragged gulp of breath. I remember the trail of people, each one marked by a pinprick of light from their torch, stretching up and up and up above me.
We spent the night in a mountain hut somewhere past the eighth station. Arriving at 9pm for a late dinner, our group were sandwiched into a row of sleeping bags. Literally shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers, in any other circumstances I would never have slept. But I slipped into unconsciousness almost immediately, only to wake up three hours later, lace my hiking boots back up, and press on to the summit.
By then it was freezing, and dark, and with no end in sight the trail felt eternal. The lightning had stopped and the clouds overhead dissolved, leaving a clear view of a sea of stars. No sky has ever looked so pure to me. As I walked, dozens of shooting stars zipped through the night around me, as though simply by stepping this tiny fraction closer to them the heavens were more visible. It was glorious.
And then, suddenly, finally, wonderfully, I saw the final Torri gate ahead: a red arch lit by the glow of headlamps passing through it. Those last steps were the easiest, my body surging with relief and joy. I passed through the gate, greeted my guide with a feeble high-five and a delirious grin, and sat down, trembling with the cold and the effort. Through the gate, the sky in the distance was turning brownish red, a hot glowing rust promising the approach of dawn. Quietly, privately, I let the tears slide down my face. This was my moment. A personal victory, something I’d done only for me, only to show myself I could. Because I really had done it.
And if the sudden rush of thick cloud cover meant we saw no sign of sunrise, and if the way down took six hours of even worse agony than the way up, and if I was shattered and broken and shaking with exhaustion by the end of it all… it was all nothing. Because I had climbed Mount Fuji, all on my own, with nothing to help but electronic messages of encouragement from a sister on the other side of the world. Against all the odds, despite my own certainty I couldn’t do it, despite unfitness and altitude sickness and legs that wouldn’t recover for a week, I climbed Mount Fuji. It’s a feeling that simply cannot, will not, be beaten.
My Mt Fuji hike was kindly provided by Voyagin, a long-term affiliate partner of mine. I trust them and my experience of this tour was excellent. I booked the Mount Fuji Overnight Guided Hike, which starts at £153.92 GBP.
Use my code emilyinjapan to get a 5% discount on all Voyagin tours, tickets and activities in Japan (apart from Tokyo Disney). FYI – the links in this post are affiliate links, so I’ll make a small comission on anything you book if you click them – without affecting the price you pay at all. As always, all opinions are mine and 100% honest.
READ MORE: Don’t miss my guide to climbing Mount Fuji. It’s packed with tips, a bumper packing list, and even a downloadable packing checklist. I’ve got you covered!