Recently a Facebook friend posted a triumphant video of their successful arrival at the summit of Mount Fuji, before mentioning they wanted to try a bit more hiking around in Japan. This inspired me to dig out an old article I wrote many moons ago for a magazine that never ended up going to print.
I’ve shared it with a few friends before, but it dawned on my that actually it could be quite useful to other people either living in or visiting Tokyo, inspiring them to look beyond Shibuya crossing. So here it is, to drag the focus of this website away from film for a brief while and stick up some of my photos from Japan that have been languishing unseen on my hard-drive for a very long time. This was written about 7 years ago; some of the prices might be a bit off, but it’s not like the mountains have moved or closed down or anything…
This is my enduring memory of the Mt Fuji climb, a thoroughly mixed experience!
It had been over 7 hours since we’d set off from the coach drop-off point located at Kawaguchi-ko 5th Station, about 2300 metres up Mount Fuji, and I, like my thousand or so fellow climbers standing shivering on the gravely slopes just below the summit of Japan’s highest peak at 5am on a mid-August Sunday morning was beginning to wonder what chain of foolish decisions had led me to where I was now.We’d set off at a brisk pace at around 10pm the previous night in order to time our arrival at the peak for the next day’s sunrise, the first few hours spent scrambling in pitch darkness up the bare rocky slopes with reckless abandon. The stifling weather of a typical Japanese summer day had eased off to a balmy breeze at this point, making climbing the possibility it probably wouldn’t have been during daylight hours. However, after ascending a further 1500 meters or so, the air had thinned and the wind picked up, and with only a tee-shirt and a flimsy cagoule to protect me from the elements, I was feeling distinctly under-equipped.
The sun had already appeared over the horizon about half an hour ago, and with its arrival my enthusiasm had started to wane. One of our party had long fallen by the wayside, complaining of altitude sickness with a dazed and sickly look on his face. Sleep was now little but a distant memory, and mentally I had prematurely prepared myself for the descent long before. A ripe smell wafting from somewhere above indicated that the summit, containing a much-needed toilet, was tantalisingly close over the horizon, though standing between us and it were a legion of similarly miserable-looking figures, inching forward at an agonizingly sullen pace up the scree. We didn’t know it then, but these few final hundred metres to the top would still take a couple of hours.
This photo reminds me slightly of the 1980s Nikkatsu logo, a cold crumb of comfort as the sun had come up several hours before we reached the summit.
There’s a Japanese proverb that says you’re a wise man if you climb Mount Fuji once in your life, but only a fool would attempt it twice. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge that many feel compelled to take. If you are going to do it, probably the most important thing to bear in mind is that, as a hike, Fuji-san is not actually that difficult, and can be done in around four and a half hours if you’re a seasoned hiker and conditions are in your favour. But during the official “climbing season” between 1st July and 31st August, there can be up to 3000 climbers per night, so it is best to avoid weekends of possible, especially those around the Obon holiday week, otherwise you’ll spend more time queuing than climbing. Though most guides recommend climbing during these weeks, there’s nothing technically stopping you from doing it during the rest of the year, and there’s no real reason to do it by night either. Just remember to take plenty of water and food, and that 3776 metres up on the summit, temperatures are significantly colder than those at ground level.
Its also worth noting that Fuji-san provides little in the way of memorably scenery (especially if you are climbing by night!), and that there’s still a 3-hour slide down the gravel path the other side of the crater to go through before you get back down to the bottom. You have been warned! Busses depart hourly from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Kawaguchi-ko 5th Station costing 2600 Yen, and the journey takes about an hour. It is probably sensible to book your ticket back to Tokyo in advance, because return busses can get pretty full.
And you've still got to get down the other side...
One of the joy’s of hiking is that feeling of getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city and escaping into nature, a desire that Fuji notably fails to satisfy. However, 70% of Japan’s land area is mountainous, and with most urban settlements nestling in the valleys between the peaks (the main reason the city sprawl around Tokyo and Yokohama has spread to the extent that it has is that the Kanto Plains have provided plenty of space for urban expansion), it stands to reason that the easiest way to get away from people is to head to the higher ground. Climb any mountain in Japan except from Fuji, and you could just as well be in another country, the neon and ferro-concrete replaced by trees, mountain streams and solitary Shinto shrines and statues, the frantic hordes of the salaryman replaced by isolated pockets of nature lovers and ramblers.
Getting away from it all, an Okutama mountain trail.
Within little over an hour by train from Tokyo, there are a plethora of pleasant strolls to clear the mind and invigorate the spirit, and ones that reveal a more timeless natural flipside to the country than that presented by the frenetic activity of the claustrophobic city spaces. Mountains such as Fuji, rising above 2000 meters in altitude (the point where the tree-line stops), are best saved for the summer months, and are mainly the reserve of the accomplished hiker. But for those wishing a quick break away from the thriving metropolis, there are a number of other excursions that can be undertaken in a couple of hours without wearing too muck skin from the soles of your feet. Such hikes are best embarked upon outside of June’s rainy season and the months of July and August, when the stifling heat and humidity are less conducive to vigorous activity. You’re better off going in April/May to catch the fresh green leaves of early spring (shinroku), or late October for the fiery autumnal red leaves (kôyô) of Autumn.
One of the Tengu statues at Yakuoin Temple on Mt Takao.
One easy climb that can be tackled without too much blood, sweat and tears is the historic sacred retreat of Mount Takao, to the West of Tokyo. Getting there takes a mere 50 minutes and 370 yen if you take the semi-limited express from Keio Shinjuku station to Takao-sanguchi, at the foot of the mountain. At only 599 meters high, the bracing trek to the summit can be made in about an hour, taking you along a well marked route of scenic forest paths and affording some breathtaking views over Tokyo once you get to the top. After such a relaxed climb you’ll probably be surprised that the summit is such a seething mass of activity, with bustling crowds of daytrippers jostling outside overpriced snack restaurants lined with vending machines. Other added attractions on the mountain, which you will spot on your way down, include the 1000-year-old temple Yakuoin, surrounded by scores of attendant bird-winged statues of mythical Tengu, and a rather less appealing monkey zoo, which you’ll be able to smell long before it hones into view.
Sightseers on the top of Mt Takao, coming to see the Autumn colours.
This increase in traffic at the top can be attributed to a fairly unnecessary cablecar that runs from the foot of the mountain to just below the peak, provided for the lazier Sunday walker. However, if you are feeling particularly energetic and want to get away from the crowds then you can continue down the other side of the mountain along a fairly precarious and not so well maintained path that will after a couple of hours take you down to the village of Sagami-ko on the shores of Lake Sagami. From there it’s a straightforward train ride back to Tokyo.
Some of the most beautiful walks in the world, within easy access from Tokyo.
For the more adventurous, the mountainous area of Okutama in the Chichibu-Tama National Park offers endless possibilities for easy day treks and nature trails. The focal point here is Mount Mitake, which can be reached by a 75 minute journey from Shinjuku to Ome Station along the Chuo line (you may need to change at Tachikawa depending on which train you take), changing at Ome to continue along the line to JR Mitake Station. The whole journey costs about 890 Yen one way. Details of a number of hikes in this area can be found in Gary D.A. Walters excellent book Day Walks Near Tokyo, but if you wish to go it alone, there’s an excellent information centre just outside Mitake Station that can provide you with a detailed English-language map of the Okutama area for free.
This is more like it - the Okutama region, little more than an hour on the train from Tokyo.
Mitake-san rises 929 metres above sea level, and it takes a vigorous two-and-a-half-hour climb to the top. You’d be forgiven for cheating by taking the cablecar, located about a 20 minute walk or a short bus ride away from the station, though it costs 1070 Yen for the roundtrip. Once you reach the summit, you’ll be amazed to find an entire village on top, with no visible means of road access, boasting a host of restaurants and souvenir shops and dominated by the majestic Musashi-Mitake Shrine. Here you can spend a couple of hours just roaming around, taking in sites such as Akuhiro Falls, the Rock Garden, and Jindai Keyaki, a 1000-year-old Zelkova tree. A nice option, if you have the energy, is if you carry on along to the ridge to the second peak, Mount Hinode (Hinodeyama), and follow the signs down the other side to Tsuru Tsuru Onsen, a hot spring resort which, as its name suggests (tsuru tsuru means slippery) boasts bizarrely viscous, soapy water, perfect for a long soak after your exertions. It is fairly easy from here to find your way back to Tokyo via a 40-minute train ride from JR Itsukaichi to Tachikawa.
A wooded mountain trail in Okutama.
The Okutama region around Mitake boasts a number of further walks, from the ambitious trek up the side of the 1266-metre high Mount Ôtake, through the more tranquil four-hour long circuit along the three peaks of the Sôgaku, Takamizu and Iwatakeishi mountains. You could spend a lifetime roaming the area and its secluded forest paths, in search of its wildlife (I saw a baby snake wriggling around on the pathside – still not sure what species) and ancient hidden shrines and temples, but there are other areas within an easy ride from the city centre too: For example if you take the Seibu-Ikebukuro from Ikebukuro out 50 minutes to Hannô station, or the Tanzawa-Oyama area around Hon Atsugi, about 40 minutes south from Shinjuku on the Odakyu line. The question is knowing where to go.
Hidden Buddhist shrine on the way to the summit Sogaku, said to be around 100 years old.
Those who seldom stray from within city limits might balk at the claim that Japan boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, but for those more adventurous among us, such areas offer a chance to look at the country in a way they have never done before.
Check out these books for more ideas:
D.A. Walters. Day Walks Near Tokyo (Kodansha, 1993)
Richard Ryall, Craig McLachlan and David Joll. Hiking in Japan (Lonely Planet, 2009)
Tokyo, as seen from the vantage point of a mountain man.