Japan’s Mount Fuji: Following the Path of Pilgrims

View of Mount Fuji - Yamanaka-ko, Japan
Mount Fuji, with a perfect cover of snow.

This is a story about how sometimes it’s a good thing to take the long way, to miss the bus, and to find the shrine.

A torii, a broad vermillion gate, marks the entrance to the Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shinto shrine at the very base of Mount Fuji on the northern side of the mountain. The light of a fog-muted dawn cuts through tall trees, casting the torii as a threshold separating the ancient world up the mountain where we aim to go from the modern world down the path from whence we came. No early morning philosopher or dramatist could fashion a scene more perfect.

The shrine under the canopy is in silence and stillness, magic and mysticism. The wide trunk of a tree over 1,000 years old is carefully sashed with a thick rope called a shimenawa, a Shinto symbol indicating purity and respect for the spirits inside.

For the trailhead of a traditional pilgrimage route up Mount Fuji, a spectacular opening to a mountain journey, you’d figure this place would be mobbed. Save for a couple of Shinto priests and their assistants, there’s no one here but us.

Beginning the Yoshidaguchi Trail up Mount Fuji - Japan
Fuji Sengen Shinto Shrine, Japan

People don’t climb from the base of Mount Fuji anymore,” Pascal, our guide, fills us in on the empty space. “They take the bus up the mountain directly to Kawaguchiko Station 5.”

Time is precious and efficiency is king, but the missed opportunity strikes us as a little sad.

Mount Fuji: A Sacred Mountain Climb As Meditation

Climbing Mount Fuji once represented travel from the world of the living to the world of the dead and back. It was believed that a walk up the mountain, taken by Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims for over 1000 years, would enable the devout to cleanse themselves of their accrued sins and impurities.

The opportunity is ours: this place is on loan to us for a moment. We are about to embark on the path of pilgrims. They began here. And so would we.

Occasional shrines peek out and ema prayer boards placed by other climbers remind us how some travelers still regard this path. We are struck imagining the first monks who climbed Mount Fuji in the 7th century, clearing paths and erecting shrines along their way.

Climbing Mount Fuji - Japan
A Shinto torii (gate) and statues mark the trail up Mount Fuji in Japan.

Most of first half of the Mount Fuji trail consists of pleasant forest. There’s nothing especially noteworthy unless, of course, you consider simple beauty exceptional. None of our group begrudges this at all. Our climb of Mount Fuji is in fact one of our most joyous moments of many as a group. No drama, just fresh air, companionship, space, and time to think. With Japan and all its modernity, an escape valve in the form of nature is just what’s needed.

Another lesson underscored, this one connecting travel and meditation.

Climbing Mount Fuji: When Pilgrims Climb, What Do They Wear?

After a couple of hours’ brisk walk, our group stops for lunch, setting down in the grass next to a Japanese trekking group. Everyone smiles and nods, using body language to communicate a non-verbal “we climb this mountain together” sort of comraderie.

The group was mixed, male and female. This is nothing notable except when you consider that women were not allowed access to Mount Fuji until the late 19th century. The irony could be no greater: Konochana Sakuya Hime, the deity associated with Mount Fuji, is a goddess. Modernity, with all of its questionable trappings, has also brought about some good changes, too.

Amidst bites and shares of green tea and smoked green tea Kit Kats, our minds wander. We imagine those old pilgrims and their once loose clothing — robes and tunics and hand-made shoes — now all bound tightly to keep them warm when they encounter the snowline.

Contrast this with how we are dressed – light and supportive hiking shoes, waterproof and windproof clothes to protect us from the elements. We often think first about having the proper gear before considering why we’d even climb. In this way, the why of our modern lives is susceptible to being lost in the how.

In one movement, the Japanese hikers are off. We watch as they file into a single line and move together seamlessly up the hill, like a human Nordic Track, each step forward, together, spaced almost perfectly apart.

We laugh at how our group of six could barely keep it together. We are also grateful.

After lunch, the path grows steeper; we can feel the change in mountain contours. Robert, an accomplished trekker in his late sixties, begins to feel the nag of his arthritis. He slows down, but he keeps on, one step at a time, visibly working through the pain. The Japanese group apparently also feels it, their synchronized movements slowing with the pitch of the path.

Rounding the final turn approach as Station Five comes into view, we remember the parting words from our morning bus driver: “Don’t forget, the last bus from the top leaves at 3:35.”

Having developed an appreciation of the Japanese tendency to promptness, we understand that arriving even one minute past would be too late.

We pick up the pace.

Minutes later, just after 3:30, we leave behind the last stretch of peaceful mountain path for what looks like a strip mall. This is the famous, or perhaps infamous, Kawaguchiko 5th Station. It’s also our bus stop.

Unfortunately, the morning bus driver at the base was five minutes off in his estimate of the last bus down. It left just minutes before, at 3:30.

Mount Fuji Station Five: From Naked Geisha Towels to a Shrine with a View

In a matter of minutes, our guide secures another ride down the mountain, one that doesn’t leave for another hour.

We have time. We gaze at the souvenir palace before us. It’s cold.

In contrast to the previous five hours of trekking in tranquility, a whopping shopping center feels like a slap in the face. We enter anyway and have fun with (or rather, we make fun of) the overpriced tchotchke: Blueberry Cheesecake Kit Kat and the “blow dry it to make the geisha naked” towels.

Needing a retreat, we poke around for views and find the Komitake Shinto shrine tucked behind the shopping complex. Several visitors are praying and making offerings.

As we take this in, we turn around. Sure enough this is what we’d come for. A shrine with a view: the beautiful, open sky Mount Fuji summit.

Mount Fuji Peak - Japan
Mount Fuji Peak. Thankful for the time to enjoy this view.

We are thankful for the service of two shrines — one that showed us the way from the base, and the other that gives us the view. To take the bus, the short way, just wouldn’t have been the same.

The cliche goes that life is short. And with that, we speed up. And with that speed, we sometimes miss the opportunities that shouldn’t be missed — like the opportunities to slow down, to connect, to catch up, to enjoy the journey — and to truly see Mount Fuji.

——-

Details on Climbing Mount Fuji

Kawaguchiko Station 5 - Mount Fuji, Japan
Mount Fuji Station 5, Hello Kitty welcomes you!

We visited Japan in May. During this time, the path to Mount Fuji summit was closed because of snow and trail conditions. The hike from Fuji Sengen Shrine at the base to Kawaguchiko Station 5 (2,300 meters) takes approximately 5-6 hours at a manageable pace. The hike is free.

Mount Fuji summit is only open to climbers in July and August. Most people take a bus to Kawaguchiko 5th Station and begin their climb there, spend a short night at a mountain hut between 7th or 8th station, and rise very early the following morning to catch the sunrise at Mount Fuji Summit.

Disclosure: Our Discover Japan tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Some, but not all, eating expenses, were covered. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    This sounds like such an amazing experience. Your description of your hike made me feel like I was hiking with your group. One of your pics of a temple or shrine remind me of the place where they filmed the training scenes from Kill Bill 2. If you have more pics please post them!

    Sally

  2. Sutapa says

    You know, I am blown away of the descriptions of Japan in your travels! Especially Kyoto and now this. I also read Pico Iyer’s ‘The Lady and the Monk’ and his version agrees with yours. There is this spiritualism in these places and a serenity and calm, like the time has come to a standstill.

    I am also reading Steve Jobs’ biography and he used to love Kyoto..just love it! I have to go there someday, somehow.

  3. says

    Great that the trail is quiet and peaceful, without much traffic, but a little sad that it’s become commercialized like it has. Even so, this has to be one of the greatest nature mixed with cultural significance hikes in the world. I’d love to do this if I visit Japan!

  4. says

    @Steve: So glad to hear that this piece got you motivated to go! Enjoy the journey :)

    @Sally: Great to hear that you felt like you were with us up the mountain. I’ll have to watch Kill Bill 2 again as I’m curious to see the scene that you mentioned. Here are a few more photos from Mount Fuji, the climb and the Japanese Inn we stayed at near the base: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/set/72157631325674930/page1/

    @Emily: Hiking up definitely makes on appreciate the views at the top that much more – they have more meaning or significance. Would highly recommend it.

    @Sutapa: Thanks for the recommendation for that Pico Iyer book – haven’t read it yet but I’m enjoying reading more about Japan even now that we’ve left. Reflection always takes time and reading other things also helps provide perspective on some of our observations. There is this contrast in Japan between the fast-paced cities and modernity and the stillness and feeling continuity with the past. The Zen Buddhist temples and gardens are another great example of this. It feels like time is suspended. Just wonderful.

    Sometimes things happen for a reason…like missing one’s bus :)

    @Tom: Thanks, glad you enjoyed the conclusion to the story. It felt like we had come full circle.

    @Mark: We’ve heard that the mountain gets crazy in the high season (July/August) when the summit is open to hiking. On the one hand, I’d like to see the peak one day, but on the other hand I so appreciated the quiet and peace on the trails from the base that I don’t want to replace that. It’s a beautiful place, and the spirituality and historical context makes it even more special.

  5. says

    The beauty of Fuji still draws locals and foreigners more frequently but I guess the locals are to blame why this “ancient” tourist attraction in Japan still holds a common popularity.

  6. says

    @Jude: Glad to have added to your Japan wanderlust – it is a beautiful and fascinating country. We’ve heard that July can be busy, but I’m sure making it to the summit would be a really incredible experience. Perhaps you can find some other travelers who climbed at this time to get a first hand experience.

  7. says

    Wonderful post! We visited Mt. Fuji a few years ago and just did a short hike. It was so foggy that we could only see about five feet in front of us, forget about the summit. One day though, I want to hike to the top and watch the sunrise. I bet it’s magical!

  8. says

    Absolutely stunning – really one of the most beautiful natural features of the world and in a place like Japan that really is saying something. People like to visit Japan to go to Tokyo but Mt. Fuji seems to be a trip you could never miss out on.

  9. says

    @cosmoHallitan: We were really fortunate to have the weather we did on Mt. Fuji. I remember the day we arrived. This was what the first day at Mt. Fuji looked like for us:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/7769288524/

    @Rachel: Based on our experience, Mt. Fuji is a must when visiting Japan, unless you happen to have something even much better on your plate that absolutely must crowd it out.

    @Adam: Stay tuned. Japanese food and a few other articles about Japan are coming up!

  10. says

    WOW – it’s so refreshing to read some REAL travel writing. The interplay of historical references, scenery depiction, and all the while telling the events is simply beautiful and a pleasure to read. This is the type of writing I aspire to and would like to see more of in the community. Thanks for raising the bar! BTW, we are heading to Japan in a week, but unfortunately will not be climbing Mt. Fuji.

  11. says

    @Michael: Give us a shout when you head to Japan, and especially up Mt. Fuji!

    @Scott: Mt. Fuji or otherwise, shortcuts and speed perhaps are a sign of the times.

    @Dave: Thank you for a very kind compliment. Makes the writing and editing that goes into a piece like this all the more worth it.

    I’ll be curious to hear about your time in Japan.

  12. says

    This is great! I’ll be visiting in April and I had read that it would be closed but there was no mention of the option of a hike from the base to the 5th station. Very useful, thanks!

  13. says

    @Lauren: While the top is closed in April, the rest of the mountain should be open for trekking. You can take a bus to the base where the temple is – be sure to add extra time in for visiting. It was one of our favorite temples in Japan. Good luck and enjoy!

  14. Dan Turick says

    Its been along road and still living in my past with a real great guy, but I think its over. He kept telling me to see the forest from the trees. I have been so caught up in my past, negitive, and the pain I do not know how to let go. I never really thought about the world around me, What has happen can not be changed, But I can change this time now. I used to walk in the nature and would find it peaceful. I am going to take what you said to try and hopefully I can find the peace with in myself. No one deserves this stressful life of my past specially my guy who has more on his shoulders then me. Thank you for this !!! Hopefully my fight will be over and the peace I want in my life begins.

  15. says

    @Dan: Walking in nature with time and space to process is one of the best ways we’ve found to think about things and gain perspective. I’m sorry to hear of what you’ve been through and hope that you find peace again in your life and relationships.

    @Nick: Given how expensive everything else is in Japan, it’s a minor miracle that this trek is free. Hope you enjoy it!

  16. Rosy Kottman says

    Ever since I found your blog, I have loved your posts. Now that I realize you are a fellow UCF alum, I love them even more. You two are doing amazing things. Such wisdom. Keep it up!

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