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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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