I’m Liv Retallack, a 20-year-old from the UK who loves to travel (with whoever I can drag along with me!) and aim to see every country before I die. I’m currently studying for my degree in Aerospace Engineering, which I hope could lead to an international career.
Thank you, Kelly & Luke, for the feature! This post first tells the story of how my younger brother, Owen, and I tried – and failed – to climb Mt. Fuji in Japan in the summer of 2019. It’s something I’ve always wanted to cross off my bucket list and when we decided to add Japan onto our sibling trip, we both knew we had to make the extra effort to venture from Tokyo to the volcano and attempt the climb.
As this didn’t work out as well as we had hoped, I figured it may be beneficial to share our experience, so any other spontaneous adventurers don’t have to go through what we did!
If you’re only really interested in my advice on how to actually reach the summit without dying, there’s some neat little bullet points at the end.
The decision to climb Mt. Fuji actually came out of an invitation to stay with a close uni friend in South Korea. Whilst planning the details of this trip, Owen and I both realised that we wanted to explore Japan and that it would be cheaper to bolt it onto our Korea trip than it would be to separately fly to Japan from the UK (a bonus travel tip, I guess). That settled it; we were going to Japan too!
After a lovely week travelling around South Korea, we boarded our 45-minute flight to Tokyo. We spent a couple of days in Shinjuku and then took a coach to the Mt. Fuji area. Prior to our trip, I had researched how other travellers recommended to take on the mountain and drew the following conclusions: it was best to climb throughout the night during the summer, the whole “climb” would be well-lit, roped-off and really more of a steep walk, we’d be a part of a chain of people attempting the same climb as ourselves and that there would be plenty of places to stop overnight but it wasn’t worth the money.
We found our climb to be the opposite of this list.
We spent day one in Kawaguchiko exploring the local area with our 48-hour attraction pass pre-ordered from Klook (highly recommended), returned to our motel room to sleep and then spent the next morning enjoying more of the local attractions. After an early-evening nap, we packed our backpacks, stocked up on snacks and caffeine from the local 7/11 and made our way to the main train/bus station in Kawaguchiko at around 22:00. It was here that I expected regular busses to 5th Station to be in operation, as promised by several other blog posts.
Here are some other incredible, cheap and official tours for the Mt. Fuji area! Klook was new to us when we visited Asia but it turned out to be an absolute life (and money) saver!@roundtheworldwithus
Getting to 5th Station
The station was dead.
Everything was shut and the last bus left over an hour ago. There were a few taxis and we were determined to get up to Mt. Fuji that night as we had coach tickets back to Shinjuku for the next evening.
We asked the first driver how much it was to take us to 5th Station… he didn’t speak a word of English of course. Luckily though, the driver behind did and he translated for us; 5th station was about an hour away and it would cost us the equivalent of £100 for the one-way trip up there. This was an entire day’s budget. We reluctantly agreed because it was clear this was our only way up there. Not ideally, as he was at the front of the taxicab rank, we had to go with the driver who didn’t speak English.
Retrospectively, I realised we should have either made more of an effort to learn the language for situations like this or insist on going with our translator friend.
The three of us began the ascent up to the 5th Station just as the weather took a turn for the worse. Owen and I sat in the back of this ropey cab as it crept around hairpin after hairpin of corners in the foggy pitch-black. It was a narrow road with barely-there barriers between it and the shear drop adjacent.
Our driver put his full beams on and yet we still couldn’t see immediately in front of our cab. I felt sorry for the guy but relieved I wasn’t the one behind the wheel, as I remembered that we did momentarily consider renting a car during our time in Japan. I felt even worse knowing he’d have to make the trip back alone. At least I had my “little” brother sat next to me as we both half-joked about how we were about to die; we even recorded a dumb video of us allocating various possessions of ours to friends and family in the event of our untimely deaths. Just a bit of fun to take our mind off things, although we did find ourselves holding hands for the first time in about a decade.
After paying an additional toll fee about halfway up, we made it to 5th Station at around 23:00. It was hammering it down with rain and we were alone, excluding the police officer in the singular office open for emergencies. She pointed us to the start of the hiking trail, although looked incredibly confused as to why we were starting at this time.
The Climb Itself
We looked at the unlit entrance to a forest and thought she’d made a mistake. We figured that, as we made it this far, we may as well continue.
A goofy Owen and I fumbled through this forest as it continued to chuck it down. After nearly walking straight off a drop that was in no way indicated, I realised you really cannot believe everything you read on the internet (apart from this blog post, obviously this is gold, I promise you).
We hiked for about an hour and finally made it to the next station. We were freezing and needing a rest. We asked the owner of the first lodge we encountered if we could sit in the warm for five minutes; he said we could if we paid for a night’s stay. Unsurprisingly, no one was staying there and we forced ourselves further up. Luckily, there was another lodge that allowed you to sit in by the fire for 30 minutes if you purchased some hot chocolate – win win!
Owen and I pushed on and I became a bit despondent as I saw the only speck of light coming from the floodlights of the next station in the far distance. We eventually reached it and as the honorary asthma kid (it ain’t easy being wheezy), I was really beginning to feel the altitude sickness whereas Owen was completely fine, despite only a year prior having both his legs in casts.
We discovered, what seemed like, more fibs told by the internet internet after literally climbing up a section of the “path”. The only two other climbers we encountered didn’t want to overtake as we got slower; they were using the light from our head-torches as theirs had died. They didn’t ask to join us as they “didn’t want to be rude”. This didn’t help the stereotype when we realised the two lads were in fact Canadian. They even gave me a sweet after I explained about my altitude sickness to help keep my blood-sugar up!
I immediately threw the sweet up.
Having just vomited in front of two strangers, realising we were only about a quarter of the way up, the weather was worsening and that even if we did force ourselves to the top, we’d still have the hike down and be hours away from getting into bed.
I made the executive decision to turn back just after 02:00.
The Way Back Down
I gave our new Canadian buds my spare head-torch and wished them well.
Owen went skipping back down the path we had just come from as if he’d only just awakened and I trudged along behind. When we reached that wooded entrance again a few hours later, the sun was coming up. It had stopped raining and little rays of light began to peak through the fog.
As I saw the sunrise, and although realised how ironic it was that I wanted to see it from the peak and not the base of Mt. Fuji, I was relieved and told Owen I was glad that I’d have this moment to look back on.
5th Station was still all shut apart from the hotel, a waiting room and the public toilets.
We didn’t have enough money for yet another hotel room, but we did have a change of clothes each. As I went into the toilets to put on my fresh clothes, I realised they too were soaked through at the bottom of my backpack. The first bus wasn’t until 08:00 so we had around four hours to wait soaked-through. Turns out the other half of the Canadian crew also turned back and were in the waiting room with us; conversing with them was a nice distraction until they left.
Apparently, a weather warning was sent out overnight advising people to stop hiking through the particularly bad storm for in the area in July.
Nobody told us. Not the hotel staff, not the bus drivers, not the taxi drivers. No one gave us a warning.
Emptying my bag for something to do, I found the soggy postcards I had hoped to post into a supposed post-box at the summit. I tallied up our remaining money and realised we may not even have enough for a bus ticket each. Luckily, we had some South Korean won left over and was able to convert it in the gift shop when it opened.
The time came to board the bus back to Kawaguchiko, which turned out to be maybe £12 each. We reached our motel an hour before check-out so we forked out for a third night’s stay in order to leave later that evening, even though we only ever spent one night in the room.
One bath each later, we were tucked up into bed for a power nap before rushing to the bus stop to board our returning coach to Shinjuku.
ALWAYS check the weather forecast prior to a major hike!
How to Actually Climb Mount Fuji
With all this being said, I would do the whole thing again, only differently of course. I’m sure the experiences I had read about were accurate to the authors’; they just happened to have much more favourable weather for their documented climbs. This is why I wanted to share our unique experience of “expectation vs. reality”. Here’s how to climb Mt. Fuji, from someone who knows exactly how not to:
- First and foremost, check the weather forecast and any weather warnings as this will affect your whole experience. Make sure you are scheduled for good weather!
- Block out a few days to do it and choose the day with the best weather, instead of forcing yourself up there during a storm because you’re due to leave the next afternoon.
- Go up to 5th station just after lunch. This way you can guarantee that the cheaper coach journey will be available to you. Start climbing early afternoon.
- Take collapsible walking poles with you; cheaper and less hassle than trying to find a rental place, although a lot of people do choose to rent so can’t be that bad.
- PLACE YOUR SPARE CLOTHES IN A BLOODY CARRIER BAG (or an official dry bag) inside your backpack.
- Wear decent hiking gear and be prepared for extremely cold temperatures at the top.
- Stop hiking at around 21:30 and find a decent looking lodge at one of the stations on the way up. These should charge no more than a normal motel room and provide you with a hot meal and a sleeping bag in a quiet room. Bring plenty of extra cash just in case.
- Get yourself up with enough time to reach the summit for sunrise – your host should be able to tell you how long it should take from where you’re staying.
- Bring postcards to post at this supposed awesomely situated post-box (and don’t blame me if this also turns out to be an internet myth).
- Take a leisurely stroll back down for the rest of the next day and have yourself a nice warm room waiting for you.
- Don’t underestimate Mt. Fuji: it is 43% the height of Mt Everest and still classified as a volcano.