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100km (62 miles) SW of Tokyo

Mount Fuji, affectionately called "Fuji-san," has been revered since ancient times. Throughout the centuries Japanese poets have written about it, painters have painted it, pilgrims have flocked to it, and more than a few people have died on it. Without a doubt, this mountain has been photographed more than anything else in Japan.

Mount Fuji is stunningly impressive. At 3,766m (12,355 ft.), it's the tallest mountain in Japan, towering far above anything else around it -- a cone of almost perfectly symmetrical proportions. It is majestic, grand, and awe-inspiring. To the Japanese it symbolizes the very spirit of their country. Though it's visible on clear days (mostly in winter) from as far away as 161km (100 miles), Fuji-san, unfortunately, is almost always cloaked in clouds. If you catch a glimpse of this mighty mountain, consider yourself extremely lucky. One of the best spots for views of Mount Fuji is Hakone.

Essentials

There are four ascents to the summit of Mount Fuji (and four descents), each divided into 10 stations of unequal length, with most climbs starting at the Go-go-me, or the Fifth Station, about 1,400m to 2,400m (4,593-7,874 ft.) above sea level. From Tokyo, the Kawaguchiko-Yoshidaguchi Trail is the most popular and most easily accessible, as well as the least steep. The "official" climbing season is very short, only from July 1 to August 31. Climbers are discouraged from climbing outside the season, due to low temperatures, super-strong winds, and no emergency services. To beat the crowds -- and I do mean crowds -- try to schedule your climb on a weekday during the first 2 weeks of July, before the start of Japan's school vacation (around July 20).

Getting There -- The easiest way to reach the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station is by bus from Shinjuku Station. In July and August there are six buses daily that travel directly from Shinjuku Station to Kawaguchiko Trail's 5th Station, costing ¥2,600 one-way and taking almost 2 1/2 hours. Otherwise, there are also buses that go to Kawaguchiko Station in 1 hour and 45 minutes and cost ¥1,700 one-way; from Kawaguchiko Station there are buses onward to the Fifth Station, with this trip taking approximately 45 minutes and costing another ¥1,500 one-way or ¥2,000 round-trip. Buses, which depart a 2-minute walk from the west side of Shinjuku Station in front of the Yasuda Seimi no. 2 Building, require reservations, which you can make at the Keio Highway Bus Reservation Center (Keio Kosoku Bus Yoyaku Center; tel. 03/5376-2222) or a travel agency such as JTB. Less frequent Fujikyu Buses (tel. 0555/72-5111) depart from Tokyo Station's Yaesu south exit for Kawaguchiko Station for ¥1,700, but the trip takes an hour longer.

Visitor Information -- More information and train and bus schedules can be obtained from the Tourist Information Center, including a leaflet called "Mount Fuji and Fuji Five Lakes." Another good source is Fujiyoshida City's official website, www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp, which carries information on the Kawaguchiko-Yoshidaguchi Trail, bus schedules from Tokyo, mountain huts, and other information. Finally, there's a tourist information office at Kawaguchiko Station (tel. 0555/72-6700), open daily 9am to 5pm during climbing season.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is part of a larger national park called Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Of the handful of trails leading to the top, most popular for Tokyoites is the Kawaguchiko-Yoshidaguchi Trail, which is divided into 10 different stages; the Fifth Station, located about 2,475m (8,120 ft.) up and served by bus, is the usual starting point. From here it takes about 6 hours to reach the summit and 3 hours for the descent.

Preparing For Your Climb -- Because of snow and inclement weather from fall through late spring, the best time to make an ascent is during the "official" climbing season from July through August. Keep in mind that this is not a solitary pursuit. Rather, more than 400,000 people climb Fuji-san every year, mostly in July and August and mostly on weekends -- so if you plan on climbing Mount Fuji on a Saturday or a Sunday in summer, go to the end of the line, please.

You don't need climbing experience to ascend Mount Fuji (you'll see everyone from grandmothers to children making the pilgrimage), but you do need stamina and a good pair of walking shoes. The climb is possible in tennis shoes, but if the rocks are wet, they can get awfully slippery. You should also bring a light plastic raincoat (which you can buy at souvenir shops at the Fifth Station), since it often rains on the mountain, a sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, snacks, a sweater for the evening, gloves, socks, tissues (for pay toilets, which may not have toilet paper), and a flashlight (or headlamp) if you plan on hiking at night. Keep in mind, too, that it gets very chilly on Mount Fuji at night. Even in August, the average temperature on the summit is 41°F (5°C). Finally, there are places to eat and rest on the way to the top, but prices are high, so carry as many snacks and liquids with you as you can.

Don't be disappointed when your bus deposits you at Kawaguchiko Fifth Station, where you'll be bombarded with souvenir shops, restaurants, and busloads of tourists; most of these tourists aren't climbing to the top. As soon as you get past them and the blaring loudspeakers, you'll find yourself on a steep rocky path, surrounded only by scrub brush and the hikers on the path below and above you. After a couple of hours, you'll probably find yourself above the roiling clouds, which stretch in all directions. It will be as if you are on an island, barren and rocky, in the middle of an ocean.

Strategies for Climbing to the Top -- The usual procedure for climbing Mount Fuji is to take a morning bus, start climbing in early afternoon, spend the night near the summit, get up early in the morning to climb the rest of the way to the top, and then watch the sun rise (about 4:30am) from atop Mount Fuji. (You can, of course, also wake up in time to see the sun rise and then continue climbing.) At the summit is a 1-hour hiking trail that circles the crater. Hikers then begin the descent, reaching the Fifth Station before noon.

There are about 16 mountain huts along the Kawaguchiko Trail above the Fifth Station, but they're very primitive, providing only a futon and toilet facilities. Some have the capacity to house 500 hikers. The cost is ¥5,250 per person without meals, ¥7,350 with two meals. Some huts charge ¥1,000 extra for Friday or Saturday night. When I stayed in one of these huts, dinner consisted of dried fish, rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables; breakfast was exactly the same. Still, unless you want to carry your own food, I'd opt for the meals. Note that most huts are open only in July and August; book as early as you can to ensure a place. I recommend Seikanso at the Sixth Station (tel. 0555/24-6090; www.seikanso.jp), with flush toilets and open from July to mid-October; Toyokan Hut at the Seventh Station (tel. 0555/22-1040), or Taishikan Hut at the Eighth Station (tel. 0555/22-1947). Call the Japanese Inn Union of Mount Fuji at tel. 0555/22-1944 for more information.

In the past few decades, there's been a trend in which climbers arrive at the Fifth Station late in the evening and then climb to the top during the night with the aid of flashlights. After watching the sunrise, they then make their descent. That way, they don't have to spend the night in one of the huts. My days of walking up a mountain through the night, however, are far behind me, but this is certainly an option if your time is limited.

Climbing Mount Fuji is definitely a unique experience, but there's a saying in Japan: "Everyone should climb Mount Fuji once; only a fool would climb it twice."

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.