Mount Fuji is one of the most famous mountains in the world. It's certainly the most recognizable, and the first thing people want to do when they see it is climb it.
And yet...it is rare to hear of people who scale Fuji’s slopes from the very bottom. Nearly everyone takes the coach up to the 5th Station, a full-blown shopping area halfway up the mountain. From there, people make their way up to the top, with the 9th station signifying the arrival at the peak.
But what about the first four stations? What’s on the route that snakes through the lower half of Mount Fuji? I took that less-travelled path, specifically the Yoshida path, and here’s what you can expect…
The journey begins at Fujiyoshida City. The train station to alight at is, fittingly, ‘Fujisan’ (富士山), the penultimate stop on the Fujikyu Otsuki Line. From here, it’s a 20 minute walk to Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (富士吉田浅間神社), a vast complex of a shrine where the urban trappings of Japan officially give way to the realm of Mount Fuji. The shrine itself represents the traditional gateway to pilgrims, where one can pray for safe passage up the mountain. Set within the confines of a vast forest, the shrine looks like something out of the Studio Ghibli playbook.
When you’re done taking in the shrine, make your way to the right hand side of the complex to find the beginning of the path. It may surprise you how unassuming the start of the path is. For the first few kilometers, the path takes a straight route through the forest, with a nearby road weaving parallel to it. Eventually you pass through a tunnel: the road over your head is one of the many highways that weave around and up Mount Fuji, carrying many unassuming visitors over this historical path.
After about one hour of walking, you’ll come to ‘Nakanochaya’ (中の茶屋) a rest house that sells traditional Japanese sweets and drinks. It’s open from 9am, though, meaning that if you’ve set off on your journey early it may still be closed when you arrive. You’ll also notice that Nakanochaya is not the ‘1st Station’, either: this rest house may be on the Yoshida route but you’re still some way from the first proper station. The next stop is ‘Ooishichaya’ 大石茶屋, which despite the name is not another rest house but is a stone monument indicating the ruins of what used to be a rest house. Don’t be surprised if you walk past this without noticing!
The walking path and road converge one last time at a car park called ‘Umagaeshi’ (馬返し). The name literally means ‘Horse turn back’, and as the name implies this is where the old road ends: one must proceed on foot from now on. Up until 1964, this was the most popular drop-off point for Mount Fuji climbers until the bus route up to the 5th station was opened. Now all that remains of Umagaeshi is a dusty, mostly empty car park. Nonetheless, crossing the threshold where the road gives way to a walkers-only path still carries a certain magic, and you’re soon at ‘ichi-go-me’ (一合目), the 1st station.
It’s from this point on that the path starts to get serious. The gentle weaving of the path tightens into steep switchbacks. The muddy route is lined by logs that both act as steps and as buffers against land erosion and landslides. You’re 1500 meters above sea level now, so don’t be surprised if clouds move in and reduce your vision to almost nothing.
As you make your way up the increasingly difficult path, a sad fact makes itself clear: since the bus route was moved from Umagaeshi up to the 5th station, this traditional route has fallen into decay and neglect. The buildings signifying the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th stations are nothing more than ruins that look fit to collapse. Back in the day, these huts would have been as well-kept and attended as their fellow stations further up the mountain. Nevertheless, it is still fascinating to see, and there is a certain satisfaction to making your way up through each station, one by one.
Arrival at the ‘5th Station’, might be confusing, as the building appears to be just as rundown as the others. Where are the shops and crowds? Well, that is a completely different place, strictly called the ‘Subaru 5th Station’ (スバル五合目) though often confusingly called just ‘5th Station’. Simply keep heading on up the path until you arrive at a huge, new-looking road. From here, take the oddly symbolic act of finishing your traditional pilgrimage by stepping off the mud path and onto the tarmac. Turn right and follow the road around until you get to the vast complex of Subaru 5th Station, a sprawling mass of shops and bus parking spaces almost exactly halfway up Mount Fuji, where nearly everyone begins their trek, blissfully unaware of the old route they’ve just leapfrogged.
From here, you can join the hordes of climbers up the rest of the mountain, cradling that little bit of extra satisfaction that your journey up the mountain has been an honest one, taken from the very beginning where people, for hundreds of years prior, would begin scaling Mount Fuji.
While the journey from the foot of Fuji doesn’t have the dramatic views or features of the upper half of the route, if you have the time I do thoroughly recommend it. It gives the journey a sense of history and context, and when you finally reach the peak you can smugly declare to your friends and family that you climbed all of Mount Fuji. Not many people can say that!