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Japan: Mount Fuji madness

Climbing Mount Fuji is more than just a bucket-list hike — it offers a fascinating insight into Japanese culture

Japan: Mount Fuji madness
The summit of Mount Fuji. Image: Mark Stratton

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There are grannies inhaling canisters of oxygen, kamikaze runners, and a teenage goth wearing nothing but a tutu, Doc Martins and dark eyeliner. I, meanwhile, walk briefly with a guy from Tokyo who’s fantasising about visiting Plymouth. “It must be a very beautiful city,” he says, leaving me convinced altitude hypoxia is messing with my mind.

The four-mile hike to Fuji’s 12,389ft summit from Subaru Line 5th Station is proving a uniquely Japanese experience. July to September is peak hiking season, and it has very much begun. Winter’s snow still lingers in gullies like cream oozing down the cindery red flanks of a perfect pudding. It’s beautiful, but any preconception I had that I’d be climbing this sacred volcano in Zen-like tranquillity is banished by the weekend onslaught of hikers swarming excitedly up the Yoshida Trail.

At the trailhead — imagine Piccadilly Circus in rush hour — I load up on vending machine bottles of Japan’s unflatteringly named electrolyte drink, Pocari Sweat. By mid-morning, in the sweet-scented pine forests of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the crowds swell even more, but there are already casualties. A couple of teary backpackers sit trackside, pondering why on earth they chose to hike in flip-flops — beyond 8,200ft the track elevates steeply onto caustically sharp lava. All the while, Fuji’s summit ahead remains shrouded in puffy cloud.

I pass the 6th Station. Several mountain attendants are hollering Big Brother-style announcements down megaphones about the virtues of staying hydrated. At the 7th Station, a melee of hikers congregates around a little mountainside assemblage of dorm-accommodation and huts. Snickers are £3 a bar; bottles of cold water £4. I succumb and buy the latter because the more Pocari Sweat heats up, the more it tastes like armpits.

Beyond the 7th Station, bottlenecks form on a tough black basalt section. But that’s fine, queuing gives me more time to take in the cherry-red Martian scree slopes that fall away either side of the path. Fuji slowly uncloaks from behind the clouds and the atmosphere becomes fervid, as the predominantly Japanese hikers marvel at ascending the most iconic symbol of their national identity.

Between the 8th and 9th Station, and at an elevation of 10,662ft, the travelator of boots grinds ever slower. The path zigzags fiercely and I’m in a line of hundreds and hundreds of hikers. There’s no vegetation, and Snickers are now £5 a pop. Alongside hot treats like fish sausages and udon noodles, small oxygen canisters are being snapped up by the less attitudinally-adjusted. Some hikers stop to pray at a little Shinto shrine… for greater lung capacity, perhaps?

After the four-hour ascent to reach Fuji’s crater rim, I’m greeted with the unexpected site of rows and rows of hikers collapsed on wooden beds or sleeping bags, seemingly with little intention of continuing to the mountain’s highest point. I pick my way through prostrate bodies lapping up the sunshine and push onwards to Kengamine Peak, a further 45-minutes along the crater edge. To my right, the gaping mouth of the volcano is full of grey ash, black basalt, airy pumice and iron-stained boulders. It looks like a bowl of bizarre cake mix; the eggs might be off though, I think, as I inhale wafts of sulphur, standing on the summit of all Japan.

Just below me a sign warns that the circumnavigation of the cone, which takes about an hour, is closed due to lingering snow. But a few Japanese hikers are ignoring this so I follow them. Suddenly free of crowds I feel —through exulted oxygen-diminished breaths — the power and energy that Fuji inspires all across Japan. I take another glug of my lukewarm Pocari Sweat and soon re-join the hurly-burly of the crowds heading back down.