So when I learned that the highest and most celebrated mountain in Japan could be climbed within a day, I was there faster than you can say shinkansen.
On the postcards, of course, Fuji is beautiful. A snow-capped deity, framed with cherry blossom and cloudless skies, an image recreated in a thousand different ways across the land of the rising sun. Up close and personal, however, Fuji feels different. Earthy, wet and submerged in mist. Slippery, stubborn and chasing my breath.
That picturesque snow blocks the mountain for all but July and August, when most of the 400 000 people who climb it each year do so by night.
In Japan, Fuji is sacred and pilgrims labour by torchlight to reach the 6th station for the sun’s first appearance. For pilgrims in search of solitude (and latecomers like myself), the only option in September is to hike by day. Yet the clouds that hover around Fuji-san make the search for sunlight no less optimistic.
In time-honoured tradition, we cheat by starting at the 5th station, where roads and civilisation end. The “viewing point” shows clouds beneath us – and the crater above, sliced in two by Alpine-looking buildings wearing rows of Japanese script.
“The Yoshidaguchi Climbing Trail is closed from September 5 to June 30,” reads the translation. “We are not responsible for your life and what you do.”
With that warning, we set off. The earthy path is wide and soft underfoot, the sun streams through the branches and we have the place to ourselves.
Alright, so there are a few unfinished buildings, a concrete pathway and a collection of corrugated huts with grubby plastic awnings, but overall nature soothes.
That changes as we break free of the forest and tackle the blood-red volcanic soil. Spongy, light and craggy, the path springs under pressure and is crowned with fresh, fresh air. Nature takes me by the hand and introduces me to the Fuji adventure I’ve dreamed of.
Then it gets tough and the climb gets ugly. My fingers splay apart and my nails scrape at the rock. The path carves a scar into the steep and soulless terrain. Perhaps now I understand why people climb at night. No-one’s here for the view…or are they?
At a certain altitude (probably around the oxygen-deprivation zone), I see beauty: a lone man as a silhouette, doubled over a gnarled stick and plodding slowly, carefully upwards. No waterproofs, no Gore-Tex, no dehydrated noodles. Simply bubbling clouds beneath, scarlet torii above, and an end, an end to the relentless rocks, dirt and railings.
We have reached the stone white lions. We have reached the Konohana Sakuya Hime Shinto shrine. We have reached the summit.
At 3776 metres, I stare in almost cosmic wonder at the crater that drops away before me, at the fields of clouds all around, and at the swords of ice that drip from the rugged volcanic walls.
I breathe in that strange blend of accomplishment and emptiness that accompanies reaching a peak.
We slither, slip and slide on the descent. Knees groaning, palms chafed, faces decorated with diamonds of mist. I can’t really explain why I enjoy hiking so much, but I am reminded of the following Japanese proverb: