The pungent scent of moss on cool stone hangs in the air as I pick my way down the 400-year-old trail. Birdsong pierces the air, hototogisu (nightingale) competing with kojukkei (bamboo partridge) for the sweetest tune. Occasionally I meet another hiker and we exchange greetings: Konnichiwa!
A curiosity for history is what’s brought me to the Old Tokaido Road, a highway linking Tokyo and Kyoto. In Hakone, a section is available for hiking, starting at the Hakone Checkpoint, one of the old road’s restored way stations. The path then follows a stroll along majestic Cedar Avenue to the town of Moto-Hakone on the banks of Lake Ashi, where Mount Fuji can be glimpsed in the distance behind the floating torii gate of Hakone Shrine.
A few kilometres through the woods, the Amazake-chaya teahouse appears around a bend, its thatched roof reminiscent of bygone Japan. The teahouse has provided Tokaido travellers respite for hundreds of years. I stop in for a bite, a chewy mochi cake with a dab of sweet red bean paste doused in soy powder, with green tea.
At the end of my hike in Hatajuku, I visit Shugen Temple and admire some wood mosaic shops before jumping on a bus to Hakone Yumoto, where I indulge in one of the town’s famous hot springs.
But those tantalising Mount Fuji views spur me to see her up close. Summiting Mount Fuji is a Japan holiday higlight and by far one of the nation’s most famous hikes; everyone should do it once. It’s so revered that there’s a special sect of the native Shinto religion dedicated to Mount Fuji devotion; pilgrims have been visiting the Fujiko Sengen shrines at the base of the mountain to pray for a successful ascent for more than half a millennium. I make a stop here, asking the spirit of the mountain to grant me a safe climb.
I start at the fifth station. It’s not lonely up here; the trail is only open for a few months in summer, and hikers young and old populate the path. A couple, kitted out in technical-looking clothing, step briskly past me as I approach the seventh station.
As I climb into the ninth station, I enter another world. Although down below it’s midsummer, with people in tank tops sweating in the muggy heat, here it’s cold and distant. I stop at a viewpoint to look down and think about all the people looking up, but all I can see are clouds.
I reach the final summit at sunset. As I hike around the cone, the world turns golden and pink and the sea glints in the distance. I’ve made it to the top of Japan.
As I descend the mountain in the rapidly-deepening darkness, I’m already planning my next adventure: cycling the Shimanami Kaido, a road down in Hiroshima that crosses the Seto Inland Sea. I’ve seen the heights of this country; now I want to see the depths.