A Mountain to Look at or to Climb?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
OFTEN the first glimpse the traveler has of Japan is Mt. Fuji coyly sticking its head up above the clouds in welcome. It is a sight one doesn’t readily forget. No matter how often the trip is made you always find yourself looking for the familiar peak among the clouds. For some, that first sighting starts a kind of friendship with the mountain that leads them to become confirmed Fuji watchers. Others, however, are lured up its slopes to climb toward the cloudy peak.
This fascination with Fuji san, as the Japanese refer to the mountain (san is mountain in Japanese), is by no means new. From ancient times the people of this island nation have been concerned with Mt. Fuji. Japan’s oldest anthology, compiled in the eighth century, contains many poems expressing the ancient people’s delight in, and awe of, Fuji san.
Perhaps in the beginning this was rooted in fear because of the many volcanic eruptions that formed Fuji. Of those recorded in the Common Era, there were 18 from 781 to 1707 C.E. The Shintoists believed the eruptions to be works of the goddess of beauty and virtue and performed rites to soothe her. Later, Buddhist priests built the Dainichi temple on the summit and buried Buddhist scriptures there. Thus a tradition of asceticism started wherein ascetics climbed and paid homage to Dainichi Buddha as ruler of the universe and worshiped the fire in the crater.
While some no doubt still feel this religious adoration for Fuji, most are content to see the mountain as a symbol of the beauty of their country. The almost perfect conical shape of the volcano definitely appeals to a person’s sense of symmetrical beauty. The Japanese affinity for Fuji is demonstrated in that there are banks, businesses and products named after the mountain and the 500-yen bill even has Fuji san depicted on the back.
Adding to Fuji’s attraction is the fact that it is situated in a most favorable setting. Surrounded on the north by five scenic lakes, Izu-Hakone National Park to the east and southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the south and the southern Alps to the west, the entire area is a feast for the eyes. Too, the climate is most moderate and inviting for the visitor, thus creating an excellent vacation spot.
To Look At
An independent mountain rising, as it seems to, directly out of the plain, Fuji san naturally claims a lot of attention from those round about. It is always a pleasant shock to the senses when a person rounds a bend in the road to have Fuji suddenly come into view. Of course, the mountain isn’t visible every day of the year. At times it is downright elusive. When enshrouded by clouds the area looks as if no mountain is there at all.
Picture in your mind’s eye the snowcapped peak* at sunrise of a crisp winter day, the blue skies contrasted against the pink glistening snow. No less exciting is the sunset. As the sun sinks into the Pacific it leaves a red-orange afterglow on Fuji’s slopes. Or, how about the summer mornings when the sun plays tricks with the volcanic ash on the snowless peak so that the mountain appears first purple and blue and then red and brown, finally fading from sight in the summer haze.
Then there are the unique cloud formations that attract the viewer. Depending on the time of day, Fuji may appear to have a halo or be wearing a lady’s hat, or even be surrounded by rings of clouds, permitting just bits and pieces of mountain to show through. These cloud formations not only allow for Fuji’s changing moods but enable local people to foretell the weather. To the romantically inclined few things can equal the view of an autumn Fuji, with its fresh coating of snow, shining in the moonlight over newly harvested fields on the slopes.
Just exactly when people started climbing Fuji san is not known, but, from descriptions recorded in the eighth century, it is evident that the writer himself did ascend it. Religious pilgrims started making regular hikes around the 12th century and from the 17th century a pilgrim association called “Fujiko” came into existence. These “Fujiko” pilgrims, clad in their white robes, can still be seen today climbing the trails or offering prayers at the summit.
Although at 12,397 feet (3,779 m) Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, it is by no means the most difficult to climb. Because of its easy slopes it is more a hiker’s mountain than a climber’s mountain. Almost anyone with proper clothing can succeed in climbing one of its six trails.
With a base of 350 square miles (906 km2) extending over the three prefectures of Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Kanagawa, there are a variety of approaches. There are 10 stations on the trails, each equipped so the climber can rest and refresh himself. Each station has a stone cabin where many pass the night before climbing to the summit for the sunrise. Others start out in the evening for an all-night climb.
The trails through the wooded forests at the lower levels offer a rich variety of wildlife to delight the eye, but hikers are always cautioned to stick to the trails. Not a few climbers have lost their life because of failing to heed this advice. Due to the magnetic pull of the lava, compasses lose their effectiveness in many places on the mountain. Also, climbing out of season can be dangerous. The weather is unpredictable and highly changeable in the colder months. The official season is from July 1 to August 31.
The goal of most climbers is a clear view of the sunrise from one of eight vantage points at the summit. When visible it is indeed a spectacular sight. But, sadly, thousands each year are disappointed to see nothing but clouds for their hours of hiking, abreast of one another up the cinder slopes.
Unhappily, one of the by-products of all this attraction is the mountain of litter left behind by the pilgrims, sightseers and skiers. The Government Environment Agency announced last year that the more than three million climbers who visited Mt. Fuji left 164 tons of garbage on the Yamanashi side and another 80 tons on the Shizuoka side of the mountain. For this reason some groups have begun to oppose the development of the Fuji area. They are of the opinion that the natural beauty of Fuji should be left intact, not commercialized for tourism.
Whatever our preference, whether we’re lookers or climbers, we desire to maintain a balanced view of the creation. Rather than falling into the snare of worshiping the object, the awe we feel will be for the Maker of all beautiful things, Jehovah God. In so doing we not only enjoy the creation but respect it enough to refrain from defacing it. Thus, the natural beauty will be left to delight still others in the future.
All the snow disappears from June to October. December through April is the best time to see a snowcapped Fuji.