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A most gorgeous view on a snowcapped Mount Fuji as seen from the small village of Izumi (泉) in Shizuoka prefecture. At 3,776 m (12,388 ft), Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and without doubt also the country’s best known. Mount Fuji’s beautiful symmetrical cone shows the mountain’s relative youth. The current form of the mountain dates back only about 10,000 years.1
The mountain’s name is clouded in mystery and its etymology is unclear. Nowadays it is written as 富士, the first character meaning “wealth” or “abundant” and the second “a man with a certain status.” They were most certainly not selected for their meaning, but because they matched the pronunciation of Mount Fuji’s name.
Mount Fuji has been considered a sacred mountain for as long as there are historical records. People worshipped a deity known as Asama no Okami. Like all sacred mountains in Japan, Mount Fuji was a forbidden sanctuary until the eighth century. This changed when ascetic Shugendo priests began to have religious activities on the mountain.
In the ninth century, the shinto shrine Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha was built in what is now Fujinomiya city in Shizuoka prefecture. The shrine was popular with emperors and shoguns and many gave generous donations. To give thanks for being able to unite the country, Tokugawa Ieyasu even donated ownership of the uppermost territory of Mount Fuji to the shrine in 1606 (Keicho 11). The shrine is the owner of the peak to this very day.
Over the centuries, climbing Mount Fuji became increasingly popular as a religious practice. In response to this popularity, mountain guides called Oshi made their appearance. Based in the city of Fujiyoshida, they organized groups of pilgrims and took care of financial arrangements, ritual purification as well as leading them up the mountain. They even built lodging facilities.
As it was a sacred mountain, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji. This ban was finally lifted in 1872. Reputedly the ascent in 1867 by Lady Parkes, wife of Sir Harry Parkes (1828-1885), British Minister in Japan from 1865 through 1883, had played an important role in this historical change.
Mount Fuji, as everybody in Japan knows, is a dormant volcano. It is actually still classified as active, but with a low risk of eruption. Mount Fuji’s last eruption in 1707-1708, now known as the Hoei Eruption, devastated the surrounding area. It spew out some 800 million cubic meters of volcanic ash, which reached as far as Edo (today’s Tokyo), almost 100 kilometers away.
The carpet of volcanic ash covered fields and villages in the provinces of Izu, Kai, Sagami, and Musashi, causing widespread starvation. It forced countless villagers to leave and many villages turned into ghost towns. Those determined to stay were hit by a secondary disaster in August 1708 when an avalanche of volcanic ash and mud broke the dams of the Sakawa River, flooding the Ashigara plain. Over the next 80 years, the river would flood repeatedly.2
The seemingly never-ending disaster persuaded the Tokugawa Shogunate to launch an ambitious reconstruction program, which eventually succeeded in making the area inhabitable again.
Mount Fuji and a smorgasbord of territories around it was designated a National Park (Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park) in 1936. Ever since, an increasing number of measures have been implemented to use the area for recreational purposes, while simultaneously attempting to preserve and protect its natural beauty.
Mount Fuji plays a key role as a cultural landscape deeply embedded in Japan’s self-image. The mountain has shaped interactions between nature and people, which resulted in unique religious activities and eventually manifested itself in Japanese art. Ever since the first poems of Mount Fuji were created (the Manyoshu contains a selection), Mount Fuji has deeply inspired Japanese artists and does so to this very day.
The Google Map shows the location of Mount Fuji, and not the photographer.
1 Global Volcanism Program. Fuji: Eruptive History.
2 Miyaji, Naomichi (2002). The 1707 Eruption of Fuji Volcano and its Tephra. Department of Geosystem Sciences, College of Humanities and Sciences, Nihon University.
3 Outdoor Japan has excellent information about climbing Mount Fuji.