With the 2011 completion of Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s capital found itself with a spanking-new landmark of colossal proportions. And with the May opening of this, the world’s tallest, tower, the city also found itself with a tourist attraction of conspicuously greater proportions: the broadcasting and observation tower could hardly have attracted more visitors if it had been handing out wads of free money at the top to all comers. However, though the 634-meter-tall tower basks in its lofty status as the new symbol of Tokyo, in terms of height it is but a mere toddler compared with what is arguably the best-known symbol of Japan.
Of all Japan’s physical features, the one that has etched itself most insistently into the national psyche is that of the classic volcanic cone of Mount Fuji. For innumerable generations, it has served as inspiration to innumerable poets and artists—most famously in the classic seascape ukiyo-e wood-block print of Hokusai, where the mammoth claw-like wave looks as if it is about to snatch up the mountain.
Fuji is about a hundred kilometers from Tokyo, and its symmetrical profile can often be spied from tall buildings in the capital during the less-humid, cooler months of the year. With its height of 3,776 meters and base diameter of 40–50 kilometers, the enormous bulk of Japan’s highest mountain thoroughly dominates the surrounding countryside.
Geologists classify the volcano as active, though it has been dormant for the past few centuries since its last eruptive outburst in 1707. Fuji is actually a composite volcano: it comprises three separate volcanoes, rather than the simple cone it appears to be. The most recent volcano—Shin Fuji—was formed 10,000 years ago, and its continuous eruptions have gradually cloaked the presence of the other two volcanoes and lent the mountain its present shape.
Though pretty from afar, Fuji up close presents a rather different picture. The lower slopes are wooded, but the top thousand meters or so are covered with basalt lava and volcanic ash, which can make an ascent up the grand volcano seem more like a long slog up a rather massive slag heap. But that does not deter around 300,000 people a year from making the ascent during the official climbing season, which starts at the beginning of this month and continues until the end of August. With such huge numbers swarming up its slopes, Fuji is the most-climbed mountain in the world for a peak of its height.
Fuji is regarded as a holy mountain, and as with other such peaks, many who ascend Fuji do so at night so as to witness the dawn from the summit. The tradition for climbing the mountain goes back a long way, when people made the ascent not out of pleasure but as a kind of religious experience. At the summit, the climber today is faced with the paraphernalia common to many another Japanese tourist site: as well as souvenir shops and restaurants, there are vending machines, a post office and telephones, from which the breathless can call to inform family and friends of their conquest.
An unfortunate side of the great numbers marching up the peak over the years, however, has been the damaging ecological effect. Climbers and other visitors leave behind a considerable amount of garbage, much of which has to be cleared up by volunteers. As well, the four roads that reach about halfway up Fuji sputter out exhaust gases.
Among the many poetic homages to the mountain, some of the most charming are found in the superb poetry collection known as the Man’yoshu, which is widely regarded as the finest such collection in the language. The Man’yoshu dates from the eighth century, at which time Fuji was worshiped as the tutelary god of Japan. Among the various poems written about the peak, outstanding are those by Yamabe Akahito, a court official who was one of the most important contributors to the collection. He captured rather well how the mountain has a majestic, awe-inspiring aspect, whose power has certainly not diminished over the centuries:
Ever since heaven and earth were parted,
it has towered lofty, noble, divine,
Mount Fuji in the land of Suruga.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.