In the Pacific Ocean, there is a mountain that is revered by a country as the bringer of life and death. Mt. Fuji is a physical and spiritual symbol of Japan. In 2013, it was recognized as an important symbol around the world when it earned its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list, joining other landmarks like Stonehenge and Yosemite. This means that Mt. Fuji is legally protected by international treaties (so no Iwo Jima like battles on this mountain). It stands 12,380 feet (3,776 meters) tall. The base of the mountain is 78 miles (175 km) around and sits on the junction of three tectonic plates, making it an active volcano. The last time Mt. Fuji erupted was in 1707. Despite its three hundred year nap, Japan still has an evacuation plan for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who live around the base of the volcano.
Mountain of Destruction
This has recently become a more serious concern. The 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 caused devastation. The earthquake shook the island country for five minutes (beyond terrifying!) and was followed by numerous aftershocks (over 100). Japan’s building codes kept the high rise buildings upright, but they swayed as the ground shook and continued swaying long after the shaking stopped. Japanese citizens could not relax after the earth stopped shaking because the shift of the tectonic plates caused a destructive tsunami and whirlpool along the east coast of the island. Japan’s countryside was wiped out by the rush of water. Power was cut at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The backup generators couldn’t keep the core of the plant cool and an explosion followed. This has left the plant and the surrounding area a wasteland of radiation poisoning. Even today the area is unsafe for humans and remains abandoned. The Netflix show Dark Tourist has a fascinating episode where Farrier, the show’s host, takes a tour of the abandoned towns. It’s eerie.
If the repercussions of the earthquake weren’t enough for Japan, then geologists have another possible disaster to add to the list. The earthquake spread along the island, shaking the Mt. Fuji area and increasing the pressure under the mountain. The last eruption in 1707 was triggered by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake. The eruption wiped out shrines and towns at the base of the mountain and the ash and debris spread as far as Tokyo (called Edo then). The ash was so thick that people had to use candles to light their way during the day. On top of the deaths caused by the lava flow, the eruption caused famine for a decade. After the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in 2011, Japanese officials have come up with an evacuation plan that would displace 750,000 residents from areas where lava would flow and an additional 470,000 people living in areas where ash would make the air unsafe. Water and food supplies would be contaminated. Airports, trains, and highways would have shut down. It is estimated that an eruption of Mt. Fuji would cost $21 billion. Geologists continue to monitor the volcano, ready to sound the alarm is tremors exceed a safe size.
The Beauty of the Mountain
As I said earlier, Japan recognizes this amazing landmark as a source of life and death. There are many theories about the origin of the name Fuji, one of them being “fire”. However, Japan also recognizes the fertile soil and beauty of the mountain. Farms of all sizes can be found around the base of the volcano. The green views are breathtaking. I couldn’t get enough of the sites and you can’t beat a lakeside view for lunch! So it is no surprise that despite the destructive nature of the mountain, the Chinese ideogram used to write Fuji gives the name a sense of good fortune and well being.
Religion and Origins
The spiritual relevance of the mountain has been around as long as the country. Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, and other religious sects worshipped and continue to worship the beauty of Fuji. The Shinto tend to be the most present religion around and on top of Mt. Fuji. Their shrines sprinkle the mountain, believing that the mountain represents the gods. Monks and other worshippers make pilgrimages up the mountain. Interesting fact, women were not allowed on these pilgrimages until 1945 because they were believed impure (curse you Aunt Flow!).
One Japanese fairytale explains how Mt. Fuji became a volcano. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (I’m just going to summarize it here. Click the link if you’d like to read the full story) is said to be the world’s first science fiction story (love it!). In the story a bamboo farmer finds a girl in the fields. She is only three inches tall. He takes the child home and raises her with his wife. It turns out she is the beautiful princess from the Moon who was sent away to protect her during the celestial wars (I wonder if they have made this story into a movie. Someone must have…). The princess grows up and has many admirers. Maybe she wasn’t comfortable with interspecies marriages (she is an alien after all), but she tells her father that she just isn’t ready to be married (very 21st century girl). So the princess turns all her suitors down. Even the emperor asks for her hand in marriage. She says no. The Moon people then show up and demand that the princess return home. The princess is reluctant, but she is really given no other choice. She insists on writing to her friend, the emperor. She sends him a letter and a potion that would make him immortal. The Moon people wipe her memory of her time on Earth and forced her on a chariot back to the Moon (leaving behind a heartbroken father. Not so sure I’m liking these Moon people…). The emperor receives the princess’s final gift but could not bear the idea of living without her. He ordered that the letter and the bottle of elixir be sent to Mt. Fuji and burned so the smoke can travel to the Moon. The fire that burns inside the mountain was created when the emperor’s orders were carried out.
Mt. Fuji’s significance is seen throughout history in stories and art. One of the most famous depictions of Mt. Fuji is Katsushika Hokusai’s 36 views of Mt. Fuji. Many of us would recognize the water of The Great Wave (though, I have to admit, I never noticed Mt. Fuji in the background before), but Hokusai has dozens of others prints (46 total. This could be confusing since the series is called 36 views. The series was so popular Hokusai made ten more) showing the beauty of Mt. Fuji. He began this series in 1830 at age 70 (just goes to show that it is never too late to make your big break!) and finished them five years later. They have been an inspiration in Japanese art ever since.
Exploring Mt. Fuji
The artwork doesn’t do the mountain’s beauty justice . The view really is breathtaking and the majestic mountain in the background never grew old. I explored the towns and parks at the base of the mountain. Since my visit was in June, Mt. Fuji itself was closed to hikers. Hiking opens July 1st and continues until mid September. These are the months when there is no snow at the top of the mountain so it is safe for even novice hikers. Thousands of people flock to the mountain, many beginning their journey up at night so they could see the sunrise once they reach the top. You may want to avoid Obon Week in mid August, when the number of hikers will hit a peak, but it is said that hiking with others is part of the experience. There is a sense of comradery.
I would love to return to Japan to hike up Mt. Fuji. A trip to add to my bucket list. In the meantime, I will just have to enjoy memories of the views from below.