Posted on June 12 2018
Half Dome, the Matterhorn, the Grand Canyon, Kilimanjaro, Uluru—these names bring up an instant mental image, invariably tied to their general location. Mt. Fuji is also in that company, and goes a step further—the serenely snow-covered peak is the essential symbol of the country of Japan. Revered by all Japanese citizens, it is woven into the national religion of Shinto, and a pilgrimage climb is something millions have done. Tokyo, only about 70 miles distant, provides many of those hikers, and tourists add to their numbers. While that broadly conical peak itself is familiar to all, Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san as the Japanese respectfully call it, has a number of interesting facts, figures, and stories to tell.
As for its vital statistics, Mt. Fuji stands 12,388 feet tall, with a crater at the top that is 820 feet deep and 1600 feet across. At its base, Fuji is 25 to 30 miles across, so it covers a lot of the landscape. Farming and industry found in the surrounding area are supported by water from its smooth, even flanks. Mt. Fuji is a stratovolcano, also known as a composite volcano, because it is made up of layers of rock, ash, and lava. It sits at the junction of three tectonic plates: two that are associated with the Eurasian and North American plates, and the other, the Philippine Plate. With that much interaction, the chance for a magma conduit is pretty high, and such a pipeline has fed the growth of three different volcanoes at the site over the last 2.6 million years: Komitake, Ko Fuji (Old Fuji), and Shin Fuji (New Fuji). Ko Fuji came up on the side of Komitake to make a double peak, but about 10,000 years ago Shin Fuji put out enough material to cover them all and create one high summit. In 1707, Shin Fuji had its latest (but not necessarily last) eruption, a cone on its flank, called Mt. Hoei. The classical photos of snow-peaked Fuji in its symmetrical glory keep Hoei on the backside, where it formed a bump and seems to have caused a landslide-like failure in the otherwise smooth slope of the big mountain.
Such a beautiful and even-sided peak just begs to be explored. The climb doesn’t look daunting and indeed it doesn’t require technical equipment. Like many mountains, it can provide a delightful experience in good weather or a nightmare in bad, and the conditions can turn on you in a frighteningly short time. At 12,000-plus feet, the mountaintop is shrouded in snow much of the year. Official climbing season is open only during July, August, and part of September. The helpful Mt. Fuji Patrol acts as park rangers, giving directions and advice to the many novice climbers who may not understand the potential dangers on the high slopes. Climbing Mt. Fuji is all wrapped up in national pride and religious observance, and upwards of a quarter-million people do it every year, in season. Off-season climbing is neither encouraged nor prohibited and many take the challenge, so the total number of climbers may be in the neighborhood of 400,000 a year. Add to that the number of visitors who drive or bus partway up to pay their respects, and the total of people skyrockets. No wonder Fuji is called the world’s most-visited mountain.
Access to the base of Fuji is easy, and routes up are numerous, though four main trails carry most of the climbers, or hikers. The route doesn’t include vertical walls, but it is long, and the available oxygen gets thinner as the elevation increases and the temperature drops. There is a Japanese saying regarding the climb: “He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool.” After hiking above the forested lower reaches, the scenery is starkly barren and monotonous, and if cloud moves in, one loses the viewscape that elevation provides. The crowds on the trail, sometimes as high as 8,000 in a day, tend to diminish the feeling of being “at one with nature.” So the hike can be a bit of a slog, thankfully eased by a series of stations. Each trail has 10 of these points of rest, some of which offer food and shopping opportunities. There is road access to the fifth station on each trail, and many hikers start their climb at this level. From the fifth station points, it’s about a six-hour hike to the top. For those who wish to break up the trip, there are huts along the way, where one can spend the night. A good rest may be hard to find though—on the more popular days during climbing season, climbers are packed like sardines into these refuges. The huts are popular despite the crowding because they make it easier to attain the summit at dawn. Some others hike all night from lower elevations to arrive at this auspicious time. The coming of dawn on Mt. Fuji’s peak, and its emotional response, is called “goraiko,” a spiritually moving experience for many.
Those persistent enough to make the summit are treated to the sight of the eight craggy peaks along the crater rim, a view down into the mouth of the volcano, and if clear, the broadest vista in all Japan. Thankfully, Mt. Fuji has been protected within Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park since 1936, and more recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its attractions include five lakes formed by lava dams, and nearby hot spring resorts powered by the same heat that built Fuji. Shinto shrines are found all around the mountain and along its trails, to beckon the faithful. So a journey to Mt. Fuji provides both a good physical challenge and a range of attractions for its annual legion of worshippers, hikers, and bucket-list aspirants.
Though dormant, the beloved mountain could again spring to life—1707 is like yesterday to a volcano—and cause considerable disruption to one of the world’s major urban centers. That eruption over 300 years ago was probably triggered by the huge earthquake that hit the area a couple of months beforehand. Some seismologists feel the local Tokai fault zone is overdue for another such quake, which could re-awaken the volcano. Until such time though, Fuji-san has only the beauty of serene grace, and a long climb, to offer Japan and the world.
If you’re going to climb Mt. Fuji, you might as well have a look at Tokyo while you’re in the neighborhood! This handy city map of Tokyo actually crumples up for easy storage and quick access. Available from Maps.com!
caption: Mt. Fuji is the backdrop for many urban areas, here behind Yokosuka
source: Wikimedia Commons: William L. McGough (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: A view of Mt. Fuji from the south. Mt. Hoei, on the right-hand slope, resulted from Fuji’s most recent eruption.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Doctor JoeE (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: The landscape for most of the climb is volcanic austerity.
source: Yokota Air Force Base website: Staff Sgt. David Owsianka (Public domain)
caption: For much of the climbing season, it’s not a lonely hike.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Derek Mawhinney (CC 0)
caption: Sunrise from the peak—goraiko—can be a profound experience.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Ciphers (Public domain)