By Lawrence I. Charters
At Your Leisure, April 1987, pp. 25-27
No matter where you go in Japan, you will always be less than 60 miles from the sea. Surrounded on all sides by the stormy waters of the North Pacific, the land is not much friendlier, composed of rugged hills and mountains and just a few earthquake-plagued plains. In a country wedged between angry ocean and restless earth, one piece of land seems to act as a link between sea and sky: Fuji.
Rising straight out of the ocean along Suruga Bay, Fujisan (only foreigners call it Fuji-yama) is Japan’s highest mountain, a 12,389-foot-high volcano. It is not the tallest mountain in the world, but it may well be the most famous. As far as major volcanos go, it is also the most popular, with millions of tourists every year climbing or riding at least part of the way to the summit.
Fuji is also classed as geologically active. Within recorded history, there have been eleven major eruptions, in 557, 781, 800, 864, 973, 993, 1017, 1032, 1084, 1511, and 1707. The last big belch, between Dec. 16, 1707, and Jan. 22, 1708, created Hoeizan, a cone on the southeast slope, and several villages and thousands of people around the mountain vanished. For those who think Tokyo’s air pollution is bad now, during this relatively brief period more than a foot of ash was dumped on old Edo, just 60 miles away.
Today the mountain is covered with seismic instruments, and is considered so stable that Japan has a large, constantly manned weather radar station on the crater rim. The volcano’s violent past, however, is not forgotten; when a Japanese psychic predicted a major disaster in the area a few years ago, tourist business around the mountain fell more than 50 percent.
Fujisan is the cornerstone of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, a crescent of beautiful mountains, hot springs, scenic beaches and historic spots running from Fuji, 50 miles west of Yokosuka, through Izu Peninsula to Oshima Island, just 30 miles south of Yokosuka. Taken as a whole, they are the most popular tourist attraction in Japan — but many of the tourists are actually religious pilgrims.
Since very ancient times, mountains have been considered holy places in Japan. Clouds, lightning and thunder, and life-giving rivers and streams all seemed to emerge from mountains, and the mountains themselves appeared to be bridges between heaven and earth.
At first, sangaku shinko (mountain beliefs) were mostly a form of nature worship honoring beautiful mountains, or smoking mountains, but in time there developed the belief that mountains were the homes of kami (gods and spirits). Even after the introduction of Buddhism, some 1,300 years ago, Buddhist monks advocated living a life of asceticism in the mountains, which only reinforced the old beliefs.
In time, a mixture of esoteric Buddhism and Shinto rituals were combined to form Shugendo, a religious order separate from both. This order accepts, among other things, a legend that Fuji was created in 286 B.C. in a giant earthquake which also created the bed for Lake Biwa, near Kyoto. Even though modern geology claims the mountain is much older, Shugendo has actually grown in popularity since World War II.
Sengen Jinja (Sengen Shrine), in the town Fujinomiya (“shrine of Fuji”), is the headquarters of a major Shinto sect which venerates Fuji. Originally a local sect, belief in the mountain spread thoughout the country in the 16th century, and today there are more than 1,300 Sengen shrines in Japan.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was a devout Buddhist, yet even he honored the mountain. The present main hall at Sengen Shrine was restored by Ieyasu more than 350 years ago. Yabusame, a form of horseback archery with religious overtones, is held at Sengen on May 4-6, in part to honor Ieyasu’s patronage.
Sengen Shrine is the starting point for religious pilgrims climbing the mountain, and also a major stop on the famed Fuji Goko (Fuji Five Lakes) tours. Long before the arrival of foreign tourists, Japanese nobility would take trips around the volcano, stopping at Sengen Shrine and the five lakes created by lava flows blocking mountain valleys.
On foot, or carried in a palanquin, this tour used to take several leisurely days, but impatient modern tourists can see Sengen Shrine, delicate Shiraito Falls, and stop at the Fifth Station, halfway up Fuji, in a one-day bus trip. Because of the way the area changes with the seasons, four trips are considered the bare minimum: one each in spring, summer, fall and winter.
More robust souls can climb Fuji during the climbing season, opening July 1 and closing with a spectacular fire festival on Aug. 26. Climbing Fuji isn’t as demanding as climbing Mt. Denali or Mt. Rainier, but it is still a climb, not a hike. Just the same, several hundred people from the base — including entire commands — scale the mountain each year.
Some years back, a Pacific Stars & Stripes reporter “golfed” his way to the top (he claimed he made par), and a recent craze has led some bicycle fanatics to carry their 10-speeds to the top and ride around the crater rim. Two local commands tried a softball game and a football game, but a home run and overthrown pass, respectively, brought the games to an end. If you see the path to the top littered with discarded bicycles, golf clubs, footballs, and other unlikely items, don’t be surprised.
One of the best vantage points for seeing Fujisan is from Hakone, the mountainous region along the mountain’s southern flank. Famous for its hot springs and baths, Hakone has long been a popular tourist spot, as well as an important strategic area. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, authorities used the mountain pass at Hakone to control the vital Tokaido (Eastern Sea Road) linking eastern and western Japan.
Several barrier stations (sekisho) were set up on the Tokaido to control warriors and bandits, as well as extort taxes from travelers. The most famous station, established at Hakone in 1618, had a great impact on Japanese life, as the Osaka Kyoto area is still known as the Kansai (“west of the barrier”), and Kanto literally means “east of the barrier.”
Modern visitors worry more about running out of film than avoiding bandits and taxes. In good weather, ferry boats on Lake Ashinoko provide the perfect spot for taking pictures of Fujisan. The area also offers such attractions as a cable-car ride across an active volcanic crater and the Hakone Open-Air Museum, a splendid outdoor collection of 19th and 20th century sculptures together with the largest privately-owned Picasso collection in the world.
As the Fuji-Hakone-Izu park system all but surrounds Yokosuka, there really isn’t any excuse for avoiding the area. Friends, relatives, and perfect strangers back in the States are bound to be impressed when you show them pictures from inside a steaming crater, or describe the beauty of the Fuji Five Lakes region decked out in the gold and red colors of fall. And when you watch the sunrise from the top of Fujisan, you’ll know why this is the Land of the Rising Sun.