SHIZUOKA – As Japan waits to hear in June the fate of its bid to win World Heritage status for iconic Mount Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, Yamanashi Prefecture and the central government are jointly trying to come up with a new guideline to increase safety that may include measures to make the mountain off-limits to hikers except during summer.
The mountain has seen a rising death toll over the years, with 11 hikers confirmed killed last year. The figure compares with seven deaths in 2005. Meanwhile, searches were launched for 76 hikers reported missing in 2012 compared with 30 seven years earlier.
The worsening toll is attributed partly to the recent emergence of more female climbers, nicknamed by the local media as “yama girls,” which literally means mountain girls.
The planned guideline, whose draft was prepared by Shizuoka Prefecture, will require that people ask for special permission in advance if they wish to climb the mountain outside of summer.
The draft carries no penalty for violators, prompting some observers to question its effectiveness.
It was submitted to a special committee set up by the three governments in 2009 to promote safety on Fuji. The committee hopes to finalize the guideline by June.
Meanwhile, Yamanashi Prefecture, which the mountain also straddles, responded rather disapprovingly to Shizuoka’s draft proposal due to concerns that the ban might negatively affect its lucrative tourism industry during the winter, when some commercial lodges for hikers stay open.
The Yamanashi Prefectural Government, which administers the popular Yoshida-guchi route, acknowledged that it agrees with the guideline’s general policy and expressed willingness to cooperate with Shizuoka Prefecture. One official, however, was quoted as saying, “We just don’t know how effective a ‘ban’ with no punishment could be.”
In response to the criticism from Yamanashi and other quarters, a Shizuoka prefectural official in charge of tourism explained, “We wanted to remind climbers once again how dangerous mountaineering can be and urge them to think twice about making a casual decision to go climbing.”
The official also pointed out the huge personnel costs to launch search and rescue operations when hikers are missing.
One-stop Fuji website in works
The Environment Ministry and local governments are planning to open an official website in June for Mount Fuji that will compile information on safety, routes, weather and other details for hikers.
June is when the country’s highest peak may be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Getting the status would generate renewed interest in hiking to the top of the famous peak and the ministry is hoping that providing information via the website before the climbing season opens in July will help reduce accidents and injuries.
The website about the 3,776- meter mountain that straddles Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures will be launched by a ministry-led association. The association is planning an English-language version in anticipation of increased interest among foreign tourists.
In a survey of climbers conducted by the Shizuoka Prefectural Government, 51 percent said they obtained information from the Internet before setting out.
The new site will include information on clothing, headlamps and other gear as well as on measures to prevent altitude sickness. It will provide a map of four climbing routes listing mountain cabins, aid stations and toilet facilities.
For smartphone users, the site will offer live video feeds of the climbing routes as well as of weather at the summit and cloud movements. Twitter will also be used to provide information on cabins and routes.
A Shizuoka official expressed hope that visitors to the mountain will “enjoy safe and pleasant climbing with accurate knowledge.”
UNESCO is holding a meeting from June 17 to 27 in Phnom Penh to deliberate on new World Heritage registrations. Fuji is among the sites under consideration.
An increasing number of people have been involved in accidents on Mount Fuji in recent years.
Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures meanwhile are considering introducing admission fees for trekkers to fund environmental conservation and other measures.