Mount Fuji is the most beloved mountain in Japan — an honor it has held since the dawn of history.
A sacred place for monks and climbers and one of the most popular spots for visitors from abroad, it is the very symbol of Japan.
Dormant three centuries, however, the country’s highest peak is also a potentially dangerous volcano — so dangerous, in fact, that experts have warned that an eruption would cause untold damage to the economy.
Following are questions and answers about what secrets the calm giant holds:
Why do Japanese view Fuji as a national emblem?
Japanese since time immemorial have worshipped high mountains as sacred places and even as gods. So Fuji’s profile, which from certain angles is perfectly conical, and its soaring height surely struck awe into the ancients living in its midst.
The mountain’s graceful and elongated slopes were created by layers of lava and rock discharged in multiple eruptions over time.
No wonder, then, that over the centuries Fuji has inspired poets and artists, most notably printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), best known for his “Fugaku Sanju Rokkei” (“36 Views of Fuji)” woodblock print series.
OK, so Fuji is big. But just how big?
At 3,776 meters, Fuji dwarfs every other mountain in Japan but pales in comparison with 8,850-meter Mount Everest. Nevertheless, Fuji can be seen from rooftops in central Tokyo even though it is separated by the breadth of Kanagawa Prefecture.
Hiking routes to the summit are divided into 10 “stations” — or rest stops — a system originated by ancient hikers.
Looking at a map, it’s unclear whether Fuji is located in Shizuoka Prefecture or Yamanashi Prefecture. Which is it?
The mountain straddles the border and thus extends into both. But no decision has ever been made regarding which prefecture should claim the portion above the eighth station, which is about 3,200 meters above sea level.
A territorial dispute between Yamanashi and Shizuoka dates back as far as the Warring States Period (1467-1568), explained Takamichi Sugiyama, a spokesman for Shizuoka Prefecture. He added that the governors of Shizuoka and Yamanashi met in 1951 and agreed to shelve the issue, leaving it unresolved to this day.
Fuji is said to be privately owned. Is that really true?
Surprisingly, yes, as far as the peak above the eighth station is concerned.
Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha, a Shizuoka-based Shinto shrine, possesses an ancient document stating it was granted the parcel in 1609 by samurai warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.
In 1957, the shrine sued for possession of the tract, citing a 1947 law returning state-held land to Shinto shrines that had previously held it.
In 1974, the Supreme Court upheld the claim, but transfer of the property rights wouldn’t occur until 2004. Some national roads and the former meteorological observatory stayed under government jurisdiction.
Whatever the case, Norihiko Nakamura, a priest at Sengentaisha, said the shrine would never exclude anyone from the sacred slopes.
“Mount Fuji is a mountain of the world, not an asset for individuals,” he said.
How many people climb to the top every year?
According to the Environment Ministry, which counts the number of climbers with infrared sensors, about 242,000 people hiked above the eighth station in the high season of July and August last year, 10 percent more than the same period the previous year. More than 90 percent are believed to have reached the top, said Oki Matsuzawa, a ranger working for the ministry.
Matsuzawa said perhaps one of the reasons for the increase was the replacement of old public toilet facilities with new, eco-friendly ones. Before 2002, when the replacement started, toilets along the climbing routes were notorious for their foul smell and the damage they did to the environment.
Who was the first foreigner known to have climbed to the top?
That claim to fame belongs to Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British diplomat in Japan, who climbed Fuji in 1860.
The shogunate was initially reluctant to give Alcock approval to make the venture, fearing his ascent to the top of the sacred peak could incite violence by xenophobic nationalists.
Nine British climbers led by Alcock were reportedly accompanied by around 100 Japanese guards dispatched by the shogunate.
In Japan, women have often been excluded from places regarded as sacred such as the sumo ring and noh theater dressing rooms. Have women been barred from Fuji?
Yes. In premodern times, females were prohibited from climbing most tall mountains worshipped as sacred places, including Fuji.
The taboo was effectively broken in 1832 by 24-year-old Takayama Tatsu, who won special approval to climb with the help of a male adherent of a sect worshipping Fuji as a divinity. She joined his group and climbed dressed as a man — presumably to show deference to the taboo. The helper is said to have viewed his support for Takayama as a way of improving women’s lot.
The ban was lifted in 1872 after the wife of a British diplomat climbed Fuji in 1867.
The government once considered recommending Fuji as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site but nixed the idea. Why?
The main reason was shame due to the large amount of household and industrial waste dumped on and around Fuji, particularly at its base.
Last month, the Yamanashi and Shizuoka governments jointly conducted a survey to map out the most polluted spots. Yamanashi found 87 tons of illegally dumped garbage and Shizuoka found 41.5 tons on its side.
With the cleanup under way, the government is now asking the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to make Fuji and its surroundings a Cultural Heritage site, instead of a Natural Heritage site, in view of the fact that Fuji has deeply influenced the religion, arts and other cultural activities of the Japanese people.
Could Fuji blow?
Experts note that Fuji is an active volcano and say an eruption is a possibility. In 2000, a series of suspicious earthquakes took place directly under the volcano, prompting the government to prepare for an eruption.
Scholars have documented more than 10 suspected eruptions of Fuji since 781. The most recent was in 1707, when the area that is today Tokyo was showered with a layer of hot ash.
Fuji has not blown its top for 300 years, and scientists at one point deemed the mountain was dormant. But recently they started calling it an active volcano, because 300 years is very short compared with the life span of an average volcano of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Still, it is difficult to predict when an eruption might take place.
How serious would an eruption be?
A 2004 government simulation determined that in the worst-case scenario, a major eruption would cause ¥2.5 trillion in economic damage.
Researchers, however, do not expect any deaths as a direct result of lava or ash. Although lava temperatures can reach 1,000 degrees, it would move no faster than 3 kph, allowing for evacuation on foot.
Nonetheless, some 7,800 people would be forced from their homes and as many as 12.5 million could suffer problems with their eyes, nose or throat, the model shows.
Meanwhile, rain mixed with ash could trigger mudslides and avalanches, and cause rivers to overflow. Up to 1,900 homes would be damaged by mudslides and avalanches, and 11,000 would be flooded if an eruption were to occur during the annual rainy season around June.