Last summer at age 66, Seiichi Kondo climbed Mount Fuji for the first time in his life. Friends warned it wouldn’t be an easy expedition, and it wasn’t. But conquering Japan’s highest mountain was essential for what he was about to do next.

“There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I reached the top,” said Kondo, the former chief of the Cultural Affairs Agency. “I could see all the way to Tokyo Skytree, and it reaffirmed my belief that Mount Fuji symbolizes the spirit of Japan and its culture.”

A year later at a meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in Phnom Penh, held this June, Kondo was in the thick of convincing its members that Mount Fuji and the nearby Miho no Matsubara pine grove deserved its place on the prestigious list.

His strategy was in presenting how the mountain was not merely a scenic location, but that it formed the very fabric of the country’s culture and influenced everything from art to environmentalism to religious beliefs.

Kondo’s pitch hit the spot. UNESCO’s decision to inscribe Mount Fuji on the World Heritage list was met with cheers in Japan, and Kondo was tagged as the man who made it happen.

“Mount Fuji was selected as a World Heritage, not only because of its beauty. There is much more to it than that,” he explained.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido, the ancient capital city of Kyoto and Himeji Castle from Japan’s feudal period are some of the 17 locations in Japan that are included on the World Heritage list.

But Mount Fuji, inscribed as a “sacred place and source of artistic inspiration” by UNESCO, is arguably the closest to the hearts of many Japanese.

The mountain “has long inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimages,” UNESCO states on its website. “Its representation in Japanese art goes back to the 11th century but 19th century wood block prints have made Fujisan become an internationally recognized icon of Japan and have had a deep impact on the development of Western art.”

The United Nations organization also points out that the mountain was a training center for ascetic Buddhism in 12th century Japan. The landscape, which includes lakes, waterfalls and pilgrimage routes, are “revered as sacred,” UNESCO notes.

Kondo believes that Mount Fuji supplied the people of Japan with a unique sense of nature. Typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters have rocked the country for centuries. Meanwhile, Japan is also privileged with vibrant changes of the season. Mount Fuji is the epitome of all such things combined, Kondo says.

“For centuries, the mountain has taught the people of Japan that one must not attempt to control nature — but live humbly as a part of it,” Kondo explained, adding that the principle can be observed today in how Japan treats nature differently from many Western countries.

“For instance, the garden at the palace of Versailles is set up beautifully but in a geometric design, showcasing man’s control over nature. A typical Japanese garden is the opposite of that,” Kondo said. “Japanese gardens are about appreciating and respecting nature as it is. That reflects the philosophy that the people of Japan have toward nature.”

UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites had originally recommended that the Miho no Matsubara pine grove be exempt and that only Mount Fuji should be inscribed. But Kondo again tenaciously explained to members that the whole scenery and not only the mountain defined the character of Mount Fuji.

Paintings of the scenery by Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai were used as references that the pine groves and the mountain are part of each other. But it was difficult to convince people of the sentiment in an objective manner, he acknowledged.

Yet Kondo believed that Japan’s indescribable sense of worship toward nature has recently gained understanding and a fan base overseas, partly through the art form of “Japanimation.”

For example, famed anime director Hayao Miyazaki often chooses such themes in his movies, which have received high praise from overseas viewers. Miyazaki’s movies and their storylines are clearly different from a typical Disney movie, as films such as the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke” depict nature as a “religion” and a source of life.

“To have such films be accepted and become worldwide hits tells us something,” Kondo said. “It proves that Japan’s unique sense of unity with nature is, consciously or subconsciously, slowly being accepted by foreigners.”

It is rare for a 3,776-meter volcano to be listed as a cultural instead of natural heritage, but that distinction suggests his pitch persuaded and won over the UNESCO members, Kondo added.

“Our world today owes a lot to industrialization and the advancement of science and technology. But when it comes to building a sustainable world, the answer appears to exist somewhere else,” Kondo said. “I think that Japan’s unique view of nature, nurtured by Mount Fuji, can contribute to many issues today, including environment conservation and global warming.”

For those eager to truly understand that inspiration, Kondo strongly advises that one visit Japan.

Instead of only visiting “onsen” hot spring spas, playing golf or checking out the key tourist spots, Kondo assures that Japan has a lot more to offer visitors, especially through unique cultural and natural experiences.

“One such site that comes to mind is Mount Hiei,” he said, referring to the mountain in northeast Kyoto known as the location where Buddhist monks including Nichiren and Honen studied. Once, Kondo took a group of Islamic teachers from Indonesia to the mountain and was told that a divine presence could be felt everywhere in the area.

“I think that describes the uniqueness of Mount Hiei, especially since it came from an Islamic person who believes in monotheism,” Kondo said.

Witnessing the splendor of Japan and the origin of its culture cannot be achieved without physically being there, Kondo said.

“I’d like to advise visitors that watching or reading some facts about these places online is nothing like actually being there,” he said.

The number of visitors entering Japan has been on the rise, and the government predicts that it could reach 10 million this year. An ongoing campaign called Visit Japan is aiming to boost the number of visitors to 25 million by 2020.

Kondo said the goal is difficult, but feasible, and should be reached in order to promote Japan’s distinctive culture to those overseas. The key to achieving that goal lies in the Japanese people understanding and appreciating their own culture, and nurturing a true hospitality for visitors, he said.

As for the future of Mount Fuji, there has been rising concern that a boost in the number of visitors and lack of proper management may deteriorate the mountain’s environment.

“That may become an issue, but all I can say is that each visitor must be aware of Mount Fuji’s importance and what it stands for,” Kondo said, adding that when he climbed the mountain last summer he saw no littering along his route.

“It comes down to the fact that we should all continue to take pride in the mountain,” Kondo said, “be grateful for it and do all we can to preserve the natural beauty.”

Download the PDF of this ‘Summer Davos’ Special

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.