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Climbing Japan’s sacred Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji's snowcapped cone is reflected on the surface of Lake Yamanaka.   | Photo Credit: Shizuo Kambayashi

The ascent to the top of Mount Fuji starts with some collective warm—up exercises at 2,305 metres’ elevation.

About 20 Japanese hikers stretch out their arms and legs, and with their hands press their heads to their shoulders. The men are wearing colourful outdoor jackets, the women pink leggings and hiking boots.

It could be some sort of fashion show, and nearby booths are offering all sorts of souvenir items – T–shirts, cups, and accessories.

It is here, at what is called the mountain’s fifth station, that the buses arrive, bringing hordes of tourists.

They all want to walk to the top of Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest peak at 3,776 metres. The mountain is revered for its symmetrical volcanic cone, and because it is there that some believe that Konohana Sakuya Hime — the Goddess of Flowering Trees — resides.

In her honour, countless Shinto shrines have been erected on, and around, the mountain. The season for Fuji ascents is July 1 to August 30, when an average of 3,000 people climb the mountain each day.

Technically, the climb is not difficult at all and no special equipment is required. But at night the temperatures can drop below freezing, so hikers must bring warm clothing, sturdy shoes and a headlamp.

The hike starts on broad paths, but quickly the ascent becomes steeper and the human procession slows down. Most people on this afternoon will hike up to one of the 20 huts on the mountain, where they will stay overnight in order to ascend to the summit at sunrise.

In the summer high season, it is necessary to make advance reservations.

On a recent winter ascent, fog was clinging to the slopes and the landscape around was barren. Upon arrival at a hut at 3,450 metres, the sun was already low on the horizon.

Sleep ends when the lights are turned on at 3 am and the hikers rise and slowly make their preparations. Outside, it is pitch dark and a stiff wind makes the night colder. Breakfast includes a chocolate bar, and the hikers start out, lamps attached to their foreheads.

From a distance, a group looks like a string of shining pearls moving in the darkness.

Shortly before dawn, one can see from below that several hikers have already gathered atop the peak. The horizon looks a deep dark blue, as slowly a red lining appears between sky and earth. The sun starts to rise.

The feeling at this moment is expressed in the Japanese term “mono no aware” — a deeply felt receptiveness for the fleeting beauty of things and the gentle melancholy that one feels as a result.

Naturally, many people will capture the moment of the rising sun with their cameras, and posing for a picture in front of the summit marker is a must. Once the sun has risen entirely, the hikers start to disperse, returning to the huts and the stands down below.

The descent is a fairly quick one, down specially laid gravel paths on a different route, so as not to impede those hikers now making their way up.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 4:05:13 AM |

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