Japanese nickname: Fuji
The inspiration people seek: Mount Fuji (Fuji-san or Fuji-yama in Japanese) is probably the most prominent symbol of Japan, whether you are Japanese or not. You can easily tell this is true from things like the tourist guidebooks on Japan sold overseas or from the sheer number of languages available for the Mt. Fuji Wikipedia page. If you ask a Japanese person to draw a picture of a mountain, most will draw you something resembling Mt. Fuji and the graceful spread of its lower slopes. If you ask them to cite a famous painting of Mt. Fuji, they are likely to respond with one of the ukiyo-e portrayals of the mountain that are known worldwide and once had a big impact on the Impressionist painters of Europe as well.
Another thing that people associate with Mt. Fuji is spring water. There are natural springs all over the foothills of Mt. Fuji and the clear, fresh water they provide has made this an ideal area for growing much of Japan’s favorite spicy flavoring condiment for sushi and other Japanese foods—wasabi.
For the people of Edo (now Tokyo) as well as the rest of the country, Mt. Fuji has long been a sacred mountain and, thus, an object of worship and pilgrimage. One of the beauties of Japan and its culture that many foreigners cite is the predominant tolerance for different religions and faiths (excluding the time when Christians were persecuted during Japan’s sakoku period of isolation), even though this is something that most Japanese people themselves aren’t really conscious of. One of the cultural attributes one might cite as a reason for this seemingly innate tolerance is the worship of nature that has existed at the core of Japanese spirituality since ancient times and encourages coexistence with and worship of things of the natural world that transcends the human intellect.
Among the mural scenes painted on walls in the sento public baths that used to be a ubiquitous fixture of every neighborhood, ones of Mt. Fuji were by far the most popular. In these public baths where families, friends and neighbors would gather daily to wash away the grip of daily life and spend moments of peaceful relaxation, a mural of Mt. Fuji was the most appropriate backdrop of all. We can also find a good expression of the place of reverence Mt. Fuji has in the hearts of the Japanese in the saying that list in order the most auspicious things to have appear in your first dream of the New Year: Ichi Fuji, ni taka, san nasubi (“Mt. Fuji first, a hawk second and eggplant third”).
Since olden times, there have also been numerous hills (rises) in the city of Tokyo with the name, Fujimi-zaka (“Fuji viewing slope”). With high-rise buildings dominating Tokyo’s cityscape today, most of these vantage points have lost their view of the mountain, but when you do get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the distance while riding on the Shutoko or in trains running on their elevated sections in the clear air of morning or at sunset, many people are surprised at how large and majestic the mountain actually appears from Tokyo. This experience may show them that the dramatic representations of Mt. Fuji with the unique perspective employed in ukiyo-e prints, which so impressed overseas artists and fans of Japanese prints in the past, weren’t really exaggerations at all.
In short: The source of the name of Mt. Fuji is unknown, although there are numerous theories, including one suggesting that it’s not even Japanese (the Japanese language itself has not been categorized linguistically and is even argued by some to be a language that developed independently) but actually came from abroad. Old written references to the mountain used different combinations of kanji characters that could also be read as fuji (meaning “only” or “everlasting”), and some say that the origin of the name is from fushi (meaning “undying” or “immortal”). Mt. Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain with an elevation of 3,776 meters. This number is taught in elementary schools for things “we should all learn,” (minanaro in Japanese, which has the same sound as saying “3-7-7-6”) usually when children learn the song Fuji-no-yama. So it’s quite rare for a Japanese person to not know how tall the mountain is.
Although many might think of it as a dormant volcano, Mt. Fuji is actually an active volcano, and its most recent eruption—the Hoei Eruption of 1707—is said to have covered the city of Edo with a few centimeters of volcanic ash. Today, Mt. Fuji is a national park, a Historic Site, Place of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monument designated by the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In which prefecture the summit of Mt. Fuji lies is undecided, so while it is situated between the prefectures of Shizuoka and Yamanashi, the borderline between them on the mountain peak has never been clearly drawn, so it belongs to neither prefecture. Also, the summit (technically everything above the 8th Station) is where a rear shrine of the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha shrine is located. A rear shrine (okumiya) is dedicated to the same deity as the main shrine and is generally located behind it, but it can also be placed deep in a forest or on a mountaintop far from the main shrine. This makes the summit of Mt. Fuji also the grounds of a shrine.
There are four well-known routes for climbing the mountain: the Yoshida Route, the Fujinomiya Route, the Subashiri Route and the Gotemba Route (in order of most usage). In addition to these, there are a number of old trails, many of which are said to have been cut by mountain ascetic monks during their spiritual training.
Mt. Fuji is naturally a favorite target for photographers, and among the shots they seek are: the Aka Fuji (Red Fuji in sunrise light in late summer or early autumn), Beni Fuji (rouge-colored Fuji in morning light of winter on the snow-covered mountain), Diamond Fuji (when the sun sets behind the summit of Fuji), Sakasa Fuji (the sakasa or upside-down reflection of Mt. Fuji on the water of one of its surrounding lakes), the Kage Fuji (the shadow of the mountain as seen from the summit) and the Kasa Fuji (Mt. Fuji with a kasa or umbrella-shaped cloud over its summit). Also, local vehicle license plates carry the name, Fuji-san.
Some background: The beautifully symmetrical shape of the cone of Mt. Fuji as we see it today has been shown clearly to be the result of repeated eruptions since ancient times. In particular, there have been three major eruptions: the Enryaku Eruption and Jogan Eruption in the Heian Period (9th century), and the Hoei Eruption in the Edo Period (18th century).
Regarding the history of Mt. Fuji as a sacred mountain, there are written records saying that according to folklore, the origins of the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha shrine go back more than 2,000 years ago. One of the ways the common people worshipped the mountain was in groups known as Fuji-ko, and pilgrimages and ascents of Mt. Fuji grew in the late Edo Period to the point where there were said to be 808 Fuji-ko branches in the city of Edo alone and 80,000 practitioners of the faith. Despite this popularization of the faith, there were still only a few who were actually able to climb the mountain. So, for the vast majority who couldn’t, there were small replica mounds (called Fuji-zuka) made using lava rocks from Mt. Fuji to represent the mountain built all over the city—some of which still exist today.
With the completion and opening of the Fuji Subaru Line road in 1964 (Showa 39) that runs halfway up the mountain, Mt. Fuji rapidly developed as a tourist spot. Over the last ten years or so, you now hear people on the mountain speaking languages from all around the world during the climbing season that lasts from July into September.