I already talked about my love for mountains in the ‘M is for Mountains’ post, but I just had to give a whole post over to the Big One. Yes, Mount Fuji, the eternal icon of Japan and arguably the most instantly recognizable mountain in the world. No, seriously, I truly believe that: I think only the Matterhorn comes close. I mean, if you can have photos of McKinley, Elbrus, or heck even Everest put in front of you and you know their names, then I’m sincerely pleased for you. But for the man on the street, I really think Fuji is the lead singer of the group.
Now, to set the record straight. Please study this photo for a while…
Have you spotted the problem? Ah, quiet at the back, you Japan veterans, no spoilers! Okay…time’s up! Now look at this photo…
One of these photos isn’t real, and I’m afraid to say it’s the former. Yes, despite what you might believe, Mount Fuji does not loom directly over Tokyo. It’s 150 km/95 miles away. That’s the distance from central London to Swindon, or from New York to Philadelphia. Oh, and there’s an entire ridge of mountains in between as well. So yes, those photos you see of Mont Fuji poking through Shinjuku skyscrapers are EXTREME zoom ins, I promise you.
It also doesn’t help that Mount Fuji is a notoriously shy mountain, either. Tourists who visit during the summer months hoping to see the iconic cone shape are likely to be met with a wall of haze and clouds instead. You will be lucky to see part of one of it’s vast faces peering through the thick clouds, to be honest.
Yet this air of mystique and rarity just adds to the impact when you finally do see it, and it really will always be a big impact because not only is it huge and icon of the world you are finally seeing with your eyes, but it is simply a staggeringly beautiful mountain. Photos don’t do it justice. Even now, years after living here and living on a train line that looks straight at the dormant volcano, I am still mesmerized every time it catches my eye.
And, being a mountain, it’s an icon that has been around for a long time too. I need not mention Hokusai, for example, and his series of paintings of Mount Fuji scenes, most famous of which is ‘The Wave’ (and if you’re scratching you’re head over what I’m on about, go do an image search for Hokusai right now. You will know it). Mythologically, the mountain is rich in stories too, as it is the residing place of the goddess Sengen, who was said to throw pilgrims off her mountain if she deemed them impure of heart. Which I always imagine looks like the bridge-crossing sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The name of Fuji, too, is also shrouded in mystery: nobody knows what Fuji really means. The kanji, 富士, translate directly into ‘Wealthy Warrior.’ Yeah, me neither. But it’s largely accepted that the reading of Fuji as we know it today is a corrupted reading of another, similar sounding word. One theory is that it derives from the word ‘Huchi’ or ‘Fuchi’, a goddess of fire (apparently Mount Fuji is a popular hangout for goddesses). But my favorite theory is that it comes from an alternate reading of Fuji, namely 不尽, meaning ‘never-ending’. Those who have climbed Fuji know exactly what I’m talking about.
And boy, do people climb it. Half a million of ’em, every year. Well, I bet a number of those just go shopping. No, really, take a look at this:
That’s ‘go-go-me’ (五合目), the 5th Station of Mount Fuji, approximately halfway up. It has toilets, bus stops, restaurants, a trinket shop, a post office…and people dressed as if they really are just shopping, blissfully unaware they are 2300 metres above sea level.
But don’t let the casual capitalism and day-trippers fool you: Mount Fuji is a serious, dangerous mountain, and the climb is a long, hard slog. And, I have to say, it’s not a nice climb either. Let’s not forget that Mount Fuji is a volcano after all, so while it looks stunning from a distance, up close it is a featureless, bleak landscape of red rock. The crowds, too, don’t help: in the peak climbing season you will have to queue – yes, queue – in some places. And the stations from 6th up to and including the top are part rest spots, part blatant cash-grabs on tired and vulnerable hikers. While they aren’t as elaborate as the 5th station, you can still buy food, trinkets and even a place to rest your head – all at extortionate prices that keep rising as you rise, culminating in the legendary vending machines atop the summit that will set you back a cool 500 yen (5 dollars/£3.50) for a 500ml bottle (see my ‘V is for Vending Machines’ post for that pic).
There’s an old saying that goes ‘A wise man climbs Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice’, and the saying holds true: Fuji is a climb you don’t repeat for pleasure. The crowds, the shops, the obvious route to take…it never feels like that true wild freedom most hikers seek in a mountain ascent.
BUT. If you have timed it right, and the weather is decent, your reward will be more than enough. The Greatest Show On Earth, the sunrise, is swift, dazzling and the most beautiful act of nature I have ever seen, hands down. Oh sure, I will put a photo here, but trust me, the camera will never do this sight justice. It is an experience, one of the greatest, and suddenly that long, cruel climb up is forgiven.
But go climb it soon. Mount Fuji is well overdue for eruption…