Mount Fuji: a Reverent Ascent

Climbing the shapely volcano remains one of Japan’s most sacred traditions.

By Gulnaz Khan
photographs by David Guttenfelder
Published 7 Feb 2019, 09:16 GMT
Photograph by George F Mobley

Every summer, thousands of people gather on the slopes of Mount Fuji and climb skyward to meet the constellations. Sculpted by millennia of eruptions into graceful symmetry, its power is easily forgotten when seen through too great a distance. Up close, Mount Fuji is a scorched sea of volcanic ash. Each footfall a reminder that underneath its silent beauty simmers a destructive force; that despite our technological progress humanity will always be beholden to forces of nature.

Stretching 12,388 feet tall and forged over millions of years, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan, its iconic cone the result of three major eruptions. Cultures around the world and throughout history have recognized the sanctity of mountains: Olympus, Kailash, Sinai, Popocatépetl, Arafat. In ancient times, Fuji was considered home to divine deities. Today, it endures as a national symbol.

“Mt. Fuji has been not merely a natural object, but has been a spiritual home and a source of courage for all the Japanese people throughout Japan’s history,” Yasuhiro Nakasone, former prime minister of Japan, once said.

Grasping the true breadth and magnitude of Mount Fuji’s cultural significance is a nearly impossible task. It’s been venerated by poets and artists as the ultimate ideal of perfection, worshipped as the abode of gods, feared as a dwelling for the dead, and ascended by those seeking transcendence. Its image has been used in propaganda and replicated to the point of cliché. Entire religions were born in its foothills.

Although the centuries have rewritten the story of Fuji many times over, the mountain still bears the remnants of its former lives as it continues to evolve into a reflection of modern Japan.

One who bows down in mountains

Historically, Mount Fuji was worshipped from a distance—feared and venerated. It was said to be home to kami, or spirits, who had the power to control elements like fire and water. The earliest rituals surrounding the mountain were centered on appeasing destructive fire spirits to prevent natural catastrophe. Seasonal rites were also performed in autumn and spring to encourage the flow of life-sustaining water from its peak.

Before the sixth century A.D. the Japanese people paid their respects to Fuji from a safe distance. The mountain itself was considered too sacred for mere mortals to tread, but the introduction of Buddhism to Japan fundamentally altered their relationship to natural spaces. Mountains were promoted as ideal spaces to meditate, seek solitude, and practice asceticism. Over time, rituals shifted to focus on the cultivation of self, and climbing became a form of worship.

A hiker traverses the charred fields of volcanic ash en route to the summit.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

New “mountain religions” that combined elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism emerged during the eighth century, and encouraged pilgrimage as a path to transcendence. They believed one could cross the boundary between the sacred and profane on the ascent, and then carry the sacred back to the world beneath. (Inside Japan's centuries-old bear hunt.)

“The sacred places on the mountains are the dwelling sites of the divinities and of the Immortals,” according to the 12th-century text Shozan engi. “Those who tread those spaces and cross these rivers must think that each drop of water, each tree of these mountains is a drug of immortality, even if they suffer from a heavy past of misdeeds.”

Physical toil served as a form of atonement and the process of reaching the summit was elevated above the actual moment of summiting. A practitioner of Shugen-dō, one of these early mountain-based faiths, was called yamabushi, or “one who bows down in the mountains.” Through climbing, they believed they would attain spiritual powers to ward off evil spirits. (See Japan's beautiful festival of the dead.)

“The ecstasy felt at the summit of a mountain was said to eliminate all pain and all existential malaise, and to introduce the awareness of another order of existence which the pilgrims could bring back into everyday life,” historian Allan Grapard writes in the History of Religions. “It is well known that pilgrims coming back from sacred spaces were regarded with awe: common people saluted them, made offerings, even tried to touch them.”

Similarly, the 16th-century Fujikō sect, heavily influenced by Shugen-dō and Buddhism, believed the mountain was a living being with a soul and emphasized mass pilgrimage. “This mountain was born from the union of Heaven and Earth; It is the source of yin and yang,” explained Kakugyō, Fujikō’s founder. He claimed that through a process of rituals he became one with the mountain.

Undeterred by harsh weather, climbers continue upward as others begin their descent.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

But Japan’s mountain religions suffered an irreparable blow during the abolition of Shugen-dō and Buddhism during the Meiji period (1868–1912)—an attempt to unify the country under Shinto. Many of Fuji’s sacred shrines and temples were looted and priceless history lost. Religious freedom was eventually established in 1945 after World War II, and although pockets of Shugen-dō and Fujikō practitioners still exist today, they never recovered their former influence.

From sacred to secular

Between June and August, upwards of 400,000 people trudge up Mount Fuji, panting in the pre-dawn dark. The ground disappears underneath the clouds, and reverent silence blankets the mountainside as the sun gilds the summit in pale, diaphanous light. In fact, there is a special word in Japanese for the sunrise from Mount Fuji: goraiko.

People start climbing to the summit of Mount Fuji in the early morning hours. “You look back and there’s thousands of people snaking in these switchbacks, and they all have headlamps on,” Guttenfelder says. “It looks like a pilgrimage—it looks like everyone’s carrying a lantern.”

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

Today, many climb Mount Fuji for recreation rather than worship, but it remains imbued with a sense of the sacred.

It has a history of being a spiritual pilgrimage but the mountain itself still has that place in Japanese society,” explains photographer David Guttenfelder, who climbed Mount Fuji in 2018. “On a clear day, you can see it from anywhere in Tokyo and it just looms over the whole city. It has a lot of spiritual and historical importance.”

The contemporary scene at Mount Fuji is a far cry from what the mountain ascetics of the past encountered, but it remains an undeniable reflection of modern Japan. Instead of a solitary feat, the experience has evolved into something that’s meant to be shared, a ritual of togetherness. Shinto and Buddhist shrines speckle the mountain’s flanks in a lingering deference, and torii gates still mark the boundary between the sacred and profane.

A hiker is shrouded in a thermal blanket on the Yoshida Trail.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

It could be said that the contemporary climbing of Mount Fuji is a pilgrimage to history—the reverence and preservation of common heritage in a society that progresses ceaselessly toward the future. (This man photgraphed Mount Fuji for seven years.)

“I had this cultural idea that to climb a mountain means a painful, hard, solo, personal experience—to get to the top and have this moment to yourself of accomplishment and reflection, and it has absolutely nothing to do with how the Japanese think about climbing Mount Fuji,” Guttenfelder says. “Doing something solo—especially in a space that’s limited, that you have to share with people—is kind of seen as audacious. So they do it together, and they take care of one another.”

Guttenfelder recalls the first time he summited Mount Fuji. “When the sun rose, thousands of people all rose their hands in the air and did this thing that the Japanese do. Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Three times, they cheered to the rising sun,” he says. “It was very moving.”

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, AP Images/Nat Geo Image Collection

Typically, visitors start midmorning on the first day and hike for six to eight hours until reaching the lodges at dusk. “You're chest-to-back with total strangers, everybody is quashed in together sleeping,” Guttenfelder says. “They wake you up at one o'clock in the morning … that culminates in the final push to the top in this really beautiful moment.”

Guttenfelder recalled the first time he made the climb in 2013. Hundreds of people sat together, hands raised, and chanted in unison to greet the rising sun. “It echoed off the top of the volcano,” he says. “People got very emotional—I got very emotional.”

The last major eruption of Mount Fuji occurred in 1707, but geologists consider it active and the government continues to draft disaster plans. Another eruption would likely devastate millions of people and permanently alter a landscape that has been immortalized by so many works of art.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Mount Fuji, yet history proves that its legacy in Japanese culture is fluid but indelible. The mountain has been born and reborn; its ashes contain multitudes. Generations have risen and fallen at its base, but the mountain endures in stark contrast to our own mortality–timeless, omnipresent, infinite.


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