Japan’s Highest Peak is Both a Symbol and a Commodity
Japan’s most recognizable landmark draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims from around the world annually, for several different reasons.
Located on the island of Honshu, the tallest mountain in Japan, at 12,285 feet, is Mount Fuji. Its physical height aside, Fuji occupies a place in the Japanese consciousness that goes far beyond statistical measurement.
As a site of spiritual pilgrimage, a national emblem, and consequentially, a popular tourist attraction, Fuji’s contour has been reproduced on every product imaginable, from candy, to commemorative plates to money itself.
Many Buddhists find Fuji to exemplify an ideal of meditation. Their term for Fuji’s summit, zenjo, draws symbolically from its position high above the turmoil of the rest of the world; its peak connotes the perfect state of effortless concentration that Buddhists aim to achieve.
Geologic Activity and Fuji’s Last Eruption
Long forbidden to the population at large, and completely to women until the Meiji period (1862-1912), Fuji possesses another factor to inculcate its aura of power and mystery in the public imagination: Mt. Fuji is a volcano.
Although it has been quiet for almost 300 years, Fuji’s last activity, an eruption that occurred during 1707-1708, formed a depression still visible on the southeast side of the cone; a tangible reminder to all of the power that still lurks inside.
Still classified as geologically active, Fuji nonetheless attracts thousands of climbers every year who attempt to scale the mountain during the climbing season between early July and late August.
Religious Significance vs. Commercial Appeal
Bus tours and family packages now augment the traditional pilgrimage. Souvenir shops sell cheap commemorative items of all shapes and sizes and way stations along a now demarcated path of ascent give travelers the chance to rest in comfort before continuing on (motorized transport does not reach the top — yet).
The question of whether such unrestricted public access degrades the perception of Fuji as a holy place or reinforces it is ultimately a matter of perspective. One could argue that its religious significance is every bit as intact as ever, merely obscured by the blinking lights of newfound commercial appeal; one just has to look harder to see it.
Many—though outnumbered by the tourists—still look to Fuji as more than a tourist attraction or a national emblem. To them, Fuji—particularly its summit—remains sacred ground; a place to reaffirm their connection to ancient religious belief.
Fuji’s Popularity Sustains its Religious Legend
Mt. Fuji’s new economic virility itself may actually serve its legend, fame generating fame such as occurs in art objects (think, Mona Lisa) that, once ingrained in the public mind’s eye, are assumed on the basis of pure renown to contain some esoteric significance; a gravitas that is generally accepted as valid, even if it might as well be left to the academics.
Ultimately, Mt. Fuji’s religious legend perpetuated by its status as a source of nationalistic pride has solidified its literal and figurative profile in the popular Japanese landscape.