Mt. Fuji, Japan

Mt. Fuji (photo by Yamanashi Prefecture)

I remember my first glimpse of Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan. I had seen its image before, of course, for the snow-topped peak is probably the most photographed place in all of Asia. But seeing its beauty in person made the breath catch in my throat. Along with countless other travelers throughout the centuries, I could sense that there was something otherworldly about this mountain, which has been a holy place for the Japanese from time immemorial.

In Shintoism—the indigenous, shamanistic religion of Japan—mountains are believed to be the dwelling places of gods and spirits, mysterious places that must be approached with awe and great care. It’s not surprising, then, that Mount Fuji would be held in special reverence, both because it is the tallest mountain in Japan and because of its great beauty. Formed from an ancient volcano, Mount Fuji is nearly perfectly symmetrical and rises far higher than the surrounding mountains. On a clear day it can be viewed from a distance of a hundred miles, dominating the landscape of much of central Japan. Its iconic image has been portrayed in countless paintings and has been celebrated by poets through many generations, making it the universally recognized symbol of Japan.

Mount Fuji has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries (though it was only in 1867 that women were first allowed to climb it). Tradition said that the goddess of the mountain would throw from her side any climber who was not pure of heart. Today, as in centuries past, climbers time their ascent so that they can watch the sunrise from the top. The climb, which is typically done in July and August, is not easy. In fact, the Japanese say that everyone should climb Mount Fuji once, but to climb it twice is foolish.

While I toured Japan at the wrong time of year to hike to the top of the mountain, I was fortunate to have the chance to visit Mount Fuji on a clear day when its summit was obscured by clouds. We were able to ascend part of the way to one of the stations that serve pilgrims and tourists. Even such a brief visit gave me a sense for the ethereal, remote spirit of Mount Fuji. While much of Japan had initially seemed Westernized and relentlessly busy, on this sacred mountain I could glimpse the calm stillness that lies at the heart of Japanese culture.

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