Mount Fuji, Symbol of Japan
Reverence for Mount Fuji
The Japanese hold Mount Fuji in a special place in their hearts, and not just because of its beauty. They have an attachment also to its truly mystical qualities, and regard it as a place of prayer. To understand why many consider the mountain sacred, we need to get to the heart of traditional beliefs surrounding Fuji.
Mount Fuji best reflects the Japanese view that mountains are to be regarded with veneration. This needs a little bit of explanation.
A glance at a map of the Japanese archipelago shows that about 75% of the land area is mountains and forest. With so many mountain peaks and ranges in the country, it was inevitable that mountains would be seen as sacred. In ancient times there arose a belief that, after death, the spirits of those who had left their earthly form climbed up mountains and became gods (kami) at the summit. Then they were transformed into household gods (ujigami), ready to protect their families.
Later, Buddhism entered the country, bringing a belief in reincarnation and the six realms that spirits encounter after death, as they wend their way over boulders and through forests to finally achieve hotoke buddhahood at a mountain summit. And so it was that mountains became the abode of gods and buddhas, the highest, most sacred place around.
Mountains: A place to look up to in awe, rather than just to climb
As this form of worship developed, Japanese sensitivities became embedded with a view that mountains should be reverenced from below, because gods live up at the summit, the “Other World.” At the top of Mount Fuji, there is a Shinto shrine called Sengen Jinja. It is the home of the kami deities of the mountain. Many other Sengen Jinja have been erected on the slopes of the mountain, under the impulse to venerate the mountain itself as a kami deity in its own right. This belief was recorded in the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of waka poetry, which was compiled over a period of about a hundred years starting in the second half of the 7th century. One of the court poets, Yamabe no Akahito, praised Mount Fuji’s height and beauty, and its sacred nature, saying it was “kami-sabite iru,” which means “acting like a kami god.” Here we have a clear and early literary reference to the sacred nature of Mount Fuji.
In the West there is a belief that the natural world, which including mountains, is under the control of God. This is quite different from the view in Japan, where bountiful nature points to the presence of Shinto and Buddhist deities, and where mountains are regarded as kami.
Travel, and Fuji lovers
Japan’s highest mountain rises near the main traffic corridor between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, so it is almost bound to come into view for people travelling between these two most populated regions. In the Edo period (1603-1867), the Hakone Hachiri trunk road was built along part of that corridor. It became the best route for beautiful views of Mount Fuji.
I once hiked on that old Hakone Hachiri road. I went only a relatively short distance, but I still remember very well the stupendous views of Mount Fuji when I looked up from Gotemba in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture. Even where the road runs on level ground, Fuji changes its aura with practically every passing minute—one could never possibly become bored! When my tired feet persuaded me to lay down by the shore, the mountain still overwhelmed me. It was so big, so beautiful, framed with nearby spray and waves, just like an ukiyoe woodblock print.
Mount Fuji is both an object of veneration and a magnet satisfying our desire to travel in beautiful nature. One can well imagine the route of the old Hakone Hachiri road being purposely chosen to allow travelers to enjoy the experience. As the work of ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, who illustrated scenes along the way, grew in popularity, Fuji-ko pilgrimages to climb the mountain and worship there became more popular. This in turn led to more traffic along the road, spreading the sense of reverence for Mount Fuji.
Another aspect we cannot forget: Awesome power
And yet, for all its beauty, Fuji has another side in its history: a fearsome mountain justifiably classified as an active volcano. The last major eruption was in 1707, more than 300 years ago.
Mount Fuji soars as both a kami and as an author of rare yet terrible catastrophe. Deep in our psyche, we Japanese remain awed by nature, keenly aware of the impermanent, ever-changing world, beautiful yet capable of violence and destruction, as we saw in the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 after seismic activity and tsunami waves struck. The many Sengen Jinja shrines on Fuji embody hopes for freedom from horrific disaster.