A symbol of Japan
When it comes to cultural symbols, Japan’s are perhaps known the most internationally. There are numerous objects that come to mind and all of them are distinctive — even if the name escapes you; Torii gates, blossom trees, sushi, sumo, the list goes on. Yet there is one that dwarfs most of the others in it’s renown, the towering natural (wonder) that is Mount Fuji: the highest mountain in Japan.
To the country and many Japanese people Fuji san, as it is respectably called, is more than just a mountain. It has been the subject of numerous tales, works of art, and a place of pilgrimage for many. But what makes the highest mountain in Japan so special beyond its size? In truth there’s a whole lot more to unpack here than meets the eye.
The entity of Mount Fuji
First and foremost Mount Fuji is a volcano that lies between the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures. It has been deemed active, although it currently exhibits very little volcanic activity with the last eruption being just over 300 years ago in 1707. As the highest mountain by 569 meters, it takes the number one spot in Japan at 3,776 meters; however, it’s the shape, position, and aesthetics that make Mount Fuji as spectacular as it is.
From every angle, the shape of Mount Fuji appears as a near perfect cone; it has a symmetry that almost defies the laws of nature. In part, this is helped by the fact that Mount Fuji stands alone, not connected to a mountain range; in fact the next closest mountainous terrain starts roughly 7 miles from it’s base, this helps give unrestricted views of its grandeur.
On a clear day Mount Fuji can be seen from the center of Tokyo which is approximately 60 miles (97 km) away, although it has been recorded to be visible from places as far as Ibaraki which is a distance of around 110 miles (177 km).
There is no doubt that it is incredibly photogenic. Apart from its near perfect geometry, the altitude at its peak is often -6°c (21f) or -7°c (19f) allowing for perfect snowy conditions, as such the top third of the highest mountain in Japan will often have a snow covering — only adding to its aesthetic appeal.
The God/Kami and spirits
There is another side to Mount Fuji other than just the physical presence of the mountain, a deeper cultural belief that has existed since Japan’s first inhabitants, a belief that the mountain is or houses a god/kami.
Mount Fuji is one of three sacred mountains in Japan that is revered and worshiped. Part of the reason is down to its aesthetic beauty — as previously discussed — where it is believed only the gods can create such a beautiful form; however much of this revolves around the ‘religion’ known as Shinto and furthermore, that spirits reside in all natural things.
Many Shinto shrines have been set up on and around Mount Fuji, with many being devoted to the Kami known as Princess Konohanasakuya who is also the deity of cherry blossoms. In the past, these were places where monks would journey to, and rituals would be performed in order to pay respects to the Kami. In truth there is a belief that Mount Fuji houses multiple Kami within itself and that the peak.
Buddhism has also reinforced the ideas of a spiritual existence within mount Fuji. It coexists and complements Shinto traditions and expands upon the mythical nature that surrounds the mountain. To that end, it has also been believed that the spirits of the dead rise to the summit.
Today, it’s still a place where spring ceremonies occur and where travelers ascend the mountain as a form of pilgrimage.
Inspiration and imagery
The presence of such a spectacle in Japan has meant that the image of Mount Fuji has been used countless times in media and publications, inspiring countless artists, writers, designers etc. Through this constant use Mount Fuji has become a national symbol of Japan throughout the entire planet.
The most famous example is perhaps in the Ukiyo-e works of Katsushika Hokusai entitled ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ in which he produced (as the title suggests) thirty-six different prints around the subject of Mount Fuji. The work explores Japan’s highest mountain throughout different seasons and in numerous weather conditions and scenarios.
The influence of Mount Fuji can be found as far back as the 7th or 8th century in a poem by the renowned Japanese poet Yamabe no Akahito which goes as follows:
Japanese 田子の浦に うち出でてみれば 白妙の 富士の高嶺に 雪は降りつつ
English In Togo Bay If you were to look outside You will see white On Fuji's peak Where snow continues to fall
The image of Mount Fuji continues into modern day arts and crafts. From traditional hand-crafted trinket boxes and decorative kimono to everyday objects such as t-shirts and bags. It’s the same case in the media. If you were to open any travel guide, watch any documentary, or look at any promotional material on Japan, you will find a spectacular shot of Mount Fuji staring back at you at some point or another.
In short, the beauty of Mount Fuji has never ceased to inspire throughout its known history.
Why is Mount Fuji important?
There are a number of contributing factors that have led the mountain to become an icon. The beliefs of Japan’s historical inhabitants played a major role, not just of the spectacle of Mount Fuji iself believing it to be the work of divine creation, but also the attitudes towards nature and everyday life in which Shinto contributes. These beliefs helped shape the nation with Mount Fuji being a symbol that encapsulated them.
Stories often referenced Mount Fuji, notable works such as ‘The tale of Genji’ and ‘The tale of the Bamboo cutter‘. There are also myths and legends surrounding the mountain which solidify its spiritual and mythological nature. This was helped along by the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. These stories often tell of the birth of Fuji which can be comparable to the birth of Japan itself — meaning the two are intrinsically connected
When Japan’s capital moved from Kyoto to Edo in 1603 (Tokyo) during the Tokugawa Shogunate many people traveled between the two cities through what is called the Tōkaidō road. This brought them much closer to Mount Fuji and exposed them to its beauty while also reaffirming their innate beliefs. It was around this period that many artistic works were produced with Mount Fuji as the subject.
This is where Fuji became important in another way.
Fuji san inspired some of Japan’s greatest artistic works and became an incredibly popular image in Japanese culture. It helped develop the arts during the Edo period and works produced could be enjoyed but also revered in the absence of the real thing. This side of Fuji has continued until today.
Mount Fuji is clearly more than just the highest mountain in Japan, but defining it’s importance is like trying to define the country itself; it’s a relationship that could almost be described as symbiotic — Mount Fuji cannot exist without Japan, and Japan would be an entirely different place without Fuji.