Mount Fuji and its newfound World Heritage status

AS IF it needed it, Japan’s best-loved mountain has found new fame, having just acquired the status of World Heritage Site (WHS).

Mount Fuji - or Fuji-san as the Japanese call it (“san” means mountain) - was accorded the honour on Saturday by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) World Heritage Committee meeting in Cambodia.

The WHS label is an acknowledgement that any site so designated is an important cultural or natural treasure that is worth preserving for future generations.

But all too often these days, WHS is apt to be used as advertising copy to attract more tourists or, in the case of Mt Fuji, more hikers.

Already, thousands of people trek up the mountain every year during the short official climbing season from July to August, a third of them foreigners.

Last year, the number of hikers reached 320,000, many making non-stop overnight climbs to the summit to catch the sunrise before trudging sleepy-eyed down its slopes.

But travel companies are betting that Mt Fuji’s newfound status will bring a tourism windfall. Train companies are chipping in by putting on express services to bring tourists directly to Mt Fuji from Tokyo.

The easing of visa rules for Thais and Malaysians is also expected to increase the number of visitors to the mountain from South-east Asia.

Local officials, however, believe that Mt Fuji has already reached its full capacity.

On weekends, when human jams are the rule, there are endless lines of hikers snaking up and down the sides of the mountain.Because of this, there is the constant danger of people falling over one another if someone in the line should stumble.

There have been instances of hikers slipping on loose gravel during the downward journey, and being sent hurtling down the often treacherous rocky slopes, resulting in serious injury or worse.

To limit the number of hikers going up and also to help defray the cost of maintenance, local authorities are considering making all hikers pay an entrance fee from next summer.

Clean-up operations to keep the mountain free of litter require both money and people.

The portable toilets on the mountain that are used by thousands of hikers each day have also to be regularly cleaned out.As a trial, a 1,000 yen (S$13) entrance fee will be levied this  summer but hikers can opt whether or not to pay.

It must come as a surprise to many people that the World Heritage listing applies not only to Mt Fuji itself, but also to 70,000 hectares of surrounding land at its foot and to 25 nearby attractions, including five major lakes and the Shiraito (White Thread) Falls.

Yet Mt Fuji, a 3,776-metre dormant volcano admired for its near symmetrical cone, is designated, not as a natural, but as a cultural heritage site, which normally covers historic structures and ruins.

The reason, believe it or not, is that the mountain was once so strewn with garbage left behind by hikers and the stench from human waste so foul that a Unesco screening panel in 1995 dropped Mt Fuji from the final shortlist for natural heritage site.

The ever-determined Japanese not only proceeded to clean up the place but also repositioned the mountain as a candidate for a cultural heritage listing.

The revised strategy proved to be a winner.

Indeed, Mt Fuji’s contribution to the Japanese cultural psyche is far from tenuous.

The country’s highest mountain is a recurrent theme in the “ukiyo-e” woodblock prints produced during the Edo period from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Such prints were incidentally highly prized in Europe and said to have influenced many European artists, from French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh.

Mt Fuji was immortalised by Japanese painter and wood engraver Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in an inimitable collection of woodblock prints entitled “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” which depict the mountain as seen from various locations and in different seasons.

Perhaps the most famous image from the series is one entitled “Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa” which shows three boats being threatened by a large wave, and - with typical Japanese understatement - the mountain rising serenely in the distance.

Today, Mt Fuji has become one of Japan’s most recognised icons in the world, alongside the bullet-shaped Shinkansen high-speed trains and sushi.

In the days before high-rise buildings cluttered up the skyline, the mountain could be seen from many parts of Tokyo 100 km away.

During the 1980s, I enjoyed that privilege for several years from the window of a five-storey apartment. On clear winter days especially, the snow-capped peak appeared both majestic and sensuous.

Many locations in Tokyo today still bear the three characters for “Fujimi” in their names, indicating that they were once vantage points for viewing the mountain, which has been regarded as sacred since ancient times.

An unfettered view of the mountain, even from high-rises, is, however, becoming increasingly rare these days.