How Mount Fuji Became Japan’s Most Sacred Symbol

February 9, 2019

Every summer, thousands of people gather on the slopes of Mount Fuji and climb skyward to meet the constellations. Sculpted by millennia of eruptions into graceful symmetry, its power is easily forgotten when seen through too great a distance. Up close, Mount Fuji is a scorched sea of volcanic ash. Each footfall a reminder that underneath its silent beauty simmers a destructive force; that despite our technological progress humanity will always be beholden to forces of nature.

Stretching 12,388 feet tall and forged over millions of years, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan, its iconic cone the result of three major eruptions. Cultures around the world and throughout history have recognized the sanctity of mountains: Olympus, Kailash, Sinai, Popocatépetl, Arafat. In ancient times, Fuji was considered home to divinities. Today, it endures as a national symbol.

“Mt. Fuji has been not merely a natural object, but has been a spiritual home and a source of courage for all the Japanese people throughout Japan’s history,” Yasuhiro Nakasone, former prime minister of Japan, once said.

Grasping the true breadth and magnitude of Mount Fuji’s cultural significance is a nearly impossible task. It’s been venerated by poets and artists as the ultimate ideal of perfection, worshipped as the abode of gods, feared as a dwelling for the dead, and ascended by those seeking transcendence. Its image has been used in propaganda and replicated to the point of cliché. Entire religions were born in its foothills.

Although the centuries have rewritten the story of Fuji many times over, the mountain still bears the remnants of its former lives as it continues to evolve into a reflection of modern Japan.

One who bows down in mountains

Historically, Mount Fuji was worshipped from a distance—feared and venerated. It was said to be home to kami, or spirits, who had the power to control elements like fire and water. The earliest rituals surrounding the mountain were centered on appeasing destructive fire spirits to prevent natural catastrophe. Seasonal rites were also performed in autumn and spring to encourage the flow of life-sustaining water from its peak.

Before the sixth century A.D. the Japanese people paid their respects to Fuji from a safe distance. The mountain itself was considered too sacred for mere mortals to tread, but the introduction of Buddhism to Japan fundamentally altered their relationship to natural spaces. Mountains were promoted as ideal spaces to meditate, seek solitude, and practice asceticism. Over time, rituals shifted to focus on the cultivation of self, and climbing became a form of worship.

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