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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Why Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji is "screaming" for relief

Mt. Fuji, Japan — Japan’s majestic 12,388-foot peak has stirred poets and painters, sent the devout on treacherous pilgrimages up its slopes, and continues to inspire awe and admiration. It is the namesake of companies from Fuji Film and Fujitsu to Fuji Xerox.

Few mountains anywhere in the world enjoy the name recognition of Japan’s cone-shaped, dormant volcano.

That iconic name value, unsurprisingly, has made Mt. Fuji a tourist magnet. Over the weekend, at the “5th Station” — roughly half-way up the mountain and the point at which most vehicles must stop — a line of tour buses disgorged scores of sightseers who wasted no time mugging for photos at the “Mt. Fuji” sign, bellying up for soft ice cream, dishes of curry with a volcano-shaped side of rice, and Fuji-themed t-shirts.

“It was a time of our lives that we wanted to travel. Japan seemed the obvious, and when in Japan, you need to see Mt. Fuji, I think,” Eero Keronen, visiting from Australia with his wife Sarah, told CBS News.

Adam Clouser, of Columbus, Ohio, was setting off from the 6th station.

“I’ve wanted to travel to Japan my entire life, and Fuji is just kind of the cultural center, the cultural heart of Japan,” the American tourist told CBS News

His wife Lisa said the verdant surroundings felt familiar.

“I am originally from Canada, in the Rocky Mountain region, and this has given me some feelings of home,” she said. “It’s a beautiful area.”

But within Japan, Mt. Fuji has been conjuring up some less flattering images of late — hikers trampling and even building campfires on the fragile alpine landscape, scattering drink bottles, plastic bags and candy wrappers. Visitors ignore warnings about subzero temperatures and show up in shorts and sandals, leaving them to fall ill and even try to summon taxis for rescue. (Even horses can climb only part of the way up the mountain.)

“Mount Fuji,” Yamanashi prefecture Gov. Kotaro Nagasaki told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last month, “is screaming!”

Nagasaki was elected in 2019 on a mandate to ease overcrowding on the iconic mountain, while still boosting tourism revenue. He has proposed a ban on all passenger bus and car traffic, seeking to replace the nearly 20-mile Fuji-Subaru access road with a public-private light-rail train service.

By charging a relatively steep 10,000 yen (about $68) roundtrip fare and limiting train runs, Yamanashi prefecture could ensure manageable numbers of hikers, Nagasaki said, while luring a more affluent demographic. The proposed ticket price is more than double the current bus fare from central Tokyo to the 5th station.

In a presentation for reporters at the World Heritage Site visitor center, near the access road, Yamanashi representatives showed off plans to raze the current hodgepodge of 5th station shops and its concrete parking lot and replace it all with a greenery-covered, high-end hotel and railroad station.

The notion that somethingmust be done about the hordes of tourists descending on Mt. Fuji seems to have found wide support in Japan.

The right-leaning Sankei newspaper published a piece by alpinist Ken Noguchi lauding the leaders of both Yamanashi and neighboring Shizuoka, which shares jurisdiction over Mt. Fuji, for “clearly broaching the taboo” about regulating foot traffic on the peak.

Last August, a writer for the liberal Asahi newspaper suggested sharply reducing crowds by requiring all summit-bound hikers to carry a permit and overnight at one of a handful of small huts along the trails — a measure also meant to improve safety.

But exactly how many tourists visit Fuji — and how many is too many — is up for debate, Thomas Jones, a professor of sustainability and tourism at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University who has studied the mountain since 2008, told CBS News.

“You would have to find consensus” for what constitutes carrying capacity, he said, “and at the moment there isn’t really anything like that. So, there isn’t really a kind of concerted effort to limit the number of visitors there.”

Yamanashi prefecture argues that visitor numbers are rebounding toward 2019 levels, when 5th Station visitors topped 5 million. That was more than double the 2.3 million who came in 2012, which was already excessive, the prefecture argues.

Most visitors start and end their outing at the 5th Station; an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 continue on foot to the summit during the climbing season from July through early September.

Jones said capping the number of hikers by charging fees is a common practice at comparable “standalone” mountains, such as Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia, or Taiwan’s Jade Mountain.

One way of easing the human impact on Mt. Fuji that the local city of Fuji-Yoshida has been advocating, without much traction, is for hikers to start not at the 5th Station, but from the very foot of the mountain at the 1st station. That would see them retrace the path that pilgrims have walked for centuries.

“You see a lot more biodiversity” if you make the longer trek, said Jones. “You also see some of the old shrines, which are quite well preserved. You also avoid a lot of the crowds.”­­

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