For centuries Mount Fuji has been revered as one of Japan's most sacred sites, a place of peace and a source of artistic inspiration. The 12,388-foot dormant volcano is also a popular tourist destination, with tens of thousands of people climbing its slopes every year. Earlier this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Mount Fuji (technically known as Fujisan) a World Heritage Site, thereby identifying it as one of the most important cultural and environmental locations on the planet. The designation means Mount Fuji will be protected and preserved for future generations.
But are current generations doing too much damage to keep Mount Fuji safe for the future? More than 300,000 people climb the volcano ever year during the annual July-to-August climbing season. They create wear and tear on the mountain's trails and leave behind so much garbage that it takes more than 40,000 volunteers to pick it all up. According to a recent report from the Associated Press, nearly 900 tons of trash were collected off the mountain in preparation for this June's UNESCO World Heritage declaration ceremony.
Shomei Yokouchi, governor of the Japanese state in which Mount Fuji lies, told the AP that he expects more foreign visitors now that Mount Fuji is a World Heritage site. They just added more composting toilets, "but there are not enough of them," he said. Meanwhile, businesses are both looking forward to the influx of tourists and dreading the increase in traffic.
There's also the human risk to climbing the massive peak. Last year at least 70 people were injured while making the climb, and seven people died. (There's a reason for this old Japanese proverb about the volcano: "He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool.")
But perhaps this fear is unfounded. This June the prefecture government started considering new ways to limit the number of people who travel to Mount Fuji each day. In July new restrictions on cars went into effect, meaning people had to take buses into three of the peak's four main entrances. The efforts paid off. This year only 310,721 climbed Mount Fuji between July 1 and Aug. 31, a 2.5 percent decrease from last year. The all-time high was back in 2010, when nearly 321,000 people scaled the peak.
The Environment Ministry of Japan also made a point of warning people that the climb is a full-day effort and requires a lot of rest along the way. Climbing that high can cause altitude sickness if people don't take caution. The warnings also apparently helped to keep some people away.
But then again, the ministry says some people may have just skipped Mount Fuji this year to avoid the World Heritage excitement. Next year may prove to be the real test of the mountain's ability to withstand the tides of tourism.
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