July First was YAMABIRAKI (山開き) on Mt. Fuji – which means the climbing season has begun !
By Avi Landau
These days, for most people , hiking on or climbing mountains is a form of sport or recreation. It is done for exercize, companionship (when done in groups) and for enjoying, learning about, or COMMUNING with nature (among other things).
In pre-modern Japan, however, those who climbed, did so to COMMUNE WITH THE GODS , as it was believed (as it still is by some) that various KAMI (Gods) and ancestral spirits often dwelled atop mountains. In fact, certain mountains were believed to be GODS in themselves. These beliefs developed in ancient times, with their most primitive form probably being the supplications and offerings that early hunters made to these mountain spirits who were believed to rule the domain of animals.
As agriculture developed, mountains came to be especially revered, most probably because they were a source of water (necessary for irrigation), and as a result it often came to be TABOO for people to climb mountains. This seems to me to be a reasonable way of keeping WATER RESOURCES PURE and is probably the reason why the Yamato People always settled on PLAINS surrounded by mountains and rarely (to this day) develop the mountainsides (as opposed to westerners who prefer to build houses up on hills-even in Japan- look at Nagasaki or Kobe). Just look around Tsukuba today, and you will find that most greenery survives on hills, and of course Mt Tsukuba.
In spring, select villagers would climb mountains to greet the TA NO KAMI (God(s) of the Rice Fields),which were manifest in the wild mountain sakura (cherry blossoms) blooming on their slopes, and led the KAMI down to the paddy fields. For most villagers, the Ta no Kami also represented ancestral spirits, which were believed to dwell at the mountaintops during winter and come down to help their descendants (through crop production) from spring through fall.
Even after Buddhism became a major influence, mountains remained spiritually important and great temples, Training halls and centers of learning, were built on mountaintops (the most famous and important being Enryaku-Ji on Mt Hiei, on the North-East tip of Kyoto).
During the Heian Period (794-1185) a religious sect which came to be called SHUGENDO (mountain asceticism) developed. Practioners known as YAMABUSHI would climb mountains to commune with the GODS and SPIRITS, perform asceticisms and try to develop supernatural powers. This sect grew in popularity over the centuries and during the Edo Period (1600-1868) Mt Fuji and several other mountains became the the focus of their worship. Pilgrims not only climbed Mt. Fuji, but also used the caves found all around its base for prayer, meditation and asceticisms.
These pilgrimages to the top of Mt Fuji, however, were restricted by the shogunate , to a 2 month period starting with the 1st day of the sixth month (now set at July first) and ending on the 27th of the 7th month (August 27th) . This regulation was most surely was implemented for safety reasons. (and women were long forbidden on its slopes- lest they make the goddess of the mountain fume with jealousy)
And so it is today. Still every year on July first , ceremonies are held to mark the opening of the mountain to climbers, with Shinto priests performing rituals and saying prayers for safety on the mountain.
In recent summers an average of 320,000 people have been making the climb- you do the math- how many people does that come out to each day? And that is why your trip up Mt. Fuji will be more like going to a festival than getting away from it all to contemplate nature ! ( and imagine the headache this creates for those involved in garbage and human waste disposal!)
Shugendo, which combines what are now called Shintoism and Buddhism and focused on the attainment of MAGICO-RELIGIOUS POWERS was banned by the Meiji goverment (in the late 19th century), but after the Second World War this proscription was lifted. Once again, from July first to the end of August, along with all the other recreational climbers, you can spot pilgrims in white robes holding special climbing sticks (kongotsue) negotiating the famed mountain as they chant ROKONSHOJO ROKONSHOJO , repeatedly as they move along.
For these reasons when Mt Fuji was designated a World Heritage Site in 2013 it was as a CULTURAL Heritage site, and not a NATURAL one.
Climbing Fuji-San, which is in fact one of the world`s most famous and recognizeable mountains (if not THE most- do you know that Debussy was inspired to compose La Mer after viewing a famous print of Mt. Fuji and a wave) is certainly an unforgettable and very worthwhile undertaking- if not only for the spectacular night sky which can be seen from around its summit!. Read more about the climb here:
And if you are looking for good company during hikes up Mt Fuji and other great Japanese mountain and natural hiking destinations ,why dont you hook up with the Tsukuba Mountain Walking and mountaineering Club. Learn about them at:
Read about my own personal misadventure on Fuji (and other places) at:
And dont forget that climbing Mt Fuji is NOT EASY (well, not for me at least). That is why in the Edo Period, at the height of Mt Fuji worship fever, little FUJI MOUNDS were constructed at sites all over Japan as substitutes for climbing the real thing. There is one right here in Tsukuba, near the space center. At only 23 steps it is more than a bit easier than slogging up to 3776 meters in altitude. If you are feeling out of shape, this is the option for you! Read my article on Tsukuba`s SENGEN-ZUKA at: