Following the sweeping lines of an inverted fan, in perfect patterns of snow and light, dark woods and iridescent blue sky, Japanese artists have never tired of portraying Mount Fuji as the embodiment of the nation's spirit. An inactive but not dormant volcano, Mount Fuji floats 12,385 feet above the surrounding landscape of fields, lakes, and sea, the symmetry of its form arresting in its simplicity. Japanese myth asserts that the mountain was created in a single night by ancient gods.
Because of its earlier volcanic activity, Mount Fuji was first seen as the abode of a fire god, and in the ninth century several shrines were built along its slopes for rituals to placate the deity and keep the mountain quiet. In time, the fire god was replaced by the Shinto goddess of flowering trees, Konohana Sakuya Hime, who is the primary deity honored in the shrines along the rim of the crater and at the base of the mountain. She is worshipped by the use of fire, especially at the annual festival that marks the end of the climbing season. At that time, a group of men carries a lacquered model of the mountain, weighing well over a ton, while boys carry a smaller model. At a shrine at the base of Mount Fuji, Shinto priests lead processions of people, who carry straw replicas of the mountain. These are then lighted. Although Mount Fuji's last eruption was in 1707, hot spots remain on the rim, a reminder of the volcano's power. The bonfires imitate the lava flow of the volcano, and the sparks dance above the flames like the gods dancing at the summit. According to tradition, every Japanese should climb Mount Fuji at least once in his or her lifetime.
Both Shinto and Buddhism surround their beliefs with legendary tales of the origin of the sacred mountain and the powers that dwell there. Buddhists regard Mount Fuji as the home of a deity who is the presence of spiritual wisdom. In the early centuries, they considered climbing the mountain sacrilegious, but in the twelfth century, a Buddhist priest made the first documented ascent to build a temple and then climbed the mountain more than two hundred times to worship there. The word for “the summit,” zenjo, is also the word for “perfect concentration,” and Fuji's crest is an ideal place for contemplation, raised above the cares and distractions of the world below. Buddhists have identified Mount Fuji as a sacred circle or mandala, pointing out details along the crater rim as manifestations of the lotus petals on which the Buddha rests.
A pilgrim route had been established to the summit of Mount Fuji by the fourteenth century. Several centuries later, devotional associations began organized climbing. In the seventeenth century, a number of cults were founded, based on visions received by hermit prophets settled in caves on the flanks of the mountain. Gradually Mount Fuji became the preeminent mountain in all Japan. The Japanese had always worshipped sacred mountains, but messianic movements raised Fuji to the first rank, the supreme mountain whose worship transcended all other religions, including Buddhism. It became not only the abode of the gods, but a god itself. Most influential of these cults was Fuji-ko, whose charismatic founder starved himself to death on the mountain in 1733 as a sacrifice to implore the gods to deliver Japan from a famine. The movement spread, and Mount Fuji became a symbol of stability and strength during a time when Japan was wracked by civil wars and economic collapse. Identified with the emerging cult of the emperor, Fuji-san also became the foundation of the nation as well as the womb from which Japan was reborn. The Shinto cult of Mount Fuji was tied to nationalism, and many Japanese felt betrayed by the mountain after the defeat in World War II. Both Shinto and the Fuji cult suffered as a result.
Women were forbidden to climb Fuji-san until the Meiji Era (1868–1912), a period of intense modernization in Japan. This coincided with a rebirth of Shinto as the state religion, although Buddhism and Christianity were tolerated.
Two cultic acts are associated with Fuji: fire rituals and climbing the mountain. The Fuji-ko perform fire ceremonies before any ascent of the mountain and burn straw replicas of Mount Fuji at home altars. More than 400,000 people make the climb during the official safe season, July and August. Cult groups climb alongside groups of people with only the vaguest religious motives. Customarily, pilgrims start at a shrine at the base of the mountain. Each of the routes has ten rest stations, maintained by descendants of the religious guides of earlier centuries. At each of these stations, a character is burned into the pilgrim's walking staff. These wooden staffs are much prized, even by the nonreligious. The most popular route has ninety-nine switchbacks, and though arduous, it can be accomplished by anyone in reasonable physical condition. Children and elders make the climb regularly. It is spiritually important that they be assisted if necessary, since the ascent is not an endurance test or an ascetical practice. It is important that all who make the attempt succeed, not just the strong or powerful. A focal point of the climb is the place where the founder of Fuji-ko fasted to death. The most auspicious time to arrive at the top is in time for dawn, but in all climbs the pilgrim ritually hikes around the crater rim.
At the foot of the mountain is a dense forest, Aokigahura, a place of ghostly haunting and the scene of many suicides. In the nineteenth century, it was used for the abandonment of unwanted babies and the frail elderly.
See also: Mountains
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