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Mount Fuji: The Art of Japan's Sacred Mountain

"Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa," a woodcut print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is part of his famed series 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Print by Katsushika Hokusai/courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mount Fuji, Japan's 12,388-foot high point, is one of the world's most beautiful mountains. This symmetrical stratovolcano, towering 60 miles west of Tokyo, has always been a favorite subject of artists and photographers.

Mount Fuji is a Sacred Mountain

Mount Fuji is a sacred mountain to the Japanese psyche with many spiritual and religious aspects. Mount Fuji is the gateway to heaven and hell; a place of pilgrimages to greet the sunrise; and the abode of Buddhist and Shinto deities. Mount Fuji is sacred to Shintoists for Sengen-Sama, a goddess or kami and the spirit of nature. Others believe the mountain is a sacred being with its own eternal soul.

Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

One of the oldest folktales associated with Mount Fuji is the 10th-century Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the story, a baby girl is found inside a luminous bamboo stalk and raised as a princess. Eventually she leaves earth to return to the Moon to live with her people.

The Emperor later read a letter she wrote and ordered his soldiers to take the letter to the mountain top which is the closest place to heaven—Mount Fuji—where they burned the letter in hopes that his message would reach the princess. They also burned an elixir of immortality because the Emperor didn’t want to live without her. The myth relates that the Japanese word for immortality “fuji” was given to the sacred mountain and that the smoke of the burning letter still rises from the volcano.

Hokusai Creates "36 Views of Mount Fuji”

Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was obsessed with Fuji-san, depicting it in all kinds of seasons in his famed woodblock print series "36 Views of Mount Fuji" (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūroku-kei) in 1831. The series actually is 46 prints created between 1826 and 1833, with 10 additional prints added after the initial offering. Hokusai’s ukiyo-e series of large woodblock prints illustrates Mount Fuji in a wide variety of seasons and moods from many unusual angles and vantage points. Hokusai was said to be obsessed with Mount Fuji as the source of immortality, a sort of volcanic fountain of youth.

“The Great Wave” Print

The best known print from the series is "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" (神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawaoki namiura), an extraordinary and famous depiction of a huge wave, perhaps a tsunami, engulfing three boats filled with huddled fishermen. Beyond the breaking waves and boats looms the great mountain, its placid symmetry a compelling counterpoint to the tension of the waves and restless sea.

“Mount Fuji Reflects in Lake Kawaguchi”

Another spectacular print is "Mount Fuji Reflects in Lake Kawaguchi" (甲州三坂水面 Kōshū Misaka suimen). It offers a quiet moment with Mount Fuji's silhouette reflected in the clear lake like a dreamy cloud and dominating a village, the human world, on the lakeshore.

Mount Fuji one of World’s Most-Climbed Mountains

Besides being popular with artists, Mount Fuji is the most climbed mountain in the world. No exact figures are kept of annual ascents but it's estimated that over 100,000 people--70% Japanese and 30% foriegners--reach the summit every year. Many make a pilgrimage to Fuji-san, climbing it at night so that they can huddle on the chilly summit to watch the sun rise over Japan.

"Mount Fuji reflects in Lake Kawaguchi, seen from the Misaka Pass in Kai Province" (甲州三坂水面』Kōshū Misaka suimen) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Wikimedia Commons.

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