“Fuji-san” the sacred mountain

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  • The meaning behind the name

    Most of you have already heard of Mount Fuji (or Fuji-san in Japanese), as the highest volcano in the country, and a huge tourist attraction, present on almost every brochure about Japan, on greeting cards, and websites, posters, calendars, and any other surface it can be printed on. But what makes this mountain so special?

    The sacred mountain 1

    Author’s photo

    The first mention of the mountain dates back to the 8th century, in Nara period, where Fuji-san, although written with different characters than the ones we use now, shows up in Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki, a local chronicle of the area known today as Ibaraki prefecture. Fuji-san will appear recurrently throughout the centuries in many literary and historical pieces, in various combinations of characters. 福慈, 不尽山、不士, 不死 are only some examples of how different kanji-s with the same pronunciation stood for Mt. Fuji over the centuries.
    Some of them are merely ateji, characters used for the phonetic sound they stand for, not for the meaning.
    The last one is, however, a special case. 不死 means immortal, and by the time these characters started being used for Fuji-san, there was already a deeply rooted belief in the sacredness of the mountain.
    This can be easily explained from the animist point of view, according to which, all parts of nature( be that a tree a rock or even a mountain) bear a soul within them. There is also the faith in the mountain gods(山神信仰) according to which the “afterlife” is a realm in or beyond the mountains, the place where gods live. Mount Fuji can therefore be seen as the place where the yama no kami, the mountain gods, found shelter, as a threshold to the other world, as a gate to the afterlife, or sometimes, why not, as a god himself.
    Ever wondered why the character 山 in 富士山 is pronounced san and not yama? The most accepted theory is that san has become the established pronunciation, due to the phonetic resemblance to the suffix showing respect(-san). In other words, 富士山 is more than Mount Fuji, it’s Fuji-san, a highly personified entity, the god watching over the whole country, bringing prosperity but at times also calamity and destruction.

    Calamities and gods

    The sacred mountain 2

    Author’s photo

    As we all know, Japan is famous for its many natural disasters. And for each disaster, a certain god responsible for it. As with many ancient thinking patterns, the Japanese considered natural phenomena the consequence of the gods’ wrath and, therefore, the one and only way to avoid calamities was to pacify the spirit that caused it.
    Thunderstorms would be blamed to the God of thunder(not Thor, its Japanese version, Raijin), earthquakes – to a similar version of the former, called nai no kami and so on.
    A huge form of destruction as a volcano should, therefore, most necessarily have a god that would be able to control it. In Fuji-san’s case, the volcanic eruptions used to be considered the work of the mountain god Asama and to avoid them, the State even built a shrine, Asama Taisha (浅間大社) and a whole cult developed around it, with adepts of the shugendou going mountain-dwelling to achieve awakening by reaching a communion with nature.
    One would say, the greater the destruction the form of nature could cause, the greater the cult developed around it and the attention it receives.

    A whimsical mountain

    The sacred mountain 3

    Author’s photo

    With all its 3776 meters and a whole literature, art and religion surrounding it, Mount Fuji might as well be the only Japanese superstar that will never grow old. And which will require more and more attention, just as the god Asama in antiquity used to gather more and more worshipers of its cult.
    The beauty of the mountain is undeniable, whether you see it from Yamanashi or from Shizuoka prefecture.
    However, Fuji-san might as well have a mind of its own and decide who is worthy to see it and who’s not. Among the locals, there is a saying according to which if the sky is cloudy and you cannot see the mountain, it means that you weren’t ready to behold it in all its beauty, or, in other words, you weren’t worthy to catch a glimpse of its godly shape. Also, according to the same saying, those who have the chance to see the mountain against a clear blue sky, are good and honest people.
    So, if you ever go on a trip to Mount Fuji, don’t be too sad if you don’t get to see it on your first try. As all gods, Fuji-san is a whimsical one, who requires more than one visit to disclose its entire beauty to human eyes. And who will make you come back over and over again, whenever you have the opportunity.