Tourists have returned to Mount Fuji. Is that sustainable?

Back in the 1980s, I participated as a member of the Space Agency delegation meeting with other officials at other member agencies.

Each CCSDS Agency must formally appoint its delegates to the CCSDS Technical Working Groups which that Agency supports.

At that time, China National Space Agency (CNSA) was in its infancy stage. CNSA participated as an observer agency that cannot vote to approve space systems standards.

Several years later, CNSA became a member agency.

A colleague at Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA flew in early to climb the mountain Fiji. He climbed up to the 6th stage and slipped. Luckily, his backpack caught a branch & saved him from death.

A Japanese tourist found him and alerted a Japanese ranger. They contacted the American Embassy before launching a rescue mission. Marine helicopters tried to save him but had to return due to heavy fog that evening.

The American Embassy had to agree to pay for the ranger team to rescue. Unlike rangers in America, we would have to pay for rescue teams. They had to walk up from the 5th stage to 6th stage that night due to dangerous conditions.



Visitor numbers at Mount Fuji steadily returned to pre-pandemic levels this summer, as evidenced by the continuous arrival of buses at the mountain’s base station in Yamanashi Prefecture, and the tourists exploring the souvenir shops and restaurants there.

Straddling the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, the 3,776-meter Mount Fuji, which closed for the season on Sept. 10, has long been a popular destination for both domestic and international travelers.

But Yamanashi Gov. Kotaro Nagasaki is more concerned than happy about the return of tourists, saying the UNESCO World Heritage site is facing a “crisis.”

“We believe it is essential to confront the crisis facing Mount Fuji jointly with everyone and work together to preserve the value of Mount Fuji for future generations,” Nagasaki said during a news conference on Aug. 29.

Visitor numbers have more than doubled since the mountain was granted World Heritage status in 2013, with more than 5 million recorded at the “fifth station” in 2019. That station, situated 2,300 m above sea level, serves as the primary hub for tourists visiting the mountain.

But that increase brought a number of challenges, including overcrowding, littering, strained infrastructure and a shortage of guides and rescuers.

One of the growing issues is the limited availability of water at high altitudes. Water has to be carried by truck to the mountain, and wastewater, along with trash, needs to be brought back down to local towns and cities.

“It’s a lot to process,” said Masatake Izumi, a Yamanashi Prefecture official. “Tourists can just come and leave. Local people are left to deal with it — that’s the problem.”

Local rescuers also face a flood of nonemergency calls from visitors, or have to deal with those who get ill or injured because of a lack of proper clothing and shoes for climbing.

“Recently, there have been a lot of requests for assistance, like people asking for a crawler (an electric wheelchair used to climb down mountains), because they’re tired or saying they need help because it’s chilly during the rainy season,” said Toshie Yoshikawa, a nurse who works at a first aid center on Mount Fuji.

“The principle is that you should go up the mountain by yourself and come down by yourself, so I would like to ask (climbers) to do that,” she said.

Tourists at Mount Fuji earlier this month lauded the mountain’s cleanliness, expressing satisfaction with their experiences. But then there are those who lack appropriate manners when climbing the sacred mountain.

“Hey! No smoking!” a tour guide shouted to a man holding a cigarette and can of beer while standing a few meters away from the red torii that leads to the sacred Shinto shrine at the fifth station, interrupting his presentation to a group of tourists.

One option Yamanashi Prefecture has in mind is limiting tourists’ access by installing a railway system on top of the Fuji Subaru line — the road that connects the foot of the mountain to the fifth station.

At present, municipalities cannot restrict the use of roads, which under domestic law need to be publicly accessible. But if the railway system is built, operators could limit the number of visitors through the number of trains operated or by imposing high fees.

Munirah Paiizi, a tourist in her 20s visiting from Malaysia, noted the difference between Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu — a mountain with an elevation of 4,095 m — and Mount Fuji.

“Mount Kinabalu limits the number of people who can climb because there is a limited number of guides,” she said.

Yamanashi Prefecture hopes Mount Fuji can become a sustainable tourist destination, with plans to restore it as an “object of faith and a source of art” by incorporating more greenery into the fifth station, so it blends in with the surrounding landscape.

Its plan is to attract so-called quality tourists, rather than focusing on quantity, so as to avoid the overtourism that could cause environmental destruction and reduce visitor satisfaction. The prefecture plans to look into what needs to be done and hammer out the details in conjunction with local residents and stakeholders.

Shoichi Osano, an employee working in a souvenir shop at the fifth station, said that he and others involved with the mountain need to consider what the right balance is between the rising number of tourists and offering a quality experience.

“What Mount Fuji should be like in the future is something that we (local residents, government and stakeholders) need to discuss together,” he said.

AIorK4z7OlkyubtfPFRstV7PpL_wJimvyL9F5rt3NPErti3DLXa5W8NUXH3DKzkMkxc4BzASKDMiWFM Diem ‘Richard’ Nguyen