On a gray, rainy Saturday, a continuous stream of tour buses arrives at the base station of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. They disgorge dozens of casually dressed foreign tourists in front of souvenir shops and eateries, creating a scene that more closely resembles a theme park than the sacred and perfectly symmetrical 3,776-meter-high mountain held in reverence by the Japanese.
“Hey, no smoking here!” a souvenir store attendant chastises a man in shorts holding a beer can near the red torii gate that marks the entrance to the Shinto shrine up ahead.
Mount Fuji, spanning Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures in eastern Japan, has always been a popular destination for both local and international tourists. However, a recent surge in inbound tourism has brought about alarming levels of pollution and other challenges. Authorities are now considering drastic measures, including the possibility of restricting access to the mountain by implementing a tram system.
“Fuji faces a real crisis,” warns Masatake Izumi, an official from Yamanashi Prefecture, during a media tour for foreign journalists on the last weekend before the trails close for the year. “It’s becoming uncontrollable, and we fear that Mount Fuji will soon lose its appeal, discouraging climbers.”
A decade ago, Mount Fuji earned UNESCO World Heritage status, further boosting its popularity. However, this recognition came with conditions, including the need for Japan to address overcrowding, environmental damage, and artificial infrastructure like sprawling parking lots built to accommodate tourists.
Unfortunately, overcrowding has only intensified. The fifth and largest base station, known as “Subaru,” welcomed around 4 million visitors this summer, marking a 50% increase since 2013.
Despite the dedicated efforts of janitors, businesses, and volunteers, social media is flooded with complaints about dirty restrooms and piles of litter along the ascent.
Izumi expresses concern that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body to the World Heritage Committee, may soon demand updates on the situation.
Another growing challenge for authorities is “bullet climbing,” where climbers aim to reach the summit of Japan’s tallest peak for sunrise and descend on the same day.
Rescue requests reached 61 this year, a 50% increase from the previous year, with non-Japanese tourists accounting for a quarter of these requests, according to Shizuoka prefecture police. Officials noted that most of these climbers were ill-equipped, suffering from hypothermia or altitude sickness. Comparable data from Yamanashi police is unavailable.
A local visitor acknowledges that restrictions may become necessary. “Every Japanese person wants to climb Mount Fuji at least once in their life,” says 62-year-old Jun Shibazaki, who arrived as part of a tour. “But it’s so crowded. Limited entry might be something we have to accept.”