Photo/IllutrationMount Fuji seen from above the Tagonoura port, from which the Mount Fuji Tourism Climbing Route 3776 starts. Fuji city in Shizuoka Prefecture proposes a four-day hiking plan and other programs. (Provided by Fuji city)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

If the long hike up Japan’s highest mountain seems anywhere from a bit daunting to downright impossible, never fear, as there are other options for experiencing Mount Fuji that are proving increasingly popular.

Tours to visit areas lower than the mountain's fifth station are being chosen by people who want to eschew the hard uphill slog in favor of experiences including enjoying the view of the town under the mountain and walk in an abundance of nature.

The summer climbing season starts in July and lasts until early September. Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefecture trails have successively opened since July this year, attracting many hikers, and higher sections of Japan’s highest peak are always heavily crowded.

The number of visitors has been rising every year partly because more foreign tourists are going to the mountain. According to an Environment Ministry survey, only 200,000 people visited Mount Fuji’s eighth station in 2005, but annual visitor numbers have been around 300,000 since 2008.

As so many people have visited the mountain since it was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2013, UNESCO warned that its sanctity is being spoiled in its report on heritage preservation.

In light of those conservation concerns, tours to visit areas lower than the fifth station are drawing more attention.

Michitaka Nonaka, 39, a mountain tour guide, began hiking between the first station and the fifth station with tour participants around 10 years ago. Nonaka said the tour is popular especially among those visiting Mount Fuji for the second or third time.

Asked why the program is attracting so many people, Nonaka said it is because hikers “can view how different the forests are at different altitudes as they can walk around the tree line” when touring areas below the fifth station.

He said a program in which participants just descend Mount Fuji from the fifth station is also popular among elementary and junior high school students during school camps, or with mountain-hiking beginners.

The latest trend is in line with the traditional way of enjoying the mountain.

Mount Fuji hiking is said to have become popular as a form of religious training in the late 15th century.

“Fujiko” religious groups that honor the nation's highest peak were actively involved in the “ochudo meguri” tour to walk on a circular route near its sixth station, as doing so was regarded as more important than reaching the summit.

“There are many religious spots, such as the Higashiguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Jinja shrine, in areas lower than the fifth station,” said Yasumasa Otaka, an associate professor of history at the Mount Fuji World Heritage Center, Shizuoka, who is familiar with Mount Fuji worshipping and hiking.

Oyama town in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is home to the entrance to the Subashiri course on Mount Fuji, in 2016 started surveying the old pilgrimage route that starts from the Ashigara Pass in the border zone between Shizuoka and Kanagawa prefectures and leads to Subashiri.

Travel agencies and others have also organized low-altitude tours, proposing various new ways to enjoy Mount Fuji.

One such tour targets even those who want to scale the 3,776-meter peak, so they can understand what it is like hiking on the base of the mountain.

Fuji city in Shizuoka Prefecture, which faces Suruga Bay, organized the Mount Fuji Tourism Climbing Route 3776 project three years ago to urge hikers to start their journey from locations at sea level.

The program was developed based on an old practice where visitors purified themselves with seawater to pray for safety before climbing Mount Fuji.

The municipality expects participants to also visit surrounding shopping streets and tourism facilities, helping revitalize local communities.

“I hope people will realize there are ways to enjoy the nature, history and other various aspects of Mount Fuji,” Otaka said.