Photo/IllutrationHikers gather July 1 around the access fee collection counter recently set up at the sixth station along Mount Fuji’s Yoshida trail in Yamanashi Prefecture. (Hiroshi Kawai)

Mount Fuji is under threat from the hordes of hikers eager to ascend the UNESCO World Heritage site, say officials who figure it's time people paid for the privilege of climbing the sacred peak.

But getting climbers and visitors to cough up is a hit-and-miss affair.

The money collected is used to spruce up restrooms and other facilities, clear trash from the slopes and implement steps to ensure climbers remain safe.

The climbing season opened July 1 on the Yamanashi Prefecture side of the 3,776-meter-high peak, but officials are struggling to collect 1,000 yen ($9.30) from each hiker.

NOT ENOUGH PAY

A rockfall at the summit that is blocking access means visitors are currently allowed only up to the 8.5th station. But that has not deterred climbers.

To coincide with the start of the climbing season, Yamanashi Prefecture started calling on visitors to make donations at an access fee gathering counter recently set up at the sixth station.

The donation system was introduced five years ago. Until last year, dedicated personnel informed hikers about the donation at the fifth station, which is accessible by car. The contributions are not mandatory.

The 140 million yen collected last year was used to renovate restrooms in mountain huts and operate aid stations.

However, only 58.6 percent of hikers paid the charge on the Yamanashi side, while the collection rate has hovered around 50 percent for the past several years on the Shizuoka Prefecture side. The target ratio was 70 percent.

Many visitors simply stated that they could not “find where to pay the charges,” while those who refused to make a contribution appeared to be dissatisfied with the way funds are used.

A survey by Yamanashi Prefecture last year showed that 40 percent of those refusing to pay would do so “if the bathroom use tips are included.” This was in reference to the 100 yen to 300 yen charged to use restroom facilities on Mount Fuji.

Kiyotatsu Yamamoto, an associate professor of forestry at the Laboratory of Forest Landscape Planning and Design of the University of Tokyo, noted that a sizable chunk of the fees is used to pay the personnel who collect them, which he called “problematic.”

In fact, 21 percent of the amount collected is used in this way.

Things were much simpler during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

According to the Fujisan Museum in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, hikers paid a flat fee of 122 “mon,” compared with 16 mon for a bowl of “soba” noodles, at pilgrims’ lodgings at the foot of the mountain.

The charge included use of the rest area, maintaining steps on hiking routes, offerings at Sengen Taisha shrine near the summit and other expenses.

The system was adopted to simplify the payment mechanisms for various charges which had been collected at different places, according to museum officials.

ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

After its inclusion in the World Heritage list in 2013, Mount Fuji witnessed a rapid increase in visitor numbers. About 300,000 people venture for the peak annually, with 8,000 people climbing its slopes each day on weekends.

Trash left by visitors has become a serious problem. There are also concerns about the safety of climbers with so many people congregating on the summit.

When the mountain was designated as a World Heritage site, the UNESCO advisory panel pointed out that the hordes of visitors are spoiling the sacred atmosphere of Mount Fuji.

With so many visitors trampling through the natural environment, authorities say it is only fair that hikers cover a portion of the costs to deal with problems triggered by the surge in hikers.

“Interpreters are having to be deployed to deal with the sharp increase in hikers to Mount Fuji from outside Japan,” said Yamamoto. “Local governments in charge of managing the mountain are forced to bear a far heavier burden these days.”

One survey suggested raising the access fee to 7,000 yen as a way to curb the number of visitors, but Yamamoto said that was way too much and inappropriate.

“It's a stupid tactic to deprive people of the precious experience of entering Mount Fuji with such a high access fee,” he added.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

“Officials should weigh forcing all visitors to pay fees” in lieu of increasing the current charge so drastically, Yamamoto said.

But that is easier said than done, largely because it is virtually impossible to locate all visitors in the vast area around Mount Fuji, which is home to four hiking routes and countless small trails.

“The only effective solution would be to surround the fifth station with a gate and a wall like the Great Wall of China,” said Yutaka Nakajima, a researcher at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation’s local tourism research team. “Now that is totally unrealistic.”

It is also difficult to distinguish hikers from people simply driving and returning from the fifth station by car.

For this reason, the collection counter was set up at the sixth station, not the crowded fifth station.

From this year, not only hikers headed for the summit but also sightseers out for a stroll are covered by the donation program.

“Something has to be done to preserve the cultural status of Mount Fuji,” said Yamamoto.