Photo/IllutrationForeign visitors flock to Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha, which is the head shrine of 1,300 Sengen shrines across Japan. The entire top of Mount Fuji from the 8th stage upwards is part of the shrine grounds. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

My uncle, bless his heart, he was probably just trying to make conversation, said to me, because I live in Japan, that he heard Mount Fuji is so revered that Japanese people add the honorific “san” to its name like they do names of people they respect. He seemed a bit crushed when I informed him that “san” means mountain.

Upon visiting Mount Fuji and its surrounding areas, I noticed that there were many Sengen Jinja shrines. When I first came to Japan, Shinto shrines puzzled me because I expected, as a Westerner, that places of worship enshrined a founder of a religion or some absolute being, i.e., God.

What I found were shrines dedicated to the god of war (Hachiman), a rice god with a fox as a messenger (Inari), a politician and scholar with statues of oxen and plum trees (Tenjin), and leaders of powerful clans.

There are imperial shrines called “jingu” instead of “jinja,” and so many others. Now I know that Shinto is polytheistic, “the way of the gods,” and just about anything can take the form of a sacred spirit and be revered, be it mountains, people and even fertility.

There are about 1,300 Sengen Jinja shrines in Japan, and enshrined in each is Konohana Sakuya-hime, or in English, “blooming cherry tree blossom.” She is the principal goddess of Fuji-san and is said to protect the region around the mountain from volcanic eruptions. Sakura and Mount Fuji go hand in hand, and they are even depicted on the back of the thousand-yen note.

Pop quiz time: Who owns Fuji-san? You may think that’s a strange question. Indeed, it may be, because most people instinctively answer, “Everyone!” Well, yes, the mountain belongs to humanity as it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. But, not really.

The mountain, from the eighth station upward, is officially privately owned. Surprised? Most people are. The official owner is Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha. After Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he had several structures built, and in 1604, he formally bequeathed the land to the shrine.

This summer, how about a pilgrimage to the one-and-only (不二山), immortal (不死山), never-ending (不尽山) mountain? Approach it from Yamanashi or Shizuoka prefectures, and you’ll find a Sengenjinja shrine. Offer a little prayer, and you’re sure to find wealth (富) and become a person worthy of respect (士). The mountain (山) awaits!

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Aug 4 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.