Photo/IllutrationForeign tourists in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, during the annual Yoshida Fire Festival on Aug. 26. (Eiichi Murano)

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

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which an increasing number of overseas tourists are visiting. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on scenery and cultural heritage that shaped these areas.

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The end of the summer climbing season in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, went out in a blaze of glory as more than 90 bamboo shoot-shaped torches 3-meters-tall and numerous 1.7-meter-tall, piled-up torches were set alight.

The annual Yoshida Fire Festival kicked off on the evening of Aug. 26 with torches lining the Fuji-michi pilgrimage route leading to the Yoshida-guchi Trail up to Mount Fuji’s summit.

Tourists, including ones who came from overseas, walked along a slope as sparks flew around in the area, which sprawls across the northern base of Japan’s highest peak.

“You suddenly have fires, which we tried to avoid, and everyone around them. A barbecue on the street!” said Bulgarian Nik Petrov, 39. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Prior to the festival, two “mikoshi” portable shrines, including the red Mount Fuji-shaped “Aka Fuji” mikoshi, left Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengenjinja shrine to parade through the streets.

“I wanted to see this one because Mount Fuji is quite famous and very near to the heart of Japanese people,” said American visitor Rusty Howell, 56, to check out festivals and temples in Japan.

The goddess of Mount Fuji, Konohanasakuya-hime, is said to have given birth to three children inside a burning hut.

When I told Howell that the blossom-princess was enshrined to calm the wrath of an erupting Mount Fuji, he said he thought it was a good idea and that he hoped the volcano “stays happy” for a long time.

Natsuko Oganmaru, 36, who runs a guest house and cafe near the Fuji-michi route with her husband, said the number of foreigners coming to the festival has shot up since last year.

The Oganmaru is an “oshi-no-ie” (lodging houses for oshi) where “Fujiko” religious followers who worshipped Mount Fuji have stayed since the Edo Period (1603-1867) before climbing the mountain.

The couple are the 18th-generation proprietors of the inn.

Its 16th-generation owner closed it to climbers. But after Mount Fuji was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2013, the number of tourists in the city soared.

The Oganmarus restored the traditional house and reopened it to lodgers in 2016. This year, 80 percent of their guests came from outside Japan, Oganmaru said.

Oshi (low-level priests) offer prayers for climbers. Travelers lodge at several oshi-no-ie inns still operating in the area.

“Recently, many people want to learn about worship of Mount Fuji, and more and more climbers are staying at oshi-no-ie and heading for the peak from the zero station,” Oganmaru said.

The Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengenjinja shrine serves as the starting point for oshi-no-ie lodgers to climb the mountain.

There are notebooks in a city-run rest house for visitors to leave messages at the Umagaeshi point just before the first station, and many climbers from all over the world share their thoughts and impressions in them.

“This mountain is magical. I feel so blessed to have the chance to climb it,” a South African wrote.

A member of a group of Saudi women hiking from the zero station said they were fascinated by the views.

A party of eight Russians arrived at a statue of a monkey at the Umagaeshi point, walking at a brisk pace. The animal is believed to be a divine messenger of Mount Fuji.

They said they would climb to the fifth station and stay overnight at a mountain lodge before heading for the peak the next morning.

“We're not here for sightseeing, we're here for active traveling,” said Serafima Ivanova, 31, excitedly, who acted as the group's guide. “In Russia, it’s very popular. People like to travel on rivers, falls and in maritime areas.”

“After this, we'll go to the‘onsen’ (hot spring),” she added with a smile.

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Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.