Japan’s Sacred Mountain, and a Rejuvenating Soak
Hailed as a goddess, revered as a sacred mountain and the country’s national symbol, 12,390-foot Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest peak, a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone that’s spellbinding when not shrouded in clouds, and is particularly beautiful when reflected on the mirror-calm surface of Lake Ashi-no.
Famous throughout the world, the dormant volcano has always exuded a strong pull on the Japanese, who believe that to experience goraiko (sunrise) on its summit is one of the most moving of all natural experiences. They also admit that while everyone should climb Fuji-san once, only a fool would climb it twice. Still, judging by the huge number of gung-ho climbers who show up every summer – an impressive number of grandparents in their seventies and older among them – a good many of them must be return contenders.
Six mountain paths, each with ten stations, lead to the summit, but most climbers begin a five- to six-hour climb to the top from the fifth station (8,250 feet), at either Gogome on the north side or Shin-Gogome on the south. The descent is a breeze.
The name Fuji means “fire” in the Ainu language, and in the resort area of Hakone, within the Mount Fuji National Park, intense volcanic activity can be observed from the funicular that passes above the Valley of Great Boiling (or Ojigoku, Big Hell) and its steaming sulfurous gorge.
Public baths tap into searing-hot, mineral-rich onsen (hot springs, which abound throughout Japan) and promise to cure everything from stress to rheumatism to muscles sore from climbing the mountain. Despite the modernization and Westernization of Japanese cities, onsen are a tradition that refuses to die, and on weekends the wonderfully scenic area of Hakone fills with Tokyoites who come for a long, hot soak.
Of the handful of traditional ryokan inns with their own indoor and outdoor onsen, Gôra Kadan, the former summer residence of the Kan-In-No-Miya imperial family, is one of the nicest in the country. The renowned Hakone Open-Air Museum houses sculptures by Henry Moore.