Julie Miller plays hide and seek with Japan's Mount Fuji, an icon of art, religion and popular culture.
Fujisan has been an elusive goddess, playing "now you see me, now you don't" behind heavy cloud for days. But at the viewpoint at the top of the Kachi Kachi Yama Ropeway, our optimistic guide is determined we admire Japan's most legendary mountain in all her seasonal glory.
"This is the view of Mount Fuji in spring. See the cherry blossoms? Beautiful!" she boasts, holding up a laminated photograph of the snow-capped cone piercing an azure sky, flanked by powder puffs of pastel petals.
"And in fall, such wonderful colours," she says, flicking onto the next visual. "And this is winter, when visibility is the clearest." We nod sagely, impressed.
"And now ... " she says, pointing to the grim, misty horizon where, apparently, Fujisan dwells. "... nothing. She's out there somewhere."
To visit Japan during tsuyu, the summer rainy season, can be a frustrating experience, especially when the whole purpose of your visit is to celebrate the country's national symbol. Straddling two prefectures, Yamanashi and Shizuoka, and just 100km south-west of Tokyo, Japan's highest mountain (3776 metres) is one of three "holy mountains", a designated "place of special beauty" and was recently honoured with a World Heritage listing.
Despite being an active volcano (last erupting in 1707) and surrounded by national park and five beautiful lakes, it was not for its natural splendour, however, that Fuji was recognised by UNESCO in June 2013. It was inscribed as a site of cultural heritage, consisting of 25 separate monuments and registered under the title "Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration".
With its near-perfect symmetry, dramatic conical shape and choc-ice topping, Mount Fuji is a landmark of rare beauty that holds a special place in Japanese history and culture. It has been revered as a sacred object since ancient times, when followers of the animist Shinto religion built shrines at its base and summit to appease the goddess of fire, Konohanasakuya-hime, and to quell eruptions. When the prayers seemed to work, the mountain became the centre for worship for the Shugendo sect, an amalgamation of ancient Japanese mountain worship and esoteric Buddhism. From the 14th century, ordinary people guided by Shugendo practitioners began to make worship-ascents of the mountain.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), tens of thousands of devotees of Fujiko (societies dedicated to the veneration of Fuji) embarked on annual pilgrimages during the months of July and August. Climbing the mountain represented rebirth, a journey from kusayama, the secular world of the living, to yakeyama, the world of gods and death at the summit. Pilgrims (doja) traditionally wore gyoi (white funereal apparel) as a symbol of their spiritual rebirth, which they had stamped at shrines en route as evidence of their journey and faith.
That tradition continues today, with many Japanese keen to tackle the six-hour hike to witness the sunrise from its summit, an experience known as goraiko, or 'the coming of the light'. These days, however, the emphasis is less on religion and more on a bucket-list experience, with many Japanese seeing it as an important rite of passage and a symbol of national pride.
"Fuji wa Nippon-ichi no yama," our tour guide trills as we sit on a bus, passing yet another viewpoint obscured by cloud. "Fuji is No.1 mountain in Japan. This is a popular children's song, every child learns it at school," she tells us proudly. "But today, no Fujisan. Sorry!"
The volcano has also been celebrated in literature and poetry since ancient times, and was featured extensively in the 8th-century Man'yoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry.
It was during the Edo era, however, that Mount Fuji really entered the Japanese psyche, its status raised from religious symbol to pure pop icon. In this period, feudal lords were required to journey from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) several times a year, travelling on the Tokaido Highway that passed by Fuji on the eastern seaboard. Along the way, they collected the 19th-century version of mass-produced postcards, exquisite woodblock prints called ukiyo-e depicting towns, landscapes and personalities of the time.
The 53 Stations of the Tokaido by the artist Hiroshige, was the best-selling series of ukiyo-e prints, with images of Mount Fuji featured heavily throughout. Another series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, illustrates the mountain in various seasons and locations, and includes one of most famous, enduring and reproduced motifs of Japanese art, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a tsunami-like wave with Fujisan rising in the distance.
A copy of this print is housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, while another can be seen at Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France; the French impressionist was highly influenced by Hokusai's style. Van Gogh was also enamored with the Japonism movement, importing and selling ukiyo-e prints with his brother, Theo. In 1888, he wrote, "It seems to me that we cannot study Japanese art without becoming much gayer and happier, and we must return to nature despite our education and our work in a world of conventions."
I, too, am keen to "return to nature" with Fujisan as my muse. My camera is poised to capture her majesty, but despite promises of "spectacular views" at several stops, she is yet to show her pretty face. At the popular spa resort of Hakone, famed for its healing waters as well as tranquil vistas across Lake Ashi, we are met with misty rains and evening thunderstorms. Undeterred, we forge on the next morning, stopping at the Kitaguchi Honga Fuji Sengen-jinja, a shrine where devotees would traditionally pray to the volcanic deities before commencing their climb. Approached via a massive torii gate flanked by 300-year-old cedar trees and 83 stone lanterns, we make our own silent wishes before beginning our journey, albeit by bus, not foot, to the modern-day ascension point: the Fujinomyaguchi 5th Station.
We arrive at a bitumen-paved village square, jam-packed with school children preparing for their hike, a sea of brightly coloured rain jackets and backpacks covered with waterproof protection. Even inclement weather can't deter the 300,000 hikers who tackle Fuji's peak each season, and the path from the village to the crater today resembles a department store escalator during sale season.
Open climbing season at Fuji is officially from July 1 to August 30. After that, hikers must register to make the ascent, with the possibility of bad weather making it a dangerous undertaking. On this bleak and uninviting day, I'm surprised how many people are setting off with smiles, but even more joyous are the faces of those who have successfully conquered the peak. (Explore the peak in 360 degrees below)
"This was my second attempt," beams British/Nigerian teacher Kola Olagboyega, resplendent in orange overalls and a walking stick. "The first time I was terribly under-prepared, I had no idea how tough it would be. I gave up, but I was determined to try again! I didn't care about the weather, I was just motivated to make it. I'm proud of myself."
The walk to the summit from 5th Station takes between six to eight hours, depending on conditions and crowds. Most people commence climbing in late afternoon, resting at 8th Station mountain hut for several hours before setting off around 3am to make sunrise at the apex.
The accessibility of Mount Fuji makes it one of the most achievable (and perhaps over-crowded) peaks in the world. But despite it being a "mountain of the people", a famous proverb states: "You are wise to climb Mount Fuji, but a fool to do it twice."
Wishing we had time to tackle the peak ourselves, our group prepares to leave 5th Station to continue our sightseeing tour. Then suddenly, as if to reward our collective wishes, Fujisan decides to emerge from the clouds, revealing her perfect conical shape. We gasp with delight, as excited as game-watchers on a safari, and click furiously with our cameras.
Then the shy geisha raises her fan, blinks her eyes, and disappears once again behind a misty shawl.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu Tourism Association.
Japan Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Tokyo daily, see au.jal.com/aul/en/. Mount Fuji is about a two-hour drive from Tokyo and can be viewed from three provinces, Yamanashi, Shizouka and Kanagawa.
Hotels offering Fuji views include Hotel Regina in Kawaguchiko, from $136 per person per night (two meals included), see booking.com/hotel/jp/hotel-regina-kawaguchiko and Hotel Tenbo in Izu Nagaoka, from $142 per person per night
FIVE PLACES WITH VIEWS OF MOUNT FUJI
OISHI PARK, KAWAGUCHIKO, YAMANASHI Situated on the north shore of Lake Kawaguchiko, this park is widely considered the optimum place to admire Fuji, particularly when the lavender is in bloom in June/July.
KACHI KACHI YAMA ROPEWAY, YAMANASHI Named after a popular children's folktale, this observation deck on top of Mount Tenjo offers panoramic seasonal views of Mount Fuji.
OSEZAKI CAPE, SHIZOUKA This moody peninsula jutting into Suruga Bay affords Fuji views across open water, reminiscent of the seascapes of ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.
LAKE ASHI, HAKONE, KANAGAWA Take a cruise across the lake in the resident pirate ship for lovely distant views of Fuji if the weather is in your favour.
FROM THE TOKAIDO SHINKANSEN When travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train, the mountain appears on the right side of the train, near Shin-Fuji station.