Everybody knows the pictures showing thousands of Japanese climbing up Mount Fuji. It is difficult to combine this vision with the idea of a sacred mountain. It is also difficult to imagine that in former times, those who intended to climb towards heaven had to prepare with ritual purification ceremonies for at least 7 days. In spite of the strong influences of Buddhistic pilgrimage, the ancient Shinto traditions related to the holy mountain can still be recognised today.
Even in our day, mountain climbers have to respect the majesty of the mountain and cannot behave as they want. The rules of climbing Mount Fuji correspond to those of pilgrimage. At the entrance of the paths leading up the mountain there are Shinto sanctuaries. They reflect the national cult of the mountain. Thus the restrictions in regard to climbing up the sacred mountain are derived from ancient local Shinto traditions like 'yamabiraki' opening the mountain, or 'yamashime', closing the mountain. Thus, in spite of evident secularisations, these rites show that until today mount Fuji has remained a sacred mountain of the type found in any traditional village in Japan.
The small town Fujiyoshida on the North-Eastern foot of Mount Fuji is characterised by a large mainstreet which abruptly ends directly in front of the gigantic cone. At this limit, that is between the domain of profane everyday life and the domain of the sacred, the Sengen shrine is located, one of the most important access sanctuaries related to the volcano. To celebrate the closure of Mount Fuji, the shrine district organises a cult festival, which was formerly of great importance for the whole Kanto region. It is held on the 26th and 27th of August and shows some very remarkable characteristics. Its designation as 'fire festival' (himatsuri) is related to the great torches about 3 metres high which are set up in the middle of the main street and lighted when night falls. On first sight they seem to be related mainly to illumination today, but they are part of the most ancient cultic outfit of the festival. In fact their ancient meaning as cult objects is still discernible today. The place where they stand is ritually purified with fresh earth and salt.
At about 5 p.m. the town suddenly becomes animated. In a fairly wild procession the members of the local cult organisation carry Mount Fuji to the settlement - or more precisely, a model of Mount Fuji. It is an artificial representation made of lacquered wood, at the same time representing the mobile 'seat of a deity'. Its base is formed in a regular hexagonal shape and its top is slightly rounded in wavelike form, alluding to the natural form of Mount Fuji. Surprisingly it is not called by the name of the mountain. Its name is 'honourable light-shade (mi-kage), evidently a very ancient designation which corresponds to an archaic word whose meaning cannot be understood by Westerners. It contains two absolutely contradicting meanings in the same term, and can only be understood in analogy with the Chinese concept of Yin Yang. The mountain represents light AND shade at the same time. It is probably this paradox which explains the sanctity of the place. Mount Fuji stands as a concrete harmonious symbol which unites shade and light, represents rest and movement, relates earth and heaven.
Fully in ecstasy, the cult members with their wild cries of 'wassho-wassho' carry the sacred mountain through the streets. Is the mountain travelling, moving in the form of its mobile counterpart? It seems so, since the temporary cult place in the centre of the settlement is called o-tabishô, that is 'honorable travel place'. It is there where the mountain is brought and set to rest after hours of ecstatic action all around.
Towards nightfall the torches in the middle of the street and also heaps of wood in front of the houses are set afire, turning the public space into a sea of flames. And through the opened doors and windows, the carefully decorated interiors of the houses can be seen. The whole town is on its feet - everybody enjoys the event.
Finally the artificial Fuji mountain is placed to rest at the 'honorable travel place' for the ceremony, together with another type of 'mobile seat of gods' (mikoshi) . The Shinto priests bring the prescribed offerings and perform the traditional ceremonies. The artificial mount Fuji now passes the whole night in the settlement. On the next day it will be brought back to the shrine, together with the 'mikoshi'. Both 'divine seats' will be desacralised with secondary ceremonies. At the end of these celebrations, the real Mount Fuji can again take over its traditional function. At the same time the phase of pilgrimage to the mountain comes to a close - the mountain is officially closed.
Western history of religion considers the veneration of mountains as something primordial. But this is evidently a 19th century nature-culture dichotomy, fairly anachronistic today.
The ritual 'opening' and 'closing' of the sacred mountain corresponds to a custom widely found in Japanese villages. In fact, the 'yama', a mountainous district above the village, is equally holy and at its foot, the village sanctuary, the 'seat of the village deity' is found. In regard to the specific cult of the complementary mountain and field deity (yama/ta no kami), the mountain of the village is officially opened - usually at New Year- and later closed. During the opening period people go to the woods to bring offerings to the deity. In many regions the deity is also brought from the woods to a related house where transitional ceremonies are held. Later, related to the beginnings of the rice cycle, the deity is brought to the fields. In autumn the deity is brought to the mountain again.
In most villages the word yama does not mean a formal unity of mountain, but a part of the woods more or less delimited, opposite the entrance to the village. It consists of a part of the 'primitive' or 'primordial' forest or woods which is also a pre-agrarian element in the village setting.
An ancient Japanese tradition explains this close relationship between 'mountain' and fields. An entrance (yamaguchi) forms the border between the domain of humans and the domain of gods, at the same time uniting them into an inseparable unit. The prayers are initially addressed to a divinity for protection. In exchange, the deity receives a sanctuary. A holy alliance is maintained and renewed through generations with particular offerings. In this framework, the holy mountain is an important complement to the inhabited and cultivated land. It somehow constitutes the sacralised testimony of a contract which is renewed every year in the framework of a traditional rite. This character of a legal formula which describes the harmony of a spatial unit being composed in complementary ways - partially as 'valley', partially as coordinated 'mountain' - is also expressed in the ancient poems of the ancient rulers of the Yamato plain related to the inspection of their lands (kuni-mi) . Viewed from a mountain ritually climbed by the ruler, these poems describe the lands which are physically and politically at its foot. Maybe the tradition related to the origins of the Fujiyoshida shrine is correct when it maintains that the cultic interest in mount Fuji began with the emperor Keikô (71-130 A.D.) and the great expeditions related to the conquest of the Eastern parts of Japan. It might thus be assumed that, with the continued enforcement of the state during the Edo period, Mount Fuji became in some ways the 'village mountain' for the whole country and gained an enormous national importance.