Religious Pilgrimage and Tourism on Mt. Fuji, Japan


Mt. Fuji’s cultural influence and aesthetic appeal in Japan is undeniable. As the country’s highest and most impressive mountain, it’s image can be seen all over Japan in an almost endless variety of context. Besides the peak’s striking aestheticism and presence in popular culture, Mt. Fuji also carries great spiritual significance. Locals have been worshipping Mt. Fuji’s commanding presence since people first settled in the area and viewed the mountain’s volcanic activity as messages from the divine (Earhart 1981). Shugendo, a syncretic mountain religious practice, took particular interest in Mt. Fuji and developed several of the major climbing routes. Although the main goals of Shugendo are to achieve magical skills, medicinal powers, and a long life, the practice also stresses the importance of pilgrimage (Swanson). Pilgrimage up the lofty slopes of Mt. Fuji played a major role in the development of Murayama Shugendo, a religious sect founded by Matsudai Shonin that combined elements of murayama buddhism and shugendo. Along with the value of austerity, pilgrimage brought people closer to enlightenment as Fuji’s summit was viewed as a gateway to the heavens or Amida’s pure land (Earhart, 1981).

Much of the religious motivation for climbing Mt. Fuji came from the development of Fujiko, a group of religious co-fraternities founded upon a blend of Shugendo beliefs combined with teachings of Hasegawa Kakugyo and Jukigyo Miroku. In the 17th century CE, Hasegawa Kakugyo founded Fujiko, a religious confraternity that views Mt. Fuji as the source of all life (Tyler, 1981).Kakugyo’s teachings combined ritual and ethical components to ensure individual benefits as well as nationwide peace. According to Kakugyo’s revelations, Fuji is a truly cosmic mountain that is the source of the universe. At the heart of Kakugyo’s teachings was the aim for people of all classes being able to climb Fuji as an act of religious pilgrimage and ethical self-discovery (Dolores, 2007). People needed to experience the mountain firsthand in order to bring themselves into harmony with the heavens and earth.  

Pilgrimage reached a peak during the Edo Period in the 18th century. The increase in crowds prompted the opening of oshi inns, ran by quasi-priestly figures who also served as guides. Although the oshi only housed religious pilgrims, people who lived near the mountain were already developing the area by building accomodations in response to the increase in visitation (Matsui, 2015). As Japan progressed into the Meiji Period, government bans on Fuji-ko lowered numbers of pilgrims on the mountain and later global interest in mountaineering brought in a slew of foreign visitors for adventure tourism (Bernstein, 2008). Mt. Fuji remains an popular international tourist destination but some pilgrimage still occurs.

Framing Question: What influences a place’s shift from pilgrimage site to tourist destination?

Situated Context:

Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 12,388 feet or 3,776 meters tall. The mountain is located in Central Honshu and forms the border between the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures (O’Mara, 1996). Fuji is the center of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and has been certified a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fuji is a stratovolcano and has a long history of violent eruptions that influenced early religious belief in the mountain as an angry deity (Earhart, 1981). The mountain is geologically unique as it erupts explosively but produces basalt – an anomaly that has yet to be figured out. It is also located at the intersection of three plates: the Eurasian, Filipino and North American plates (Aizawa, 2004). Mt. Fuji is a major source of spring water for its surrounding communities, supporting trout farms and resulting in several waterfalls. Shugendo practitioners utilized Fuji spring water for austerity and purification rituals (Swanson). Surrounded by temples and shrines, the mountain is highly sacred. Although a variety of landowners own parcels of land on the mountain, Fuji’s summit is owned by the Sengen Shrine, a shinto organization that regulates religious practice around the mountain (Bernstein, 2008).

Focus Question: How does religious pilgrimage influence tourism on Mt. Fuji, Japan?


I would conduct extensive literature review to break down the relationship between pilgrimage and tourism on Mt. Fuji. I would begin with historical background on the origins of Mt. Fuji religious practice and what motivated the creation of these religions. I could utilize Byron Earhart’s Mt. Fuji: Icon of Japan and Andrew Bernstein’s Whose Fuji? For information regarding historical context. Next, I would explain shugendo religious practice, the significance of entering the mountains in their religion and how waterfalls can be used to achieve enlightenment through physical austerities. To do this I would investigate using these potential sources: Shugendo: The History and Culture of a Japanese Religion by Paul Swanson and Religious Rituals in Shugendo by H. Miyake. I would then explain the significance of religious figures like Hasegawa Kakugyo and Jikigyo Miroku with regards to how their teachings influenced pilgrimage on the mountain. Earhart’s Mt. Fuji: Icon of Japan will aid in doing this as his book contains extensive information on Kakugyo and Miroku. Going forward, I would explain Edo Period suppression of the Fuji-ko and Mt. Fuji’s transition from pilgrimage site to mountaineering destination. Bernstein’s Whose Fuji outlines this transition well but I would have to do further literary research to understand exactly why sightseeing overtook religious pilgrimage on Mt. Fuji and what effect this had on surrounding communities.


Interview Andrew Bernstein and religious studies professor Jessica Starling on their views about how pilgrimage and tourism intersect on Mt. Fuji. I would also interview Nikki and Michihito Sensei from the Fujisan Club – who we worked with during the Mt. Fuji program. During the interview, I would ask questions such as:

  • Describe your relationship with Mt. Fuji
  • What are your motivations for climbing Mt. Fuji?
  • How would you distinguish tourism from pilgrimage on Mt. Fuji? How do you think they are interconnected?
  • In what ways is religious pilgrimage still alive on Mt. Fuji?
  • Why do you think Mt. Fuji has become more of a tourist destination than religious one?
  • Is there anything else you would like to share that you think is important understanding how pilgrimage and tourism intersect on Mt. Fuji?

These questions are rough and would be revised upon interview preparation. All interviews would be recorded. I would then transcribe my interviews and run the text through Voyant Tools.

Broader Implications:

Investigating connections between pilgrimage and tourism aids in understanding how larger scale historical trends influences people’s motivation to travel. “Motivation” in this sense could be spiritual or emotional. Connections between pilgrimage and tourism in Japan also aid in tracing changes in cultural perceptions and reasons for travel to Mt. Fuji. Tracing how Shugendo practitioners and Fuji-ko have responded to the influx of international tourism aids in demonstrating the effect of modern (secular) tourism on religious organizations around Mt. Fuji.



Aizawa, Koki, Ryokei Yoshimura, and Naoto Oshiman. “Splitting of the Philippine Sea Plate and a Magma Chamber beneath Mt. Fuji.” Geophysical Research Letters 31, no. 9 (2004): N/a.

Bernstein, Andrew. “Whose Fuji? Religion, Region, and State in the Fight for a National Symbol.” Monumenta Nipponica 63, no. 1 (2008): 51-99.

Dolores Rodríguez del Alisal Ma., et al. Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. Routledge, 2007.

Earhart, H. Byron. Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Joan H. O’Mara. “Mt Fuji.” Grove Art Online, 1996, Grove Art Online.

Matsui, Keisuke, and UDA, Takuya. “Tourism and Religion in the Mount Fuji Area in the Pre-Modern EraJournal of Geography (Chigaku Zasshi) 124, no. 6 (2015): 895-915.

スワンソン, ポール, and SWANSON, Paul L. “”Shugendo: The History and Culture of a Japanese Religion (L’histoire Et La Culture D’une Religion Japonaise)”, Edite Par Bernard Faure, D. Max Moerman, Gaynor Sekimori, Cahier D’Extreme-Asie 18 (2009), Ecole Francaise D’Exteme-Orient Centre De Kyoto, 304pp., 6000.” Journal of Religious Studies 85, no. 3 (2011): 721-23.

Tanabe, G. (1999). Religions of Japan in Practice (Princeton readings in religions). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tyler, Royall. “A Glimpse of Mt. Fuji in Legend and Cult.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 16, no. 2 (1981): 140-65. doi:10.2307/489324.


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