With more than 300,000 hikers every year, Japanese officials worry about the preservation of Mount Fuji, which was recently designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
They trudge up well-trod cinder paths by the thousands, headlamps glowing in the dark, and then settle in, shivering, to await and cheer the sun's blazing ascent over the horizon.
Climbing Mount Fuji, Japan's most iconic landmark, is a group activity: Seldom is it climbed in solitude. The recent recognition of the 3,776-meter (12,388-foot) peak as a UNESCO World Heritage site has many here worried that it will draw still more people, adding to the wear and tear on the environment from the more than 300,000 who already climb the mountain each year.
Safety is another concern. At least seven people died and 70 were hurt climbing Fuji In 2012, and traffic jams of climbers in the pre-dawn darkness can add to the risks, says Shomei Yokouchi, governor of Yamanashi, the area to the west. The official climbing season runs July to August, and the trek — nine hours round trip in good weather — is especially treacherous other times of the year.
Mount Fuji's near perfect cone was created by an eruption thousands of years ago that buried earlier peaks, and pilgrims have been climbing it for centuries — though women have been allowed only since 1868. It towers over the Pacific coast, ringed by lakes, national parks, temples and shrines that are also part of the World Heritage site.
The new status, granted in June, will likely help area businesses — a welcome boost given the economic decline in most of rural Japan. Local authorities are puzzling, however, over how to preserve the mountain's natural beauty while improving traffic access and other facilities to accommodate the anticipated increase in visitors.
Some have suggested limiting access by raising tenfold the 1,000 yen ($10) climbing fee. But that might lead climbers to risk hypothermia by roughing it outdoors instead of staying in the 16 huts along the top of the trail, which charge up to $100 a night for cheek-by-jowl communal accommodations.