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In Japan, overtourism is raising concerns about the environment at Mt. Fuji


Post-pandemic tourism has made a comeback in Japan this year - so much so that the government has had to announce measures to ease what it calls overtourism. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the special challenges faced by one of Japan's most iconic landmarks.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Around the world, Mount Fuji is a symbol of Japan. Some Japanese venerate it as a god. Artists have immortalized it in works such as the Thirty-six Views Of Mount Fuji by 19th century painter and printmaker Hokusai. Halfway up the mountain, cars and buses load and unload, and climbers pause on their way up or down. At the end of the climbing season this fall, Toshikazu Fukuhara is resting his weary legs after a 13-hour round trip.

TOSHIKAZU FUKUHARA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "It felt like Ginza," he says, referring to Tokyo's glitzy shopping district. People were shoulder to shoulder. An estimated more than 160,000 people climbed Mount Fuji during this year's climbing season. In 2020, no climbers were allowed due to the pandemic. As Japan's tourist industry has gone from bust to boom, residents have been reminded of their love-hate relationship with tourists.

KEIJI IIZUKA: Compared to last year, this year - very crowded conditions.

KUHN: Keiji Iizuka is a guide on Mount Fuji.

When you do have that many climbers, what sort of problems does it cause?

IIZUKA: Many people - they want to see sunrise at the top. So near the summit, so many climbers - they are making a queue. So if they make a long period, they will get hypothermia. That means that they cannot move again. That could be disastrous.

KUHN: Japanese call them bullet climbers. They summit Mount Fuji overnight. When they get in trouble, some have to be rescued by Masanobu Sakagami, who heads a police mountain rescue team in Shizuoka Prefecture on the south side of the mountain.

MASANOBU SAKAGAMI: (Through interpreter) It takes a lot of effort to go up and down the mountain and rescue people, and the survivors suffer a lot of pain during that time.

KUHN: He says his prefecture saw 63 accidents during this year's climbing season - up from 50 last season. Most of the cases, he says, involve climbers getting lost, falling or suffering exhaustion, altitude sickness or hypothermia. Sakagami's advice to visitors...

SAKAGAMI: (Through interpreter) Do not prioritize summiting Mount Fuji over your own life.

KUHN: The north side of Mount Fuji sits in Yamanashi Prefecture. Governor Kotaro Nagasaki says that overtourism is polluting the natural environment and stressing the local community. He fears the mountain could lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

KOTARO NAGASAKI: (Through interpreter) If I had to sum up the current situation, I'd say Mount Fuji is screaming.

KUHN: The government has proposed replacing the main road up the mountain with a light railway, but many of the visitors seem less concerned than the officials about the crowding. Luke Robison is from Brisbane, Australia.

LUKE ROBISON: Towards the summit where it gets quite steep, it was pretty busy. But other than that, there's plenty of room to pass on coming down, going up.

KUHN: Sounds like it did not spoil your experience at all.

ROBISON: No, not at all. We expected it. We knew that it was going to be busy - probably wasn't as busy as I actually thought it was going to be.

KUHN: Robison comments that Mount Fuji is quite commercialized, although he admits that without all the way stations, shelters and toilets, many visitors wouldn't be able to make it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Mount Fuji, Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAZZO'S "EXPRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.