Mt. Fuji's first climbing season since Japan lifted all COVID-19 restrictions saw the return of visitors from around the world, but it was marred by a string of incidents, with some tourists failing to follow etiquette while others dangerously underestimated the hike.
One such case nearly ended in disaster when improperly clothed hikers were forced to take refuge from the cold in a lodge while scaling Japan's tallest peak. Experts have pointed out the need for better coordination between local and national governments to improve conditions for next year.
Overcrowding had been anticipated even before the season began, creating headaches for authorities of Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures, whose boundaries straddle the mountain.
Authorities of the Yamanashi side said that the number of climbers that passed through the mountain's 6th station in July was more than double those of 2019, leading them to announce in August they would restrict the number of hikers who can use a route to climb to the summit if it becomes dangerous from overcrowding.
The Shizuoka prefectural government sought to educate prospective hikers by creating videos in Japanese and English outlining climbing rules, while it also translated related articles into several different languages.
Before the season ended on Sept. 10, busloads of hikers were seen arriving and crowding the area around a square on the mountain's 5th station early this month.
"It's just like I saw on television, it was very crowded," said Tokyo resident Yasukazu Ito, who had spent the night in a lodge on the mountain to watch the sunrise.
With no explicit rules against doing so, some fatigued climbers who were unable to secure accommodation at the lodges instead took naps on the hiking trails, exacerbating congestion issues.
Meanwhile, two university students, an American and a Mexican national, had to be rescued in early September after attempting to "bullet climb," or try to reach the summit for sunrise without taking a break to sleep overnight, before becoming lost.
Neither of the two male students had food or water and were dressed "as though they were going for a picnic," Yamanashi police said.
A website operated by the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Division of the Shizuoka prefectural government notes that temperatures at the summit "can dip below freezing even in midsummer."
Yuhei Akaike, a 41-year-old lodge employee on Mt. Fuji's 7th station, said a group of lightly-dressed foreigners trespassed into an area containing a power generator to stay warm, while at another point, a group of around 20 to 30 people, including Japanese and non-Japanese, took refuge from wind and rain in toilet cubicles.
Akaike recounted facing protests when he attempted to warn the groups, who argued there were no signs forbidding their behavior or that it was unavoidable due to the cold.
"Being unprepared can be troubling. I want (the authorities) to stop allowing (lightly clothed) people beyond the 5th station, as well as make them rent equipment," Akaike said.
While June marked the 10th anniversary of Mt. Fuji's registration as a World Heritage site, the International Council on Monuments and Sites has called for surging climber numbers to be controlled to protect the environment.
Yamanashi Gov. Kotaro Nagasaki expressed a sense of crisis in late August, telling a press conference that the mountain "could be stripped of its World Heritage status in a worst-case scenario."
In addition to enacting an ordinance against bullet climbing, the Yamanashi prefectural government also plans to construct a light rail transit service from the foot of the mountain to the 5th station to replace car usage.
Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu told a press conference that "countermeasures against ill-mannered climbing are an urgent issue," and in addition to mountain entry regulations, the prefectural government will consider increasing the climbing fee for Mt. Fuji, which costs 1,000 yen ($6.80), in principle.
"The current situation on Mt. Fuji is abnormal, with more people climbing it than can safely do so," said Masanori Take, a professor of Toyo University's Department of International Tourism Management.
"Whatever measures are taken (next year), it is important that Yamanashi, Shizuoka and the national government work together," he added.