There are a few things people hope to find while hiking to the top of Mt. Fuji. Almost everyone looks forward to the breathtaking vistas. Others hope for the added bonus of comradery with their fellow hikers. Some may even expect to gain some insight into the Japanese spirit or national character by reaching the country’s highest peak.
But you know what no one goes to Mt. Fuji for an eyeful of? Feces. Unfortunately, visitors are becoming more and more likely to run across a pile of poo on the mountain, and that’s not only costing Mt. Fuji some of its cultural luster, it might also mean the end of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Mt. Fuji’s official climbing period runs from July to mid-September, which means officials are just now starting to take stock of how it’s held up during its busiest season. Despite the introduction of hiking fees and further restrictions of personal cars, over 200,000 people still made the trip to Fuji this summer, and a troubling number of them chose to amend the old adage of “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” by tacking on, “and your dirty butt wipes, too.”
The situation seems to be at its worst along the Subashiri Trail, which ascends the mountain along its side facing Shizuoka Prefecture. Due to its relatively large number of bushes, some hikers are opting to do their business in the undergrowth, and with no pipe to flush their waste down, have just been leaving toilet paper stuck to rocks and semi-concealed plastic bags filled with their droppings, sometimes just a few meters from the trail.
Aside from marring the scenery, if the problem continues unchecked, some people fear it may affect Fuji’s cultural and natural value in the eyes of UNESCO. While only two World Heritage Sites have been stripped of their designation in the roughly 40 years the organization has been handing out the title, both instances occurred in the last seven years, showing that UNESCO’s current leaders are serious about the preservation of the locations it recognizes. Oman’s Arabian Onyx Sanctuary lost its status in 2007 due massive reductions in the site’s size as well as failure to protect the animals from poachers. The city of Dresden, in Germany, was delisted two years later, over the decision to build a large, modern bridge on its historic riverfront.
UNESCO doesn’t seem to be in a generous mood regarding grace periods, either. Sites are reevaluated every six years, and Dresden lost its status at its very first check after becoming a World Heritage Site in 2004.
Still, there’s no reason to panic about Mt. Fuji, right? Since it just became a World Heritage Site last year, there’s still plenty of time for Japan to get its act together, right? Well, not really. Apparently UNESCO was worried about just the sort of thing now happening on the mountain, and placed a special provision on Mt. Fuji’s status stipulating that it has to be renewed every three years. The clock is ticking and coming close to running out, with UNESCO having already requested Japan submit a conservation plan for Mt. Fuji by this coming February.
It’s not just feces that Fuji has a problem with, either. The amount of trash left on the mountain is also on the rise, despite the clean-up efforts of those such as alpinist Ken Noguchi.
All of this is happening in spite of a slight downtick in visitors this year. So if more people on the mountain isn’t the cause, what is? Some are pointing fingers at the increasing number of “tourist climbers” making pilgrimages to Fuji. While Japan never exactly forgot about its most famous natural landmark, being named a World Heritage Site has given much of the country Fuji Fever, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of hunger for and supply of media coverage. Many of these newcomers are more day-trippers than serious naturalists, so some speculate their lack of respect for nature, and in turn lack of manners, are to blame, especially in light of the fact that there are pay toilets along the same trails where human refuse has been found.
This development isn’t a complete surprise, and in fact the fees to climb Mt. Fuji were introduced in anticipation of the negative side effects its new prestige might cause. One theory, though, holds that the charges are actually causing more trouble than they solve. Since it’s well known that a portion of the money collected goes towards cleaning up litter, some wonder if inconsiderate visitors feel it gives them the right to toss their trash wherever they want to, since they’re paying for someone else to pick it up.
Obviously, though, with Fuji being as large as it is, there’s no way to employ a crew large enough to clean the whole mountain, regardless of whether or not admission is being charged. Jun Hirano, from the forestry department, is baffled by the sense of entitlement litterers are displaying. “When I think that such imprudent people exist, it makes me not only angry, but sad,” he despaired.
Hirano went on to explain that there are no plans to increase the number of toilets on the mountain, as he feels the real problem is those who can’t be bothered to properly use those which are already installed. “All we can do is implore people to follow the very minimums of proper conduct,” he begged.
In other words, stop that crap.