Congested trails, threat to the environment and risks to the safety of hikers: the influx of visitors to Mount Fuji, the emblematic Japanese volcano classified as a World Heritage Site and victim of overtourism, worries local authorities, powerless to stem the phenomenon.

Near the summit, “the congestion was quite incredible, there were so many people that we couldn’t move forward,” says Koki Kariya, recently interviewed during his descent from Japan’s highest mountain, culminating at 3,776 meters.

“Several times I told myself that it was becoming dangerous,” confides this 22-year-old Japanese student.

Relatively accessible, Mount Fuji, whose famous conical silhouette is visible on a clear day from Tokyo, about a hundred kilometers away, is a victim of its success in the same way as other sites distinguished by UNESCO, such as the Italian city of Venice or Bruges in Belgium.

“I think Mount Fuji is one of the prides of Japan,” says Marina Someya, a 28-year-old Japanese woman on her way to the summit, also noting that “there are a lot of people, and a lot of foreigners.” on the slopes of the volcano for this first hiking season – the trails are only open in summer – since the reopening of the Japanese borders after the COVID-19 crisis.

The UNESCO listing of the Japanese site in 2013 was accompanied by recommendations to control the flow of hikers. In vain: the number of visitors to the foot of its trails has more than doubled since 2012 to approach 5.1 million people in 2019, according to authorities in Yamanashi, one of the two departments that Mount Fuji straddles.

With the crowds, the pressure on the environment has gradually increased, with massive use of diesel-powered electricity generators and daily parades of trucks transporting water and evacuating mountains of waste.

“Mount Fuji is crying” for help, summed up the governor of Yamanashi, Kotaro Nagasaki, last week.

If the department has prohibited access to the foot of the volcano trail for individual gasoline-powered vehicles, an almost uninterrupted flow of buses – 90 each day on average this year in July and August – pours streams of visitors there.

Yamanashi, saying he was struggling legally to restrict access, announced in August his intention to at least regulate the flows on the blackish slopes of the volcano in the event of too much influx.

“This awareness campaign made it possible to reduce the number of hikers” and these measures were ultimately not applied, welcomes Masatake Izumi, the “Mr. Fuji” of the department, emphasizing the increased risks of accidents in the event of high crowds. , linked to jostling or falling rocks.

The department anticipates attendance slightly below that of 2019 this year, but is considering for the future a railway project which would be installed on the existing road, the only way according to it to truly regulate access.

Beyond the case of Mount Fuji, the Japanese government is concerned about the consequences of overtourism throughout the country as foreign visitors have returned to levels close to pre-pandemic, and said this week it was planning measures “from the fall” to deal with it.

Rasyidah Hanan, a 30-year-old Malaysian descending the mountain, said she was in favor of “filtering” climbers, noting that “some were clearly unprepared”. “They were dressed very lightly despite the cold and some really didn’t look good,” she says.

At the start of the trail, walkers who pay an optional access fee of 1,000 yen (9.20 Canadian dollars) receive a booklet providing recommendations in Japanese (a QR code gives access to the English version). equip and rest in a refuge.

“Some people go to Mount Fuji after work and climb all night” without stopping to admire the sunrise from the summit, says Mr. Izumi. “These people are often victims of discomfort due, for example, to hypothermia and many must be transported to aid stations,” he emphasizes.

At the foot of the mountain, hikers and strollers flock to the numerous stalls selling noodles, ice cream and fridge magnets bearing the image of Fuji.

Between two huge buildings of shops and restaurants, you can see the characteristic shape of a “torii”, a red gate erected at the entrance to Shinto shrines.

This place of worship, almost completely hidden, is the only indication of the spiritual dimension of the place, which for centuries has attracted numerous pilgrims.

The infrastructures welcoming hikers “go against the spiritual atmosphere of the mountain”, notes the UNESCO presentation dedicated to Mount Fuji.