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Mount Fuji's Big Day

Hokusai, Great Wave

Congratulations are in order for Mount Fuji, which was adopted on June 24 of this year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Japan, thousands of people celebrated by trying to be among those witnessing the first raiko, or sunrise, since the announcement. At the Art Institute, we are celebrating by putting on view Katsushika Hokusai’s dazzling Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including the great Great Wave, which hasn’t been on view at the museum for many years. (Okay, we’re kidding about that—we decided to put Hokusai’s series on view long before the UNESCO designation was a done deal—but we are very serious that this would be a great time to visit the museum and see Hokusai’s prints.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Mount Fuji was named as a cultural, rather than natural, heritage site, recognizing the extent to which the mountain has permeated Japanese cultural and spiritual life for centuries. It has been venerated as a sacred mountain since ancient times, but it was in the Edo period, roughly from 1600 to 1850 when the Japanese capital moved from Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), that the popularity of Mount Fuji soared like the mountain’s snow-capped peak. Even though it is about 60 miles from Tokyo, Mount Fuji is visible from many points within the city, and a cult developed around the mountain. Called Fujiko, members of the cult gathered offerings and selected representatives who would climb the mountain. It was believed that the spirit of those who successfully ascended the mountain would be purified and they would be able to find happiness. Climbing the mountain was, in a sense, a rebirth: pilgrims who entered Mount Fuji, which was viewed as a female deity, would come out reborn and rejuvenated.

Soshu Nakahara

Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei) was a product of the popularity of this cult. While the protagonist of the series is of course Mount Fuji, many prints also feature the pilgrims on their way to the mountain or to a famous view of Mount Fuji. In the print Soshu Nakahara (immediately above), for example, two pilgrims wearing large round hats are depicted on the bridge, and the taller pilgrim wears the traditional white garb. The traveler at the far right, a peddler, takes a step toward the mountain as if to begin his climb, despite the distance between them.

The popularity of the Fuji cult waned after the Meiji period when people began to consider mountain climbing as a pastime rather than a ritual. Yet even today, about ten groups make the pilgrimage up to a shrine near the summit of the mountain, and they wear white and carry a long walking stick as they did more than two centuries ago. When asked if people around the world understand the significance of Mount Fuji, the chief priest of the Fuji Hongu Sengen Shrine located in the southern foothills of Mount Fuji and guarding the “front entrance” to the mountain, recently said, “The word for tourism [in Japanese] is kanko, which is written ‘to see the light’ [in Chinese characters]. If visitors who visit this land feel something through viewing Mount Fuji, that is good enough for me.”

—Mai Yamaguchi, Department of Asian Art Intern

Image Credits: Katsushika Hokusai. Nakahara in Sagami Province (Soshu Nakahara), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), c. 1830–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Katsushika Hokusai. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), c. 1830–32. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Tags: Asian Art