Opinion Divided Over Possible Railway for Mt. Fuji

The Yomiuri Shimbun

With Thursday marking the 10th anniversary of Mt. Fuji’s designation as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, authorities are debating how to curb the number of tourists on Japan’s highest mountain and ease the environmental burden tourists create.

The government of Yamanashi Prefecture, which is located on the northern side of the 3,776-meter peak, is considering building a railway from Mt. Fuji’s foot to the fifth station on the existing Fuji Subaru Line toll road.

Although the prefecture plans to start technical surveys soon, some parties have expressed opposition, arguing that the mountain’s designation as a World Heritage site emphasizes its significance as a “sacred mountain.”

Yamanashi Prefecture is considering running a light rail transit (LRT) system on tracks to be laid on a 28-kilometer section of the Fuji Subaru Line toll road. An LRT is a low trolley with limited noise and shaking.

One train would be able to accommodate up to 120 passengers. It is expected to take about 52 minutes to reach the fifth station but about 74 minutes to come down, as there will be a speed limit for descending.

Construction is projected to cost about ¥140 billion. Based on surveys among climbers, the prefecture estimates that about 3 million people would use the service annually if the round-trip fare was set at ¥10,000.

The prefecture set up a panel of experts in 2019 to consider the pros and cons of introducing a mountain railway.

A draft plan was devised in 2021, and the government plans to conduct technical surveys for the first time this fiscal year to examine a railroad car’s ability to cope with the steep slope, as well as ice and snow during the winter season.

It will also examine ways to use batteries and charging methods so there would be no need to set up an overhead power line to operate the train.

Yamanashi Gov. Kotaro Nagasaki stressed the significance of the project, saying, “The envisaged mountain railway will be a way to protect and raise the universal value of Mt. Fuji, which is a symbol of Japan.”

In 2019, before the spread of the novel coronavirus, 5.06 million tourists visited Mt. Fuji’s fifth station on the Yamanashi prefectural side.

However, UNESCO is calling for the number of tourists to be curbed, arguing they might harm the mountain’s sacred atmosphere.

The prefecture says it is currently difficult to limit the number of tourists because the Fuji Subaru Line toll road, which is used by most visitors to the mountain, is a public road.

“We already have restrictions on private cars, but under existing laws, it’s hard to further regulate vehicle traffic for the purpose of curbing tourists,” a prefectural official said.

Yamanashi Prefecture argues that the railway will make it easier to control tourists, as railway service can be limited.

It also says an LRT would be easier on the environment, as it does not emit exhaust gas.

Although the prefectural government plans to explain the project to those concerned in the area, some have come out against it.

“Mt. Fuji is a sacred mountain. We don’t want it to be touched anymore,” said Shigeru Horiuchi, mayor of Fuji-Yoshida city in Yamanashi Prefecture, at a media conference in May.

A local tourism federation and others also oppose the LRT, insisting that the government should also consider the use of electric buses.

In addition, development projects within an area designated as a World Heritage site must be approved by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, or ICOMOS.

“It’s necessary to carefully evaluate the impact the development might have on the environment,” said Yasuyoshi Okada, president of ICOMOS Japan.