The Edo Period (江戸時代) saw a huge growth in enthusiasm for Mount Fuji. The city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) experienced an economic and population boom, becoming one of the greatest cities in the world at the time. Ordinary merchants began to make large amounts of money, which they very often spent on enjoyment.
Kabuki theater, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts received huge numbers of paying customers. Ukiyo (浮世), or Floating World, was the term used to describe this hedonistic lifestyle, and Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or pictures of the Floating World, became popular with merchants looking for artwork to decorate their homes. Artists created the originals, with woodcutters making copies for printing.
With all the economic and artistic activity going on, Mount Fuji — seen from a distance of only about 100 kilometers, and with no skyscrapers to block the view — was to take a more important place in the imagination of Japanese people.
The citizens of Edo had witnessed the great Hōei eruption of 1707, and Mount Fuji exercised a power over people that was beyond economics and art.
For example, the Fuji-ko cult (富士講) became extremely popular in the Kanto region and belief in the magical and spiritual power of Mount Fuji grew stronger. More and more men felt the need to make the pilgrimage to pay their respects to the Great Goddess.
The authorities, desperate to hang on to power at a time of social upheaval and increasing foreign influence, did their best to discourage such movements. For the government, large crowds of like-minded men gathering together to worship the Great Goddess was not a good idea. There was certainly no question of allowing women to climb Mount Fuji. The Great Goddess might be upset by the presence of an impure woman (so it seems that the authorities believed in the Great Goddess, too)!
There was to be mounting pressure from people who probably did not believe in the Japanese deities.
The social changes at home and pressure from overseas was making life very difficult for the Japanese authorities. When the British Consul-General to Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock, enquired about climbing Mount Fuji, he was told that only low-class people were interested in that sort of thing! Alcock was not discouraged, and went ahead and climbed it anyway — from the bottom to the top in just over eight hours, in the summer of 1860. He was the first foreigner to climb Mount Fuji. However, it remained unacceptable for women to climb the great mountain.
The wife of Sir Harry Parkes, who replaced Sir Rutherford Alcock as British Consul-General to Japan, was Lady Fanny Parkes. Seven years after Alcock’s climb, in 1867, Lady Parkes became the first foreign woman to climb Mount Fuji. She knew it was forbidden and must have heard objections such as the idea that women would make the sacred mountain unclean or cause the Great Goddess to become jealous. She just went ahead and did it anyway. Astonishingly, this would also appear to mean that she was the first woman from anywhere to (openly, as a woman, at least) climb the mountain! In 1868 the start of the Meiji Era saw the long ban on women climbing Mount Fuji lifted. Japanese women were free to climb! Lady Parkes died at home in England in 1879.
The start of the Meiji Era also saw stricter laws about religion being introduced. Shugendo, a powerful synthesis of Buddhism and Shinto, was banned in line with a law keeping Shinto and Buddhism separate. The Fuji-ko sect was forced to become part of Shinto.
Featured image: Utamaro [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons