Thursday, August 31, 2023

“Yamanashi governor proposes light rail system for Mt Fuji”

Now how’s that for timing? Just weeks after this blog published a lengthy disquisition on past plans to run a cable car or funicular up Mt Fuji, the Japan Times reports that Nagasaki Kotaro, the Governor of Yamanashi Prefecture, has revived his proposal to replace Mt Fuji’s Subaru Line road with a light railway. 

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Tuesday 29 August, Nagasaki said that replacing the road with a railway would help to meet the conditions under which UNESCO designated Mt Fuji as a World Heritage site ten years ago.

A railway, Nagasaki explained, would help the authorities to better control visitor numbers at the Subaru Line fifth station, and transform it into something that blends with the natural landscape, emphasises the mountain’s spirituality and improves tourist satisfaction.

As a next step, Yamanashi prefecture will conduct a feasibility study for the light rail system and work towards informing and building consensus among stakeholders, including local residents, by the end of March 2024.

Like a fine wine, Governor Nagasaki’s plan has been maturing for a while. SoraNews reported that his plan was approved by Yamanashi officials in February 2021. 

And the plan to replace the Subaru Line road with rails has been simmering for longer still. As far back as September 2018, the Yomiuri was reporting that the Mt Fuji light railway “may become reality”.

If it does, please remember that you read it here first ....


Anika Osaki Exum, “Yamanashi governor proposes light rail system for Mount Fuji”, Japan Times, 29 August.

Oona McGee, “Mt Fuji railway project receives approval from Yamanashi officials”, SoraNews24, 9 February 2021.

Yomiuri Shimbun, “‘Mt. Fuji railway’ may become reality as panel to start discussion”, The Japan News/Asia News Network, 26 September 2018.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Ageing bulls

How Mt Fuji got its unique fleet of heavy-lift dozers

Sumimasen: I forgot to post on 11 August, Japan’s Mountain Day. For a blog oriented towards Japan’s mountains, this was culpable. While scrambling to catch up, I happened across a blog that did mark last year’s mountain-themed national holiday. 

How vending machines migrate to the top of Mt Fuji
(Photos courtesy of Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan)

The post came from Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan, who run the high-altitude vending machines that regale summer visitors to Mt Fuji’s crater rim. As the post explains:

Mt. Fuji was listed as a World Cultural Heritage in 2013 under the name "Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration". This is why our vending machines are painted brown so as not to disturb the scenery.

Unlike snow ptarmigans, the brown vending machines do not turn white in winter. Instead, they migrate, returning to the lower world in August and climbing back to the 3,778-metre summit every July. This they accomplish not by flying – helicopters would cost too much – but riding on the freight deck of a converted bulldozer.

Mt Fuji’s famous “bulls”, as they are katakana’d, go back a long way. When a permanent summit weather station was established in the 1930s, the meteorologists depended on packhorses and their drivers to carry up their food and supplies. The horses could get to about 3,600 metres, struggling to go any higher in the thinning air. From there, human porters, the so-called strong men (強力), took over for the final stretch to the top.

This system endured for decades. But it reached its limits in the early 1960s, when work started on a giant weather radar for the summit station. Big Sikorsky helicopters hauled up the first batches of ready-mixed concrete, but Mt Fuji’s treacherous winds soon showed up their limits too. Large panels proved especially troublesome: when asked to sling these high-risk loads under their choppers, the pilots briefly went on strike.

Helicopters too had their limits 
(Photo from Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo)

The solution, devised just in time to keep the building programme on schedule, was to doze a track to the top of Mt Fuji. Two-ton “bulls” pioneered the way, zig-zagging all the way up the mountain’s southern flank, and dumping their spoil into the Hoeizan crater. As the road was dug out, a team of four or five men would walk below the slowly advancing dozers, to “field” any rocks they dislodged and stop them bouncing down onto climbers or pilgrims.

A Cat from the classical age of weather station operations
(Photo from Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo)

As the trail improved, successively heavier “bulls”, minus their blades and sporting a makeshift freight deck, could be used to freight food and supplies up the mountain. So the two-tonners gave way to three-tonners, and then to the mighty Caterpillar D4 and D5 models.

For this was surely the heroic age of the Cat. Three specially modified D8s called Pam, Colleen and Mary Ann went to Antarctica as part of America’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58, and a D2 was air-dropped at the South Pole, where it was supposed to dig in the new base there. Alas, the parachutes ripped away, and instead the dozer dug itself deep into the ice-sheet.

Heroic age: an IGY Cat parachutes to the South Pole
(Photo: Emil Schulthess)

But we digress. By contrast with the derring-do Down South, bull operations on Mt Fuji have been remarkably safe. This is not to say that driving one to the top of Japan’s highest mountain is without risk. According to the novelist Nitta Jirō, a bulldozer was once avalanched. And the more usual objective hazards include thunderstorms and stonefall.

One reason for the good safety record may be that the bull drivers know their mountain. It probably helped that the first of them were recruited from the ranks of the packhorse drivers (馬方), whose jobs were almost hereditary. One of these was Igura Norio, who started as a packhorse driver in 1937, and switched to the bulldozers in 1963.

Ironically, Igura records, it was thanks to the horsemen that bulldozers were introduced at all – when they used one to help construct a stable for their packhorses, it was they who discovered how well bulldozers could tackle Mt Fuji’s steep and cindery slopes. At first, the drovers-turned-bull drivers missed their amiable steeds. But, then again, the machines didn’t shy away in panic if a hiker suddenly loomed out of the fog, and nor did they collapse from high-altitude overwork.

Having done himself out of a job as leader of the packhorse drivers’ union, Igura ultimately became responsible for all supply operations to the summit weather station. And his son took over in this role until the manned weather station closed in October 2004, so ending more than seven decades of year-round human habitation on Japan’s highest summit.

Bulldozer trails on Mt Fuji, as revealed by early snowfall

The “bulls”, however, keep running. Now operated by a company called Fuji Concrete Service, they still take supplies up to the old summit weather station’s buildings, which now house atmospheric researchers during the summer months. They also deliver to the mountain huts, and take down the mail from Japan’s highest post office.

And, of course, the bulls keep Coca-Cola’s high-altitude vending machines flush with beverages. The most popular drink up there, says their purveyor, is "I LOHAS Tennensui", which consists of natural water from seven “carefully selected” water resources in Japan – including those of Daisen and Mt Aso, two of Japan’s older volcanic edifices.

So, if you ever patronise Japan’s topmost vending machines, and if you happen to raise a PET bottle of I LOHAS to your lips, please remember to toast the bulls and their drivers who hauled it up here.


Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan Holdings Inc, “A vending machine here!? On the top of Mt. Fuji, the highest location in Japan”, Corporate Blog, 1 August 2022.

Dokiya Yukiko (ed), Kawaru Fuji-san sokkōjo, Shumpū-sha, 2004.

Motoko Rich, “Mount Fuji’s Got Mail. A Bone-Rattling Bulldozer Ride Brings It Down”, New York Times, 13 August 2018 (as syndicated to the Seattle Times).

Nitta Jirō, Fuji Sanchō (novel), Bungei Shunjū, December 1967.

Operation Deep Freeze: 50 Years of US Air Force Airlift in Antarctica – 1956-2006, Office of History Air Mobility Command Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, October 2006.

Susono-shi Kyoiku-iinkai/Susonoshiritsu Fuji-san Shiryōkan, “Fuji-san sokkōjo: Nihon no kishō-kansoku wo sasaeta hitobito”, Tokubetsuten shiryōshū.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Imaging the ice of yesteryear

Old paintings and photos of two vanishing alpine glaciers have recently been added to an international climate database maintained at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Glaciers are crucial climate indicators, reflecting changes in temperature and precipitation.

The Upper Grindelwald Glacier in 1835
Painting by Thomas Fearnley (National Gallery, Oslo)

Two institutions, Euro-Climhist and the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) collaborated on this effort. Euro-Climhist, housed at the University of Bern, compiles historical climate and weather data, including information on glaciers. The WGMS, based at the University of Zurich, collects and shares standardised glacier data.

In late 2021, Euro-Climhist and WGMS joined forces to preserve and share historical glacier images as part of the Euro-Climhist database. The paintings, photos and maps of the Grindelwald glaciers and Mont Blanc’s Mer de Glace will expand insights into past glacier fluctuations, helping researchers and the public to understand historical climate events and facilitating the assessment of current and future climate trends.

The Mer de Glace and its extent in the c17 (green) and c19 (red)
Reconstruction by S Nussbaumer and R Wolf

Historical glacier images play a crucial role in understanding interactions between glaciers and climate before the days of systematic measurements. Drawings, paintings, prints, and early photographs can document glacier levels dating back to the 16th century, with some help from meticulous analysis and interpretation of image quality.

The 300 or so images of the Grindelwald and the Mer de Glace glaciers, both well studied since the eighteenth century and before, have been enriched with metadata such as the artist’s name, descriptions and dates. Images are categorised into five types: drawings, oil paintings, prints, photographs, or maps, each varying in accuracy. Drawings and photographs are considered most precise, while oil paintings and prints offer valuable insights despite some imprecision.

First known depiction of Lower Grindelwald Glacier
Before 1642, by Joseph Plepp and Matthäus Merian
(Swiss National Library)

The project's pilot team consisted of researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of Bern, blending natural science, art, and environmental history perspectives. The initial series of integrated glacier images showcases the potential of historical images for understanding past climate trends. While the project focused on the Grindelwald glaciers and the Mer de Glace, more images from various regions could provide further insights.

The initiative was supported by MeteoSwiss, the national weather agency, within the framework of Switzerland’s affiliation to the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), which gathers high-quality climate observations worldwide.

The Lower Grindelwald Glacier in July 1826
By Samuel Birmann (Kunstmuseum Basel)

The sensitivity of glaciers to climate fluctuations makes them vital indicators for climate change. Fluctuations in temperature and precipitation directly influence glacier size and mass. The alpine glaciers are shrinking fast due to warming temperatures and less snowfall, with this trend accelerating in recent years.


Translated and summarised from the MeteoSuisse blog, “Historische Gletscherbilder ermöglichen Rekonstruktion von vergangenen Gletscherständen”, 18 August 2023.

"Suddenly transported to a world forgotten by nature"

“Some courageous hunter might attempt this route”

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Funiculars on Mt Fuji (2)

Continued: could a light railway be built on Japan’s top mountain - in order to save it?

Growing international tensions put paid to the 1940 Tokyo Olympics as well as any further thoughts of building a railway on Mt Fuji. But the enthusiasm of the projectors was only briefly dampened. As early as 1946, the businessman Iwao Kōtarō (1894-1953) envisaged building a gigantic wind turbine on the summit. With blades spanning a hundred metres, this apparatus would generate power for a funicular dragged uphill by a “mole-type cable”.

Iwao’s proposal died with its protagonist. The debate, however, rumbled on. In its August 1949 edition, Yama to Keikoku, then as now Japan’s most popular mountain magazine, challenged its readers with the question “Fuji cable [car], yes or no”. Opinions were solicited from a panel of the great and good in Japan’s mountain world.

Leading off on the ‘yes’ side was Nonaka Itaru (1867-1955), who back in 1895 had won fame for himself and his wife Chiyoko by his attempt to overwinter atop Mt Fuji to make weather observations. This is what he said:

A Mt Fuji cable car was first envisaged by an Italian 50 years ago, and I thought that this would be most helpful for my winter sojourn up there. But the proposal did not come to anything, and since then there has been plenty more smoke, but no fire. The idea has always succumbed to the tyranny of practical thinking and died. And so it has been to this very day. But on this occasion, the three prefectures are working together, not contending with each other as in the past, and specific discussions are being held

If the YamaKei feature is anything to go by, it seems that the scientific temperament generally favoured the idea of a cable car. Also lining up in support were Makino Tomitarō (1862-1957), known as the father of Japanese botany, and the distinguished geophysicist Tanakadate Aikitsu (1856-1952). Tanakadate said that, not only did he support a cable car, when the time was ripe, but he’d even toyed with the idea of getting a concession for one back in 1895-96, so that he could use it to fund Nonaka’s summit observatory.

As if to complete this triumvirate of scientific talent, Imanishi Kinji (1902-1992), the scholar-alpinist who famously challenged Darwin’s interpretation of natural selection, weighed in. Now that anybody could look down on the mountain from an aeroplane, he opined, it was “odd to keep thinking of Mt Fuji as a sacred summit”, adding that the more people who could make the ascent by cable car, the better.

By contrast, many of the literary types stood aghast. A leading opponent was Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972), the Wordsworth scholar who had let Yama to Keikoku’s founder use the title of his mountain memoir as the masthead of the new magazine. Mountains are not just about the summit view, he said. Rather, it is their general aspect that counts. And surely one could think of better places to put a cable car than Mt Fuji …

Uno Kōji (1891-1961), as one might expect from the author of a novella called Love of Mountains, was even more succinct: “As for the thought of putting a cable car up Mt Fuji, I am absolutely against it.”

In 1956, the conservationists won a partial victory when the Ministry of Health and Welfare stepped in. By designating the slopes above Mt Fuji’s fifth station as a candidate for a special protection area, the officials effectively put them off-limits to would-be railway entrepreneurs.

But the projectors too were appeased when permission was granted for a 30-kilometre-long road up to the fifth station on the Yamanashi side. This project became the Fuji Subaru Line, opening in the Tokyo Olympics year of 1964 – the annus mirabilis that also ushered in the Shinkansen, the Mt Fuji summit radar installation and the publication of Japan’s most famous mountain book.

May 1964: the Fuji Subaru Line road is opened with a parade of Subaru cars
(Photo: Subaru Web Community - see note below)

Soon enough, there were two roads – the south-side “Skyline” from Fujinomiya opened in 1969 – but even this couldn’t stop the train promoters: Fuji Kyūko, the local railway company, proposed one in 1964, aiming to facilitate “one-day mountaineering in high heels”. A decade later, however, it withdrew its project application for fear that it “might unexpectedly disturb the delicate balance of nature at high altitudes”.

Of course, the mountain roads were already doing just that. More visitors meant more litter and more sewage, while the exhaust fumes from the nose-to-tail bus convoys added to the pollution that assails the forests on Mt Fuji’s lower slopes.

So what about replacing the road with a railway? That was the aim of Nagasaki Kōtarō, who in 2019 was elected governor of Yamanashi, by tradition a construction-friendly prefecture. In his view, a light railway, powered by green energy, could be built over the existing Subaru Line route. This would do away with road traffic, at least on the mountain’s east side, and it would also make it easier to manage visitor numbers.

Compelling as these arguments may be, they have their critics. Unsurprisingly, one of them hails from Mishima, on the opposite side of the mountain. You could equally well curb the hordes of climbers by limiting bus journeys, points out Watanabe Toyohiro, an environmental scientist quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun.

A railway would also necessitate snowsheds, Professor Watanabe adds, blighting the landscape even more than the road does. And, finally, before a railway can be thought of, there remains a considerable backlog of projects to be completed as a condition of Mt Fuji’s selection as a World Heritage site, such as a new visitor centre.

To mark Mt Fuji's tenth year as a UNESCO cultural heritage site, the Yamanashi authorities have recently revived Governor Nagasaki's proposal for a light railway. Predictably, this move has triggered all the usual reflexes. All in all, we surmise, it may be quite a while before we see any light railway, or funicular or cable car, climbing the flanks of Japan's top Meizan. Still, one can always keep the debate alive….


Mainichi Shinbun, Fuji ni keburuka, ukande wa kie (“Cable cars on Mt Fuji float up and fade away”, Yama wa hakubutsukan (“Mountains are museums”) series, 10 February 2021.

Shimizu Masakatsu, "Opinion divided over possible railway for Mt Fuji", The Japan News/Yomiuri Shimbun, 21 June 2023.

Sugiyama Jun’ichi, Fuji-yuki no testudo wa jitsugen suru no ka – kako no rekishi was kanko vs shizen de semegiai (“Will a railway to Mt Fuji ever be realised – the past history is a clash between tourism and nature”), Business Media Makoto, 7 June 2013.

Yama to Keikoku magazine, Fuji keburu no zehi (“Fuji cable [car], yes or no?”), edition no 125, August 1949.


For the opening ceremony of the Fuji Subaru Line on 27 May 1964, just before the Tokyo Olympics, the makers of Subaru cars provided 20 convertible Subaru 360 convertibles and 20 Rabbit scooters as parade vehicles. The Subaru 360s carried up some well known sumo wrestlers, including then ozeki Sada no Yama, Kitanofuji, Tsunenishiki, and Wakanaruto, escorted by about 150 other Subaru cars driven by members of Subaru clubs in the Kanto and Tokai regions. “On this day alone, the Fuji-Subaru line was filled with Subaru cars” says this post on the Subaru Web Community’s website


Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Haversacks instead of helicopters

Some years ago, while visiting a mountain hut in the Tanzawa mountains west of Tokyo, we helped solve a logistical problem. Stopping by the river at the mountain’s foot, we filled some bottles with water – the empties had been left out for us on a table – and carried them up to the hut with us. This helped Kusano-san, the hut warden, weather a dry autumn.

Bring your own firewood: the Bietschhorn Hut
Photo courtesy of Academic Alpine Club of Bern

Now some Swiss mountain huts are applying the same bring-it-yourself ethos. The idea here is not to solve a water problem but to cut down on expensive and polluting helicopter flights. Starting in 2021, the Academic Alpine Club of Bern has asked guests to bring up loads of firewood to its Bietschhorn hut from the roadhead at Ried – a small shed has been built there for the logs.

And the guests seem to be obliging. In the 2022 season, visitors to the Bietschhorn hut carried more than a ton of wood up the 1,400 metres of ascent to the hut. Encouraged by this success, the club now plans to provide its Schmadri and Engelhorn huts with woodsheds – in fact, the shed for the Engelhorn Hut will be shared with the Swiss Alpine Club’s Dossen Hut, whose approach path also starts in Rosenlaui.

The SAC Dossen Hut c.1928

Elsewhere, the Swiss Alpine Club is taking a different approach to replacing helicopter flights. For its Gspaltenhorn Hut, for example, it invites its local members to take part in an annual “supply hike” to bring up firewood, syrup and cheese – the fifth such event took place in late June this year. 

The SAC Gspaltenhorn Hut, c.1928

Other SAC huts operate more informally. Visitors ask the hut wardens what they need when booking their stay, then pick up the goods at a local store before starting the approach hike. 

In Switzerland, the bring-it-yourself movement harks back a long way. In the early days of mountain huts, intending guests carried up their own food – and sometimes the fuel too. Then, either they cooked their own meal, or handed the ingredients over to the hut guardian, who cooked for them. There were no helicopters in those days…


Barbara Ehrensperger, “Schweiss statt Kerosin: Wie man Berghütten umweltfreundlich beliefert”, Blick newspaper, 14 July.