Mount Fuji: beautiful, fragile and dangerous

From the window of his downtown Tokyo office, Heita Kawakatsu has a clear view of the perfectly-formed cone of Mount Fuji, around 100 kilometres (70 miles) away -- which was granted UNESCO World Heritage status on Saturday.

"I know that it is watching me," says Kawakatsu, the governor of Shizuoka prefecture, in which around half of the mountain sits.

Like the Pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China or the United States' Statue of Liberty, Japan's Mount Fuji is a national symbol, visual shorthand for its home country.

And after a meeting in Cambodia, the world's most recognisable volcano has now joined the other global landmarks to be recognised by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.

The mountain and its surrounding countryside, including several lakes, stretching over an area of around 70,000 hectares (170,000 acres) were nominated for its significance to the fabric of Japan.

"It is one of the most beautiful things on Earth," says Kawakatsu. "Fuji is a masterpiece of nature, and yet it was included as cultural heritage."

The reason the mountain was recognised for its cultural, rather than natural significance, is tied up -- among other things -- with the animism of Japan's native Shinto religion, which makes mountains objects of veneration.

For some pilgrims, the climb itself is the purpose of their visit, while for others, the temples and altars that dot the route are where they are seeking enlightenment.

It is also because of the impact its almost geometrical shape has had on Japanese art, most famously in the 19th century "Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji" by woodblock painter Hokusai.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body to the UNESCO World Heritage committee, assessed the importance of the mountain over several months and published a 20-page report earlier this year.

"The beauty of the solitary, often snow-capped volcanic Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) rising above villages and tree-fringed seas and lakes, has inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimages for centuries," it waxes.

With this fame and beauty comes popularity.

During the two month climbing season in the average year, as many as 300,000 people trek up Fuji's slopes to the 3,776 metre (12,460 foot) peak.

While Japan has many serious hill walkers, the mountain's quasi-mythical status means it also attracts climbers with little experience.

"The ascent routes in places are heavily eroded and in other places have been protected by harsh, intrusive barriers," the ICOMOS report says. It also notes rubbish is a problem.

"During peak times for visitors in July and August, there is enormous pressure on the roads from private cars driving to the access routes. Fumes from cars and buses are a recognised concern."

Shigeru Horiuchi, mayor of Fujiyoshida, a small city at the foot of the mountain, said local officials worried that with the World Heritage designation, the trails this year could become even busier.

"If possible, we want to limit the number of climbers, but that is legally difficult," he said, according to Jiji Press.

The answer may lie in charging visitors.

In a test scheme this summer local officials will ask for a voluntary fee of 1,000 yen ($10) per person.

But, says Horiuchi, this may not be enough and they may have to charge ten times that in the future.

Getting Fuji inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites, where it joins 16 other Japanese spots, caps years of efforts by people like Shizuoka governor Kawakatsu.

The hope is that, like the delicately preserved monuments of Kyoto, or the imposing castle at Himeji, greater attention from the world will mean more is done to protect the site.

However, it is possible that all these efforts could literally be turned to dust in an instant -- if the volcano erupts.

In September last year, scientists pointed out that pressure inside the magma chamber was far greater than it was at the time of the last eruption in 1707, and well above the level at which an eruption is possible.

An eruption could be utterly devastating, with government estimates of damage at trillions of yen (tens of billions of dollars) and some models showing lava flows engulfing artery highways and key train routes, while ash clouds choke Tokyo.

"Fuji is beautiful, but dangerous," Kawakatsu told AFP. "We must always be prepared."