ATOP MT. FUJI, Japan — Search for “Top of Mt. Fuji” on Instagram, and you’ll discover thousands of posts documenting the hikers who have made it here to the summit of Japan’s best-known volcano.
But for many trekkers, sharing photographs of their feat on social media is way too new school.
Instead, they would rather send an old-fashioned piece of snail mail from the tiny post office atop Mt. Fuji, one of the few places in Japan where a postmark is still more coveted than another “like” on Instagram or Facebook.
“We thought it would have more meaning,” Toshiyuki Kasahara, 43, said of the postcards that he and his two sons, Yushun, 8, and Seijin, 6, deposited in the mailbox to send home after arriving on the summit last month. “It’s a substantial record that they can keep.”
Mt. Fuji — or “Fuji-san” in Japanese — is considered sacred in Japan, and its snow-capped visage has been memorialized in countless artworks, making it an international symbol of the country.
About 300,000 people climb it each year, including school groups, corporate teams and tourists from around the globe. Making it to the top of Japan’s highest mountain takes a vigorous four- to six-hour hike, but it does not require much special equipment or skill.
For those who reach the summit, one reward is the view: a breathtaking sweep of the mountain and the clouds skittering above; many climbers time their arrival to coincide with the sunrise.
The post office atop Mt. Fuji is also a popular attraction for many summiteers, and close to 18,000 people visited it last summer, sending nearly 97,000 pieces of mail. At a time when many post offices across Japan are experiencing steep declines in mail volume, the mountain’s outpost thrives.
But transporting all that mail down the 12,388-foot peak takes considerable effort, even in the absence of rain, sleet or snow. That’s where the bulldozer comes in — or, technically speaking, a close cousin of one.
Two or three days a week during the 40-day span of the summer hiking season that ends in August, a weather-beaten crawler tractor (a bulldozer minus the blade in front) trundles up the 2.8 mile Fujinomiya trail to collect crates of postcards and letters. After descending 4,500 feet in altitude, the tractor hands off the mail to a regular postal van.
Officials at Japan Post, which runs more than 24,000 post offices across the country, said the Mt. Fuji branch collected about 12.1 million yen, or nearly $109,000, in revenue last year, but declined to say how much it costs to service this vertiginous route.
With digital messages and social media supplanting regular mail, the postal unit of Japan Post lost nearly ¥385 billion, or about $3.5 billion, last year. (The banking and insurance divisions were profitable.)
Motohiko Matsumi, postmaster of the Mt. Fuji branch, said as long as hikers climbed the mountain, the postal service would want to keep open its most famous, and highest elevation, branch.
“The people who climb Fuji-san want to make a special memory,” Mr. Matsumi said. “So we are not so much worried about this particular post office.”
To experience firsthand what’s involved in delivering mail from the summit, I climbed aboard the tractor last month for the bone clattering four-hour round trip up and down the mountain. The company that operates the vehicle, Fuji Concrete Service, not only collects the mail, but also delivers food and drinks six days a week to the huts along the path where hikers stop for meals, bathroom breaks and naps.
Embarking from what is known as the new fifth station — which is where the paved road ends, at 7,900 feet, and hikers often start their climbs after arriving by car or bus — workers piled a front-loading bucket and the back of the tractor with boxes of curry mix, potato chips, soybean bars, beer and vitamin drinks, as well as toilet paper, plastic spoons and tanks of gas.
Also on board were 10 people being shuttled up the mountain, some clinging to metal railings and others sitting on dirt-encrusted jump seats. The passengers included staff members for the various rest huts, as well as a doctor and medical student heading to a four-day stint at a first aid clinic.
Yuichi Furuya, 52, has driven the tractor six days a week for the last seven years. When he fired up the deafening engine and nosed the machine onto the rock-strewn dirt path, it quickly became apparent that his view from the glass-enclosed cab was completely blocked by the overfilled bucket in front.
But this hardly slowed him down. Dressed in a tan jumpsuit and popping tabs of chewing gum into his mouth, Mr. Furuya deftly switched the gears of his machine as if he were playing a musical instrument. Dirt spewed from beneath the tractor, blowing into every crevice of the cab.
“About 40 percent of the route is inside my head,” he said. The rest he navigated by peering down at the ground and watching the trail embankments.
Through hairpin turns and jostling that threatened to dislodge internal organs, Mr. Furuya occasionally made a call on his cellphone and flipped through delivery invoices with one hand while keeping his left hand on the gearshift. All the while, he listened to a soundtrack of electronic dance music, his fingers tapping out rhythms on his right thigh.
“I am young at heart,” said Mr. Furuya. “I listen to music that calms me down.”
The rattling finally stopped when we reached the mountaintop and crowded into the tiny post office. Two workers were at the counter selling postcards, stamps and certificates to hikers who wanted an official commemoration of their climb. Postal workers take shifts lasting five to seven days at the Mt. Fuji branch, sleeping on bunk beds in back.
While the mountaintop post office is certainly one of the more unique branches, the postal logo is ubiquitous throughout the country. Japan’s postal system got its start in the 1870s, when the country was establishing its national identity, and the post office was often the first institution of the central government to open in villages.
Over time, the postal system, which also offered popular banking services, grew to be the world’s largest financial institution and a source of political patronage for Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party.
In 2005, the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, staked his leadership on a plan to privatize the postal system. Although he managed to get a bill through Parliament, the plan has since been modified to maintain significant government involvement, particularly in mail delivery. The government retains a significant stake in the holding company, which also has banking and insurance arms.
With so many post offices operating in communities where the population is declining dramatically, the network of 24,000 branches is “absolutely not sustainable,” said Patricia L. Maclachlan, the author of a history of Japan’s post office. In comparison, the United States, about 26 times larger than Japan by area, has some 31,000 post offices.
The post office atop Mt. Fuji opened in 1906. Originally, postal workers carried the mail down the trail by foot. The crawler tractor has been making the trek for the last half-century.
On the day I made the trip last month, Mr. Furuya and an assistant collected 11 plastic crates, each holding about 2,000 pieces of mail, and loaded them into the back of the bulldozer.
Maj. Craig Gulledge, 34, who serves in the United States Air Force at the Yokota Air Base on the fringes of Tokyo, had made the climb in under four hours and dropped by the post office to send postcards to his wife, parents and a nephew and niece.
“No one ever sends mail anymore,” Major Gulledge said. “So this is a classic cheap souvenir.”
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.