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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Mt. Fuji's gate in the clouds

Jul. 25, 2017

Since ancient times, people in Japan have believed that mountains are the dwelling place of the gods. Mountain worship is deeply rooted in their lives. Mount Fuji, the country's highest peak, is no exception.

The mountain has a torii gate on its summit, which symbolizes the feeling of religious awe and is seen as a gateway to the spirit world. But the structure was feeling the burden of its years, and has been replaced for the first time since 1941.

In July, Mt. Fuji opened for the year. Climbers who had been impatiently waiting for this day started their hike up to the top.

Starting at the mountain's 5th station, it takes about 5 hours to reach the summit.

The torii gate stands there to greet the climbers who have safely made it to the top. It has watched over them throughout the 76 years since it was built.

In winter, the temperature at the summit can plunge to minus 30 degrees. The gate has been buried by blizzards. It often freezes. Wind and snow have chipped away its surface, but it has never succumbed, and it has remained standing.

One man has a special attachment to this gate -- Shigeyoshi Sasaki, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Sasaki worked as a junior high school teacher for 35 years. He has trekked to the gate 1,402 times.

In standing defiant against the punishing elements, the torii gate is, for him, a symbol of how his own life has unfolded.

"I guess there must have been some pretty bad days up here, with rain and storms sweeping in. But the gate's still standing there, refusing to give in. That's how I'd hope to live my life," says Sasaki.

At 76, Sasaki is the same age as the gate. He says he felt very emotional when he found out it was soon to be replaced.

"It's done its job for 76 years. It's served out its time. I'd like to express my gratitude and say, 'Now, it's time for you to take a well-deserved rest'."

The construction company in charge of replacing the gate is based in Shizuoka Prefecture, at the foot of the mountain.

Its aim was to build a gate that will last 100 years through wind, rain and snow. It therefore chose a sturdy Japanese cypress that's 150 years old. The top-quality cypress was harvested especially to replace the old gate.

Craftspeople constructed the new gate without the use of a single nail. They planed the surface of the wood to a silky smooth finish to prevent the absorption of moisture so that it can survive in any kind of weather.

"I have to say, I'm nervous. We're going to build the gate in the hope it will last 70 or 80 years -- maybe even longer," says Kyowa Industry CEO Hiroaki Shiozawa.

The day arrived for the new gate to be set up.

A bulldozer carrying a column weighing more than one ton lumbered up the long, steep access road.

Workers dismantled the old gate. Some people rushed up the mountain to bid their farewells.

The workers began assembling the new gate. They took special care when laying the foundation. To build a gate that could withstand the elements, they couldn't afford to make even the slightest mistake. Precision was the key.

At 3,776 meters above sea level, the air is thin. Two days after work began, the new torii was in place.

The day after the gate was erected, Sasaki went up the mountain once more. It was his 1,403rd climb.

"Please protect everyone. Please protect me, too. Please watch over this world," he prayed.

Many climbers loved the old torii gate at the top of Mt. Fuji. After 76 years, they're sorry to see it go. Even though the new gate may look different, people's love for Mt. Fuji and their custom of offering prayers will never change.