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Mount Fuji: Beautiful At A Distance
by Charles N. Barnard

When Internet-generation Japanese speak candidly about Mt. Fuji, they will likely tell you that they are sick to death of hearing about this too-perfect mountain which is the supreme trademark of their country. Fuji's serene and divine image bores them, they say, imprinted as it has been on their entire lives, beginning with the picture on first-grade pencil boxes. Further, they argue, Fuji's famed symmetry is actually very trite design and its legendary symbolism, celebrated in thousands of poems, paintings, plays, woodcuts, calendar photographs, paperweights, romantic songs and plastic scale models is as unrepresentative of Japan as geishas, kabuki and the tea ceremony.

As for climbing Mt. Fuji, ah so! Far from being a spiritual experience, or even an athletic achievement, that is simply the ultimate demonstration of middle-class values.

(Now play that tune on your samisen!)

Heresy? Perhaps, but these are the sentiments one hears about Mt. Fuji in the clubs and coffee shops of Roppongi or wherever Japanese have switched from drinking sake to drinking Scotch and where irreverence reigns. Fuji is the old days. Fuji is before cyberspace. Fuji is for folks in pious white robes and straw sandals.

The news is not all bad for tradition, however. One may also hear that a friend had a particularly inspiring of view of Fuji-san from the Shinkansen train last week . . .or that air pollution is clearly being reduced around Tokyo because one can see Fuji on almost 100 days a year now . . .or that the wine grapes of the Yamanashi vineyards are prospering because Fuji looks down upon them — or that you, a foreigner, will surely return to Japan if you can manage to see Fuji from your plane window as you leave.

Obviously, for many, Fuji's presence and power, its visibility — or even its nonvisibility — remain significant matters. A 17th-century poet wrote, "Rain obscures the scene/But Fuji still exerts a charm/Even when unseen!" Thus, the ever-present question in Japan — can I see Fuji today? Can Fuji see me?

What is this curious ambivalence? A love-hate relationship? Perhaps. But then, no one can be indifferent to Mt. Fuji. It is there, in the middle of the Kanto Plain, as it is a centerpiece of Japanese life, all 12,388 feet of it, as conspicuous as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Fuji has been there, in one form or another, for half a million years, one of the youngest volcanoes in a great arc extending to the Marianas. There are no lesser mountains nearby Fuji, however, nothing to detract from its solitary upward thrusting or its cake-icing top. It is an enormous and eternal presence, in full view of perhaps 25 million people every day. It is not a remote Everest, nor wild Kilimanjaro, nor destructive Vesuvius, nor unclimbable Eiger. Fuji is different. No matter what they say in Roppongi, it has gods inside it. It is holy. It is the Nation. It lives.

Above all, middle-class sport or not, you can climb it. Anyone can and almost everyone does. As many millions have probably been to Fuji's summit as Muslim pilgrims have made their way to Mecca. And for similar reasons. Climbing Fuji is the way the Japanese possess their mountain, pledge allegiance to their nation and make communion with the rising sun. It is a Shinto hadj, a rite of passage. Even those who say Fuji is a hopelessly old-fashioned symbol will nevertheless struggle to the rim of its crater at some time in their lives. Then, forever after, they will joke about having done it.

A threadbare axiom is applied to climbing Fuji: "A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once. Only a fool does it twice."

Mt. Fuji was not always a picture-postcard mountain. Geologists believe it was first two mountains, about 600,000 years ago. Then, 300,000 years after that, an immense eruption occurred somewhere between the two original peaks and they were covered by what is now Mt. Fuji: 3,776 meters high, sitting on an almost perfectly circular base which is 35 to 40 kilometers in diameter and covers 900 square kilometers of two Japanese prefectures.

Most experts agree that Fuji is a dormant, not extinct, volcano. No eruption has occurred since 1707 (when Tokyo, 100 kilometers distant, was covered with 4 to 6 inches of ash) yet there were at least 18 eruptions before that and steam vents can still be found in Fuji's crater. Reports of several centuries ago described cauldrons of boiling blue mud at the summit. There are none today. In fact, the mountain demonstrates very little seismic activity; the few tremors which are measured are mild. Nevertheless, at the end of each summer, ritual fires are lighted along Fuji's trails and prayers are offered that the great volcano will not erupt again.

Surely, as long as there were early humanoids on the Japan islands, they were aware of this great mountain and either worshipped or feared it — if indeed the two emotions were not the same. (The Age of Irreverence came much later.) The name "Fuji" probably derives from the word fuchi, meaning fire in the aboriginal Ainu language.

Clearly, such a perfect and frightening mountain must have been sacred in prehistory.

The first persons to climb it are obviously unknown, but more than a thousand years ago, a monk named En-no-Gyoja came down from Fuji's summit with a description of the great crater which he called naiin or sanctuary. Shrines were built on the mountain; mortal females were forbidden to climb it. It became the legendary realm of the goddess Konohana Sakuy Hima, or Tree Blossom Princess. Then, in 1149, a priest, Matsudai, dedicated a Shinto shrine at the summit. Serious Fuji worship had begun. Even today, priests at the mountain's summit shrine scatter water, rice wine and salt into the crater as a purification ritual.

This is the sort of classical and religious background which makes today's man-in-the-street Japanese impatient with Fuji. He will climb the mountain, yes, but more likely as a summer weekend outing than as a pilgrimage. He doesn't want to be bored with history. He may go with fellow employees of his company in a happy, sake-drinking group of several hundred. Or he will go with his girlfriend, carrying a loud cassette player up the mountain.

Or he will take his children — who will race ahead of him on the dusty tails and tell him to hurry up because Fuji is so easy. He has been told that he doesn't have to be in very good physical condition to do this or know anything about mountaineering. Nor will be spend much money. He can mail a postcard from the summit or buy some souvenirs. He is assured that the worst that can happen to him is that he will get a splitting headache or become nauseous from altitude sickness. The best that can happen is that he will make it to the top in time for sunrise and that the day will be clear.

Goraiko, the coming of the light, is nirvana for the Fuji climber, the spiritual object of the exercise, even for the nonspiritual: to stand on the highest point of land in the Land of the Rising Sun and watch that sun rise. What more could even an irreverent one ask? The climber may, at that moment, be moved to buy a world War II-vintage rising-sun flag for a memento, or, with great luck, he may hear a group of the old kamikaze pilots in uniform singing their squadron song while the horizon reddens.

Unhappily, although much discomfort is usually endured by those who hope to see the Fuji sunrise, tens of thousands of climbers never make it. They fall into exhausted sleep in fetid huts along the route and wake too late the next morning. Or they are caught in one of the pre-dawn traffic jams which clog the narrow switchback trails which climb the last thousand feet of the mountain. But for those who tumble out of mildewed futons (rented quilts) in time to find a place facing east on the crater's rim, there is a moment which is ecstasy for some and wonder for all.

First, a faint, silken thread, pink-orange-gold, defines the horizon. Then about 4:30 a.m. (in summer), the molten sun swells on the lip of earth and spills over. A thousand camera shutters click; a thousand frames of Fuji film spin forward; ten thousand photographs are made in ten seconds. The temperature will be only a few degrees above freezing. The light of the new day shines on unshaved faces, red eyes, cold noses. Goraiko has been achieved. The mission has been accomplished.

For those who miss the actual moment of sunrise, Fuji's summit is not without interest. There are two hiking trails around the great crater (1,500 feet in diameter, 600 feet deep). There is also a sort of main street, bordered by sleeping huts, a post office, a telephone station, some souvenir shops and food stalls, and, beyond, the Sengen Shinto Shrine. Japan's most important weather station and long-distance radar are also at the summit, manned year 'round by government meteorologists.

The descent from the summit can be swift. On the established trails it takes most people only 2 to 3 hours. Some of the more adventurous elect to skid or ski down a vast ash slide, an express route that takes most only an hour and a half. By any route, all will be home in Tokyo by evening.

The immense mountain has more to offer its explorers than sunrise and the barren fields of volcanic ash at its summit. Except where 16 golf courses have been carved out, Fuji's lower slopes are wooded with beeches, oaks, white birch, alders, mountain ash. Between 1,500 and 2,300 feet of altitude, fir, hemlock pine and spruce take over. Between 100 and 150 varieties of birds nest in the lower altitudes, and small animals such as rabbits, marten and deer are common. Occasionally, wild boar are seen.

During World War II and the American occupation which followed, some of Mt. Fuji's foothills and grasslands were used as military training areas and live-firing ranges. Now that this activity is ended, there is great pressure to return the former military bases to developers of more golf courses.

One of the strangest natural features of the mountain is an area of virgin forest known as Aokigahara Jukai, the Sea of Trees. It is 2,400 hectares of white cedar, pine and boxwood growing from the only area of the mountain that was not covered by ash or lava in the 1707 eruption. A best-selling 1960 novel, later serialized on Japanese television, glamorized this forest as the site for a peaceful death. As a result, it has come to be known as "the forest of no return," an almost impenetrable fastness populated by snakes, foxes and wild dogs. An annual search of this forest is made by a special police unit, but the work is made more difficult by great outcroppings of volcanic rocks whose magnetic properties disorient compasses. Nevertheless, the bodies of more than 150 suicides have been recovered in recent years.

For some of Fuji's climbers, the motive is to see for themselves what all those painters and poets have been trying to express about the mountain for centuries. What did the Waka poet, Yamabe-no-Akahito feel when he wrote his famous 31 syllables: "As slow I pace on Tago's shore/fair Fuji I descry;/Her peerless peak aloft doth soar,/Snow-crowned against the sky"? Or Basho, the great master of haiku, when he composed his 17 syllables to say, "On Kawaguchi's shore I must,/While Fuji through the changing mist/presents all hundred views"?

A hundred views of Fuji was also the last epic project of the painter Katsushika Hokusai, perhaps the greatest artist to devote his life to the mountain. His most celebrated portrait of the fabled volcano is called South Wind and Clear Weather, but more commonly known as the Red Fuji.

Will today's climber of the mountain find for himself the sources of these artists' and poets' inspiration? Alas, probably not. Fuji's classical age seems to have passed. Some members of a Shinto sect — "Fuji-kos," in tattered robes and frazzled slippers — still make the climb each year, chanting prayers all the way to the top. ("Pure by my heart; fair weather on the mountain.") And the Sengen Shinto Shrine has, after countless years of litigation against the government, finally won legal title to almost four million square meters of the mountain's summit. But the great parade of humanity that really claims the mountain now is an overwhelmingly amusement-park crowd. No one knows how many of these there may be. Some say three million a year, some say more.

On a pleasant weekend in July or August (the only two months that the mountain is officially open to climbers), there may be 50,000 people on the mountain. It is an unequaled spectacle. By day, the long lines of climbers, many wearing colorful hats, jackets and sweaters, snake up the mountain, often single file, heads down, walking sticks pumping. By night the lines become twinkling strings of firefly lights as the never-ending parade of humanity tries to find its way with flashlights or lights on miner's helmets.

Fuji is not only a summer picnic, but an accessible one. A four-hour bus ride from Tokyo will put any would-be climber at his choice of "Fifth Stations," which are more than halfway up the mountain. In pre-World War II days, there was no road up the mountain's lower slopes. Then came the first vehicular shortcut from Kawaguchiko to the first of the Fifth Stations at 2,305 meters.

Fuji is actually divided into ten sections or go for climbing. Depending on which route up the mountain is selected, these can add up to a linear distance of from 15 to 25 kilometers. However, only purists begin at Station #1 these days as long as they can ride as high as Station #5 in comfort.

Here, where the bus lines end at "the border between heaven and earth," are thriving base camps known as "Fuji Ginza" because of their commercial development. On a fine day, several thousand people per hour are disgorged from busses here. Souvenir shops sell straw hats, film, cans of whale meat, flashlight batteries, pieces of Mt. Fuji igneous rock, cans of "fresh Fuji air," 3-D postcards, Shinto charms and packages of Fuji soil which have been licensed by the Health and Welfare Ministry as a non-medical product. When dissolved in bath water, the silicic acid and aluminum and iron oxides in this potion are said to cure stiff muscles and rheumatism.

At Station Five, one restauranteur has estimated that he serves more than 20,000 customers on a good weekend. There are six restaurants. There is always a holiday mood — and some bizarre sights.

In recent years, Fuji has been climbed by groups of blind hikers, by women on horseback, by 90-year-olds, by girls in high heels, by monks in saffron robes, by amputee-veterans of World War II, by the mentally retarded, by circus performers on stilts, by teenagers on motor scooters, by faith healers, by jugglers, by nudists, by people in wheelchairs, and by some carrying skis for use on the descent. Automobiles and grand pianos have been carried to the top, piece by bit, and reassembled for publicity stunts and TV commercials. A bulldozer makes a clanking, snorting ascent most days, carrying supplies for stations along the way. The operator has been known to sell rides to exhausted climbers.

It can safely be said that no one seriously interested in mountain climbing as a sport would disgrace himself by being on Mt. Fuji in the summer months. All the same, many of the summer participants make serious efforts to look like genuine alpinists in their dress and equipment. Certain sporting goods shops in Tokyo specialize in catering to these "Fuji Sherpas," and some very expensive outfits can be seen getting off the busses at either of the fifth stations: Tyrolean hats, Swiss boots, Nepalese knapsacks.

A traditional if not essential purchase for all before starting up the flanks of the sublime mountain is a kongozue, or walking stick, which costs only a couple of dollars at any fifth-station souvenir shop. This symbolic talisman is about five feet in length and has a small Japanese flag affixed and two small bells, the tinkling of which is thought to ward off any evil spirits which may lurk along Fuji's trails. The stick also becomes a record and certification of one's climb, because at each succeeding station up the mountain, a brand can be burned into the handle for a price — about 25 cents at stations 6, 7, 8, and 9. The summit brand costs 50 cents.

For those who may not intend to climb the mountain at all (70 percent of the tourists who come to the fifth stations never go a foot higher), a kongozue stick, complete with all five brands, may be purchased for about three dollars.

Assuming that the climber's intentions are honorable, there are six popular routes which can be followed from the fifth stations to the summit. These vary somewhat in length, angle of climb, and degree of difficulty.

Whichever route is taken, most climbers can make it from #5 to the top in from five to seven hours, even when the trails are congested and the pace maddeningly slow. For those who are interested only in the sunrise, altered strategies are necessary: either start early in the afternoon and stay overnight in a hut at 7th or 8th Stage — or start late in the afternoon and climb all night to reach the summit in time for goraiko.

The so-called "huts" (a misnomer — most are as large as tennis courts) are located at each station along all major trails. There are dozens of them. These unique, privately-owned establishments may be 200 years old or more and have, in most cases, been managed by the same family for generations. They are usually wooden structures, protected by surrounding walls of stone. They are open only during July and August. They have no stated or legally-enforced capacity. Their representatives work the trails, beginning in the late afternoon, trying to persuade climbers that it is time to quit and enjoy some comfort.


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