l e t t e r  f r o m  j a p a n


 

As a temporary resident of Japan from New Mexico, anxious to see as much of the country as possible, I left Yokohama to climb Mt. Fuji in late July. For the Japanese, to climb to the peak is the spiritual cleansing pilgrimage of a lifetime. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people of all ages walk up the mountain each summer season. I believed I was making the trip to see and photograph the surrounding view, and carried a camera on my journey.

The train leaving Yokohama dropped me off at Fujinomiya, a town at the base of Mt. Fuji. Not ten feet from the train car exit I was approached by an obviously friendly Japanese man about my age.

“I speak English,” he smiled.

“I need help and my Japanese is very poor,” I replied.

“Do you climb Fuji today?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “I have two days to visit your famous mountain and to climb to the top.”

“Where are your friends?” he asked.

“I’m alone,” I answered, “and travel very fast.”

As we conversed further it became apparent that his English was far better than my Japanese, and he understood even more than he could say. He was Ishikawa, a school teacher.

“You need a walking stick. You can buy one in the shop,” he explained, pointing to a nearby store.

The six-foot sticks of freshly carved wood were sturdy and fit the hand snugly. He picked one out, for which the shopkeeper received 120 yen.

“Come with me. You can start over there.” He pointed to a group of white-clad people lining up near a wide path, the starting point to climb Mt. Fuji.

“Why do the people wear white?” I asked.

“It is a tradition on Fuji,” he answered. “It is a ceremony.”

There is a saying about Mt. Fuji which translates into something like “A wise person climbs to the top of Fujiyama.” Viewed from my laboratory in far-off Yokohama, the majestic Fuji appeared to be a pinnacle from which Japan could be briefly held in the eye.

Now, at the base of the mountain, the only American in that part of Japan, on the only mountain in sight, my climb began. Mt. Fuji is not really a climb. It is a long, long zigzag walk on a firmly packed volcanic cinder path.

Entire well-provisioned families; large groups of chattering children dressed in neat uniforms; young couples with glances skittering over each other; solitary, frowning old men; and attractive women in unusual all-white kimonos, with silk parasols; were all walking single-file at the same pace up the winding trail. For several hours during the splendid summer afternoon I passed hundreds of people of all ages, talking in both English and Japanese. All of the teachers walking with children spoke a little English and appeared anxious to try it out on me. They particularly enjoyed answering questions addressed to them in English, and made no attempt to teach Japanese words.

Every thirty minutes or so the trail widened, and a small rock house perched on the edge with family members hovering over an outdoor black stove. A teapot warmed on the grill. Each time I approached a teahouse, an old woman would come forward and bow repeatedly, calling in a sing-song invitation to come to the stove. A small cup of green tea was offered and, as one reached for the cup with one hand, the walking stick was gently disengaged from the other. A branding iron was then removed from the charcoal pit and the hot end applied to the stick. One of the teachers explained to me that each teahouse has its own brand, and as the mountain is ascended the stick becomes covered by the distinctive burn marks.

Late into the day, and halfway up the 12,388-foot mountain, many of the uniformed children crossed from the path going up to the path going down. I then found a large teahouse in which sleep was possible for a few hours.

Gray dawn arrived early and the trek continued up the side of the Divine Mountain. At about 10,000 feet of elevation the physical challenge began for me, and the hurried pace required a strong concentration on achieving the pinnacle.

Then, as the sun rose over the Pacific, all of the blues and greens rippled brightly out of the grayness below. Everything beautiful was now separate and far away from the plain cinder mountain. From high on the side of the massive declivity Fujiyama was no longer seen as a silken thread running through the everyday lives of the island people.

At the top of sacred Fuji-san I found a small post office, a shrine, and a teahouse. A friendly Shinto priest greeted me in front of the shrine and pinned a red-colored ribbon on my field jacket.

The objective of my climb, to see and photograph the vast expanse of land and sea below me, was forgotten. The camera, and the eyes, were useless beside the exhilaration of arrival. After viewing Fuji from afar in all its daily earth-sky transformations, and finally arriving at its peak, I began to understand the true reason for the stepwise ascension. One does not purposefully view Japan from Fuji. What is best perceived from the place where the earth meets the heavens may occur with the eyes closed.

Still out of breath from my pursuit of the peak, I wondered if seeking out spiritual awareness had more to offer than attaining it. Thus the suggestion of spiritual awareness is pictured in the mind on a higher plane than its possession. And climbing to the top of the mountain is to go to this suggestion.

It is really a journey into the heart, with a singular, strange, and unforgettable arrival at the great friend in the sky.

 

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Ralph E. Pray, 1999

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