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
I speak English, he smiled.
I need help and my Japanese is very poor, I
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.
Im alone, I answered, and travel very
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
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
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
©Ralph E. Pray, 1999