Sunday, 29 July 2012

From The Top of Mt Fuji

You can see my tea field. It is just below the middle background mountain.

I've turned down any television work the past few years. I don't enjoy it. I stumble over the polite verb forms in Japanese. I look like a dork.

 I've been in Japan 24 years and the thought of climbing Mt Fuji never even crossed my mind. The climbing season is only two months long and on weekends thousands climb each day. Who wants to get stuck in a traffic jam of hikers on the slopes of a volcano? But since they were willing to pay me to do it, I accepted. (Since I am now addicted to house renovations why not?)  I dragged myself out of bed dreading the whole thing. Cursing myself for caving in to Yoshi and Kazuko and friends who told me to do it.

Sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji...the beginning of a new day....and was it going to be a bad hair day? Yes.

Except for having a camera pointed at me as I panted, stumbled, sweat and cursed my way up and down the volcano, it turned out to be very interesting in many ways not anticipated. Three very good days.

Japan tried to have Mt Fuji registered as a World Heritage Site but failed several times. Easy to see why. Too many scratches and scuffs from humans over the centuries. And now too many military bases, golf courses and pitiful attempts at tourist traps blight the land around it's skirt and unique Eco-system. Now the local governments and central government are trying a new angle to get it put in the World Cultural Heritage category.

I just couldn't grasp what the director was trying to get me to spit out as a narrative. He thought I was being a stubborn jerk. I just couldn't gush over Mt Fuji and make the connection with Japanese culture in a sound bite in a natural believable way.

The connection is there, through paintings and poetry and religious pilgrimages over thousands of years. It is a sacred mountain and in the pantheon of Japanese Gods there are several connected to the mountain. Gods to keep it pacified so it doesn't erupt again. Gods to keep the water coming off and up from the mountain pure. Gods for the fresh air that will add years to your life. But something didn't resonate deeply at first with their concept presentation to UNESCO. At the time old Mt Fuji seemed to me more of a worn out tourist trap with a crowded, unpleasant climb up and down gravel and sharp lava. (Several visible planets, a brilliant milky way and breathtaking cloud formations quickly doused my skepticism.)

The day after the descent something dawned on me when a politician from one prefecture joined us several times in several places. I was the duped interviewer in a TV program to drill in the idea to the public that Mt Fuji was in fact an important and integral part of Japanese culture. Yikes. Media manipulation of the masses.

I was brutally honest to the politician. He was in on it to get money from UNESCO for his constituency. There was little if any good will towards preserving culture. I had a free for all with him. He is a politician...he could roll with the punches.

There were seven ancient pilgrimage entrances for ascending Mt Fuji. (Indigo sisters alert. We visited the north one together.) They existed before Shinto was actually recognizable as a religion in the 7th century. Mountain hermits and spiritual pilgrims prayed and purified themselves before and after the climb. We visited several of these mountain climbing entrances to film as they are important places in the concept of Mt Fuji being a cultural entity. These places now have Shinto shrines and gates. One was particularly representative of a pent up rant I had been storing.

Recently the soul of these places seems to have been completely ignored. The Shinto shrines are simply interested in selling protective votive papers and wooden tablets and silk bags (polyester) that guarantee a pass on your driver's license test. The sterile stone lanterns on the sides of the approach are carved from computer driven chisels, made from stone imported from another country. The stair railings are an abysmal rusting aluminum...... and check out this alter. The sign on the plastic donation box says, 'Let's always keep this place clean!' The politician had a genuine good laugh of defeat when he realized what I was up to taking this picture. You could see the 'Oh oh...damn.' look on his face while I chuckled and took pictures.

There are many old shrines around the country that maintain a deep sense of mystery and awe of nature. The trees, stones and buildings are manifests of a natural power that takes you out of your regular life and reset your being. Like walking into a Gothic church or visiting a chaotic Hindu temple in India or a sitting by a silent stone Zen Buddhist garden the Shinto shrines of old were physical manifestations of the power of their maker's conception of God and the universe. The magnificent ancient trees, ancient worn stone walkways, hand carved stone lanterns, ancient wooden shrines etc. You walk through the gates and approach the shrines and are taken to another dimension.  I am all for these places being preserved and respected for future generations. Maybe if Fuji san is registered it will be for the good. But I hope they do a better job on the man made made part of the shrines. I hope care is taken to preserve the mystery and other worldliness by avoiding mass produced aluminum staircase railings.

I had been explaining to polititan that current Japanese culture was only about making money and had lost any connection with it's origins. Cheap ugly representations of the past and worse yet, discount home center DIY accents.  He was doing his best to get UNESCO to eventually cough up the certification and cash and to have the Japanese central government open it's coffers to his town to promote tourism. The comedy/tragedy and a deep sense of hope in the situation was invigorating.

I met and interviewed this great guy. He climbs mount Fuji twice a day. Wednesday was his 1279th trip up the mountain. The only question that popped into my head was, "Are you crazy?"  He answered with a great hardy laugh and the interview went smoothly.

Another Shinto shrine was gorgeous. It is an important shrine as it houses the God that will stop Mt Fuji from erupting. The Shinto priest was so intelligent, informative and helpful. The interview went smoothly.
Check out the trout swimming in the freshly melted snow water at the base of the mountain. Here is gorgeous Japan.

The trip gave me food for thought. What small role can I play to preserve a piece of textile culture? How can I avoid the computer generated chisel stuff and keep closer to the origins of the silk and weaving culture and get people excited about that precious culturally important world of Japanese textiles?

One final shot of the sound/camera man, Yonegawa san and me in the Mt Fuji caldera.  A brother. A fellow long time traveller to India and Tibet. The world feels comfortable to be in when you meet someone and become instant friends although you may never see each other again.

(Lis brought this to my attention. Cracked me up.


  1. So many comments spring to mind Bryan, you are probably the most "true to your beliefs" person that I know, to a fault :-) I think there will always be a human failing that leads to spoiling the places we've gone to enjoy but I think that nature generally and mountains in particular have the power to inspire awe. Will we ever see your film? I thought of Karl Pilkington's Idiot Abroad (no inference intended) series, have you seen it? The Japan episode drove me crazy, so lacking in respect and reverence for the experiences he was having, until Fuji san got him

  2. Well...thank you Lis. Thank you. Like the top of Mt Fuji...I sort of skirt around the caldera of my beliefs. Don't look might make me dizzy. Mountains do have the power to inspire awe. Guess with me it is mountains and Bob Dylan. I am keeping the broadcast date mum. I really looked like a dork. I should have just played the role of a dork while they filmed. I would have been "true to my geeky walk" at least!

  3. when i read this i thought of today's radio report on lake george (in the adirondacks, nearby). the town has a water keeper, who guards the lake. it's his job to monitor every activity (there's a lot, from locals to tourists to wealthy incomers to developers) and how it affects the lake. maybe mt. fuji needs a mountainkeeper. one who has (real) power.

  4. This is the most fantastic thing I have read in ages. Wow how to minds so far apart in years, and experience can think so alike. Bryan, astounding narrative friend.

  5. It's okay, Bryan, you're not the only one! A certain foreigner from the Western U.S. had an even smaller window to look like a fool and certainly made it happen!

    As a side note, I absolutely love your writing style. As something of a writer myself, it was easy to absorb myself in your narrative. D.J. and myself were certainly glad to meet you, it's only unfortunate that we seemed to lose track of each other before we all reached the summit.

    Obviously you made such an impression on me that I had to search you up. Glad I did.

    1. Hi Angelo, I didn't have the chance to say good bye to you and DJ. Thanks for the help with the program. Best to you both on your journeys. You know where to find me. Bryan

  6. onesmallstitch31 July 2012 at 13:54

    Japan is not alone in losing touch with the essence of all that truly matters. everytime we buy something wrapped in 3 layers of plastic we need to ask ourselves if we need it?? reading your account is the only way I will ever make the climb - thanks for that.

  7. Are we really on a cultural highway to hell? The tv filming continued at the house today and I was being interviewed. "What do you think the future holds for culture in Japan?" Was the question.
    I rolled my eyes and laughed. I grimaced and ranted (made them laugh) but managed to bring it around with the fact that I have all these Japanese students at my house all the time so there is interest.

  8. An amazing narrative Bryan. Can't believe you had never ventured up the mountain before. We have similar concerns here with Uluru, which I have never climbed. I have walked around it's base only. It is a sacred rock to the indigenous people. I just love the dreamtime stories associated with it.

  9. I was surprised how much Fuji stuff was actually in me. The stories and art just accumulate while you aren't looking with that mountain.

  10. Brian-
    I haven't read your piece yet which i look forward to. I wanted to tell you to look at these wonderful drawings of Japanese "folk" trades. I thought they were lovely.

    Now to read your post....

    1. They are great. The woodcutter next to the fire called to me more than the weaver. I chose the wrong profession? Thank you for thinking of me.