Wow! What a fascinating mountain!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once, way back in the summer of 2000. Back then, I’m sure I took interest in the volcanic rocks all around, but my memory of that hike is filled with two other outstanding impressions: my bout with altitude sickness and the amount of rubbish I found along the route up.

Word is that the rubbish problem is being better taken care of, though as I was told on my summer trek up the mountain for Journeys In Japan, the problem continues as more foreigners come to climb the mountain and people from certain parts of the world have less garbage disposal etiquette than others. Altitude sickness can be avoided by climbing the mountain more prudently—taking one’s time and stopping for the night on the way up in order to acclimatize. This time, that was not a problem. Rather than starting from the 5th Station at 2,400 metres and then hustling to the summit, we started from sea level and took our time with a one night layover due to bad weather at the 6th Station.

Ever since my first experience on Mt. Fuji, I always maintained that it was not such a beautiful mountain to climb but was rather a mountain to be appreciated while climbing other mountains. What a thrill to stand at 3,015 metres on the summit of Tateyama, on the opposite side of Honshu overlooking the Sea of Japan, and gaze across the ranges of the Japan Alps to the familiar stratovolcano rising above the Pacific!

But this time I held an entirely different opinion: Mt. Fuji was incredibly fascinating!

Moss Forest Path

We passed through mossy forests where jumbles of jagged volcanic rock were covered in thick, spongy moss that made the rocks look like a sea of green clouds. We stopped at a lava cave where monks from bygone days stayed for days or weeks as part of their asceticism. The real joy for me came as we rose above the tree line and so many varieties of volcanic rocks were practically all there was to see, save for a few hardy species of scrubby plants that held on to existence most of the way up the mountain.

Fujisan Lava Detail

During our one day layover, clouds and rain kept us hanging about the Shin Hoei Sanso. But when the rain abated for a spell, I was out examining the local rocks and spent a pleasant time finding subjects that, in lieu of being able to take home, I arranged and photographed.

The rest of the climb to the summit was only made difficult by the lack of time I had to photograph. While hiking through the Hoei Crater (the large cater on the southeast side of Mt. Fuji), I was directed to keep walking past the large volcanic boulders that appeared out of the fog. When the clouds parted to reveal the upper reaches of the crater, I had to face the camera and say a few words, only to turn and see an alien landscape of red slopes with exposed dykes of grey rock that looked like ancient walls from some long gone civilization.

Thankfully, at the summit I had about an hour and a half at the end of the day to scuttle about the crater rim and find interesting subjects. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me. At one spot, numerous boulders of rock looked as though they had been squeezed through a tube or flung like batter. Then there was the crater itself with so many colours! From my experience at the summit, I gained a whole new love and respect for Mt. Fuji.

The colours in the sky prior to the sunrise the next morning were incredible and the light in the clouds cast a glow on the rocks of the crater and rim. But I was on camera during this time and so I could not take time to photograph for myself. I knew that though. I had to accept it. Perhaps I can go back again someday.

From the very summit we had views across the three ranges of the Japan Alps (how nice it was to lay eyes on those old familiar peaks that I haven’t seen for eight years!), Yatsugatake, and the Kai Okutama Chichibu Mountains. It sure was crowded though with visitors standing in line for over twenty minutes just to grab a photo at the summit marker.

For now, let me tell you that if you have any interest or fascination with rocks, Mt. Fuji is an incredible mountain to climb!

Fuji Rim Lava Collection The Foot and the Falcon

Fujisan Crater 12

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The Murayama Route Kaisan Ceremony

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August 21st is broadcast day

Emi and I stood just behind a row of men and one woman with her head shaved. They were completely clad in ceremonial wear. Before them was a rectangular pit lined with neatly-set volcanic rocks, essentially forming a high-backed pool with a low front. Four narrow pipes jutted out from the wall at the back and water was pouring from them, gradually filling the bottom of the pool. People were gathering behind us and the junior high students had separated with the girls standing beyond the pool and the boys nowhere to be seen. To the right side and also around the back stood many people, some wielding cameras. Our two cameramen were out in the crowd, and another local news team was there as well.

A few junior high boys came wearing ceremonial garb. The women with the shaved head fussed over one boy’s linen clothes. By her comments, I guessed she was his grandmother. Large conch shells were held up for some practice blowing. Two people got the two notes right but one man struggled like a novice on the recorder. The notes sounded more like an ill bovine ululation.

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At last the ceremony commenced. Young men in loin clothes stepped into the pool and each under the water issuing from the pipes. Chanting and the rattling of beads began while the men under the water moved their arms into different poses not entirely unlike the ranger poses seen in action dramas for young boys. After the adult men stepped aside, junior high boys in loin clothes took turns stepping into the pool and standing under the water in prayer poses.

Once the cold water ablution part of the ceremony had ended, we tried to get a brief interview with the boys. They were typically sparse in their responses.

“How was the mizugori (cold water ablutions)?”
“Cold!”
“Did you feel something spiritual?”
“I felt it!” (one boy)
“How many of you have climbed Mt. Fuji?”
(A show of hands)
“How do you feel about Mt. Fuji becoming recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site?”
“It’s good!”

We interviewed two girls afterwards and their answers were expressed with great thought. The problem was that they spoke so softly that the sound recorder, Mr. Koyama, said that we probably couldn’t use their part because they were so hard to hear. The interviews continued with a couple of old men, only one of whom had anything to say and then again not in much detail. Finally, we got some decent responses from two middle-aged woman. One question I asked was if they felt it was better that Mt. Fuji became accepted as a World Cultural Site as opposed to the original hope for it to be recognized as a World Natural Site. They said they thought so but would have preferred it to have become both. Our director later asked me not to mention Fuji’s failure at becoming a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site because the application had been made a few times and each time it was rejected on account of the rubbish (as well as other points) and so it was a shameful and disappointing thing for the local people.

The ceremony continued after a short break with a crowd gathered around the trail head of the Murayama Route where it left the paved roads leading to the shrine and began meandering through the forest as a proper mountain path. A rope with white ceremonial paper flags was tied across the path. Someone drew a katana and demonstratively sliced the rope through the middle. An entourage of people followed the head of the shrine up the path. Shortly after, they returned via another path that came down between the main building and another smaller structure.

In attendance were two Miss Fujisans of Heisei 29 (last year) and the ambassador of the British Embassy in Shizuoka. I later heard that he was a “safe” guest as the British had in fact been the first foreigners to climb Mt. Fuji and they had done so via the Murayama Route. Inviting more prominent guests, such as the governor of Shizuoka, would attract the ire of rival shrines who were also claiming to be the head shrine of the oldest pilgrimage route.

After some chanting had been done before each of the shrine’s structures, the crowd moved to a cubic heap of fir tree branches. The ceremony reached its final stage here with more words spoken before the green boughs. Then a man came forth with a quiver of arrows and a bow. He first faced East and spoke some words before letting an arrow fly into the trees. He repeated the actions to the South, West, and North. When the arrows fell out of the trees, the junior high students rushed into the brush to retrieve it. Apparently it was good luck to retrieve an arrow.

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At last, fire was set to the fir branches and soon a dense smoke was billowing out to the north and east, forcing people to move aside. The Miss Fujisans, the British Ambassador, and a few other distinguished guests took turns standing before the smoking heap, bowed, and placed wooden prayer sticks on the fir branches.

The ceremony was over. People slowly shuffled about, some going to get cold drinks as it was really hot under the sun. Others made their way to the shade and some back to their cars. The entire event was not over yet though. More was planned for the evening, including choosing the new Miss Fujisans for this year. But our time here was up and from the next day our journey would take us up the Murayama Route.

3 Sillies

Sengen Shrine is surrounded by enormous cryptomeria trees and features one, standout, ancient ginkgo tree. There’s a main structure which, I heard, is usually closed and only open for special occasions. There are a couple of other structures, as well as trails leading off up the mountain slope. I was interested in seeing the interior of the main building because I heard there was a four-hundred-year-old mandala inside that served as a map of the route up Mt. Fuji. As fortune would have it, because today was the ceremony of the opening of the pilgrimage route for this year, the main shrine building was open, and we were permitted to go inside.

Sengen Shrine

The mandala hung on the wall on the left side at the back. There was a small altar in the middle at the back and behind it was a room with several artifacts displayed. On the right was an illustration of silhouettes of each of the items displayed behind the glass and an explanation in Japanese about them. These, I learned, were all things that previously had been set upon Mt. Fuji, mostly statues of Buddha—some beheaded—and some other statues of stone or wood. All these items had been carried back down off the mountain and were kept inside the shrine.

 

Upon close inspection, the mandala turned out to be a copy of an original, which made sense as a painting created in the late 16th/early 17th century is nothing to sneeze at. It was still interesting to study. The work was very detailed and depicted life below the mountain and the route all the way to the summit. There were pilgrims heading up to the peak or staying in rock shelters; men doing mizugori and people at shrines and accommodations along the way; and a river with people crossing. Emi and I were talking about it and we asked a man some questions. He called over another gentleman who explained in much detail about the mandala. I’m afraid my Japanese is not good enough to comprehend everything when talking about history and Buddhism.

Another similar illustration hung on the wall inside the front door but there were some differences. Emi noticed how one shrine below and to the west of Sengen Shrine looked much larger in this second mandala. She asked a man in official robes (he turned out too be the head of the shrine) if this other shrine was the head shrine since it was larger. He very sternly replied that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine and there were no mistakes to be made about that.

After we exited the structure, I asked Emi to verify what I thought I had understood. She confirmed that he indeed had stated that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine of the pilgrimage route and on this side of Mt. Fuji. She told me that some other shrines around the mountain also claimed head status or that their route was the oldest pilgrimage route. I recalled that the director had said in an email to all of us that we had to be careful about what we said about the Murayama Route and anything connected to the history and religious background of the area. We couldn’t declare things like, “This is the oldest…” or “This was the very first…”. Superlatives and exactitude were out. If rivals heard such things, there would be claims against NHK.

On the altar in the shrine I had seen an illustration of two men arm-wrestling with the English caption, “Do not gloat; Do not pout”. I asked Emi if she had seen it and what it said in Japanese. She confirmed that the Japanese had expressed the same idea: do not feel pride and do not be a sore loser. I said that it was ironic because it seemed that the people here who were claiming that their shrine was the head and their trail was the oldest route were doing so in pride and did not look kindly upon any notions that they were incorrect. The folly of pride indeed!

The beheaded Buddha statues were a curiosity to me. Why would anyone vandalize statues of the Buddha in a country that practices Buddhism? It was explained to me that during the Sino-Japanese war, Buddhism was considered the religion of the enemy and so the statues were beheaded. I later found several more examples at the summit of the mountain. Of course, once the war was over, Buddhism was acceptable once more.

What bizarre thinking! Buddhism, which came too Japan around 1,500 years ago and became in intrinsic part of Japanese beliefs and culture, was suddenly reviled out of the convenience of war, and then welcomed once more. Not that much earlier in Japanese history, Christianity had been regarded as a foreign enemy and crosses were stamped upon and Christians killed. But in the early years of the Meiji Period, Japan was allies with the West, so Christianity was then alright. I told Emi that this reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 where there were three supernations and two were always allies fighting against the third. But near the end of the book, the “allies” abruptly become the enemy and the previous enemy now the ally. Real life is stranger than fiction.

A third case of puzzling human thinking was explained to us, but because of my ill confidence in my Japanese comprehension ability, I can’t be certain if I understood everything perfectly. The objects on display at the back of the shrine could be accessed by simply opening two sliding wood-framed doors fitted with windows. Of course we didn’t try to open those doors, but I later heard that they were alarmed because a theft had occurred in the past. The thieves were Koreans who had stolen the artifacts under the pretense that since Buddhism had come to Japan through the Korean peninsula, these items were in rightfully the heritage and property of Korea. This seemed completely ludicrous to me as everyone knows that Buddhism began in India and had come to the Far East through China. Korea was a convenient route to reach Japan.

So the story was that Koreans stole the artifacts and brought them back to Korea where the thieves were then tried in a Korean court and found not guilty because the court sided with them, agreeing that these items were indeed a part of Korean heritage. It sounds so utterly ridiculous that I really have to question whether or not I misunderstood some of what was said or if it was a story concocted to vilify Koreans (as that kind of thing does happen in Japan). Nevertheless, the doors were alarmed and the shrine usually closed to the public.

angry

Within a short time, people began gathering at the shrine, and a busload of junior high school students arrived. The ceremony to open the pilgrimage route for the year was about to begin.

The Pilgrimage Begins!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once. It was way back in the summer of 2000. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the bus up from the Yamanashi side up to the Fifth Station and followed the Yoshida Route to the summit. We left around ten in the morning with clouds around us and took the switchback path to the summit. I recall it taking longer than I had planned and trying to run up the path in spots. But I became quickly short of breath. At the summit, we stopped to eat, but my stomach felt queasy. A headache developed and without going to the true summit, we went back down, passing the final stations in the waning twilight as a bobbing line of zig-zagging lights swam up against us through the gloaming. I never felt that I had truly made the climb to the summit of Fujisan and vowed to one day return and do it properly.

Konnichiwa! I greeted my guide, Emi Kamimura, at the seashore in Tagonoura. She turned from the sea, smiled and greeted me back. We introduced ourselves and shook hands.

The seaside seems like an odd place to meet one’s guide. Why not at the train station or somewhere a little easier to narrow down to a point? But this was the script for the program and the seashore was where we were to meet because it was here that our journey would begin.

It was not my first time to meet Emi. She had been a porter on my trip to the Kita Alps two years ago. She is really easy to talk to and a very cool woman if you like tough yamagirls with a warm, friendly atmosphere. She was not the only one from that trek who was along this time. Mr. Otani was lead camera this trip and had been the sound and mic man last time. Mr. Komatsu, a porter for us on this Mt. Fuji trek had been our porter in the Alps too. He also worked as a guide but not for us this time. And our driver, Mr. Fujiwara, from two years ago was at the wheel again. Since the last time, I had learned that he runs a business called Awesome Barbecue, and they do “glamping” (glamorous camping), outdoor weddings, outdoor events that may include barbecues, and even commercials. They are on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. New to me were the other camera operator, Mr. Nii, who had lived in Canada before and was really a cool guy to talk to, and Mr. Koyama who handled sound recording this time. He was modest and a little quiet but still of warm and friendly disposition. Along with the director, we were seven to head up the mountain, though we’d be joined by a Mr. Nakayama later on.

Emi and I splashed sea water in our faces as a rudimentary cold water ablution ritual (mizugori) and then I followed Emi’s instructions and took a stone from the beach. Our first stop from here was the Fujizuka, a heap of rocks purportedly built up over the centuries by pilgrims who left a stone from the sea here and prayed for a safe journey. What we saw was disappointing though. It was a flattened concrete cone in a mock shape of Mt. Fuji and had large boulders of roughly equal size neatly arranged in the concrete. I’m sure no one carried such large rocks up from the seashore. Though there was a small pile of stones at the very top, I heard that once the pile became too large, the stones were removed. In fact, by tradition, the stones were meant to be removed after the pilgrims’ safe return.

Emi and I went up the steps to the small wooden shrine at the top, placed our stones, and said a prayer. This was most certainly starting off with the sense of a spiritual journey, unlike my previous visit years ago.

As the TV crew recorded some scenes in the area, an elderly man approached Emi and me and began telling us about the mound. He took us around to the backside and here, beneath the skirts of the concrete structure, was a lot of sand with hand-sized stones in it. It looked as though the concrete mound had been dropped on top of the sand mound. I asked the man if that was the original Fujizuka and he confirmed it was. He also pointed out a rectangular and vertical concrete door-like shape in the back of the concrete mound. He explained that just last year the mound had been cut into and several large urns bearing coins from the late Edo Period had been found inside. This story was much more interesting to me!

Fujizuka

We had a long way to walk and more things to see. Some ways out of town and climbing the slopes of the mountain into the rural landscapes between city and nature, Emi pointed out a stone marker that indicated when the road forked which way to follow the Murayama Route. The rocks were small volcanic boulders that had been inscribed with lettering, but it was the simple triple-peaked outline of Mt. Fuji that intrigued me. It was a neat symbol that one would associate with modern travel and not. I became suspicious as we encountered two more such boulders, both painted with bright white letters and the triple-peaked Fuji symbol. The rocks may have been the original markers but the engraved letters and symbol now seemed very modern.

Our final destination was Sengen Shrine. Tomorrow we would come to witness the annual opening of the Murayama Route where it led from the shrine into the forest. It was going to be quite a big ceremony with lots going on.

A Fujisan Pilgrimage (?)

Fujisan and Clouds

It was with relief as well as excitement that I read the message from the Journeys In Japan director. He was asking if I would be available in July to climb Mt. Fuji for the program, and for me that meant he was giving me another chance after last year’s “learning experience” at Taisetsusan in Hokkaido. During that trip, I learned towards the end what was expected of me as a reporter for the program, as the director and I chatted on the last night, and he explained what I had not been doing and what was necessary. No one ever took the time to tell me all those things before, and I worried that I may have blown any chance of working for Journeys In Japan again. So when I opened the email back in March, I was indeed relieved and of course, thrilled to be going out once more.

The message was brief but addressed my first and only question as though the director had anticipated my thoughts. Why Mt. Fuji? “Perhaps you’ve already climbed Mt. Fuji and don’t think it’s particularly interesting to do so again. But this program will focus on an old pilgrimage route called the Murayama Route which until twenty years ago had been forgotten.”

Murayama route

Part of the Murayama Route

The Murayama Route is one of the oldest (if not the oldest—there are debates) pilgrimage routes up Mt. Fuji. The mountain route begins at Sengen Shrine on the southern slope of the mountain; however, a proper pilgrimage up Mt. Fuji should begin at the seaside, and thus there are several stone markers along the route leading up to the shrine. The pilgrimage route is officially opened with great ceremony in July and closed in September. Though the Murayama Route was used for centuries, it eventually lost favour to a newer route and fell out of memory of most. The route was used by Rutherford Alcock, the first westerner to climb the sacred mountain, back in 1860. This though was more of a matter of authorities steering him and his entourage to that old, unused route in order to avoid having them disturb the dedicated pilgrims who were still climbing the mountain. The Murayama Route lay otherwise in relative obscurity, and once a paved road permitted the motor vehicle to transport climbers in ease and comfort to the fifth station at 2,400 metres, there was no longer any necessity to remember that old historic pilgrimage route.

That was until 20 years ago when a local mountaineer, Sohachi Hatakehori (畠堀操八), discovered the ancient route over a period of many years by following old texts that described the route. His efforts were published as a book, “富士山・村山古道を歩く” (“Fujisan: Walking the Ancient Murayama Route”). This was to be the context of our episode of Journeys In Japan: climbing Mt. Fuji via the old Murayama pilgrimage route, starting from sea level and going to 3,776 metres.

Fuji by the sea

Fujisan from Nagonoura. The seaside view back in Edo times surely was much different.

Holy Schist, Batman!

If Saitama has a popular natural tourist attraction, it’s the gorge at Nagatoro. Nagatoro Town, situated along the Ara River and enclosed in the Chichibu Basin, has done all it can to benefit from this natural wonder. There are river rafting and “line” boating (these are long wooden boats that carry many passengers) trips down through the gorge; there are shops selling kakigori (shaved ice) using natural ice from the mountains; there are numerous souvenir shops including a Gibli store; there’s Mt. Hodo with its blossoming tree gardens and cable car that goes up to a monkey park at the top, and a natural history museum. Because of Nagatoro’s abundance of exposed metamorphic rocks, it also holds claim to being the birthplace of geology in Japan.

The rocks at Nagatoro form part of a belt of metamorphic rock known as the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt. It is named after the Sanba River in Gunma Prefecture where those rocks are also exposed. This particular belt is quite long, extending from Kyushu and roughly following the Chuo (Median) Tectonic Line. The belt is gently curved with the curve of the Japanese Pacific coastline, but near the Izu Peninsular, it takes a sharp turn inland. This is because the Izu Penunsula is acting like a miniature India and pushing its way into Honshu, bending the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt inland in the process.

The metamorphic belt was formed long ago during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous as coastal sedimentary deposits, largely mudstones, which were later subducted by forces of plate tectonics, heated and pressed deep below the surface, and then uplifted by the same tectonic forces. The rocks are exposed anywhere that rivers have cut through or the rocks have been uplifted. Though I’m unfamiliar with this rock belt in other parts of Japan, there is a Sanbagawa Gorge between Gunma and Saitama Prefectures not far from Nagatoro and a smaller Sanbagawa Gorge park in Tokigawa Town, also in Saitama.

The rocks have different appearances depending on the type of mud stones, varying in colour from blues and greens to browns and dark, ash greys. In many places, quartz veins can be seen in the rocks, and indeed much of the belt is comprised of schists.

Though Nagatoro’s “iwadatami” (rock tatami) is the most prominently recognized formation, a trip to the riverside from Kami Nagatoro Station offer views of many more varieties of schist. In fact, it is possible to follow the river from Kami Nagatoro Station to Nagatoro Station, a delightful walk with beautiful riverside scenery and a natural exhibit of fascinating rocks.

Kami Nagatoro 13Kami Nagatoro 09

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu and a Highland Farm

With the Golden Week holidays beginning at the end of April and continuing through the first few days of May (May 1st and 2nd being regular work and school days), I had planned two early morning outings into the Chichibu Mountains of western Saitama. Unfortunately, unanticipated car trouble has for the moment kept me from making a second trip (a visit by train is still possible but I can’t be out there before sunrise); however the first trip was very successful.

Chichibu Highland Farm 秩父高原牧場

Coming down from Yorii via R294 and turning onto R11, then slipping onto R361, I followed the road up to the Chichibu Highland Farm area. Divided into several parts, the farm appears this time of year as patches of green grass broken by stands of trees and surrounded by forest. Farm houses and barns can be spotted here and there, and there are places for families to park and visit. At 5:00 am, though, I was more concerned about capturing the dawn scenery. Apparently, by the end of May, the fields should break out in colorful reds and pinks as poppies bloom.

02 Highland Morning

Nihongi Pass 二本木峠

The route reaches Nihongi Pass, and there is a small place to pull over and park. Here is a short trail leading up a small peak and a campground nearby. What got me to pull over was the explosions of varying shades of pink mountain azaleas amidst the trees. There was more pink than green below the tree canopy and it was certainly a stop worthy of the Scenic Saitama photo project.

08 Pink Eruption

A Secret Cave

My next stop was a small cave that I had discovered while driving back down R284 in April. At that time it was just a reconnaissance visit, but this time I returned and made a good time of examining the rocks. The cave is easily missed as it is down a steep slope and at the creekside, and grasses along the road partially obscure the view. Even while I was down there visiting, at least four vehicles passed on the road and not one driver looked down at me. The cave is yet another example of the many limestone formations in the mountains of Saitama.

Secret Cave 10

Kegon Falls of Chichibu 秩父華厳の滝

One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls is the punchbowl falls of Nikko in Tochigi: Kegon Falls. Draining from Lake Chuzenji, the water plummets over a lava rock precipice into a bowl-shaped cavity known as a punchbowl. Coming from British Columbia, I know at least two other excellent examples of such falls.

In Chichibu there is no lava rock, and no grand punchbowl. But there is a quaint little cascade that slips down a chert rock face and drops into a pleasant, shallow green plunge pool. This waterfall bears the appellation Kegon Falls of Chichibu. Though only a minnow in comparison to its namesake, the cascade itself is very lovely. The draining water tumbles through a gorge of striated rocks – the strata all crumpled and crooked – and flows down into a typical mountain ravine. There is parking, a small structure advertising soft ice cream for sale, and a path leading to view points below the gorge, below the falls, and above the falls next to a road. The road leads on to two more waterfalls, roughly 600 metres and 1,000 metres away.

Soft green crowns of flowing maple leaves surround the falls and plunge pool when viewed from the path leading to the road above, and I know that I will have to return in autumn when the maple leaves are turning colour!

Falls 05