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.
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)?”
“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?”
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.
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.