Tag Archives: Journeys in Japan

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

Advertisements

The Murayama Route Kaisan Ceremony

IMG_4938

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.

IMG_4923

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.

IMG_4944

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.

Up and Running!

Before I take time to write a proper blog entry, I wish to make a quick announcement about my latest book project, “Waterside: Photograph’s from the Water’s Edge“.

I began working on it early in the year, or perhaps late last year, when I decided that I had a number of very nice waterside-themed images from around Saitama, Japan, and other places in the country, as well as some good ones from Canada.

As the project developed, I decided to add more locations and I began setting out very early in the morning or even the night before to reach locations that were a little far from my home. Last weekend, I finally made it to the last location for the project, the Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba.

Only 30 minutes ago, the finalized book was uploaded to the blurb.com web site and it’s ready for previewing and ordering.

In other news, the NHK World program, “Journeys in Japan” episode about Taisetsusan in Hokkaido is available for view-on-demand at the web site. You can watch the incredible scenery, the wild flowers, bears, and me!

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Two

There were eight of us. Leading the way was the guide, Mr. Morishita, a thirty-something man from Chiba who had fallen in love with the nature of Hokkaido and was now working as a guide, leading folks into the mountains all over the island. I followed him and listened as he explained about the vegetation and the landscape. Behind me was the cameraman, Mr. Tsujinaka. TV camera operators always strike me as being so calm and mild-tempered, and Mr. Tsijinaka was no different. He was also taller than me. Tethered to his camera by microphone cord was Mr. Okawa. When he had stepped up to me at the airport to introduce himself as the sound recorder, I had immediately recognized him and interrupted him, “Okawa-san! Long time no see! We worked together on Yakushima four years ago.” Indeed, he was the same sound engineer from my first Journeys in Japan gig.

IMG_2599

Camera and sound – shooting ukon’ utsugi blossoms

The director, Mr. Ichino came next. We had first met during my winter trip to Yakushima and he had called on me last year to climb Akagisawa in the Kita Alps and explore Kumonodaira for the TV program. This was my third time working under his direction. Bringing up the tail, or sometimes rushing up to the front to be out of the camera view, were three young men serving as porters. One was twenty-five and studying for his masters degree in Sapporo and the other two were first year university students. The 19-year-old Yamada made an impression on me as he was so enthusiastic about mountains and commented on the first day, “To be getting paid to climb mountains is the best!”

We descended from Kurodake down the slope from the summit to a broad and almost level bench. The clouds would sometimes erase the world and leave us walking in grey mist. Other times they would grant us glimpses of the green-coated, rugged lava landscape off to the distant left. Mr. Morishita pointed out more species of wildflowers and I kept recording their names in my iPhone note pad. As I looked at the obviously wind-blasted environment, I began pondering why so many species of flowering plants had made their homes in this harsh landscape. Why not only a few species?

32M イワブクロ

Iwabukuro – Pennellianthus frutescens

The path descended once more and the vegetation rose up around us. Japanese rowan took over for the creeping pine and the flowers beneath the green canopies stood taller. The familiar white blossoms of bunchberry dogwood appeared in a large patch. I remarked to Mr. Morishita that these flowers had grown in the woodlots of my neighbourhood. In fact, whenever I climb mountains in Japan I always encounter familiar plants that I know from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada. The climate of higher elevations in Japan is similar to that of the latitude of my homeland.

26M ゴゼンタチバナ

Gozentachibana – Bunchberry dogwood Cornus canadense

We emerged from the greenery to cross a large strip of snow filling a shallow ravine and on the other side we were met by a wonderful garden of green hummocks with white blossoms. I was glad to know that the shelter and tent site were just around the corner because that meant I could steal moments of downtime to dash over here and photograph the scenery properly with a tripod. While on the move, I have to always capture everything handheld, which I prefer not to do if I can use a tripod. When I go out to photograph on my own, the camera stays mounted on the tripod.

05M チングルマの花畑

Chinguruma – Geum pentapetalum

The shelter buildings were simple and rudimentary, single-floor, wooden structures. There were only rooms for sleeping and toilet facilities, which required pedaling a wheel-less bicycle to churn a large screw that mixed up the waste with sawdust and bacteria. There was a table and a couple of chairs next to a small bookshelf and a reception desk that sold a few items like bear bells. Outside were picnic tables, and following a path through some bushes led one to the tent site. Tents were provided by our guide and his crew and each of us got his own one-man tent except for the guide and his team, who shared a large dome tent spacious enough for all of us to sit inside and share meals together, which were also prepared by the guide and his team.

This is where we stayed for two nights and from where we made out excursions out to explore and learn about the flowers and other plants. This is when Mr. Morishita would share with us his knowledge of alpine flora.

22M コマクサ

Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina