Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji

There is something about standing in the shadows of a great mountain that reminds you just how small we humans are in nature’s grand scheme. This is certainly the case when you visit Mt. Fuji, Japans most revered natural attraction and certainly one of world’s most beautiful mountain images. Rising majestically from the relatively flat surrounding landscape, it forms an almost perfect symmetrical shape that looks much the same as the way a child might simplistically draw a mountain on a distant horizon. Its even, conical appearance can be explained by the fact that Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano (last erupting in the early 1700’s) resulting in its flattened peak that indicates the crater below. Being Japans highest mountain (12,388 ft.), it remains largely snowcapped for most of the year and set against a clear blue sky, it provides the iconic image that tourists from far and wide come to see.

Such was the case when Jules and I boarded one of three buses leaving Tokyo in the early hours of the morning bound for the area referred to as ‘The Three Holy Mountains’ (Mount Fuji, Mount Tate and Mount Haku). It was believed that the top of Mt Fuji is where Buddha once resided and the climb to the summit (known as ‘Zenjo’) still remains a long-standing tradition of followers during the summer months. The closest that Jules and I had come to the sacred mountain previously was seeing it as a distant blur from the porthole windows of the high speed Shinkansen bullet train. This time we were making our own pilgrimage from Osaka to view it at close range. Like most of the other tourists on the bus, we had been magnetically drawn to it, much like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ … not knowing quite the reason why or what we might experience when we got there … it was just something that had to be done!

Our day-trip around the mountain involved several hours of travel broken up with various stops where we could view the iconic peak from different vantage points. There could only be one factor that would spoil the whole experience and that was the unpredictable nature of the weather! It had rained all of the previous day and the skies were again very gloomy (not totally surprising for late November in Japan). Fine weather would be critical to our viewing pleasure, although all pre-booked tours continue to run despite impending weather. On a particularly bad day, visitors have been known to miss seeing Mt. Fuji altogether, even though it may only be a few hundred metres in front of them.

Our guide for the trip was a softly spoken young lady called Yoko, who seemed quite proud of sharing the same name as the other more famous Yoko who was married to John Lennon. As we left Tokyo, Yoko began providing us with a wealth of useful information about Japanese culture in between making regular phone calls to check the all important weather forecast and its effect on what level of the mountain we might be able to reach. She explained that level 10 was the summit, which could only be reached by foot at certain times of the year (certainly not this time of the year), while level 5 was the highest level able to be reached by road. Although Yoko was initially hopeful that we might actually make it mid-way up the mountain, she soon informed us that the previous days rain had turned the roads into sheets of ice and the highest point we could possibly reach would be level one … pretty much the base of the mountain! While a small collective sigh of disappointment was heard throughout the bus, it was tempered by the sight of distant sunlight beginning to break through the clouds for the first time in days revealing a lovely blue sky, ensuring a that we would be able to see Mt. Fuji clearly.

As we headed down the highway, we were relieved to see the great mountain emerging through the wispy clouds, looking much as depicted in many traditional Japanese artworks. It is claimed that on a clear day Mt. Fuji can be seen from up to 100 kilometers away; today we were just happy to see it at all! As we headed toward the tourist centre to take our first photos, we were slightly distracted by the inexplicable sight of an amusement park (complete with giant rollercoaster) that appeared totally out of place for the location. This was yet another example of the type of contradictions that Jules and I often see in Japan, which we have now managed to train ourselves to ignore by selectively framing its more beautiful sights. Such was the case as we glanced toward Mt Fuji only a few kilometers away.The sun had almost totally broken through, reflecting light off the snow on its gentle slopes. With a lone cloud lingering over the peak of the summit, the mountain took on an ancient and almost mystical quality.

Not wasting the opportune break in the weather, we quickly boarded the bus for the short ride to the base of the mountain only to find, as Yoko had predicted, the road barriers were indeed in place and we could travel no further. Surrounded by other tourists also stopped in their tracks, we could do nothing else but collectively stare upward; the small crowd dwarfed by its overwhelming scale. The sun was still shining, but alas not for too much longer and we could see clouds quickly beginning to engulf the giant mountain once again.

As we headed away, we had the interesting experience of passing over a series of man made corrugations carved into the road that, when combined with the friction of rubber tyres, remarkably caused a musical tune to vibrate throughout the cabin of the bus ... quite strange! Yoko explained that the tune was a popular children’s song that celebrated Mt. Fuji as ‘the number one mountain in Japan’. There was certainly no doubting that and despite the fickle nature of the weather, we had both been glad to have made the pilgrimage to witness its grandeur first hand. We were reminded that with all good pilgrimages, it’s always as much about the journey as the arrival!

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