Monday, April 29, 2013

If you knew Fuji, like I know Fuji...

In the land of Yamato,

It is our treasure, our tuletary god.

It never tires our eyes to look up

To the lofty peak of Mt. Fuji


While many man-made monuments have taken on the role of national icon—think Big Ben, or the Taj Mahal—it is quite unusual that a natural object has assumed the same role. 

The earliest Fuji customs date back to the Heian period.  The mountain was often celebrated in verse, and was rendered extensively in the Manyoshu, Japan’s earliest poetry anthology, dated to the 8th Century.  Fuji is presented as landscape, as a religious object, and as the source of artistic and aesthetic appreciation.  It was an idealized mountain, and as such Fuji was best viewed from afar. 

Mt. Fuji’s true notoriety rose with the rapid growth of Edo (known today as Tokyo) in the 17th Century.  The Tokugawa Shogunate’s victory at Sekigahara ushered in a power shift to the east.  The center of true political control was no longer to be found in the old capital of Kyoto, but in a former fishing village on the Kanto plain. 

In 1635, the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu created sankin-kotai , or system of alternate residence duty. This required the daimyo, feudal lords, to reside for several months each year in the capital Edo.  When the lords returned to their domains, they were required to

leave their wives and heirs in Edo, essentially a form of hostage keeping designed to ensure their continued loyalty to the shogunate. The daimyo had to use highways designated by the shogun, the best known of these being the Tokaido and the Nakasendo. 

The Tokaido connected Kyoto with Edo, running along the seacoast of eastern Honshū. The daimyo who traveled the highway did so accompanied by enormous retinues, as befitting their status.  A prominent feature of the Tokaido would have of course been Mt. Fuji, whose distinct shape would have accompanied the processions over a number of days. 

With their elaborate road systems, the Tokugawa had also created a  “culture of movement.”  Pilgrims followed the Tokaido back and forth to the pilgrimage sites of Ise.  This led to a rise in travel literature, both in the form of travel guides and woodblock prints (ukiyoe).  Hiroshige has come down to us as the name most associated with the Tokaido, and his work The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō  stands as the best sold series of ukiyo-e prints. It is said of Hiroshige that he was “perhaps less an artist of Nature than of the culture of nature.”  His colorful images helped place Mt. Fuji at the center of the Japanese consciousness. 

As Edo grew, so did Fuji’s reputation.  Helping promote this were the many Fuji pilgrims and pilgrimage associations.  Along with the prerequisite temples associated with these groups, they also constructed artifices know as Fujizaka.  These miniature Mt. Fujis were constructed from rocks and plants taken from the mountain itself.  Soil from the summit of the actual Mt. Fuji was placed on the summit of the fujizaka, in order to harness some of the spiritual power of the volcano.  Many pilgrims no longer had to go to the mountain, as the mountain had now come to them.  At the height of the Edo period, there were over two hundred fujizaka, and none have been constructed since the 1930s.  Fifty six survive today, including those at Teppozu Inari shinto shrine and Hatomori shrine.

During their stay in Edo, the daimyo lived in large estates across Edo, many of which had extensive grounds.  More than one daimyo had a small hill built upon the grounds in which to climb and observe mount Fuji, called Fujimizaka.   Since earliest times, mountains had been climbed in to order to survey the land.  These viewings were ritualistic, but also had certain politic motives, as it was a symbolic controlling or pacifying of the land. A very fine example is at the Hama Rikyu garden in Tokyo.  The term Fujimizaka is also shared by many of the hills around the city.  Meaning literally ‘hill from which to see Fuji,’  these spots had traditionally offered the best views of the mountains.  Sadly in modern Tokyo, these views have been relegated to mere glimpses, with the coming of the modern high-rise.  The final possible view of the mountain, albeit a modest section of Fuji’s northern slope, is about to be lost to yet another construction project.  

Along with the fujiko and their Fujizaka, ukiyo-e served as the third form of media that led to the urbanization of Fuji. Hiroshige’s contemporary, Hokusai, found the mountain to be his greatest muse, publishing two great works of the subject. His One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji set the mountain as a common feature across the Edo landscape—on the horizon, between buildings, through a window-- emphasizing the relationship between the lair of the gods and the Shogun’s city.  The face of Hokusai’s Fuji is seen from every angle, with the commonality between them all being Hokusai, and the viewer.

With the fall of the Shogunate and the end of the feudal period, “Westernization” came into vogue, and traditional Japanese arts and crafts were considered old-fashioned and hackneyed.  Ukiyo-e had lost their value to the point that they were used as packing materials.  In this way, they came into possession of Europeans, and served as a source of inspiration for the Impressionist, Cubist, and Post-Impressionist art movements. Claude Monet was particularly influenced by the strong colors and lack of perspective, and Vincent van Gogh was known to have owned a copy of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road.

Mt.Fuji as a common motif of ukiyo-e was thus exported through these prints to become an understood icon of Japan.  European travelers of the period longed for their first shipboard view of the mountain, which no doubt signified the end of a long sea voyage.  Isabella Bird wrote a fine example of this at the beginning of her travel classic, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan:

For long I looked in vain for Fujisan, and failed to see it, though I heard ecstasies all over the deck, till, accidentally looking heavenwards instead of earthwards, I saw far above any possibility of height, as one would have thought, a huge, truncated cone of pure snow, 13,080 feet above the sea, from which it sweeps upwards in a glorious curve, very wan, against a very pale blue sky, with its base and the intervening country veiled in a pale grey mist. It was a wonderful vision, and shortly, as a vision, vanished. Except the cone of Tristan d'Acunha--also a cone of snow--I never saw a mountain rise in such lonely majesty, with nothing near or far to detract from its height and grandeur.  No wonder that it is a sacred mountain, and so dear to the Japanese that their art is never weary of representing it.  It was nearly fifty miles off when we first saw it.

Travelers today – Japanese and foreign alike – still thrill at the sight of the mountain.  As the Shinkansen Bullet Train races past at over 270 kph (167 mph), all heads turn for a glimpse of Fuji, her brilliant snow-covered crown rising almost ephemerally above the land that she best represents. 

On the turntable: Natalie Merchant, "Leave Your Sleep"

1 comment:

blaine said...

I'm just back from Golden Week and read this.

Really enjoyed it!

The Uradome coast was fantastic by the way!