Friday, September 05, 2014

Fuji Sea to Summit, Day 1: Asphalt

Left leg bent at the knee, I leaned out over the abyss.  Beneath, all was calm and cold, but should the dry rocks begin to heat up and liquify, more was at stake than my mere toppling forward and down.  It would mean the evacuation of the 750,000 people who live and work at the foot of this colossal mountain. 

The road here began two days before.  I had met an assembled group of 40 souls at Fuji City's Kinomoto Shrine, who would follow nine yamabushi up to the summit from the shores of nearby Suruga Bay.   The leader led us to those waters on horseback, beneath the shade of pines bent from decades of winters, then up and over a concrete embankment and onto the stone-laden beach of Tago-no-ura.  Here the yamabushi stripped down to their fundoshi and immersed themselves to their waists, hands clasped before them in prayer.  I was playfully invited to join them, but merely rolled my pant-legs as high as they would go and walked into the sea.  The water wasn't very cold, but as each wave struck my legs it would splash upward, until I found myself quite wet anyway.  The chanting finished, the yamabushi lowered themselves up to their necks in the water, as a passing fishing boat rolled its wake toward them.  Peering up from over the strand of pines behind, the great mountain made no comment.  

Before leaving the beach, I picked up a smooth stone and put it into my pack, intending to place it atop Fuji's peak.  We moved along the concrete embankment, sections of which were being shored up in order to protect the homes here from future tsunamis. We weaved between these homes, arriving eventually at a Fujizuka that mimicked the mountain rising directly behind this man-made summit.  

The yamabushi chanted to both, before turning to bless the locals standing nearby.  Known as kaji, these rituals involved the head yamabushi stepping over children who were sprawled atop a tarp covering the ground.  (Ironic how they were not allowed to lie directly atop the dirt beneath, considering that the entire belief system of the yamabushi and the Shugendō sect is about finding mindfulness and enlightenment within nature.) The kids looked at the yamabushi with a mixture of fascination and horror, and I could imagine that in the old days, parents had threatened naughty children with being snatched by these mountain monks if they misbehaved. The adults lined up next, and to the collective accompanying chants, the head priest rubbed his staff twice down their backs before laying it along the length of the spine and giving it a gentle push. 

As we made our way through the city, the kaji was repeated at least a half dozen more times, occasionally at shrines, but more often along one of the city's main streets.  Traditionally, the yamabushi have come from the ranks of the ordinary folk in Japan, and in these rituals, this connection was still apparent.  As the monks went through their routine, the rest of us chanted the Heart Sutra along with them, or received tea and snacks as settai.  As I was the only foreign participant, I received only slightly less attention than the sight of a yamabushi proudly riding through town on horseback.  At every stop, someone would come over to get my story.  

If I had been honest, I would have mentioned sore feet and a restless mind.  When I do my own 'road work' I will rely on the iPod to get me through all the monotonous industry and traffic pushing in too closely.  Today, I heard only the rhythm of feet, the jingling of bells.  The pace of the group was much slower than what I would have done, and my knees ached from a stride half of what it should be, which meant of course that I took twice the number of steps.  Alone, I probably would have covered the 20km by 1 pm.  As a group, we finished after 6. 

We spent the better part of the morning weaving our way through Fuji City.  If you've ever taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, you know Fuji City.  It's the place that ruins any decent photographs of the mountain itself, a place filled with ugly apartment blocks and tall smokestacks striped red and white. At some point we crossed the Tokaidō again, turning right and directing ourselves straight toward the mountain, a trajectory that we'd hold for the next two days.  Along the way, we made a short stop at a lesser Sengen shrine on the edge of town (Sengen shrines being dedicated to the Goddess of Fuji). Here I stood in the heat of midday, listening to the prayers harmonize with the voices of late season cicada, chanted by a very old priest with a very limber back.

As the day wore on, we moved beyond the suburbs and into a series of smaller villages surrounded by wide tea plantations, walking single file, our party being a few legs shy of being a centipede.  Our last prayer stop for the day was at Jirocho-cho, named for the famous late Edo period yakuza Shimizu no Jirocho, who had been active in this area.  The subject of over 100 films, this Japanese Robin Hood eventually went on to become a police officer for the new Meiji government, and allegedly served as a bodyguard for the equally legendary Yamaoka Tesshū.

Full up on watermelon and boiled peanuts, we climbed through patches of forest that served as the borders of rice fields.  At the corner of one field, was a small shrine that looked like a thatch cabin, above which hung tall poles of bamboo, the lair of the water god, greatly honored in this landscape of steep lava-carved slopes which pose tricky challenges to irrigation.  

And finally then to Maruyama Sengen Jinja, as both the sun and the rain began to fall.  I had visited this shrine during my circumambulation of Fuji last autumn, and had been awed by its proud trees and beautiful old statues.  There were a handful in a lesser hall that I hadn't seen, exposed now to hear the final chants of the day... 

On the turntable:  "Only 2 Degrees of Separation"
On the nighttable:  Stephen Mansfield, "Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History"

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