Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Fuji Sea to Summit, Day 3: Stone

I could barely open my eyes, which was a surprise since they'd rarely closed all night.  I had slept in one of Japan's notoriously overcrowded mountain huts, forced to share a futon with a friendly man from Kyoto who had told me at dinner that he was a student of Sekishu-ryu, an old style of the tea ceremony usually reserved for the samurai.  The futon was wedged between a small area enclosed by 2x4's, which were about 5 cm too short for me.  I could extend my legs slightly into the next chamber, but as we were all sleeping head-to-foot, occasionally someone on the other side would give my feet a good kick.  So I was forced to curl on my side in the fetal position, but within ten minutes the sembe-buton (thin as a rice cracker) would bring about an ache in the hips.  I'd find relief by getting up and walking to the end of the corridor and looking down at the lights of Gotemba far far below.  The rains had finally cleared. 

And the early morning was gorgeous.  The sun was coming through a thin veil of fog that had gotten itself hung up on the sharp edge of the volcanic cone.  The sky went black to violet to blue in what felt like minutes, nothing between it and us at this altitude.  Low vegetation glowed gold in the new light, brilliant against the deep black of the wet volcanic rock from which it stubbornly burst.  There was a lot more vegetation here on the Fuji's southern slope, far more than I remembered from my previous clamber up the Yoshida trail on the opposite side.  

Our party moved upward, ever so slowly. Nishikawa-san told us that he wanted to keep the pace slow so as to keep us from sweating in the cold of morning.  From the 6th Station it normally takes 3 1/2 hours to the top, but our group took ninety minutes longer.  As it was, I never once felt out of breath, never felt like I was laboring at all.  The physical difficulties of the previous day had vanished with the rains. A few people mentioned symptoms of a mild altitude sickness, but as for me,  I was simply out for a stroll, up Japan's highest mountain. 

We were instructed to greet other hikers with a hearty, "Yo Mairi!"  or "Happy pilgrimage".  Most who were greeted this way seemed puzzled, and after they heard the words come from my mouth, they'd mistakenly repeat what they'd heard as "Good Morning!"   Due to the early hour, most we encountered were returning from a night spent in one of the huts.  All looked exhausted and had no doubt faced worse weather than we had.  But the reward was in the views, stretching from the glittering glass of Yokohama and Tokyo to the north, and well past Shizuoka to the south.  The entire length of the Izu peninsula was visible below, pointing its knobby finger out toward the land of my birth. Around the peninsula, the sea was a slightly different color, due to the extreme depth of Suruga Bay, one of the deepest in the world.  At each hut we'd stop awhile to take in the view growing ever more panoramic.  One of my companions joked that a climber usually looks for views of Fuji while hiking, but today, Fuji offered views of everything else.  

We also made a few of the usual stops at some of the spiritually important sites on the mountain -- little clefts in the rocks stuffed with coins or other offerings, or the odd statue tucked into a fold in the lava.  At the Ninth Station we stopped to offer kaji to the staff there, one a woman who looked almost Tibetan with her tanned face and long unkept hair.   Beyond this, the horagai began to bellow, and Shunken-Sensei started us in a round of "Sange sange" which we kept up all the way to the summit.  Looking up, I could see a number of heads looking down, wondering at this wave of sound rolling up toward them.  

Fujinomiya Shrine was under major reconstruction, so we walked further around the crater for our goma ceremony.   Before a small gathering of decapitated stone statues, the yamabushi sat in a row, while Shunken-Sensei led the chants as he did a variety of things with his hands, before tossing items into the fire burning before him.  The chanting sounded almost Tibetan to me, and it was at that moment that I realized that I was sitting atop a landmass not only incredibly high, but one incredibly old.  The atmosphere was timeless, a sense of being on the top of the world here.  No vegetation, no life, but a feeling of place very very ancient.  Just as the chanting finished a plane flew over, a bird of war, bringing with it a bit of irony since we'd just been chanting for world peace.

Nowhere to go but up.  A handful of us pushed up the pile of ash that had built up to form the true summit.  In the shadow of the abandoned weather station was a tall man-made stele that marked the peak.  We walked past a group of young climbers flashing peace signs for photographs to climb up a crest of volcanic rock that stood a few meters higher.  Above this was nothing more. 

Nowhere to go but down.  We descended via the Gotemba route, following in my own footsteps from 1995.  This is one of the least used of Fuji's paths and it showed.  Most of the huts we passed were mere ruins of weathered wood, though they had probably been in use on my previous descent.  Tall piles of rocks had been piled before their front doors, a defiant means of preventing free accommodation.  No real surprise here as the majority of the staff of mountain huts in Japan are blatantly mean-spirited.  Shinier new huts composed of a stronger building material stood not far off in the dust.  In front of one, a young woman clad in fleece threw wood and paper upon a fire in some sort of goma of her own.

Below the Seventh Station, the trail became a straight track of loose earth,  of a steepness that pulled the body forward.  Some of the older members of our group had an uncomfortable look on their faces, but the majority of us laughed as our footfalls increased in tempo and were soon in full cantor.  I did a few small jumps as if I were skiing moguls, my feet sliding sideways across the ashen powder.  

Our trail continued past the pimple on Fuji's eastern flank: Hōei-zan, a volcanic vent that had blown open in the mountain's most recent eruption in 1707.  My nose was running slightly from all the ash being kicked up, and as the clouds closed in on us, the world became dim and grey.  

Then, just above us at a junction came the fuzzy outline of a yamabushi, dully silhouetted against the mist, hands clasped in prayer before her.  It was the calm woman who had showed up yesterday, yet had opted out of the ascent itself.  I felt relieved, knowing that just beyond her was the ephemeral world of buses and beers and baths.  But the sight of this figure standing on the edge of the slope was a vision of timelessness, of mountains waltzing across the eons, and the sense of awe that continues to pull us into the dance.

On the turntable:  Freddie Hubbard, "The Blue Note Years"
On the nighttable:  Jordan Sand, "Tokyo Vernacular"


Project Hyakumeizan said...

This is a fascinating series of posts. I have often wondered how the Fujiko and the yamabushi have fared on Mt Fuji in recent years, and you have answered the question magnificently. Would be interested to read, perhaps in a forthcoming post, how you came to "embed" yourself in this particular group of pilgrims - or did I miss something in one of your posts. Anyway, your account takes up where H Byron Earheart's recent book on Mt Fuji leaves off. Many thanks again for posting.

safaruddin said...

like it. thanks for this information

Anonymous said...

It almost seemed like the summit was a let down.

No celebratory drinks from the top?

Any photos?