Image: Dragon ascending Mt Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai.
Ink: Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchiking Japan, by Will Ferguson
My second ride of the day took me to Matsuyama City The vehicle was the same type of boxed truck I had ridden in Kyushu, but instead of pachinko machines it contained the clippings and debris of flowers and an aroma so strong it gagged me. It was like being trapped in an elevator with Aunt Matilda of the excess perfume.
The driver was a stocky man with flyaway silver hair, and, in one of life's quirky little coincidences, his name was Saburo. "But my family name is Nakamura," he said. "Nakamura Saburo. No relation to Emon." He was on his way into Matsuyama City to meet his daughter Etsuko, who was flying in from Kobe. I was a big man he said, slapping me on the chest.
Had I climbed Mount Fuji yet? Yes, I said, I had. And then, in my typical suave and bon mot way, I repeated the witticism about how it is a wise man who climbs Mount Fuji once, and a fool who climbs it twice.
There was a long pause. And then slowly, deliberately, Saburo said, "I have climbed Mount Fuji three times." Oh. "Well," I said, "I guess that would make you a ... a wise fool." He roared with laughter. "Yes!" he said, not in agreement, but in a sort of Eureka! way, as though that were the formula he had been looking for to sum himself up. ''A wise fool," he said, and smiled to himself with that special affection eccentric people often have for their own foibles.
"I have climbed every mountain in Japan," he boomed. "Every mountain!" "Every mountain?" I said, offering him a chance at abridging this bald statement. "Every mountain," he said and proceeded to list them. It was a long list. "Mountains put us closer to the gods," he said. "Japan is a land of thirty thousand million gods! Atop the mountains, the sky and the land meet. The gods are there. I have met the gods."
He actually said that: I have met the gods. He was either flamboyant, passionate, or mad. "Really?" I said. "The gods? What did they, ah, look like? Were they like ghosts or could you touch them?" He gave me a look of sorrow and exasperation, and said in one extended sigh, "The gods are the mountains. They aren't real in the way you say. The gods exist in the act of climbing a mountain, a sacred mountain."
He shook his head and gave up. We drove awhile, surrounded by the smell of flowers no longer present (much like the gods themselves, I imagine).
He shifted in his seat, and then, again with a sigh, decided to take another stab at it. "I climb mountains, right?" Yes. “And mountains are closer to the gods, right?" Yes. "In fact mountains are gods." He waited until I nodded before he continued. "So when I – we, anyone – even you – climb a mountain, climb it with sincerity, the gods –"
He looked across at me. I smiled back in what I hoped was an attentive way. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but changed his mind. The theology lesson was over. I never did figure out if he had actually met the gods – like a close encounter of the divine kind – or if he was just speaking figuratively. He didn't seem like the type of man to resort to metaphors, he was too rooted and no nonsense.