Accompanying Queen Victoria’s envoy to Japan on the first-ever ascent of Mt Fuji by foreigners
Tozenji, Yeddo, 1860: A year after he arrived, he’s finally managed an audience with the “Tycoon” – that was in August – but the feudal authorities are still trying to stop him climbing Fusiyama. The excuses are legion: the country is unsettled, or fissures might swallow up the incautious traveller. Also, they hint, the trip is beneath his dignity – no “Daimio” would go there, perhaps because “too many of the greasy mob must unavoidably come in close contact”. It seems that only the lower classes climb Fusiyama.
Yet he’s determined to make this “pilgrimage”, as he calls it. Not just because he needs a break – though, God knows, he's earned one, after a year poised uneasily between the recalcitrant authorities and his greedy or violent compatriots, the sort who give British merchants a bad name. No, the official aim is to assert his right, as the Queen's envoy to Japan, to travel freely under the treaty terms.
At last, he gets his way, although the regular climbing season is over. On September 4th, Rutherford Alcock starts out from Kanagawa with seven British companions, not counting his terrier Toby. But the party is somewhat larger; the authorities have sent along three or four "yaconins" (officials) and an "ometsky", or spy. These all have bearers and attendants, so that a cortège of at least a hundred persons and more than thirty horses straggles out behind him. The horses are as recalcitrant as the authorities.
At first, he keeps a weather eye open for “lonins”. These undisciplined swordsmen – "bravoes" he calls them – are always aggressive and often drunk. This year, they've made several attacks on foreigners. In January, unknown assailants cut down his own interpreter in front of the legation. The hapless man was brought indoors on a shutter, bleeding to death in Alcock’s sight. There is good reason to be wary. But today no sign of trouble presents itself. The pleasant scenery induces a holiday mood.
On the second day, they come to the Saki river near “Foodisawa”. The dignitaries are carried over on short platforms borne by six men. The job is “tolerably lucrative” – the crossing costs the party eleven itziboos, about 15 English shillings. It has its drawbacks, though. If an accident should happen, the bearers might as well drown with their passengers. Alcock approves the principle: if applied to the British railways, it would surely improve their safety.
At Odawara, the whole town turns out to watch them pass - men, women, and children, clothed and nude, dogs, poultry, and cats. How, he wonders, will the party get through the crowd? The guides, however, are "perfectly unembarrassed" - one of them waves a fan and commands "Shitanirio" and, as if by magic, all the onlookers open a way and drop to their knees.
The mountains of “Hakoni” now rise in front of them. The road, a fine avenue of gravel, runs through fertile plains and valleys, where millet, buckwheat, and rice promise a rich harvest. The bucolic scenery prompts Alcock to wonder at this land “so happy in the contented character and simple habits of its people – yet so strangely governed by unwritten laws". How can they be so happy?
The horses stumble on the boulder-strewn road that climbs towards the pass of Hakoni. But this is a paradise for young John Veitch, the visiting horticulturalist – he is busy scribbling in his notebook how the wild hydrangea covers the roadside banks with its lilac, blue and white flower clusters. Above, forests of Pinus densiflora mingle with graceful stands of bamboo and cryptomeria.
Alcock likes to have men of science around him. He was a doctor before he was a diplomat. In a sense, it was rheumatic fever that brought him to Japan. After catching the disease on a military expedition to Portugal, he lost the use of his thumbs and had to give up his career as a surgeon. He came to China as a consul in 1844, and was appointed to Japan in 1859.
At “Yomotz”, they pass through a little hamlet clustered round some hot saline springs. One of the younger Englishmen takes a dip and emerges red as a lobster. Alcock wonders if the custom of communal bathing is conducive to political stability, by giving men and women a forum to vent their opinions in a harmless and congenial setting …
His musings are interrupted by the sudden onset of an evening shower, which forces the party to take refuge in a good “honjen”. Alcock is charmed by these “houses of entertainment”, or inns where the Tycoon’s officers put up for the night.
The host’s effusive welcome, the miniature gardens in the courtyards, the spacious kitchen, the bathrooms, “models of cleanliness, such as rarely met with out of England”, all these things delight him. On second thoughts, the bathrooms are actually cleaner than English ones – in all these respects, “the Japanese are in a condition to give lessons to Europe”.
It is at Yomotz that Lieutenant Robinson of the Indian Navy, another member of Alcock’s entourage, proceeds to boil his thermometer, “to the infinite astonishment of some native attendants”. By measuring the boiling point, he is able to calculate the height of the lake at 6,250 feet.
Next day, under a blue sky, the entourage starts out towards Missima and Yosiwara. That evening, a deputation of three shaven monks arrives at their lodgings with an invitation from the “Superior of Omio” to stay at their temple. They take up the invitation, after waiting out a typhoon at Yosiwara, and are welcomed warmly at Omio. The hospitable and considerate Superior has even improvised seats for his European guests.
Wandering around the temple gardens, young Veitch spots a variegated specimen of Thujopsis dolabrata, a silvery pine tree described by Carl Peter Thunberg, the doctor and botanist who came to Japan in the 1770s. A few coins change hands and the tree is packed up for despatch to the Royal Gardens at Kew. Later, Alcock finds out that the tree is not at all rare. He could have picked one up by the roadside in Kanagawa.
Soaring over Omio is the mountain they’ve come so far to climb. Soon after daybreak, the horses are saddled up and three martial-looking priests, “yoboos”, are appointed as guides, together with a few strong “yamabooshe” to carry the railway rugs and two days’ supply of coffee, rice and biscuits.
At first, the way lies through fields of corn. Then comes a belt of high rank grass, which gives way to a maze-like wood. If the path seems overgrown – they have to scramble over a fallen tree – that’s because the feudal authorities have shunted them onto the Murayama route, the oldest way up Mt Fuji and now one of the least used. The less the foreigners come into contact with native pilgrims, the better.
Just before they enter the forest, Alcock hears a lark, the first he’s encountered in Japan. The interpreter says there are “millions” of them here. Before long, young Veitch discovers a fir tree hitherto unknown to science – although it is perfectly familiar to their guides as tora-momi or shirabiso. The botanist takes the liberty of naming it for himself: Abies veitchii.
Callow as he is, Veitch has the wit to name another tree for his patron: Abies alcoquiana. It will be described in the Minister’s forthcoming book as “A noble tree, discovered in 1860, during Mr. Alcock’s trip to Mount Fusiyama and named in honour of that gentleman. It grows at from 6,000 to 7,000 feet elevation … where it attains a height of 90 to 100 feet.”
As they climb higher, beech and birch take the place of oak and pine. In the afternoon, the party emerges from the forest onto open slopes of lava and scoriae and, some while later, they put up at a shelter, which is little more than a crudely roofed cavity dug out of the slope.
At sunset, they look down on the clouds sailing far beneath their feet. Beyond the sea of vapour float the summits of the Hakoni range. Then they are plagued all night by the “occupants” that the pilgrims have left behind. When merciful daylight comes, they fortify themselves for the summit ascent with a cup of hot coffee and a biscuit. It is September 11th (by the new calendar).
The first station is reached within an hour, but each step afterwards becomes more arduous. The loose ashes prevent firm footing and add greatly to the fatigue, while the rarified air perceptibly affects the breathing. By the fourth station, the party is straggling at long intervals and Alcock is feeling his fifty-odd years. He is near the end of his strength before the last step places him on the topmost stone and enables him to look down into the yawning crater.
The Englishmen celebrate their arrival on the summit with a twenty-one gun salute from their pocket pistols, after which they sing the national anthem, and toast the Queen’s health with a bumper of champagne. Although Alcock allegedly leads the salute himself, there’s not a trace of these demonstrations in his own account of the climb.
Probably he’s paying attention to the reaction of the guides and yaconins. He’s aware that Fuji is a sacred and symbolic mountain. Also that Englishmen abroad are often regarded as overbearing and arrogant. In China, he’s seen how the groundwork has been laid for generations of enmity between two great nations, and he doesn't want the same to happen in Japan. First, do no harm is the rule of this doctor-turned-diplomat.
Lieutenant Robinson boils his thermometer again. It tells him that Fuji is 14,177 feet high. Then he shoots the sun with his sextant, finding that the latitude of their lunch-spot on the crater rim is 35°21' N and the longitude 138° 42' E. He also records the air temperature and the magnetic declination. An exact fellow is this Lieutenant Robinson, although not always accurate.
After making their way down the mountain, they stay again at the hospitable temple of Omio. On the 13th, they almost come to grief in a late-evening river crossing. It is rather nervous work, this river crossing.
The next day, with beautiful weather, they ride onwards into the “district of Idzoo”. Snug little hamlets nestle among the persimmon and orange trees, surrounded by fields of waving rice, or plots of tobacco and cotton. The hydrangeas here are pink, he notices.
Again, Alcock finds himself at a loss to explain why the people are so cheerful, but he trusts his eyes: “it is impossible to traverse these well-cultivated valleys, and mark the happy, contented, and well-to-do-looking populations … and believe we see a land entirely tyrant-ridden and impoverished by exactions. On the contrary, the impression is … that Europe cannot show a happier or better-fed peasantry…”
They put up at the “principal bathing establishment” at Atami, where they plan to take a holiday. The village is almost too quiet. Alas, the stay is marred by an accident: Alcock’s terrier, Toby, strays over a geyser just as it erupts and is scalded to death: “One must have led the isolated life of a Foreign Minister in Japan to realise the blank which the loss even of an attached dog creates.” Poor Toby! The minister is touched and consoled by the sympathy he receives from his hosts and retainers.
At the end of September, they make their way home along the “Tocado, or Imperial Road”. Progress is slow; seventeen miles is reckoned to be a normal day’s journey. “This is not a country in which men of this generation may ever hope for the luxury of express trains, nor is time, apparently, estimated as a valuable commodity,” fumes Alcock after yet another hold-up. (If only he could see the Tocado now.)
Soon, though, he is rapt by the bustle and spectacle of the great road. What a pageant is provided by this Tocado – the yaconin ploughing his way through the early morning snow shower – autumn has come early – the strolling musicians ...
.... the blind man passing by while a peasant girl watches to make sure he comes to no harm, the fishermen with their bamboo tridents, the female ostler, a picture of zeal, who is hurrying with well-poised body and a pail of water to refresh the horses’ mouths.
And so ends the pilgrimage to Fusiyama, at Kanagawa in the courtyard of the Tozenji, the temple lent by the authorities to the British delegation as their official residence. Watch out for the horses – they are all vicious brutes! A narrow escape: that jade has just left his hoof-print on the Minister’s saddle-cloth; six inches further forward and it might have broken his thigh.
Alcock dismounts and gets himself to safety as quickly as a Minister’s dignity will allow. As he catches his breath, he glimpses the horse-keeper and his servant bowing their farewell to each other. Their elaborate courtesy far surpasses anything he or we could attempt in the same line.
And then, if it must be so, saionara …
The main source and much of the wording for this account is in Rutherford Alcock’s memoir, The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan, London, 1863. The original edition had coloured prints, but not (alas) the 1960 reprinted edition on which this post is based.
The twenty-one gun salute atop Mt Fuji and the fact that the authorities sent Alcock’s party via the Murayama route are attested in references such as “The Cult of Mt. Fuji and the History of the Faith”, an essay by Shungen Kiyokumo, Makoto Horiuchi and Toru Horiuchi in Mt. Fuji: The Wellspring of Our Faith and Arts, Shogakukan, 2009.