Monday, July 16, 2012

First ascent

So who was the first to climb Mt Fuji? And could it have been a Heian-period scholar?

Once again, the most interesting questions on this blog come from the readers. “What do you think of Miyako no Yoshika (都良香)? He might have climbed Mt. Fuji in the 9th century…” writes fellow Japan blogger Sapphire, in a comment on a previous posting.

Miyako no Yoshika (834-879, picture right) was a scholar and statesman of the Heian court. Today, he is most famous for having written up the earliest convincing account of Mt Fuji’s crater. This appears in an essay entitled A Record of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, history doesn’t relate whether he saw the crater for himself, or heard about it from somebody else.

According to Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book, Mt Fuji was ascended by the mountain mystic En no Ozunu, in the year 633. This made the mountain the first of its height in the world to be climbed. But En no Ozunu is a semi-legendary figure, and some accounts have him flying to the top.

And, if we allow flying – an ethically dubious ploy – then En no Ozunu might have been beaten to the post by Prince Shotoku (574–622). For quite a few paintings show the Asuka-period constitutionalist vaulting over Mt Fuji on a magical black steed (below).

By 1149, in the late Heian period, people were climbing Mt Fuji for real. In that year, Monk Matsudai built a well-attested shrine on the summit. But he was probably not the first to find a way up there. So could it indeed have been Miyako no Yoshika who first climbed Mt Fuji, more than two centuries earlier?

On the face of it, the ninth century would have been a bad time to make the attempt. Three huge eruptions wracked Mt Fuji between 800 and 865, the last one so extravagantly effusive that it created a new lake at the mountain’s foot. Yoshika’s own account of the volcano describes how a new parasite cone suddenly appeared in March 803.

Even if he wasn’t put off by these fulminations, Yoshika had a lot of business to keep him in Kyoto. He was a lesser private secretary (shō-naiki) in the administration, and a professor of literature too. In 870, he set the civil service entrance examination for Sugawara no Michizane, who later became the greatest scholar-statesman of the age.

Intriguingly, the exam’s second question required Sugawara to “Analyse earthquakes” – elucidating why the normally still earth moved, how the Chinese explained the phenomenon, and how the Buddhists in India explained it. Michizane first presented the Confucian view – that the earth heaved when the emperor’s virtue was inadequate and the government was in disarray – and then added a Taoist interpretation of earthquakes for good measure.

Reading this story, I was momentarily enthused. Perhaps Miyako no Yoshika was a would-be geophysicist, born a thousand years before his time. If so, he would naturally have wanted to climb Mt Fuji, taking samples of the ash and meticulously recording the still-steaming lava streams as he went…

Alas, a re-reading of Yoshika’s Record of Mt Fuji disabused me. The essay doesn’t support the idea that Yoshika was a proto-scientist. Indeed, it’s clear that the author’s real concerns lay elsewhere than the crater; which is described more or less as an afterthought. What really fascinated Yoshika were the supernatural “Immortals” said to inhabit the upper slopes, or the angels who were seen dancing in the clouds over the summit.

For Yoshika, it seems, there was no dividing line between the “natural” and “supernatural”. In Heian times, nature and super-nature were larger and more mysterious than humans could possibly imagine. A quaintly outmoded way of thinking, one might have thought – at least, until last year, when those waves crashed ashore that were higher than anybody could possibly have imagined.

So perhaps Yoshika didn’t climb Mt Fuji after all. Yet there is still something appealing in the idea of him hanging up his court robes on the back of his office door – perhaps after a stressful day examining the impossibly precocious Sugawara – sneaking out of the Palace incognito, and then hopping aboard the evening Shinkansen to Shizuoka for a quick run up Mt Fuji...

As for Sugawara - I'd almost forgotten him - he got the equivalent of a “D”, the lowest passing mark. As you see, there was next to no grade inflation in Heian Japan. And rather little mountain-climbing too.


Robert Borgen, Sugawara No Michizane and the Early Heian Court

Miyako no Yoshika, A Record of Mt Fuji

Picture of Miyako no Yoshika from Wikipedia; cartoon of Shotoku Taishi from this blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Avalanche on Mt Fuji

A lethal conspiracy of high winds, new snow and a lee slope

Thursday’s tragedy on Mont Blanc calls to mind a similar disaster on the slopes of Japan’s highest mountain. On the morning of November 28th, 1954, parties from three university mountaineering clubs were practising their winter alpine skills at the bottom of Yoshida-Ōsawa (right), the deep gully running down the volcano’s east flank.

At 10.40am, an avalanche started at the top of the gully, triggered the snowslopes below, and gathered them into a massive slide that cascaded as far as the third station level.

When the snow-rubble settled, 15 students from Tokyo, Keio and Nippon Universities had lost their lives. The original caption of the picture below, showing rescue operations near the third station of Tsubakuro-sawa, is “Requiem for our friends who sleep on Mt Fuji”.

Windslab avalanches of the type that swept Mt Maudit this week are less frequent in the Japanese mountains than in the European Alps. That's because Japan's maritime climate produces a warmer, more cohesive snowpack, with fewer avalanche-prone weak layers. But heavy falls of new snow, high winds and a lee slope – as on the east side of Mt Fuji – can combine for deadly effect on any high mountain.


Guardian newspaper: Mont Blanc avalanche was unavoidable, say authorities

Photos are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)

More about the power of snow in the Japanese mountains: Avalanche

Friday, July 13, 2012

Approach with awe (2)

A Japanese theologian's view of mountain religion in Japan (continued)

"Veneration of mountains by the Japanese goes back as far as the ancient Jomon period. This veneration of mountain as god or as the abode of spirits was amalgamated with the Chinese Way of Ying and Yang and also with esoteric Buddhism. The legendary founder of Shugendō, the Japanese way of reaching salvation by practising spiritual exercise in the mountain, was called En no Ozunu, who lived in the seventh century.

In the Heian period (tenth to twelfth century) mountain veneration prospered, increasing the number of Shugendō practitioners. These were called yamabushi because they practised a ritual in which they are to receive the spiritual force of the mountain (yama) contacting it through lying (bushi) on the ground . With the spiritual force of the mountain, and the ability to perform some esoteric religious rituals, they were thought to be able to perform superhuman magic.

People thought their prayers to be especially meritorious and flocked to them whenever they toured through the villages and population centres. At the core of Shugendō was a religious fascination for the mountain as god or as the abode of the spirits. When Chinese cosmological speculation and a complicated ritual of esoteric Buddhism are added to this mountain reverence, it has become by itself a complex religious phenomenon.

The yamabushi's main motivation for going to the mountain was to acquire supernatural magical powers by engaging in special spiritual and physical exercises. Shugendō must be seen as a different phenomenon from the retreat into the mountain to seek personal salvation in the beauty of nature, which was discussed in the previous chapter.

A number of mountains in Japan have become centres of Shugendō during the long centuries since the tenth century. One of these is the mountain cult centred about Mount Fuji. The name of Hasegawa Kakugyō (1541-1646) is associated with Mount Fuji as the one who opened up the mountain for religious purposes. Kakugyō was the founder and organizer of Fuji-Kō, the Mount Fuji Devotional Associations. He taught that the god of Mount Fuji called Sengen Dainichi, is the creator of all things, and that those who believe in this god will live a long and happy life.

In the middle of the Edo period the outstanding leader of Fuji-Kō was Jikigyō Miroku (1671-1773). He became a devotee to the god of Mount Fuji. when he was seventeen years old, from that time climbing the mountain once a year to deepen his devotion to the god of Mount Fuji. In 1771 he became the head of the Fuji-Kō movement. He published his own 'Theology of the Mount Fuji God' in 1729, in which he said that the god of Mount Fuji is the giver of all good things, including the rice harvest.

His message to the people who were not engaged in agriculture was also positive. Faith in this god of Mount Fuji would make people honest and diligent, he said, and consequently they would become happy and rich, and live a long life. What he said bears a strange similarity to the view expressed by the social scientist Max Weber about Protestant ethics and capitalism..."


Excerpted from Kosuke Koyama, Mt Fuji and Mt Sinai: a pilgrimage in theology

Friday, July 6, 2012

Painting Fujiyama

Book review: In Mt Fuji, Icon of Japan, Harry Byron Earhart explores the meaning of Japan's most famous mountain.

A crazy idea, thought Colonel D W Johnston. Nevertheless, he would have to choose his words carefully. After all, the proposal had come from his boss, General Twitty. With a sigh, he started dictating a memorandum: "26 March 1945: The proposed project of attempting to give Fujiyama some color other than that seasonably endowed by nature is not favorably considered for the following reasons."

Painting Mt Fuji would be both difficult and dangerous, Johnston objected. Even if the mountain's tint could be changed, people living at a distance might not notice. And if they did, then "Japanese propagandists would undoubtedly seize on this as another 'inhuman act of the beastly enemy' and would consider it in the same light as the desecration of a national shrine, which, in fact, it is."

And so the infamous plan to paint Mt Fuji was kicked into touch. As a psy-ops venture, it was a non-starter. Leaflets tossed out of aircraft would be far more cost-effective, as Johnston's memo pointed out. In another sense, though, both the colonel and the general had seized on something important. Mt Fuji is a symbol of immense significance. But what exactly does it signify?

For the first time in decades - perhaps for the first time ever - an English-speaking expert has attempted to answer that question in a full-length book. In Mt Fuji: Icon of Japan, Harry Byron Earhart has provided a rich overview of Mt Fuji's history as a symbol in Japanese religion, art, literature, and even in wartime propaganda - you can read the latter chapter, which sits rather oddly with the rest of the book, online here.

Earhart is the emeritus professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University and has taught and published in the field of Japanese religion for four decades. Fittingly, the core of his latest book is the development of religious worship on and around Mt Fuji. This alone is an epic story, and one that is inextricably linked with the evolution of Japan's culture and polity.

Monk Matsudai was the first to establish a summit shrine on the mountain, probably in 1149. By the Muromachi period (1337-1573), pilgrims were making regular ascents, usually after visiting one of the shrines at the mountain's southern foot. A contemporary mandala painting shows a procession of monks or pilgrims winding their way up the endless slopes of the Maruyama trail.

Today, the Maruyama trail has more or less faded from the map. In fact, it had fallen into disuse long before the modern roads were built to the mountain's fifth stations. This was partly because the Maruyama yamabushi, the direct heirs to Matsudai, made the mistake of supporting the wrong side during the civil wars that wracked sixteenth century Japan.

By contrast, the Great Shrine of Ōmiya had a good warring countries period. Emerging from the conflict with the support of the warriors and the Tokugawa family, it formally wrested control of Mt Fuji's summit cone from the Murayama sect in 1679 - and it continues to enjoy legal title to the mountain above the eighth stations to this day.

But the Sengen Ōmiya shrine had little to do with the most significant Edo-period religious movement centred on Mt Fuji. This was founded by a wandering ascetic known as Kakugyō (1541-1646), whose successors encouraged the common people - farmers and townspeople - to found Fuji pilgrimage associations, the so-called Fuji-kō.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Fuji-kō had so many followers that the movement was starting to worry the feudal authorities. (The parallels with today's Falun Gong sect in China are striking.) Inheriting these suspicions, the Meiji government coerced one of the leading Fuji-kō sects into becoming an approved branch of the newly established state-controlled Shintō.

Official approval seemed to mark the start of a slow decline for the Fuji-kō. Today, no more than a handful of congregations exist. Or it may be the case that some Fuji-kō groups morphed into new religions, such as Maruyamakyō. During the 1980s, Professor Earhart was able to make contact with three different Fuji-centred congregations and join them on their annual pilgrimages to the mountain.

Taking the chance to distribute a questionnaire to his fellow pilgrims, Earhart asked them why they were climbing Mt Fuji. These were some of the answers he received:

"A Japanese does not need a reason to climb Mt Fuji."

"From long ago, Fuji has been close to our existence, and by climbing Fuji we become physically and spiritually refreshed."

"I am allowed to climb Fuji together with all my ancestors who climbed Fuji, and those who wanted to but were not able to climb Fuji."

"To know myself, and to realise peace with myself within nature."

"I climb in order to renew myself."

"To purify my own heart."

I have a feeling that it will be a while before any researcher gets closer to the meaning of Mt Fuji than that.


Mt Fuji: Icon of Japan, H Byron Earhart, University of South Carolina Press

Thanks to Dave Fedman of Stanford University for the anecdote about painting Fujiyama. The source is a declassified US Army memorandum.