A hobbyhorsical foray along the length and breadth of Japan in pursuit of a publisher and (let’s admit it) some famous mountains too
It’s unusual to start a travelogue with a warning. But one is needed here. Have no truck with these Hyakumeizan, the One Hundred Mountains of Japan. Once hooked, you are lost – you’ll find yourself bivvying in sub-zero temperatures like CJW, running up peaks with your dog like Hanameizan, telling Tozan Tales like Wes, sniffing the fumaroles like Tom Bouquet, or even (like this blogger) flying in from abroad to get your fix. So read no further, would be my advice. Unless, of course, you are already a Hyakumeizan addict, and then there's no hope for you anyway....
Flying with Sei Shonagon
21 November: In winter, it’s the dawn. That’s what Sei Shonagon, a literary luminary of Heian Japan, would have said: in winter, it’s the dawn that’s beautiful. We’re somewhere over Siberia when the eastern sky starts to glow underneath the airliner’s gently rising and falling jetpods. Although, if Sei Shonagon were travelling today, she wouldn’t be looking at exactly this view. No, she’d be reclining elegantly in first class, au grande horizontale. And nothing as vulgar as an engine would obstruct her appreciation of the rosy horizon.
Even if we happened to be sitting side by side, though, the conversation might falter. Sei Shonagon is an eminent diarist, who has sold untold millions of her famous Pillow Book. Today, literary agents would be beating paths to her door. So she wouldn’t be impressed that I’m flying to Tokyo to seek a publisher, even if it is for the English version of Fukada Kyuya’s Nihon Hyakumeizan. A book about one hundred Japanese mountains, she would enquire. And, you mean to say, people actually spend their lives (and ruin their complexions) trying to climb all of them? “How very otiose,” she would say, retreating behind her fan with a simper.
Nobody can accuse Sei Shonagon of excessive enthusiasm for the outdoors. Yet even she had occasion to invoke the deity of a famous mountain. As when, one winter in the late 980s, the courtiers built snow mountains in the palace gardens and she rashly boasted to the Empress that hers would last until mid-January: “ ‘Oh, Goddess of Mercy of Hakusan,’ I prayed frenziedly, ‘do not let our mountain melt away.’”
I’m wondering if it would be churlish to mention this episode when she tells me to bring my seat back into the upright position and stow the tray. Wait, that’s not Sei Shonagon – the instruction comes from a flight attendant and we’re already dropping towards Narita. What a shame – all too brief was my date with the Heian period’s second most famous authoress. But at least we’ve established that she too was a Hyakumeizan devotee. On one occasion, anyway.