Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (13)

Travelogue continued: Taking in three views of Mt Fuji on the way back to Tokyo

November 21/22: “Fuji is there for everybody,” writes Fukada Kyuya in One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan). And so it is. On this holiday weekend, the Shinkansen was full and the only remaining seat was on the seaward, non-Fuji side.

Thus it was gratifying to discover that – at just one place on the Tokaido line – Fuji shows itself even to passengers sitting on the wrong side of the train. This is just before Shizuoka station, approaching from the west. So we had our first view.

I was on my way to Shimizu to drop in on friends at a conference. The port city is famed for its prospect of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, the forecast warned of so-so weather, suggesting that we might have to settle for fewer than the thirty-six views depicted by Hokusai.

In the evening, there was a brief glimpse of the volcano rising numinously beyond a liquid natural gas ship. We presumed that LNG regasification terminals must be one of those Seven Industrial Plants of Autumn - a fitting (modern) seasonal foreground for Japan's most symbolic mountain. Anyway, we were grateful for our second view.

Next day, a pall of cloud overspread the bay. We visited the famous pine grove of Miho Matsubara. This is where an angel drops from heaven – surely on a warmer day – in the Noh play of Hagoromo, leaving her feathered robe hanging on a convenient pine branch while she bathes. A local fisherman finds the robe and makes as if to keep it. Without a feathered robe, a Japanese angel cannot return to heaven. At first, the fisherman ignores the angel’s pleas but, when she appeals to his finer feelings, he restores the robe, letting the angel soar away “Over the mountain of Ashitaka, the high peak of Fuji.”

The mountain is mentioned only once in the play, yet it appears in almost every wood-cut or painting that illustrates the piece. In an oil painting exhibited in 1890, Honda Kinkichiro (1850-1921) shows Mt Fuji receding below the angel as she deploys a pair of Western-style feathered wings in addition to her feathered robe. Late Meiji was a time of rapid modernisation, even for angels.

We walked on to the end of the sandspit, where a short airstrip points out to sea. A bronze statue commemorates the youths who, in 1944, joined a squadron straight from high school. The inscription on the monument is difficult to read: a signboard beside it elucidates: “the young pilots …never doubting of their country’s cause … endured bitter trials within the sight of Mt Fuji, the sacred summit …”

Nearby, a revetment sheltered a Cessna and a V-tailed Beechcraft, their wing-tips twitching in the big wind. Out across the bay, Fuji was inferred rather than seen; a blue rift in the grey ceiling showed where its summit was shredding the clouds.

Back at the station, we said our farewells. Today, it seemed, we would have to leave without another view of Fuji. But, no, just before the train arrived, the familiar cone appeared, its phantom outline hovering in the gap between two buildings.

Even – or perhaps especially – in this unpromising setting, the mountain seemed to soar, as far removed from the earth and its troubles as an angel in a Noh play. What was it that Fukada had said? “Fuji is there for everyone and yet, soaring into eternity, stands for something beyond any man's grasp.”


Kittie Howard said...

I especially enjoyed your posting because my husband climbed Mt. Fuji several years ago. And I didn't know Japanese angels used to wear only feathered robes...that's really interesting...guess today they carry Louis Vuitton's under their Western wings. Anyway, how you described Mt. Fuji brought the reader into the mystery of it all, the distant beauty that tugs. Thank you.

Iainhw said...

Another informative account with photos to evoke happy memories.

owenandbenjamin said...

I've been to Japan many, many times but I have never gotten a really clear view of Fuji-san. That is until just a couple months ago and from Narita no less. From the terminal observation deck there was one of the most amazing sunsets with the sun setting just to the left of Fuji. It was awesome.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Tornadoes: yes, I read the account of your Narita/Fuji sunset on your blog. And I'm very sad that you left your camera there - it would have been good to see the pictures! Trust you can find an excellent replacement.