Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Reading Mt Fuji (2)

Review continued: revisiting the dancing maidens in a Mt Fuji anthology

Browsing through Chuo University’s new anthology of classical writing on Mt Fuji – as reviewed in the previous post – Project Hyakumeizan was delighted to find a translation of the Heian-era Record of Mt Fuji (Fujisanki). Indeed, this is probably the first full translation of the Record directly from the classical Japanese.

The dancing maidens of Mt Fuji: a modern rendition
Source: http://toki.moo.jp/gaten/gatten/401-450/gate448/gate448.html
It was in this essay that the scholar and statesman Miyako no Yoshika (834-879) gave the earliest known detailed description of Mt Fuji’s crater – suggesting that, by this time, somebody had actually climbed the mountain. Or at least had sent a drone up there to take a look.

Part of this essay’s charm is that it promiscuously mixes the natural and what we would call the supernatural. On the one hand, there are details that any Fuji climber will recognise: “The mountain is covered in white sand, which easily crumbles, making it nigh impossible for those wishing to ascend its peak to get beyond the base of this mountain.”

On the other hand, we read of a mysterious jewel tumbling down its slopes. And of a mystical apparition on the fifth day of the eleventh month of the seventeenth year of Jōgan (875):

The officials and people were celebrating a festival in accordance with an ancient rite when, as the day wore on towards noon, the sky cleared wonderfully. Looking up towards the mountain, they saw how two beautiful maidens robed in white were dancing above the summit, seemingly a foot or more above it. Several local people saw it; a very old man passed on the tale.

Miyako no Yoshika’s account obviously made an impression on those who came after him. In the same anthology is an excerpt from a diary of a Journey to the Eastern Lands (Tōkan Kikō), completed around 1242. The anonymous fifty-year old traveller gazes up at Mt Fuji from the Bay of Tago and notices that its peak stands out blue against the heavens.

Then he recalls the legend of the maidens dancing on the summit and composes a deft tanka:

Those white clouds drifting in the wind
Over the peak of Mount Fuji
Look like the sleeves of some heavenly maiden.

Alas, we modern mountaineers are too literal-minded. All we see when we look up at the summit are plumes of spindrift blown out by that fearsome Mt Fuji wind. But a browse through this anthology can fix that, by reminding us how the mountain was seen in past centuries.

The Bay of Tago, according to a note under the diary excerpt quoted above, corresponds to the southern parts of present-day Fuji City. I wonder if anybody has ever seen the dancing maidens from there.

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