5 November: what is it about this mountain? As if bewitched, the silver-haired lady opposite pulls out her mobile phone and, while the train keeps winding its way up into the hills, takes photo after photo – the cone with phone wires, the cone with factories, the cone with billboards. The spell doesn’t work on a younger passenger, though, who keeps her window-blind down, the better to pursue a SnapChat or Line conversation.
Mt Fuji can, of course, work much greater wonders. Five years ago, it charmed its way onto UNESCO’s list of cultural heritage sites. Then it prestidigitated a couple of billion yen and more from the prefectural purse. This conjured up a brand-new Mt Fuji World Heritage Center at Fujinomiya, which first opened its doors in December 2017. And today the mountain has summoned your correspondent all the way across Honshū to review this edifice.
A short walk from the station takes me to Ban Shigeru’s masterpiece. Using a latticework of timbers, the architect has set an inverted replica of the Ineffable Cone against the Center’s façade, so that its reflection floats, right way up, on the rippled mirror of an ornamental pond. Oblivious to this ingenious contrivance, a visitor chooses to selfie herself against the backdrop of the real Mt Fuji.
Handing over ¥300 to the courteous reception staff, I enter an upwardly coiling corridor that channels New York’s Guggenheim. “In this zone,” promises the English-language brochure, “you can experience climbing Mt. Fuji … by ascending a 193m-long spiral ramp while watching time-lapse videos of the landscape of Fuji.”
You can even simulate yourself witnessing a “goraiko” (mountaintop sunrise) by standing in front of the projector beam. Neat, eh?
Disgorged by the ramp into an observation hall, I step outside to observe the mountain. Today, it fails to compete with the spectacular videos we’ve just seen – almost all the recent snow has melted, leaving a bare “red Fuji”, relieved by a solitary band of afternoon cloud drifting in from the south. This place too is tailor-made for selfies.
Back inside, I inspect the first exhibition – The Fierce Mountain. A perspex globe demonstrates how the tectonic plates drifted and collided to create first Japan and then Mt Fuji. A stray beam of sunlight lances in from the balcony to wash out the video display, somewhat vitiating this worthy attempt to sum up a dramatic story.
On the next level down, we find The Sacred Mountain, an exhibit that “introduces the spiritual beliefs surrounding Mount Fuji and its importance as a sacred mountain”. The meizanological thinking behind this heritage center starts starts to manifest itself here – the curators have chosen to dedicate a separate exhibition space to each of the mountain’s aspects; geological, religious, cultural and ecological. (There’s no room for the mountain as larder, though.)
On second thoughts, “curators” may mis-state the matter. For this really isn’t a museum: physical exhibits are few, which leaves the heavy lifting to photo displays and videos. Even the temporary exhibition of mandalas featuring Mt Fuji turns out to consist of photographic facsimiles.
But that’s unavoidable when you think about it – Mt Fuji has been a Meizan for so long that everything collectible – artworks, relics, manuscripts, monuments – has already found a lodging in some other collection or shrine or gallery. Mortifyingly, even the summit observatory’s radar dome ended up on the other side of the mountain.
Even so, there is, to quote the brochure’s strapline, “Still more to learn about Mt Fuji”. For instance, the geological exhibit lets slip that Fuji once had two summits (was this perhaps in the Jomon period? The video caption scrolls past too quickly for me to pin down the date).
There is certainly much to learn from the section on Mt Fuji in modern and contemporary literature. Here we are introduced to Kōda Aya, an author who pioneered the literature of landslips:
Kuzure [Collapse], says the display, is a nonfiction work for which the author, who happened to see the Ōyakuzure, one of Japan’s three worst landslides, at the age of 72, travelled around the country visiting the sites of other landslides and reporting on them from a uniquely literary perspective. The elderly author went to the site of the Ōsawakuzure on Mt Fuji, taking three times longer than usual to reach it and finally arriving after struggles that eventually resulted in her being carried by staff of the Mt Fuji Sabo Office. She observed that “more than anything, a landslide is a road that carries cliffs and boulders from one place to another”.
Dropping down to the natural history level, it’s a relief to find that no animals or birds gave up their lives to complete this display. Instead, a wall of photos makes a nod to the mountain as wildlife reserve. The framed portrait of an alpine swift reminds me of the ones we used to see flitting to and fro over the Hoei-zan crater – their colony in the crater’s headwall must be the highest in Japan.
When I return to the entrance, the faint sound of drumming rises above the traffic noise. Walking in that direction, I find a juggernaut – in fact, a whole array of rolling mikoshi – lined up along the street bounding the Fuji Sengen Shrine while their attendants bustle around, readying them for a procession. Perched high on the polished wooden superstructures, the drummers are just warming up.
Gaudy stalls line the shrine’s approaches, selling everything from magic balls to anime figurines. Devotees of chocolate-coated bananas have plenty of vendors to choose from. Fired by their sugar buzz, excited children zig-zag between the attractions, towing their parents to and fro.
Crunching over the white pebbles of the inner court, I revisit a shapely lava bomb, retrieved from the slopes of Mt Fuji.
Beside it stands a wind-carved ventifact from Antarctica, presented by the crew of the survey ship named for the shrine’s patron mountain. If there is a backstory behind this interesting juxtaposition, visitors must ferret it out for themselves. This is a shrine, not a museum, you understand.
Ignored by all and sundry, an effigy of Konosakuya-hime, the goddess of Mt Fuji, stands in a quiet corner. Well, not really an effigy. Just a cut-out figure with a hole for the face, so that you can pose yourself there. Although anyone who takes a selfie right now will miss out on the mountain as a backdrop. The real Mt Fuji has long since vanished behind a veil of late-afternoon cloud.